Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why Do We Still Read Ayn Rand? Guest Dillon Stone Tatum

It is hard to underestimate the power of Ayn Rand’s works today. In fact, one might be hard pressed to come up with another fiction writer from the twentieth century whose work carries such weight in contemporary political discourse—especially among the conservatives, and libertarians. But why? What is it about Ayn Rand that has allowed her work to become popular despite the fact that it is, plain and simple, poor fiction, with a rather terrifying pseudo-philosophy built-in? After all, the great Flannery O’Connor once remarked to a friend, in reference to Atlas Shrugged, that: “The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hoped you picked it up off the floor of the subway and through it in the nearest garbage pail.” And, a review in the National Review by Whittaker Chambers commented: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’” Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, may have been a terribly authored book, with a disturbing philosophical message as well (in this case about abstinence), but her book has not helped to characterize the philosophical battle lines in contemporary political discourse—that is, of course, unless we consider “Edward vs. Jacob” to be a major social and political dispute. Why Rand?  Why a second-rate novelist, whose fiction is not taken seriously by political philosophers, or professional writers and critics?

It’s not because of a lack of philosophical ammunition for libertarians. Libertarianism—the idea that the first and foremost liberty is the right to property (including self-ownership), with the implication that miniscule to minimum government is necessary and just—has a long lineage in modern philosophy. Whether this is from John Locke’s focus on absolute equality in the state of nature, John Stuart Mill’s rally against tyranny, or Friedrich Hayek’s theories of the free-market, there are important strands in modern political thought that have tried to honestly, and rigorously, defend the ideas of small government, and personal freedom, that many libertarians, and even Tea Party conservatives, bow to. But, there is something unique about Rand. This uniqueness is not about a particularly powerful view of “the good life,” or proper government. Rather, Rand’s novels are captivating for many because they tap into, and justify, the very greed and selfishness that big industry has instilled in contemporary Americans. The inimitable Gore Vidal summed it up all too well:

“This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the “freedom is slavery” sort. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her “philosophy,” but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.”

The irony should not be easily missed, as the small-government conservatives have managed to persuade even those who are at the very bottom of the income scale that the same unregulated markets that have caused them to lose their jobs, or to have their homes foreclosed on, are the backbone of America. To use Rand’s own imagery, the Titans of Industry as “holding up the world” is both a reflection of a mythology of the American dream that has yet to die, and also an appeal to our rather bestial, and subconscious, need to win at the expense of our fellow citizens. Fiction, used in this way, is not only a reflection of reality, but an attempt to reconstitute (or demolish) what we take to be our duties as citizens. What kind of Republic would ignore Aristotle’s dictum that man is a political animal, who is only whole because of his relations with fellow men?

Well, if Americans are not going to go back and read Aristotle (and, honestly, who wouldn’t want to?), maybe we need to think more of the power of literature, and the importance of themes like sacrifice, love, and the unique ability we have to come together when times are tough to defeat the forces of cruelty and “evil” that threaten us.

Hey, maybe Twilight doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Dillon Stone Tatum is a Ph.D. student, and Graduate Fellow, in the Department of Political Science at the George Washington University. He studies political thought, international organization and international security. 

Connect with him on twitter @Dillon_Tatum
Or visit his website


Christopher Chik said...

Just once, I'd like see Ayn Rand judged by her whole body of fictional work.

Whenever I see an article, blog, or opinion similar to this one, I always see an absence: Anthem.

Anthem was what Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead failed to be: short, succinct, unique, purposeful.

The idea that we should forge a society on the basis of individualism and reason is pretty pure, and pretty ingrained in Western Civ.

Plato's Republic shouldn't be confused with Aristotle. Neither should an arete and social-centric culture be compared to one based on individualism.

That's why Anthem is the most important of Rand's three works for an argument like this. In her best, most simplistic yet complex, work, Rand foreshadowed the sort of world that can arise from a Socialist-totalitarian state.

This was a good article, but I'd really like to see the next person complain about Ayn Rand bother to include Anthem. I suspect it never is because it wholly undercuts the rest of the arguments about Rand.

Dillon Tatum said...

Thanks for your comment! :)

“Anthem” is, indeed, a very different book than the rest. But, since Rand essentially ripped off Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We (as did Aldous Huxley… Kurt Vonnegut was one of the few brave enough to call him out on it) when she wrote the book, then it’s not at all surprising. So much for the importance of the fruits of the individual’s labor!

“Anthem” does, however, carry the same themes that I’m skeptical of here. It is rather fallacious to say that totalitarianism is an evil that should be avoided, and therefore we should revert back to a radical individualism. “Anthem” shows us the extremity of collectivity, while simultaneously suggesting that we rise to an extremity of individuality. There is no understanding of citizenship, or community, in Rand’s work. And, Rand would 100% agree with that assessment. But, her values are wrong.

Yes, individualism has a long history in Western thought, and I hoped to show that with a few examples of thinkers that actually systematically took on the task of making modern political philosophy a question of how man can be free within the context of a minimal state. But, there’s a much longer tradition, going back to writers like Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides in the Ancient World, to, I believe, even theorists like Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Rousseau in the early-modern/modern world who have always asserted that the proper question for political philosophy, and for us as citizens, is not “how free can we be?” but “what are our duties to each other, and to our ‘city’?” Community, and citizenship, is what should be valued above the sort of egoistic selfishness that Rand’s work advocates for. The idea behind the post is that the popularity of Rand in America, even today, is both a symptom of, and perhaps in some small way and in some small circles, contributes to the sort of selfish “me-first” attitude that is heralding even faster the decline of the Republic. After all, this is what Montesquieu attributed to the decline of Rome: the loss of civic virtue.

And, as an aside, I’m not sure what you mean by “Plato’s Republic shouldn’t be confused with Aristotle.” Neither are individualistic—certainly not the Republic (although, I don’t interpret the Republic as being about politics at all).

Christopher Chik said...

You're welcome, it was definitely interesting to read. As was your reply.

All writers 'steal'. Chaucer was pretty great at making our language important with it.

I don't think it's fallacious to have said what I said about foreshadowing a possibility of a type of state. If there's an inductive fallacy I committed there, I can't spot it. The language you put it in, I'd agree, but mostly because words like evil and radical are emotive language. I don't think Anthem suggested as extreme an individualistic view as you're saying. It would be unrealistic in her proposed society for there to be an urprising--they didn't even have a concept of self beyond the corporeal, certainly not the language to express it--and it had been this way for centuries. Scared, like a caged animal, one man--the protagonist--ran off and convinced another to as well. That's not extremism so much as it's the most realistic scenario for her character. Her values aren't wrong so much as they are an extreme view like a number of other systems are inherently, and Utilitarianism comes to mind--particularly trolley problems. Kant's first maxim can be seen as particularly extreme. Rand was toying with language to give the reader a sense of isolation from the self, not to represent extremist individualism. Rand's letters and notes in the anniversary edition express this in several places.

Most systems are also concerned with duty and one's place in a world. Individualism now compared with individualism from that Ancient Greek period is something Roman to contend with, as you pointed out, and we don't disagree there.

To address your aside, "Republic" was capitalized, so I presumed you were referring to the book, and just got the name discombobulated. I know I've done it--so many philosophers, so many systems and theories. I don't know how you can't see The Republic as political in some aspect, especially considering he proposes the state, the Republic, be run by philosopher kings and so forth. There's a great deal of political philosophy in there.

It was a pleasure disagreeing with you. :)

Dillon Tatum said...

Interesting thoughts on the extremity of different ethical systems. I would imagine that Rand had probably been very much influenced by Kant, actually.

As far as the "Republic," I am more sympathetic to the argument that Plato is not describing the just city, but rather demonstrating (ironically) the limits of philosophy through the absurdity of the "philosopher king" and the like. In fact, one might read the Cave Analogy as not being about the revealing powers of philosophy, but rather about the limits of our abilities as philosophers. The outside of the cave is beyond our reach. It's sort of an "anti-politics" in a way. Which, Rousseau essentially revitalized in his rejection of politics as bad for the soul in his later books.

Hell, we might even think of the difference between Machiavelli as the writer of "The Discourses" and the writer of "The Prince" as being related to the vast difference between philosophy and politics. I never thought of Machiavelli this way, but it's plausible. (Note: This is an interpretation of "The Republic" that is similar to Allan Bloom, and his teacher Leo Strauss. I know it's not fashionable to read Strauss anymore, but reading the "Republic" through that lens is really fascinating.)

It's always a pleasure talking/arguing about political philosophy. It's a dying field. :)

Christopher Chik said...

Hah! I like that idea of an elaborate reductio ad absurdum in the Republic, and the one about the Allegory. It certainly stands to reason as he knew the limitations of reality against the formal plane/world.

It really is a dying field. I would like to go back some day and finish up my graduate track in Philosophy. First things first, though, I gotta finish this one and be an MFA Pirate like Kelly.

Definitely a pleasure. Keep writing your stuff, I enjoy reading it. I read something on your blog a while back that was pretty interesting, too. I'm adding it to my reading list.

Jonathan Baird said...

In answer to your first question Heinlein. You would not believe the weight he carries in political discourse among scientists and engineers, far out weighing Rand.

Dillon Tatum said...

Thanks, Christopher! Maybe sometime soon there will be something on my blog about international political theory, which is what I usually do(or, rather, am supposed to be doing).

Jonathan--Thanks for your comment! I must admit, I've only read of Heinlein, I've never actually read his work, though. I'll have to add it to my reading list!

Charlieopera said...

Dillon, you're my hero. I like what Will Buckley said about reading Atlas Shrugged best. Something akin to "He had to flog himself to get through it." (it's on youtube, the discussion).

I argue daily at a conservative site kind of dedicated to Rand ... it's my timeout from trying to write what I enjoy writing ... that and I'm a shit stirrer ...

Although I suspect Rand's background has much to do with her indifference/disdain for greater good theorists, I can't excuse it. Today the GOP turned further right with another political move to appease the Rand brand ... as a socialist, I look forward to this nonsense finally making our population realize the need for a third party that represents the people being driven into the ground today. It probably won't happen in my lifetime, but I doubt the relentless drive toward third world status will ever halt in time for the two parties to maintain their hold for another 50 years, say.

Then again, I'm a Bills fan ... so what the hell do I know? :) Love your article.

Robert Begiebing said...

Interesting blog post, for sure. I like the point above that what we have here in Rand is perhaps not an evil philosophy so much as a philosohy carried to its logical extension/ extreme (which thereby might become a force for evil). To take one example, to my mind HD Thoreau had a pretty radical theory of individualism but was equally radical in his support for a just society, as such "followers" as Ghandi and Dr. King demonstrated by their use of his ideas. Ol' HD is basically a libertarian, but not a nutty or extreme one out of touch with the realities of human nature and the ecology of the planet. And he never seemed to think, for example, that greed is good per se and that market values should trump all other values. Thoreau was not an arch individualist for the sake of getting and spending, but for other humane and ethical ends.

Are we incapable of making similar discernments and distinctions today? Or is it "all or nothing" in our ways of thinking--as in, for example, more for/ about me and devil take the hindmost?