Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Romance of Ayn Rand

(OR: Ayn Rand Romanticized)

Mark Sanford, the recently beleaguered Republican governor of South Carolina, presented his pitch for the current relevance of Ayn Rand in Newsweek, November 2, 2009. He wrote, “What strikes me as still relevant is [The Fountainhead’s] central insight—that it isn’t ‘collective action’ that makes this nation prosperous and secure; it’s the initiative and creativity of the individual” (p. 54).

Hmmm! It makes one wonder which American patriot defeated the British Empire in pursuit of a more prosperous and secure future? What individual hammered out the U.S. Constitution in the solitude of his study? How railroad barons found means to lay thousands of miles of track without government/tax payer concessions, land grants, and subsidies? How Goldman Sachs (or any number of other juristic persons) would cope without shareholder collective investment and apathy? How capitalists—not to mention aspiring home-owners—would survive without access to the collective pool of credit capital or the collective sharing of risk through insurance? Or what role corporations (those ubiquitous collections of individuals—managers, consultants, shareholders, and employees) have in prosperity and security?

It seems rather naïve at best for both Rand and Sanford to romanticize the rugged, obsessive individualism of Howard Roark (The Fountainhead) and of John Galt (Atlas Shrugged). Yes, the individual Roark may dream and design, but without “others” submitting their wills and energy to his creative, inflexible realizations, he would have had no buildings at all, let alone the one he chose to dynamite when his architectural vision was compromised.

Mr. Sanford seems to view it as mainly ironic that Ayn Rand’s philosophy is based on the individual’s absolute freedom while in practice she “exercised a dictatorial control over her followers … denounc[ing] anyone who expressed opinions even slightly diverging from her own” (p. 55). This seems way beyond ironic or even flawed. It seems to manifest a colossal disconnect that strips her of every relevance, unless it is the relevance of exposing deep hypocrisy and the human propensity to lust for power and control even when touting the virtues of freedom. Rand’s intolerance of diversity and lack of self-awareness seems strongly prescient of current Republican disconnects about their own complicity in the present state of dire affairs and their own Roarkness/Galtness. Too often passionate freedom-advocates seem to practice it in the Rand-sense. “You are free to agree with my vision and if you do not, I will seek the destruction of your vision.”

So why, in Mr. Sanford’s view, is “this a very good time for a Rand resurgence” (p. 55)? Do we need more justifications for the “Virtue of Selfishness[1] or of idealized self-interest or of individualized tyranny? Do we need more Ayn Rands (or Roarks or Galts) claiming a genius that qualifies them to be “supreme arbiter[s] in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth” (p. 55)? Do we need more romantic notions that aggressive individualists and free-marketeers know best; that the genius of industry giants is untainted by baseness; that order, fairness, and equity are the natural selections of strictly free-markets? Do we need less government regulation of the markets, especially financial ones? (Or do we really need more appropriate regulation?) Do we need to champion the primacy of the individual or to balance individualism with the social contracts of living in collectives of families, communities, nations, and global stewardships?

Sanford seems to prefer the deluded romance of Rand’s rugged individualism to the delusions of paternalistic government. If they are both delusions of primacy—one of individualism, the other of collectivism—perhaps we are just arguing over two caustic extremes which can only be neutralized to the safety of both individual and society when managed in reasoned, ethical, and judicious balance.

And now a word to die-hard individualists: Of course, many rugged, creative individualists have contributed to making the world a better place, but perhaps not even a handful have done so without the support of collectives of some sort or other. There would be no kings or queens without subjects (and their collective taxes). No George Washington without compatriots. No enduring capitalists (or managed corporations) without laborers. No thriving playwrights without actors and audiences. The list is endless. Endless too, is the unromantic remembrance of individualists and their supporters who have amassed power and then horrendous histories of death, destruction, slavery, and injustice. There would have been no Alexander the Great without his armies. No early cotton kings without slave ships, captains, crews, and traders. No Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots, or Saddams without compliant (though often terrorized) comrades and citizens. Obsessive, inflexible visions, whether individualistic or collective in nature, always bend toward tyranny. [See the DéjàVu Times blog post, Sep. 29, 2009, “Are We There Yet (at the T-point)?”]

A rose-tinted, monocular view of the Rands, Roarks, and Galts of this world and their idealistic, naive, inflexible descendants reveals less than half the picture. (Once again we come close to encountering the 3-monkey stance of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” concerning the rugged individualist.) At least Gov. Sanford acknowledges the need for limited government, though he stops well-short of confessing the collective sins of the Republicans in that regard, while he laments those of the Democrats. Still his call to remember the primacy of the individual through a Rand resurgence seems firmly planted in the romantic fictions of idealized heroes and of espoused, but unlived philosophies. Of course, government and society needs the "annoyance" and perhaps frequent rebellion of informed (not propogandized) citizens challenging the status quo, but we seem ever ready to merely substitute one form of tyranny for another, especially in the name of freedom.

Perhaps the governor’s call to remembrance would have been more enlightening to focus on Rand’s scorned “second-handers”:
“the opportunistic Peter Keating, who appropriated Roark’s architectural talent for his own purposes, and Ellsworth Toohey, the journalist who doesn’t know what to write until he knows what people want to hear—” (p. 54).
If there is any real-world relevance and déjà vu to Rand’s fictions, Keating and Toohey seem the unvarnished, unromantic progenitors of many present-day elected officials, aspiring politicians, corporate managers, and every-day common folk (like this blogger). The heroism of those who seem to stand alone against injustice, corruption, and error appeals to our better natures because our worse natures tend to think in collectives of ideology and status quo; to speak in endless, scripted talking-points; to single-file in tight corporate- or party-line; to sing the tunes written by lobbyists and CFOs; and to fall in domino-fashion to the intrigues of self-indulgence.

Sanford laments this sad mindset of the world’s Keatings and Tooheys, but does not seem to have party- or self-awareness
1) that much of Rand's romanticism lies in comparing the best aspects of individualism to the worst aspects of collectivism;
2) that the Roarks and Galts of this world are men of such extreme individualism they basically refuse to live except as a law unto themselves, and thus, in similitude of Ayn Rand, as dictators of private fiefdoms they construct around them—without recognition of the contradictions and without diminishing the high-sounding rhetoric of free mind, will, and expression for every soul; and
3) that unrestrained individualism is also the fertile ground of its own tyranny.
[1] Title of a collection of essays and papers written by Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden, published in 1964; subtitled: A New Concept of Egoism.
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