Monday, November 16, 2009

Abandoning Objectivism

I read Atlas Shrugged in college with the intention of doing one of those ARI scholarships, but I never managed to write the essay. In fact, it took me 9 months to read the damn book, and I still haven't read all of the John Galt Manifesto. I used it as an example of a manifesto in a class I took Freshman year, but never read the whole thing.
Now, it's really late so I have to be honest here: I loved Atlas. It was so emo. So self-centered and self-important. So much like I was at the time, and the sex scenes were pretty hot too. I also enjoy the way Ayn Rand writes fiction, which is strange because I can't get past page 106 in Master and Margarita or even past the first paragraph of any Dostoevsky. (I can't even read modern fiction from Russia, despite how awesome the Nightwatch movies are.) Rand's style, while traditionally Russian (read: long and overly-detailed, with a slow-moving narrative) allowed the book to take on a life of its own for me. Francisco was played by Antonio Banderas; John Galt by Michael Shanks; Christian Bale was Hank Rearden; and I, at the ripe old age of 19, was Dagny having all that dirty, shame-embracing sex with those older, more successful, more powerful men who really, truly understood what Dagny did not: you have to destroy civilization to really save it.
Ah, what a load of bullshit. It's so funny how this person who was educated in a public system funded by the blood, sweat, and tears of everyone in the country (Rand moved to the United States when she was a kid, mind you, so the majority of her education took place here), emphasized this idea of "every man for himself". It's even funnier how, despite the fact that she claims each of the characters was self-taught in their given field, everyone who reads that book whether they admit it or not knows that the greatness of each of these great characters was won on the backs of poorer, dumber people.
Hank Rearden could never have built his Rearden Metal without people to work in and manage his factory. And someone was managing the money that his wife squandered.
Francisco's fortune was based on exploitation of the noble savages of Central America who, whether they actually count as people or not in Rand's world, built the empire that Francisco inherited rather than earning.
Even John Galt had some form of learning, had some form of acquired knowledge that allowed him to build his amazing motor. Without the contributions of previous scientists, Galt (Tesla) would never have done what he had cause he would have needed to waste his entire life developing 300,000 years worth of human technology. You don't go from fired-clay pots to a sonic lock in one lifetime. It's not possible.
And no matter how much she loved trains and civil engineering (which, on its face defies the entire point of the philosophy espoused in this 1069 page tome -- civil engineering in a "one for all and all for me" society? Preposterous! Figure it out for yourself!), Dagny Taggart couldn't survive without a man. Whether it was Daddy, her brother, Francisco, Hank, or John (hell, she probably banged Ragnar too, but that part got edited out so that Rand could keep the book under 1500 pages), Dagny was never "one for all and all for me" because of her inherent inability to function as an independent person because of that damned uterus. It all comes down to the line about how she knew that she didn't deserve John's affection. Dagny made herself less because she was always trying to live in a way that made a man want her. She fucked up her life, threw away her father's company, and shamed herself into intellectual submission. For what?
Rand doesn't go into what happens when all the lights go out in New York City. She doesn't manage to extrapolate that the completion of her "Objectivist" philosophy is absolute anarchy -- oh wait, actually she does, but it's totally a good thing cause that cuts out the rabble. The idea of a person being paid what they are worth is fine, but most people don't develop any monetary worth on their own. You're either born into wealth (like all of the protagonists in Atlas), or you gain it through schooling, the most effective form of which is through the public school system (and yes, I'll admit that I am over-looking the failings of public school, because that's not my frakking point here). Public school brings the most amount of knowledge to the greatest number of people, and those people will grow into their potential in ways that would be impossible if the only option was private schooling.
Libertarianism is fine for some things like drugs and sex, but the only way to maintain a truly free society is with a social safety net that includes public school and various social programs that keep people from having their potential actively denied them because they had the bad luck not to be born a Taggart. The bottom line is, there's no such thing as a "Self-Made Man". He doesn't exist. Each person in a society is only as free as the least among them. It may not be ideal for someone who likes to think of themselves as being completely independent, but it's true: injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
More to the point here, Objectivism is silly because it pretends to be "objective" when it's really subjective. Promoting selfishness above all else is not objective, because acting solely in your own interest requires a subjective point of view. Utilitarianism is far more objective than "Objectivism", because the reality is (when things are viewed objectively) the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few; at least until we get skin color and external versus internal genitals involved. That's why we put people in jail. That's why we go to war with countries that are smaller than us and don't really have nuclear weapons. That's why the Cold War was a cold war, because if it became a hot war everyone on the planet would have died so that some guy in either Moscow or Washington could prove his dick was bigger.
By lacking significant forethought and objectivity, Ayn Rand made a mockery of her own philosophy of selfishness. No one saves the world by building little canals along their front lawn, and even if Dagny did get to live happily ever after in Galt's Gulch everyone there lacked the ability to be objective enough to see beyond their own needs and thus lacked the ability to affect significant change and save the world. They merely sat idly by, fiddling while Rome burned.
Good book though.


john said...


You SHOULD have written that essay. They keep the most outrageously hilarious ones in a secret file and read them out to each other durring coffee breaks.

rtaylortitle said...

I think your shallow analysis of "Atlas Shrugged" will fade as you mature. You obviously missed the primary issue with the book....altruism and the so-called "public interest" that is used by statists to gain power or do you think they don't exist either? You HAVE to be an egoist to survive before, if you so decide, to help others. Obama's "call to sacrifice" fulfills several characters in "Atlas". I'm a lifelong Objectivist at 63 and those steamy sex scenes you refer to remind me of something VERY real in my life I'm proud to say.

Post-Modern Chef said...

Of course my analysis was shallow, I read the book 5 years ago and wrote the post at 1am.

Dr. Darin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
admin said...

Dr. D - thank you for your kind words, but for the record it was completely unnecessary to call another commenter a "self-possessed greedy jackass". Whether it's true or not (and I don't know him, so I'm not qualified to make this judgment), it doesn't add anything to the conversation and only serves to get that person all riled up and ready to start a flame war on my blog.

However, you did make some fairly salient points, so I published your comment. I would ask that in the future, if you want to insult another commenter on this blog, you do so more subtly.

But thank you again for bringing some balance to the comment page.

Please continue.

Roderick Fitts said...

Hey RachelSetzer. I had some comments.

First, Rand wasn't educated here, she came to America in 1926, at the age of about 20-21. She was educated in Russia. Check the timeline:

On your criticism about the characters's alleged independence:

There's a sense in which Rand is saying that the characters are independent achievers in their own fields, and a sense in which she isn't saying that. It's important to know the difference here.

As far as what Galt, Dagny etc. did learn in their studies, whether at school (Galt, Ragnar, and Francisco went to the same college, for instance) or self-taught, who could claim that they didn't achieve this on their own? Tesla didn't do the thinking Galt needed to do to understand the principles of electricity; Galt did. Someone else's thinking doesn't become knowledge in other people's heads.

When a child learns in school that 1+1=2 or learns how to walk, we don't say he's really dependent on others whom discovered those things before or figured them out previously. We praise the child for figuring it out.

At the same time, you're right: the characters are inheritors of great past scientific achievements, and what they do in the novel would have been impossible without them. Which is to say that Rand doesn't endorse your principle of "every man for himself"; that isn't her attitude or of those of the novel's good characters, and neither is it a principle of the philosophy, Objectivism. That isn't what selfishness means to Rand. She doesn't say that we should isolate ourselves from each other. For instance: the characters aren't merely saving themselves: if they were, they could have simply lived in Galt's Gulch the rest of their lives and presumably have done fine there; rather, they're trying to save the world with the best plan they could think of.

I used to think that a social safety net of some kind was necessary too, back in high school, before I started to really understand economics. I can't go into my disagreements over that idea now, but I would recommend reading von Mises's "Socialism" or Reisman's "Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics" since they argue using facts that social programs corrode freedom and are (ultimately) economically unfeasible.

Your criticism of Objectivism's ethics and selfishness is interesting, and raises some questions. What does Rand think selfishness is? I would say that Utilitarianism isn't objective, but rather inter-subjective (a kind of subjectivity), but that depends on what "subjective" means here. What is objectivity? On what authority or basis does the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? On the face of it, there's no reason to think that the needs of 10 people is of more significance than the needs of 2, so what leads to one outweighing the other?

Thanks for taking the time to read this.