Rand and conservatism

(Note, April 20: We appear to have misinterpreted Luskin’s characterization of Rand’s position on busing. In fact, she opposed busing. See this comment.)

In an April 14 article at the Wall Street Journal, Donald Luskin counts many of the ways in which Ayn Rand was not a conservative. Of course, it used to be understood by everyone that Rand was not a conservative, especially after she was drummed out of the conservative movement by Whittaker Chambers in his scathing (and terribly unfair, since he saw nothing good in the book at all) review of Atlas Shrugged in William Buckley’s National Review in 1957. But now everyone seems to have forgotten this salient fact about Rand, and speaks of the Atlas Shrugged movie as a major event for the conservative movement. They do this by reducing the meaning of the book/movie to anti-statism. And, yes, there is significant overlap between Rand and conservatism, but there are even more significant differences.

Here’s one example Luskin adduces of Rand’s non-conservatism:

During the ’60s she declared, “I am an enemy of racism,” and advised opponents of school busing, “If you object to sending your children to school with black children, you’ll lose for sure because right is on the other side.”

More fundamentally, as Luskin succinctly points out, Rand was not a conservative or a liberal, but a radical individualist.

- end of initial entry -

Dean Ericson writes:

Regarding Rand’s statement:

During the ’60s she declared, “I am an enemy of racism,” and advised opponents of school busing, “If you object to sending your children to school with black children, you’ll lose for sure because right is on the other side.”

Rand demanded that man be allowed to live by the free and uncoerced exercise of his mind. Yet here she is advocating forced busing for everyone whose free and uncoerced thinking made them send their kids to a school not approved by Ayn Rand. A consistent Randian radical individualist would leave people the freedom to form segregated associations, if that was their free choice.

LA replies:

Probably Rand saw racial discrimination as a form of collectivism, in which race was a treated as a superior entity to the individual, a superior entity in the name of which the individual and his freedom could be sacrificed. She would therefore see busing as a moral defense of individualism against such collectivism.

The problem, of course, is that coerced busing for the sake of imposing racial integration on people who don’t want it, is also a form of collectivism. A characteristic and fatal flaw in Randian thought is that it regards all larger or collective entities as evil, insofar as they have any reality or justification beyond the defense of individual rights. The reduction of all values to individual rights, which is the essence of the Randian system, is a form of ideological madness, since collective entities are also real and have intrinsic value. For example, without certain collective entities, e.g., Christendom, Protestantism, the white race, English culture and civilization, American culture and civilization, not to mention the family, the American-style individualism that Rand worships could never have come into existence. At least Athena was born out of Zeus’ head. But Rand treats her heroes Howard Roark and John Galt as though they were born out of their own heads. She doesn’t see that Roark and Galt in their tough-minded, self-controlled, WASPy individualism are products of a particular American culture, and, furthermore, she doesn’t see that for that culture to have existed, it had to be valued for its own sake (not valued only to the extent that it supported individual rights), and therefore it had to be distinguished and separated from other cultures. If the particular American culture that ultimately produced a Galt or a Roark hadn’t historically excluded and discriminated against various other cultures, it would not have existed, and so Galt and Roark couldn’t have existed (or, to speak more precisely, Rand could never have conceived of them). But Rand cannot recognize this underlying reality, because that would mean that her heroes are not totally self-sufficient and self-autonomous individuals, but that they depend on certain realities outside themselves. Rand and all her followers see any notion of a reality outside of or larger than the self as the very epitome of evil, an evil equal to Communism.

The Randian vision thus involves murderous hatred of the structure of reality on which all values, including the Randian values of individualism itself, rest. Randianism, like liberalism, is a parasitic ideology which damns and seeks relentlessly to destroy the host on which it feeds.

Laura Wood writes:

That really clarifies it for me. That’s why a Randian will accuse a Christian of being like a Communist.

Dean Ericson writes:

“The Randian vision thus involves murderous hatred of the structure of reality on which all values, including the Randian values of individualism itself, rest.”

“Murderous hatred” may be too strong to describe most Randians. How about: “The Randian vision thus involves rejecting the structure of reality on which all values … ”

LA replies:

I think, based on John Galt’s literally hate-filled speech (which by the way is so inconsistent with his calm and affable demeanor elsewhere in the book, because in his speech it’s really Rand who is talking), and based on the many Randian commenters who have cursed me, wished me a horrible end, and even wished my death just for saying that I believe in God and an objective moral good, that “murderous hatred” is not out of line.

LA writes:

For readers who wonder why, given my severe criticisms of Rand and Randianism, I have been excited about the opening of the movie of Atlas Shrugged (which I haven’t seen yet), here are some entries in which I talk about both the positive and the negative sides of Atlas Shrugged:

Ayn Rand centennial [A brief summary of the value of Atlas Shrugged to me.]

The unprincipled exception as dramatized in Atlas Shrugged [Describing in detail two key scenes in Atlas Shrugged.]

Galt versus God [Randian attacks me as mystic for believing in God.]

Neoconservative realizes “moderate” Islam is a fiction [“Conservatism moderates liberalism, makes it more rational, less destructive, and more acceptable. Conservatism thus performs the same function in relation to liberalism that the industrialist heroes of Atlas Shrugged who have not joined the strike have been performing in relation to the prevailing collectivist system (which they only realize near the climax of the book): they’ve been helping it to work, and thus validating its evil.”]

Bizarro terrorists, brain-dead reporters [What Dagny Taggart says about her railroad in Atlas Shrugged is true of today’s news business: “There’s not a single mind left in Taggart Transcontinental.]

In The racial war in Oakland—and America, a comment on how Oakland’s “racist” police are like Rand’s “greedy” industralists: www.amnation.com/vfr/archives/012810.html#rand

Kristor writes:

The thing about unalloyed individualism is that to live life as everyone must actually live it in practice, one must dedicate oneself to something or other that transcends the self. Only thus may the otherwise disparate activities of the human organism be organized toward some end—which is to say, only thus may they be organized at all. To organize the particular, the supra-particular is needful. Absent such an end, that can inform merely whimsical activity and generate order and organization, there can be no such thing as a career or a project or an enterprise, or any achievement; rather, there can be only aimless unproductive flopping about, which in the final analysis is nothing other than the “looting,” the social and ontological parasitism, that Rand so despised. Rand dedicated her own career to the propagation of her philosophy, and risked a lot in doing so. She would not have decided to spend her time this way unless she had concluded that it was important.

This notion of importance is clear to everyone, because everyone feels that some things are important, and such feelings guide our every decision. But almost no one stops to think about what the feeling of importance tells us about the structure of reality. Rand could not have felt that Objectivism was worth her efforts—was, i.e., more important than, say, eating Twinkies and watching TV—unless she thought that Objectivism is objectively better than its competitors, in respect not just to its accuracy as a doctrine but to its effects upon human life. And she could not have come to that conclusion unless she implicitly believed in the notion of objective good.

So we see that the organization of life entails an implicit commitment to the objective good. But, precisely because that good is objective, it transcends, and ipso facto includes, the particular goods of any particular human life. A life itself is good, then, insofar as it participates in that transcendent good. The good life then entails participation in some collective or other, that jointly understands some transcendent good. In this, I mean “understanding” quite literally: as “standing under” a good, so that it informs and orders one’s being and activity, and rightly demands one’s fealty and, if need be, personal sacrifice.

LA replies:

“So we see that the organization of life entails an implicit commitment to the objective good. But, precisely because that good is objective, it transcends, and ipso facto includes, the particular goods of any particular human life.”

That’s brilliant.

Of course the Randians will reject it entirely, saying that you haven’t understood them.

Dean Ericson replies to LA:
It’s true there are Randians who express murderous hatred, and one could make a case for Rand herself expressing the same. But your average Randian would likely dismiss such a description of their own feelings—“I don’t want to murder anyone!”—as extreme and thus see your argument as overstated. And then too we get sick and tired of hearing liberals charge anyone who disagrees with them of feeling “hate”. So just saying they “reject the structure of reality” describes their idea objectively without presuming to divine or judge their emotional state.

LA replies:

But note, I didn’t say murderous hatred of people, but of the structure of reality. I’m not saying that individual Randians hate other, non-Randian human beings (though in some cases they do). I’m saying that the Randian project is to kill the structure of reality, because if the structure of reality exists, then the Randian individual is not totally self-sufficient and not totally free of all external and collective forces. And, perhaps even more horrible and disgusting from the Randian point of view, if the Randian individual wants to preserve American freedom, or what’s left of it, and if the structure of reality exists, he may even have to discriminate against certain collectivities in order to preserve his own collectivity on which his freedom depends.

Dean Ericson replies:
Yes, you did say, “murderous hatred of the structure of reality,” but since murderous hatred is something mostly associated with killing a human and not killing philosophical concepts, it can be confusing. And your main point seems to be to point out their philosophical error, not to condemn their emotions. “Murderous hatred” conjures up the image of a bug-eyed lunatic with axe in hand. It’s the sort of rhetorical excess VFR murderously hates. I mean, “rejects.”

LA replies:

Haven’t you heard of the death of God? As Nietzsche puts it in Section 125 of The Gay Science, God hasn’t just died, man has murdered God, in order to become a god himself. And by the way, in numerous passages of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, the leading killer of God and of belief in God (see below), is treated, quite literally, as a god.

Or have you seen any of the writings of the New Atheists? These people don’t just disbelieve in God. They openly seek, with maximum hatred, to murder the belief in God and to crush religous believers, namely Christians.

And the message I’ve gotten from numerous Randians commenters who have written to me (many of whose comments have not been posted publicly) is indeed murderous hatred—of God, of the idea of an objective good, of the idea of a culture or a race that has formed us, and of the people who believe in these things.

And in seeing this murderousness I’m not alone. The single most famous and influential utterance about Atlas Shrugged is from Whittaker Chambers’s 1957 review, where he said the book’s message was, “To a gas chamber, go!” I’ve criticized Chambers for not seeing anything good in the book. Nevertheless, his characterization is accurate, since a core message of John Galt’s speech is that not only collectivist looters, but all people who believe in God, are evil, anti-life monsters who deserve literal death.

I understand that the phrase, “murderous hatred,” conjures in your mind the image of a bug-eyed lunatic with axe in hand. It doesn’t conjure such an image for me. It conjures the ideas I’ve suggested in this discussion.

M. Jose writes:

You wrote:

But Rand treats her heroes Howard Roark and John Galt as though they were born out of their own heads.

This reminds me of this passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.

Roger Donway (a moderate Randian) writes:

Is this truly your most considered understanding of Objectivism?

“I’m saying that the Randian project is to kill the structure of reality, because if the structure of reality exists, then the Randian individual is not totally self-sufficient and not totally free of all external and collective forces.”

The overarching virtue of Objectivism is rationality. Why? Because it is by reason that one grasps the nature or structure of reality. And it is only by dealing appropriately with that nature or structure of reality (as it is: A is A) that one can achieve one’s happiness. Self-sufficiency (the virtue of independence) applies wholly and solely to the act of not subordinating one’s best and final judgment to the beliefs and assertions of others.

LA replies:

The word reason can mean very different things. It can mean the rational attempt, as seen in Aristotle, to articulate the structure of reality, in all its dimensions, insofar as reason is capable of doing that, or it can mean an ideological reduction of reality to just one of its dimensions and the treatment of that one dimension as though it were the totality. Every main Randian formula, e.g., “man’s happiness is his only goal,” “reason is his only absolute,” etc., involves such an ideological reduction and false totalization. That is, it reduces man to a self-worshipping entity who denies all transcendence, and it treats this self-worshipping being as the totality of all value.

Now I, like Rand, admire the heroic. But when you combine the Randian belief in “man as a heroic being” with a total denial of God or anything higher than man, what you have is the insanity of man worshipping himself. And that insanity is central to Ayn Rand’s works and world view, as well as the iconography that appears on the covers of her novels and throughout the Rand movement.

For a typical Randian self-deifying image that many readers will be familiar with (along with the shlocky sexual braggadocio that is a frequent accompaniment of such self-deification), check out the masthead of Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs website.

LA continues:

As I said above, when man kills God, he must become a god himself.

From Sect. 125 of The Gay Science:

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers….

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?… Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

April 19

Kilroy M. writes from Austrlia:

The other night I watched the 1976 production of Nolan and Johnson’s Logan’s Run. Reading over this thread about the dystopian nightmare that Randism represents, I wondered whether I would classify the inhabitants of the hedonist “paradise” illustrated in the movie (alas I have not read the book) as materialist libertarians, or whether they were a hive-like collectivist society. The fact that it is difficult to classify them strictly as one or the other shows, I believe, that Randism is but a reflection of the very ideology it grew as a response to: Communism. Both systems deny the essence of the human condition because both reject the transcendent, which provides meaning for human existence and endeavour. Both rebel against natural law and reality. One leads to the collective farm and the Gulag, the other leads to the brothel and spiritual/social alienation. Remember, in Logan’s Run, all people above the age of 30 were euthanized after a youth of sex and pleasure; their existence was contingent on the interests of the system. Objectivism in my view is therefore bunk—it is like the “scientific materialism” of the Marxists: a device to hoodwink otherwise rational people to follow a humanist creed which is inherently anti-human.

LA writes:

Here is an example of Ayn Rand’s hatred and rejection of the structure of being. There runs through both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged the theme that the world of nature—earth, trees, plants, animals, birds—has no value whatsoever apart from what man makes of it by re-forming it into objects for the satisfaction of his own needs. Nature has no value in itself, and, moreover, in the Randian moral code it is a sin to think that it does. Thus when Dagny wakes up in the mornings in John Galt’s house in the valley and looks out the window and sees the sky, trees, sunlight, etc., she immediately rejects any idea that these things are beautiful or worthwhile or enjoyable in themselves. They are only valuable as material to be shaped by man into manmade things. There is even a passage (I don’t have the book with me now so I can’t cite it) where Dagny expresses positive hatred for the idea of enjoying nature for its own sake.

Now of course man shapes non-human nature to his ends, and this is essential to man’s nature. But to deny that the things of nature—animals, plants, trees, rocks, mountains, leaves blowing in the wind, a sea lion playing delightedly under the ocean—have a reality and value in themselves apart from man is a form of madness. It constitutes a rejection of the world in which we live and of its meaning and beauty.

The attitude I’ve just described exemplifies Rand’s ideological reduction and totalization of the world, in which (1) all the things that exist must be reduced to what man can make of them with his reason and his productive capacity; and (2) what man can make of things with his reason and productive capacity represents the totality of all value. In order for man to worship himself and his own reason and ability, everything outside man—i.e., the world itself—must be denigrated. Which, further, is in keeping with the Randian compulsion, stemming no doubt from Rand’s somewhat twisted psychological make-up, to imagine oneself to be completely self-sufficient and in absolute control of one’s own existence.

Furthermore, it’s not just the natural and biological realm that Rand rejects (except insofar as it serves the satisfaction of man’s rational needs). She also rejects the realm of society and culture (except insofar as they protect man’s individual rights), and, of course, she also totally rejects, as the epitome of anti-life evil, the realm of the transcendent, the objective good, and God.

I have often said that there three orders of reality in which man lives—the natural or biological; the social or cultural; and the spiritual or transcendent, and that the liberal belief in equality and non-discrimination denies all three. Randianism also denies all three, on a more profound level than liberalism does. Randianism, like liberalism, is at war with the structure of reality.

[Note: the above comment is cross posted in its own entry. Comments on the comment will be posted in that entry. The discussion on “Rand and conservatism” will continue in this entry.]

April 20

A reader writes:

Ayn Rand did not support busing.

She just thought that racial animosity was a bad reason for opposing it.

See her answer on busing in the Google Books version of “Ayn Rand answers: the best of her Q & A.”

She also opposed the Civil Rights Act, for the same reasons that Goldwater did.

LA replies:

Here is the question and answer on busing from “Ayn Rand Answers,” which I’ve transcribed:

Do you support busing to integrate the races?

No. The government has no right playing politics with children, or disposing of a child’s education against his parent’s wishes. It’s a terrible infringement of rights. I am an enemy of racism (see “Racism” in The Virtue of Selfishness) and believe people should have quality education. But I don’t think the government should run schools. Education should be private, and children should go wherever their parents decide to send them.

It appears, then, that Donald Luskin’s statement about Rand and busing at the beginning of this entry was not saying what it appeared to be saying. Luskin wrote:

During the ’60s she declared, “I am an enemy of racism,” and advised opponents of school busing, “If you object to sending your children to school with black children, you’ll lose for sure because right is on the other side.”

I and others interpreted that as saying that Rand thought that right was on the side of busing. But as the reader now points out, and based on Rand’s answer in the Q&A, it appears that Rand was criticizing people who opposed busing out of “racism,” but other than that she herself was against busing.

Buck O. writes:

Maybe I not making sense, but further thoughts:

Didn’t all of Rand’s heroes need each other? None of them could accomplish their collective goal without collecting. The essential nature of their effort was a collective effort to achieve a goal. How does a dedicated philosophical individualist, at the critical juncture—where his philosophy has to prove it self under fire—do the very thing that they live in opposition of? Maybe I missed the explanation.

Was the hidden town in the valley supposed to be a metaphor for a place that everything caught in the river of the living flows to its final discharge outside of the dying world (or something like that)? Had each one of the characters individually and independently gone into seclusion with no connection to any of the others, that would have made more sense.

Isn’t that similar to the Darwinian evolutionist and various materialists who are forever falling into contradiction—that they can’t articulate the real world without relying on purpose and meaning—the very thing that they seek to disprove?

This is why traditional conservatism is so valuable to me. It makes sense. I have, on my stagnant Facebook page, my short definition of traditional conservatism: “Life is participation in a permanent, immutable natural order of being that cannot be altered or denied. Modern liberalism denies and attempts to defy that order, while traditional conservatism accepts it and embraces its necessary constraints.”

Rand, like libertarians and modern liberals run into the wall of reality. This reality is what they are forever trying to get around and deny. Human nature, to my simple mind, was accepted and dealt with by our founders. it’s been picked over, challenged and denied ever since.

Rand lives in a world of individuals connected only by the material. There is no community, except that there has to be. There is no state, but there must be. People don’t work together, though they have to. They work only for themselves, but they need others to get anything done.

Buck O. continues:

It seems to me, that, if Rand and all “Randians” were totally dedicated and true to her philosophy—we would not know about her or it or them. Individual Randians or Objectivists might have developed organically, but for the most part they would be unaware of and uninterested in each other and uncollected as such.

Didn’t the rugged individualist heroes band together as a collective force and go on strike? How’s that different from a striking union?

A note about the movie: I saw the first showing on April 15. At 2 pm, there were 20 people in the average size theater. Nearly everyone offered a short applause at the end. Clearly, this too short movie can only make sense to someone who has read the book. Otherwise it seems like a movie trailer.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 18, 2011 02:10 PM | Send

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