Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why Ayn Rand Still Matters and Still Irritates

What unites Allan Bloom, Alexander Cockburn, Gore Vidal, Jeyamohan and Ka.Na.Subramaniam? An unmitigated contempt of Ayn Rand, her philosophy and a puzzlement over why she enthralls millions across generations.

Angered by how the idea of 'relativism' was spreading across the academia Allan Bloom burst forth in 'Closing of the American mind'. Bloom is scandalized by the idea that students, out of political correctness, would ask "who am I to judge?" In the chapter 'Books' he narrates how he used to ask every new student about books that influenced them. Snidely he says 'every now and then a girl student would cite Ayn Rand'. Gore Vidal wrote "this odd little woman is attempting to give moral sanction to greed and selfishness". Jeyamohan wrote a series of blogs laced with slander, misunderstandings and indignation about Ayn Rand the writer and philosopher. He hated both the parts equally vehemently.

A poll quoted by two recent and acclaimed biographies said that Americans had cited her writings as most influential after the Bible. Ted Turner, founder of CNN, read Atlas Shrugged and erected 200 billboards throughout US asking "who is John Galt". She addressed throngs of students in overflowing auditoriums across universities where the professors taught their students to despise her. Her appearance, twice in a year, in the Johnny Carson show drew 50 million. Her last public address was in April 1981 at the Ford hall where, Anne Heller writes, she railed against 'creationism', 'family values' and other bogies of the Reagan revolution. She died less than a year in March 1982, sound of mind, unlike what Jeyamohan and rumor mongers have always insisted.

                                                          (From Wikipedia)

Ayn Rand and Arthur Koestler were both born in 1905 in worlds apart. Rand and Koestler were both born into wealth. Both of their parents lost their wealth in the aftermath of the First World War. Rand's father's business was confiscated and they were refugees in the country they were born into. Koestler's father lost his wealth but was not pauperized or exiled. Boris Pasternak would create a scene in his book where Dr Zhivago comes to his palatial home only to see it occupied by peasants who indignantly  ask "why do you need such a big home". That was reality to Rand.

Koestler wrote 'Darkness at noon', a book that laid bare the monstrosity of Soviet state, in 1940. Orwell followed with his classic 'Animal farm' in 1945. Later Arthur Koestler, Louis Fischer, Stephen Spender, Andre Gide and others wrote a collection of essays that was published as 'The God that failed' in 1949about their disillusionment with Soviet Russia, not necessarily communism itself or of Marxist ideals. Koestler would narrate how he got drawn into communism. Guilt. Guilty of his riches while many suffered around him. But it was Ayn Rand who published her first major novel 'We the living' in 1936. It was path breaking as a work of fiction in that it was stridently anti-communist, not just anti-Soviet.

To understand a writer one has to travel to the socio-political climate of the era in which the writer lived. Ayn Rand's first major novel 'We the living' was stridently anti-Communist. Published in 1936 it went against not just the grain but a wall of public opinion. Crawling out of the great depression US was a fertile breeding ground for communists and communist sympathizers. The intellectuals were in the van guard of the pink thirties. It was also the era of FDR when liberalism was triumphant. A conservative, let alone, an anti-Communist was a pariah in those days.

Ayn Rand went where not even Orwell could bring himself to go. Orwell remained a socialist. Many who were disillusioned by communism were more disillusioned by Soviet Russia than of communism itself. Till today only Ayn Rand connected the dots from Marxism to USSR. Only Rand insisted that totalitarianism is inherent to the Marxist philosophy and not an accidental aberration. Tina Rosenberg, a left sympathizer, in her 1995 Pulitzer and National Book Award winning book "The Haunted Land" underscores that, almost without fail, communist countries have been totalitarian and hesitatingly adds maybe there is more than a coincidence.

Koestler details in 'God that failed' how communists would target the mind first and thereafter always. Truth was malleable. Facts were discarded as 'mechanistic'. It is against this totalitarian vision that Ayn Rand rebelled and burst forth in a paean to individualism in 'Fountainhead'.

To understand Howard Roark we have to learn about how only in America 'construction' became a national avocation to shape a destiny. Transcontinental railroad, Empire State building, the skyscrapers of New York, the bridges of New York City, the New York subway were all engineering marvels unprecedented in human history. The Mayan temples, Angkor Wat, CN tower in Canada etc are all nothing compared to the Empire State Building of NYC. It is one thing to construct an observatory tower at hundreds of feet or a pile of rocks to a deity but it is another to construct a living space where thousands have to live and work. Just the disposal of trash from a skyscraper is a science. The Empire State Building was possible because of new techniques in building that newer materials made possible and thats why it could be built taller than the Woolworth building. The ESB is not a building of vanity to boast of just height, its not built to make man feel small. ESB has a function and the form follows the function.

Ayn Rand modeled Roark after the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But Roark, as any fictional character should be, is more than Wright. Later both Wright and Rand denied Roark was modeled after Wright. The character of the second hander, Peter Keating, was inspired by a chance encounter of Ayn Rand. Rand asked a woman, by chance, what she desires in life. The woman answered in terms of everything people around her had. A second hander. A moocher. Ellsworth Toohey was modeled on the smooth talking leftist intellectual Harold Laski.

The 'individual' was a recent idea. Across civilizations man lived in 'relation' to others until recent times. Stephen Greeenblatt in his Pulitzer and Nationall Book AWard winning 'Swerve' writes compellingly on 15th century Europe "The household, the kinship network, the guild, the corporation-these were the building blocks of personhood. Independence and self reliance had no cultural purchase; indeed, they could be scarcely conceived, let alone prized. Identity came with a precise, well understood place in a chain of command and obedience".

To Ayn Rand and her readers like me there is only one form of government that is compatible with individualism, liberal democracy. There is only one economic system that makes democracy what it is: Capitalism. Choosing rulers, choosing how we live and choosing how we earn, what we earn are all an inseparable whole.

Krushchev taunted Eisenhower that for all the prosperity of the western economic system it is nothing but a system that caters to man's selfishness. Eisenhower told his aides that he was left speechless to counter that. Ayn Rand was livid. To her and me capitalism is a moral good that is to be pursued not just because it tames man's vices best but because it is the only proper expression of all that man is.

It took a nineteenth century American businessman, Henry Ford, to say "make money and be happy. Make more money and be happier". Liberal economist and thinker A.O.Hirschman in "The passions and the interests:Political argument for capitalism before its triumph" quotes sociologist Max Weber "now, how could an activity, which was at best ethically tolerated, turn into a calling in the sense of Benjamin Franklin?" The activity that Weber referred to was 'making money'. Naturally Ayn Rand wrote that only in America was the phrase 'to make money' was invented.

When American economy crumbled in 2008 Ayn Rand was unfairly tarnished. The greed of Wall Street CEO's is not what she wrote or epitomized. Rand's heroes and heroine 'created' and put their wealth at stake to prove their vision was correct. Her heroes did not have golden parachutes. Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart not only pledge their wealth in pursuit of their dream they also place their own lives at stake when they ride the first train over a bridge made of Rearden steel.

A factory in 'Atlas Shrugged' puts into practice Marx's maxim 'from each according to his ability to each according to his need'. The factory goes bust and a participant from that dream project narrates the story to Dagny Taggart. It was not parody. Robert Owen is credited with coining the word 'socialism' and he carried out a similar experiment, in reality, where else but America, in 1825. Four decades before Marx's tract 'communist manifesto' was published. It was utter disaster.

V.P.Singh exulted when a boy enrolled in the prestigious AIIMS under the Mandal scheme. Later when Singh was diagnosed with leukemia he promptly came to USA. It is this 'altruism' that Rand deplored and instead spoke of the 'virtue of selfishness'. In her definition selfishness is NOT grabbing what is not one's but being true to one's own self. One's own conviction and independence. In a way I can say every freedom fighter, including Gandhi, was fighting for their own independence first. It was not altruism. Refusal to cooperate with a colonizer, however materially rewarding it maybe, is a perfectly Randian thing to do. Being rewarded materially by cooperating with totalitarianism is the kind of money making that would not give one joy about being rich.

Rand was not against charity but she did not consider, rightly, charity a pre-requisite to be called 'good'. Corporate Social Responsibility is the greatest modern con. A corporation owes only one thing and that is profits to its investors. It is unto investors, as individuals, to be charitable if the choose to be charitable. Take away the charity related tax deduction in USA and lets see US philanthropy plummet. Charity is not free.

When Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren rail that an individual owes his or her success to the community then one is reminded of Ayn Rand. This is why she still matters to people like me and this is why, nearly 60 years since its publication, 'Atlas Shrugged' still irritates many others.

Exxon Mobil the oil giant was kicked out of Venezuela by communist firebrand Hugo Chavez, a brainless thug. Exxon then deftly maneuvered in court to have all the money, in an escrow account, that Chavez was eyeing, to be frozen. The story is narrated with racy details in Steve Coll's 'Private Empire'. One cannot but think of Ellis Wyatt in 'Atlas Shrugged', who, when his oil fields are nationalized, torches them all leaving behind a note "you asked for it". Yes Exxon had the Valdez oil spill disaster. But they learned. Later Exxon, Steve Coll writes, made a fetish out of safety and safety procedures with absolute zero tolerance for negligence. After Chavez's thugs took over the oil fields of Exxon all safety notices were ripped off. Accidents in Chavez's state owned refineries spiked and production tanked. Thank you Ayn Rand.

Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek became the apostles of capitalism and won Nobel prizes. In Friedman's lectures and books capitalism is presented as the most pragmatic choice that delivers effectively as an economic system. To Ayn Rand capitalism was a moral good because man, to be true to his self, has to be capitalist.

To E.O.Wilson man is biologically altruist because lower organisms show altruism. Richard Dawkins's 'Selfish gene' was promoted by the right wing to say that man was selfish because its in his genes. Ayn Rand would have violently disagreed with both and with biological determinism as an idea because man is not just a sum total of biology. Man has a mind. Man exercises volitional choice. Choice means living with consequences too. It is insulting  to reduce man to his biology.

Warren Buffet was Barack Obama's bogeyman in arguing for the rich to be taxed more. In a telling oped in NYT he wrote that it is sham propaganda that when the rich are taxed more they will reduce their investments in order to reduce their tax bill. He correctly argued that nobody refrains from doing what they do best, including choosing investments that will give high yields, just to reduce a tax bill. But therein lies the rub. He expects Atlas to carry the world with blood streaking on his face. Giving the intellectual clarity to spot Orren Boyle's of the world is why I am thankful to Ayn Rand and 'Atllas Shrugged'.

Ayn Rand asked Oppenheimer, whom she held in regard, if she can say that the Atom Bomb was invented in America because its a free country unlike USSR and Germany. Oppenheimer agreed. There is lot of truth to this profound observation. The USSR beat US on every space mission in the space race but eventually fell behind and finally became a technological dinosaur simply because there was no freedom in USSR. It is true of China today. China may overtake US on GDP but it will never overtake US on per capita income and more importantly on innovation. China can be called Ayn Rand's laboratory. In China one is free to make money but one is not free to speak or think freely. Can it produce Nobel Laureates? Can China produce a Steve Jobs even? China will only be Jobs's factory but never produce its own Jobs. David Hoffman in his Pulitzer winning 'Dead Hand: The cold war and the arms race" narrates an interesting incident. When Gorbachev visited Canada a Russian diplomat showed him an Apple computer and this is a wonder of the world. A French analyst wrote in Washington Post that France can never produce a Steve Jobs.

The Silicon Valley is a distinct American creation that is impossible in any other country on earth. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Zuckerman, Gates, Jobs, J.P.Morgan are all American creations. Only in America is their story possible. One cannot appreciate Steve Jobs without understanding Ayn Rand.

George Orwell wanted salary caps for CEO's. In East Germany a chemistry professor and a brick layer earned almost same. No wonder they could not produce a single chemical worth talking about. Elizabeth Warren who taught part time in Harvard had a take home pay of $300,000. Yes. I wish she thanked capitalism.

For all her love and preaching of capitalism Ayn Rand was hated and loathed by the nascent conservative movement led by William Buckley. Rand's atheism and strident individualism were the chief turn offs. Rand supported abortion because a fetus, a cellular organism with no brain, is not an 'individual'. Rand joined Barry Goldwater in opposing the civil rights bill, though both loathed segregation, because they saw it as a power grab by the federal government. Goldwater ran desegregated offices in his business even before the bill. Buckley had one time communist spy and now reformed republican Whittaker Chambers eviscerate 'Atlas Shrugged' in his magazine.

So what of her philosophy itself? What about 'objectivism'? Do readers hold on to 'Galt's speech', that runs into 60 pages which she wrote over 2 years, as gospel? Her books sell by the hundreds of thousands every year. A large majority take only vignettes from her book as lessons for life. Nobody lives according to every word in the bible much less according to Rand's book. The power of her fiction lies in the fact that it leaves behind images that people can relate to in everyday life. Obama, Warren, Chavez, Exxon, Jamie Dimon, Ted Turner, Steve Jobs bring to mind images of her characters and the situations etc. It is silly to think, as Jeyamohan does, that Ayn Rand readers are mentally sick like her. Neither are true. As much as reading Gita or Bible does not make every reader a saint so also reading Ayn Rand does not make every reader go about thinking they are John Galt.

Did Ayn Rand live like she preached? If she failed what does it say of her philosophy itself?  What is her place in the history of ideas? I'll weave those answers in my rebuttal to Jeyamohan.


1. Goddess of the market: Ayn Rand and the American right -- Jennifer Burns.
2. Ayn Rand and the world she made -- Anne C Heller
3. The God that failed - Edited by Richard Crossman. Essays by Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, Louis Fischer, Andre Gide.
4. Gore Vidal on Ayn Rand -

5. Alexander Cockburn on Ayn Rand "He banged away relentlessly against what he called “the criminal tendencies of the executive class,” writing in 2002: “The finest schools in America produced a criminal elite that stole the store in less than a decade. Was it all the fault of Ayn Rand, of Carter and Kennedy, of the Chicago School, of Hollywood, of God’s demise? You’d think there’s at least a Time cover in it.”  ---

6. Closing of the American mind -- Allan Bloom

7. Darkness at noon -- Arthur Koestler

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i started reading your blog .a very different point of view.i am from nellai.i like your thoughts