Friday, April 11, 2008

The personal is moral

Here’s the thing you need to remember about Ayn Rand, first and foremost: her mentor was William Graham Sumner. Sumner was one of America’s first sociologists and truly a nut for "social Darwinism," of which he was one of the most successful advocates. Sumner, in turn, sat in the academic lap of Herbert Spencer, that Lamarckian twit who gave us "survival of the fittest." If some people detect a Nietzschean strain in Rand’s Objectivism, it is because Spencer – and later his disciple Sumner – posited a "natural progression" through the "law of evolution" towards "the perfect man in the perfect society." Poor Nietzsche’s ubermensch is often misappropriated and misunderstood; rather than actuating self-reliance and self-worth, in a Nietzchean sense, the Randian pursues the individual perfection of man as a rational social creature. (Indeed, by The Fountainhead, Rand seems to be soundly rejecting the emotionality of Zarathustra; however, this rejection is not wholesale, so the question remains somewhat open.)

Spencer posited that this perfect society was "industrial," composed of voluntary and transactional associations. The experience of competitive interaction allowed man to develop the internal moral and psychological rules and structures necessary to interact in the most "perfect" way, developed over time and handed down to offspring. This requires that no one be shielded from the full consequences of their actions. The attraction of Rand’s pedigree to self-styled libertarians should be immediately apparent by now (even though she herself rejected them).

Thus, Rand’s bias and prejudice wasn’t so much a racial thing as an anthropological one: those backwards-ass wogs needed an advanced colonial power to push forward their development, and if they couldn’t adapt, then too damned bad. Under the Spencer/Sumner-inflected teachings that fueled Objectivism, it was actually a profoundly moral act to coercively colonize other, less industrialized cultures. Despite Rand’s atheism, there is an almost Calvinistic fatalism about this ideology: suffering is necessary for progress. Anything that inhibits pure industrial progress – and thus social and moral progress – is verboten: charity, especially structural charity in the Christian and liberal models, does more harm than good.

There is a sense of the Hegelian dialectic here, of a progress towards a final, perfect equilibrium. But getting there requires a struggle, one where the success of the individual is translated to their offspring – thus, individual rights and success are of paramount importance. Individual struggle being not only necessary but the natural moral state of things, then, leads to unprincipled laissez-faire capitalism. Rand seemed to recognize that this "anything goes" mentality could lead directly to coercion; she countered this with the admonition that the individual "must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others or others to himself." The individual must not only act on his own, for his own ends, but rely only on himself.

To be fair to Rand, she was a consistent anti-collectivist and eschewed racism and discrimination as rampant tribalism. Unfortunately, however, her anthropological views on the primacy of the individual’s struggle – and the intellectual line from whence it came – stand tall to justify such actions. Indeed, in so privileging the individual perspective, she defended not only the right to be racist but the use of unequal power structures (such as prospective employer to applicant) to enact such opinions, free of social correction. For a social action to be acceptable, it must be the aggregate of individual actions, such as a boycott. This seems arbitrary: some collective actions (i.e. capitalist ones) are viewed as the simple massing of individual acts while others are "collectivist" – which simply isn’t possible without the willing consent (and thus an action) of the separate individuals making the whole; all social actions are really the aggregate of individual actions. Further, even though her theory of individual actuation requires consensual transactions, she ignores the natural tendency of individuals to aggregate power under laissez-faire systems; in decrying physical coercion, she completely ignored the economic coercion historically apparent under her preferred economic system. Having embraced the mechanics of Adam Smith’s capitalism, she ignored what he did not: that human relations are transactional, and therefore not zero-sum. This very dynamic means that human social systems, even a capitalism free from state entanglement, are inherently fluid and multi-variate.

Where her philosophical progenitors gave us "survival of the fittest," Rand gave us "selfishness is a virtue." In rightly repudiating the stolid, self-abnegating collectivism of the likes of Immanuel Kant, Rand catapulted herself too far to the other side and neglected the social, empathetic nature that is part of what makes us human. In trying to get away from Herbert Spencer, she came back around: how can individual acts of exploitation be wrong if perpetrated against people who didn’t have the wherewithal to conceive of them? If it’s not willing to condemn consequences beyond the abstract, then Objectivism is simply worthless as a philosophy for living, which, after all, is never a solitary act.

[This post also appears on Often Right, Rarely Correct. Welcome back, James! - Ed.]

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