Two years ago a devotee wrote a long article for Dandavats about dealing with Objectivism, a philosophy propounded by Ayn Rand half a century ago. I read it diligently but forgot all about it and never quite understood the attraction. Ayn Rand is popular, I get it, but I don’t understand why.
Then, a few days ago, I came across a quote from one of her most prominent books and my interest was ignited again. It still doesn’t make sense, though. I re-read the article, I read up on Objectivism on the internet – still nothing. I state this despite the fact that I think I understand her followers better than ever. The problem is that they are not driven by philosophy, and that I don’t know exactly how to deal with what drives them. It might become clearer towards the end of this post, though.
To start with, Objectivism is a pure, unadulterated materialism. I almost didn’t notice it in the beginning but that’s the best way to describe it. It’s exactly the kind of materialism that Śrīla Prabhupāda had in mind when he taught us Kṛṣṇa consciousness. They see the world as only matter, as “objective” reality, they deny any notion of God, soul, afterlife, anything supernatural, and they accept only empiric logic, reason, and science as legitimate tools of acquiring knowledge.
The philosophical problem with Objectivism is that it’s crap. People far smarter than me discredited it thoroughly, not because they are any more spiritual than Ayn Rand but because her presentation is full of fallacies and contradictions. One area is “objective reality” itself – according to modern science it doesn’t really exist, our every interaction with it makes it subjective. It also doesn’t exist in that everything we state about “reality” only displays a degree of probability, a working assumption. This follows from quantum mechanics where there are not such things like “exact position of an electron” as a matter of principle.
Objectivism doesn’t work philosophically for other reasons as well. Ayn Rand didn’t the subject much further than Aristotle and it shows, by modern standards her philosophy is just primitive. Maybe someone can give it a thorough makeover and make it presentable again but as it is, it’s basically crap.
Artistic value of her works is not very high either. She is just not a good writer by any standard and her books were mercilessly thrashed by critics when they came out. She loved and admired art all her life but she was just not very good at it herself.
Her proposed ethics are controversial, too, and this is where it gets interesting. Her basic idea is that selfishness is good, selfishness is the purpose of human life and a moral obligation of every human being to pursue. She rejected any intrusion on individual liberties and, according to people who actually read her books, Rand ranted against any form of state control over people’s work.
Somehow she didn’t get along with libertarians but the reason she is so popular now is that this fight against big government is what drives US Republicans and especially the Tea Party. They all just love her and even when they don’t give her credit they expound her ideas and values in every aspect of their politics. I’m not going to go through it point by point but they are remarkably close.
Obviously, their political opponents are opposing Rand’s ideas, too, and they have their own reasons and solid arguments. The one I like most is that Rand’s followers are happy to privatize profits but then don’t think twice about socializing losses. Well, some opposed government bailouts after recent financial crisis but not those who received them, and it’s generally agreed that without bailouts and big state Rand’s economy simply wouldn’t survive.
I think there’s a pattern emerging here – Ayn Rand is popular with Republican and Tea Party voters whose understanding of self-interest is just irrational, I mean they consistently vote against it. At the top of the food chain her followers love laissez-faire capitalism but then ditch their principles and take full advantage of government’s powers, or, better yet, try to subjugate them because when big government acts in their own selfish interests it becomes good.
Even more bizarre is that Ayn Rand’s philosophy is popular among people who see themselves as good, old-fashioned, conservative Christians. It goes past their heads that Rand wouldn’t stand the idea of God and that Christianity and selfishness are simply incompatible.
Here’s the pattern I see – in whatever field, Rand attracts people who don’t really know what they are talking about but get swayed by empty slogans and an illusion of sophistication.
Rationalism is one of their axioms but I’m afraid it would be futile to have a rational discussion with them on any topic, they are just not rational enough, not smart enough to see the errors in their own logic. Some actually do but they are not going to give up Rand anyway. Why? What hold does she have over so many seemingly intelligent people?
I think it’s not her metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, economics, none of that high brow stuff but her ability to catch and express people’s quintessential drive in life, and here we come to the quote I mentioned earlier:
The exhaustion was gone by the time she stepped back in the office. No matter what night preceded it, she had never known a morning when she did not feel the rise of a quiet excitement that became a tightening energy in her body and a hunger for action in her mind–because this was the beginning of day and it was a day of her life.
This, obviously, holds universal appeal, we all feel this same kind of excitement about our jobs, or at least we want jobs that give us this kind of excitement. This is how we define ourselves in public – by our careers, by things we do with out lives. This innate desire to work, to accomplish things, to fulfill oneself cannot be argued away by logic, philosophy, Democrats etc. For us it’s as objective reality as it gets, even though Rand didn’t mean objective reality to be used this way.
Btw, to illustrate how ridiculous her prose can get, here are the next two paragraphs, all taken from a Chinese site that, in defiance of Rand’s values, doesn’t care about copyright:
She looked down at the city. The streets were still empty, it made them look wider, and in the luminous cleanliness of the spring air they seemed to be waiting for the promise of all the greatness that would take form in the activity about to pour through them. The calendar in the distance said: May 1.
She sat down at her desk, smiling in defiance at the distastefulness of her job. She hated the reports that she had to finish reading, but it was her job, it was her railroad, it was morning. She lighted a cigarette, thinking that she would finish this task before breakfast; she turned off the lamp and pulled the papers forward.
I’m not a literally critic but even I can’t read this stuff. Besides, she is working on a public holiday and quietly proud of not even noticing it. True hero.
And, well, reading it on a Chinese pirate site goes just fine with actual practice of Randonism. I’m not giving a link here.
Here’s another Rand-om fact that we should take notice – this drive to fulfill oneself through work is called self-realization.
I think this is exactly what we have to address if we want to successfully answer Rand’s philosophy and the sway it holds over people. How does this primal drive that they call self-realization fits with our philosophy? Tough question that I might try to answer some other time.