Sunday, December 19, 2010


An Open Letter On Ayn Rand's Philosophy of Egoism

A letter sent to Ayn Randian activists, Kathy Eickhoff and Jim Smith, and subsequently to many others, inviting them to debate Ayn Rand's ideology in detail, on a weblog, in print. Please also see my essay, "Ayn Rand's 'Objectivism' Deconstructed and Demolished" in the October 2010 archives of this site.

So, what is it about Ayn Rand, and her writing, that is so appealing?

I think what makes her appealing-- and especially to the very young and developing, the teenaged, the young adult-- is Ayn Rand's tremendous larger than life willfulness as a personality. It galvanizes. It makes you sit up. It puts you under pressure to come up with an adequate response. It comes through in the writing.

She infused this tremendous outrageous willfulness of hers into her invented fictional characters. 

Let's take The Fountainhead, her most accomplished and convincing work, as perhaps my best example.

Her Dominique Francon would be a good instance of this willfulness (it's been since the early 60's that I've read the book.) Dominque knows Howard Roark, an architect, is working at an outdoor site near her country house. She definitely wants some of his attention. She breaks a fierplace stone with a hammer, so she can have him come over and put in a new one. He later sends a barely literate immigrant tradesman, in his stead, to install the new marble. She is infuriated. Next time she sees Roark she rakes him across the face with a riding crop. She definitely wants some of his attention. Drama! And so on, leading to the big sex passion scene, etc.


And you can see Dominique in Ayn Rand's own life. She wants to meet a man, Frank O'Connor, her future husband. She manages to stand right in his way, so that he steps on her foot. Boy, did he ever meet up with his fate!  The man was hit by a Mack Truck.

She decides, much later in the 1950's, she wants Barbara Weidman's young boyfriend, Nathan Blumenthal-- Barbara's not doing much with him anyways-- she moves across the country to be near him. She's determined.

Eventually she's holding a meeting with Barbara -- Drama! -- to tell her she's in love with Nathan and wants to, I don't know, borrow him. She's determined, and she ruins all four people's lives-- Nathan's, Barbara's, her husband's, her own --  in pursuit of what she must have, some of Nathan's attention. 

And her whole literary world is like that, shock-developments that are the product of determined human willfulness, her kind of willfulness, histrionic, high-risk, damaging, and damn the consequences!

John Galt and his strike (unrealistic as it would be with real industrialists, actual corporate CEO's) is that same thing, in her novel, Atlas Shurgged. The unusual strike, one of business operators withdrawing from the market economy, is a big reversal, something you'd not expect at all, that is the result of much determination by a strong-willed campaigner. 

Galt is campaigning in secret to have businessmen withdraw their sanction from the status quo, to retire and cease business operations, as a protest against government control. He is working his way toward Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart from the opposite end of things. So, while they're busy trying to keep their businesses operating and productive in a deteriorating economy, a depression, Galt's getting people to quit. This creates great frustration for them. All their best collaborators, their best business partners, and their most talented workers are leaving the scene.


Ayn Rand loved paradox.

Since she certainly didn't like socialism (much as today's Cuban immigrants don't) she decided she was in favor of capitalism. 

She wanted the right wing to prevail (as it has since Nixon, in the last 40 years, via all the Neocon Machiavels of that era, the supply-siders, the trickle-downers, et alia.)
She could have decided, just as willfully, to like western democracy and the rule of law. They are the real guarantors of individual rights, often protecting individuals from the depredations of big corporations, the abuses of their far-reaching power and influence.

She didn't like being expected to be concerned with others when she was in Russia and everyone was preaching duty and sacrifice. So she decided she was in favor of selfishness, in favor or arrogance, in favor of a complete lack of empathy, in favor of self-obsessed narcissism. 

There's no middle ground? Having a right to one's own interests, yet being concerned for others? Of course, there is.

What made her writings intriguing was the imaginative freedom her willful characters exercised. They had the nerve to take very bold steps. She could just as willfully have written a book on ethics issues titled "The Virtue Of Brass-Assed Risk-Taking."  Or "The Fun of Chutzpah!"  

(I don't know, "The Virtue of Elfishness"? Maybe save that for a special holiday story.)

The actual title of her book on ethics, a critique of altruistic sacrifice, was, of course, The Virtue of Selfishness.

Egotism is not an ethics, far from it, but a personality trait, a personality strength of sorts, particularly notable in the childlike self-satisfaction and confidence of those who are gifted, those who are strong and capable, those who are beautiful, those who are stylish and eloquently expressive, those who are prosperous, etc. I might be an egotist (certainly not for talent, beauty, style, riches, or strength,) but my ethics are something else entirely. They're the limits I place on my actions, the things I cannot allow myself to do, because I cannot allow others to do them to me and mine. No one should do these things. They are the universal rules: Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods, Thou shalt not kill, etcetera.

(In addition to being a personality strength, as self-confidence, egotism is a liability as well, as when a sort of "irrational exuberance," to quote Chairman Greenspan, leads to over-confidence, even hubris, as, e.g., when Eliot Spitzer went from Future President of The United States to retiree/consultant in one swift tragic downfall.)

Ayn Rand was a good dramaturge, a screenwriter, who wrote a good book, The Fountainhead. Great scenes, good dialogue.  A book, interestingly, about a modernist in architecture, who would not compromise his modernist vision for mouldy old traditionalist values, the received ideas. A book about a modernist's integrity. Ayn Rand herself was anything but a modernist aesthetically, she was a decadent Late 19th Century stick in the mud in her literary orientation, while writing in the era of modernism, the era of Joyce, Woolf, Stein, Dos Passos, Faulkner, and Hemingway.

(One good thing, the paper shortage of the 40's war years gave an editor leverage for taking-out serial rape as Roark's modus operandi with women.)

She was not a philosopher. Though she had an interest in the discursive "novel of ideas," as had Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in the cultural heritage she came from.

So she came up with these "ideas" for discussion.  She was for capitalism. Okay!

(She was "radical," because she had grown weary of the conservatives she'd met and had tried to affiliate with, but she was in fact an ultraconservative, an over-earnest moralizing Late-Victorian.)

She was for remorseless egotism and vanity. Alright!  After all, she was basically a melodramatic romance novelist like Margaret Mitchell, so the egotism was good for the plots of her books.

She herself was diagnosable as a narcissist and a paranoid, a grotesquely disordered personality, and indeed with her Nathan she helped promote a "therapy" of increased narcissism, of "boosted" self-regard, that they attempted, oddly, to shove down people's throats, and each others'. 

You have to be more independent! Yes, we must be more independent! More preachment than therapy, really. You must think for yourselves! Yes, we must think for ourselves! The Nuremberg Rallies were a similar kind of "therapy."

[None, none, of Nathan's books are on the shelves in book stores. Why? I worked in mental health the last quarter century, and I certainly know he was a no-content nobody with no influence in the world of actual treatment, an ostentatious and presumptious self-promoter, who wrote the same book over again 20 times with hardly any thinking process involved. He'd been deluded essentially by Ayn Rand telling him how great he was, because he had so thoroughly studied her writings as a sort of new gospel. The Pscyhology of Self-Esteem!  The psychology of a bumptious pompous ass with no clinical training!]


Now, how to justify, for Ayn Rand, her view of capitalists and egotists as heroes?

Well, rationalizing-- or justifying what she was determined to believe anyways-- was her specialty! No problemo!

(Think of how she'd attempted -- and successfully!-- to rationalize wanting Barbara and Nathan, and her husband Frank, to allow her borrowing Nathan for a little roll around the sheets a couple times a week.)

Um, let's see, yeah!, the reason capitalism is so great is...oh, I know!...

The author announced she was in favor of reason.

Also, she was in favor of the objective facts of reality. 

'Nuff said.

These are perfect for rationalizations. As they can be used to justify, really, anything.

Capitalism is preferable because certain basic "facts of reality"-- metaphysical certainties and axioms-- require it. The same "facts" require the unfettered ego of "egoism." A tidy package.

Fact is, capitalism has always been manifestly in need of reforms, by way of democracy and increased regulation. Any reader of history can see countless examples. (We'll call these examples the "inconvenient facts of reality," certainly so to an ultraconservative ideologist.)

Ayn Rand was completely wrong about capitalism, and her ideas of egoism are hardly worth discussing. Her entire "system" is a rickety scaffolding of rationalizations, and I can thoroughly demonstrate that. I'd like to invite you folks to debate this with me in detail on a weblog, as proposed earlier, though it appears you probably won't.

She was so completely wrong in her convictions, she had an exasperating way of being irrationally rationalistic.


None of her statements were simple and clear enough. Way too much over-analytic intellectualizing and rationalizing was involved.

The simpler "facts of reality" are capitalism causes a lot of harm, it always has, and notoriously so, throughout its history.

Government is needed, regulation is needed, precisely because of this. To protect the populace. 

Corporations are prone to selling improperly inspected foods, one example, and regulation is needed.

Corporations are prone to selling unsafe medicines, the same sort of issue,  and protection is required. 

Investment advisors (think of the currently infamous Bernie Madoff) are capable of selling bogus investments. Again, who protects the people from this? Why, the legal authorities, the regulators, that's who. 

The list of such unfair dealings by corporate entities is fairly endless, as is the human psyche's self-serving capability for playing fast and loose in pursuit of greater returns for the old firm. Think of Goldman Sachs selling insiders a "bet" against Goldman's own securitized-mortgages investment fund, and reaping millions.

Fact is, capitalist entrepreneurship isn't any more an intrinsically noble pursuit than, say, making a rock garden. Rock gardeners are certainly far, far less prone to doing harm.

There's nothing so great about entrepreneurship. It's the determination to make sales and rake in returns, to pick out a target population and get them to want what you have to offer, your better mousetrap, your two-pointed pencil. 

Where it goes wrong is in corporate organizations that become self-justifying, whose officers cut ethical corners to keep the returns high.

Ethical?... Ethical corners?... The reason we need ethics is because of the corner cutters, the people willing to make fraudulent misrepresentations, and who are they?  Why, damned if I don't recognize them! They are the practitioners of egoism!

We need ethics-- because of the human propensity to egoism. Plain and simple.

We don't need ethics, needless to say, as a Neitzschean platform from which to recommend greater self-absorption to the already self-absorbed.

Indeed, a story of quite another kind than Atlas Shrugged could easily be written, in which corporate malefactors are playing fast and loose with the rules and good-guy regulators are attempting to shut them down. The Upton Sinclairs, Theodore Dreisers, Sinclair Lewises, many others, going back to Tolstoy, Dickens, Zola, and Balzac, have already pointed the way.


There are a million things that can be said about these matters. I think the worst part of Ayn Rand's writing was the moralistic tone of condemnation that she liked to reserve for people with liberal leanings. She tried to paint them as literally evil, when in fact their concerns were reasonable, even time-honored.

Earlier I tried to outline an idea for a series of debates, on a weblog, in print. 

I envisioned a series of five debates, one on what laissez-faire capitalism is, one on what rights are, and whether capitalism protects individual rights, one on the role of government in human life, one on the supposed underpinning of capitalism in the value of "rational self-interest," and one on the role of reason and the facts of reality as a foundation for these discussions. I imagined it as a proposed ten-month project. I'd take a month and write the first salvo on what capitalism is. You folks take the second month and write a countering argument, etc. 

At the end, we could end up with a big full-scale debate in print, a voluminous book project. "Objectivists" could read it. Presumably, they would not read it very objectively. Tea-Partiers could have it explained to them by talk radio. But basically it could be a grand debate, for and against regulation, for and against laissez-faire.

The framework I had in mind: 

I'd set up the weblog and start-in, then turn the "keys" to the weblog, passwords, etc., over to you. We could alter our original postings, making them better iterations of what we'd originally drafted. I'm a constant reviser. We, of course, would not touch what the other side wrote (out of the question.) 

We could additionally post rebuttals to specific arguments used by the other side. 

We could invite commenters from among friends and supporters to write-in with comments that would be posted, and we could reply to the comments in writing.

Any takers?

Saturday, December 11, 2010


My gastric clime abysmed by wine,
Gravies, meats, potatoes, breads, and pie,
I ungirded my waist, laid down, prepared to die.

I awoke refreshed, again prepared to dine.
Thank God, that, though I'd felt abymsal,
I'd no need of Pepto Bismol.

Abysmed means engulfed, as, say, an overboard sailor abysmed by high seas.

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