OBJECTIVITY The Latest Crisis
For anyone possessing a philosophical turn of mind, it is obvious that there is something radically wrong with the way we think about social and political issues. Denial and blame have replaced most enlightened and enlightening discussion in the political realm, while the social sciences, although often sophisticated and meaningful, are rarely applied effectively within the constraints of organized government and the political process which is largely poll-driven and subject to control by a few large media conglomerates.
The fact remains that few people in public life even make the pretense of being fair-minded or “objective” in their thinking and policies. It is as though objectivity, itself, is no longer a valid goal or principle, probably because of the abuses to which this concept or criterion has long suffered. In Soviet Russia, the term “objective” became a kind of buzzword meaning something like “material reality” or “the facts, themselves, independent of analysis.” Something of this idea was imported into American thinking via the emigre novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. Although largely discredited as an academic philosopher, her influence is still pervasive and must be taken into account in any understanding of the contem porary American political/social status quo.
Ayn Rand, of course, is the originator of a copyrighted “philosophy” known as “Objectivism.” After studying and learning the principles of this closed and rigid system, most people found themselves torn between their love of freedom, order, peace and prosperity (all of which, of course, Objectivism promises to deliver) and their distaste for the actual principles and reasoning which Ayn Rand offered them. Objectivism was actually a useful part of many people’s education (myself included), and Ayn Rand was neither a bad thinker nor a bad writer, but only a somewhat warped personality. She lacked the one essential quality of a philosopher — dispassionate objectivity — and with it, some essential human qualities, including simple kindness and some measure of reverence for life, nature and the larger universe. Having grown up and spent her formative teenage and young adult years in the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, her hatred of Marxism and Communism was automatic, and her distrust of government in general followed close behind.
Her anti-authoritarian arguments are as powerful and absolute as any which have ever been made, rivaling John Stuart Mill’s, Kropotkin’s, and in many ways resembling Herbert Spencer’s and the other Social Darwinists. Once convinced of them, as I was in my own formative teenage and young adult years, one is not likely ever to change or abandon them. Much of contemporary libertarianism and even anarchism is directly attributable to Ayn Rand. That she was not an explicit anarchist is most likely due to her experiences during the McCarthy Era, and the fact that she perceived a total breakdown of authority as presaging something like the Russian Revolutionary and the resulting bloodshed and terror. She was already a Republican in the 1940 election, having worked for Wendell Wilke. Yet, if one takes literally her ideas of the sovereignty of the individual, and the necessity of a social contract, renewed and affirmed by each successive generation (and each individual therein), there is really no place for a sovereign state in Ayn Rand’s system. Much of the confusion and distress which her philosophy has caused has been based on that particular contradiction.
In concrete form, we have witnessed since the Nixon Administration the absurdity of an Ayn Rand disciple, Alan Greenspan, advising Republican Presidents and finally presiding over the funny-money system of the Federal Reserve, while Objectivism advocated a gold standard, no central bank, and certainly no Federal Reserve System, as such. How Mr. Greenspan reconciles this particular contradiction in his own mind is, I suppose, his business, but our next President would do well to find someone for these jobs who is not burdened with so many supposed misgivings.
The main issue — the discrediting of the very idea of “objectivity” because of Ayn Rand’s advocacy of it — is a much deeper and apparently insoluble dilemma. Either we dismiss Ojectivism, and with it, objectivity, as being irrelevant or counter-productive, or we “buy into” Ayn Rand’s total world-view, and with it, a total rejection of the Welfare State, welfare as such, and virtually all “interventionist” government, including subsidies for the arts, protection of the family farm, a mercantilist trade policy, the role of the world’s policeman (something which Ayn Rand seemed to support, so long as her former tormentors were still in power in the Kremlin), the protector of the environment, etc., etc.
The peculiar thing about Ayn Rand’s philosophy (and its attractiveness, obviously, for Mr. Greenspan and his ilk) is that it is emphatically pro-business! No other philosophy has so glorified the power of money and the nobility of counting and accumulating it. Ayn Rand explicitly opposed the idea that money or the love of it is the root of all evil. As a novelist, she wrote basically the same book three times, but her heroes evolved from engineers, architects, and creative artists, none of whom cared a damn about money, into the financiers and industrial magnates of the 1890’s, transposed into the 1950’s and beyond. The main hero in Atlas Shrugged, to be sure, was an inventor (a physicist-philosopher of Irish antecedents) who never seemed to want to capitalize on his genius, and thus eschewed conspicuous consumption, but he chose his friends exclusively on the basis of their material success.
For those having some background in Marxist thought, or the persistent Russian view of capitalism, all this fits into place. The real motivation of the Soviet leaders since Lenin’s day has been to make themselves into the “captains of industry” which they imagined Western capitalists accomplished by a similar process — first, by taking over the government, and then by planning (or conspiring, depending on one’s point of view) to make themselves rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else, while at the same time making the country rich and powerful, as well.
The dialectical process is also very evident in Ayn Rand’s life and career, as is the principle that ideology reflects one’s class affiliation. As a poor, struggling writer, Ayn Rand’s heroes were poor and struggling. As a wealthy, upper-East Side “novelist-philosopher” and successful writer of screenplays, Ayn Rand’s heroes tended to occupy a similar territory, and her ideas went from opposing tyranny and oppression to attempting to gain the instruments of tyranny and oppression for themselves and their friends.
I wonder that there has never been a “Marxist Critique” of Ayn Rand. The reason is probably that Marxists were quite happy with her work, while it was the real anarchists, libertarians and advocates of a free society who attacked her most vociferously. The history of this movement and its opponents is a book or two in itself, but much current history is attributable to it, whether or not one agrees with the Objectivist agenda. It is safe to say that the Libertarian Party owes its existence to Objectivism, and so does the transformation of the national psyche into an obsession with economics — the baby-boomers and their “counterculture,” the yuppies with their snobbery and (upper) class-consciousness, and the continuing superstition that the United States is “the greatest country in the world,” “a beacon of freedom and opportunity,” etc., etc. For such a radical individualist, Ayn Rand had a peculiar knack for playing to the crowd.
I hope the reader will understand that I am viewing this with a sense of wonder, not hatred or contempt. Give her credit for beating the game, even while she committed suicide with cigarettes. This is another example of the denial which seemed to dog the footsteps of the Objectivist “inner circle.” She will be remembered, while other 20th century intellectuals — more “respectable,” today — are long forgotten. Many scientists revere her for her advocacy of the scientific method and the purity of scientific knowledge. Most scientists, after all, do profess to believe in an objective reality, and practice a generic form of “objectivism” in their daily lives. Computers are likewise an “objectivist” factor in our cultural evolution — a profound “reality check” for those of us who’ve learned to use them and to think logically.
Has anyone else noticed that Objectivism (the movement) actually may constitute a kind of Marxian synthesis between State socialism and capitalism? The two are actually shown to be the same. Both are “scientific” societies, technological, dynamic, change-oriented, ruled by the strong and able, etc., etc. Both are actually quite “macho” — a rather peculiar position for a woman philosopher to take!
I remember agonizing discussions among college-age disciples of Ayn Rand in the 60’s about whether or not she hated children (since none of her major characters had them), or what the Objectivist position on homosexuality might be. What are now called “family values” got relatively short shrift in the Objectivist system. Intelligence, however, was practically divine, which proved quite an attraction for the highly-gifted who had gotten little recognition or approval, elsewhere. Some of them seem never to have thought they were grateful enough for this special recognition.
At this point, I believe that a new interpretation — a new dispensation, if you will — of the Objectivist faith is in order. We need to talk about concrete social and political principles — methods by which the real-world problems of today may actually be dealt with. Unless we expect to “bottom out” with some total collapse of the government and social order, and then to be led by the wise and good to the foundation of a better State, we’d better start breaking the free-fall and start the climb back out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves over the past 30 years. We’d better figure out who knows what they’re talking about, and listen to them.
Ayn Rand’s stuff is mostly of academic interest, since she didn’t follow her own principles, herself. Like most of us, she was somewhat confused in many ways, and unable to reconcile the reality “out there” with her own finely-developed instincts and prejudices.
It would be easier for us, now, if Ayn Rand had never existed. She actually contributed nothing of value except a vision of what the future might be, and what sort of people might lead “us” (not the masses) there. Political leadership or success in statecraft were not on her agenda, and those who followed her rarely, if ever, changed their mind about the general worthlessness and incompetence of government to serve important human needs and aspirations.
Perhaps that’s the really harmful legacy of Ayn Rand: the conviction that government is “the enemy” and doomed to be the province of the corrupt and incompetent. For those of us raised on the American frontier, with strong traditions of populism and participatory democracy, civic virtue and public recognition and esteem for the virtuous, this is a heresy of unspeakable danger and destructiveness. Our pioneer system was practically anarchism by today’s standards and definitions, but it worked, and we thought of it as “good government” and “reform.” It was the Eastern monied interests who played the bogey-men — the very “heroes” and “heroines” whom Ayn Rand glorified in her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.
Beyond the idea of community — a concept quite alien to Ayn Rand in any case, although some have considered her positively utopian in her creation of a higher social order based on “reason, purpose, and self-esteem” — there is the international dimension. Ayn Rand seems to have caught on in other countries, too — most notably the Netherlands, Australia, and South Africa. One wonders if she might not have a following, today, in Russia! Or what might have happened to the family of Alicia Rosenbaum in the Stalinist purges? What might be Ayn Rand’s role in (or attitude about) the ending of the Cold War, if she were alive, today?
Or did it end? Are we not about to see a transition to an alliance of the left and right wing nationalists, again? Will the Communist Party have a resurgence, once the bastard form of gangster capitalism which has taken over, there, has run its course. Has everyone unlearned all the Marxist history and theory they’ve been taught over the past 70 years? It seems unlikely. Perhaps we’re still operating under the false assumption that Marxists are stupid, and that all Marxist thought is now discredited and safe to ignore.
In fact, it seems to be thoroughly vindicated in many respects. We needn’t see it as a threat. Marxists aren’t intellectually invincible, but often they are found to be much more liberal and realistic in their thinking than their bourgeois colleagues.
And what about spirituality? Here is another concept which Ayn Rand appropriated and turned to her own advantage. It’s much more common, nowadays, to think in terms of a spiritual dimension than it was 30 years ago. The purely materialistic vision has not been at a lower ebb since 1814. Even scientists have become mystics, if only because life and society are ultimately mysterious. I would venture to say that great scientists are far more playful and imaginative than political leaders, and far more effective, too, in altering the course of history. Like their medical colleagues, they have found it very profitable to be smart and specialized. But there is still plenty of room for the humanistic generalist, or pure research scientist. They are treated with a mixture of awe and wonder.
In short, the scientific community, broadly construed to include such fields as “economic science”, cybernetics, and psychology, has the best hope of saving us — our once peaceful, harmonious society — from self-destruction. Just as democratic values and an international esthetics are becoming universal, we seem to be locked into a paranoia of “us against them.” Who is them? Them are us! “We have met the enemy, and they are us!” as Pogo so eloquently put it.
From Objectivism to Technocracy
The impetus to technocracy is still seen to be a threat, and in many respects, it is, leaving us with something like a military-driven economy in every case, whether it be Nazism or Cold War communism mirroring our own military- industrial complex. There must be other ways to do it, and it needs to be decentralized, empowering, humanistic, and even holistic (i.e., respectful of whole systems and interdisciplinary concerns) to be viable. It’s very difficult to run a country, an economy, or an ecosystem by means of “scientific” planning and centralization of control functions. In fact, we can say it is impossible, if our goal is to approach some optimal social model. Total Quality Management and other “excellence” theories. The real-world practices of different kinds of enterprises have clearly shown that the old-fashioned democratic, community-based, cooperative ownership and management systems work the best.
It is important, here, to say something about goals and the kinds of organizations which can meet certain kinds of goals. Nearly always before in history, the ultimate test of a nation-state was its success in military combat. If it defeated its rivals in battle, it could dictate terms, and more or less impose its own vision of reality (and its own form of economic success) on the rest of the world, who might then be robbed of their land and natural resources or forced to pay some other kind of tribute. The ethical principle involved is an abomination: namely, “I beat you up, so now you have to do what I tell you to do.”
Among “civilized” people, the question then becomes, “Who started it?” And this question can go on forever. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the rules, and the responsibility of each nation to police itself so that it doesn’t develop some idea of power and conquest, and march forth to do damage to some other nation.
In reading about the origins of World War I in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, it seemed to me that the greatest single cause of this (and probably any other) war was the opposition of various absurd notions of personal honor and chauvinistic “team rivalry” — much like today’s high school or college sports teams. One can say that all wars ultimately involve conquest of land (and its redistribution among the victors) and other resources. What was clearly learned from the Treaty of Versailles is that one sophisticated nation cannot morally blame and exact reparations from the defeated one. Its like making the losers pay court costs along with whatever damages or punishments are inflicted on them. Far better to the have the winner pay them, for that nation can afford to do so, and is benefitting in many other ways from the victory. This was our policy following World War II, and in most respects, it was an unqualified success.
The failure of the United States and Soviet Union to maintain their hegemony over the rest of the world is due largely to the fact that both nations are founded on anti-imperialistic principles, and dissidents in either nation would never let their governments forget this basic contradiction in their behavior. If each nation can finally began to look outward and reconstruct itself according to emerging higher standards of planetary consciousness, we might save ourselves, and pool our resources towards positively reconstructing our less fortunate, poverty- and violence-ridden neighbors, wherever in the world they might be.
It is time for a sophisticated ethics of international brotherhood, voluntarism, and mutual aid. Let us be done with the empires, and begin again to live as human beings in a common habitat on planet Earth. These are the “objective conditions” of our present social existence, and when we finally acknowledge and accept them, we may begin to re-think our political and social reality, and alter it to fit the humanistic and ecological imperatives which are becoming ever-clearer. If “human life on earth is the ultimate value”, as Ayn Rand maintained (in the non- gender-inclusive form “man’s life”), then even her version of “objectivity” has something to offer, and we can proceed to work together to improve the quality of life for everyone.