One of my earlier blog posts (May 2006) was on Ayn Rand. I was reminded of this by two recent events.
The first was a review in the NEw Yorker of two Rand biographies. The second was a Tweet from someone one of my alter egos follows that said "Just started reading The Fountainhead, after re-reading Atlas Shrugged. Looks good so far!"
I decided had to try to avert disaster by providing some straightforward views to said Tweeter (via the far more communicative medium of e-mail);
Both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are poorly written diatribes for an unsustainable philosophy. They are, however, both seductive. There is a bit in all of us that wants to be Howard Roark or John Galt – to be able to rise above criticism and feel you are doing the “right” thing just being yourself.
But the reality is that the necessary social institutions that make democracy and capitalism work cannot come into being and be sustained if everybody pursues the objectivism or enlightened self-interest that Rand sprouts. Ultimately these institutions rely on the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This rule has no place in the Randian world.
The response was interesting;
Of course its an unsustainable philosophy -- Ayn Rand is to the real world as Karl Marx is. They are both idealists, and while that has its place in the real world, so does pragmatism.
Personally I am a Zen Buddhist, a creed which shares many ideals with Objectivism. However Zen would likely say about Objectivism that its central misunderstanding is that Objectivists don't understand that the idea of individual selves is actually a myth. There is no separate self, or a "self" at all. It's just a construction.
But I think that there is a concrete reason that Randian thought has made such a revival this decade. It features a return to fundamental values of strength and self-reliability that the postmodern generation rejected. Generation Y is seeking a return to concrete values after the destruction of values that took place in the 1980's and 1990s.
And Rand's ideals are seductive indeed. And contain many, many, kernels of truth.
Two things I love about Rand. Her sense of absolute rage and justice. And her amazing writing, which is so powerful. She was a master author and her work will be read and re-read, not just for her ideals but for her master storytelling ability.
I used to feel guilty about buying Ayn Rand in bookstores or talking about it. But no longer J Her thought has given me a strength of absolute freedom that has been lacking ;)
I'd have to disagre about the writing. As the books reviewed note some of her language is incredibly contorted and some of it is just meaningless. But yes it does carry that sense of "rage and justice" - just as a Hitlerian speech or Alan Jones on the radio can.
But what really strikes me is this claim that Gen Y, the post postmodern generation, is looking for some kind of new set of "concrete values". My suggestion is - if such a grounswell exists amongst Gen Y - that they should start on the "great humanist ethics project". I gave a bit of a start more as political philosophy than ethics responding to a Democrat post.
This gave me a starting point of 5 principles
1. Human economic progress has been delivered through co-operative endeavour, treating others as we would like to be treated ourselves. (The principle of mutuality)
2. There are many ways of achieving this co-operation, and we should be all free to live our lives the way we want to without interference if our choices do not infringe the princile of mutuality. (The principle of individual rights)
3. The consideration of the effects of our behaviour on others needs to consider future generations as well as our contemporaries. (The principle of sustainability)
4. The rights of all people are equal, irrespective of wealth, race or any other consideration. (The principle of equality)
5. Representative democracy is the most effective means of achieving these principles, and the principles themselves need to underpin the design of democratic forms. (The principle of democracy)
What is important is the need to subjugate the principle of individuality beneath the principle of mutuality - note that this is not subjugating the individual to the State (don't get all Hayekian on me), but a recognition that no progrss is possible without social institutions.
The Origin of Wealth and other similar writings note that humans are the only animal that behaves in social groups with individuals who are not family members. Cities could not exist were it not for the fact that we live with the principle of mutuality.