Monday, April 23, 2012

And the Weak Shall Inherit the Wind

"Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you find yourself facing an apparent contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong."

Almost halfway through Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand finally starts to get to the point. After more than four hundred pages of incompetent government interference in the brilliant endeavors in the last creative individuals left in the world, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden start to figure out that this is not the way things ought to be. (And by figure out, I mean they have it spelled out to them in multiple long-winded speeches.) The idea, such as it is, that underpins every sentence in Atlas Shrugged, is the idea that evil only flourishes by the "sanction of the victim." From this idea springs the book's title, as well as every single conflict that exists in its fantastical story. As it so happens, it also is the basis of the most spectacular episode in Rand's own storied life that best demonstrates its own logical failure.

That story thus far, grossly encapsulated: onerous government regulations have forced steel magnate Hank Rearden to sell extra quantities of his Rearden Metal to another industrialist, Ken Danagger, in violation of newly passed laws that put a cap on how much a business can sell to anys ingle customer. He's caught and is summoned to appear in a court that bears no resemblance to an actual judiciary. Days before the trial, mining-prodigy-turned-wealth-squandering-playboy Francisco d'Anconia pays a visit to Hank Rearden's steel mill and leads him to the realization that he is enabling the government parasites who are bleeding him even as he is keeping the economy afloat. A long, climactic excerpt:

"Why don't you hold to the purpose of your life as clearly and rigidly as you hold to the purpose of your mills?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're guilty of a great sin, Mr. Rearden, much guiltier than they tell you, but not in the way they preach. The worst guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt-and that is what you have been doing all your life. You have been paying blackmail, not for your vices, but for your virtues. You have been willing to carry the load of an unearned punishment-and to let it grow the heavier the greater the virtues you practiced. But your virtues were those, which keep men alive. Your own moral code-the one you lived by, but never stated, acknowledged or defended-was the code that preserves man's existence. If you were punished for it, what was the nature of those who punished you? Yours was the code of life. What, then, is theirs? What standard of value lies at its root? What is its ultimate purpose? Do you think that what you're facing is merely a conspiracy to seize your wealth? You, who know the source of wealth, should know it's much more and much worse than that. Did you ask me to name man's motive power? Man's motive power is his moral code. Ask yourself where their code is leading you and what it offers you as your final goal. A viler evil than to murder a man, is to sell him suicide as an act of virtue. A viler evil than to throw a man into a sacrificial furnace, is to demand that he leap in, of his own will, and that he build the furnace, besides. By their own statement, it is they who need you and have nothing to offer you in return. By their own statement, you must support them because they cannot survive without you. Consider the obscenity of offering their impotence and their need-their need of you-as a justification for your torture. Are you willing to accept it? Do you care to purchase-at the price of your great endurance, at the price of your agony-the
satisfaction of the needs of your own destroyers?"


"Mr. Rearden," said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, "if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders-what would you tell him to do?"

"I . . . don't know. What . . . could he do? What would you tell him?"

"To shrug."

Armed with this new knowledge, Rearden tells his terrible family to quit their passive-aggressive ingratitude, and tells the court that he won't cooperate in their trial by giving it a veneer of legitimacy and sanction, that he refuses to be coerced into giving up his profits for others:

"Are we to understand," asked the judge, "that you hold your own interests above the interests of the public?"

"I hold that such a question can never arise except in a society of cannibals."

Amid all the rhetoric about human sacrifices there actually is some truth to the "sanction of the victim," as it can be applied to any sort of exploitative relationship. It's really a fancy way of saying "I'm not going to take this anymore," which will appeal to anyone who's ever quit a crappy job, particularly one in which the management foists as much work on as little labor as possible in order to extract more money from their efforts (that this scenario, identical to that in Atlas, could exist in the private sphere seems to have completely escaped Rand's notice). Reverse the roles and adjectives of the parasitic capitalists with the toiling masses, and you have Marxism in a nutshell.

The idea can more broadly apply to any relationship that operates on trust and assumptions of good faith. Hank Rearden's family is so passive-aggressively antagonistic toward him as to be farcical, but the broad contours of that relationship--using the assumption of mutual good will as a means of being an asshole with impunity--is the same as can be found in almost any abusive relationship, particularly with bullying. It's become almost a truism that bullies pick on those they perceive as weaker than them precisely because they can, and that as soon as the victim stands up for himself the bully will back off, knowing he won't be able to get away with it.

It's sort of an obvious point, and, like much of Rand's thinking, it mistakes the baseline principles of a dignified living (you can't go through life without self-respect) as the end of philosophical inquiry rather than the beginning; to speak the language of Rand's creation Howard Roark, every building needs a foundation, but only a fool would stop with the pouring of concrete. As long as the idea is considered in a limited fashion, one should grant it is in fact a useful explanation of a notion most just take for granted. But Rand doesn't stop with that, of course not. Rather than explaining one aspect, one type, of human relation, it becomes in her world the guiding principle of her moral theodicy.

The problem with this approach is that because Rand's system of ethics lionizes virility and strength, doing as she does and making "the sanction of the victim" into a universal moral law makes it only apply to the already powerful. Rand doesn't believe there are actually any altruists, who do care about the welfare of others--anyone in Atlas who claims altruisim is really only using it as a cynical cover for their own worthlessness. She categorically excludes, by design, the possibility that people at a disadvantage have any decency or claim to righteousness. The result is that the real evil in the world is not attacking the helpless, but the helpless asking for anything that would "check the excesses" (scare quotes because Rand scoffed at such a notion) or in any way restrict the ones already operating at an advantage from doing whatever they wish. Put simply, it's a recipe for Social Darwinism.

Atlas makes little secret of its survival-of-the-fittest ethos, with characters repeatedly declaring that without them the rest of the world would starve, and that it furthermore deserves to starve. But with the "looters and moochers" disposed of, the zero-sum arithmetic, the division of the elect among mediocrities, would only then continue among those remaining. As conflicts would arise among the heroic individuals--all equally convinced of their own superiority--they would then cannibalize each other in an infinite division to sort the best from the rest, a bold realization of Zeno's Dichotomy Paradox by way of King Lear. Libertarian Murray Rothbard, himself no bleeding-heart liberal, was able to see this among Rand's followers first-hand:

One day a dispute over concretes occurred between two certified and high-ranking Randians, both of whom had been dubbed as rational by their Objectivist Psychotherapist. Specifically, one was a secretary to the other. The secretary went to her boss and demanded a raise, which she rationally intuited was her just dessert. The boss, however, checking his own reason, decided that she was incompetent and fired her. Now here was a dispute, a conflict of interest, between two certified Randians. How were all the other members to decide who was right, and therefore rational, and who was wrong, irrational, and therefore subject to expulsion? In any truly rational group of people, of course, it would not be incumbent upon anyone but these – the only ones familiar with the facts of the case – to take any position at all. But that sort of benign neutrality is not permitted in any cult, including the Randian one. Given the need to impose a uniform line on everyone, the dispute was resolved in the only way possible: through rank in the hierarchy. The boss happened to be in the top rank of disciples; and since the secretary was on a lower rank, she not only suffered discharge from her job, but expulsion from the Randian movement as well.

The pitiless logic of God Eat God eventually terminated at and consumed the very heart of Rand's life and Objectivist movement: her relationship with her young protege Nathaniel Branden. Though their affair began with passionate intensity, it had dissipated over the two years that Rand struggled to write the 60 page John Galt speech at the end of Atlas. When she attempted to rekindle the relationship years later, she was almost sixty years old and Branden had by then fallen in love with a younger woman, Patrecia Scott. For four years he kept the affair hidden from Rand, but the truth will out. The results were explosive. From Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made:

She had created Branden and she would destroy him, she thundered. When she got through with him he wouldn’t have a career or money or prestige. “You’ll have nothing!” she shouted. She would stop the publication of his book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem. She would remove his name from the dedication page of future editions of Atlas Shrugged. She would denounce and pauperize him.

Suddenly, she paused. She moved ominously closer to his chair. Had he told Patrecia about his relationship with her? she asked. Yes. He’d had to, he answered.

Enraged by this final betrayal, she raised her hand and brought it down, once, twice, three times across his face. “God damn you!” she spat as red marks appeared on his cheek. “Now get out of here.” He rose to go, murmuring, “I’m sorry,” but she had one more thing to say. “If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health,” she said, “you’ll be impotent for the next twenty years.” And if by some chance he were not impotent, she added, any sexual pleasure he found would be a further sign of immorality.

Before leaving, Branden looked at Frank. The older man’s eyes were open but vacant as he sat half swallowed by his armchair. Gazing at Ayn one last time, Branden was struck by an insight all pervasive in Atlas Shrugged. If she was hoping to injure him with her recriminations, he reflected, she must still believe he was a moral man; otherwise, she would know that he couldn’t be hurt by her malice. Ironically, it was she who was now depending on the sanction of the victim (himself), he thought, and closed the door behind him.

Thus does Rand herself illustrate the fatal contradiction of her philosophy. Objectivism, true to its name, posits an objective view of the world as it actually is: a struggle by the most productive members of society against the leeches that would hold them back. Yet this is merely an extreme extrapolation of the way every person fundamentally, subjectively, sees himself--doing his best against a hostile world. The idea could not help but collapse when the interests of the two such people, particularly its two most fervent advocates of this worldview, should come into conflict. The best and most descriptive term for it one can think of is, "creative destruction."