Saturday, May 12, 2012

Understanding Anthem

It's been a while since I've done a philosophy post, so I think it's long over due. So today, I'm going to do what seems to be the thing that all the cool kids in the blogosphere are doing: take a look at a book.

Back when I was doing my student teaching, I had the cruel irony of getting stuck with an English teacher who, that year, was going to use Anthem as a teaching tool. Now, for those of you who don't know the kind of person I am, I'm an open socialist. I'm a techosocialist; a progressive in the purest form who sits in the very far bottom left hand corner on the four-point politics chart. By contrast, Objectivism and Ayn Rand sit on the diametric opposite of me - in the far upper right hand corner of the chart. I'm afraid I probably wasn't as impartial as I could've been, but I was teaching an ideology that was not only totally alien to me, but also anathema to everything I stand for. Think about a life-long NRA member trying to impartially teach about why we need to make guns illegal and you're getting close.

But, I swallowed my ideology for the sake of the students (and prayed to god - I wasn't an atheist at the time - that none of them adopted it as their own personal philosophy). This actually had the unforeseen benefit of allowing me to get to know Rand's "philosophy" in depth, and it gave me the foundation that I stand on today in order to criticize her beliefs. Unlike most everyone who criticizes Rand on the internet, I actually studied Objectivism. I know all the ways in which it really fails.

Also, for those who know me personally, this won't come as a shock: to kick the unit off, I let the students play Bioshock, and we studied Ryan's speech, and if I had the chance to do the lesson again, we'd look at the different ways in which Objectivism failed in that game. That's right. This Bioshock:

They were seniors, by the way. So I wasn't letting my 7th graders bash splicer skulls in. I did mention I had difficulty staying unbiased, right? (It begs the question as to how I would introduce the students to socialism is I was teaching, say, Sinclair. I'm not sure, but not with Bioshock 2. I'm not a very good teacher.)

The book that we studied was Anthem. Anthem was also the first book that Rand wrote, and it was also the first book by her that I ever read. It was also the last book by her I read, too - Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are somewhere in my house, acting as doorstops. I started Fountainhead but I never finished it; we watched the movie and, surprise surprise, it was every bit as boring as the book was (and the female lead... gawd. There was something wrong with her. She had some sort of personality disorder). But Anthem has the upshot of being short (I know. A Rand book that's short) and being not being as blunt about her ideology. And by that, I mean rather than stamping it into your forehead with a 2 ton truck die, it "merely" brands it on a baseball bat and beats you with it.

My edition of Anthem comes with an introduction and appendix by Leonard Peikoff, Rand's lover. It takes an otherwise short novella and pads it out to well over 400 pages (the novella itself was about 250 pages. There's also a rough copy of Rand's original manuscript, complete with the scribbles and markings that I'm all too familiar with as a writer, in the back). The original manuscript was written in 1937, in the beginning of World War II (unless you're American. Then it didn't start until 1942. Before that, everyone was sitting around chilling and Japan attacked and everyone's all "Oh Hell naw" and then shit got real). Rand's own personal forward is as anvillicious as you would expect it to be:

Some of those who read the story when it was first written, told me that I was unfair to the ideals of collectivism; this was not, they said, what collectivism preaches or intends; collectivists do not mean or advocate such things; nobody advocates them.

I shall merely point out that the slogans "production for use and not for profit" is now accepted by most men as commonplace, and a commonplace stating a proper, desirable goal. If any intelligible meaning can be discerned in that slogan at all, what is it, if not the idea that motive of a man's work must be the need of others, not his own need, desire or gain?

Compulsory labor conscription is now practiced or advocated in every country on earth [sic]. What is it based on, if not the idea that the state is best qualified to decide where a man can be useful to others, such usefulness being the only consideration, and that his own aims, desires, or happiness should be ignored as of no importance? (Rand, 1995, xii - xvi)
All of this is only two paragraphs into the forward (in fact, the first paragraph I started with is the second paragraph). So going into this book, we know that we're looking Rand's idea of collectivism. To be fair to her, she did grow up in the Soviet Union. If you want an example of how collectivism should not be implemented, look no further than the red fascism that she grew up under. That still doesn't make up for the fact that so many people who never grew up under it have adopted this philosophy.

Rand's "collectivist slogan" - "production for use and not for profit" - is new to me. Maybe it's because we've evolved since the 1930s, but it strikes me as a particularly useful slogan. After all, what good is something if it doesn't have a use? And if doesn't have a use, who's going to purchase it? I mean, art has a use. It's pretty, it's nice to look at, it makes you think. So everything you do for profit is going to have a use. I think her catch here is that the use is put above the profit; the profit and the bottom line should the final say here, which is traditional capitalism at it's finest. If I can't profit from it, then why should I do it? It doesn't matter what use it has. If I can't figure out some way to profit from it, then I have no use for it and I shouldn't be "forced" to invent it, or create it.

Her friends were right. I don't know of any collectivist ideology aside from red fascism that would force someone to create something. That is an unfair characterization of collectivism.

That third paragraph is at the heart of her philosophy. She sums it up rather nicely; "Is a man entitled to the sweat on his own brow?", Ryan asks. "Yes," comes the antiphon, "A man should place his own needs, wants, and desires above all others." Which would be fine if it were enlightened self-interest; it's in your best desire to help other people, because you live in a society. Living in a society, you're dependent on individuals just as much as they're dependent upon you. We're not a hive mind, but at the same time, we're big cats, either. We're not eusocial creatures; we're presocial creatures. But we still work in groups to accomplish things, because the sum of the whole has the potential to be greater than the parts involved. For instance, look at what humanity has achieved by pooling resources: if we were to vanish today, Boulder Dam and Mt. Rushmore and the pyramids, among others, would stay for thousands of years. The Romans pooled sources and their infrastructure is still in use today in some parts of Europe - some 800 years after they collapsed. We create things that benefit us as a whole, that last and benefit future generations.

A person by themeslves stand very little in accomplishing anything by way of lasting. In fact, you can accomplish nothing by yourself; there are people who put their own aims, desires, and happiness aside to help you develop. These are usually called "parents" (although not always), and it's rather hard to develop without parents/guardians to help you develop. Someone wiped your ass growing up, and certainly they didn't do it for profit.

This is part of the thing of living in a tribal/presociality structure that we humans live in. Rand's philosophy is nice fantasy, but it flies right in the face human biology, genetics, and sociology. A society based off of Rand's philosophy would not survive. It could not survive. It wouldn't be a society; a society is a group of people working together for a common cause. Usually, we have a government involved that is a tool for the collective will of the people. Is a man entitled to the sweat on his brow? Of course. But it's in his own rational self-interest, in particular for his continued survival, for them to share it.


The greatest guilt today is that of people who accept collectivism by moral default; the people who seek protection from the necessity of taking a stand, by refusing to admit to themselves the nature of which they are accepting; that people who support plans specifically designed to achieve serfdom, but hide behind the empty assertion that they are lovers of freedom, with no concrete meaning attached to the word; the people who believe that the content of ideas need not be examined, that principles need not be defined, and that facts can be eliminated by keeping one's eyes shut. They expect, when they find themselves in a word of bloody ruins and concentrations, to escape moral responsibility by wailing: "But I didn't mean this!"

Those who want slavery should have the grace to name it by its proper name. They must face the full meaning of that which they are advocating or condoning; the full, exact, specific meaning of collectivism, of its logical implications, of the principles upon which it is based, and of the ultimate consequences to which these principles will lead.

They must face it, then decide whether this is what they want or not. (Rand, 1995, xv - xvi).
Baseless assertions aside, that's a remarkable description of the modern Republican Party and, shockingly enough, a few of the people who claim to follow Rand's philosophy, projected onto the left. Therefore, I can conclude that projection existed in 1946 (when the forward was written). Also note the Godwin. That trope comes pre-built, apparently.

The use of the Godwin makes me wonder, though. Fascism is a form of collectivism, so she's not totally off. Fascism gets its name from the fascses. If you've seen a statue of the Roman General Cincinnatus, or you're a member of the Knights of Cincinnati, you're familiar with it. It's an ax, bounded in a bundle of sticks. The fascses was the symbol for Roman authority, especially during the Republic stage, and it represented the unity of Rome, and the concept of strength in unity. However, unlike other forms of collectivism, fascism is the active abolition of the self in the name of the state and the figurehead who runs the state (according to ideal communism, there is no state. The state is a transitory entity that will eventually be replaced with the community acting in the best interest of the community. A modern name for this is anarcho-communism, which couldn't be further from the aims of fascism). Fascism also has a lot of other unique traits that make it stand out from socialism and communism, to other types of collectivism. Remember that Rand grew up under red fascism, and the only types of collectivism she saw, and the after math of it, were of the fascist brand. So it's easier to imagine she's talking about fascism here, as opposed to collectivism in general, since to extend assertions true of fascism to communism or socialism is intellectually dishonest, and I'm giving her the benefit of a doubt here. 

Most of her followers, however, do not get that benefit of a doubt. They grew up under neither red fascism nor communism, but under a semi-socialist government style (most live in the United States), where they regularly reap the benefits of the collective whole of our country in the form of roads, police (however good they happy to be), fire departments, military protection, etc. Nor have they grown up under fascism in general, although the United States is rapidly heading in that direction for sure (corporate fascism, at least). Rand's oversimplification is almost child-like in its innocence and naivete. It makes Rand a lot more palatable to imagine her criticisms of collectivism are actually criticisms that need to laid at the doorstep of fascism - in which case, she's absolutely, 100% right. And while I disagree with the means, I agree with the aim. Her modern followers, though, lay these accusations against the doorstep at all of the different types of collectivism, which is not honest. They don't just focus on fascism - in fact, many seem to have forgotten that fascism even exists as a form of collectivism and instead focus on the mythical boggy man of communism and socialism. Rand grew up under red fascism. It makes so much more sense to me, then, to imagine her immature philosophy as a lashing out against the self-obliterating cults that maintain such a dominate presence in fascism.

Which makes it all the more ironic she supported an economic ideology which, right now, is currently taking us in that direction.

In short, Rand started the forward by telling us that people who read her book told her she was being unduly harsh on "collectivism." I suppose, if you don't define which type of collectivism you're talking about, you can get away with it. If Rand is laying these accusations against fascism, then no, she's not being unduly harsh. I feel she could've been harsher, because fascism is a highly toxic ideology. I'll have anarchy before I have fascism. However, to lump all of the different ideas of collectivism together and pretend that they all say the same thing  - "production for use, not for profit" - is intellectually dishonest to the highest degree.

Or, to simplify the rejection of Rand's philosophy: Not everyone can be John Galt. Someone's got to clean the toilets and serve the French fries. And the current followers of Rand's philosophy only agree to it insomuch as they can tell themselves that one day they'll be John Galt, when that'll never happen and they're so blinded that they don't see it.

So, I think I've decided what I want. I want to reject Rand's philosophy. I am not John Galt, and I never can be John Galt. I, instead, recognize that I stand on the backs of other people, and other people stand on my back. I'm important to the society I live in, and I would never seek to buck that society (unless the society kicked me out, first). In the future, I have plans to look in depth at the book (but we all know how my plans usually go - thankfully, Anthem is a short book and I should have it done before the end of the summer). But for now, I'll leave you with the notion that not all collectivism is the same, and Rand's philosophy is much more palatable if you imagine that, instead of "general collectivism", she's specifically targeting fascism - which is what I think she's doing, but people since have gotten the terms wrong and they've been twisted (or Rand twisted them later in life - what started as a rail against fascism morphed into one against communism and socialism due to the general nature of the 1950s, when she wrote most of the two big books dedicated to her philosophy).

1 comment:

  1. I understand 2112 by Rush is a good summary of the novel. I only listen to the "Temple of Syrinx" bit, though.