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The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet) - Ayn Rand Part II of multi-part review series.

Reading Rand reminds me of teaching freshman composition at university years ago. There’s not nearly as many spelling errors, but Rand’s pronouncements bear all the markers of severe Dunning-Kruger effect: under-researched, un-theorized, insufficiently self-aware. There are many problems arising out of this basic failure to engage the long tradition of writings which she blindly attacks.

For instance, this text has a tendency to adopt dogmatic solecisms, such as “In popular usage, the word ‘selfishness’ is a synonym of evil” (vii)--uh, not really. This is a nasty problem throughout the volume.

A second major problem is that text constructs its problematic without reference to the history of discourse on any given issue. Though there is blithe reference to certain writers on occasion, there is no specific analysis of or rigorous citation to the actual writings of the major interlocutors. There are nondescript, distorting references to Nietzsche, Heraclitus, and others, but no evidence that the writings of these persons have been assimilated. The only evidence that is cited is anecdotal: “observe the fortunes made by insurance companies” (49) as proof that “catastrophes are the exception” (the wrong inference when discussing risk management, to be honest), or speaking to a strawperson on a plane one time (123-24).

So, for example, we are solemnly informed that “No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of why man needs a code of values” (14). Instead of citation to other writers, the text consistently cites “Galt’s speech” grossly (rather than to specific components of it). (After a tortured process, her answer to the fake question is extremely bathetic, boiling down to the problem “what are the values [human] survival requires?” (22).)

A third problem: the text presents a continuous chain of non-sequiturs. Taking the previously cited bit, the immediately following sentence is “So long as that question remained unanswered, no rational, scientific, objective code of ethics could be discovered or defined” (14). Huh? I suppose, therefore, that’s the reason no prior interlocutor need be considered in detail; we just sweep 2,500 years of discussion off the table by fiat.

A fourth issue: text displays a spenglerian refrain, in order to set up the fake place of intervention convenient to the author, that “the world is now collapsing to a lower and even lower rung of hell” (15). See also: moral grayness as “one of the most eloquent symptoms of the moral bankruptcy of today’s culture” (75). It’s a joke, though, as acknowledged toward the end: “It is true that the moral state of mankind is dangerously low. But if one considers the monstrous moral inversions of the governments (made possible by the altruist-collectivist mentality [!]) under which mankind has had to live through most of its history, one begins to wonder how men managed to preserve even a semblance of civilization” (114). One wonders indeed! If these conditions have obtained throughout history, then it’s not really dire at all, and perhaps, maybe, shouldn’t the principles that lead to the conclusion of crisis be re-evaluated? Should not the fact that civilization has existed against this doctrine that civilization can’t have existed invalidate the doctrine? Is it not the cardinal principle of objectivism that existence exists, A=A? And like that, the allegedly philosophical facade of Rand's house of crap collapses into mere mean-spirited shamanism, consistent with the kindergarten mantra, Mine!

Fifth issue: deployment of important terms dogmatically without explanation, even though the rest of us know that the terms are burdened by much dialogue: e.g., “it is the principle that no man may obtain any values from others without the owners’ consent” (111). There is no discussion of what ownership or consent is or how they came to be. Nevermind that factory owner built factory with moneys acquired through inheritance from estate built on slavery and slaughter of natives. No, that’s irrelevant. What matters is that heir now owns factory and does not agree to be taxed so that mooching looter disabled parasites won‘t starve.

The argument develops typically by initiating a fake crisis, then adopts a bizarre definition, deploys unexamined terminology, and piles up non-sequiturs on top of it, often filled with further bizarre definitions and unexamined terms. It just spirals out of control, and the number of errors defies easy counting, especially when the argument becomes historical.

Text most anxiously wants to throw collectivism under the bus, but is unable to get away from some weirdnesses, such as the moronic definition, “altruism, the ethical theory which regards man as a sacrificial animal, which holds that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is the highest moral duty, virtue, and value” (34). Nevermind that no actual “altruist” text is cited for any of these propositions (it’s an ambiguous straw person, really)--the real problem is the aporetic invective against poorly defined “collectivism” while deploying without irony idealist collectivisms such as “man,” which is the barbaric way to refer to homo sapiens, one supposes. That barbarism aside, it is incongruous that text suggests “man” as a collective has rights, whereas we later have an entire essay militating against group rights.

“The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between ‘is’ and ‘ought’” (17)--which is beyond cavalier in handling Hume.

In contrast with animals, humans have “reason,” “the process of thinking” (an odd equation), “a faculty that man has to exercise by choice” (20). Lest this be confused: “The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional” (20-21), against which we might lodge, inter alia, the critique of volition found in Ryle’s [b:The Concept of Mind|695125|The Concept of Mind|Gilbert Ryle|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347812931s/695125.jpg|723975]. But note well the contradiction between the dogmatic bizarre definition and the non-sequitur inference that follows: on the one hand, humans differ from animals insofar as they have reason via “the process of thinking,” i.e., thinking itself is sufficient for reason, which is bizarre and solipsistic. But reason, which is presented as the distinguishing feature of humans, is really volitional, which means that it is not present in all human persons, as some will “choose“ not to think or exercise the faculty of reason--this latter is the fundamental point of departure for the text ( the “no philosopher” bit, supra).

Text presents survival “by imitating and repeating, like trained animals, the routine sounds and motions they learned from others” as being a “mental parasite” (23). And yet, just prior to this uber-producerist fantasy is the likewise unevidenced proclamation that “the standard of value of Objectivist ethics--the standard by which one judges what is good and what is evil--is man’s life: that which is required for man’s survival qua man” (id.). So, to complete the syllogism: survival by imitation, by being a mental parasite, is consistent with the standard of objectivist ethics, which is rooted in survival. This absurd result was not intended, but it’s illustrative of the poor conceptualization. Similarly, “looters are parasites incapable of survival” (id.)--but you just said “If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force or fraud, by looting, robbing, cheating or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims” (id.) (emphasis added)?

Without any rationale, “the only proper, moral purpose of government is to protect man’s rights” (NB: collective rights-holder), which boils down to “without property rights, no other rights are possible” (33). This pronouncement is made ex nihilo--there is no presentation to warrant these two conclusions. It’s just goal-oriented dogmatism. Critique could proceed, matching each sentence in this text with several sentences of commentary. It really is a mess of stupidity, and requires some effort to untangle.

We see that “one must never sacrifice one’s convictions to the opinions or wishes of others” (26), which is the fascist’s refusal to compromise. “There can be no compromise on moral principles” (70).

Just as rich people have “self made wealth,” objectivists are apparently “self made souls” (27). At various other loci, though, we will be informed that nothing is causeless, that only death-choosers believe in effects without causes. Again: very poorly conceived. We are likewise told that “man chooses his values” (28), which strikes me as the worst sort of causelessness.

We are given the pre-capitalist trader as the emblem of justice: “a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved” (31). None of the key concepts are given much content, such as “earnings” or “desert,” except, apparently, an unexamined and vulgar market value. It’s all very philistine.

We are told that “illness and poverty are not metaphysical emergencies” (48), so all of you dirty little poor persons can rest peacefully now.

One of Rand’s real defrects is that she has no understanding of law. (That’s one reason, incidentally, that the plot of [b:The Fountainhead|2122|The Fountainhead|Ayn Rand|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1344618350s/2122.jpg|3331807] is so stupid.) We are told, e.g., that “just as a judge in a court of law may err, when the evidence is inconclusive, but may not evade the evidence available, nor accept bribes, nor allow any personal feeling, emotion, desire, or fear to obstruct his mind’s judgment of the facts of reality--so every rational person must maintain an equally strict and solemn integrity in the courtroom within his own mind” (71). This is not reflective of how law works. The judiciary does not err when the evidence is inconclusive; that circumstance by definition means that the plaintiff’s case must fail, as the moving party’s evidence has failed to preponderate, being equally balanced by the evidence in opposition. Judicial errors are legal errors, such as the application of the wrong rule of decision, or improper analysis under the correct standard. This is revealing, too, metaphorically: just as Rand does not understand how law works, her envisioning of legal errors as simply arising out of inconclusive evidence is emblematic of how her “philosophy” has failed to consider the proper analytic standard. I doubt that objectivism spends much time cogitating on its own assumptions; that would be death-choosing inner conflict and moral grayness.

Another recurrent mantra is the oddity that “to be imposed by political means” is equated with “by force” (81). Taxation or regulation by the state is therefore equated with armed robbery. This is a nasty bit of mendacity, however. Just as the relation between state and citizen always has force underlying it, so too do private relations between, say, employer and employee. The Randian will not acknowledge this, and will insist that voluntary contracts are pure and have no force under them. Meanwhile, the proper function of government is to “protect property” (33). When faced with starvation, unemployed worker will accept what employer offers, as the alternatives are to invade the property that the state protects, or to die. It is an evil for the state to “expropriate the labor” via taxation for the purpose of space exploration (i.e., a project too risky for private capital to undertake), but fine, because “voluntary,” for the employer to expropriate the employee.

It is asserted, without any citation to any law or authority, that “no human rights can exist without property rights” (91). As a matter of law, this is manifestly, idiotically erroneous--property rights are simply one component of rights in general, and we can have property regimes wherein rights themselves are not conceived as properties. (In capitalist law, rights themselves are properties, and with some important exceptions, can be alienated: property is therefore a collection of rights, each of which is a property, &c. don’t ask Rand to understand any of this, though.) Rand’s failure to read any law is on display, though, in such categorical assertions as “rights are a moral concept” (92)--which is completely erroneous. Rights are creatures of law, period. Whatever they may be in morality, there are no rights sans law--and rights in law may be worthless if there are no remedies (such as the weak remedies for Fourth Amendment violations make that beautiful set of rights somewhat worthless).

She is of course not completely wrong in one instance in this volume: “The essential characteristic of socialism is the denial of individual property rights” (86)--though we may quibble that the individual right to own the means of production is what socialism denies. She goes on to state that “under socialism, the right to property is vested in ‘society as a whole’” (id.), which allegation is simultaneously wrong and true of anywhere. Again, a problem of having no knowledge of law: capitalist law vests title in property owners, but title is not absolute--it is always a measure of what the public will allow. Gone are the days of quiritary and allodial title--though I suspect that Rand would reach back into the past for these concepts, had she any exposure to law or history.

Instead of explanations with evidence, the text tends to rely further on coarse pop psychology assumptions, such as “What then is the motive of [socialist] intellectuals? Power-lust. Power-lust--as the manifestation of helplessness, or self-loathing, and of the desire for the unearned” (88). It’s amateurish, citing no actual socialist writings. This parasite “derives his illusion of greatness […] from the power to dispose of that which he has not earned” (89). The comedy is unintentional, as I’m sure this writer has not read any Marx--but this is a similar critique of capitalist relations via the theories of surplus value and commodity fetishism (minus the dumb faux psychology).

We find that “socialism is merely democratic absolute monarchy”(91), which reveals the total contempt for egalitarianism in this text. By contrast, we are told that the US “was the first moral society in history” (93); the only proof of this is the Declaration of Independence (95), which is of course not law. What is the content of this morality in the US? It was “the pattern of a civilized society which--for the brief span of some hundred and fifty years--America came close to achieving” (95). What ended it? “America’s inner contradiction was the altruist-collectivist ethics,” of course (id).

Her timeline of US freedom pricks something in the back of my mind. What could those 150 years mean? Was it the altruist ethics of abolishing chattel slavery, maybe? Further, it was not capitalism that abolished chattel slavery through its own alleged ongoing enlightenment, but the state through the use of force against private property owners. Rand loves to use “slavery” as a metaphor, referring to the slavery of taxation and regulation, the slavery of socialism and in Soviet Russia. She makes no mention of chattel slavery under the capitalism that she adores. It is a telling blind spot. But we never approached this text expecting honesty.

An example of further dishonesty: the divine right of kings is held up as an example of altruist-collectivist ethics (103). It’s accordingly like an Onion article. When Rand does discuss racism, it is denounced as a collectivism, but no mention of US capitalist slave trade is mentioned. (In that essay, though racism is denounced, the current “Negro leaders” are still villains, and the “worst breach of property rights” is the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (134). No shit!)

Further Onion article: “unilateral breach of contract involves an indirect use of force” (111). This is a dangerous admission for Rand, who wants to make state action itself force. Here, though, a private action involving no vi et armis is glibly purported to be force. Would this rationale then apply to employer-employee relations? (Doubtful for Rand--but certainly for everyone with sense.)

Text is mixed authorship; five of the essays are by newsletter editor Branden, who deploys pop psych Galtisms to fight the death-choosers. It’s very cute.

Overall, one of the worst books ever written. Go read for comedy’s sake, or if you suffer from chronic orthostatic hypotension and need to get your blood pressure back up.