Saturday, February 12, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: A Book Review

No summary of Atlas Shrugged could possibly do justice to the novel's intricacies, and this is not simply due to the 1100-page length of the book. One of the longest fiction novels in English and nearly as long as the Bible, the focus of this novel is far more complex than the focus of The Fountainhead. In the latter, Rand relied on her character's personal, internal conflicts to move the story along, developing them in terms of their specific natures rather than their social relations and interactions with other characters, which were peripheral offshoots of the central theme. Atlas Shrugged, by contrast, features a heavy focus on relationships in almost every dimension of human life between characters, social structures and institutions, and it has been referred to by many as "The Bible of Objectivism."

The vast scope and complex, interwoven themes at work in this magnum opus makes it a novel that does not translate easily into a screenplay. Despite this, however, a film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged is now in the works with actress Taylor Schilling in the starring role as Dagny Taggart and Paul Johansson directing. The finished product should be quite interesting, and I actually look forward to watching it. The first question that comes to my mind is how much screenwriter John Aglialoro will end up cutting the climactic speech delivered by character John Galt (to be played by director Paul Johansson). In the edition of the book I have on my shelf, this speech begins on page 923 and ends on page 976, making a total of 56 pages of John Galt talking uninterrupted (which took Rand two years to write). In the screenwriting business, one minute of screen time per page is the general rule, especially in dialogue-heavy scenes. This means that if Paul Johansson gives the entire speech (which is important to the plot) completely uncut, about half a movie would be out of the way before getting to any of the actual plot.

Atlas Shrugged takes place in a bleak, near-future America ("Twenty Minutes Into The Future" as TVTropes.com puts it), that is completely governed by incompetent and evil people bent on draining the productivity of the few remaining brilliant innovators in society. This intellectually-competent and productive remnant go on strike; they disappear one by one from society as public resistance to ever-increasing government control of industrial production grows weaker and weaker. A mysterious figure known as John Galt orchestrates this massive strike behind the scenes, and his name, which is spoken as a catchphrase throughout the novel, is immortalized in the form of a question among the general public: "Who is John Galt?" One of the few remaining noble and brilliant people is Dagny Taggart, a drop-dead-gorgeous and atheistic transcontinental railroad executive who struggles to live up to her ideals and keep her business afloat in a global economy plagued by increasing government encroachment. Every other protagonist in the story, including key characters like Henry Rearden and Francisco d'Anconia, are also brilliant inventors, businessmen and industrialists who alone contribute to social stability (hence the title, which refers to the Greek myth in which Atlas carries the sphere of earth on his back; the removal of the movers and shakers of society is equated to what would transpire if Atlas were to tire of the weight and shrug, i.e., upheaval on a global scale).

There are many villains in the story, far more than there are heroes. All of these villains are reminiscent of the "second-handers" in The Fountainhead; they seek to leech off the ideas and accomplishments of the movers and shakers, reaping the benefit that comes from them without having to work. It is in response to this that John Galt abandons society and founds his own hidden society in the middle of nowhere, which he calls Galt's Gulch. From this base he convinces the geniuses of the country to join him in establishing an experimental version of a libertarian utopia, which he considers to be a type of Atlantis. The world deteriorates more and more as the individualists gradually diminish in number. Galt and his society of noble heroes remain sequestered in their secret haven until society collapses entirely, at which time they emerge to rebuild the infrastructure from the ashes. The novel ends with John Galt declaring, "The road is cleared . . . we are going back to the world." He then raises his hand over the "desolate earth" and traces in space the sign of the dollar. The narrative evokes no remorse for the fate of those who experienced the crumbling of society. In fact, the message conveyed is that they all deserved it, since the vast majority of the people in the world are incompetent and needed to be "cleared" from the heroes' path to success.

The ultimate moral of the story represents one of my major misgivings about certain key elements of Ayn Rand's philosophy. This is a philosophical worldview that makes no attempt to understand the complex ways people think and behave, and opts instead to make sweeping blanket statements that portray the masses as idiots who deserve any calamity they might experience. In Rand's universe, people are stratified into three main groups: There are the geniuses, the individualists who typify the noble hero archetype. There are the second-handers, who hold back the accomplishments of the geniuses. Then there are people who are themselves not particularly brilliant or heroic, but who are not evil or stupid either. They are merely useful to the heroes; they carry out the mundane work that the heroes are too important to bother with. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny's assistant Eddie Willers is one example of a character that fits into this category. He is treated as a good person who serves a purpose for those above him.

This outlook is very characteristic of cults. Like John Galt and his followers, they cut themselves off from the rest of the world and declare themselves to be a chosen few who are far more intelligent and far more deserving than everyone else. To the Objectivist who would deny that Ayn Rand thought in these terms, a particular passage from Atlas Shrugged should make them uncomfortable. About halfway through the novel, we are treated to a sequence involving a train wreck that leaves no survivors. This is shown to be the end result and natural consequence of sustained negligence and incompetent workers over a period of time. On the receiving end of the tragic consequence is a train filled with random people who are merely going about their daily lives. Still, in setting up this train wreck scene, Rand goes out of her way to convince the reader that every single one of these random people deserved their fate. This is how she does it:
It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that individual effort is futile, that an individual conscience is a useless luxury, that there is no individual mind or character or achievement, that everything is achieved collectively, and that it's masses that count, not men.

The man in Roomette 7, Car No. 2, was a journalist who wrote that it is proper and moral to use compulsion "for a good cause," who believed that he had the right to unleash physical force upon others - to wreck lives, throttle ambitions, strangle desires, violate convictions, to imprison, to despoil, to murder - for the sake of whatever he chose to consider as his own idea of "a good cause," which did not even have to be an idea, since he had never defined what he regarded as the good, but had merely stated that he went by "a feeling" - a feeling unrestrained by any knowledge, since he considered emotion superior to knowledge and relied solely on his own "good intentions" and on the power of a gun.

The woman in Roomette 10, Car No. 3, was an elderly school teacher who had spent her life turning class after class of helpless children into miserable cowards, by teaching them that the will of the majority is the only standard of good and evil, that a majority may do anything it pleases, that they must not assert their own personalities, but must do as others were doing. (p. 558).

There are two whole pages of this listing exercise, in which Rand progresses through various sections of the car, describing the passengers as she goes. We are introduced to thirteen more people in all as Rand points out the terrible ideas each held to. Her style and method is strikingly reminiscent of the act of placing public figures under a microscope, such that one can always find something wrong with anybody under scrutiny. Rand forgets, ignores, or denies that we are all in fact flawed in some way, shape or form, and concludes with this:
These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas. As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt's Torch was the last thing they saw on earth. (p. 560).

In setting up this disaster, Rand does not hide well the delight she takes in killing off a train full of people whom she deems worthy of death. The indelible impression left is a promotion of oligarchical ideas, and this promotion is obvious throughout the novel. The intelligent are in a class of their own and alone enjoy the right to rule society, as illustrated by the ultimate victory enjoyed by the separatists at the end of the book. While I do support the argument that society will always be better off if the more intelligent people operated in government, I also object to oligarchy in any form. Rand makes no distinction between intelligence and qualification, which I argue is a necessary and important distinction. Just because Person A happens to be much more intelligent and knowledgeable in one area than Person B, this tells us nothing about whether or not Person A is equally knowledgeable and qualified in another area, which Person B might be more qualified in. For example, if a brilliant student were to graduate from a prestigious university with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and then placed in the position of President of the United States, that electrical engineering genius would end up looking far more stupid than she really is, and vice-versa. Thus, what we need to concern ourselves with is placing people in various positions that fit their qualifications.

Rand's approach is a black-and-white one that disregards such complexities and stratifies society into the homogeneously intelligent and the homogeneously daft. The character of John Galt is a perfect example of this. The impression given by this character is that he is the best at everything. He is not a physicist, a chemist, a mathematician, or an electrical engineer. He is a scientist. He is a super-genius who knows how to invent and engineer, and he is the world's most powerful demagogue. He also emerges the victor of the love triangle, getting the beautiful girl (Dagny) in the end. He has no specific qualifications, he is simply qualified at everything. At the same time (or perhaps because of this) he gives the impression of having an abrasive and haughty personality; whatever his qualifications might be, his is not the sort of character most people would want to be overseeing the world. For one thing, he does not do anything particularly beneficial to society with the resources he is privy to. He is predisposed only to benefiting himself, which he must be if he is to be a hero in the Ayn Rand universe. But here we run into another inconsistency that destroys the credibility of the story. The notion that an individual working towards his own self-interest is likely to benefit him in the long run is simply an unjustifiable notion. The social sciences suggest very strongly that an individual working toward the self-interest of the group as a whole (to which that individual belongs), is more beneficial to the individual in the long run. This by no means precludes the possibility of an individual working toward his own self-interest in conjunction with exercising an active social awareness. This, of course, Ayn Rand flatly denies. Her heroes are the type of people who hoard money. Her villains are the type of people who invest parts of their money to social causes in hopes of receiving meaningful returns on it. Her ability to carry out the mental gymnastics necessary to make long-term victors out of the hoarders is one truly impressive aspect of her fiction, and one which kept me reading all 1100 pages.

Among the several themes that emerge over and over again in Atlas Shrugged (and in Rand's other fiction) is the concept of a society being completely taken over by stupid, lazy and altruistic people. In fact, this premise is utilized in almost every single work of fiction she produced. Of course, one might reasonably argue that this is a device applied to a fictional, future society that is taken to an extreme, and that science-fiction authors do this all the time. But this is not just one work of fiction we are talking about. When nearly every novel Rand ever wrote involves the premise that the vast majority of people in the world are incompetent leeches who hold back and drain the life and production out of the few intelligent people, it ceases to be simply a device any longer. And it becomes less and less credible and convincing as a plot device with increased use. Did Rand ever stop to consider the likelihood that characters who are stupid and lazy could take total control of the world's infrastructure? Apparently not, because in Atlas Shrugged, the intelligent, greedy and ambitious protagonists struggle in a losing battle against the incompetent and lazy, forcing them to flee the world stage and establish their own secret society. This internally inconsistent concept is impossible for any thinking person to buy into, and the "suspended disbelief" that science-fiction stories often ask the reader to employ simply cannot drown out this inconsistency.

Another very interesting consideration that is occasioned by a reading of Atlas Shrugged is that the novel may represent more of a venture into pure escapism on Ayn Rand's part than she would ever want to admit, even to herself. In my review of her earlier bestselling novel The Fountainhead, I pointed out that Rand's characters in that novel are avatars of certain key ideas, personifications of concepts whose participation in the plot is a device to illustrate a philosophical system. Atlas Shrugged continues this treatment of characters, and takes it even farther. The characters here are not only avatars of ideas. A few of them (especially John Galt, Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden) are idealized versions of Ayn Rand herself. This is not surprising or unusual. After all, the people that Rand idolizes in her novels and elevates as the truly great and noble heroes of the world are inventors, businesspeople, engineers, industrialists, etc. But unlike this class of characters, Rand never contributed anything brilliantly innovative or tangible such as Rearden's miracle metal, Dagny's Transcontinental railroad, or Howard Roark's architecture. Instead, she wrote a lot of books. One can easily imagine why Rand might want to fantasize about fitting in with the class of people she most admired.

In the entertainment world, there is a name for the concept of writing a character who is basically a stand-in for the author, only much more idealized and perfect in every way. TVTropes.com, a comprehensive wiki site that catalogues thousands of devices and conventions that fiction writers rely on to tap into their audience's expectations, uses the term "Mary Sue" for this particular device. This term, as the wiki entry explains, originated in fan fiction circles and referred to writers who inserted versions of themselves as characters in another author's universe.
The name "Mary Sue" comes from the 1974 Star Trek fanfic "A Trekkie's Tale". Originally written as a parody of the standard Self Insert Fic of the time (as opposed to any particular traits), the name was quickly adopted by the Star Trek fanfiction community. Its original meaning mostly held that it was an Always Female Author Avatar, regardless of character role or perceived quality. Often, the characters would get in a relationship with either Kirk or Spock, turn out to have a familial bond with a crew member, be a Half Human Hybrid masquerading as a human, and die in a graceful, beautiful way to reinforce that the character was Too Good For This Sinful Earth. (Or space, as the case may be.)

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She's exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She's exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her "flaws" are obviously meant to be endearing.

She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her into their nakama, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn't love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author's favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

In other words, the term "Mary Sue" is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.

(http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MarySue).

Although "Mary Sue" refers specifically to female characters, both John Galt and Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged possess almost all the attributes of an author-written Mary Sue. These characters actually fit more into the closely-related subcategory of this trope, known as the "Purity Sue," which can be male or female without too great a difference, although there is a strong tendency towards the latter in all but its earliest incarnations. A "Purity Sue" is a character that is intentionally made by the author to possess overwhelmingly positive traits with little to no flaws that that affect them in any significant way.

According to the Purity Sue entry on TVTropes.com,
Dagny Taggart from Atlas Shrugged is a somewhat scary example of a fully grown Mary Sue in a serious, influential piece of work. She is and has everything Ayn Rand could ever hope for, a total personification of her values — she's a brilliant though underestimated businesswoman, more beautiful than anyone else in the room without even trying - even the simplest of dresses seems 'indecent' on her. She is the linchpin of all the important changes in the world, the last and most important part of the puzzle, the one everyone wishes they could reach, the one everyone looks to. She has multiple lovers and moves on from one to the next without any warning or explanation given — or needed, as each of these lovers peacefully acknowledges the others without the slightest surprise or jealousy, with the impression given that they're going to quietly bear never-again-requited candles for her indefinitely.

Technically, John Galt is a closer fit. It's Dagny's failure to embrace the Objectivist Ideal until the very end that moves the plot along and causes her and everyone else a world of misery and trouble. Galt faffs about with his sunny-shiny hair, and everyone confesses their love and adoration to him at every turn, and Dagny falls in love with him before first sight. Then again, this is Ayn Rand; she never denied that this was the case.

(http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PuritySue).

The TVTropes page devoted to Atlas Shrugged is definitely worth reading in its entirety, as it provides a helpful and comprehensive overview of what works and what does not work in the world of the novel. Other important tropes listed for this novel that are used liberally throughout include the Author Filibuster (As the page itself says, "Eventually the question you ask stops being 'Who is John Galt?' and becomes 'When will John Galt shut up?'" This trope is seen both in John Galt's 56-page speech and in other, shorter filibusters scattered throughout the book), and Anvilicious which is defined as "a writer's and/or director's use of an artistic element, be it line of dialogue, visual motif, or plot point, to so obviously or unsubtly convey a particular message that they may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head." Whether or not the reader may agree with the anvils in the book, it is clear that without them, Atlas Shrugged would be a completely different book and probably not as successful. Unfortunately, the reliance on anvils to make the story what it is detracts from its value, both artistically and philosophically, in a number of irredeemable ways.

The Fountainhead: A Book Review

More so than in any of the nonfiction books Ayn Rand wrote later in life (most of which are merely collections of her essays and articles), the founder of the philosophy known as Objectivism gave her worldview its fullest voice and expression in her works of fiction, particularly the two novels for which she is most famous, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), both of which I have read. The present essay is my review of the former, which I will follow up with a review of the latter in another essay.

The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, a brilliant architect whose genius is unrecognized and under-appreciated by all people, save the small and ever-dwindling number of intelligent individuals left in society. Peter Keating, Roark's struggling colleague in the field of architecture, is another central character whom Roark helps out occasionally by designing something for which Keating takes complete credit for. Keating is everything Roark is not and builds his career by leeching off of Roark's brilliance. Struggling in obscurity through many discouraging odds as he fights to preserve his personal vision, Howard Roark remains true to his ideals through to the end, which culminates in his dramatic delivery of a long speech on the value of ego and the necessity of self-interest before a hostile courtroom as he vindicates himself in the face of charges that he dynamited one of his own buildings to make a statement.

The court allows Roark to talk uninterrupted for a substantial length of time that covers many pages. Those familiar with Ayn Rand's fiction will recognize the theme of the uninterrupted long speech made by the brilliant hero at the end to be a recurring one in her novels, a device utilized by the author to have her characters serve as her mouthpiece. Rand's fictional characters are developed as avatars of her ideas, who participate in the plot not only to advance it, but also to be represent through their unfolding development the gradual revelation of Rand's philosophical worldview as the novel progresses.

Meanwhile, in polar opposition to the noble hero archetype that is Howard Roark, the main villain of The Fountainhead is a character named Ellsworth Monkton Toohey. This character exemplifies all that is evil and destructive in the Ayn Rand universe. This is precisely what ends up making this character highly complex and interesting, despite Rand's black-and-white approach to morality in her secondary universe. One of the fundamental ethical principles of Objectivism states that man, being an end in himself, must exist for his own sake and not sacrifice himself for the sake of others. This principle is stated explicitly throughout her fiction. The central character of her later novel Atlas Shrugged, for example, makes the following solemn oath near the end of the book: "I swear - by my life and my love of it - that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine" (p. 979). The protagonist in Rand's lesser-known 1938 novella Anthem states almost the exact same sentiment: "I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them. I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others. I covet no man's soul, nor is my soul theirs to covet" (p. 96).

In The Fountainhead, such self-giving, collectivist-oriented characters who live for and through others are referred to as "second-handers." This term still holds a prominent place in Objectivist jargon, and Rand followers consider it to be among the worst possible insults. In addition to this, altruistic qualities and impulses are constantly treated pejoratively in Rand's literature. This is at least one aspect of Rand's philosophical beliefs that clashes with scientific fact; evolutionary biologists have long established and demonstrated, by way of game theory, that altruistic behavior is in fact an evolutionarily advantageous trait that arises naturally from competitive drives to propagate the species. This is certainly not the case in Ayn Rand's fictional universe, and the character of Ellsworth Toohey is perhaps the clearest illustration of this view of altruism as being degenerative and destructive. Regarding this demonization of altruism, Libertarian economic theorist David Ramsay Steele provides the following critical perspective on the character of Toohey:
In The Fountainhead, the preaching is kept within bounds, and is generally not too jarringly inauthentic. The one bad lapse is the long speech in which Ellsworth Toohey lays bare his own motivations - but Rand had put herself in an impossible position with her ethical theory. For Rand, a villain must be a completely self-sacrificing person. Toohey is an intelligent villain who wants power. [B]ut somehow it has to come across that in wanting power he is not being selfish - which would be virtuous! If Toohey had been dedicated to a mistaken ideal - based on the theory that everyone would be happier in a world of self-sacrifice - it would be convincing, but we would have no reason to hate him. If Toohey had known that universal self-sacrifice would lead to universal misery, but wanted it for the selfish motive of getting power for himself, this would have been detestable, but dangerous to Rand's egoistic message. Toohey has to want to do his bit towards a goal which (it is made clear) can arrive only after his death, to know that the goal will make everyone completely wretched, and to want it for that reason. But this just makes him an unbelievable loony, bereft of any plausible link to real persons like Lewis Mumford and Harold Laski (who were among Rand's models for Toohey. (David Ramsay Steele (1988). "Alice in Wonderland: A Review of The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Branden." Free Life: Journal of the Libertarian Alliance 5 (1): 8-9).

Throughout the novel, Toohey repeatedly expounds upon the greatness of selflessness as the highest virtue as he enthusiastically promotes welfare programs and other social expressions of self-sacrifice. Because he is a Rand creation, this of course makes Toohey the personification of evil. Toohey's villainy derives from the fact that he lusts after power and will end up hurting people in order to attain that power. But this obviously does not come close to resembling altruism, which Rand considers the greatest evil! The internal conflict in Rand's fictional experiments is this implicit opposition to altruism that is required to create a credible villain that is discernable in a story that explicitly advocates self-interest and the exclusive pursuing of one's own personal success.

This internal conflict extends beyond Rand's fictional world to her creative acts in and of themselves. A recurring and defining characteristic of evil people in Rand's universe is that they lack a profit motive in whatever they undertake to accomplish. And yet, in undertaking to write books to teach people her particular philosophy, Rand herself did not entirely live up to her ideal of pursuing the profit motive as the greatest good. On the one hand, she did of course make a substantial amount of money from the novels she wrote. But where was the guarantee that she would reap a profit from sharing the knowledge she herself worked to gain? After all, Objectivism promotes the attainment of specialized knowledge to benefit the individual, rather than the attainment of general community knowledge that serves society as a whole (and thereby serves each individual within that society, by the way). Thus, a consistently-applied worldview of total self-interest would mean that very few individuals (if any) would become teachers and educators. Yet Rand devoted her life to teaching the public her philosophical belief system through her novels and nonfiction writings. Apparently, it was legitimate for her to devote her life to an activity that had the potential to result in little or no profit, rather than use her knowledge in a specialized capacity to assure herself of profit. And if even an Objectivist can derive personal happiness from teaching and sharing the information they worked to gain, then one can also derive happiness from acts that are truly altruistic in nature.

Therefore, if one considers personal happiness to be an element of his or her own self-interest, then it follows that altruism cannot logically be written off as degenerative or evil. In fact, I argue that engaging in selfless acts (or seemingly selfless acts) without a profit motive in mind can be a source of pleasure. This is even true for the hedonist whose motivation for giving of himself for another human being may be his own pleasure. Consider also how Rand's views explain the enjoyment and pleasure many people glean from masochism.

These considerations raise the question: What if a man wants (even out of selfish urges) to sacrifice himself for another person? Who is Ayn Rand to declare by fiat that he must not act on that desire? Objectivism simply fails to take into account the complexity of why we as human beings do what we do, vying instead to present a grossly oversimplified model of morality and human volition.

The Shortcomings of Objectivism

Look around this world we've made / Equality / Our stock in trade / Come and join the Brotherhood / Of Man / What a nice contented world / Let the banners / Be unfurled / Hold the Red Star proudly / High in hand

We are the priests / Of the Temples of Syrinx / Our great computers / Fill the hallowed halls

The lines above come from the seven-part rock suite comprising the first half of the 1976 album 2112 by the progressive hard rock band Rush. The story conveyed in the title song is homage to Ayn Rand’s 1938 novella Anthem, and much more firmly transplants the novella’s ideological message. The album is excellent both musically and lyrically, superior in my own estimation to Rand's novella itself. Neil Peart is a brilliant lyricist who made no secret of the inspiration he gleaned from the founder of the philosophy known as Objectivism.

Anthem has as its premise a dystopian future world in which evil collectivist overlords wield total control over society and impose strict limits on how often invention and innovation can be practiced among the populace, leading to a world society devoid of modern technology. Collectivism has permeated society to the extent that even words such as “I” and “ego” are forbidden to be uttered on pain of death, and each person living under the totalitarian system knows only to refer to him- or herself as “We.” The story follows the journey of the main character, Equality 7-2521, who rediscovers the secret of electricity during his secret underground studies and attempts to bring this great discovery to attention of the World Council of Scholars. What ensues is a poetic narrative of his struggles to realize his individuality and discover freedom in the face of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the totalitarian World Council.

The lyrical story told in the twenty-one-minute song “2112” closely mirrors the broad strokes found in the premise and storyline of Anthem. The background setting is a unified galaxy ruled by the Red Star of the Solar Federation, on a world controlled by the authoritarian priests of the Temples of Syrinx. The priests control and regulate every facet of intellectual and creative output among the world citizens. The hero of the narrative is a man who discovers an electric guitar (which replaces the electric light bulb of Anthem). In Part III of the seven-part song (entitled “Discovery”), the listener is treated to a tentatively-handled sequence in which Alex Lifeson, the Rush guitarist, begins to pluck the strings of the newfound guitar awkwardly, taking on the role of the character as he learns to play the instrument for the first time. In the space of about thirty seconds, Lifeson progresses from plucking out clumsy notes to performing an amazing solo worthy of a rock god by means of sequential figurations that become increasingly rhythmical and metrical, as the hero-character he represents discovers that he can produce music of his own. This individualistic music is very different from the music of the Temples, which is portrayed by Lee Geddy’s harsh and shrieking vocals which reach barely-attainable soprano tessitura pitch levels. In the next section (“Presentation”), the hero goes before the priests to show them his discovery and convince them of its merits. However, as in the case of the rejection of Equality 7-2521's rediscovery of electric light in Anthem, the priests condemn the hero's individualistic dabblings and refuse to tolerate his use of the device. Overall, 2112 is a great album that poetically illustrates very well the philosophy of Ayn Rand, which she herself expressed mostly through her own works of fiction.

Ayn Rand and Objectivism

Ayn Rand was born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia on February 2, 1905. She was a novelist, philosopher, playwright and screenwriter in America, to which she emigrated in 1926, becoming a citizen in 1931. She is most widely known for her two best-selling novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) and for developing a philosophical system she called “Objectivism.” In this essay, I present my views on this philosophical system; while I find myself agreeing with a great deal of its basic tenets (especially its views on metaphysics), I do not agree with Objectivism at its core, which I argue is flawed for a number of reasons.

Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is based on three axioms: existence, identity and consciousness. The axiom of existence states that “Existence exists” (“Existence” here refers to the sum of all existents, whether an object, attribute or action). This axiom pertains to whether something exists or not; that which lacks attributes and thus a specific nature does not and cannot exist. To be is to be an entity composed of specific attributes that form a specific nature. This implies the axiom of identity. The law of identity states that “A is A,” and pertains to the fact that objects are always equal to themselves and that a distinction necessarily exists between objects of different natures. As Rand expressed it, “A leaf cannot be a stone at the same time, it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time . . . You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.” The axiom of consciousness is “Consciousness exists,” a statement which follows necessarily from the human ability to perceive that the axioms of existence and identity are true. Consciousness is “the faculty of perceiving that which exists.” Consciousness cannot be possible in the absence of an objective reality which exists independently of consciousness for it to be conscious of. Thus, a world without conscious beings is possible. But consciousness is inherent in the awareness that something exists and that objects are equal to themselves. To be conscious is therefore to be conscious of something.

The statement “There is something I am aware of” is an expression inherent in one's grasp of any object. “There is” denotes existence, “something” denotes identity, “I am aware of” denotes consciousness.

The fact that these three tenets are axioms should be emphasized at this point. Ayn Rand defined an axiom as “a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.” As axioms, the Objectivist understandings of existence, identity and consciousness are in fact assertions that are self-evidently true, and as such they cannot form the foundation of any philosophical system that is particularly insightful or new. All we are presented with so far as a starting point is that whatever exists actually exists, that whatever exists is what it is, and that one is aware in whatever form one is aware. The very act of perceiving and asserting the truth of these axioms serves to validate them. Ayn Rand was a strong atheist on the basis of these axiomatic position statements, which she declared as foundational to her philosophy in order to clearly separate her views on objective reality from the concept of supernaturalism. The Randian argument for the non-existence of the supernatural is one brilliant aspect of Objectivism to which I stand in complete agreement. But in further developing her philosophy, Ayn Rand progresses beyond these three self-evident axioms to a series of assertions that are not self-evident at all, or in some cases not even true.

In a column published in the August 1962 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter, Rand presents just such a series of assertions as she describes the four basic principles of Objectivism. They are as follows:

1. Reality exists as an objective absolute - facts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
I am in full agreement with the metaphysical worldview described here. However, we must examine what Rand has in mind when she speaks of “objective absolutes.” Philosopher Leonard Peikoff, a devoted disciple/evangelist of Ayn Rand and the heir of her estate and intellectual property, provides us with an explanation of the Randian view of objective reality in his 1991 book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, the first comprehensive and systematic statement of Rand's philosophical system ever published, in a sense the definitive textbook on Objectivism. He writes,
People often speak of “objective reality.” In this usage, which is harmless, “objective” means “independent of consciousness.” The actual purpose of the concept, however, is to be found not in metaphysics, but in epistemology. Strictly speaking, existents are not objective; they simply are. It is minds, and specifically conceptual processes, that are objective – or nonobjective.
Peikoff here appears to be saying that the external world is not necessarily objectively real, but that minds are necessarily real. But it makes no sense to portray conceptual processes of the mind as being objective or nonobjective, while excluding external existents from this context. This treatment of objective reality is completely backwards. To be as fair as possible, when Peikoff states that “Strictly speaking, existents are not objective,” he may be trying to suggest that existents are not “objective” in the ontological sense understood or implied by colloquial usage. When he says “they simply are,” it is clear he is alluding to the law of identity, which states that “A is A.” On this point, as well as on the point of reality being independent of consciousness, I am in full agreement; A is definitely and certainly A regardless of one's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears. Existence does indeed hold primacy over consciousness.

Still, I see no need for Peikoff to make such a hair-splitting distinction between existents and the law of identity. Furthermore, it is my contention that Peikoff is not justified in shifting the concept of objective reality away from metaphysics where it belongs and applying it to epistemology. This misapplication is a crucial misstep, one that leads Objectivist philosophy to wrongly equate personal values with objective reality.

2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
I have no objections to this epistemological position, which I share with Rand.
3. Man – every man – is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
At this juncture, I begin to diverge from Rand’s views. While I do have serious misgivings about Rand's values, my disagreement here is not in any way a complaint directed at what she personally chose as her own values. Rather, my objection is directed at the way in which she presents it. She is not content to portray this ethical view as a value, but feels she must portray it as a basic and obvious fact or a truism.

In a number of important ways, I disagree with Randian Objectivism for much the same reasons I disagree with certain key tenets of Christian doctrine. Like Ayn Rand, many Christian theologians and ministers place a strong emphasis on the concept of objective reality. Like Objectivists, many of these theologians and ministers tell us that the postmodernist view that all things are subjective and that truth can vary from one person or realm to another is a major source of problems in the world. This is a point on which the theologians and I stand in some agreement. The problem is that most of these Christians go on to conflate their own value system with the objective reality they speak of. They are often heard claiming that it is obviously true that Christian values have an ontologically superior status to all other values, an unwarranted conclusion to which they leap from their affirmation of objective reality. While objective reality does indeed exist independent of what we may believe to be true, there also exist processes that take place inside people's heads, and these subjective processes are largely the source of our values.

Ayn Rand conflates objective reality with personal values in much the same way that Christian theologians do. Notice the dogmatic tone and the choice of language employed in her third point. To say that “Man – every man – is an end in himself,” and that he must exist for his own sake and that he must not sacrifice himself to others nor others to himself is to clearly introduce values into a definition of objective reality – which results in a definition that is incoherent at best and contradictory at worst.

Another significant flaw in this third point is closely related to the erroneous conflation and mixing of objective reality and values. The term “rational self-interest” is invoked as the justification for asserting the necessity of each man existing for his own sake. Yet “rational self-interest” is not clearly defined in this context, and Rand once again equates it with an objective truism, rather than a value that looks different depending on the individual. That which an Objectivist may consider to be in his or her best self-interest and moreover to be rational may be something to which another person objects. What if a man wants to sacrifice himself for another person? Who is Ayn Rand to declare by fiat that he cannot act on that desire? All the Objectivist can do is freely express her observation that such a self-giving man is not acting consistently with her own moral values. This observation is impotent to say anything about the objective merit of the selfless man’s values. In other words, Rand never demonstrated conclusively that her values should be considered by all as representative of what objective reality demands of us.

We now move on to the fourth principle:

4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
Whether or not politics enters into the discussion, this fourth point once again resorts to the fallacy of asserting as absolute, objective fact something which is actually a value. As long as we are not progressing beyond the level of bare assertion, one could just as easily assert that the ideal political-economic system is Communism (a system I do not endorse or agree with). Rand describes laissez-faire capitalism as the “ideal political-economic system.” But to whom is laissez-faire capitalism the ideal political-economic system? The answer depends entirely on whose point of view is being examined and what the goal of that individual or group happens to be. For example, one might argue that monarchy is not an ideal system and that laissez-faire capitalism, being the elusive ideal system, should replace monarchy. But the king will obviously disagree with that claim. Tom Petty was right when he pointed out in his song that “It's good to be king.”

Furthermore, Rand puts the cart firmly before the horse in this fourth precept. She declares what the ideal political-economic system is before even discussing and establishing what the goal of society should be. It is of course possible that if our goal is to institutionalize individualism and to encourage the rights of the individual over and above the rights of society as a whole, then laissez-faire capitalism may be the best system to achieve that. But this is why it is crucial to discuss what our goal is first, before evaluating what the most ideal system for society might be. However, even if we settle on instituting the precepts of individualism as our goal, it has by no means been proven or demonstrated that laissez-faire capitalism is the best system for the realization of that end. The United States of America is popularly considered to be the greatest country on earth and as a beacon of freedom. Yet America has not implemented laissez-faire capitalism as an official economic policy doctrine, despite the efforts of Objectivists and libertarians in this country who want to see that very thing happen. Thus, to the extent that implementation of laissez-faire capitalism has been seriously discussed in this country, it has been discussed within a purely speculative or experimental framework. If we as a country wish to turn from speculative to serious experimental examination of laissez-faire capitalism, a control group would be required for any scientific approach, which political scientists and economists should insist on as a means of demonstrating that such a system is viable in actuality. Ayn Rand’s most lasting “contributions” to individualistic philosophy is a series of fictional experiments that demonstrates how perfect laissez-faire capitalism is within the secondary universes of her novels.

In addition to lacking strong support by way of evidence, the central idea presented in this fourth principle is also sophomoric and short-sighted. What we are presented with is an assumption that a particular political-economic system is the best way for everybody to live because it reflects one self-centered individual’s values. It is an assumption that ignores entirely the fact that a cooperative society is required in order to make possible a system that benefits the individual. If the individual is to benefit from rights, then collective groups that form the society as a whole in which the individual lives must also be afforded those rights.

The central objection I levy against Objectivism is its dogmatic declaration that all things within reality, including values, should be considered to have an ontologically objective status. While I certainly agree that physical reality is objective and independent of consciousness, Randian Objectivism denies values any subjective status and insistently and aggressively prescribes a set of values that all people must hold. Ayn Rand’s attempt to transcend any and all distinctions between facts and values inevitably led to the downright foolish and contradictory aspects that continue to burden her organized movement, one that glorified, among other concepts, non-contradiction in all matters. Her philosophy is an implicitly authoritarian one that explicitly demands the institution of strict anti-authoritarian policies that deny “society” any organic status or meaning and instead recognizes only the self-centered individual. However, as Ayn Rand herself stated, “You can't eat your cake and have it, too.”

The fact-value distinction is a necessary one; without such a distinction, people in positions of power are enabled to enforce and institutionalize their own values in society, as if these values were divinely dictated or reflected objective reality. While I certainly am not willing to go as far as some commentators have in suggesting that Ayn Rand's ideology is fascistic in nature, Randian Objectivism certainly would have that potential if it was anything more than what it is: pop philosophy that is mostly harmless; true in some parts, but very misguided and confused in others and in most real-life applications.

NOTES

1. Durrell S. Bowman, “’Let Them All Make Their Own Music’: Individualism, Rush, and the Progressive/Hard Rock Alloy, 1976-77,” in Kevin Holm-Hudson, ed., Progressive Rock Reconsidered (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 183-218.

2. Ayn Rand, Anthem (1938; reprinted, Caldwell, ID: Caxton Press, 2001).

3. Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), p. 24.

4. Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), pp. 4-11.

5. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1957), p. 930.

6. Peikoff, Objectivism, p. 5.

7. Ibid., p. 7.

8. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 952.

9. Ayn Rand, “Introducing Objectivism,” The Objectivist Newsletter 1(8) (August 1962): 35.

10. Peikoff, Objectivism, p. 117.

11. In addition to Rand's fiction, there is also an interesting semi-scientific test of Randian Objectivism in the form of a video game called Bioshock, written and designed by Ken Levine. In the game, the player-character survives a plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean and ends up discovering the underwater city of Rapture, where most of the action takes place. This secret city, envisioned by business magnate Andrew Ryan as a laissez-faire capitalist utopia, was built in response to increasingly oppressive political, economic and religious policies in the world above. But of course, this experimental format does not demonstrate Objectivism to be valid or viable as a political-economic system any more than has the novel format.