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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Friday, June 02, 2006

The World's Motor

Rad Geek's penetrating analysis of Ayn Rand's class sympathies. I have to say, it takes some pretty powerful rose-colored glasses to take John Galt rather than James Taggart as the personification of corporate capitalism.

Rand knew perfectly well that the historical data underdetermined the question of whether predation or voluntary cooperation was essential to the capitalistic form of society: the rise of the societies we call capitalist involved the liberation of many people and of the markets in many commodities; it also involved the escalation of many forms of predatory state patronage and the invention of new ones (it meant, for example, considerably more freedom in agriculture or textiles; it also meant considerably more government intervention in banking, land use, and transportation infrastructure). You could describe the picture by identifying the growth in freedom as the capitalist stuff, with the new levels of predation as anti-capitalist deviations from capitalism marring its productive development. But you could just as easily describe it by identifying the growth in predation as the capitalist stuff, with the growth in freedom as a countervailing, non-capitalist or anti-capitalist development, which the capitalist stuff had an antagonistic, or often parasitic, relationship to. So which description should you choose? I think the best explanation why Rand chose the first picture instead of the second one has to do with what she would have identified with her sense of life — the degree to which her aesthetic and affectional imagination were engaged on behalf of actually existing capitalists, as she understood them, in the known reality of the mixed economy: that is, her view of the grand bourgeoisie — big industrialists, business-owners, money-men, the top tier of entrepreneurial inventors, and ultimately the wealthy broadly — as the heroic prime movers in business, and thus as the world’s motor, driving the production of the material means of survival and human flourishing. (See, for example, Atlas Shrugged or America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.) Though she’d no doubt fume at the description, one way of putting it is that she made her choices about what language to reclaim and what language to abandon on the basis of class solidarity. I have no quarrel with Rand’s procedure; but rather only with the particular class she chooses to stand in solidarity with. If Rand is right that the capitalist is the chief victim of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is well-drawn, it makes perfect sense for her to reclaim the word capitalism for the free market as against political patronage. If, on the other hand, the bosses are the chief beneficiaries of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is ill-drawn — if the archetypical boss is a busybodying mediocrity, a cunning predator, or a petulant grafter, and if their role in the workplace is a drag on the productive labor on the shop floor rather than the animating force behind it as Rand claims — then it makes perfect sense to locate the essence of capitalism elsewhere from where Rand locates it, and to treat capitalism as a term of criticism for political patronage as against the free market.

This may help serve as some explanation for why Rand is willing to identify with the term capitalism and even to invest the symbol of a government fiat currency with near-religious significance, while fully recognizing the predatory nature of the state-business nexus; it may also help to explain how, in spite of really detesting the stupidity and the atrocities perpetrated in the name of socialism, I can be so fond of old union songs, and how I can fly a red flag over my soap box while I preach the free market.

Addendum. After posting the above, I serendipitously found this Angry Flower cartoon, courtesy of Johnny Lemuria on LeftLibertarian.
P.P.S. Oops! Actually, the link to the cartoon came from Joel Schlosberg.

8 Comments:

Blogger Joshua Zader said...

Interesting analysis. There's an Ayn Rand dating site now, believe it or not.

June 02, 2006 10:43 PM  
Blogger Bbo Wallace said...

Rand's influence has been much too excessive, considering she was disturbed, Objectivism is marginal and always will be, and the majority of her followers are hate-filled crackpots.

June 03, 2006 6:07 AM  
Blogger tros said...

I think that cartoon was dead on. The value of Ayn Rand's work is its function as a stepping stone to Nietsche and other anarchist ideas. The Fountainhead, in my opinion, explain Nietsche better than he explains himself (in English, at least).

As for Atlas Shrugged, I think that the idea of squeezing out the parasitic bureacrat class is less far fetched than you think. Rand's mistake was to think that it would start from the top down. Technocrats, regardless of their lack of appreciation, lead comfortable lives and don't spend as much time thinking about how they fit into the big picture as political theorists do. There will never be an exodus of computer programmers. We got the Free Software Movement instead.

As for her class sympathies, I'm prepared to make the case that these are a function of her hatred of Soviet communism and here addiction to speed. Am I the only person in this entire chatter-sphere to recognise how ridiculously close Rand is to Timothy Leary? Here is the difference: Hippies are not comic book superheroes, and they recognize that socialism can work on a community level. Rand could have recognized this if she wasn't caught up in the crusade against "Communism", and it would have helped if she wasn't a hate-filled tweaker who was dependent on caffeine, nicotine, and dexedrine.

June 03, 2006 1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rand's class bias shows up in Chris Sciabarra's biography of Rand. Her father was a pharmacist in St. Petersburg and her family was "comfortable" prior to the Russian Revolution. Her condemnation of the Russian Nihilist's cry of "Land & Liberty" also hints at her life long dislike of early 20th Century libertarians, those who shared George's and Tucker's opposition to royalist titles to landed property (pre-Rothbard, pre-Misely).

She apparently knew of libertarians' early origins as Proudhonian socialists, as she was conversant in French, and unfortunately indulged in her own "package deal" of lumping individualist, anti-statist libertarians with Marxian collectivists. It makes one wonder if Rand's royalist tendencies were partially caused by an emotional revulsion against all socialists because of collectivists excesses in Revolutionary Russia, that also blinded her to make rational, objective distinctions between justly earned property and predatory politically licensed property.

Chris Toto

June 03, 2006 8:20 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Tros, please explain how "The Fountainhead" is a stepping stone to Nietsche, other than Rand's superficial evocation of the "Ubermensch" in the character Howard Roark, or her various other uninspired depictions of "heroism". I've read the book, and found that like most didactic novels, it is a literary abomination and an inferior work of art; I have trouble seeing how it is anything other than a philosophically shallow cheerfest for capitalism and the other tenets of Objectivism. I can understand how Rand's themes might tenuously resemble some of Nietsche's, but how does "The Fountainhead" explain the far superior philospher better than he explains himself (however confusing and cluttered Nietsche's work can be)? Please enlighten me.

By the way, did Rand know that the man responsible for the ubiquitous but inaccurate translation of "Ubermensch" to "Superman" (it's really "Overman") that she uses in her forward to "The Fountainhead" was Bernard Shaw, a socialist?!!

June 05, 2006 8:03 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Rand's mistake was to think that it would start from the top down. Technocrats, regardless of their lack of appreciation, lead comfortable lives and don't spend as much time thinking about how they fit into the big picture as political theorists do. There will never be an exodus of computer programmers. We got the Free Software Movement instead.

Very, very well said, Tros! I may quote you on that.

June 06, 2006 6:48 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

I have to say that I have some sympathies on both sides.

However, I think that the cartoon is totally off. The depiction of people in Rand novels, both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead include the heroes expertly performing manual labor. Rearden actually created Rearden metal. He also had excellent skills at processing Rearden metal. The philosophy professor that inspired Galt, d'Anconia, and Daneskjold spent most of his life making an excelent hamburger. The people in Galt's Gulch actually supported themselves, indicating they performed what you would probably call "grunt work" themselves.

June 06, 2006 8:10 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Joshua Zader,

Wow. I guess if you're into face-slapping and broken fireplaces, that's the place to go.

Bob Wallace,

Despite all of Rand's flaws (and the Jeffrey Walker book is pretty much on the mark about the pathologies of her cult following IMO), I think there is a core of genuinely original thought that can be developed in useful directions. Roderick Long and Chris Sciabarra have both dealt with the positive aspects of her thought.

tros,

"a hate-filled tweaker who was dependent on caffeine, nicotine, and dexedrine." So don't hold back--what do you really think? Seriously, though, the drug of choice is probably one of the things that separates "rational individuals" from "hippies of the right."

Chris Toto,

"Her condemnation of the Russian Nihilist's cry of "Land & Liberty" also hints at her life long dislike of early 20th Century libertarians, those who shared George's and Tucker's opposition to royalist titles to landed property (pre-Rothbard, pre-Misely)....
"....blinded her to make rational, objective distinctions between justly earned property and predatory politically licensed property."

That says it all. It gets back to what Rad Geek called her "sense of life": with her practical politics determined mainly by the classes she identified with emotionally, rather than any consistent moral standard.

Mike,

Point taken. Now that you mention it, I recall Dagny's reaction to the craftsmanship of that "hamburger sandwich" (Rand's idiosyncratic terminology could probably fuel a few masters' theses in English). Still a funny cartoon, though.

June 07, 2006 9:39 PM  

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