I’m always amazed when I listen to people cite Ayn Rand. I often wonder if such people have ever critically appraised her work. This much I know: she has no business being quoted by those who are opposed to our racist criminal justice system.
When I was growing up, reading Ayn Rand (born Alisa Zino’yevna) was a family tradition. It was required reading in the Rosario household. My father would often give each one of us something to read and then we would have to discuss it critically. He also made me read Walt Whitman and other American transcendentalists — which was probably an antithesis of Rand’s “objectivism.” Looking back, I see he was trying to show me how to think critically — how to hold two opposing ideas at once and come away with something of value and original.
I think Rand appeals to young people because it is a juvenile and self-contradictory philosophy. In fact, previous posts of mine have been a refutation of Rand’s “philosophy.”1 Her epistemology has been taken apart by others (also here and here), no need to revisit that here. I mention Rand because a keynote speaker at awards dinner celebrating formerly incarcerated people and their struggle to dismantle the criminal justice system, liberally quoted Rand. I found this to be disturbing, as Rand’s ideas and philosophy actually contribute to the root causes of mass incarceration.
Ayn Rand was a racist and her philosophy of Objectivism has largely escaped critical analysis because Rand was a sloppy and clumsy thinker. Her most important doctrines were based on little more than a play on words, and even when her conclusions were correct, she was often right for the wrong reasons. As a result, there is quite a bit of truth to Objectivism, but it is so inextricably bound with falsehoods and errors that it is in many respects a compilation of half-truths.
In the following, I try to show why her philosophy has no place in the criminal justice reform/ abolition arena.
First, let point out that Rand was an unapologetic racist and champion of some of the foundational pillars of racialized social control: capitalism and white supremacy. I refuse to link to the essay, “Racism,” because it is only found on white supremacist sites, but here are some of Ayn Rand’s ideas on racism:
There is only one antidote to racism: the philosophy of individualism and its politico-economic corollary, laissez-faire capitalism.
If I closed my eyes I would swear this was some hate-talk radio host disguising right wing racism as an economic philosophy.
It is capitalism that gave mankind its first steps toward freedom and a rational way of life. It is capitalism that broke through national and racial barriers, by means of free trade.
Yeah, and it gave us shit like chattel slavery.
Just as there is no such thing as a collective or racial mind, so there is no such thing as a collective or racial achievement. There are only individual minds and individual achievements — and a culture is not the anonymous product of undifferentiated masses, but the sum of the intellectual achievements of individual men.
Well, she just said a big “fuck you” to the civil rights movement. Shut down that goddamned African American museum!
Last, but not least, here’s a good one that could’ve been lifted from news headlines about the right wing today:
This accumulation of contradictions, of short-sighted pragmatism, of cynical contempt for principles, of outrageous irrationality, has now reached its climax in the new demands of the Negro leaders… Racial quotas have been one of the worst evils of racist regimes. There were racial quotas in the universities of Czarist Russia, in the population of Russia’s major cities, etc.
According to Ayn Rand, the demands by these blacks are the epitome of it all. Blacks in the Civil Rights movement who were fighting for equality and diversity in schools, they’re not just like the worst racist totalitarian regimes, they’re much much worse. Sounds like a sensible, totally not racist basis upon which to form a political philosophy, huh?
However, the way that Rand, and other like-minded thinkers, defined freedom was also dangerous.
In the 1950s, both Rand and Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek proposed a new vision of freedom. Their freedom was more a negative type freedom. They asserted that self-interest controlled all human behavior, and the only true measure of what was best for individuals were their belongings or what they were attempting to accumulate. This “market” of getting and hoarding, acted out simultaneously by millions of people in a society as complex and huge as the United States, for example, produced hundreds of millions of individual “decisions” every moment. Hayek suggested there existed a force of nature, the product and consequences of all these individual buying and selling behaviors, which he called the “free market.” At the same time, Ayn Rand’s hugely popular novels, the Fountainhead and her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, championed a philosophy of an enlightened self-interest similar to von Hayek’s.
Freedom was being redefined.
Instead of being a collaborative effort, the result of society working together to provide for the basic needs of the individual, the family, and society, freedom was now being refashioned as the individual’s ability and right to act in his or her total freedom for selfish self-fulfillment, regardless of the consequences to others (within certain limitations). Freedom was a negative force in the worldview of von Hayek, his student Milton Friedman (father of the Chicago School of libertarian economics), and Ayn Rand’s objectivism. This freedom was more of a freedom “from” than a freedom “to”: freedom from social obligation, freedom from taxation; freedom from government assistance or protection (now perceived as “interference”); freedom to consider one’s needs and wants, because if each individual followed his selfish desires, the mass of individuals acting in concert in a “free market” would result in a utopia.
This vision claims to be the true vision of a free world. Rand and other thinkers like her claimed that a world where government limited nothing but violence and all markets were free — market here meaning the behavior of individuals or collectives of individuals (corporations) — had never before been attempted. Their opponents, progressives and liberals, pointed out that their system had in fact been tried many times throughout history, and was the history of the most chaotic eras of every civilization. Lacking a true social contract and interdependence, these societies were characterized by physical and economic violence. In this social schematic, those most willing and able to plunder would rise to the top of the economic heap. In the past, they were rightfully called robber barons.
In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, think tanks funded by wealthy individuals and multinational corporations joined forces with obedient politicians to win the “battle of ideas.” Greed, combined with a blind belief in free markets, was their dogma. This movement brought into power both the feeble-minded Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Reagan would oversee the greatest exchange of wealth and the destruction of Labor. Both Thatcher and Reagan would turn government into a force against labor, both busting powerful unions in their respective countries. Both “freed” markets by dropping tariffs and undoing regulations. In both instances, industry fled both countries, to wherever labor was cheapest, and the middle class was fucked without so much as a kiss.
This new economic religion would be used in Chile with disastrous results. Poverty and wealth gaps would increase dramatically and the privatization of the social security system threw even more people into abject poverty. Of course, a few bankers, industrialists, and politicians became wealthy.
After the downfall of the Soviet Union, Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys, not satisfied with the failures their policies created in Chile, would apply this system with equally disastrous results in Russia. Undaunted and in need of a new country to experiment on, they found an ally with George W. Bush, whose entire cabinet was made up of people who shared the von Hayek/ Rand worldview. The result, as we all have seen, has been a failure of historic proportions. Well-paying jobs were replaced with jobs that demanded workers ask the question, “Do you want fries with that?” with social mobility dropping and wealth gaps increasing to levels not seen for over a hundred years.
This is where we are living today and there are people still demanding we continue on this road — the road to neo-slavery.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…
- I’ll simply offer the following, as there is way too much fallacious thinking in Rand’s work to document in a short blog (or even a thick book):
Ayn Rand relies on absolute self-certainty where she should be relying on well-reasoned arguments. One problem here is doing this often resembles well-thought-out, consistent philosophy, but in terms of actual philosophy, it amounts to nothing more than polemics and screeds. From her writings, all that can be logically deduced are her opinions, yet I have no doubt that Rand dislikes Marxism, nor do I doubt her love of Capitalism. Another problem is that assuming the certainty of your conclusions is simply poorly-executed philosophy — every philosopher must be willing to accept that they could be wrong about their conclusions, or else they are not doing philosophy.
For, example, her well-documented ideological struggle against Marxism undermines her own argument. The Marxist dialectic underpins the Continental approach to philosophy. If we are to take Rand’s conclusions seriously, which is to say that if we take her particular anti-Marxism to be the point she is making, then she is using the Marxist dialectic to completely disavow Marxism, thus ending the dialectic. There are two problems with this. First, her work would be little more than her bid to be the “the champion of all philosophical discourse”, and second, there are still way too many questions left unanswered for us to stop doing philosophy.
So frankly, she has written nothing particularly philosophically interesting or compelling.