A tentative proposal to future strategists: attack a person or group whose interests do not align with the interests of your real foes, in the hope that in defending them they will compromise their own ideals or ambitions.
It is a cliché but a true one: your enemy’s enemy is not always a friend. The left hated neoconservatives, for example, but this did not make their attempts at “democratisation” any more conceited and destructive. The left hates Ayn Rand, with a ferocity out of proportion with her influence. Her unabashed “greed is good” stance, and disdain for the common man, along with the overall strangeness of her reedy voice, wooden prose and cultlike following, make her a convenient symbol of the outgroup. Yet this by no means suggests that conservatives should embrace her. Rand-rehabilitating polemic such as that of Milo Yiannopoulos illuminates the weaknesses and not the strengths of the right.
The woman was remarkable. Anyone who turns up in a strange new country and achieves success has impressive attributes, and anyone who sells books writing in their second language has more. One must praise her fortitude, and her ingenuity, yet this is not how one should judge a philosopher.
Rand was in no sense a conservative. She was an ideologue. Michael Oakeshott wrote of Hayek that “a plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics”, and this is even more applicable to Rand. Devoted to principle above prudence, she would have rampaged about institutions in the name of an ideal.
Greg Nyquist, in his book and blog Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, observes that Rand clung to an illusion of what Russell Kirk elsewhere called “dessicated rationality”, concerned with “the presentation of an ideal man”, whose “mind can be made to control anything”, rather than facing up to the inevitable limitations of the human consciousness. Fetishising reason exaggerates our ability to manipulate the world in our interests; encouraging overconfidence in both left and right wing utopians, the former of which hold that the state can accomplish anything and the latter of which hold that we can accomplish anything without a state.
Rand’s dogmatism was on show in “Conservatism: An Obituary”. This essay critiqued three conservative arguments for capitalism: those from “faith”, “tradition” and “depravity”. Rand dismissed the former on hard secularist grounds and then scoffed at the second, saying that “argument…that we must accept the values other men have chosen, merely because other men have chosen them” is an “affront to a man’s self-esteem”, expressing a “profound contempt for man’s nature”. This betrays profound contempt for the reader’s intelligence. Conservatives respect tradition not “merely” because men of old have chosen them but as they have endured through generations and proved themselves valuable. No conservatives, meanwhile, suggest that one must “uphold the status quo…regardless of whether it is good or bad, right or wrong, defensible or indefensible”. It is a general disposition, not an absolute decree.
Rand’s critique of the “depravity” argument is not just unreasonable, it is foolish. Conservatives, she writes, maintain that since human beings are fallible in heart and mind no one man could be fit for absolute power and individuals must have freedom. This, she says, asserts that men “are not good enough for a dictatorship; freedom is all that they deserve; if they were perfect, they would be worthy of a totalitarian state”. How Rand made the soaring leap from one man being unfit to rule to all men being unfit to be ruled is beyond me but it gave her an excuse to rant about the “cynical, man-hating” conservatives who “sneer at all ideals, scoff at all human aspirations and deride all attempts to improve men’s existence”.
A conservative, Rand says, is “spitting in [his] own face”. “Who will fight and die to defend his status as a miserable sinner?” As was often the case, her language was explosive but her argument was a damp squib. The “constrained vision” explored by conservatives from Burke to Eliot to Sowell does not maintain that man is evil but that he is prone to sin, nor that man is stupid but that his mind has its limits. Such an opinion counsels humility and not mortification. It suggests that one should value “present laughter [over] utopian bliss”. As for Rand’s closing shot, well, millions of men who died treasuring the communal existence of their nations, and the quiet joys of lovers, friends, families and homes. In her deification of the humans in her head Rand overlooked such modest pleasures and such modest pride.
“Reason” tends to be a fetish of the atheistic. I would not, and could not, mandate belief in the Christian faith but the arrogance that inspired Rand to tell William Buckley that the young author of God and Man in Yale was “too intelligent to believe in God” required philosophical and cultural poverty. (Yiannopoulos strives to defend Rand from this charge with the point her writings betrayed a Christian influence but this is true of almost all Western culture, including progressivism.)
Without faith in God, or the culture that worshipped Him, Rand depended on reason to find her morals and aesthetics, ending up with impoverished conceptions of both. Nyquist is incisive in his criticisms of her efforts, which often entailed rationalising preferences. (When she found out that a sometime lover had been sleeping with another woman she released a public disavowal of the “irrational behaviour in his private life”.) This is common to humans but not all humans have attempted to junk inherited wisdom and define objective moral and aesthetic codes. Rand’s attempts at the latter, which judged art to a considerable extent by whether they expressed an ambitious and optimistic “sense of life”, was so blinkered to beauty that Rembrandt and Beethoven were looked down upon. Such a feat could only be accomplished by the humourless.
Rand’s inner circle, satirised in that more readable and likeable libertarian Murray Rothbard’s play Mozart Was a Red, made for excellent gossip fodder and also revealed shortcomings in her worldview. In its squabbles and love triangles it made of a farce of the idea that our desires and neuroses can be ruled by “reason”, and in the heroine-worship given to her by her excitable followers one sees the essential limitations of individualism. Its outlandishness, and subsequent effects on the emotions of people involved, recalls Chesterton’s quip that he longed for the “centricities of genius”. Yiannopoulos makes a good point in his conclusion…
Ayn Rand’s great achievement, from a conservative point of view, present in embryonic form in Ideal, was to recognize that the battle for man’s soul would be fought in the studios of Hollywood, the newsrooms of New York, and the lecture halls of Massachusetts, not in the stultifying round tables of Washington, DC. It’s a lesson the GOP has yet to learn.
Yet this fine ambition is attached to an unworthy figure. Rand was a poet of spiritual desolation. Shorn of God and short of culture, man was God and capitalism was his culture. Productivity and accumulation made him great, yet conservatives hold that these are good means and not good ends. Wonder, art, discovery and love ennoble human life, and with tradition and mutual effort they can flourish.