On Monday, as a result of some sort of facebook glitch, a blog post I wrote on capitalism and Ayn Rand years ago was highlighted on my timeline. I didn’t even know it had happened until a reader commented, “What the heck is this? Are we getting a ‘Best of’ because it’s a holiday or something?” Since I was out and about and mobile facebook on my Palm Pre doesn’t let me do much, I just had to leave it up. By the time I got home late in the evening, it had received many hits. Since my understanding of Rand and thoughts on the subject have changed a lot since then, I feel a need to return to this subject (especially since I left so many comments unaddressed on that post).
It is a very common misunderstanding of Rand to think that her novel Atlas Shrugged is merely a defense of capitalism. Especially of capitalism as it is and has been. It is better read as an exposé of the failures of communism and the insufficiency of socialism’s understanding of human nature and motivation. Still, that hardly does justice to her novel. She believed herself to be translating a new, original abstraction (or philosophy) into a new, original concrete form. While she certainly was giving herself a bit too much credit, this illustrates the importance of looking for what is new, what is original in her thinking. It shatters the idea that she was simply writing about what is/was.
It is equally important to understand that her philosophy was presented in a novel intentionally. She never claimed to be strictly dealing with reality. She even confessed very openly that her desire was to create the kind of world that she would like to live in and then to let others enjoy it (as much as they could). Her “mythological styling,” her blatant idealizations, are entirely deliberate. Entering the world she creates is therefore similar to entering a sci-fi or fantasy world,* where reality operates by different rules and has a different texture. The knowledge that one can glean from her novel, then, is similar to the wisdom one can gain reading a good sci-fi or fantasy book where these distortions of reality help to reveal more obviously motivations and forces that are veiled in our reality. That suggest things about human nature and our systems that are valuable, even while the presentation of them within the novel is romanticize or unrealistic.
Had you told Rand that her novel doesn’t depict the reality of historical capitalism, she probably would have laughed in your face and asked you to tell her something she didn’t know (assuming she was as sassy as I imagine she was). Most likely, she would also have taken it as a compliment. What she presents in her novel is not a functioning economic system (if you’ve read the novel you know that the economy is collapsing), instead she reveals the necessary conditions for the functioning of a healthy economic system (whether it be capitalistic or something else). This is what can translate to our reality. Those conditions include but are not limited to the necessity of individual responsibility, the preservation of human dignity, the encouragement of ingenuity and productive human activity (which includes creative activities such as the arts) all based upon a foundation of economic exchange that is motivated by mutual interest for mutual benefit.
What is suggested in Atlas Shrugged is that all of these things, which are mistakenly associated with socialism/communism (thus why it was necessary for her to show how they are not achieved within that system) should be the foundational principals of a different kind of capitalism.
It is easy to read her novel and get turned off by how frequently her heroes claim to be selfish, greedy and uncaring. But if you notice the contrast between what they are saying and how they are acting, if you listen to how they redefine these terms, you will see that Rand is portraying something much more beautiful and robust than an icy individualism or cruel capitalism.
All of her “selfish” heroes care more about the welfare of others and of the nation than her “selfless” villains. All of the businesses/business owners claiming to operate “purely for profit” are actually the ones operating from an ethos of mutual interest and mutual benefit. All of the businesses/business owners claiming to operate for “the common good” are actually the ones operating purely for self-interest and individual benefit. She very accurately demonstrates that these latter people and their principles are responsible for the collapse of the economy and that this is true in both capitalism and communism.
Her ‘mislabeling’ is intentional. What she suggests is that individual thriving is connected to collective thriving and that individual success is connected to collective success. What she illustrates is that human happiness and sustainable economic success are reliant upon responsible people who are committed to working for mutual benefit and mutual interest. Have we not found this to be true? Wouldn’t you say that our economy is struggling because large corporations and wealthy business people thought that it was sufficient to merely operate for self-interest and their individual benefit?
She illustrates that the only way to have a healthy economy is for people to be responsible. It requires business men and women who will operate off of these principles. Who will provide valuable work and fair compensation for their workers. Who will provide quality services and good products to conscious consumers. Who will not deal with or support other businesses with bad principles and practices. It requires workers who will not allow themselves to be exploited, who will take pride in their work and will not stick with a company that has poor practices and bad principles. It is reliant upon consumers who will make conscious decisions, who will choose to buy good products from good companies, over cheap products from exploitative companies.
The most frightening thing that she makes clear is that a healthy economic system cannot be handed to you by a government, it has to be created by people who will hold each other accountable. She reveals that politicians can be just as corrupt as business men. If you want a system based on more than greed and selfishness, you have to actively be a part of creating it and helping it to thrive. Haven’t we learned that laws alone are not sufficient to make our economy function?
Is all of this really that idealistic? I don’t think so. There is actually a movement among entrepreneurs and businesses for a new form of capitalism, called Conscious Capitalism, that has these principles at its heart. There are now very successful businesses genuinely operating for mutual benefit and interest. Every day it seems like a new business is popping up with some of (if not all of) these ethos at its heart. More and more established businesses are changing their practices because the recession has made consumers more conscious and because so many of us are tired of capitalism as it was. More and more millennial are refusing to stay in jobs where they feel alienated and exploited. And, when they do not find jobs that allow them to thrive, many are creating new jobs. Slowly but surely, a new economy is actually taking shape around us. Rand’s philosophy, despite some of its shortfalls and the idealization of her world, is actually playing a role in the shape of this different kind of economy. While her dream world is not my dream world,*** I’m glad she is having this effect on my reality.
* Considering my continual critiques of realist fiction and my high praise of Joss Whedon for not only creating highly entertain but also incredibly meaningful shows, you might understand better now why Atlas Shrugged resonates with me since it’s has a fantastic quality.
**It is important to recognize that change does not happen all at once. Just like losing weight doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process that takes time, that requires lots of different changes in different areas. These businesses I highlight are not “perfect.” You might not feel like they are challenging industrial capitalism or consumerism enough but the fact is that they are changing it. They are making it healthier, they are making it more equitable and humane. They are laying the foundation for others to go farther.
***Let me be frank, I know that I’m bringing out the best in Rand and ignoring some of her flaws. What I’ve touched on is what I think is worth taking away from her novel. Those things in her philosophy that I think are best left in fiction, I am content to simply leave there.