Sunday, October 20, 2013

Why Randians Would Do Well to Learn That Life Often Sucks

I almost never talked about Ayn Rand in grad school, mostly because her ideas are stupid and derivative (anything that’s any good she stole from Nietzsche or the Austrian school).  Once, however, a professor lamented how many otherwise smart and tasteful undergrads loved Ayn Rand. He couldn’t figure out why, until he realized that these young men (as they usually were) felt unappreciated for their raw brilliance, an experience that Yale (where your average kid is pretty dang sharp) only intensifies. These kids know who John Galt is: it's them!  The many young Randians I’ve met match the demographic: despite getting into really good schools, they might not have gotten into the best schools, or might not have won the best awards, or in some other way were not able to succeed in every possible way imaginable. They are not appreciated! Their genius is not recognized! And yet these other people are getting things they deserve! It's not fair! We must have a strike of geniuses!

(By the way, I’ve got nothing against Yale undergrads, many of whom I really admired--especially the sociology majors, who I got to know very well, but lots of other folks as well. The vast majority of Yale kids I met were well aware of the gift of their education, and while they had worked incredibly hard, very few told me they "earned" their spot. They knew they were lucky.) 

I have neither the time nor the desire for a full-scale critique of Randians for the empirically untenable and morally poisonous world they describe. Most intellectuals just think Rand is ridiculous and don't bother to engage her. But this leaves an empty, untended pool that fills with vipers. Something's gotta be done, so here’s something.

It seems stunningly obvious to me that any success any of us have (while hard work certainly has much to do with it) is ultimately contingent and mostly unearned. Ayn Rand, John Galt, and any of the rest of us are lucky to be alive, to know how to read, and not to have died of malaria. Sure, fine, yes, hard work matters. Sure, fine, yes, there are lazy people who want a free ride. Sure, fine, yes, talents are not distributed equally at birth. And sure, fine, yes, some people have had to work a ton harder than others. There are folks who taught themselves to read, who struggled unimaginably to succeed. And some of those folks might well like Ayn Rand, but most of them—in my experience (meeting such folks, not being one—I've had a pretty easy ride)—know their success was contingent and sympathize with all those takers. I have never met an Ayn Rand fan who was a real-live self-taught bootstrapper (despite whatever they claimed on their admission essays): they had taken social capital and language skills from their parents and schools, and they went on taking all the opportunities that come from growing up among the elite (and if you’re middle class in America, you’re in the global elite). The makers just keep taking.

Enter the Republicans’ anger at Obama's infelicitous insistence that "you didn't build that." Even if the righteous rage didn’t get Romney elected, it did reveal something important about the American myth of self-creation, a myth that might explain Rand’s popularity. If you ignore the parents that raised you, the schools that educated you, the roads that carry you, the government that protects you, then, sure, yes, you are the carrier of your own life.  But that's a lot to ignore.  We are all, all of us, within communities that are greater than the sum of their parts.

If you’re reading this and think I’m arguing against the market, then you’re totally misunderstanding both me and the market.  The invisible hand is often plenty effective, and I think it’s usually a better bet than a state solution. But even the market is greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s only able to work with a state that keeps it on track and citizens who are committed to a certain ethical vision that’s bigger than themselves.  In fact, all of this comes to a lesson that’s so crushingly obvious I’m embarrassed to write it, yet it seems necessary to repeat: any human success is only possible because of communities in both the present and the past.  Even a guy living in a cave who takes care of himself on his own—if he wants to think about the experience meaningfully—must depend upon a language, which, like old Ludwig W. argued, can never be private.  We're all in this together, and that's true whether that "together" is the work of the state or the interactions of the market (which is not just "you" either).  None of us builds anything alone.

A lot of folks have criticized Christian Randians for ignoring Jesus's call to serve the poor.  It’s an important criticism, but it misses something much deeper: Rand's vision of the human person is fundamentally asocial and self-directed, both of which are radically different from any Christianity I’ve ever encountered.

The Christian God's very self is social (look at all the brilliant theological work on the trinity), and Christian anthropology is fundamentally communal (such communitarianism motivates Christian critiques of liberalism’s individualist assumptions—see Hauerwas, MacIntyre, Taylor, etc.) It is with others that creation is possible (not as lone geniuses), and through others that we create Church, experience grace, and prepare our salvation. Of course, there’s a certain Evangelical, Pauline reading of Christian life that focuses only on an individual acceptance of Jesus and then a smug satisfaction that all is done.  Yet such a reading ignores that the Bible through which these folks encounter Christ was written by others, that the Bible itself documents others, and that the Bible was carried forward through history by others.  Even the most Biblicist, individualist reading of Christian salvation is still incompatible with Randian individualism.  Not to mention, first, that few if any Christians (including Evangelicals) actually live like this, and second, that the Gospels are a huge “you’re so friggin’ wrong it’s unbelievable” to anyone who wants to ignore other people.  There’s a reason conservative Christians lean heavier on Paul than on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John:  Jesus was pretty clear that people need to be in community and that they’ll be judged by how they’ve treated the least of these.

That Christians’ obligations to the poor make their commitments incompatible with objectivism is already well-traveled ground, not least by Rand, who recognized her dissonance with Christianity better than some of her Christian devotees.  The disconnect is more interesting to me for revealing something important about how Christians should think about themselves and the role of contingency in their lives. “Blessed are the poor” is a hard nut, and one that can be used to justify all sorts of oppressive economic systems.  Yet one of its most important lessons—at least for me—has been that the poor are better able to recognize the contingency of success and inoculate themselves against the sin of pride.  If you know enough poor people, you know they’re just as smart and talented and hard-working as rich people, and once you know that, it’s hard to feel all that proud about being successful.  It’s hard to be anything but grateful when you do wind up doing well, and indifferent when you don’t.

I’m not arguing that material poverty is a good thing (it’s not).  I don’t think Jesus was making that argument either: in fact, human rights—including the right to fair wages, health care, and good education—can be justified by the Abrahamic belief in the equality of all humanity. (Of course, it should be obvious—even if it’s not for a lot of folks—that there are plenty of non-Abrahamic, secular, and atheist ways to justify human rights as well.)  What I’m instead arguing is that the experience of poverty helps people to understand something deeply important about life, something Rand’s philosophy just doesn’t get: success is utterly contingent.  Or, less abstractly, life often sucks.  And when our life does not suck, we had a lot less to do with that lack-of-sucking than we might otherwise believe.

Like countless others before him, Augustine couldn’t figure out why an all-loving God would make a world that sucked so much.  While his solution leaned a bit too much on predestination for my taste, I appreciate his instance that what success we have is due much more to God’s grace than our good works: as he said, there but for the grace of God go I.   Augustine encouraged Christians to cultivate humility and gratitude and avoid the sort of pride that Rand’s self-created anthropology encourages.  You don’t need God for this insight, either. Lots of wise folks throughout history have realized what seems pretty clear: it could have been a lot worse, and you’re a lucky bastard if it’s not.

And that’s another place where the Randian vision of the person differs radically from the Christian: it’s not just that she denies we have to serve the poor.  It’s that she denies they’re actually people with rights.  She’s most clearly Nietzschean in her argument that there are basically two kinds of people, the worthless takers and the necessary makers.   Now, for a Christian, no human is worthless, but that’s a problem with how Rand treats the poor, which, again, lots of smart people have already written about. I’m more interested in how this way of thinking affects the makers, as it forces them to think of themselves as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity, as superior, special, and exempt.  It’s hard for such people to function in a democracy because any bad things that happen to them must surely be the result of some grand conspiracy.  The sun should always shine on makers, and when it doesn’t, it’s a cosmic injustice with some clear person to blame. (Rand herself was just so covetous, deeply embittered by her critics’ disregard, her romantic failures, her general lack of apotheosis.) And so we return to the Yale undergrads who don’t understand why the world won’t already worship them. 

To divide humanity into makers and takers creates a cruel indifference to billions of lives, yet it also divorces certain self-styled makers from the most important insight we’ve ever had about the human condition: life, for no good reason, often sucks.  Or, as the wise King put it, “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (KJV Ecclesiastes 9:11). Ecclesiastes, Job, Oedipus, the Bhagadava-Gita, The Stoics, Candide, the Brothers Karamazov: none of the great works of wisdom make sense to a maker, because it can’t be the cruelty of fate that explains our suffering.  We’re exempt! No, we need the strategies of a grocery-store thriller to solve the real problem: those damn takers.

It might be asking too much for our country to read the Stoics (though they’ll change your life, they’re pretty easy to read, and they’re just about free on Kindle).  Yet there are other ways to cultivate a sense of solidarity and an awareness of our own contingency.  Richard Rorty says we should read novels, which might work, though plenty of cruel people really like novels. We could also read the Bible (especially the Gospels), though you run into the same problems there (lots of slave-owners loved their Bible). The same is true for any of those other holy books that preach solidarity.  Assholes love scripture too.

We could also try talking, really taking, to these so-called takers, who, it turns out, are human, have not taken quite as much as we might have imagined, and do not always and in all cases want to suck the government teat until all is dried and dead. Yet what I’m describing here might be both the hardest and easiest of them all: I’m asking Randians to think about what it means to be a human being, and if Rand—whether describing makers or takers—really captures it.  And maybe the problem is that when you’re 19, or even 45, or maybe even 70—and every injustice you’ve experienced seems like it can be blamed on someone taking something from you, then maybe Rand seems right. 

But once your kid dies in a car accident, you’re left with a world that sucks for no reason except that the world sucks.  You’re left with an awareness that the joy you had yesterday was the pure dumb luck of fate’s cruelty not happening until today.  You’re left recognizing that your dad could have beat the hell out of you everyday, or that your government could have left your water filthy and choleric, or that you could have been forced into war or sex or both back when you were a kid.  Or maybe just that those people who actually did care about you might not have, or might have cared just a little bit less. Or any other damn thing.

And the rest of us—who are here watching you—are left, like the audience of an ancient Greek tragedy, feeling pity for your suffering and relief it’s not us. And, I hope, maybe a gratitude that makes us eager to help you, and then others like you.  Maybe a humility and a sense of awe that the whole thing hasn’t already just fallen apart.  Maybe a deepened appreciation for the beauty that does exist, for the relationships that do work, for the bits of life that do not suck at all, but that are actually quite lovely, thank you.  Maybe a sense that life will always suck, but it will suck less if we’re together. Or maybe we just blame Obama.


  1. Thoughtful critique, Jeff. May I suggest yet another draft of this, which peels back the philosophical critique and raises one simple question: is Rand's perspective compatible with any Christian moral order? That may be too tall an order, so a less ambitious angle may be: is Rand's perspective compatible with a Catholic moral order? And then send it to somewhere that people who identify as Christian/ Catholic and who read Rand might frequent.

    You central premiss is correct, objectively speaking: Rand presents a view on the world that would have appalled the historical Jesus, the fathers of the early Western Church, the leaders of the Reformation, the leaders of the Counter-Reformation, the founders of American religious traditions etc (and Martin Luther King, Jr too). I leave aside the question of an anti-pope or two.

    I don't think it is helpful to conflate that premiss with the second question of the merit of her philosophical input; simply articulating just how completely non-Christian her work truly is and accounting for the appeal of her work to her typical readers would I think be very helpful in untangling the strands of right-wing rhetoric in our day and age -- and show how elective affinities rather than actual commonalities are what link together many of the seminal right-wing works.

    What I mean is to pose this challenge: either you can strive to reconcile the political order with Christian ethics or you can try and engage with Rand, but these are separate and non-reconcilable projects.

    Just an idea!

  2. I really enjoyed this analysis, but feel impelled to stand up for Paul here. All of 1 Corinthians (not to mention many other places) is one gigantic rejection of the idea that we can do anything other but stumble along in community together.

  3. Hi Catherine. I agree with you! I think I was a bit unclear: I'm not arguing Paul is an individualist; I'm instead arguing a lot of individualists use Paul. I agree with you that these folks are misreading Paul (I like Paul a lot), but I do think (and perhaps you and I differ here) that it's somewhat easier to find individualist justification in Paul than in the Gospels. That's very different from saying Paul is an individualist (which I by no means believe).

  4. And Tom, I've been thinking more about what you said, and I think if anything, I should keep the two veins together but show how connected they are: what's important about Rand's dissonance with Christianity is ultimately why she doesn't work at all. Now I think a lot of Christianity is empirically untenable, so I should be clear this isn't an apologetic argument. However, I think that Christianity as one example of the wisdom literature--of describing and trying to understand suffering--shows why Rand is fundamentally unable to deal with these big questions. That's not to say that Buddha or Voltaire or Seneca wouldn't have very different things from the authors of Ecclesiastes, Job, and the Gospels. They would. But my point is that all of these stories and arguments are effective in ways that Rand's simply are not.

  5. Ah, understood.

    Now, here's how I would revise my suggestions: The spin in that case would be "Rand is Not Wise", and work through what wisdom literature is and how she is not that. I've dipped into this field briefly during my MA when I was looking at acts of authorial pontificating from modernist fiction writers -- it was fashionable to use aphoristic phraseology in the narrative voice (examples abound, but consider the many instances of Hemingway make some ponderous declaration of what it means to be a man). What I found was the tension in the traditional wisdom literature over what was genuinely wise and what was formally persuasive but not wise in nature. This is worked through in Proverbs 9 thoughtfully.

    The angle of attack with Rand would simply be that she apes the form of wisdom statements but her content aims to persuade of her oracular authority rather than either a social or transcendent structure of moral order. Sort of a modern day Simoniac. I'll send along my fragment on this topic for your edification.