Posts Tagged Ayn Rand

Rand and Cloward-Piven

Leaving the movie aside, since I haven’t seen it yet, this certainly ranks as one of the weirdest criticisms of Atlas Shrugged:

For the past two years Glenn Beck has successfully demonized what he calls the Cloward-Piven strategy amongst his conservative audience.  Using a 1966 article written by academics Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, Beck has claimed that progressives are attempting to “collapse the system” by causing an economic downfall.  Theoretically, this collapse would then usher in a new, socialist government.  However, conservatives seem to be ignoring the fact that the same strategy is used, with an opposite goal, in the newly released movie Atlas Shrugged.

Atlas Shrugged is based entirely on “collapsing the system” upon itself in order to achieve a better ends.  In the movie, if it stays true to the novel, a group of industrial leaders purposefully leave their businesses in order to collapse the economy.

While Atlas Shrugged reads at times more like a political tome than a novel, that’s no excuse for not reading like a novel.

First, the Strike – the Captains of Industry going on strike to protest their inability to actually create wealth – is a thought experiment.  Capitalists, innovators, will do what they love to do, and they’ll find someplace to do it.  They won’t go “on strike,” they’ll go to someplace where they can be capitalists.  That used to be the US, and in order to demonstrate the thought experiment, Rand had pretty much every other country on earth turned into a People’s Republic, so there was no other place to go.

Second, the capitalists are people, but they’re also a stand-in for capital, which has gone “on strike” in the past, when punished for success, or when regulatory uncertainty is too great.   Done so in the past, and may have been doing so for the last couple of years.

Third, at least one half of Cloward-Piven actively encourages street violence to get their way.  There’s none of that in Atlas Shrugged. Societal breakdown is never pretty, but from Rand, it’s a warning, from Piven it’s a means.

Finally, and a little tangentially, the goal of the strikers isn’t a more “pro-business” environment.  It’s a pro-market regulatory environment.  One of Rand’s main points is that Big Business is perfectly able and willing to collude with Big Government and Big Labor to lock out the little guy, whether he be businessman or worker.

Honestly, this looks like another in a series of “I’m Rubber, You’re Glue” arguments by the left.


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Looking for Torah in Ayn Rand

Of all the rhetorical baits-and-switches the Left has pulled over the last 100 century or more, perhaps none has been as complete, enduring, or damaging as the identification of “Jewish values” and liberal politics. The historical roots are in European socialism, and there is even some evidence that the prominence of leftist Jewish political activity contributed to the merger between Democrat urban patronage and socialist policies. Regardless of the roots, for many if not most American Jews, the labels Liberal and Democrat are part and parcel of being Jewish. And attempts to assert capitalist, small-l libertarian, or conservative views are often met with accusations of not being Jewish enough.

But folks, It Ain’t Necessarily So.

Rabbi Gross out here in Omaha is in the middle of a 3-class lecture and discussion series on “Looking for Torah in Ayn Rand.” I missed the first lecture on “The Virtue of Selfishness,” but I caught last night’s on The Fountainhead.

There’s no particular reason to think Howard Roark is Jewish, but he’ll do. His life is a pattern as old as that of Pharaoh Jews: his talents are used, his ambition thwarted, his virtues caricatured as vices. Like Yaakov, he takes pleasure in his work (there is ample textual basis for this belief), and is often able to work out a modus vivendi with the Powers That Be (Esav, starring as Peter Keating) to continue to do that work, although his status is often precarious.

But Rand’s villains-as-cautionary-tales are usually more interesting, both for what not to be and what not to fall for. In this case, that’s columnist Ellsworth Toohey, who doesn’t actually wish that the US could be China for a day, but might have. His techniques for making it so are straight out of the manipulations of the worst of the Torah villains.

Toohey sets up altruism as the greatest ideal; once men inevitably fail to live up to it personally, he then offers them the chance to make amends by living up to it vicariously, by turning power over to someone who clearly has no interest in money – him.

This is straight out of Lavan’s playbook. Lavan uses Yaakov’s guilt over the moral complications concerning the birthright to manipulate him into increasingly unfavorable deals, which he has no intention of keeping to in any case. In each instance, when Yaakov tries to enforce the terms of the agreement, Lavan argues that it’s unfair, or that that’s not how things are done there, or that Yitzchak would never have done that.

Toohey deligitimizes greatness, even the idea of greatness, by elevating mediocrity. Yes, it’s handicapping people for the sake of control.  It’s also a direct parallel of the rhetoric Korach uses to undermine Moshe. What’s special about this blue thread, when I can make a whole garment of them? What’s special about washing this way, when I’ve just taken a whole bath? What’s special about this scroll on my doorway, when I’ve a whole library of sefarim? In Rand’s world is actual achievement and originality that suffers. In the Torah, it’s holiness.

Finally, Toohey recognizes the destructive power of laughter. The ancient Greeks understood it. Umberto Eco’s monks killed over it. And Rabbi Hayim Luzatto in Mesillat Yasharim (The Path of the Righteous) makes exactly the same point – that laughter and ridicule obliterate reverence. (The Rabbis keep this power under wraps by giving it free rein for one day each year, on Purim.) Both ridicule and mediocity serve to eliminate rivals for people’s admiration and models for their aspiration.

All this said, one has to understand Ran’s limitations. As Whittaker Chambers noted in his devastating National Review critique, a purely materialist philosophy is by definition incomplete. Rand’s philosophy may suffice for Rav Soloveitchik’s Adam I – Dignified Man – but only Torah is broad enough to satisfy Adam II – Man who hungers for a faith community.

Still, that Rand mistakenly considered her philosophy to be complete doesn’t mean that we have to evaluate it on that basis. We can stipulate that it’s incomplete, evaluate it on the basis of where it actually applies, and recognize that some of its most liberating aspects are both rooted in and consonant with Torah ideals.

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