November 29, 2010
Part 31 in a series of posts blogging the experience of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. I’ve now finished the book, and this and the one remaining post to come are intended to summarise my thoughts on the work. You can find the first post in the series here.
Catchphrases are handy things; not least in this case when I’ll be using Victor Meldrew’s catchphrase to sum up my attitude towards Atlas Shrugged: I don’t believe it.
Astute readers will have already guessed that my commitment to Rand’s purported ideals is not total, and quite possibly a very long way away from total. But saying that I don’t believe it is intended to cover more than simple disagreement; I don’t believe that Rand believes what she’s written either.
Let me explain. Over the course of these posts, I’ve been both excessively generous and unfair to Rand. I’ve been unfair inasmuch as I haven’t made it clear that Rand was writing in a very different context to the one in which we find ourselves in the present age. Back in the 1950s, the advent of the successful large corporation had led many to espouse the benefits of central planning, and it wasn’t a great step from that to say that a powerful centralised state would solve many problems in the same way in which large corporations had solved many problems of production. Before this was actually tried in practice, it was widely seen as an intellectually respectable position, and it’s this central-state socialism at which many of Rand’s jibes are aimed. In addition, it’s important to remember that Marxism was still reasonably popular amongst academics at this time, and Marxism includes what seems to us the bizarre idea that it’s impossible to accrue capital via savings and thus become a capitalist based on one’s own effort alone – rather, the capitalist class arises from the feudal landowner & merchant class. Of Rand’s heroes, although many do come from wealthy backgrounds, her paragon John Galt doesn’t come from money and has made his own.
I have been excessively generous to Rand in pretending that her work could be in any way considered ‘proper’ philosophy beyond that accessible to the A-Level student of the subject. It’s broadly warmed-up Aristotelianism with a few moral principles bolted on in a seeming effort to stop the slaves rebelling against their aristocratic Greek overlords. Her philosophical scholarship is atrocious – her interpretation of Kant is so far off the mark that one must question whether she’s read the original text. Similarly, supporting Aristotle’s tripartite division of the soul while claiming that man is only physical matter indicates someone who hasn’t properly read even her favourite philosopher. She also appears to not fully understand the distinction between a metaphysical position (i.e. A is A in Aristotle) and an epistemological one. Her set of virtues is not internally consistent, and combining virtue ethics with deontological ethics (i.e. the principle Galt swears by) is just pointless.
One can either assume Rand was arrogant enough to ignore the many stupidities littering the work (i.e. claiming that the morality practiced by her opponents was enslaving her heroes, then instituting a new morality that ensures her opponents have no choice but to consent to being at the bottom of the heap), or that she didn’t believe it. At this point it’s important to remember that Rand was actually Russian, born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, and only emigrated to the US when she was 21.
Imagine, for a second, that you’re committed to a communist ideology which claims that the internal inconsistencies of capitalism will cause it to collapse in on itself. How would you hasten this process? You’d try to stave off any attempts at reform that might better the lot of the proletariat, you’d encourage any legal restrictions on capitalists to be removed, and you’d be aiming to convince capitalists that they should feel that what they’re doing is morally right. In other words, you’d try to do something like the Revolutionary Communist Party – who are interesting inasmuch as they took the journey from ardent communism to ardent libertarianism in a very short space of time.
One interesting feature of Rand’s life is that she spent the majority of her time attempting to live her purported ideology to the fullest, an impressive subversion of identity to ideology which is mirrored in people who take on other identities to further a particular cause. We call them spies.
I therefore put forward two explanations for Rand’s philosophy. The first is that extreme arrogance begets extreme stupidity, and the obvious shortcomings and inconsistencies in her work were simply something she didn’t accept because her interpretation of the world was correct, damn it. The second is that Rand’s libertarianism (or Objectivism; she loathed the term libertarian, although in her day it had a slightly different colour) is the end result of an attempt to bring about capitalism’s final crisis and hasten the inevitable triumph of International Communism by a Soviet propagandist.
The second would be hilarious if true; one of history’s most delightful ironies. However, the sheer splendour of such an idea is enough to render it unlikely. Put simply, it’s too perfect to be true. I will therefore go for a third option: Rand was well aware of the shortcomings of her own work, but the intent of the work was itself to deceive in the service of furthering the aims of the richest echelons of society.
In order to demonstrate this latter position, I am going to use the reaction of Rand to other philosophers to illuminate an untenable position which could only be held if one assumes that Rand’s goal was not to prize the judgement of the individual, but rather to further the interests of an aristocratic elite – to a certain extent, the same as Aristotle.
First of all, Nietzsche. We know that Rand studied Nietzsche extensively, but rejected his work on the grounds of Nietzsche’s commitment to unreason. I won’t dig into the body of Rand-Nietzschean scholarship here, but I will concentrate on one crucial aspect of it. The main point of Nietzsche’s work is not to advocate one system of ethics in the manner of Rand, but rather to talk about different types of ethics – his famous master-slave dichotomy. An ubermensch ethic is one generated entirely by the superman himself – it does not have bearing upon external value systems, but is founded on the drives of that ubermensch.
Rand’s objection seems to be based on this system of ethics being seemingly non-cognitive – not derived from judgements but rather arising entirely from instinct. However, it’s not clear that this is the case – Nietzsche’s description of the ethics of the ubermensch is as an ‘inner law’; laws, in this sense, being clearly products of cognition regarding instincts. Nietzsche left a significant space for this sort of cognitive ethical activity for his paragons, on the grounds that creativity with respect to ethics was in itself a virtue of the ubermensch. Rand denies her protagonists this fundamental freedom, preferring to claim instead that only her morality was correct. This purposeful withholding of the capacity for ethical judgements from the individual is important.
Rand’s attitude towards Kant provides an excellent example of this. This is a quotation from the man Rand described as ‘history’s greatest monster’:
“[A]paternalistic government, where the subjects, as minors, cannot decide what is truly beneficial or detrimental to them, but are obliged to wait passively for the head of state to judge how they ought to be happy…would be the greatest conceivable despotism.“
This would be a very good description of the straw-man socialist government Rand sets up in Atlas Shrugged. Why, therefore, would she criticise Kant?
The answer lies partly in her apparent misinterpretation of Kant’s epistemology, and partly in her misinterpretation of Kant’s ethics. I shall focus on the latter here.
Rand claims that Kant is advocating a system of duty which says that any act is not moral if it is not performed in accordance with duty; duty being an intuition of the good. An act is immoral if it is performed with the intention of receiving benefit as a consequence, only duty is a permissible motivation.
The lack of appeal of such an austere system of ethics is clear. The problem for Rand is that it’s not what Kant said. An act performed in accordance with duty can deliver benefits to the person performing it; the question is motivation, rather than the outcome. This will become clearer if we examine Kant’s ethics in the round. If we do see, we’ll see that Kant actually leaves a significant amount of space for the individual to determine their own actions; ‘duty’ being a very broad concept.
An act motivated by duty is an act performed with the intention of following the moral law. Kant gives various iterations of this, the most famous of which is his categorical imperative:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
Broadly, this means that if your action wouldn’t result in contradiction if everyone else did the same (i.e. if you murder someone, then in a world in which everyone murders everyone else you wouldn’t exist to perform the act) then you shouldn’t do it, and if an action when performed universally would produce a world you didn’t like, then you shouldn’t do it. It’s not immediately apparent from the clumsiness of the phrasing, but this places tremendous emphasis on the freedom of the individual to exercise their judgement in terms of what they think is best for the world. For example, a capitalist who genuinely believed that capitalism was the best system for everybody would be free to seek out any profit he wished. Even though he benefits from the system, he can still act entirely in accordance with duty. A communist could seek to seize the means of production on the same principle; it’s pretty clear that the Categorical Imperative really only stops you from being hypocritical – you can’t have one rule for yourself and another for others. You’re therefore largely free to come up with your own ethical system.
We can therefore see what much of Rand’s ire was directed at: the freedom to determine your own moral principles. Such a freedom is the most fundamental, I would argue, and efforts to constrain it can only benefit particular individuals at the expense of others. This seems to have been Rand’s goal; the subjugation of the less skilled by the most skilled, by means of morality itself. While it’s been rightly pointed out that Rand’s knowledge of other philosophers is largely lacking and uninteresting, it’s revealing – only a supreme arrogance could’ve attempted to mould the writings of others into something one could despise from a self-constructed moral highground.
It is the latter I wish to claim Rand does not possess. For even though I disagree with her philosophy utterly, I do not wish to believe that anyone capable of writing as well as her could have been guilty of this cardinal intellectual sin. Her prose, while occasionally leaden, is in the main full of a vital angry energy, and carries the reader along gleefully. If anything, her characters, plot and philosophy are incidental to the joy of the writing which reveals them; prose itself is something to be cherished.
It is for this feeble, emotional reason that I claim Rand’s aim was subjugation, rather than freedom – not out of spite, as that would point to that monstrous arrogance, but out of appreciation. With this in mind, in my next and final post I will outline a society that runs opposite to that of Rand’s theocracy of talent – one which prizes judgement of all kinds, including that which shapes moral principles.
Part 32 is here.
November 29, 2010
November 25, 2010
If there’s one exemplar of capitalism, it’s Coca-Cola. The sheer pervading nature of this brand means that no matter where you go in the world, the inhabitants will always know at least two English words – also, perhaps, ‘Hello!’ if you’re lucky. It’s success is not in itself the reason for it being the poster boy of our Western economic system; rather, it’s the nature of that success.
Put simply, Coca-Cola is the prime example of the creation of want that has defined an economic system based on consumption. No-one needs Coke, but nonetheless they drink it. Why? Since the invention of carbonated drinks, Coke has had many competitors come onto the market, but people are still willing to pay a premium for a product with a lower-priced equivalent that differs in perhaps branding alone.
The answer lies in the subtle subversion of judgement that advertising begets. A high-profile brand has more social status associated with its consumption than a low-profile brand; any child mocked in the 80s and 90s for drinking Panda Pop would understand that. The added value that permits the price premium is this accrued social status modifier arising from Coke’s superb advertising campaigns. That said, it’s not actually true that Coke gave Santa his red cloak.
What does any of this have to do with the title of this post? The answer is that I want to examine a parallel between the invention of want by Coke’s advertising campaigns and the invention of moral cause by agents interested in the consequences of its creation.
Being attached to a particular moral cause confers a certain amount of prestige; if that cause is sufficient, it can also confer funding to work on that cause. To give an example, today’s news of the Government deciding to retain the implementation of ‘go orders’ to protect victims of domestic abuse was discussed on the Today Programme with the head of Refuge, the domestic violence help charity. She made the point that in the 48 hours initial ‘go orders’ would last, the victim of domestic violence would require expert support to ensure he or she was able to cope with the situation appropriately. Refuge provides that sort of service.
I do not wish to accuse Refuge of pushing its wares on a national radio programme – the work Refuge does is very important and worthwhile – but it’s clear that this move by the Government has opened up an area of what I would call moral want, rather than moral need. It is not clearly the case that the absence of this sort of provision would have a negative impact on all people in the situation prescribed; but nonetheless comprehensive support appears to be being advocated.
This sort of moral want argument is not the preserve of charities alone, but was a feature of the Labour Government’s policy making, as well as the media’s approach to issues of public good. Edge cases identified by media stories contributed disproportionately to the previous Governments’ policy making, and continue to contribute disproportionately to the response to the policies made by the present Government.
The division between moral want and moral need is the division between an instance of a particular failing with apparent moral implications, but which can be avoided given the choices of an individual and the moral implications of a systemic example of injustice over which an individual would have minimal influence. For example, Labour’s implementation of the ASBO was in response to neighbourhoods that had difficulty in dealing with problem tenants – but the powers to deal with such (e.g. eviction from council properties) already existed. Rather than tackling the systemic injustice of poor use of existing powers and lack of access to information that would support local action, ASBOs answered the moral want rather than the need. In doing so, they created a new support structure for the bureaucracy around them, generating an interest group in their retention. They were then able to sell this to a media trading in the moral want generated by particular cases.
Labour’s method of media-driven policy making seemed designed to serve moral wants, and in doing so built an industry based on their expansion. The political premium associated with responding to a moral want became a reason to do it. This resulted in the expansion of the third sector, as organisations realised they could bid to run services to meet a want they identified in their research.
This public identification of ‘wants’ and the political premium associated with funding them over and above the amount necessary to meet the moral need is functionally equivalent to the marketing of Coca-Cola; both are strong examples of irrational behaviour based on marketing. In this, the main offender is perhaps the media, who have realised that there is a strong market in tales of moral want – including examples of moral want such as families on benefit who are abusing the system – and so tell those tales, and have the commensurate political impact.
November 24, 2010
Benedict Brogan of the Telegraph is convinced that the date of the Royal wedding is a gift to the AV campaign. Quite apart from the pathetic tabloidism inherent in trying to force any story at all through the prism of the forthcoming monarchical nuptials, this is so obviously stupid I find it difficult to believe that Mr Brogan is allowed to write in a grown-up newspaper.
The thing that will decide the AV referendum next year will be turnout. A low turnout means that we’re more likely to win, a high turnout means we’re more likely to lose. This is because people are much more likely to turn out to vote on AV alone if they understand the issues involved, and if they understand the issues involved, they’re much more likely to vote Yes. Much as I respect the effort put into the AV campaign, we are never going to have the opportunity to fully explain the workings of AV to a majority of the population in time for the election. Our best chance of success is if those who simply don’t know enough about the issue to be fully engaged stay at home – and a Royal Wedding makes it much more likely that this will happen. This is also why it’s been said that the higher turnout that will be a consequence of holding the referendum on the same day as local elections and elections to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament is bad news for the Yes campaign. It doesn’t work both ways – either a high turnout is good for us, or a low turnout is.
November 23, 2010
Doubtless the electronic ether-laden air is about to be saturated with missives claiming that Clegg has just announced the end of control orders as a consequence of the strength of his language on civil liberties in tonight’s lecture. I’d like to discuss a slightly different point.
As the lecture ended, I heard a young (20~) man complain to his mother that Clegg’s ‘New Progessivism’ was just a disguise for the minimalist state. This, of course, ignored everything that Clegg had said during the lecture about the importance of a state-funded NHS and education, and was said with a rather plummy tone. It recalled my last post in which I argued that the statist Left’s irrationalities and hyperboles since the election were a psychological consequence of the inability to accept that they were now in the minority. But it spoke to more than that; a distrust of politicians in which one ignores what they have to say in favour of what one presumes they are saying. It was a bold arrogance, in that sense; a senseless arrogance in another.
But in the context of a lecture which was ostensibly a family gathering – not simply of Young’s family but of Guardian journalists and associated lefties who knew him well – it made perfect sense. That presumptuous arrogance is the mark of aristocracy, and the air was thick of the sensation that this Clegg was an impudent upstart in the proper order of the great families of the socialist movement.
I am not temperamentally inclined to agree with Clegg in this Coalition age, but his description of Labour as the new conservative (with a small C) party may yet prove to be chillingly accurate.
November 18, 2010
And so, the pot of gold is emptied. The bubble caused by a low corporation tax combined with low interest rates has finally burst, and the Irish have been forced to admit that even their stringent austerity measures will be insufficient to save their economy from investors wary of the prospect of a Celtic default.
Of course, the fact that this bubble was in part caused by interest rates over which the Irish had no control has opponents of the Euro jumping up and down and saying, “We told you so!“. You really can’t blame them for this; a large currency area with significant economic disparities between regions will always have difficulties when the interest rate set by a central bank is inappropriate for some areas using that currency. For example, some areas of America have historically experienced significant difficulties, partly due to structural factors but also due to the interest rate set by the Fed.
The difference is broadly political. Ohio is unlikely to leave the dollar any time soon to revive its economy. The advantages of membership far outweigh the consequences of leaving, not least not starting a second civil war. In contrast, the Euro is a recent invention put in place across a range of mature economies with highly disparate factors to consider. The strength of the European Central Bank is a historical consequence of the influence of Germany on the currency’s creation; the Germans remain terrified of weak currencies as a consequence of the Weimar Republic’s fun with inflation. Their reaction to the current crisis is telling, inasmuch as it’s been to attempt to put in place further fiscal constraints upon members of the Euro. This will, of course, only serve to cause further distortions across the Eurozone, as the fiscal conditions appropriate for Germany are rolled across a range of very different economies.
Nonetheless, I remain a fan of the Euro, because currency risk is a strong factor in commerce. Currency fluctuations have recently caused imports of wind turbine components to cost up to 20% more, as the Euro plummeted against the pound. Large companies will hedge against fluctuations, of course, but SMEs will be partly excluded from breaking into international markets as a consequence of the additional costs incurred by such fluctuations. Currency union decreases the cost of international trades, and helps SMEs expand. The question is whether this advantage is worth the risks attached to it – risks which are currently being ably demonstrated.
This is not a question that can be settled easily. The key to making the Euro worthwhile is to reduce this risk, which can only be achieved by weakening the ECB, in line with the weak correlation of economic circumstance across the EU. At present, the Germans are in no mood to countenance this.
November 15, 2010
There’s a fascinating minor schism currently echoing through the radical Left right now, one which can be clearly see in the video to which this blog post refers. It concerns the relationship between direct action and the democratic process, and the disavowal by Aaron Porter of what one might call the extra-curricular activity at last week’s tuition fees protest.
Direct action is a term which covers a multitude of different types of protest, the majority of which involve infringing upon social norms or laws in a minor fashion. I am reminded of the hothead who, during my days as a student protesting against Esso for their various sins, was determined to try to climb on the roof of the Esso garage we’d made the target of our protests. We always dissuaded him, thankfully, but it’s a useful illustration of direct action typically involves protest that is broadly illegal but is generally handled by the police and its targets in a civil fashion, rather than criminal. There is all manner of interesting debate to be had about when a political act becomes criminal – not in a legal sense, but in the more grounded moral sense which is typically applied in these situations.
For example, many of the trespassers in CCHQ last week will not be prosecuted for doing so. Using CCTV footage it is entirely possible that many prosecutions could be secured, but the political cost for doing so is too high. The fact that the actions of the students involved were ostensibly political places them in a strange social grey area where the law ceases to be a practical tool, and politics at its most immediate, at the place where relationships between people and the perception of those relationships overrides social convention and the law itself, takes place. Politics is essentially about power relations, and the law is the framework within which those power relations are meant to be constrained. However, when a political act strays outside that framework it does not cease to be a political act, and recourse to the law as a form of ready-made judgement is not appropriate.
Direct action, therefore, is a non-legal political act, but it would be incorrect to call it illegal. It is an appropriate political move when your opportunity to effect change within a given legal framework is severely constrained to the point of impossibility. This does not make it legally or morally correct, merely an rational political judgement.
In this sense, it is a very interesting form of political judgement. Calling for ‘occupations’, as Clare Solomon does in the video linked above, is a call to use the manifest physical force of a movement to overcome the lack of influence that movement has within our legal framework. This is justified by Solomon on the grounds that the legal framework has failed to deliver in such a serious way as to break the social contract that motivates its acceptance.
In this case, this is the breaking of the Liberal Democrat pledge to scrap tuition fees, and to oppose any rise. It is manifestly an egregious break, especially as we now know that plans were made to scrap the pledge before the election.
I have made my feelings on the proposed reform clear – it is an inadequate and ill-thought-out move that aims to satisfy too many parties and will inevitably require further reform. It does not justify breaking our pledge. However, it requires a further step to say that the only remaining option to students is direct action. This is where the schism lies. Aaron Porter and much of the NUS hierarchy recognise that the legal framework is manifestly beneficial to them, and will therefore restrain any response to this matter to purely legal actions. However, it is clear that, to Solomon and her fellow occupiers, the legal framework is less beneficial. Therefore, they will withhold their consent from that framework more often in the future.
This is something that the Right will never, ever understand. Their fetishisation of property means that a legal framework that protects property rights will always be beneficial to them, and withdrawing consent from that becomes anathema. They therefore have no frame of reference to grasp the fact that the division between the two camps – broadly, the division between the ‘masses’ and the elite – is symptomatic of something broader, which is the division between the intellectual justification behind the Labour movement and the practical gains the broader Left will seek.
I have previously written about how I believe this division came about – this is merely the latest iteration of it. The conclusion is that direct action, standing as it does outside the legal framework in which democracy takes place, has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with power relations. We would be wise to use this division to embarrass Labour at every turn, to demonstrate that they continue to stand away from the interests of their ostensible supporters and are yet seeking to capitalise on it to further their own confused intellectual cause. Porter’s efforts to further his own career will stand as a paradigm example of this.
November 14, 2010
Part 30 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 30: In The Name Of The Best Within Us
Oooh, the final chapter. This isn’t over yet – I’ll do two final posts on Atlas Shrugged to sum up. In the mean time, let’s abandon the principles we’ve maintained throughout the book!
John Galt, Rand’s monetary messiah, has been imprisoned and tortured by dreadful socialists. Her noble titans of industry, upholders of the principles of not initiating violence or achieving advantage through deception, set out to free him by lying to guards and then shooting them.
Seriously. Dagny et al free Galt by shooting and pretending to represent the Government. I suppose the ardent Randroid could claim that the Government initiated force so they’re justified in doing so, but the Government initiated force against Galt, not them. It may be advantageous to the industrial titans to free him, but that doesn’t justify breaking Rand’s principles to do it. I’ll be discussing this further in the next post.
After the ultimate victory of the Atlasocrats, they fly back to Galt’s secret mountain valley to watch civilisation collapse in comfort. Civilisation obliges.
Dagny’s faithful companion and employee, Eddie Willers, takes the last train to New York, having exhausted himself saving the last outpost of her railway. The train breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and the remaining passengers join a convoy of horse-driven carriages to seek their fortunes in what now counts as a post-civilisation world. Willers makes a last desperate effort to repair the train, and collapses sobbing in front of the engine, his tears reflecting the gleam of the train’s headlight.
Yep, the good and faithful servant of capitalism is left to die as soon as his masters have no use for him any more. Libertarians are lovely folk.
The Atlasocracy, content that civilisation has collapsed now that only poor people are left in charge, prepare for their return to the now-empty world. They rewrite the US Constitution to preclude democracy impinging on business, read Aristotle and plan their investments. Millions of people are dead – the world is mostly empty. Galt stands above the valley to announce their return, and draws the sign of the dollar over the Earth, damning it to capitalism for the rest of eternity.
Quite how they’ll construct an industrial civilisation when all their workers are dead is not quite clear. But hey, at least the ones left alive won’t be pushing for higher wages any time soon.
Part 31 is here.
November 11, 2010
Like, say, signing the anti-tuition fees pledge. The loss of seats in the election. Discussing his sex life. Axing the Sheffield Forgemasters loan. And, although I can’t find the link, slapping Osborne on the back after the Spending Review.
Regretting something implies you wish you didn’t do it. I’m sure Clegg wishes all of the above didn’t happen. But regretting cuts he describes as necessary? That just makes him look weak. Either he believes the above were genuine mistakes, or he doesn’t. In some cases he will. But using the same language for the spending review as about his number of sexual partners makes any attempt on his part to dissociate himself from the unpleasant consequences of the party’s decisions look pathetic.
I voted for Clegg, and it’d be great if he could stop ‘struggling with his conscience’ and start acting on it. In my line of work, I encounter a lot of post-hoc rationalisation, and I don’t want to believe that my party leader is guilty of doing the same.