As many of you may have noticed, after the UK recently democratically elected a right-wing government, I shaved off my (receding) beautiful hair and tried to imbibe some kind of capitalist spirit into my mind. The logical conclusion of this, a few months on, is me reading Ayn Rand.
The Virtue of Selfishness is a 1964 collection of essays by Rand (and a few, but not many, by her associate Nathaniel Branden) that offers a summation of her philosophy, Objectivism, to the uninitiated and the intrigued – to convey the message of Atlas Shrugged but in a slim volume with no narrative. This, I suppose, she does, in 19 pieces ranging in length from 4 to 40 pages. Some of her ideas – to me – make a lot of sense, I’ll admit, but they all come trapped with a cruel, nasty, unrealistic and optimistic framework that vividly denies the idea of society, laughs at the idea of empathy towards anyone one does not love and imbues a selfishness that isn’t a virtue, but instead will leave any proponent bored, alone and full of hatred.
All that matters to Rand is work. Work is important, it is work that makes you free. In a free country, where the government doesn’t get in the way of anything and exists only to prevent violent and property-based crimes, people are valued only by their ability to do productive work. People who cannot work are nothing, worthless, and people who cannot work much only have themselves to blame.
The selfishness of objectivism is set against collectivism, altruism, as the true evil of the modern world. There is no society, Rand believes, only a collection of individuals, all of whom must have full rights over their property or there is no point in their existence. Tax is morally corrupt, as morally corrupt as burglary, Rand writes, and the violence-stopping powers that she admits are needed by the government should be funded voluntarily. No one should be obliged to pay anything – if they want to be charitable, of course they may, but Medicaid is a grave and corrupt sin – people who cannot afford healthcare shouldn’t fucking get it, yeah, unless someone who CAN afford it buys it for them as a voluntary gift.
If one doesn’t look out for others, then one looks out for the self. And, surely, to anyone fucking rational, the point of not feeling empathy is the freedom to do whatever you want to others without giving a shit. No, though, Rand writes, hedonism and exploitation are equally as bad as being unproductive. People should work hard at remunerative jobs, enjoy high culture (but none of that awful modern art, you know, which people just pretend to like because they think they’re meant to) and elevated conversation in their free time, and have sex from time to time. It’s all a little Brave New World, but with a sneer towards intoxication and an absolute denial of FUN.
Rand comes across as mean-spirited and po-faced. Her essay on the ridiculousness of racism is great, but then descends into classist finger-pointing at “poor white trash” who have these prejudices – obviously “we” don’t. There is a collected audience implicit to Rand, one that sits in an office for 12 hours a day, goes home via an art gallery then has missionary and sober* sex with a long-term partner, then repeats. There are no adventures, there is no thought of the poor, the needy, the Other, there are no crazy parties and there certainly aren’t any of the benefits that one would nominally associate with the whole point of the working life she advocates.
Who would want to be a banker without the cocaine and prostitutes??? Who would want to spend all of his or her free time discussing high culture and laws and never dancing, never singing, never letting loose??? Who would want to live to work, who would want “productive work” to be the only thing in his or her life that mattered, who would want PROPERTY to be the sole way to assess personal value and ascribe personal rights?
Many times, whilst reading this, I sighed in exasperation, but many times too I nodded in agreement. It does follow through that hard work, intelligence and consistency should be rewarded, but that doesn’t follow that being stupid should be punished. People who choose to not work, yes, I’ll rightwingingly admit, they probably shouldn’t get free money from the government, but people who cannot work because of long-term health issues or because they don’t have the capacity to do it, shouldn’t be forced to fucking starve. Without a welfare state, without an edge of socialism in a country, people are animals, people are cruel. Rand wants people to be heartless without being hedonists, and I just don’t know why anyone would ever go for that.
I work a lot, I discuss a lot of high art – my main fucking hobby is literary fucking blogging – but I also know that there are few pleasures greater in life than getting smashed and singing karaoke until six in the morning. I understand the value of work but understand that not everyone does. Rand writes at length about the fact that there is not a mix of good and evil, black and white, in every person, but there fucking is.
She wants an idealised society where everyone is avaricious but not greedy, where everyone accepts their place, even if that place is a rotting pallet in the slums.
No, Ayn, we DO have a responsibility towards those weaker than us. Tax is annoying – particularly when I don’t use schools ever or the NHS very much – but it’s essential, because I’m not so arrogant and optimistic to presume that I will never get ill, old, tired or unemployable. In terms that she would understand, I selfishly support the idea of the welfare state because I know that one day I may need it. Hopefully fucking not, but Medicare, the NHS, the dole, these things benefit every individual.
Be selfish, but don’t be stupid. Pursue happiness but don’t fuck other people over.
Rand made me angry, sometimes, but she did make me think. She just needs a less extreme version of her own ideas, one that’s a little bit warmer.
I recommend the book, and I advocate being more selfish, but I do not think that the best thing for anyone is for everyone to be constantly out for themselves. Her ideas, like the “evil” communism she hates, just don’t work in practice.
Give it a go. I might try Atlas Shrugged.