A Mystic Reads Rand, Part II
I. The Premises of Objectivism: Atheism and Consciousness
by Jonathan Wilson
July 9, 2005
In my introduction to this series, I made it clear that I am a Libertarian, and that I am a "mystic" according to Ayn Rand's own sharply critical presentation in her novel Atlas Shrugged. As a Theist and a mystic, I challenge Rand's atheism as being integral to the world-view of Objectivism. That is my overarching theme in this series. I offered eight statements by which a Mystic could engage Rand's criticisms of theists in her novel and embrace the strengths of the Objectivist world-view. Here is the first:
That more important than the premise of atheism in Objectivist philosophy, is the premise of consciousness.
Here is Ayn Rand speaking through her hero, John Galt, in the midst of his climactic radio address: "For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors—between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it. … Whatever else they fought about, it was against man's mind that all your moralists have stood united. … Now choose to perish or to learn that the anti-mind is the anti-life. … To think is an act of choice….man is a being of volitional consciousness. Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct."
A. The Premise of Atheism
In order to give the greatest possible wait to the atheist objectivist, I will quote the words of Jesus Christ, the greatest proof of Rand's premise: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all of the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40)
So we have love for God and neighbor as the premises for religion, and these are manifestly rejected by Rand as being functional premises for life. I propose that Rand is not rejecting these statements attributed to Christ, but that she is rejecting the way those statements have been interpreted to her by officers of Church and State. She has conflated the person of Christ with the errors of those who preach in his name.
Does Christ here urge appeasement to heavenly ghosts? He does not. The premise of Jesus Christ is not that God requires appeasement, but that God affords dignity to the human being and desires to relate to the whole person as a free and independent agent. This same desire of God, in fact, causes the prophets, sages, and Christ himself to warn people against relationships of codependency and exploitation.
Proverbs 22:10 states, "Drive out a scoffer, and strife departs; quarreling and abuse will cease." Hank Rearden cuts his scoffing brother off from the subsidy of his house, and I, the preacher, say that Rearden did absolutely the right thing. Verse 26 states, "Do not be one of those who pledge security for another's debts."
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells three stories which make clear that God has little patience for the lazy and the looter. In the parable of the vineyard in chapter 21, the workers show no respect for the owner who provided for them, and try to take the vineyard over by violence. Against this attitude, Jesus warns of the wrath of God. In Matthew 24:45 and following, he tells of the owner who leaves the house on a trip, and the wicked servant decides he does not need to work in order to live it up. The owner comes back earlier than was thought, and the result for the wicked servant is to be "cut up into pieces." No bleeding-heart pinko Jesus is talking here! And in Matthew 25, again the owner is the hero, who rewards two servants for their work. The third servant, who hid away the money the owner intended him to invest, and did not work, is punished.
Clearly, to "love your neighbor as yourself" is not the same as subsidizing the "world's incompetents." The incompetents Rand and I mean are those of Galt's rant; those who choose a lifestyle of dependency over agency.
In fact, the Biblical story of redemption is always in the direction away from enslaving tyrannies and toward the liberation of the human being. This is why, for example, White slave-holders in antebellum America used the apparatus of the state to pass laws against literacy for their African-descended slaves, and against distributing Bibles among them. It was obvious to the White slave-holders that the African-descended slaves would pick up on the Bible's themes of redemption and liberty, especially in the Exodus story of the Jews in the Old Testament.
Why, then has the Bible been misunderstood to mean that people can choose dependency and exploitation as a lifestyle? The Bible, the Word of God, has been so misunderstood because people have not awakened to their volitional consciousness. The natural condition of the human being, as Galt himself states, inhibits the clarity of reason. Reason is more than a mechanical process and it is not born within the human instinct. In this I absolutely agree with Rand and Galt. So when the Bible, like any tool, is in the hands of the unawake, it becomes a weapon of evil.
I do not dismiss Rand's experience, either of Sovietism in the 1920's, nor of the American intellectuals of the 1930's, including preachers, who were teaching that Marxism was companionable with Biblical precepts. After all, said these misled, unawake moralists, what else can "love your neighbor" mean?
It means what Galt knew it to mean, that every person is granted their agency as a human being. It means that we do not force others to act grudgingly or under compulsion. It means, as God instructed Moses, that there will be a standard for weights and measures, and this standard will be kept, because by that standard, the transactions of business will be fair. Rand holds up gold as that standard, and that is consistent with the law of God.
B. The Premise of Consciousness
I agree with Rand that the human is a being of volitional consciousness. I propose that as it concerns consciousness, theists and atheists can find common ground in Objectivism. It is those theists that have remained unconscious that are responsible for the ills against which Galt objects, for they have twisted the scriptures to justify their own desires to exploit and loaf.
It is also on the basis of consciousness that I have my biggest problems with the novel. Rand's exhaustive narrative does not seem to be conscious of a variety of dynamics at work in her world. She speaks of non-contradiction as being an objective reality, and then refuses to discuss those objective realities that contradict the premises of objectivism.
1. One of the ancestral heroes of the novel is Nathaniel Taggart, a railroad baron who traversed the continent. Ayn Rand praises the focus and purpose of this ancestor, but ignores the following objective realities:
First, that it was impossible for any railroad baron to lay track across the breadth of North America without violating private property, and without the backing of the national government, in some cases including the use of force. For Rand stipulates that even if guns are not drawn (which they often were during the building of railroads) the complicity of government is itself a threat of violence.
Second, There is no mention or hint of the minority or immigrant experience in the United States. Rand is clear that "backwards" societies of "savages" have themselves to blame for their lack of productivity. That may be. Does someone's backwardness entitle a visionary to confiscate their land in order to mine its resources? What happens to the rent that should be paid? The world of Rand's industrialists is a world that contradicts the premise of her hero worship, for it is a world in which the land with its unmined resources was first confiscated at the barrel of a gun and then distributed to the very kinds of industrialists that Rand credits with being the noble embodiments of objectivism. It was okay in the minds of industrialists and the government alike, sharing a vision of a "manifest destiny." The frontier was settled by means of threat and force by the government in Washington D.C. This is the reason Nat Taggart could build a railroad.
2. Rand does not appear conscious of what had actually taken place in the post-war polarization of the world. Her novel reads like a Science Fiction "what-if" scenario of an alternate universe. Of course, all fiction creates alternate universes. That is the point. However, Rand writes as though convinced that the world, and the USA, is on the kind of trajectory about which she writes. Had she begun the novel in 1926 and finished it in 1937, one might recognize the potential. But she started in 1946 and finished in 1957, seemingly in the conviction that the world in which she lived could, and probably might, produce the world about which she wrote. This conviction is unawake to objective reality.
What has happened is that Soviet-style collectivization proved to be a failure. Its final collapse came in 1991, however, by 1957 when the novel came out, the Free West was not on the course that Rand presupposed. Liberal democratic capitalism prevailed among the western allies as early as the Berlin Airlift, in 1948, just as Rand was crafting the novel.
Liberal democratic capitalism thrives on the premise that a society can use the apparatus of the State to develop institutions for broad social benefit, while at the same time, preserving the profit motive in the free marketplace.
To John Galt this premise contains a contradiction. For Rand through Galt, the apparatus of the state is not competent to promote the general welfare, therefore, any institutions developed within the state curb the profit motive and are manifestly unjust. Rand and Galt might not be wrong in principle, but they are wrong about the objective course of history. In fact, so long as the profit motive is preserved, societies prefer having the institutions that promote the general welfare. This includes everything from national parks to an interstate highway system to a social security check after retirement.
Liberal democractic capitalism polarizes two political philosophies which are actually complementary. The "progressives" urge the strengthening of the institutions of general welfare, and to do so, frequently appease the capitalists so as to preserve the profit motive in the marketplace. The "conservatives" urge the preservation of the profit motive, and so they frequently appease the special interests with government largesse. This creates the seeming paradox that a "liberal" pariah such as Bill Clinton presides over welfare reform and surplus federal budgets, whereas "conservative" hard-liners such as the Bush dynasty preside over seniors entitlements and record deficits, each year worse than before.
Libertarians and Objectivists won't capture the ears of the public until they wake up to the public's conviction that the general welfare and the individual profit motive are NOT contradictions. And they have decades of history to back them up. There is much in the system designed for general welfare that fosters mediocrity and waste, and the system can be criticized on that basis. It is why I am in the Libertarian camp. However, the public's preference for the general welfare is not to be understood as a first step towards Sovietism, neither philosophically nor historically. It is time to wake up.
About the Author:
Jonathan Wilson is the Pastor at Cuyler Covenant Church in Chicago.
This article was printed from www.partialobserver.com.
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