Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ayn Rand, capitalism

I'd like to emphasize one point about liberal capitalism. To be precise, I should use the phrase "real capitalism", as opposed to today’s "capitalist" systems throughout the world. Thus meaning  - the work of Adam Smith, Carl Menger, Ludwig Von Mises, the experience of the 19th century and so on, which is not the same, and is even often contrary to today's political systems in the West that are often labeled as “non-free”, with significant elements of “socialism”.

And also -- Ayn Rand, who, by her own words, attempted to produce an underlying philosophy for capitalism.

On one hand, I respect and find very natural many ideas, standpoints and practical explanations expressed in “real capitalism”. Rand's Atlas Shrugged is filled with so many brilliant, eerie in the reality of the details, descriptions of corruption, and very natural and straightforward responses of the main characters.

What's more, I am pretty fond of the deeper analysis of the phenomena, that permeates the events in the book -- it is nicely presented that it all boils down to very personal traits of honesty or dishonesty to oneself and others, even in smallest of situations.

However, I always find a significant issue with any attempt to place capitalism or material economy in general, at the root of human action, life and the world around us. That is, these ideas and concepts are practical, useful, honest, natural, but exactly and only within the context of material economy; they do not explain the purpose or the source of the world around us, and the position of man and material world within it. And any such attempt, in fact, turns it into a destructive outlook instead of constructive.

Basic axioms in the liberal capitalism are all focused on the man’s well being in this world and production of material goods. The essential questions of “why”, “where is the source”, “what is the purpose” are not really being asked. There is no real, living God in capitalism (not that there is one in socialism either). It is assumed that we need to deal with the world as we see it, and that the goal is to fare good in our lives. Key concepts and tools, whose source is not contemplated in depth, are taken to be freedom and reason. Anything beyond that is not considered as an essential question.

So, capitalism (particularly Ayn Rand's capitalism) is a "this world's" affair. It is a closed system, where everything begins with the necessities of life on Earth, and ends when they end. Everything else, including God, is just part of the "necessities". Consequently, the highest authority is man, and the most virtuous activity is production. Not surprisingly then (although odd on first read) that we see in “Atlas Shrugged” children playing on a scrap yard and indignantly consider their activity to be “adventurous exploration of the world”.

While “non material” production is recognized just as important as “material”, and while ideas are considered to be the beginning of every activity and every result, they are simply considered choices on Earth, “earthly fruits” we get to pick or not in our lives, just like the material goods are. And all the consequences of actions and ideas are considered significant only in this life. The realm of ideas and spirituality is just the “capacity” of productive life on Earth. Thus, the production is considered "sacred", and “producer” (whether strictly material or not) is “god”. In that sense, ideas and spiritual matters are considered inherently materialistic, i.e. "of this world".

It is just as if we had lively paintings of beautiful nature that really lighten up our house and make us inspired in doing chores, but we never give but a though that those mountains exist in reality somewhere, let alone venture to go out into the mountains. We remain content with “using” them indirectly to improve the “affairs” and the atmosphere in the house. Such “nature” is also then our possession, being on a picture, which we utilize to our ends.

It is not then surprising that such philosophy yields, for example, the Ayn Rand’s "Virtue of Selfishness". It is understandable. There is simply no other possibility for a world without God, the world in which man is god, than to value our human capacities the most. Whether it is "virtue" of selfishness, or "virtue" of social happiness, it all begins and ends with man. And the “best man”, the most “free and capable producer” is “god”, and allowed to set absolutes. And, again, it is only natural that in “Atlas Shrugged”, the main character at the end of the book kills a man, a guard, out of sheer principle, simply because the guard is indecisive about “the true virtues”. Of course, what else can happen, because, to paraphrase Dostoyevsky, where there is no real, living God, we are gods ourselves, and everything is permissible.

But man is not God. Man simply cannot create, produce and give what he doesn't have. A small child cannot be a caring head of a household or a CEO when he doesn't have the means - material, psychological, spiritual.

Saying that the man has the means to be god, is simply and obviously not true. Saying that he does, but hasn't developed them yet, and we just need the time, is irresponsible and careless (when not intentional) speculation. Saying that it doesn't matter, and that, by the running evidence, he is still god in the nature, is arrogant and an attempt to take away which is not man’s to take.

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