Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ayn Rand and Asatru

Available in German, translation by Erin Banks

As an American Asatruar I have met a lot of Heathens whose philosophy is strongly influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand. Rand, the founder of the Objectivist movement, railed against traditional morality and altruism arguing these ideas hold back human potential. The Heathens who cite Rand and Objectivism as influences argue the romanticizing of the rugged individual is a solid understanding of how the ancient Germanics saw the individual. They cite the sagas of heroes as proof. I think that is all based on a very narrow and selective reading of the lore. A more comprehensive understanding of the facts shows how thoroughly incompatible Rand's ideas are with the lore.

The best example of conflict comes from comparing the apocalyptic struggles in both works. In Rand's Atlas Shrugged we have Galt's Strike. Led by John Galt the strikers organize against being forced by law or guilt to give up any of the fruits of their labors. Strikers deliberately sabotage their businesses and sneak off with their most fabulous inventions. They work menial jobs to further deny “the looters” the fruits of their efforts and recruit others for the strike. When the strike collapses society they escape to the fantastic Galt's Gulch to ride out the end of the world in luxury free of the demands of “the looters.”

In stark contrast is the Norse Ragnarok. To prepare for the Final Battle Odin does everything He possibly can resorting to whatever means necessary to stave off the end. Thor regularly does battle with giants to keep them in check and out of Midgard. Valkyries prowl the battlefields of the world plucking up the most worthy to join the Einherjar and fight in Ragnarok. When battle comes the Gods lead the charge against the legions of Surtr in spite of certain and unquestionable doom.

The actions of the Gods and Galt's strikers are fundamentally in conflict with the other. Odin works to delay Ragnarok as much as possible while His son Thor risks life and limb keeping rampaging giants in check. Tyr, instead of cheating Fenris, upheld His oath knowing it would cost His hand. These deeds do not show the naked selfishness of Galt's Strike. If the Gods only cared for Their own skins They would seek a way to escape Their demise even if it meant the other worlds must burn. They would not seek risky battles that offer little gain. Instead the Gods fight to delay not just their end by the end of all the Nine Worlds. They march into battle against enemies of Asgard and Midgard rather than run and hide in an impregnable fortress while all the other worlds burn.

Galt's role in the crash widens the intellectual chasm. John Galt doesn't just build a life boat for the rich and talented, he actively works to bring society down. The strike was his idea and the aftermath the end goal. Instead of working to subvert or replace the corrupt system of the “looters” he chooses to burn it all down regardless of the consequences. The most he does to “help” the people condemned to die in the collapse is lecture the entire world by radio broadcast for three hours telling them why they deserve their fate.

The root of the conflict lies in the differing solutions to the question of suffering and its cause. Rand argues that suffering is caused by the unproductive members of society leeching off of the producers. She says the best solution is to break the bond and let the “looters” get what's coming to them. Suffering, in Rand's view, is bested by disengaging from its source and leaving it alone.

In the Germanic view such inaction is unacceptable. There is not a single example of a God or a hero defeating an adversary or besting a threat to their people by leaving it alone, ignoring it, or walking away from it. When facing danger the lesson of the sagas is clear: find the cause and fix the problem. Historical sources like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Jordanes, Saxo Grammaticus, and Sturluson affirm this attitude with a plethora of examples. Kings and warriors who beat their foes are praised while avoidance and denial are roundly denounced as cowardly.

Rand's ideas on individuality at first blush may look in tune with the Germanic perception of the individual. On closer examination this conflation encourages excessive emphasis on the self at the expense of others. Objectivist thought which argues self-interest rules all encourages one to disengage from threats to self or community. This is in direct conflict with the consistent theme in Germanic lore of confronting danger directly and decisively. The two are actively dissonant and argue for responses that are inherently opposed in reasoning and execution.

2 comments:

  1. I always find it interesting to read people's comments on Atlas Shrugged. They often make me wonder if we read the same book.

    Perhaps you missed the part in Galt's Speech where he says that people don't generally live in isolation and so must find a way of getting along with each other, turning the complications of social living to mutual advantage. The point of the book is that altruism is a lousy mediator of that.

    Rand presents altruism as a disease, a logical conundrum that allows people to believe they are doing good by harming others. The hook is the unspoken underside of altruism: if people are morally obligated to help other people, I and my friends are people therefore the world owes me and my friends a living as a moral imperative, regardless of what we bring to the table. Altruism is far more selfish than Rand's selfishness could ever be. This disease is easy to catch and hard to cure. Rand's plot device is to allow the epidemic to run its course without resistance. If people think altruism is good, then let them live by its light. Or not.

    Galt's Speech is not merely a condemnation. It is an exhortation to change, for those who can still hear it. It is implied in the book that many will not. It is observed in the readership that many will not.

    There is nothing in the book or in Rand's published thinking that tells you not to help other people. There is a great deal in the book and in her thinking that implores you to be sure that helping is actually what you are doing. And she has no time for you at all if you allow guilt to be your motivator.

    Ryan, you and I might agree that purposeful action is not the only determiner of success. Luck has a whole lot to do with it, and our world is a better place if we help people over bumps in their road if we are able. I view that kind of helpfulness as selfish action: I am trying to make the world in to the kind of place *I* want to live in. And *I* will choose where my help is to be applied. Feel free to judge me on my choices if you like. Rest assured that I will judge you on yours. Don't dare to tell me that *I* must live by *your* judgments on these matters, which is what the altruistic pitch eventually comes down to.

    Rand was a single-minded saleswoman. Salespeople often have to be that way if they are to succeed. If the world she portrays seems unrealistic, perhaps it is more useful to view it as highly focused. If she gets her point across, then you can apply her point to your wider, more realistic life and see how it works.

    As for our mythology, I will argue with your choice of analogies. Here is a more useful one:

    The gods keep the forces of mindless chaos at bay. They are fairly successful at this. It is the force of mindful malignant envy that eventually marshals that chaos into something even the gods cannot control.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Perhaps you missed the part in Galt's Speech where he says that people don't generally live in isolation and so must find a way of getting along with each other, turning the complications of social living to mutual advantage. The point of the book is that altruism is a lousy mediator of that.

      Rand presents altruism as a disease, a logical conundrum that allows people to believe they are doing good by harming others. The hook is the unspoken underside of altruism: if people are morally obligated to help other people, I and my friends are people therefore the world owes me and my friends a living as a moral imperative, regardless of what we bring to the table. Altruism is far more selfish than Rand's selfishness could ever be. This disease is easy to catch and hard to cure. Rand's plot device is to allow the epidemic to run its course without resistance. If people think altruism is good, then let them live by its light. Or not."

      Even Charles Darwin would disagree with that. In his Origin of Species he argues the instinct of mutual aid, meaning aiding others because it is ultimately beneficial to the greater whole, is just as important as natural selection. A more complete discussion of this idea and examples of it in animals and humans can be found in Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, a summation of a much broader critique of the later arguments of Ricardo and others.

      Altruism is one of many expression of mutual aid and Rand's depiction of it is, by her own admission, is highly selective at best. She argues words never change meaning so we have to stick to original meanings referring back to the Comtean definition of altruism. The specific example she cites is the most selfless and is also the definition which is not in any common usage.

      Unfortunately for Ms. Rand any linguist with half a brain could tell you, at great length, what is incredibly wrong with this reasoning. Words change meaning, as do ideas and other social concepts. That her entire theory of altruism rests on a very warped understanding of it and broader ideas betrays a great deal about her philosophy and reasoning.

      It doesn't help her that her entire narrative reads like upside down Leninism, asserts claims that would make Adam Smith and a whole host of other classical and modern economists cry, disregards anything critical of her theory in her arguments in favor, and demonstrates an incredibly narrow, orthodox, and inflexible view of the world. Her personal conduct in her little study group, known as the "Collective", goes further in showing for all her talk about free will and freedom was very hollow as in the words of several of the members she was incredibly tyrannical, threw out people at the drop of a hat for minor disagreements, and succeeded in chasing away every single person in her life to the point that when she died the only person who was at her side was the nurse she was PAYING to care for her with Medicare money. Set against personal heroes like Emma Goldman and Sylvia Pankhurst who LIVED their philosophies with their every action, were open to adaptation when appropriate and rational, and at the end were with those who cared for them not mercenary hirelings Rand fails for me both in her logic and her personal example. If a philosopher cannot live out what they recommend it doesn't speak highly of their philosophy.

      Delete