Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wolff, Romney, Marx, and Rand

First, a little bit of background: About a year and a half ago, in the month or so leading up to the release of the first installment of the Atlas Shrugged movie, I made the not-all-that-wise move of posting a link to a blog entry of mine in the comments section of Robert Paul Wolff's blog, which had the effect of "stealing" a bit of his audience for a bit of time before my posted comment was removed.  For that I apologize.  As I came to realize, blog etiquette tends to involve building up an audience in a more fair-and-square fashion, the exact contours of which are often discovered through a process of trial-and-error, that incident being an error on my part.  (I can only imagine what many bloggers and site admins have to put up with in comments sections; what little experience I had with it led me to turn off comments to this blog and invite feedback by email-only.  But I'm so wonderfully self-correcting, what feedback do I really need? :-)

Okay, that said, let's proceed.  Recently as I was rummaging around for content online (an ever-ongoing process, BTW, not just a recent thing - see this blog's "masthead"), I encountered this blog entry by Prof. Wolff, and I find it (in essence) chillingly spot-on:

There has been a good deal of speculation about the hour-long video that has surfaced of the now truly infamous supposedly private Mitt Romney speech to $50,000 a plate donors.  [I use the adjective "infamous" in its proper meaning, "detestable or shamefully malign," not in its current misusage as simply "widely known."]  Present in  the room were Romney, the fat cats, and servants scurrying about bringing the food and clearing the dirty plates.  The angle of the video makes it clear that it was not recorded by one of the guests, so we can only conclude that one of the wait staff managed to set up a camera and film the proceedings. 
Upper classes always ignore the presence of their servants, a fact that gave rise to an entire genre of eighteenth century French comedy.  [Think "The Marriage of Figaro" without the immortal music.]  Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they seem constitutionally incapable of remembering that the working class is populated by actual human beings with eyes and ears and fully functional intelligence.  This failure is ideological, not personal, in nature.  Were the rich and powerful of the world to acknowledge the full humanity of those they exploit, they would find it difficult to sustain the easy air of superiority that they consider their birthright.
At Romney's rich donor dinner, it is a virtual certainty that the wait staff consisted of men [and perhaps women -- one cannot tell from the video] who make too little money to pay federal income taxes, and hence are among the 47% whom Romney says are dependent moochers who cannot take personal responsibility for their lives.  These people were obviously in full view of Romney as he stood at the podium and spoke for more than an hour.  The fact that it obviously never occurred to him that he was talking about people present in the room says more about Romney than any formal biography or hatchet job expose possibly can.

First off, I'll take issue mainly with some things in the middle paragraph here.  "This failure is ideological, not personal, in nature."  I'm not quite sure how to take this statement.  Is it that a capitalistic ideology (which Romney & Co. do buy into in some form or other) causes people like Romney to be oblivious to the humanity of waitstaff at his gatherings, or is it a moral failing, or is it something like a cognitive bias, a problem that besets just about everyone (and which philosophers see as their duty responsibility to correct as best they can, as part of the knowledge-guarding-and-integrating process)?  Is it part of the Romney ideology that the "servants" don't possess full humanity?  Is it part of capitalistic ideology?  Is it some process by which Romney's or anyone else's having adopted a capitalistic ideology leads to ignoring the full humanity of the "servants"?  I think it is more of a personal failing, in the cognitive-bias sense rather than in a moral sense (though I won't rule out the moral sense).  Anyway, that's nitpicking one sentence.  The other sentence is the very ideologically-contentious one that there's "exploiting" going on.

But first, let's say that my idea of a much better (utopian?) society is one that is capitalistic (as Wolff's other blog posts make clear, he'd endorse markets but not capitalism) while at the same time intellectually-enlightened, philosophically-imbued.  (Would Plato, Aristotle, and Kant be capitalists [ideologically speaking, not "moneybags"] today, assuming they got together with all data available to intellectually-diligent middle-aged folks today and hashed things out among them, perhaps with Jefferson and Franklin and a bud-sharing Carl Sagan thrown in the mix?  I'll get to this more in a bit.)  So, assuming some uncorrect biases don't creep in too much, you wouldn't have Romney-types being so oblivious to the waitstaff-types.  (This is where Wolff gets it spot-on, although for all we know some of the waitstaff may be putting themselves through business school so that they can jump class-ranks. ;-)  So what we do know is that Romney is great with money (making it, minimizing tax liabilities, etc.), kind of a boring douchebag, and big on Mormonism, while his supposedly heavily-Rand-influenced running mate is also a douchebag (if only for his views on medical - medical! - marijuana and, now, same-sex marriage).

I want to also say that Prof. Wolff and I are coming from quite-different contexts.  In his "about me" section, he writes: "As I observed in one of my books, in politics I am an anarchist, in religion I am an atheist, and in economics I am a Marxist. I am also, rather more importantly, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a violist."  I'm not any of these things; in fact I once made the observation when reading this that anarchism is the opposite of politics and atheism the opposite of religion, so what does that make Marxism with respect to economics?  Of course things are more complicated than that; he clarifies that he's an anarchist in the sense that we aren't obligated to obey the law just because it is the law (quite sensible, though what if it isn't "just a law," but a law integrally decided-upon within a separation-of-powers system? complications...).  Many people mean many different things by "atheism"; I don't identify as such but I might be one according to some folks or definitions.  (How would we know if there's a God or gods?  Haven't found a satisfactory answer yet.)  But most significantly, as far as ideological things go, is our very different context when it comes to Marxism and capitalism.  I've been ideologically a capitalist since just about the time I ever got interested in politics, which is before adulthood, and have yet to seriously entertain Marxism or socialism.  (I've had to seriously entertain anarchism in its David Friedmanite manifestation.  But still far removed from socialism.)

My intellectual context?  At this point it's been influenced by Ayn Rand well more than anyone.  It's not so much that I think Rand is so much more the be-all and end-all than everyone else out there; it's just a matter of biographical fact that I've been exposed to her ideas quite a bit more than those of any other philosopher out there.  Some folks - like a certain leading philosopher blogger I'd rather not name, but who's a complete douchebag and imbecile whenever the subject of Rand comes up - might say that this is so much philosophical time wasted.  My response to that is: you have to know my context.  There's a lot in Rand to be inspired by, though my immersion in Objectivist thought was quite extensive and thorough: I listened to well over 100 hours of Peikoff lecture courses, including the crucial, now-published-in-paperback Understanding Objectivism.  I had much exposure to Objectivist internet forums, including Jimmy Wales's Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy (MDOP) back in the day.  I've interacted with real, live Advanced Students of Objectivism who are perfectly normal and fun people.  (I've had online interactions with ASO's who weren't so great, cognitively biased partisans and dogmatists a lot of them.)  I've read abundant amounts of the secondary literature - the intensively researched Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical by Sciabarra, The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand edited by "Dougs" Ramussen and Den Uyl, to name a couple - and have spent thousands of hours thinking about these ideas.  I would say that the most pivotal secondary literature is Understanding Objectivism; without that absorbed into the fiber of your being, you don't really have Objectivism as Rand meant it to be understood - not just as a doctrine, but as a way - a method - of thinking (which in turn affects one's way of living).  And I've come to the conclusion that this way of thinking is neo-Aristotelian, perfectivist (hence what's in my own "about me" section).  And you just can't refute perfectivism. :-)

Now, my understanding of Rand probably parallels Wolff's understanding of Marx.  By much the same token, my understanding of Marx is probably comparable to his understanding of Rand, i.e., I wouldn't go to him as a source on what Rand said and meant.  Also by the same token, it's evident that he has built up an impressive edifice of thought surrounding Marx's economic doctrines.  I'd have to spend thousands of hours of integration to know what he knows; this is simply the nature of specialized expertise, just like Romney has his own specialized expertise requiring thousands of hours of integration of knowledge.  As Rand said, integration is the cardinal function of human consciousness.  It's right there in the Lexicon. :-)  I have no idea if Marx said something similar.  But this gets to another point I want to make: the nature of dialectic.  Could there be a productive dialectic between a Rand and a Marx, despite their clashing contexts?  ("Clashing contexts" is a phrase that may be recognizable to ASO's.  But it would be applicable in the context of Sciabarra's treatment as well, dialectics being "the art of context-keeping" in his phrasing).  If Rand and Marx could adequately grasp each other's context - which is an aim of dialectic if not a simple matter of empathy - if they could be set walking in the same direction rather than arguing at cross-purposes, what kind of "synthesis" might emerge?  I ask this as a perfectivist.  We all have the same set of empirical facts in front of us; how do we go about integrating them in a commonly-accepted way?

Above I asked what the result of Plato, Aristotle, and Kant dialecticizing might be.  Would they support capitalism?  Socialism?  Something else?  Before we even get to that question, though, what are things they would agree about?  Being philosophers, they would (I'm pretty sure) agree that using our powers of reasoning to the utmost would be most desirable as a policy of living.  Guess what - Rand agrees with that.  Would they agree about ethics being eudaimonistic in a more or less strictly Aristotelian sense?  A perfectivist sense, which I think Aristotle was?  (Perfectivism says: If Aristotelian eudaimonism is found faulty, let's find something better; indeed, let's find the best thing we can possibly find within the limits of our cognitive abilities.  But isn't that perfectivist attitude that of Aristotelian eudaimonism?  Can it be refuted?  Put another way, aren't philosophers qua philosophers cognitive perfectivists?  Is perfectivism different from a most rigorous application of dialectical ability, or is it synonymous with it?  If the latter, how do you refute that?)  Anyway, I'm big on eudaimonism, which I take to be a practical (from praxis) corollary of cognitive perfectivism.  I think Rand would agree on that as well.

Let's take a couple key statements by Rand, indicating her approach to philosophical hierarchy ("hierarchy" being another term well-known to ASO's seeing as it's a central focus of Understanding Objectivism, after all, and further indicative of cognitive perfectivism).  First, there is her statement about the theme of Atlas Shrugged.  (Hold on, I've got to review/refresh, spiral-like - oh there's another UO term - my understanding of Rand's ideas about literary theme.  You're invited to join me here; that link should help you.  I might have to click on some of the cross-referenced links for integration purposes, so this could take a bit of time.  You do realize that Rand put forth formulations of her philosophy in more than novels, right, newbies?  What, did you already know what the theme of Atlas Shrugged was?  That it isn't "The superman gets to prosper, while the weak can rot"?)

"Its theme is: the role of the mind in man’s existence—and, as corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest."  --For the New Intellectual, 88

Now, the morality of rational self-interest as a corollary.  See above about eudaimonism as a corollary of cognitive perfectivism.

So, we have "the role of mind in man's existence."  Now, another quote: "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."  (Heroism or nobility - didn't Rand approvingly quote something from Nietzsche about nobility - see the 1968 introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The Fountainhead - and didn't Kaufmann in a footnote to that and another aphorism direct our attention to . . . Aristotle?  Damn.  [Integration, see.])  And then there's this: "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.  This—the supremacy of reason—was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism."  And what - in full - does Rand mean by "reason"?  It's spelled out in detail - well, in outline form - in the chapters on epistemology in Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand ("OPAR"), and in fuller detail (i.e., with respect to cognitive integration, hierarchy, and context) in Understanding Objectivism.  (Noticing a pattern here?)  Then we get Rand's statement on the basic virtue of her ethical system, the virtue of rationality.  (What, she didn't say that man's basic virtue is selfishness?  But but, but but but, what about the title to her book?  Consider the context of her titling her book that way, such as the time period she did so, and then consider what she actually says in the introduction and the lead essay, "The Objectivist Ethics," where the first selection in the Lexicon entry on rationality comes from.)

Now comes something ostensibly more controversial in substance: Individualism.  If one bothers to pay attention to Galt's radio address, one encounters this: "By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man - every man - is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose."  In full context, is there something - anything - objectionable here?  Do we go out of our way, as intellectually mediocre Rand critics often do, to misunderstand "for his own sake"?  (Personally I construe it to be the same in meaning as the title of chapter 1 (along with the substance of the book's essential theme) of paradigmatic eudaimonist David L. Norton's Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism: "The ethical priority of self-actualization."  But maybe that's just me, reading too charitably into Rand's "new concept of egoism."  Hah!)  In any case, we have in Rand's philosophical hierarchy an individualistic ethics, prior to her advocacy of capitalism in politics and economics.

Is capitalism the logical extension of individualism to politics?  Is political libertarianism (in the usual sense - e.g., the political philosophy of Nozick or Eric Mack or, indeed, of Rand herself) genuinely expressive of individualism, or of respecting the humanity of persons, or treating persons as ends in themselves?  Would Marxism as an alternative value individualism?  I would have to ask someone, like Prof. Wolff, who has studied Marx very indepth.  On a charitable reading, I would guess that Marx thought that capitalism produced an "alienated individuality," an atomistic individuality, one that undermined sociability and community, one that is ahistorical, perhaps (supposedly) a "Stirnerite" version Marx is famous for critiquing.  But isn't it most fortunate that Rand did not endorse such an "individualism"!  Need I post the Lexicon entry for "altruism" as Rand actually meant it?  (I'm kind of tired out with posting links at this point.)  Need I quote and re-quote Rand's statement about man being a social being but not in the sense that the moral cannibals (see We the Living) mean?  Need I refer to Sciabarra for the appropriate context-keeping treatment of the subject?  And of course, if we have a perfectivistic eudaimonism, we have to take into account Aristotle on sociability.

Anyway, I don't know if Prof. Wolff would object to a proper individualism; but let's say that he does.  We then come to the question of whether capitalism is expressive of, or instead undermines, individualism.  This is a very serious and important question.  On the question of the proper socio-political system for human beings, many (individual, invaluable, potentially-flourishing) lives hang in the balance.  If capitalism is inherently exploitative, it means some humans treating others merely as means, not respecting their humanity fully (whether they intend it or not), it means individuals to that extent alienated from one another, it means a suppression of human flourishing.  For all the appearance of capitalist acts between adults being consented-to, do the relations involve presuppose an unjust power-dynamic?  This requires a serious answer without begging important questions or dismissing "Marxists" in the unforgiving (and arguably quite context-insensitive) fashion that some Objectivists have recommended.  There is a dialectical tension here crying out for resolution.  And let's make it clear: Rand advocated reason and individualism as primaries.  If capitalism is somehow shown to undermine these, then it's capitalism that has to go.  I take Rand at her word; individualism is primary to her normative philosophy, and not some post-hoc rationalization for capitalist politics (as many of her intellectually-mediocre and suspiciously projective-sounding opponents charge).

At this point in time I do not have a knock-down argument (by which I mean one that could convince someone like Prof. Wolff) showing that capitalism is the only right social-political system on individualist grounds - or, as Rand would put it, the only system proper to humans given their requirements for living as rational beings, given "the role of the mind in man's existence."  I do think that an intellectually-enlightened "Aristotelian utopia" would have the resources to deal voluntarily and charitably with people's safety-net needs should (capitalistic) institutions based on private ownership of the means of production fail to meet those people's flourishing-based needs.  (When I hear socialists describe their own views, I tend to hear "worker ownership of the means of production," but really haven't given that idea much thought given my context of reading Mises and Nozick: "What if a worker saves enough money and decides to open and direct his own business, using entrepreneurial skill?"  Where does it go from there?  Is that okay, but corporate-forms of ownership not?  Do we need to distinguish private property or capitalism from corporatism?  In an intellectually-advanced society, do people become their own independent bosses anyway, making the corporate form obsolete?  Can the corporate-form realistically be reformed for the better?  Etc....)  But, thinking in more comprehensive terms than that, such a "utopia" would also have the intellectual resources by which to resolve disputes concerning whether capitalism is indeed the best system for human beings.*  I really don't know how Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Jefferson, Franklin, and Sagan (and Marx and Nozick and Rawls and Rand and Chomsky and Mises and...), after giving all sides a full and fair hearing would resolve these existing disputes to everyone's high standards of satisfaction.

I'd like to think that eudaimonistic individualism, however, is not so much open to dispute.  (And understood in perfectivist terms, how would it be?)  One thing that needs to happen in any event for a productive debate on politics to happen is for people to adequately understand their opponents' viewpoints to the opponents' satisfaction.  I've seen misunderstandings from opponents of other people's ideas (not just of Rand's ideas, though perhaps especially of her ideas) happen way too much and to too ridiculous an extent for there to be much of a productive debate as things stand now.  That's why hierarchy matters: what we need, first, is a (perfective) betterment of people's cognitive faculties so that such misunderstanding becomes one less (major) obstacle we have to deal with in the pursuit of what is true and right.

* - The intellectual resources in such a scenario would be put to use addressing a lot of challenges - perhaps most importantly scientific ones, perhaps most importantly spiritual ones - and not just this one.

EDIT: This article just crossed my field of vision.  "Gee, what's this whole Ayn Rand thing all about in American political discussion?"  From the perspective of someone who thinks in terms of "spiral progression of knowledge," "sense of life," "psycho-epistemology," "measurement-omission," "rule of fundamentality," "rationality as the primary virtue," and other such Objectivism-isms, I find a major clashing of contexts going on here.  Right now we've got a bunch of ordinary citizens and Randophobes (the author's term, I like it!), many of them on the MSNBC-watching Left, running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to come to grips with "the Rand thing."  ("She espouses such monstrously hateful things, how can anyone take her seriously?  Premises have to be checked here!"  Indeed.)  So how does one "present Ayn Rand" (interpretively, that is) to folks who are only superficially intellectual - perhaps having read only the novels - who get a lot of their ideas from op-eds and cable news and soundbites and whatnot?  You can't exactly point them to Sciabarra, Peikoff, Tara Smith, or Gotthelf books and say, "Read them, will you, please?  Then we'll talk."  But then what do you do exactly?  Give televised lectures on C-SPAN (who watches that?) which don't - can't - go into philosophical depth?  Go on cable news and have the usual talking-head shouting matches?  What do you do?  I suppose you can throw 30,000 darts at a wall (the Fountainhead high-school essay contests) and get one or two Objectivists into a possible tenure-track position at a well-ranked university every few years, but that's been done and these people still ignore the output.  (Ever hear one mention - one fucking mention - of Tara Smith's, or Peikoff's, or Sciabarra's work in the lamestream media?  On the usual "liberal" news sites like the Huffington Post?  Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish?  The political blogosphere?  Hell, the "leading" "philosophical" blogs?  I think the total count here is approximately zippo, nada, rien, nicht.  I think once, maybe twice, there was a mention of the Ayn Rand Society somewhere.  Barring a fucking miracle, would we expect something different to happen after Wiley publishes the forthcoming Gotthelf-edited book?  In short, it's really, really pathetic what's going on here, folks.)  This actually points to a wider problem: how do you present philosophically-imbued ideas, period, in an intellectually-dysfunctional culture?  How do you make it an intelligent discussion about things like integration and virtue and not just about politics and economics?  I mean, shit, philosophers - any of them that you could name; Rand is hardly an exception - are bound to be misunderstood by a large segment of the public.  How does one raise the standard, other than a (commonsensical?) approach to educational reform with emphasis on critical thinking skills?  How fucking hard could it be, really?  Can't we at least begin at the margins and work from there?  Wh- wh- what, has the whole world gone crazy? ;-)