Adam Curtis and Ayn Rand

The simultaneous appearance on Derren Brown’s Svengali blog and in the new little atoms podcast raised my interest in the new documentary series by Adam Curtis on BBC 2 „All watched over by machines of loving grace, love and power“.

Having watched the first episode, I am rather disappointed. I can see the underlying idea, that the combination of self-centred philosophy based on Ayn Rand and the illusion of control by machines caused the financial disasters in the last few decades. But the treatment of the subject by Curtis was rather superficial, and most of the time uncritical – as blaming the financial sector, big business and government can not be considered critical thinking nowadays.

While there were a lot of loose ends to tie (and I might come back to them in a later post), I will concentrate for this time on Curtis portrayal of Ayn Rand. During most of the film Rand was pictured as an original thinker, constructing a whole new philosophy, which is rather far from the truth. Most of Rand’s ideas were already formulated by her initial mentor Isabel Paterson, an almost forgotten American writer and editor, before they reached Rand, as Jeff Riggenbach demonstrates in this podcast.

The remaining ideas, especially her insisting on complete self-reliance of man and lack of empathy for others, are at least flawed, if not completely false. Humans are social creatures (although not created) and this social ability is necessary to create any useful society. If Rand had for example read more of Adam Smith, she might have noticed that apart from the “invisible hand”, which by the way is only mentioned once in the Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote extensively on the emergence of structure in society. Some thinkers consider Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments to be his most important work, while the Wealth of Nations is the practical applications of these ideas in the political sphere. Absolute egoism will on the other hand prevent the appearance of useful and productive structures: If I insist on only my own advantage, I will not perform acts, that might not profit myself but shape the whole of society. That these actions lay the groundwork for cooperation and might profit myself again in unknown ways in the future, can not be foreseen, at the moment when I refuse to perform these acts in the first place. And as I can not be certain whether my neighbour will be as virtuous as I hopefully am, and as I can not rely on help from others in case of an attack (because everybody just looks after himself) trust will never build up. Ayn Rand’s objectivism might be perfect for a society of angels, but in human reality, it is bound to fail.

This whole section on Rand and selfishness culminated in the statement, that Alan Greenspan was the most loyal of all disciples of Rand. Nothing could be further from the truth. It might be, that Greenspan called himself loyal and praised Rand all his lifetime, but his actions defied his words. If Atlas Shrugged is Rands philosophy in form of a novel, than Greenspan would clearly be part of the dark side. The main characteristic of the heroes in Atlas Shrugged is the refusal to cooperate with government structures, which are depicted as corrupt and rotten to the root. Every character in the novel supporting the government is either weak or outright evil. Alan Greenspan on the other hand was during most of his career a firm supporter of the US government, as head of the Fed he even printed the money to support all of its evil doing. If Rand had written a textbook on American History of the 20th century, Greenspan would have certainly been painted as one of the villains. So while he might have been a vocal supporter of Rand in the last days of her self afflicted isolation (by rejecting every supporter), he never adhered to her philosophy or her ideas, and I am quite certain that Rand herself would have considered this to be the worse choice.

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About brainfisch

Some unnecessary musings on life, the universe and everything.
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3 Responses to Adam Curtis and Ayn Rand

  1. Hi there, interesting post. My own perspective is that Rand’s fiction is basically an unreadable mess, and her philosophy the ravings of a madwoman, but I suppose that’s a reflection of personal ideological biases as much as anything else.

    Leaving aside all of that, I’m curious about the idea that “refusal to cooperate with government structures” is the hallmark of Randian Heroes. Would you say that this scepticism extend to all institutions, such as large corporate bureaucracies? Or did she only condemn those institutions which purport to promote the well-being of others beyond individual gain?

    Also, when you say “Humans are social creatures (although not created)”, does that imply that a tendency towards social behaviour isn’t seen as an innate human trait? As in a Hobbesian argument?

    Last point, was it not the case that Rand portrayed herself as an almost entirely original thinker?

    I’ve always tended to reject Rand, Hayek and Hobbes out of hand, would appreciate a view from the other side of the fence, or at least someone who gives a bit more credence to selfishness based thinking … not meaning to presume too much about your outlook beyond the contents of this post, of course.

    As regards the documentary, I’m a massive admirer of Curtis’ ability to pull back the veil on the ideas that drive (or perhaps are used to justify the behaviour of) powerful elites. Of course he displays a certain bias, and the constraints of a few hours of television mean that his programmes can only represent a springboard for the exploration of ideas rather than authoritative treatises.

    The most important thing, love him or hate him, is that he’s got an unrivalled ability to bring important, complex ideas to a mass audience and initiate debate.

    • brainfisch says:

      Hi Niall,

      To my knowledge (and I am far from a Rand scholar), her main objections were against government institutions installed to promote the general welfare, as these usually end up promoting the private welfare of people associated. In the end these bureaucracies form part of a welfare-warfare-privat-public (industrial-military) complex. Up to this point, most people on the left might even follow Rand. But when she rejects any non-selfish traits in men, she leaves straight into nut-town. And her extensive writing style did not help (some good editing of her novels down to about 300 pages might have improved them a lot).

      Also, when you say “Humans are social creatures (although not created)”, does that imply that a tendency towards social behaviour isn’t seen as an innate human trait? As in a Hobbesian argument?
      No, it was a poor pun against intelligent design supporters. So humans are not created, but they evolved to be social creatures. In my view, and many on the libertarian side agree with this, humans will try to cooperate and form social structures supporting each other. A useful society will develop out of these innate human traits without any force from the government. Here Hayek will probably be far closer to your point of view than either Rand or Hobbes (I do not think that Hayek would have easily cooperated with either of them, while he was a lifelong friend of Keynes despite their opposite views on economics). For Hayek, the main point about society and the free marked were the fact, that structure will develop which were not anticipated. The market is not a place or a structure but a process, and the most important idea about the market is, that products or ideas will develop, that nobody foresaw. This is the main subject of his Nobel-Prize lecture and of his essay “The use of knowledge in society”. So even if you dismiss Rand or Hobbes (I agree on this point) maybe give Hayek a try. Or if you want some less complex language (Hayek was raised in a German university) maybe read „gambling with other peoples money“ by Russ Roberts.

      We also agree, that Rand portrayed herself as the original genius. This lead to my reproach to Curtis: that he did not criticise Rand on this, but accepted her view as given.
      In the little atoms interview, Curtis sounded like a very intelligent and sensible person, and although he obviously is rather on the political left, I think I would agree on a lot of his views. That is one of the reasons, why I was not so happy about this film. He attacked the right persons (big government and big business exploiting the public in cooperation) but he attacked them with the wrong arguments (the crisis was never about Randian individualism) and for the wrong reasons (attacking rather the proximate than the ultimate causes of the crisis), so cooperation with some libertarians might have cleared some economic and philosophic issues and might have improved the films.

      I definitely will give his films some more chances in the next two weeks and I am always open to new ideas. After all, I think it is useless if opponents of intrusive government from the libertarian side or the left spend their time attacking each other. Let’s better stick to Rothbard, who wanted to open the Libertarian Party in the US to the radical left, or to Ron Paul, who supported Ralph Nader after he lost the Republican Party’s vote in the last presidential election.
      And I will try to work towards this goal in future blog posts, maybe opening some of my ideas to people from the other side of the fence.

  2. Huw says:

    I am new to Adam Curtis, and have watched each of these docs just once; but it seems to me that too many people misconstrue what he is saying. Surely, he wasn’t arguing that Greenspan was slavishly following Rand’s philosophy, but only establishing that, consciously or otherwise, her ideas were a significant influence on him?

    The main thrust of his argument over the series seemed to be that we have been deluded by the extraordinary success of our machines, and especially our computers, and some superficial similarities between how they function and how the natural world (including us) functions, into thinking that if only we could organise human society along similar lines we would no longer require central authority and regulation to keep it happy and harmonious. For Greenspan, the lure of the new idea that computer networks made possible a deregulated worldwide financial system that would hum along happily forever, nicely balanced and friction-free, coincided with the influence of Rand’s maybe counterintuitive idea (if I understood this correctly) that society would function best if it was unregulated and unconstrained and every individual in it “heroically” pursued their own self-interest, unimpeded by empathy or altruism.

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