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.