There’s been some discussion recently on Rush Fanatics – a Facebook group – about Ayn Rand, in part because of a reference to the “meek inheriting the earth.” The phrase comes from “The Fountainhead,” and is in the context of the book’s overarching villain – a man named Ellsworth Toohey – who uses the phrase as a populist lever.
Bear with me: I’m going to talk about Rand for a bit, then diverge into Rush, I promise.
Ayn Rand is a bit of a lightning rod for people, and it’s not difficult to understand why. She was an author trying to force her way into an elitist siloed industry (philosophy), whose very nature made it difficult to gain entry without conforming to a certain mode of thought.
The thing about philosophy, in a very poor summary, is that it often finds itself debating the nature of what is knowable. It can assert “A is A” – to quote Aristotle, in a phrase that will surely come up later in this very essay, but at the same time, it questions what the nature of “being A” is, and what the meaning of “is” might be.
Meanwhile, Rand – taking inspiration from Aristotle herself – suggested that not only was A the same as A (objects have identity, which she felt should be self-evident), but that things were definitely knowable.
To the community of philosophers, whose living was based on debating the nature of knowledge, an outsider – a screenwriter! – having the audacity to declare that things were definitely knowable and had identity was a bit of a threat. To say they rejected her would be to explore the meaning of understatement.
They were not necessarily wrong to do so, although it was counterproductive. They were correct to reject her as an ivory-tower philosopher because despite her use of the terminology of philosophy, she didn’t use the mechanics of philosophy; it’s as if she built a house using nuts and bolts, but didn’t use socket wrenches somehow. Add in that most of her statements were tautologies (as “A is A” itself is) and you find that Rand is an outsider for whom there’s little debate.
Exit the purpose of philosophy, if there is no debate.
But that’s not why people usually reject her. She’s often rejected because she’s seen as very much right-wing (a typical claim is that she’s a “fascist,” which means that the one making the claim has either no idea what Ms. Rand actually wrote, or no idea what a fascist is.)
Was she right-wing? Oh, probably. Right-wing philosophy relies on distinct striata of social classes; by comparison, left wing philosophy sees few social classes. There’s a lot of room in right wing philosophies for movement among classes; some (like fascists, since we’ve brought them up) see the classes as fixed and based on immutable characteristics (Is your skin dark? Are you female? Are you Jewish?), while others see the classes based on very mutable characteristics (How much money do you have?)
Rand was right-wing, because she saw a definite benefit to a meritocracy – thus, she was classist – but it’s important to note that her classism was based entirely on merit and production. The “upper” – or “good” – classes were those that produced. The “lower” – or “bad” – classes were those that did not produce.
Another important facet here is that she didn’t actually assign value to those classes. She didn’t see someone in the “lower” classes as less human than someone in the “upper” classes. She valued those in the “upper” classes more – there’s a tautology here, after all, in that the whole reason someone would be in the “upper” classes is because they produce more, therefore naturally they’re more valuable because of the value they create.
But that doesn’t mean that she saw the lower classes as fodder for some inhuman mill. They produced less, thus they were less pragmatically valuable than someone who produced more.
Rand’s a thorn for populists, because she was vastly opposed to populism. In order to produce, you have to be driven – internally – to produce. You can be whipped to produce, but the result historically is disappointing. Marx had a dream of reprogramming mankind so that they were driven by a need to supply rather than a need to survive, therefore subverting the drive for production for one’s own provision (in other words, he wanted to change mankind so they wanted to provide rather than consume).
It’s not a mission that has ever been accomplished; in any society with scarcity, the search for sufficiency for one’s own needs is of prime importance.
That makes sense, too: if one can’t survive personally, how can one provide for others? If one is the only person able to provide, and the provider perishes, then everyone else perishes as well – and you see this in safety manuals, too: in an airplane, you save yourself before you save others.
Rand more or less codified this, using language that’s rather shocking: “Be selfish! It’s good to have an ego!,” even titling one of her collections of essays as “The Virtue of Selfishness.”
In a world where so many are very left-leaning, and where so many are dependent on the good will of others, such a claim is effectively a declaration of war. “If everyone is driven by their own needs, what about ME? How will I survive?”
Let’s be really clear here: Rand wrote a number of novels that would be classified as rather poor science fiction. And she wrote as a screenwriter, too: she drew her characters very broadly; her villains wore black hats and slunk around, and twirled mustaches. Her heroes were blond-haired and blue-eyed (not really; Howard Roark was gangly and orange-haired) and strode mightily across this brave world they made.
Rand was trying to draw the lines easily. She didn’t want readers identifying positively with Ellsworth Toohey, so she made him small, sunken-chested. She wanted her heroes to be the heroes. She amplified every statement because she wanted her alignments to be utterly obvious and inescapable; anyone who says “Wait, is Toohey the hero?” needs to feel utterly stupid in asking the question.
Of course, people manage.
And so we come to Rush. I know I’ve been giving what is probably a really poor summary of Ayn Rand for nearly 1000 words now, but Rush actually summarized Ayn Rand better than anyone else has – including Rand herself – in “Anthem,” a song whose title was drawn from one of her fictional works.
“Live for yourself, there’s no-one else more worth living for;
Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.”
This was on their second album, one of the first songs they wrote with Neil Peart in the band.
I don’t mind people rejecting Rand, especially when one regards her personal life, which – like most personal lives – was a confusing morass of conflicting and poor choices. Especially viewed through today’s lenses, she seems archaic and rather offensive, insisting on classism and gender roles that modern society has redefined.
But I think it’s important to note that she was NOT many of the things her detractors claim, even in her own context and even in THEIRS, and that Rush found her guiding principles of valuing productive and artistic ability important through the entire lifecycle of the band, covering their entire body of work.
One can reject Rand, of course, just as one can reject Rush… but to utterly reject Rand is to invalidate your own ability to render judgement, which means your rejection has no merit. One simply has no choice but to admit the power of one’s own will in order to judge.
And that’s part of the power of Ayn Rand.