Thursday, April 14, 2011

Spanner: Willa Explains Class Conflict, the Objectivist Way

As I continue to struggle with the Spanner TV series for Script Frenzy, I've been procrastinating on TV Tropes again and found this "useful notes" page on Objectivism. Ayn Rand famously opposed altruism in its strong form (as defined by the philosopher who coined the term, Auguste Comte) in the name of her form of classical egoism. The strong definition of "altruism", of course, is "live for others [vivre pour autrui] at the expense of oneself." In short: love others, hate self. Comte believed altruism justified an ideal dictatorship; his description of it became the political ideal of a very influential later disciple, right-wing occultist Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre, and his disciples, the Synarchists and their successors the Fascists and Stalinists. You can find an informative discussion of the issue here.

My last post, once you get past the indignation, is about how the more dubious parts of Rand's personal history were reflected in parts of her ethical system that were interpreted to justify the extreme forms of "rugged individualism" behind the current manifestation of American corporatism and leading up to the corporate dictatorship in Spanner. Here, my character Willa Richter-Thomas explains (not necessarily in these exact words) that the classical egoist ethics of Rand and her hero Aristotle turn out to have completely different implications according to social class:
For the Corporate oligarch, concern for others can only be at the expense of concern for oneself. The world of business is a non-stop battle royal, you see, and all the other dogs are out to eat you. Our Corporate frenemies call this "rugged individualism." But for the ordinary working people, concern for others is concern for oneself. Their predicament was elegantly summed up by Ben Franklin: "We must all hang together, or we shall all hang separately."

My guess is that any worker with a sufficient knowledge of both Rand and Marx can correct the most unpleasant parts of Rand by using her philosophy, including her ethics, to bolster Marx. But if you're Corporate, Rand means Stirnerism and Social Darwinism. The same thing can have completely different meaning depending on where you are in the hierarchy.
Rand put great emphasis on the importance of context. In the case of her egoistic ethics, context changes everything when the context is social class. The Corporate oligarch takes egoism to the extremes of militant egotism; that is, after all, required to succeed in business, in which all your competitors are eternally out to destroy you. But in the lower reaches of the social hierarchy, among the working people Rand so disdained, egoism and the fact (which Aristotle famously pointed out) that man is a social animal have equal emphasis, reinforced by necessity: one worker is insignificant, but masses of workers united are very powerful indeed. This is the principle behind trade unionism; combined with the phenomenon known as "the wisdom of crowds", it is also the foundation of democracy itself (which, of course, Rand also disdained).

The political consequences are likewise opposite. The upper-class interpretation Rand preferred ultimately leads, as we are finding out here in America, to authoritarian plutocratic oligarchism in politics and monopoly corporatism in economics. Never mind that Rand was attacking just that in the character of Nietzschean media lord Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead and the "looter" corporatists in Atlas Shrugged, even going so far as to call the latter altruists. The working-class interpretation, by contrast, justifies democracy and the corresponding democratic form of socialism (as opposed to conventional state socialism, which is little more than state corporatism and frequently overlaps with the plutocratic variety as in China).

What's missing, of course, is the free market Rand championed. That's strictly a middle-class ideal. Libertarianism is the radical politics native to the independent petite bourgeoisie which is the "threat from below" that the oligarchs are most determined to destroy. Willa (a professional, either as outcast psychologist or outlaw musician) does not see much evidence of this class' survival in the reactionary plutocratic dictatorship of Spanner's Imperial Confederacy. And it isn't the independent businesspeople who are protesting the TEA Party corporatists' jihad to either enslave or starve them in the name of the Free Market.

Even if you start from the identical premises, class context produces opposite perspectives and thus opposite politics. Context matters indeed.

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