Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Spanner Influences: Ayn Rand and Her Un-Capitalistic Sense of Life

The article: "Defending Capitalism Against Ayn Rand" (Steven Farron, Liberty Magazine)

Steven Farron says Ayn Rand is the greatest novelist. My opinion of her fiction is not quite so exalted, but both her fiction and her philosophy were major influences on mine, since I was under her influence for about 15 years. But we agree that she has one big weakness: her sense of life. In his article, he says Rand's sense of life is too heroic for capitalism. In fact, it comes right out of revolutionary Russia.

This, therefore, is a study in the anxiety of influence.

Here's the contradiction:
  1. Her sense of life is heroic, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, High Romanticism, British adventure fiction, and (this is rarely mentioned) the heroic environment of the Russian Revolution. Her heroes do not deal with the "penny-ante".
  2. Capitalism is about making money from anything you can make money from. You can definitely make money off the "penny-ante".
So she exalted the mighty captains of industry and the great innovators, while she despised the shopkeepers and small enterprisers who make the free market run. Her father, Zinovy Rosenbaum, was one of those small shopkeepers dispossessed by the Bolsheviks. Yet her sense of life is suspiciously similar to the revolutionaries who dispossessed her father: they were driven by the certainty that they were heroes creating a new world. In fact, though her fundamentalist approach to philosophy is that of her enemy Stalin and her politics and economics are deliberately the exact opposite of his, her sense of life reminds me more of Trotsky because he himself was a hero. Naturally, she hated workers (her stock example was the grocery clerk).

(Here is where I ransack the bookcase in my computer room to find my copies of The Romantic Manifesto and The Virtue of Selfishness.)

What were Rand's favorite words? Heroism, grandeur, that kind of thing. She calls industrialists "the conquerors of matter". Rand, of course, had in mind mighty captains of industry like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Ford. Farron finds their heroic spirit in Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky. "The Communists," he writes, "gave big, cruel orders and had no concern with mean little considerations." They had little use for services — something which socialism's supposed to take care of. Neither did Rand — and yet services take up something like 80% or more of the economy.

Here's a major point Farron puts better than I could: "Rand assumed that an author with her sense of life must write only about heroes who do not care about money." But every economist worthy of the name knows that a free market is driven by the love of money; some free-market defenders go so far as to insist that the love of money is the root of all civilization.

And so we have the great contradiction I put into Chaos Angel Spanner and which we see in today's Republican Party. Both the "TEA Party" GOP and Spanner's Conservative Revolutionary Party are inflamed with the Rand's principles — and with a revolutionary spirit identical to the Bolsheviks, even if their philosophy (Egoism vs. Altruism) and politics (Corporatism vs. Marxism-Leninism) are opposite. Notice I said "Corporatism" instead of "capitalism". America is not a free-market country. Here's an excellent explanation of how it actually works, called (appropriately enough) "How Corporate Socialism Destroys". Isn't it ironic that all these self-described Randians try to destroy the welfare state and yet are perfectly fine with corporate welfare? It's because their sense of life is that of revolutionary socialist commissars, not practical-minded purveyors of goods and services.

Now let's go further, to the supreme paradox, embodied in myself: Dennis Jernberg, novelist. I first got interested in Rand when I was 20, via her essay book The Romantic Manifesto. That title sounds more than a little like, say, "Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art" — by Leon Trotsky and André Breton, co-signed by Diego Rivera. My introduction to Rand and Objectivism was her essay "What Is Romanticism?", in which she attributed the decay of Romanticism to the movement's failure to realize that it was about (in this order) reason, free will, and the primacy of values, with emotional intensity as the corollary. That lesson I absorbed. But look elsewhere throughout The Romantic Manifesto and you'll find she believed that, with few exceptions, Romanticism also failed because it abandoned the heroic spirit she found in Romanticism's greatest novelist, Victor Hugo ("Introduction to Ninety-Three") and took it upon herself to embody that heroic spirit in great heroes and thereby bring back Romanticism from the dead ("The Goal of My Writing").

One thing I noticed in Rand's novels is that they lack a great villain despite the bad examples set by real-life supervillains such as Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. I vowed to correct that and reached back into my comic-book roots; and then my own wild imagination put an ironic twist on them to make them superheroes turned tyrannical. To make them sufficiently American, I made them upper-class Social Darwinists with the "Vulgar Calvinist" faith that wealth is the sign of divine blessedness, the article of faith of the American Overclass.

Here's where so many thrillers and other fictions go wrong. You gave your heroes worthy opponents. But are your heroes worthy? Another lesson I learned from "What Is Romanticism?": selflessness makes heroes bland. That's why so many fictional heroes get overshadowed by fascinating villains: because their authors conflate good with goody-goody, making them blank spots at the center of the story. I vowed: no goody-goody heroes for me! Scary villains need fascinating heroes. So in creating Spanner heroine Shira, I in effect transplanted the brain of Bugs Bunny into the body of Kei of the Dirty Pair, made her a (bi)sexual rebel, and plugged her into the cultural underground, with a liberal dose of "Cool People Rebel Against Authority", complete with "Cool Shades", "Cool Hoverboard", and "Improbably Cool Car", basically a female incarnation of the Rule of Cool with extra fanservice. Oh, and a "spanner" is a monkeywrench(er), mkay?

And here's where the paradox comes in. Via a convoluted route (Branden → Objectivist Center → Sciabarra → dialectics → World Socialist Web Site), I went full circle from Rand to Trotsky. So now I'm having my awesome heroines act against their awesomeness by abandoning the heroic elitism of the Conservative Revolution to turn Populist. It's utterly counterintuitive. But it's not enough for cool people to rebel against authority, since they could get crushed or (even worse) coopted by evil cool people in authority (the whole point of the "brand cult" theme starting in Chapter 4). And America has a long history of outlaw folk heroes, from John Paul Jones (an American Revolutionary hero who was in fact a Scottish pirate) all the way up to Neo. And whenever America is in its most oppressive Corporatist periods, such as the late 19th century and the early 21st, the prevailing rebel philosophy is Populism, which combines the two least elitist American idealisms, democratic and Revolutionary. By the Great Depression of the 1930s, Populism even took a distinctly Marxist turn. And it's to the Populist tradition that the heroines of Spanner, with their families' support (or, in the case of the aristocratic turncoats, against their families), turn.

See how far I've departed from Rand's ideals for fiction with the identical sense of life and an objective-realist philosophy partly derived from hers and partly a series of corrections? The main difference between me and Rand the novelist is that I'm far less fastidious concerning things like the power of rock. But starting from Rand's position around 1989, when I started plotting comic-book stories under her influence, I ended up light-years away. Part of the reason is that I embraced style and rejected didacticism. Another is that though I have that heroic sense of life, I'm not an elitist.

That combination between heroic sense of life and elitist bias, so Russian and yet so American, accounts for the contradiction between Objectivism and capitalism, and even between Rand's novels and essays. Capitalism thinks nothing of converting the most boringly unheroic things into profit. The same combination lies at the ruin of Soviet Communism: the Bolsheviks proved too heroically elitist do socialism right. Socialism thrives on converting the most boringly unheroic things into human benefit. It's this fatal contradiction, in Objectivism-based American Corporatism as well as Marxism-based Soviet Communism, that the repeated mentions of Ayn Rand and Che Guevara symbolize.

As for the anxiety of influence: one of Rand's fatal flaws is that she was never conscious of the debt she owed to Nietzsche, whom she consciously hated (as Ronald Merritt and Chris Matthew Sciabarra showed). Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky (another Rand influence), in turn, were writing against Marx and Hegel. And now Farron reveals a Marxist-Leninist influence. I, on the other hand, became conscious (with the help of Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia) of my own anxiety of influence, especially that which centers on Ayn Rand. I know where she's wrong, and what parts of her influence I don't like, so I correct them consciously. She didn't, which is why those errors I correct got there in the first place.

Ayn Rand didn't check her premises. Nietzsche and Lenin lodged themselves in the dark places where she was not conscious. The result turns out to be political disaster for America.

Isn't influence interesting?

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