Ayn Rand is a polarizing figure, and it should be pretty clear that I’m not her biggest fan. I find her views on gender repulsive and her metaphysics laughable. I tend to be on the economic left; she heads to the far right. She and I have one crucial thing in common– extreme political passions rooted in emotionally damaging battles with militant mediocrity– but our conclusions are very different. Her nemesis was authoritarian leftism; mine is corporate capitalism. Of course, an evolved mind in 2013 will recognize that, while both of these forces are evil, there isn’t an either/or dichotomy between them. We don’t need authoritarian leftism or corporate capitalism, and both deserve to be reject out of hand.
What did Rand get right?
As much as I dislike Ayn Rand’s worldview, it’s hard to say that it isn’t a charismatic one, which explains her legions of acolytes. There are a few things she got right, and in a way that few people had the courage to espouse. Namely, she depicted authoritarianism as a process through which the weak (which she likened to vermin) gang up on, and destroy, the strong. She understood the fundamental human problem of her (and our) time: militant mediocrity.
Parasitism, in my view, isn’t such a bad thing. (I probably disagree with Rand on that.) After all, each of us spends nine months as a literal biological parasite. I am actually perfectly fine with much of humanity persisting in a “parasitic” lifestyle wherein they receive more sustenance from society than they would earn on the market. I’m fine with that. It’s a small cost to society, and the long-term benefits (especially including the ability for some people to escape parasitism and become productive) outweigh it. What angers me is when the parasites on the opposite end (the high one) of the socioeconomic spectrum behave as if their fortune and social connections entitle them to tell their intellectual superiors (most viscerally, when that intellectual superior is me) what to do.
Rand’s view was harsh and far from democratic. She conceived of humanity consisting of a small set of “people of the mind” and a much larger set of parasitic mediocrities. In her mind, there was no distinction between (a) average people, who neither stand out in terms of accomplishment or militancy, and (b) the aggressive, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian true parasites against which society must continually defend itself. That was strike one: it just seemed bitchy and mean-spirited to decry the majority of humanity as worthless. (I can’t stand with her on that, either. We’re all mediocre most of the time; it’s militant mediocrity that’s our adversary.) Yet most good ideas seem radical when first voiced, and their proponents are invariably first attacked for their tone and attitude rather than substance, a dynamic that means “bitchiness” is often positively correlated with quality of ideas. I think much of why Rand’s philosophy caught on is that it was so socially unacceptable in the era or the American Middle Class; and intellectuals understand all too well that great ideas often begin as rejected ones.
To understand Ayn Rand further, keep in mind the context of the time during which she rose to fame: the American post-war period. Even the good kinds of greed were socially unacceptable. So a lot of people found her “new elitism” (which was a dressing-up of the old kind) to be refreshing and– in a world that tried to make reality look very different from what it was (see: 1950s television)– honest. By 1980, there was a strong current of opinion that the inclusive capitalism and corporate paternalism had failed, and elitism became sexy again.
Where was the value in this very ugly (but charismatic) philosophy? I’d say that there are a few things Ayn Rand got completely right, as proven by experience at the forefront of software technology:
- Most progress comes from a small set of people. Pareto’s “80/20” is far too generous. It’s more like 80/3. In programming, we call this the “10x” effect, because good programmers are 10 times as effective as average ones (and the top software engineers are 10 times as effective as the merely-good ones like me). Speaking on the specific case of software, it’s pretty clear that 10x is not driven by talent alone. That’s a factor, but a small one. More relevant are work ethic, experience, project/person fit, and team synergies. There isn’t a “10x programmer” gene out there; a number of things come into play. It’s not always the same people who are “10x-ers”, and this “10x” superiority is far from intrinsic to the person, having as much to do with circumstance. That said, there are 10x differences in effectiveness all over the place when at the forefront.
- Humanity is plagued by authoritarian mediocrity. If you excel, you become a target. It is not true that the entire rest of humanity will despise you for being exceptionally intelligent, creative, industrious, or effective. In fact, many people will support you. However, there are some (especially in positions of power, who must maintain them) who harbor jealous hatred, and they tend to focus on a small number of people. In authoritarian leftism, they attack those who have economic success. In corporate capitalism, they attack their intellectual superiors.
- Social consensus is often driven by the mediocre. The excellent have a tendency to do first and sell later. Left to their own devices, they’d rather build something great and seek forgiveness than try to get permission, which will never come if sought at the front door. The mediocre, on the other hand, generate no new ideas and therefore have never felt that irresistible desire to take that kind of social risk. They quickly learn a different set of skills: how to figure out who’s influential and who’s ignored, what the influential people want, and how to make their own self-serving conceptions (which are never far-fetched, being only designed to advance the proponent, because there is otherwise no idea in them) seem like the objective common consensus.
A bit of context
Ayn Rand’s view of authoritarian leftism was spot-on. Much of that movement’s brutality was rooted in a jealous hatred that we know as militant mediocrity. Its failure to become anything like true communism (or even successful leftism) proved this. Militant mediocrity is blindly leftist when poor and out-of-power and rabidly conservative when rich and established. Of course, in the Soviet case, it never became “rich” so much as it made everyone poor. This enabled it to keep a leftish veneer even as it became reactionary.
Rand’s experiences with toxic leftism were so damaging that when she came to the United States, she continued to advance her philosophy of extreme egoism. This dovetailed with the story of the American social elite. Circa 1960, they felt themselves to be a humiliated set of people. Before 1930, they lived in elaborate mansions and lived opulent, sophisticated lifestyles. After the Great Depression, which they caused, they fell into fear and reservation; that is why, to this day, the “old money” rich prefer to live in houses not visible from the road. They remained quite wealthy but, socially, they retreated. They were no longer the darlings at the ball, because there was no ball. It wasn’t until their grandchildren’s generation came forward that they had the audacity to reassert themselves.
While this society’s parasitic elite was in social exile, paternalistic, pay-it-forward capitalism (“Theory Y”) replaced the old, meaner industrial elite, and the existing upper class found themselves increasingly de-fanged as the social distance between them and the rising middle class shrunk. It was around 1980 that they began to fight back with a force that society couldn’t ignore. The failed, impractical Boomer revolutions of the late 1960s were met, about 10 to 15 years later, with a far more effective “yuppie” counterrevolution that won. Randism became its guiding philosophy. And, boy, did it prove to be wrong about many things.
What did Rand get wrong?
Ayn Rand died in 1982, before she was able to see any of her ideas in implementation. Her vision was of the individual capitalist as heroic and excellent. What we got, instead, was these guys.
Ayn Rand interpreted capitalism using a nostalgic view of industrial capitalism, when it was already well into its decline. The alpha-male she imagined running a large industrial operation no longer existed; the frontier had closed, and the easy wins available to risk-seeking but rational egoists (as opposed to social-climbing bureaucrats) had already been taken. The world was in full swing to corporate capitalism, which has been taking an increasingly collectivist character on for the past forty years.
Corporatism turns out to have the worst of both systems between capitalism and socialism. Transportation, in 2013, is a perfect microcosm of this. Ticket prices are volatile and fare-setting strategies are clearly exploitative– the worst of capitalism– while service rendered is of the quality you might expect from a disengaged socialist bureaucracy; flying an airplane today is certainly not the experience one would get from a triumphant capitalistic enterprise.
Suburbia also has a “worst of both worlds” flavor, but of a more vicious nature, being more obvious in how it merges two formerly separate patterns of life to benefit one class of people and harm another. By the peak of U.S. suburbanization, almost everyone (rich and poor) lived in a suburb, and this was deemed the essence of middle-class life. Suburbia is well-understood as a combination of urban and rural life– an opportunity for people to hold high-paying urban jobs, but live in more spacious rural settings. What’s missed is that, for the rich, it combines the best of both lifestyles– it gives them social access, but protects them from urban life’s negatives; for the poor, it holds the worst of both– urban crime and violence, rural isolation.
This brings us directly to the true nature of corporate capitalism. It’s not really about “making money”. Old-style industrial capitalism was about the multiplication of resources (conveniently measured in dollar amounts). New-style corporate capitalism is about social relationships (many of those being overtly extortive) and “connections”. It’s about providing the best of two systems– capitalism and socialism– for a well-connected elite. They get the outsized profit opportunities (“performance” bonuses during favorable market trends that should more honestly be appreciated as luck) of capitalism, but the cushy assured favoritism and placement (acq-hires and “entrepreneur-in-residence” gigs) of socialism. Everyone else is stuck with the worst of both systems: a rigged and conformist corporate capitalism that will gladly punish them for failure, but that will retard their successes via its continual demands for social permission.
What’s ultimately fatal to Rand’s ideology– and she did not live long enough to see it play out this way– was the fact that the entrepreneurial alpha males she was so in love with (and who probably never existed, in the form she imagined) never came back. In the 1980s, the world was sold to emasculated, influence-peddling, social-climbing private-sector bureaucrats, and not heroic industrialists. Whoops!
What we now have is a world that claims to be (and is) capitalistic, but is run by the sorts of parasitic, denial-focused, militantly mediocre position-holders that Rand railed against. This establishes her ideology as a failed one, and the elitism-is-cool-again “yuppie” counterrevolution of the 1980s has thus been shown to be just as impractical and vacuous as the 1960s “hippie” movement and the authoritarian leftism of the “Weathermen”. Unfortunately, it was a far more effective– and, thus, more damaging– one, and we’ll probably be spending the next 15 years cleaning up its messes.