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                        Ayn Rand, Jack London, and a Fountainhead of Philosophy

                                                                           An Earth Manifesto publication by Dr. Tiffany B. Twain  

Two of the most fascinating novelist-philosophers of the twentieth century were Jack London (1876 – 1916) and Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982).  Both of them had dramatic defining experiences in their early lives that powerfully influenced their worldviews, and they both idealized masculine heroes and identified with heroic ambition and accomplishment.

Jack London’s character Martin in his semi-autobiographical novel Martin Eden seems almost like one of the protagonists in an Ayn Rand novel.  Jack described his motives this way:

“He wanted to glorify the leaders of forlorn hopes, the mad lovers, the giants that fought under stress and strain, amid terror and tragedy, making life crackle with the strength of their endeavor.”

Both Ayn Rand and Jack London were philosophic thinkers and passionately provocative intellectuals.  Because people’s beliefs are strongly affected by the circumstances of their early lives and upbringing and experiences, it is understandable how these two famous writers arrived at dramatically different political philosophies.  This contrast is fascinating, since both of them championed and highly valued individualism. 

Jack London grew up in poverty in the Bay Area of Northern California.  He set off at an early age to earn a living by working on sailing ships.  He became intimately concerned later in his life with the rights of working people, and he concluded that socialism was the best political philosophy.  Ayn Rand, on the other hand, considered any form of “collectivism” to be anathema, so she passionately opposed any kind of socialism.

Ayn (rhymes with ‘mine’) was born in Russia.  When she was 12 years old, a revolution by working people brought the repressive era of the ruling Czars to an end.  This revolution began in early 1917 in the city of Petrograd (now known as St. Petersburg), where she lived with her family.  This violent revolution was caused by deep frustration and anger at terrible economic and social conditions that pertained in Russia at the time.  These conditions were made significantly worse by the country’s extraordinarily costly efforts to fight the aggression of industrialized Germany during World War I.  This revolution spread throughout Russia and resulted, among other things, in the disbanding of the repressive czarist police and the repeal of limitations on freedom of opinion and association and the press.

Later in 1917, this worker revolution was co-opted by the communist Bolshevik Party and its leader, Vladimir Lenin.  The nascent movement to establish parliamentary democracy was thereby overthrown by this political faction because pressing problems had not been resolved, including a severe food crisis, economic disorganization, and the immediate aftermath of the calamitous war. Desperately needed reforms had not been made to the economy, and entitled classes owned most of the land.

Propaganda disseminated by the Bolshevik Party advocated a “proletarian dictatorship”.  After Lenin instigated an armed insurrection in October 1917, a civil war ensued and the communist movement asserted control.  A treaty was signed that ended the Soviet involvement in World War I.  In this agreement, the Soviet Union gave up the Baltic States and Finland and Poland and Ukraine.  Not long thereafter, Lenin began a campaign to ruthlessly crush all domestic opposition.

Ayn Rand’s disgust with the sad state of affairs in Russia was accompanied by her idealistic views of the United States as a beacon of freedom, individualism, fair opportunities and protected rights.  She took a ship to New York in 1925, and regarded her departure as a breaking of the chains that had enslaved her in oppressive Russia.  She was ready for a life of freedom of expression and a concerted focus on the important things in life.

Ayn believed strongly in “Objectivism”.  This is an idea which holds that the physical reality of the universe exists independently of our perceptions of it. She asserted that we attain objective knowledge of reality by using our senses to perceive it, and our logical and rational abilities to make sense of it.  She felt that the proper moral purpose in the life of any human being is to pursue one’s own happiness and rational self-interest.  She regarded selfishness as a great virtue. She believed dogmatically that the only social system that is consistent with her moral conceptions would be one that fully respects individual rights, so she asserted that laissez-faire capitalism is the best way to achieve such goals. 

In championing individualism, and in harboring her deep antipathy toward any form of what she termed ‘collectivism’, Ayn Rand was ideologically uncompromising.  She became disillusioned by U.S. politics in the 1930s because she regarded the New Deal as a despicable form of socialism. 

In 1964, she wrote a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism.  The title was one of the most controversial elements of the book.  She acknowledged that the term selfishness as it is typically used does not describe a virtuous behavior, but that what she meant by selfishness was more precisely that it is a “concern for one’s own interests” that should be regarded as an overarching virtue.  This argument was an ethical contention that was strongly correlated with economic fundamentalist doctrines that posit an Invisible Hand operates for the greater good of all people in laissez-faire capitalist economic systems.  This, as history and experience reveals, turns out to be demonstrably untrue in many different regards.

Rand was an intellectual, and her ideas are well constructed, but in her biases she rationalized behaviors that helped enable misguided economic policies that have had extremely damaging impacts on people and our political system and the environmental commons.

Her ideology that equated self-concern with virtue essentially presupposed that self-interested motives and ego drives are an expression of noble and pure aspects of the human soul and spirit.  Hogwash!  Those who are intimately familiar with the motivations and activities of successful people recognize that success itself is a measure frequently associated with vice more than it is with virtue, especially in the dog-eat-dog ruthlessness of unfair competition and political and economic corruption. 

Success, as John Steinbeck was so acutely aware, is often the result of behaviors that are far from virtuous.  Readers of Cannery Row are often surprised by the poignant observations of the book’s central character that the traits leading to success in our society are often vices such as greed, meanness, egotism and preoccupations with self-interest, while the traits leading to failure may be the result of virtues like kindness, honesty, openness and generosity. 

Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s principal character in her famous novel The Fountainhead, gave a dramatic speech in which he stated:  “Look at history.  Everything we have, every great achievement has come from the independent work of some independent mind.  Every horror and destruction came from attempts to force men into a herd of brainless, soulless robots.  Without personal rights, without personal ambition, without will, hope, or dignity.  It is an ancient conflict.  It has another name: the individual against the collective.  Our country, the noblest country in the history of men, was based on the principle of individualism.  The principle of man’s inalienable rights.”

As a critique of Rand’s extreme philosophies, it is hard in all sincerity to imagine that anyone could regard capitalism, as Ayn did, as a system that “demands and rewards the best in every man”.  Today, as economic inequalities in the U.S. grow ever more extreme, the rewards are being disproportionately concentrated in the hands of the few.

Jack London saw things differently from Ayn Rand because he viscerally recognized the extensive social ills associated with industrialization, urbanization, the oppression of workers, and widespread corruption in politics.  He saw that an idealized Brotherhood of Man did not arise “out of the decay of self-seeking capitalism”.  Appallingly, “capitalism, rotten-ripe, sent forth that monstrous offshoot, the Oligarchy.”  This rule by the Few crushed labor movements and subjected workers to ever-more difficult circumstances and economic insecurity in order to give more and more power and privileges to the wealthy, who ruled with an ‘Iron Heel’.  This was far from ideal for individual freedoms or self-respect or fair-minded justice.

Ayn Rand believed that ‘collectivism’ and taxation were forms of slavery.  She saw them as being oppressive of successful industrialists and creative non-conformists and others that she regarded as being the most noble.  Jack London was more intimately familiar with the scandalously ruthless gambits of ‘robber barons’ during the Gilded Age, and with their distinctly less-than-virtuous exploitation of workers and their use of the capitalist system to make huge profits at the expense of workers and society.

J.P. Morgan, as an example, had gained enormous wealth after the Panic of 1857 by investing in depreciated securities.  He also indulged in profiteering during the Civil War, as revealed in the “Hall Carbine Affair”.  In this scurrilous gambit, he purchased thousands of dangerously defective rifles and later resold them to the government as new carbines, even though they tended to blow up in the face of those who used them.  Many such unethical ruses by ruthless financiers and industrialists resulted in the accumulation of great quantities of wealth, but it could hardly be said that these were noble acts or that those who perpetrated them were particularly deserving of their wealth.

According to J.P. Morgan, riches are “the reward of toil and virtue.”  Ha!  Anyone who closely studies some of the unethical means by which J.P. Morgan gained his riches would strongly disagree.  The dastardly “Hall Carbine Affair” was just the start of a career that involved significant breaches of the public trust.  Another exceedingly rich man, John D. Rockefeller, supported J.P. Morgan’s contention, going so far as to state that riches are “a gift from Heaven signifying, <This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.>”  Oh, right, right, right -- God loves rich people the most!

Eugene Debs scoffed at these self-congratulatory perspectives.  Debs, the labor leader who ran for president five times in the early twentieth century, once stated, “Riches are the savings of many in the hands of a few!”  This characterization sounds much more accurate to me than the presumption that those who have most of the wealth in the world are mainly virtuous people who God likes best!

Ayn Rand has become a hero to people who support the Tea Party and the political right wing today, as evidenced by the recent movie version of her 1957 novelistic ode to unfettered capitalism, Atlas Shrugged.  This is ironic because most conservatives actually loathed her during her lifetime.  For today’s conservatives to lionize Ayn Rand, they indulge in dishonest historical revisionism.  Rand was, after all, an atheist, a feminist, an outspoken supporter of abortion rights, an opponent of the Vietnam War, and a critic of crony capitalism.  The film Atlas Shrugged was financed by a wealthy CEO, and it was targeted to appeal to anti-government zeal and reactionary people in the Tea Party.

The main reason conservatives have embraced Ayn Rand in recent years is because of her idea that all taxation should be voluntary.  Conservatives also love her philosophical opposition to the regulation of industry, and to government financing for roads or other infrastructure, and to all forms of welfare, unemployment insurance, assistance for poor people, and social safety net programs.

Unsurprisingly, The Wisconsin Republican Representative Paul Ryan, a lead architect of the Republican Party’s budget plans in recent years, is a devotee to Ayn Rand’s fiscal ideas and her anarchic capitalistic philosophies.  Ryan’s plans comport closely with Rand’s worldviews.  They would cut spending for Medicare, Medicaid and a whole host of housing, food and educational support programs.  They would leave the middle class and the poor and the most vulnerable Americans with far less security.  In addition, about half of the savings that would be achieved by these radical plans would be given to the wealthiest people in the form of even lower tax rates.

Make no mistake about it, however, our national politics has been a kind of perverted one-party system in many ways.  Big Money has pervasive influence in our politics and national decision-making, so as a result, in really big issues, it does not much matter which party is in power.  Big Money has the most deciding influence in all matters related to banking regulation and the social safety net and environmental protections and tax policies.  This is why our top national priorities have been primarily beneficial to multi-millionaires and billionaires, especially since 1981.

A radical contrast has materialized today, however, between Republicans and Democrats with regard to the future of our nation.  Republicans are pandering to the super-rich so blatantly that they propose to slash taxes on rich people even further, despite the fact that tax rates on rich people have been reduced repeatedly in the past few decades until they are now nearly the lowest in more than 80 years.  To couple this overarching strategy of pandering to the wealthy with deep cuts in the social safety net and public education and social programs that help protect people and the environment may be shrewd, but it is wrong-headed and astonishingly risky.  It is outrageous to see Republicans champion such narrowly focused and unfair ideas.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has made some efforts to reform our tax system to reduce the huge tax breaks for rich people.  He has proposed wiser investments and public policies that are fairer and more progressive for the vast majority of Americans. 

Students, young people, racial minorities, women and the most vulnerable Americans are being abandoned by Republicans, who are undermining public education and national infrastructure and the social safety net in order to advance their narrow agenda.  This GOP strategy is another form of power abuse by the rich.  It should stoke a revolutionary zeal in Americans to oppose such initiatives.

The Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. and abroad tapped into a growing sense of frustration and anger, and it cultivated the hope that the 99% of people can use the power of their numbers to prevent the richest 1% from gaining ever-lower tax rates and ever-more influence than everyone else.

Until recently, the most vociferous element on the American political scene was the Tea Party, which has ironically been duped into supporting policies contrary to their own best economic interests.  The propaganda of billionaires like the Koch brothers is partially to blame for this misguided error of perception and energy.

The Tea Party is considered a populist grassroots movement, but deeper inspection reveals it to be driven by “astroturfing”, a form of deceptive political advocacy and propaganda that disguises the efforts of rich people in orchestrating support for their own self interest at the expense of those they fool into supporting them.  A poll shows that 40% of Tea Party supporters are 55 or older, 79% are white, 61% are male, and 44% identify themselves as born-again Christians. Such a demographic can hardly be regarded as ideal in formulating policies for the greater good of our country, or of the world!

Jack London was a passionate advocate of collective bargaining rights and other rights for workers, and of power for those oppressed in class struggles.  There are many problems in today’s twenty-first century societies, and it would be most sensible for us to champion fairer and more open-minded ideas to cope with them most effectively.

Better education is called for in our schools and legislative bodies.  American citizens should be given a better grasp of truths and realities, instead of repeated doses of extreme ideologies and propaganda.  Jeffrey Sachs noted that better education in science and statistics is needed, declaring in Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet “The subject is basic and universal.  It transcends our many differences in religion and political ideology.” 

When we understand more clearly, we will be able to find more common ground to create a more providentially positive world.

Conclusion

Ayn Rand would have ridiculed the old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make any noise?”  A falling tree naturally propagates sound waves, and if a human being were nearby to hear it, that person would surely confirm that the falling of the tree made noise.  Without any person or animal there to perceive the sound and subjectively identify it as noise, it would not alter the fact that sound waves had been propagated.  This conundrum presents a kind of false dichotomy, for sound is neither exclusively a characteristic of the sound having been propagated nor of the mind of an independent percipient being that hears the sound.

Philosophy is vitally important when it addresses crucially important ideas.  Questions of the nature of whether or not falling trees make noises, or of abstruse epistemological and logical questions, are diversions from the importance of striving to comprehend vitally important matters using honest and fair-minded analysis, philosophical introspection, intuitive understandings, noble vision and big picture ideas.  I heartily recommend that readers peruse other Earth Manifesto publications!

        Yours Truly,

             Dr. Tiffany B. Twain       

                  SaveTruffulaTrees@hotmail.com

Postscript --- An Appendix to Tall Tales:

Appendix - An Excerpt From John Steinbeck's Log from the Sea Of Cortez

(There were 6 people aboard the Western Flyer, a 75-foot-long purse seiner, during the expedition made by John Steinbeck and Doc Ricketts to the Sea of Cortez in 1940.  They also had a skiff with an outboard motor on it, which is the subject of this excerpt from Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez.)

We come now to a piece of equipment which still brings anger to our hearts, and we hope, some venom to our pen.  Perhaps in self-defense against suit, we should say, "The outboard motor mentioned in this book is purely fictitious and any resemblance to outboard motors living or dead is coincidental."  We shall call this contraption, of the sake of secrecy, a Hansen Sea-Cow -- a dazzling little piece of machinery, all aluminum paint and touched here and there with spots of red.  The Sea-Cow was built to sell, to dazzle the eyes, to splutter its way into the unwary heart.  We took it along for the skiff.  It was intended that it should push us ashore and back, should drive our boat into estuaries and along the borders of little coves.  But we had not reckoned with one thing.  Recently, industrial civilization has reached its peak of reality and has lunged forward into something that approaches mysticism.  In the Sea-Cow factory where steel fingers tighten screws, bend and mold, measure and divide, some curious mathematick has occurred.  And that secret so long sought has accidentally been found.  Life has been created.  The machine is at last stirred.  A soul and a malignant mind have been born.  Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing.  In the six weeks of our association we observed it, at first mechanically and then, as its living reactions became more and more apparent, psychologically.  And we determined one thing to our satisfaction.  When and if these ghoulish little motors learn to reproduce themselves the human species is doomed.  For their hatred of us is so great that they will wait and plan and organize and one night, in a roar of little exhausts, they will wipe us out.  We do not think that Mr. Hansen, the inventor of the Sea-Cow, father of the outboard motor, knew what he was doing.  We think the monster he created was as accidental and arbitrary as the beginning of any other life.  Only one thing differentiates the Sea-Cow from the life that we know.  Whereas the forms that are familiar to us are the results of billions of years of mutation and complication, life and intelligence emerged simultaneously in the Sea-Cow.  It is more than a species.  It is a whole new redefinition of life.  We observed the following traits in it and we were able to check them again and again:

1. Incredibly lazy, the Sea-Cow loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed.

2. It required the same amount of gasoline whether it ran or not, apparently being able to absorb this fluid through its body walls without recourse to explosion.  It had always to be filled at the beginning of every trip.

3. It had apparently some clairvoyant powers, and was able to read our minds, particularly when they were inflamed with emotion.  Thus, on every occasion when we were driven to the point of destroying it, it started and ran with a great noise and excitement.  This served the double purpose of saving its life and of resurrecting in our minds a false confidence in it.

4. It had many cleavage points, and when attacked with a screwdriver, fell apart in simulated death, a trait it had in common with opossums, armadillos, and several members of the sloth family, which also fall apart in simulated death when attacked with a screwdriver.

5. It hated Tex, sensing perhaps that his knowledge of mechanics was capable of diagnosing its shortcomings.

6. It completely refused to run:  (a) when the waves were high,  (b) when the wind blew,  (c) at night, early morning, and evening,  (d) in rain, dew, or fog  (e) when the distance to be covered was more than two hundred yards.  But on warm, sunny days when the weather was calm and the white beach close by -- in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row -- the Sea-Cow started at a touch and would not stop.

7. It loved no one, trusted no one.  It had no friends.

Perhaps towards the end, our observations were a little warped by emotion. Time and again as it sat on the stern with its pretty little propeller trailing idly in the water, it was very close to death. And in the end, even we were infected with its malignancy and its dishonesty. We should have destroyed it, but we did not. Arriving home, we gave it a new coat of aluminum paint, spotted it at points with new red enamel, and sold it. And we might have rid the world of this mechanical cancer!