Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ayn Rand and Fascism, a better presentation....corporatism, Saint-Simon

I notice that a post I wrote a few years ago about Ayn Rand and fascism still consistently gets a lot of hits, so I'd like to update it a little bit and give a few brief thoughts about why in my opinion Rand has features of fascism in her philosophy, in a better way than in the original post.
While Rand does not engage in the state worship of Italian fascism, or advocate for dictators, her thought is most definitely shaped by corporatism of an industrial kind. Corporatism has had at least two different manifestations, each of which has been independent of fascism, although it of course drew on them. The first sort of corporatism looked back to the middle ages and to the system of the three estates, where lords dominated by supposedly shared power with guilds and peasant farmers, along with a circumscribed class of people living in towns and engaging in trade.The balance of power in this case is no different than feudalism, but theoretically the people have balances against abuses. The second type of corporatism, that could be called industrial corporatism or corporatist capitalism, looked at the rise of large industrial companies and super companies as the wave of the future, as being the shape of things to come.
Here, large industrial concerns organized by the free market and headed by industrialists thought to be either geniuses or great men, people like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, were thought to naturally provide people with a decent living and to create a decent and just society. The corporate system in this case would operate for the benefit of people in general through industrialists wanting to put out good products and keep their market advantage. Since nothing legally had established the concerns, no state sanctioned monopolies, it could be said that these formations were naturally occurring and that therefore what appeared to be overpowering was really justified by the circumstances of life. It's this sort of corporatism that I believe Rand subscribed to, and subscribed to whole heartedly.
To give a good idea of where this train of thought comes from, and what it's like, the utopian socialist Henri Saint-Simon is a good source to draw from. Writing in the early 19th century, Saint-Simon's ideas were a mix of the very progressive and of strands that we'd consider to be regressive today. He believed in a sort of commonwealth without the State and without oppressive work, but also that the best way to achieve that was to make society itself into a sort of series of corporations that would be benevolently headed by engineers, scientists, industrialists, businessmen, as well as artists and philosophers, who would act in the public interest in coordinating them. His Here's an extract of his thought from this document on Scrib.com:

"Let us suppose that France suddenly loses fifty of her first-class doctors,fifty first-class chemists, fifty first-class physiologists, fifty first-class bankers, two hundred of her best merchants, six hundred of her foremost agriculturists, five hundred of her most capable iron masters, etc…. Seeing that these men are its most indispensable producers, makers of its most important products, the minute that it loses these the nation will degenerate into a mere soulless body and fall into a state of despicable weakness in the eyes of rival nations, and will remain in this subordinate position so long as the loss remains and their places are vacant. Let us take another supposition. Imagine that France retains all her men of genius, whether in the arts and sciences or in the crafts and industries, but has the misfortune to lose on the same day the king’s brother, the Duke of Angoulême, and all the other members of the royal family; all the great officers of the Crown;
all ministers of state, whether at the head of a department or not; all thePrivy Councillors; all the masters of requests; all the marshals, cardinals,archbishops, bishops, grand vicars and canons; all prefects and sub-prefects; all government employees; all the judges; and on top of that a hundred thousand proprietors—the cream of her nobility. Such an overwhelming catastrophe would certainly grieve the French, for they are a kindly disposed nation. But the loss of a hundred and thirty thousand of the best-reputed individuals in the State would give rise to sorrow of a purely sentimental kind. It would not cause the community the least inconvenience. (Quoted
from L’Organisateur,
1819, by Charles Gide andCharles Rist, A
History of Economic Doctrines,
1915)"

It's this sort of ethic that I believe Rand espouses, albeit without the humanitarianism of Saint-Simon. Instead, in point of fact, she's cheerfully anti-humanitarian, her supporters have expressed the opinion, when charged with social darwinism, that this is actually less important than the overall message, which is that if you let industry and the 'great men' take care of things society will be better off as a whole. Supposedly, if a person isn't a 'great man' or woman, but is still a good worker who pulls their own weight, they'll do well in a Randian society.

The flaws in this viewpoint come out of Rands own contradictions, which at once idealize people who find themselves in charge of companies and denies people at the bottom any right to organize or protest against injustices that people in this completely unregulated system might inflict. If folks following Rand's philosophy aren't ethically pure but instead take it upon themselves to, in their selfishness, cheat other people and use their power to exploit them, there's nothing that folks on the bottom can really do. This applies to consumers as well, and to citizens in general. The onus is on citizens to prove that products put out by companies need regulation at all, and that environmental concerns need to be addressed at all. Why should that be? Shouldn't society have a general interest in regulation, in that it's entrusted in looking out for the basic safety of people in general?

Rand's ethics also lead to contradictions, in that the notion is that doing a good job ensures that society will do well, but doing a good job entails also being as selfish as possible. Right there the temptation is of course to put selfishness above doing a good job, of using whatever power you have to cheat people and to enrich yourself by unjust means that have little or nothing to do with your actual merit or talent.

I don't see how any sort of idea of benevolent industrial corporatism can be self consistent with the greed is good philosophy of Rand. The only way, in my opinion, that a system like that could even potentially be positive is if a sort of populist or civic virtue based ethics was applied to the system, where people felt that doing a good job was doing their duty to the rest of the world as well. If you take that issue out of the picture, there are still very large problems, in that a corporate run system that's supposedly benevolent, why would folks who run companies get to make all the decisions? What exactly would entitle somebody who sits at the head of a large corporation to make decisions that, because of the absence of any kind of civil power to check it besides an almost non-existent one, would basically determine the course and shape of society? It would be a society where no one could do anything to object to the directors of the corporations, and where the answer to the question of 'how can we change things?' would be 'work hard and get promoted into the position at the top'.

A United States, a United world, of CEOs whose will would be considered to trump the concerns of regular people, because as the talented elite they would know what's best for others. The talented Il Duces who wouldn't rule by external decree but through the dominance over their companies.

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