Thursday, 6 October 2016

Socialist Objectivism - A philosophy for the alt-left?

I'm probably not the person who you'd expect to hear this from, but I've always been a fan of the writings of Ayn Rand.  I think that objectivism is, for the most part, a reasonable way of looking at things.  The Ayn Rand Lexicon writes:

My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:
  • Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
  • Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
  • Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
  • The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Well, three out of four ain't bad.  The first point could be a bit tricky - it's debatable whether the nature of reality is indeed so absolute, but it is not so dependent on the subject as the postmodern relativist would have us believe either.  But even the last paragraph isn't all bad.  What's wrong, after all, with free and voluntary exchange for mutual benefit?   That's all capitalism really is, when you get right down to it, right?  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a bit, as it turns out.  Even the most right wing conservative governments of recent history - Thatcher's UK and Pinochet's Chile, among others, did not trust free market capitalism to the degree that Rand shilled for it.  Rand was one of more than a few right-libertarian thinkers (and that's what Rand was, whatever claims to the contrary she may have made) who claimed that "there was no such thing as society, only individuals."

Not so fast.  Group and institutional dynamics matter.  The manner in which power, responsibility and reward are distributed in both formal and informal associations of people impact on human behavior a great deal, making the total of the whole greater, or at least different than the sum of the parts.  The now famous prisoner's dilemma experiment is a perfect case in point wherein rational individuals acting in the most rational way to pursue their self interests, can end in mutually disadvantageous results.

In this era of postmodernism, cultural relativism and moral relativism seeming dominant in left wing thought, it's easy to forget that the economic left was once advanced by minds so preoccupied with systemic and logical rationalization of human interaction that they dared to call their take on socialism "scientific."  Whatever flaws Marxist historical materialism may have had - if we can take the failure of the USSR and the survival of capitalism to this day as evidence of the failure of this theory - there's also something to be said for it.

For one thing, it states the obvious: entering into "relations of production" of some kind or another really isn't voluntary.  Sorry libertarians.  If there's anything Rand and Marx would agree on, it's that man's necessities for survival aren't going to produce themselves.  This exposes a fatal defect in Rand's theory: the claim that laissez faire capitalism is rendered the ideal system due to all transactions that occur therein being completely voluntary is simply not true.

Marx's definition of class - those segments of the population with the same relationship to the means of production, remains an invaluable concept for clearing away all kinds of ideological rubbish, from the denial of class so often asserted by libertarians and conservatives to the assertion on part of SJWs that social groups with no specific relationship with the means of production - white males specifically - can actually form a ruling class.  Note that even if a disproportionate majority of the ruling class: that class that owns the means of production, are white males, their dominance derives from their ownership of the means of production, not from their being white males.

That all said, there's much to be said also for "free, voluntary exchange for mutual benefit", and that suppression of market activity such as was seen in the USSR requires a ruling class even more draconian than anything seen prior to it.  The idea to aspire to, I think, is not some kind of gigantic central planning bureaucracy, but some means whereby a market system can be socially owned.

Marxist theory made note of the strained political nature of the relationship between the ruling and subject classes.  While this had the danger of demonizing the ruling class and so rationalizing many ugly human rights abuses seen in the Soviet sphere, it also made apparent the need for a strategic political theory on part of the subject classes, whereby they could ultimately challenge the ruling class for, at least, a slate of basic rights under the system, if not ultimate control over it.  Contrast this with the more conservative nature of objectivism, which merely holds its truths to be self evident and simply awaits their uncritical embrace by a populace that accepts basic objectivist tenets.  Marxism reminds us that privileged classes have a vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo and do not give up their positions without a fight.

Historical Materialism was no more infallible than Objectivism was.  For one thing, Marxism was prone to reversing the mistake that Rand and her proteges made: while individualist thought denies the existence of "society", Marxist thought was prone to the misapplication of denial of the individual. This led to a cavalier disregard for the rights and lives of individuals in the theory and practice of Marxism, its offshoots from Lenin onward, and its present successor, critical theory.  What is said here is not a call that Marxism be revived and adhered to in a chapter and verse manner - there is much there that I disagree with (the labor theory of value, for instance), but rather that basic objectivist principles be joined with basic materialist principles as one (though by no means the only) means of analyzing social relationships.

The greatest danger present in both these rationalist systems of thought is losing sight of the fact that science and reason are processes, not positions.  They are the means of arriving at truth, not labels that one slaps on a particular doctrine as a means of rendering it infallible.  Randroids and Marxists regard capitalism and socialism respectively as the final word on economic theory because their "scientific" or "rationalist" reductionist formulas "proved" them true, and so they are clung to as if they were holy dogmas even in the face of obvious failure and need for reform.  That this kind of pseudo-religious devotion to any kind of theory is dangerous and directly countermands what objectivist and materialist philosophies claimed to stand for needs to be reiterated.  The only dogma should be that there are no dogmas, but theories that are shown to be sound and effective should be regarded as such until proven otherwise.

Never the less, there's a strong tendency towards objectivism on the alt-left, and I would go as far as to say that this is the philosophical basis for the alt-left's quarrel with the regressive left.  I do not think that we can deny the possibility of some kind of "Socialist Objectivism" or "Objectivist Materialism" - an objectivism that accepts some sociological concepts and even some aspects of conflict theory.  It is clear to me that this is indeed the underlying philosophy of much alternative left thinking.

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