The Last Ideology?

2003-08-18

Yesterday I posted about some of my musical pursuits, which I hope will distract me from working on Jabber all the time. My other major extracurricular interest is, of course, philosophy (supposedly musicians and philosophers scored highest on the old IBM Programmer's Aptitude Test -- maybe someday I'll translate my presumed aptitude into competency). The other day I received the latest issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, which contains the results of my research into Yevgeny Zamyatin and his influence on Russian-American novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. I've got a short essay forthcoming in the next issue, too (some comments on Chris Sciabarra's paper regarding Rand's place in the philosophical literature on progressive rock music). In addition to a brief report on aspects of Rand's literary style (much ignored by most commentators in favor of writing about her ideas), I'm working on a number of other Rand projects (all of which I hope to bundle into a book at some point), including long papers on her political philosophy and aesthetics, in-depth explorations of her Aristotelian and Nietzschean influences, and some speculations on Rand's place in intellectual history (past, present, and future).

Although Rand has inspired much of the modern libertarian movement (and provided the impetus for my initial interest in philosophy), I'm coming to the conclusion that she will eventually be seen as a relatively minor figure in the history of ideas. Her philosophical insights are less suggestive than Nietzsche's and less foundational than those of someone like Aristotle, many of her essays are too topical to be of enduring interest, and I'm afraid that (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein) there's simply not enough "there" there when one digs into her philosophy. (This is not to speak of her novels: I continue to think that The Fountainhead will long be considered a classic of twentieth-century fiction.)

From a civilizational and historical perspective, Rand is a fascinating mix. She was culturally Jewish and socially bourgeois, born and raised in the Westernizing capital (Petersburg) of the core state of Orthodox civilization (Russia), came of age intellectually in the tremendous ferment of life after the world's first communist Revolution, was strongly influenced by the most individualistic (even pagan) of modern Western philosophers (Nietzsche), escaped to America at age 21 to make her fortune in the heart of the capitalist West, and fought some of her hardest battles in America not against the Left but against the Christian Right (who agreed with her anti-communism but loathed her atheism and egoism). Given her experiences, it's not surprising that she formulated an ideology to oppose both communism and convervatism. In many ways, I see her philosophy (and its offshoot, libertarianism) as the "last ideology" of the highly ideological twentieth century. The other ideologies -- communism, fascism, existentialism, and all those other "isms" -- have faded from the scene. Far from presaging "the end of history" and the triumph of humanism, liberalism (in the old sense), and capitalism, the collapse of those ideologies has brought new tensions (mostly intercivilizational). Ideologies seem increasingly out of date, and in my opinion Rand's "Objectivism" is looking shopworn as well.

That doesn't mean principles are out of date. Some of Rand's principles are core principles of Western civilization: respect for reason and for the individual, freedom of thought and action, and the like (though there is more to Western ideas than one finds in Rand: for example, she gives short shrift to phenomena such as cultural and political pluralism). But I think principles (and principled action) are more important than intellectual hygiene and ideological purity anyway. In addition, I'm coming to see that civilizations are bigger than philosophies: they are not just words, but consist of whole structures of practices and attitudes and technologies; if successful (as I think Western ones are), such structures and their constituent parts can exercise an irresistable pull on individuals throughout the world. More than abstract philosophy or ideology, the West became such a powerful force in human history because of things like economic freedom, legal competition, choice in marriage, efficiency in timekeeping, eminently practical and often downright fun technologies (eyeglasses, guns, printing presses, washing machines, phonographs, telephones, computers, and who knows what next), forms of entertainment such as sports and theatre and movies and popular music, fast means of travel (including the invention of tourism), freedom first for slaves and then for women, and in general a culture that makes personal fulfillment not just a distant possibility but a lived reality for the vast majority of the people in Western countries (and a growing number elsewhere, whether you call it "modernization" or "Westernization").

Compared to the juggernaut of Western civilization and modern ways of living, specific ideologies such as Objectivism and libertarianism (even if consistent with much of "the idea of the West") seem cramped and parochial to me right now. I'm glad that they are one ingredient in the stew, but I can't ignore all those other ingredients, as well. I guess that's why pluralism is such an important value in Western civilization.


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