Intellectual Organizations

1998-11-06

I've been thinking a lot lately about whether there is any legitimate role for organizations in the context of an individualistic philosophy such as Objectivism (the two main organizations in the Objectivist world being the Ayn Rand Institute and the Institute for Objectivist Studies). And I've concluded that there really is not.

Let me make it clear that in the past I have been a supporter of ARI (in the early days) and more recently of IOS, but of late I have come to the conclusion that organizations are unhealthy and, further, positively dangerous when it comes to the realm of ideas. I now find the idea of an intellectual movement to be abhorrent.

As far as I can see, true individualism demands intellectual independence. And I've come to think that true intellectual independence requires, well, independence. It's so easy to let others determine what one's thoughts and views will be, and it's even easier if someone else is footing the bill. As the old saying goes: "He who pays the piper calls the tune." Allying oneself with any intellectual organization or movement will inevitably influence one's choices of topics, one's methods and approaches, whom one will work with, etc. So intellectual independence is not fostered -- indeed, it is actively discouraged -- in any movement, even one that is ostensibly devoted to reason, individualism, and freedom.

As a result of these ruminations, I've concluded that I am fundamentally opposed to the concept of an organized Objectivist movement as well as the concept of Objectivist organizations. Indeed, I have come more and more to be constitutionally suspicious of organizations. I think that they're unhealthy and anti-individualistic. Businesses are better than non-profits in this respect because they have the market to keep them disciplined, but even here internal politics and the needs of the organization can come to outweigh the needs of the individual or correct principles of human interaction (this is why I stick with small companies and will probably go out on my own once my skill-set is where I want it to be). Non-profits are "dangerous" in this regard, I think, because when one supports them one is not buying a product but giving money to the organization just because it is the organization one thinks it is -- it's not quid pro quo, value for value, or direct trade of the kind that businesses engage in. This is especially true with regard to intellectual organizations -- here the potential for mischief is extreme, in my opinion. Over the years I have become an ever stronger advocate of intellectual independence, and to my mind this necessarily involves disengagement from all intellectual organizations and ideological movements, even those one thinks or hopes are founded on the right principles. I think it is much more healthy to pursue one's intellectual or philosophical goals in an individualistic way, through one-on-one contacts and value-exchanges with particular individuals, publishers, and so on (this is why I will never turn Monadnock into an institute or foundation -- please shoot me if I do!). So, callous as it may seem from the perspective of those who care about the Objectivist "movement", I don't particularly care what happens at IOS or ARI (whether they go off the deep end by starting some kind of "Objectivist Church").

Further, I think such organizations are positively hazardous because they provide a focal point for the media. For example, Rand anointed Leonard Peikoff as her "intellectual heir" instead of letting her philosophy spread naturally and individually. So Peikoff is seen by the media as her spokesperson, as the foremost expert on her ideas, simply by dint of the fact that he can claim direct intellectual lineage from Rand. Plus it doesn't hurt that Peikoff makes good copy: he's outspoken, a bit kooky, and does not shrink from saying ridiculously orthodox things that play into people's stereotypes about Rand being a cultist. He's a focus for "the movement", at least in the minds of journalists. Personally I think one can be most true to Rand's ideas by eschewing all movements and central organizations, and instead pursuing independent activities like writing, publishing, communicating one-on-one with others, etc. -- even though this isn't as "meaningful" in the sense of participating in something larger than oneself. In other words, an "individualist movement" is an oxymoron.

There are those who claim that Rand's philosophy has a built-in defence mechanism against organizational shenanigans, since it is a philosophy of individualism and respect for reality, so that anyone who does not practice Objectivism consistently will be exposed as a fraud. Ah, but what does it mean to "practice Objectivism consistently"? There's the rub! I'm sure Leonard Peikoff thinks he practices Objectivism consistently, just as did Nathaniel Branden (circa '60s) and Ayn Rand and many more before him. Do I think any of these people are or were "walking, talking billboards for Objectivism as a positive mode of thinking and living"? No way. In fact, I don't want to get anywhere near them or many of those who call themselves Objectivists. To me they are filled with negativity and are anything but examplars of healthy living. As far as I can see, the most important thing is to live consistent with reality, not with Objectivism. But perhaps that's what it really means to "practice Objectivism consistently"!

What's more, many "movement Objectivists" are highly rationalistic and don't have any street smarts or sense of how the world works, mainly because they are cloistered away in academia or "think tanks" (and doesn't the water get stale in those tanks!). I suppose this is true of all intellectuals, but you'd think that adherents to a worldly philosophy like objectivism would not be so afflicted. So what is the purpose of intellectual organizations like ARI and IOS and so on? I was thinking about Howard Roark the other day in this context and how he refused to join the American Institute of Architecture or whatever it was called. It's telling to me that Roark was such an individualist but so many supposed individualists feel the need to group together so strongly. Makes one wonder.

There is always the temptation to think that the organization one is involved in can overcome these problems, or that by working from the inside one can change one's favorite organization. Yet such notions ignore reality. An organization is what it is for various reasons of intention, history, personnel, and the ever-strong influence of what I call the organizational imperative. Organizations take on a life of their own, and individuals who support them or work within them inevitably begin to value that which helps the organization as more important than that which helps the ideas or value or persons who are the intended recipients of the organization's influence. One begins to believe that membership growth, larger budgets, wider influence, more media mentions, and such have value in themselves or as things that contribute to the life of the organization. And thus the organizational imperative takes over.

To all this I say no thank you.

If we must have a credo that some leader asks us to repeat, let it be this...

"I am an individualist."

"I think for myself."

"I recognize no authority higher than the judgment of my own mind."

"The cause exists for me; I do not exist for the cause."


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