The morality of John Galt

The first instalment of a colossal e-discussion on the work of Ayn Rand. Former British Ambassador and Contributing Editor to the Commentator, Charles Crawford takes on Associate Editor of Pieria.co.uk and former senior banking professional, Frances Coppola

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John Galt: Who is he, what does he stand for, and is it right?

Frances Coppola’s piece The Death of John Galt took issue with some of the key moral claims of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and prompted some Twitter exchanges with Charles Crawford. They have agreed to look at these issues in an e-discussion. Here is the first instalment.

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Introductions

CC            I was a British diplomat for nearly thirty years, mostly in central and eastern Europe as Soviet communism ended and the region moved towards modern pluralism. In 2007 I left the FCO and started a new private career as a communication consultant (specialist negotiation technique and public speaking). I first read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead some ten years ago, and have read them several times.

FC             I spent seventeen years working for banks at increasingly senior levels, much of it as an independent consultant managing projects and designing IT and business systems. I stepped off the escalator in 2002, opting to concentrate on my first love, music. I’m now a freelance writer and speaker on matters financial and economic in addition to my singing and teaching.

I encountered Ayn Rand’s writing two years ago following a bruising Twitter exchange with some American libertarians. I read The Virtue of Selfishness first, followed by the novels. The character of John Galt particularly fascinates me.

What do you basically like and dislike about Ayn Rand’s novels?

CC            They tackle big themes unashamedly. It’s hard to think of any great English-language novels that really explore Communism and collectivist thinking; given the malevolent challenge posed by communism for the past century or so, that is a startling omission. I also enjoy their Russian-ness, a factor often overlooked by Ayn Rand’s critics.

I like what I take to be the core idea of these two books, namely that free exchanges of ideas and effort (in other words honest contracts) are the moral and operational motor of any society worth living in. This compels us to question social arrangements that use force or the threat of force to achieve results.

It’s no surprise that Rand’s books keep selling: our dispersed IT-driven world needs horizontal networked human cooperation based on intelligent contracting, not hierarchical structures based on threats and force.

Dislikes? All the usual ones. Characters that represent different intellectual positions rather than ‘real’ people, and therefore are not credible or just weird. Some gruesome heavy passages, where the ponderous intellectualism is too self-conscious or too dotty for its own good.

There is a nasty tone now and then of contempt for human weakness including physical and mental disability. This is part of the main philosophical problem with Rand’s worldview: her unwavering focus on the moral supremacy of free trade between individuals doesn’t (and can’t) account satisfactorily for relationships where that is impossible, above all family love and children.

Rand and her husband had no children. Hence debate rumbles on about whether in her world it is ‘selfish’ to have children (or indeed not to have them).

FC             I read these books because they are important. Their moral and political philosophy is a significant counter to state communism and theocracy. Along with Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”, these books caught the imagination of a whole generation.

We could regard them as the Bible of the “neoliberal generation” – the people, like me, who lived through the end of communism, the painful breakup of monolithic state and quasi-state institutions and the creation of the modern market state. Because of what they say about the beliefs and values of this generation, these books are fascinating.

But I find them fascinating in a sort of horrifying way. I struggle to find anything that I “like” about them. Rand’s moral philosophy runs directly counter to my own beliefs, and the characters of whom she most approves are those I like the least.

John Galt, her “hero”, is one of the most unpleasant characters I have ever encountered in a book. His self-centredness amounts to narcissism.

Harold Roark in The Fountainhead is perhaps more likeable, but he too has an overdeveloped sense of his own importance. Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” could perhaps be defined as the primacy of self-love. This might make for effective trade, but it doesn’t create nice people.

Rand was very much a child of her time: her writing is defined to a large extent by the experiences of her early life. She did not succeed in defining a new paradigm. She rejected the old, but simply re-created it in a different form.

The dictatorship of the men of mind is no better than – indeed no different from - the dictatorship of the proletariat. Orwell understood the self-perpetuating nature of dictatorship far better – and was a better writer. Rand really can’t be described as a good writer. Her books are poorly constructed, badly written and over-long; John Galt’s speech is a sure cure for insomnia.

Rand’s books are interesting for their moral philosophy and their politics, not for their literary merit.

CC            OK, now we start to disagree! There are of course miserable, over-written passages. But let’s also praise the wonderful writing and insight that are beyond remarkable for someone who did not have English as a native tongue. (An elderly professor of literature saw them on top of a pile in a junk yard, dismantling the carcass of an automobile…”A young man of your position ought to spend his time in libraries absorbing the culture of the world.” “What do you think I’m doing?” asked Francisco.)

More importantly, what is the “dictatorship of the men of mind’? All the various clever industrialists in Atlas Shrugs want to do is to sell their products in a tough competitive marketplace, testing their ideas and inventions against their own skill and wider scientific reality.

That emphasis on free choice and a battle of wits is the exact opposite of any ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (which in practice is the dictatorship of insecure middle-class tyrants). They are thwarted at every turn by corrupt rivals and officials who manipulate the state’s power to steal their work, diminish competition and compel stupid deals.

Things of course decline. John Galt (written as a curiously blank character in many ways) suggests to them that they withdraw their ingenuity so that this decadent society takes responsibility for its own actions. I don’t see that as narcissistic or even objectionable. It’s a healthy exercise in teaching dim or greedy people to think hard about cause and effect.

FC

We do indeed disagree! Plot construction and character delineation, which are my main criticisms of her writing, are not determined by language.

If you consider Rand as a Russian writer, she is not of the calibre of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. If you consider her as an American writer, she is not of the calibre of Steinbeck or Hemingway.  As a female writer, she is not of the calibre of Lessing or Murdoch. And as a political writer she is not of the calibre of Orwell.

But I acknowledge that judgements of literary merit are to some extent a matter of personal taste. I don’t consider her to be a good writer. You do.

The desire of the “men of mind” to control the rewards they receive for their ideas is no different from the desire of workers to control the rewards they receive for their labour. Whether that reward comes as monetary reward or in some non-monetary form, such as kudos, is immaterial. It is essentially the same desire, and the means that they use to achieve their desire are essentially the same too.

If there is one criticism I would level at Ayn Rand’s notion of “trade”, it is that it is not free. Free trade includes the possibility of receiving nothing at all for your ideas or your labour, or even for receiving a negative return. And free trade is impeded by the creation of monopolies and cartels.

In Rand’s novel, John Galt manipulates the market by creating a cartel to restrict supply of ideas. By doing that he creates a supply-side shock so severe that it destroys the political system. He then takes over the government and announces that he will “reorganize the world” according to his beliefs.  In effect, he creates a revolution.

This is no different from the Marxist notion that a workers’ revolution will bring down the capitalist system and set up a new one that gives them the power to control the returns they receive for their labour. Even the weapons they use are the same: the principal weapon of the working class struggle is the strike; John Galt organizes a “strike” of the men of mind.

And the end result would be the same too. John Galt and the government bureaucrats and workers’ representatives he so despises are just different breeds of pig.  

To be continued

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer: www.charlescrawford.biz. Crawford tweets at @charlescrawford. Frances Coppola is Associate Editor at Pieria.co.uk. Coppola is a singer, teacher, financial writer, and a self-descrbed 'bank refugee'. Coppola tweets at @Frances_Coppola

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