When he takes the stand in Chapter XVIII of Book Three of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark intones what his creator, Ayn Rand, believes to be a blistering critique of collectivism. It is at least that. Yet it is also, at the same time, a blistering critique of capital and of capitalism. Let me explain.
The Fountainhead is a theological treatise, not in broad sense in which any fiercely-held belief might be called “religious,” but in the most narrow technical sense where we expect to find and do find metaphysical subtleties, divine beings, eternal destinies, penitential rites, and the like. The Fountainhead is a theological treatise; which may help explain why individuals who fashion themselves deeply religious, such as Wisconsin Congressman, House Leader and former Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, can also feel absolutely devoted to Ms Rand’s philosophy of “objectivism.”
The Fountainhead is a theological treatise that aimed to defend one dimension of the commodity form — its unique, irreplaceable, objective form of appearance — from its abstract, general, homogeneous, undifferentiated social being. And, yet, since both of these dimensions — both its objective form of appearance and its abstract social form — are inseparably bound together in the commodity form, qualitatively differentiating and isolating them from one another requires speculative, theological, metaphysical violence; “divine violence” (W Benjamin “Critique of Violence,” One Way Street 1979:148-154).
“Divine violence” mistakes the socially and historically specific contradiction immanent to the commodity form for an ontologically fundamental, objective, transhistorical state of being. To break the stranglehold the general, homogeneous, undifferentiated totality exercises over the particular and unique, self-determining “Being” breaks through and establishes its dominance over mere “being”; except that self-determining “Being” itself forms the dynamic, living inner core of the commodity form, the counterpart and compliment to its general, homogeneous, undifferentiated social form. “Divine violence,” even for Benjamin, entails the destruction of the law: the deployment of power to destroy the constraints on power.
The ontologically fundamental character of authentic Being everywhere requires a foundation myth that differs fundamentally from the Abrahamic-Babylonian myth to which it is opposed. Whereas the latter invites readers to recognize a natural order destroyed by human hubris, the objectivist myth invites initiates to identify this hubris itself as the essence of human being. Adam ventures out on his own; he tests the world; he breaks its laws. For his enterprise he is condemned. In the objectivist canon, Adam should instead be praised for resisting a world that constrains him; where the Adamic myth condemns hubris, the objectivist myth praises law-breaking.
This glorification of illegality captures the dynamic, living value form of the commodity as it turns upon and seeks to annihilate its material form of appearance: its merely outward social being.
Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light. He was considered an evildoer who had dealt with a demon mankind dreaded. But thereafter men had fire to keep them warm, to cook their food, to light their caves. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had lifted darkness off the earth. Centuries later, the first man invented the wheel. He was probably torn on the rack he had taught his brothers to build. He was considered a transgressor who ventured into forbidden territory. But thereafter, men could travel past any horizon. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had opened the roads of the world (A Rand, The Fountainhead 1971:1724).
As is only appropriate for a religious text, Ms Rand gave to her Fountainhead an epic form. Dramatic events and actions assume a secondary role. This foregrounds the dialogue. The dialogue, in turn, takes a secondary place to several strategically placed soliloquies, the most significant of which is placed in the mouth of Howard Roark at his trial for bombing a public housing facility. Roark refuses outside counsel, choosing instead to defend himself. He begins his defense with the origins myth reproduced above. Roark continues:
That man, the unsubmissive and first, stands in the opening chapter of every legend mankind has recorded about its beginning. Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures — because he had stolen the fire of the gods. Adam was condemned to suffer because he had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Whatever the legend, somewhere in the shadows of its memory mankind knew that its glory began with one and that that one paid for his courage (Ibid.).
Ms Rand’s mythic account has many parallels across the modern epoch. Two, however, stand out. The first is Adam Smith’s memorable story about the original human beings and their natural “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” (A Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book I 1776:25). The second is Friedrich von Hayek’s origins myth in his 1944 Road to Serfdom.
Mr Smith’s story is significant not for what it tells us, but for what it conceals. As far as we can tell, for 2.4M years human beings have engaged in trade; for perhaps 20,000 years they have enjoyed markets. But, then, why did it take human beings 2.4M years to stumble upon a society mediated entirely — or so Mr Smith would like to believe — by abstract labor time expended? Would it not make more sense to seek a more proximate explanation for why communities began to change so dramatically in the fourteenth century?
Yet, it is the nature of origins myths to read contemporary social ontology back upon the past. As Hannah Arendt has noted:
Legendary explanations of history always served as belated corrections of facts and real events, which were needed precisely because history itself would hold man responsible for deeds he had not done and for consequences he had never foreseen. The truth of the ancient legends — what gives them their fascinating actuality many centuries after the cities and empires and peoples they served have crumbled to dust — was nothing but the form in which past events were made to fit the human condition in general and political aspirations in particular. Only in the frankly invented tale about events did man consent to assume his responsibility for them, and to consider past events his past. Legends made him master of what he had not done, and capable of dealing with what he could not undo. In this sense, legends are not only among the first memories of mankind, but actually the true beginning of human history (H Arendt, Origins 1979:208).
Even allowing for Ms Arendt’s own myth-making, we can well understand why eighteenth century social philosophers, curious to explain why their community had come to distinguish itself qualitatively from every other community at any time throughout history, might feel compelled to develop a powerful legend — antithetical to the Genesis account they had inherited — to explain this unprecedented anomaly. Such “Robinsonades,” so named after Daniel Defoe’s famous Robinson Crusoe (1719), richly populate the eighteenth and nineteenth century political economic landscape. Here Mr Smith is far from unique.
Our second myth-maker is Friedrich von Hayek, who, like Mr Smith, is eager to establish the ontologically fundamental character of individualism. In 1944, Mr von Hayek spread his net of inauthentic — which is to say “collectivist” — being so broadly as to capture most of the governments then battling fascism in Europe; not simply Communist Russia, but New Deal United States and Labor’s equivalent in Great Britain.
How sharp a break not only with the recent past but with the whole evolution of Western civilization the modern trend toward socialism means becomes clear if we consider it not merely against the background of the nineteenth century but in a longer historical perspective. We are rapidly abandoning not the views merely or Cobden and Bright, or Adam Smith and Hume, or even of Locke and Milton, but one of the salient characteristics of Western civilization as it has grown from the foundations laid by Christianity and the Greeks and Romans. Not merely nineteenth- and eighteenth-century liberalism, but the basic individualism in herited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero and Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides, is progressively relinquished (F v Hayek, Road to Serfdom 1944:67-68).
From which we might easily deduce that Mr von Hayek had either never read, but surely never understood, those “individuals” whom he here idolized; otherwise he would surely have known that the aristocratic Thucydides held nothing but contempt for the demagogue Pericles (a contempt, incidentally, Thucydides shared with the framers of the US Constitution, see Federalist No. 6).
But Mr von Hayek can hardly be faulted. Creation, innovation, entrepreneurship, and independence could be found on everyone’s lips (and on everyone’s pens) in the 1940s when both Ms Rand and Mr von Hayek crafted their respective religious treatises. German Fascism and Russian Communism seemed on their face to articulate both the “common sense” indictment against all collectivisms — left or right — and the “common sense” proof of the virtues of individualism. It mattered little that the innovation and entrepreneurship that both Ms Rand and Mr von Hayek loudly trumpeted was virtually nowhere to be found in the 1930s until the US Congress voted to distribute $4.6T to research laboratories, manufacturers, universities, and the bank accounts of working families. Both Ms Rand and Mr von Hayek conveniently forget this mammoth, historically unprecedented, public gift to private enterprise without which, by all estimates, economic recovery would have taken decades — assuming, that is, that without this public gift, the US could have won the war at all, which is doubtful. In the mythic tales of Ms Rand and Mr von Hayek the recovery in the 1940s simply happens; or, as in Milton Friedman’s retelling, it unfolds as a tale of private entrepreneurs willing to sacrifice for their community.
The great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized goverment. Columbus did not set out to seek a new route to China in response to a majority directive of a parliament, though he, was partly financed by an absolute monarch. Newton and Leibniz; Einstein and Bohr; Shakespeare, Milton, and Pasternak; Whitney, McCormick, Edison, and Ford; Jane Addams, Florence Nightingale, and Albert Schweitzer; no one of these opened new frontiers in human knowledge and understanding, in literature, in technical possibilities, or in the relief of human misery in response to governmental directives. Their achievements were the product of individual genius, of strongly held minority views, of a social climate permitting variety and diversity (M Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom 1962:3-4).
In fact, there is no one in this list who did not benefit directly or indirectly from sizable centralized government expenditures — Mr Friedman himself, whose first jobs (with the NRC and NBER) were with the Federal Government, not excepted.
The challenge for Ms Rand, as for these others, was to redeem the material form of appearance from its social form; the bare fact from its concept. Capital has always assumed this two-fold form. On its surface, it presents as a world of individual things, products of individual creators, innovators, or, in Ms Rand’s Fountainhead, architects. Underlying this world of things, however, is a social form knitting all things together into a homogeneous, undifferentiated whole. Ms Rand, Mr von Hayek, and Mr Smith are sworn enemies of this homogeneous, undifferentiated whole. In this whole, independence is eliminated. In its place is a web of mutual dependence, where no individual is able or is permitted to distinguish him or herself; where, in their drive to achieve social harmony, the individual is completely lost.
The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality — the man who lives to serve others —is the slave. If physical slavery is repulsive, how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit? The conquered slave has a vestige of honor. He has the merit of having resisted and of considering his condition evil. But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man and he degrades the conception of love. But this is the essence of altruism (Fountainhead 1729-1730).
Here Ms Rand perfectly describes the social form of the commodity. Here in its most degraded form is what Martin Heidegger and his student, Hannah Arendt, understood by “social being.”
Over and against this abstract social form, however, is its inexplicable individuality or particularity — its material form of appearance — Dasein, its “being there-ness.” The indigence of the individual captivates Ms Rand — as it captivates Mr von Hayek, Mr Heidegger, Mr Adorno, and Mr Smith. They mistake it for ontologically fundamental Being — for Dasein. To it, they oppose the general, the homogeneous, the undifferentiated. And, yet, in the commodity form, these two are themselves interdependent.
In the commodity form, specific actions, individuals, and materials are harnessed to produce a good whose value arises from none of these — not the action, not the individual, and not the materials — but from the price a good commands in the market. In non-capitalist social formations, the market is subject to the deliberations of actual individuals who are burdened (or blessed) with actual interests — their families, their souls, their defense of borders. These extra-market constraints place limits on the conditions under which trade takes place. Under capitalism, by contrast, these actual interests — familiar, religious, local, cultural — are made to give way to a new, abstract social form: capital. Capital is burdened by limits. It seeks to annihilate limits. Therein, limitation — the social form — strikes capital as a limitation on freedom. Indeed, from the vantage-point of capital, embodiment of any sort entails a limitation. And, yet, capital cannot dispense with the particular. It cannot dispense with the particular because it is in the particular that it finds its most cogent defense against the general, homogeneous, and undifferentiated: I want an apple, not an orange. I am a pipe fitter, not a brick layer. And, yet, this particular it sets against the universal, the general, the homogeneous — capital, which is its actual object. It cannot pursue one without the other. The two are essential. And, yet, in order to achieve its full potential — in order to “realize itself” — the one must destroy the other. There is no other way.
Ms Rand seizes one end of the commodity form, which she believes to be its material form of appearance, and she weaponizes it to defeat the other end of the commodity form, its homogeneous, undifferentiated, immaterial value form. And, yet, having seized the material form of appearance, she discovers that it has no substance: it is pure will, energy, life. It dematerializes because the moment that this energy achieves materiality it suffers from the same disability that mere things display: all things are subject to constraint.
In Ms Rand’s Fountainhead, the immaterial value form of the commodity turns upon and lashes out against its material form of appearance because what it perceives in this material form the constraints placed upon it by its social being. The social being Rand despises (and invites us to despise), however, is the social being of the commodity form whose abstract immaterial value she now seizes as the vantage point of her critique. The “second-handers” whom Ms Rand despises since they are so clearly socially constructed are made to pay for their social constitution by the immaterial value form of the commodity by which they are driven. And, yet, because this immaterial value form is itself socially constituted and reproduced, it requires an ontologically fundamental origins myth to redeem it from its social limitation. Ms Rand is driven to theological speculation and myth-making by the terror of social constitution.
In historical terms, the New Deal and FDR rally capital — through the voting of war bonds — to defeat the “collectivist” fascists and (following FDR’s death) “collectivist” communists. In so doing, they help compose the welfare state version of the collectivist identity. But this identity is nothing more than the social expression of the abstract value form leveraged in 1938 to defeat German fascism and Japanese nationalism. It is “collectivist” on both sides — both the capitalist and the fascist/socialist. Against this collectivism, the Mont Pelerin Society rallies the “individual” who is free from extrinsic determination; Howard Roark, if you like. But with equal justice we might call him Mikhail Bakunin or Vladimir Ilyich — the man who stands on his own, who acts independently, who is in control of his self; Ms Arendt’s “natality” standing erect against “fatality.” This individual stands against the homogeneous, undifferentiated totality composed by the abstract value form of capital; and, yet, this individual believes that it stands outside of and against the whole. It is, instead, the fountain head, the origin, the uncaused cause. It is God.
But unlike the God of Hebrew, Muslim, and Christian piety, the objectivist God seeks to annihilate its own body, its own creation. The objectivist God hates its own constrained being. And herein it behaves in a manner consistent with every commodity ever produced. Since every commodity ever produced aims not to satisfy the desires of consumers, but to escape from its own body — to produce value — it behaves towards those who have bodies — including its own body — as though they could, if they wished, escape from their bodies and in this manner free themselves from constraint. And, yet, they require bodies in order to realize their own abstract value.
But the body they have learned to despise is, after all, their own. It is a body socially and historically limited to a specific epoch. From other epochs we know of bodies not so constrained; differently constrained, never perfectly. We know of bodies not orchestrated homogeneously, generally, abstractly; bodies that are truly differentiated, whose collectivity forms no whole, but only always a partial, incomplete body of individuals. But this also exposes Ms Rand’s weakness. Her deep hostility to religion is not really a hostility to religion at all, but to a specific religion: to Judaism and, more specifically, to Christianity. Her deep, fundamental hostility is to a God that willingly constrains itself by what it has made, by creation, which it declares “Good.” And, even more, she is hostile, fundamentally hostile to a God Who undergoes death.
Herein, Ms Rand adopts one end of the commodity form and leverages it against the other. It is a critique of capital, but not a very sophisticated one. Indeed, it is quite common, even “banal,” to use Ms Arendt’s term. What distinguishes Ms Rand from her epigones and sycophants is that she, at least, had the courage to acknowledge and even proclaim that her god was not in any way, shape, or form, the God of Allah, Moses, or Jesus. This God she and her followers hate fundamentally, even when they feign Christian faith (e.g., Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan). And, yet, their theology is the same. It is misanthropic to the core of their being.