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What’s in a name? or: Over My Shoulder #23: from Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995)

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 18 years ago, in 2006, on the World Wide Web.

This doubles as this week’s Over My Shoulder. Sort of, because I’m tossing out one of the rules for this week. Normally, here’s how it goes:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

This week, I’m ignoring rule 2, because I happen to be working on a paper and it’ll be useful to sketch some notes down for it while I’m here. In any case, here’s the quote. This is from Chapter 10, A Libertarian Politics, in Chris Sciabarra‘s 1995 study, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. I read this in the student center at Wayne State in Detroit, right after (of all things) touring a great little exhibit on the centenniel of the Industrial Workers of the World, hosted at the Reuther Labor Library. Here, Sciabarra is discussing Ayn Rand’s defense of the free market, and her deliberate use of the name capitalism to describe what she was defending:

Rand’s defense of capitalism is similar in form to her defense of selfishness. In fact, Rand titled her collection of essays in social theory, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, for much the same reasons that she titled her collection of essays on morality, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. Both capitalism and selfishness have had such a negative conceptual history that Rand needed to reclaim these concepts and to recast them in a new and nondualistic framework. Branden remarks that he had told Rand of his preference for the word libertarianism as an alternative to capitalism, since the latter term had been coined by anticapitalists. For Branden, libertarianism signified a broader, philosophical characterization and addressed the issues of social, political and economic freedom (Branden 1978, 60). But Rand refused to renounce the concept of capitalism, just as she rejected any attempt to couch her ethos of rational selfishness in more neutral terms.

In addition to such nominal problems, Rand was faced with the fact that her defense of capitalism differed considerably from other theoretical justifications. Rand’s approach is not Weberian; she did not view capitalism as an expression of the Protestant work ethic. Nor did she view capitalism as compatible with Roman Catholicism, or any other form of religion. Though she accepted the empirical and theoretical arguments of Austrian-school economists who see the market as the most efficient and productive mechanism in history, she refused to defend capitalism on purely utilitarian grounds. And while Rand celebrates the record of economic growth under Western capitalism, she believes that the historical reality diverged radically from a pure, unadulterated laissez-faire system. While the nineteenth-century United States best approximated this system, its progress was severely undermined by massive government intervention in the areas of finance and banking, and in the bolstering of monopolies through land grants and industrial privileges. Marx himself had viewed this nineteenth-century system as only an approximation of full capitalism, since it was adulterated and amalgamated with survivals of former economic conditions (Capital 3:175). For Rand, as for most Marxists, this mixed system reached its twentieth-century climax in the neofascist and corporativist policies of the U.S. welfare-warfare state.

Rand argued that the underlying reason for this failure to achieve systemic purity was moral and cultural. Capitalism as a social system was an implicit by-product of an Aristotelian philosophical base, one that celebrated the rational, the secular, and the egoistic. And yet capitalism was historically distorted because the cultures within which it evolved had not fully emerged from the influence of mysticism, altruism, and collectivism. Rand saw capitalism and altruism as philosophical opposites that could not co-exist in the same man or in the same society. The modern age was fractured by an inner contradiction because it tried to combine the concept of eudaemonic man with the notion that human beings were sacrificial animals. It was for this reason that Rand was extremely apprehensive about the introduction of capitalist markets into primitive cultures. She argued that capitalism required a predominantly rational and secular orientation, and that industrialization could not be grafted onto superstitious irrationality without massive distortion in the evolving structure of production. Though the United States achieved the greatest progress because it was the most secular Western country, it too had preserved significant elements of altruism and collectivism in its cultural base. And it was paying the price.

Curiously, Rand spoke in terms of a cultural and philosophical base. This view differs considerably from the Marxist formulation, which sees culture and philosophy as components of a social superstructure, a by-product of a material base. These opposed characterizations have disparate consequences for both the theory of history and the nature of social revolution; however, what must be explored at this stage is Rand’s understanding of capitalism as an unknown ideal. In Rand’s view, the nature of capitalism is so inherently radical that its historical, philosophical, and cultural implications have yet to be fully comprehended. Rand unabashedly proclaims that Objectivists are radicals for capitalism … fighting for that philosophical base which capitalism did not have and without which it was doomed to perish. Once again, Rand’s project is geared toward articulation. She aimed to articulate those premises which underlie the daily practices and institutions of a historically emergent but not yet fully realized social system.

Following her literary methods, Rand seems to have extracted and emphasized those principles which, she believed, distinguish capitalist society from all previous social formations. She began with the real concrete circumstances of the historically mixed system, breaking down its complexity into mental units. She constituted her vision of capitalism on the basis of such abstraction, having isolated and identified those precepts which are essential to its systemic nature. In this way, she eliminated the accidental and the contingent in order to focus instead on the philosophical ideals of the capitalist revolution. Such a revolution was incomplete because its principles had never been fully articulated and implemented. Rand viewed her own project as the first successful attempt to articulate the moral nature of the capitalist system, ideally understood, thus making possible its historical fulfillment.

— Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995), pp. 283–285.

A lot of left-libertarians have rightly stressed that terms such as capitalism and socialism, as they are commonly used, are systematically ambiguous; often they are used to name two different systems that are mutually exclusive of each other ([state socialism and anarchistic socialism][], on the one hand, or the free market and political patronage for big business, on the other). Roderick Long recently made a persuasive argument that both capitalism and socialism, as the terms are commonly used, are best regarded as anti-concepts, and more specifically as package deals of concepts that do not actually go together, which have been used by statists on both the Left and the Right to systematically blur the distinction between neo-mercantilism and the free market. Left statists say they oppose the chimera, and right-statists say they support it, but what libertarians need to recognize, first and foremost, is that the system they are allegedly fighting over is chimerical, and that the words they are using embody false presuppositions about the meaning and the nature of free markets.

I think that’s quite right, and that it’s very important. Nevertheless, we mustn’t be misled into thinking that just because socialism and capitalism as commonly used are anti-conceptual package-deals, that we ought to abstain from both terms on an equal footing, or to take a pox on both your houses attitude towards the institutions, symbols, traditions, and other socio-cultural trappings associated with either identification. In some dialectical contexts the best thing to do with an anti-concept is just to expose it as nothing more than so much Newspeak, to abandon using it, and to exhort others to follow your example. But sometimes the thing to do is just to urge your conversation partners to use language more precisely, and to teach them by example, by choosing one of the senses of capitalism or socialism to use clearly and consistently. And I think that Ayn Rand’s deliberately provocative use of capitalism is instructive here on the principle, even though I think she’s wrong on the application, and that the reasons for the misapplication have to do with deeper problems in her own economic thought. Those problems don’t have to do with defending a free market in the means of production and distribution — I’m all for that, but given the historical example of self-described socialist free marketeers such as Benjamin Tucker, that doesn’t settle the issue between describing yourself as a socialist, describing yourself as a capitalist, or describing yourself as something else again.

Rand deliberately worked to reclaim the word capitalism for the unknown ideal of the completely free market, rather than the known reality of the predatory, neomercantilist mixed economy, in which all actually existing free markets are embedded, confined, limited, and distorted. Sciabarra explains her decision in terms of an intellectual process of isolating the essential features that distinguished societies called capitalist from earlier and later forms of social organization. It’s an apt description as far as it goes, but the connection between the intellectual process and Rand’s aesthetic and affectional imagination needs to be fleshed out in order to fully explain her decision. Rand knew perfectly well that the historical data underdetermined the question of whether predation or voluntary cooperation was essential to the capitalistic form of society: the rise of the societies we call capitalist involved the liberation of many people and of the markets in many commodities; it also involved the escalation of many forms of predatory state patronage and the invention of new ones (it meant, for example, considerably more freedom in agriculture or textiles; it also meant considerably more government intervention in banking, land use, and transportation infrastructure). You could describe the picture by identifying the growth in freedom as the capitalist stuff, with the new levels of predation as anti-capitalist deviations from capitalism marring its productive development. But you could just as easily describe it by identifying the growth in predation as the capitalist stuff, with the growth in freedom as a countervailing, non-capitalist or anti-capitalist development, which the capitalist stuff had an antagonistic, or often parasitic, relationship to. So which description should you choose? I think the best explanation why Rand chose the first picture instead of the second one has to do with what she would have identified with her sense of life — the degree to which her aesthetic and affectional imagination were engaged on behalf of actually existing capitalists, as she understood them, in the known reality of the mixed economy: that is, her view of the grand bourgeoisie — big industrialists, business-owners, money-men, the top tier of entrepreneurial inventors, and ultimately the wealthy broadly — as the heroic prime movers in business, and thus as the world’s motor, driving the production of the material means of survival and human flourishing. (See, for example, Atlas Shrugged or America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.) Though she’d no doubt fume at the description, one way of putting it is that she made her choices about what language to reclaim and what language to abandon on the basis of class solidarity. I have no quarrel with Rand’s procedure; but rather only with the particular class she chooses to stand in solidarity with. If Rand is right that the capitalist is the chief victim of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is well-drawn, it makes perfect sense for her to reclaim the word capitalism for the free market as against political patronage. If, on the other hand, the bosses are the chief beneficiaries of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is ill-drawn — if the archetypical boss is a busybodying mediocrity, a cunning predator, or a petulant grafter, and if their role in the workplace is a drag on the productive labor on the shop floor rather than the animating force behind it as Rand claims — then it makes perfect sense to locate the essence of capitalism elsewhere from where Rand locates it, and to treat capitalism as a term of criticism for political patronage as against the free market.

This may help serve as some explanation for why Rand is willing to identify with the term capitalism and even to invest the symbol of a government fiat currency with near-religious significance, while fully recognizing the predatory nature of the state-business nexus; it may also help to explain how, in spite of really detesting the stupidity and the atrocities perpetrated in the name of socialism, I can be so fond of old union songs, and how I can fly a red flag over my soap box while I preach the free market.

Further reading:

10 replies to What’s in a name? or: Over My Shoulder #23: from Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995) Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Sam Haque

    Rand deliberately worked to reclaim the word capitalism for the unknown ideal of the completely free market, rather than the known reality of the predatory, neomercantilist mixed economy, in which all actually existing free markets are embedded, confined, limited, and distorted.

    This was likely in reciprocation to socialist arguments that true socialism is not represented by the realties of communism. Rand is constructing a similiar “unknown ideal” for Capitalism.

· June 2006 ·

  1. Sheldon Richman

    Hear, hear! The history of free markets is not the history of capitalism. Libertarianism (or whatever we call it) is doomed if it is ahistorical and rationalistic. We need more writing on this subject. Thanks, Charles.

— 2010 —

  1. Discussed at www.cato-unbound.org

    Cato Unbound » Blog Archive » The Winnowing of Ayn Rand:

    […] term to refer to a free market, a growing minority (examples include Kevin Carson, Gary Chartier, Charles Johnson, Sheldon Richman, and Brad Spangler) tend to reserve “capitalism” for the corporatist status […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2010-01-22 – Somebody’s gotta say it.:

    […] the pyramid of ability, etc.; for the yada yada, see Roderick’s article, and perhaps also my What’s in a name?, which Roderick kindly took notice of in the […]

  3. Discussed at bailout.topnewsdigest.com

    Rename Capitalism Socialism? | Bailout and Financial Crisis News:

    […] term to refer to a free market, a growing minority (examples include Kevin Carson, Gary Chartier, Charles Johnson, Sheldon Richman, and Brad Spangler) tend to reserve “capitalism” for the corporatist status […]

  4. David Rojas Elbirt

    Economic incentives are founded on a core idea: accumulation of capital. And you are all bumping into the same wall, thinking inside the box variations of the same formula that include capital, power, markets, prices, etc. An excentric form of anthropocentrism. The real turn, the next BIG thing after capitalism, will involve economics linked to maximazing Nature. That is, economic or monetary incentives focused on learning how to make simbiosis between Mankind and local and global ecologies.

  5. Discussed at littlealexinwonderland.wordpress.com

    Left: Against The Capitalistical Imperative « Little Alex in Wonderland:

    […] that Rand’s view of capitalism was aptly not logically consistent with a free market, stating (emphasis […]

  6. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2010-05-07 – Bits & Pieces on Free Market Anti-Capitalism: two meanings of “markets”:

    […] For examples, see my Anarquistas por La Causa and What’s in a name?, Roderick Long 2006-04-08 and 2008-06-27, Steve Horwitz 2009-12-31 and 2010-01-07, Gary Chartier […]

— 2013 —

  1. Discussed at 1wilsonreport.wordpress.com

    Atlas Snubbed: Has Ayn Rand Been a Negative influence on Libertarianism? | The Wilson Report:

    […] partner in crime, rather than its “most persecuted minority.  I agree with Charles W. Johnson’s argument […]

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