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August 15, 2009

Ayn Rand, John Galt, and Labor Unions

The Pope is pro-union. (I mention the Pope because (1) he's a much more credible, moral, and educated person than I am. No disrespect. and (2)because I hope to return to the topic of unions shortly). Also, Rand-boi's are fond of writing hypothetical discussions between Ayn Rand and various holders of that good office, and I'd like to explore an area of clear disagreement.

Ayn Rand, on the other hand, was strongly anti-union:
The artificially high wages forced on the economy by compulsory unionism imposed economic hardships on other groups—particularly on non-union workers and on unskilled labor, which was being squeezed gradually out of the market. Today’s widespread unemployment is the result of organized labor’s privileges and of allied measures, such as minimum wage laws. For years, the unions supported these measures and sundry welfare legislation, apparently in the belief that the costs would be paid by taxes imposed on the rich. The growth of inflation has shown that the major victim of government spending and of taxation is the middle class. Organized labor is part of the middle class—and the actual value of labor’s forced “social gains” is now being wiped out.

Who Was John Galt?

John Galt was the hero of Ayn Rand's most successful book Atlas Shrugged, the best work she'd ever done (which she dedicated to both her husband and her lover). Unsurprisingly, her younger Rand-boi Nathanial Branden is also staunchly anti-union.

Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy was directly against organized societies of mutual obligation; she was all about rugged individualism. She saw humanity as Producers and Moochers. The Producers created value. The Moochers (that would be me, apparently) are people who mooch off the system powered by the Producers. In a thousand ways - taxes, laws, rules, charities, safety nets - the Moochers take from the Producers, with no justification other than the larger number of Moochers and their effective Moocher rhetoric.

Her philosophy can be understood in light of her father, a business owner and Producer who had his property and position taken away by the Bolsheviks. In truth, if you're shallow like me, what you need to know is that Ayn Rand was scared as a child by mobs who took her Daddy's business, leaving the family struggling, and sending her to the United States where she became an illegal immigrant, a screen writer, wife of an American, a celebrity, and a novelist (in that order).

John Galt was a Union Activist

In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt was a mysterious figure initially introduced as a suspicious character who was involved in the absence of engineers, financiers, and other Producers. As the plot unfolds, we learn that John Galt was been organizing the Producers to band together and withhold their labors from the world at large.

Offended by government-imposed "takings", and rejecting socialism and Big Government, he withdraws from society and persuades other capitalist creators to join him in his strike, his voluntary withdrawal of his labor from the economy. (The original title of the book was The Strike.)

John Galt was a Union Organizer

So the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, speeds around the globe, inciting like-minded men to join ranks with him for their mutual benefit, and to withdraw their efforts and labor that are being unjustly taken from them without due compensation.

Holy Cesar Chavez! John Galt was a Union Organizer! Who knew?

John Galt was a Strike Leader

In fact, the working title of the book was The Strike. From John Galt's speech (spanning 90 pages in most editions):

"We are on strike, we, the men of the mind.

“We are on strike against self-immolation. We are on strike against the creed of unearned rewards and unrewarded duties. We are on strike against the dogma that the pursuit of one’s happiness is evil. We are on strike against the doctrine that life is guilt.

"We, the men of the mind, are now on strike against you in the name of a single axiom, which is the root of our moral code, just as the root of yours is the wish to escape it: the axiom that existence exists.

"If you want to know what you lost when I quit and when my strikers deserted your world-stand on an empty stretch of soil in a wilderness unexplored by men and ask yourself what manner of survival you would achieve and how long you would last if you refused to think, with no one around to teach you the motions...

"I have taught my strikers that the answer you deserve is only: ‘Try and get it.’

"I have done by plan and intention what has been done throughout history by silent default. There have always been men of intelligence who went on strike, in protest and despair, but they did not know the meaning of their action.

"...the man who gives up rather than give in, the man who functions at a fraction of his capacity, disarmed by his longing for an ideal he has not found-they are on strike, on strike against unreason, on strike against your world and your values.

Atlas Schlepped

John Galt was Mother Jones, Ned Ludd, Joe Hill and Nikola Tesla rolled into one. People read Atlas Shrugged and see themselves in John Galt. I have news: You're no John Galt. Neither am I. He's a messianic inventor-philosopher, a real Nietzschean UberMan. And that's okay. It's a work of fiction. A lot like the more recent Da Vinci Code, it's just a fictional story; it can only go wrong when people try to make it something else.

Let's be fair

John Galt was organizing a strike by self-selected elites against the common man, but he was a union organizer and a strike leader nevertheless. To that extent, and only to that extent, I salute John Galt.

The Lady Protests Too Much

In the end, Ayn Rand's condemnation of labor unions, social adhesiveness, and mutual obligation is incongruous with her hero's activity. More to the point, John Galt's key activity is inconsistent with Ayn Rand's selfish egotism.


Mark Arsenal said...

Uhm, just an aside - You have mentioned her illegal migration in both of your recent anti-Rand screeds, I assume to inflame the liberal side of the anti-immigration readership.

Just keep in mind that immigration laws have never been the most just execution of government force. Immigration laws are almost always the stupidest waste of energy we can make of our time debating policy.

Regardless of your political stance, drawing in a diverse and abundant cross-section of the world's people, coming here willingly, no less, is a great strength that benefits the most liberal polities more than anyone.

Vannevar said...

Hello Mark, I'm glad you posted. I think I've communicated poorly. IMO the whole notion of "illegal people" is a 20-th century construct and not necessarily a wise or justifiable one.

I mention it in both of my Rand screeds because I think that Randians and many libertarian-conservatives (I think there's crossover among those groups), are too easily anti-illegal-immigrant, and so I must admit that I've taken the opportunity to point out that A.R. overstayed her visa, took an American's job and married a citizen - if you subscribe to that perspective.

I guess it's a poorly motivated swipe. But it's not intended a shot at "illegals", it's meant more a shot at the hagiography of Ayn Rand. She's a novelist.

I'm the first-gen in my family born and raised here. America is a country of immigrants, and immigrants are (IMO) eager ambitious people who want better for themselves and their families. We should want those folks here. I do. I'm happy to live in a country that people want to get into, rather than a country that people want to get out of.

I'm flattered that you've read closely enough to call me on my repetition. If you have time, I'd be pleased to see your response. Cheers, Vannevar.

Anonymous said...

You have totally misrepresented Ayn Rand.
She supported both Trade Unions [which she regarded as serving as a check on polical tyranny] *and* unrestricted immigration.

See for example 'It is professors and businessmen who advocate cooperation with Soviet Russia - American labour unions do not.' AR 'Philosophy, Who Needs It?'

Vannevar said...

Hello Dear Anon 11:57,
I'm not sure I've misrepresented Ayn Rand. In the first case, she was anti-union, anti-social, anti-mutual-obligations. (I will live for no man, and want no man to live for me).

That she concurred with labour unions in being anti-Russian (and she was virulently anti-Russian, after they took her Daddy's business and all) does not make her a supporter of trade unions. They just had a common position on Russia.

In the latter case, yes, we agree she supported open immigration. I'm identifying her "illegal immigrant" phase as food for thought for her conservative-libertarian-neo-Randian followers who too often seem anti-immigrant, too.

It seems like calling Ayn Rand on being an illegal immigrant who overstayed her visa and married an American is a button.

I'd have thought my big offense was calling her a "novelist" instead of a philosopher - I thought I'd get more feedback on that.

Cheers, Vannevar

Anonymous said...

No, she was not at all anti-union nor opposed to freely chosen social and mutual obligations.

If you read the allegedly 'anti-union' section you quoted above, you can see it is clearly aimed at *compulsory* unions only, [and special privileges and price controls i.e. the 'minimum wage' which is a price control on the cost of labor].

What she opposed was *unchosen* obligations and coercion both in business and in other social interactions, indeed she spent more time denouncing the coercive actions of businessmen than any of sector of society.

The truth is - she was a staunch defender of labor unions and even publicly denounced businesses who sacked organized labor in favor of higher paid non-union labor!

I suspect her positive attitude to labor unions was an expression of her support for individual rights, in this case, the right of association and the right to withhold one's labor, but her knowledge of the terrible fate of unions in the Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany may also have played a role in her attitude - though that is pure speculation on my part.

Vannevar said...

Hello Anon,
I really do appreciate the discourse, and I want to be sure to thank you for your comments, which I truly do appreciate. You state your case well.

One problem in discussion is the agreement on definitions in rhetoric - see the famous "If by whiskey" speech as an example.

If by labor unions we mean "non-compulsive voluntary unions" that don't force prices or work conditions, then AR was pro-union. If by labor unions we mean "the type of labor unions we have in America", practiced in a closed shop, setting prices and conditions, then she was anti-union.

Myself, I'm a supporter of closed shop, price-setting, condition-determining, work-rules unionism.

We may disagree on this, but I'd like to respectfully offer you the last word, and so I won't respond unless you entreat. I think a blog with comments should run like baseball - home team bats first, visitors get last licks.

Cheers and good will, Vannevar.

Anonymous said...

Well, I see your point but with reference to the definition of 'labor union' I subscribe to the view that definitions describe a logical, hierarchical relationship among concepts and not some non-essential characteristic such as 'at a particular moment in time.'

Labor unions existed in America prior to the Wagner Act of 1935 and it is logical that such organizations should be called labor unions - you could hardly define a body created to effect collective bargaining an behalf of 20,000 steel workers in 1934 as a girls finishing school.

The difference between your position and Rand's does not pertain to the definition of labor union but to the definition of the word 'force.'

Ayn Rand, for example, opposed anti-trust laws [which penalized labor unions] precisely because anti-trust laws constitute the initiation of force and are a violation of the right to dispose of the product of one's labor.

With that in mind, I think it is unfair to describe Rand as anti-union - she repeatedly defended unions in public and in private [see 'The Letters of Ayn Rand' Ed. M.Berliner].

By all means criticize Rand for holding the view that the initiation of force is immoral because it is anti-mind and therefore anti-man, but to contend that Ayn Rand was opposed to trade unionism per se is surely unwarranted.

Mark Arsenal said...

No, I don't have a problem calling her a novelist. I think I understand which of your points you're making with the intention of raising some ire, and I respect that - I do it myself quite often.

On one hand, I don't have a whole lot of trouble with people admiring Rand. She's a prime example of the 'American Dream' in therms of the life many immigrants would love to achieve. I also often have an issue with the 'barrier to entry' her history as a social commentator has in the fact that so few academics are willing to call her a 'philosopher' - I often wonder what the qualifications are.

On the other hand, it's plain to see the cult-like religion that she engenders in young people who latch onto her. She preached reason and seeking happiness, but if your questioning leads you to disapprove of anything about her, anything she said, or any way she lived her life, her defenders invoke a series of canned denunciations and try to end the argument without really listening anymore, and in the end, I have trouble believing that she was very happy herself most of her life.

Either way, what on Oerth makes you call the Pope 'moral'? I preferred Julia Sweeny's take on the matter, myself ;)

Michael M said...

Mark, you say, "On the other hand, it's plain to see the cult-like religion that she engenders in young people who latch onto her."

This is the ubiquitous cheap defense against Rand's philosophical challenge to the contemporary status quo. It red-flags a shallow knowledge of the philosophy and its potential value to anyone who pursues it beyond reading the novels and one or two essays.

You have failed to distinguish whether the over the top enthusiasm of young people is a due to errors in her thinking, or is it just the typical behavior of the young who are in the process of escaping the intellectual tyranny of their parents and their local community and schools. In the case of young readers of Rand, the first powerful impact is always brought on by the discovery of someone who not only agrees with some personal values and ideas about a question of great significance, but also who clarifies the tangled web of their thinking and integrates previously disparate aspects of a subject into a cogent whole that they can then assimilate and pass on to others. Typically, they rush to share their discovery with their world oblivious to the prisons in which their friends and families have already sealed their minds.

You are apparently unaware of Rand's ability to reduce the chaos of contemporary thinking to clean, simple and precise definitions backed up by volumes of explanation and proof waiting in the wings if and when you need it. You cast your "canned denunciations" slur with the assumption that the format of her ideas could not possibly be the most efficient way to express it. You do not consider that the young person could have just discovered the ideas, or even the subject itself (what youth is versed in epistemology?), and is using her words like training wheels. You assume there are no adults who continued with the hard work of challenging and applying her ideas over and over for 40 years as I have only to be constantly astounded at the efficacy she enabled us to achieve. You are most certainly unaware of Rand's demand of her admirers that they not accept any idea of hers without achieving the ability to independently validate it on their own.

That tenet alone precludes one from being both an Objectivist and member of any cult or religion. You cannot be an Objectivist and simultaneously have faith in any authority — not Rand, not God, not society, etc., etc., etc. Not that some haven't tried it. But men are volitional animals and hence fallible. That some might err in their enthusiasm and admiration is not caused by Rand. If you think that it is, you should name that cause and validate it.

Usually the charge you have made originates rather in fundamental skepticism — in a doubt that any human being could be as right as Rand is implied to be per the behavior of those who agree with her philosophy. I've been there. I still have a disintegrating yellow-paged copy of "The Virtue of Selfishness" with aggressively penciled in marginalia like, "NO!!!", "THIS CAN'T BE RIGHT", and such from 1968. In the interim, however, I have learned that underestimating her like that is never intellectually profitable.

Anonymous said...

I think Galt wasn't a unionist. He was a strike leader, and I believe he even mentions that his strike is not for petty reasons like most unions arguments are. He is for the human spirit, the individual, and progress.

Anonymous said...

Telling people they SHOULDNT WORK for a bunch of parasites is NOT forming a Labor Union.

PLease use more logic and reason in future.

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