Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Whittaker Chambers and Ayn Rand

Acting on the recommendation of our loyal reader David, I hunted up the essays of Whittaker Chambers.  In the 1930s Chambers was a devout communist and even a small-time Soviet agent. Disillusioned by Stalin's purges he gradually gave up his communism. He became, instead, a Catholic conservative; I guess he was one of those people who needs some system to believe in. He spent the rest of his career as an anti-communist ideologue, but from a Catholic not a capitalist perspective. This is from his review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:
Systems of philosophic materialism, so long as they merely circle outside this world’s atmosphere, matter little to most of us. The trouble is that they keep coming down to earth. It is when a system of materialist ideas presumes to give positive answers to real problems of our real life that mischief starts. In an age like ours, in which a highly complex technological society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities. And in the degree to which problems of complexity and instability are most bewildering to masses of men, a temptation sets in to let some species of Big Brother solve and supervise them.
As a certain noted political figure recently said, "I alone can fix it."
One Big Brother is, of course, a socializing elite. Miss Rand, as the enemy of any socializing force, calls in a Big Brother of her own contriving to do battle with the other. In the name of free enterprise, therefore, she plumps for a technocratic elite (I find no more inclusive word than technocratic to bracket the industrial-financial-engineering caste she seems to have in mind). . . . And in reality, too, by contrast with fiction, this can only head into a dictatorship, however benign, living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto itself (as Miss Rand believes it should be), and feeling any restraint on itself as, in practice, criminal, and, in morals, vicious (as Miss Rand clearly feels it to be). Of course, Miss Rand nowhere calls for a dictatorship. I take her to be calling for an aristocracy of talents. We cannot labor here why, in the modern world, the pre-conditions for aristocracy, an organic growth, no longer exist, so that the impulse toward aristocracy always emerges now in the form of dictatorship.
I would draw a few things from this. First, that our society is in a "high state of instability." I am not sure that it is, but certainly many Americans believe or fear that it is. Everywhere you hear that we are on the edge of the abyss, an abyss of socialism or societal breakdown or environmental collapse or any number of other things. Second, that in the modern context the only alternative to democracy is dictatorship. I agree with this completely; all fantasies of rule by the educated or the makers or the literate end up in the hands of a strongman.

If we don't want to end up under the thumb of a strongman, we must defend democracy. And that means taking the will of the people seriously; quite apart from any moral consideration, no democracy can function by flouting the will of the majority. A good example of what I mean is school busing in the 1970s, which ended up driving millions of middle-class whites out of our cities, electing a new wave of conservatives, and doing nothing to desegregate public schools. It also means taking seriously the ambitions and desires of ordinary people in West Virginia and Kansas: respect and meaningful work, not educational schemes and lectures about tolerance. Whether this can be done at all in a world of rapid social change and even faster technological progress remains to be seen.

Of course for people like Chambers, the way to avoid falling into a Randian nightmare is religion. Religion, in this view, accomplishes several important social goals that are as important to secular leftists as to conservative Catholics. First, religion gives every believer a sense of worth and purpose outside the machinations of the competitive economy. Second, it gives us a reason to care about each other, even a commandment to do so. And third, it provides a common language for debating our political and social concerns. Unfortunately I have to say that the record of religion in guaranteeing mutual respect is pretty bad, so even if we could summon up a more religious nation I doubt it would give us a less contentious politics. We managed to get pretty riled with each other back in 1860, at what I would call the high point of religious intensity in America.

But then I don't really have an alternative, either. I reject ethno-nationalism out of hand, on the basis that it gave us two world wars and that is more than enough. Besides, America is not and never has been ethnically unified, and every attempt to define an ethnic or cultural center for the nation has excluded too many people. Liberalism writ large has been our de-facto creed for more than a century, but it provides more of a debating framework than an answer, and many people long for more. To base a nation on a philosophy appeals to cold-blooded, pointy-headed types, like Barack Obama and me, but it leaves millions unsatisfied.

To quote Roberto Calasso, neither utilitarianism nor religious conservatism can satisfy us; "we are in the middle, wavering."


szopen said...

Rejecting nationalism in USSR costed world several wars and millions of victims.

David said...

I find that religious conservatives are at their weakest when they try to argue that religion can solve social problems--which, whether true or not, says nothing about the truth value of religion itself. They're stronger when they try to argue from logical or cosmic necessity, the bleakness of a universe without meaning, etc.--though these kinds of arguments don't convince me they are right, either. Nevertheless, I find Chambers to be a fluent, graceful writer from whom I find it hard to withhold some sympathy--and, as I said before, his takedown of Ayn Rand gives me joy.