Thursday, October 24, 2013

Future of Objectivism 2

Authority in Objectivism. One of the challenges for ARI moving forward is to deal with the problem of authority. In any organization there are bound to be conflicts between various individuals. Many, if not most, of these conflicts cannot be resolved by "reason" (i.e., rational argumentation). Rational thinking, at best, can only resolve differences about matters of fact. It cannot resolve differences arising from moral preferences (and all moral ends are preferences). Consequently, conflict is inevitable, even between people pretending to be "rational." Inevitably, Objectivists will disagree with one another. If the disagreements involve competition for resources and/or status, they may become quite heated. How are these conflicts to be resolved?

In the past, routine conflicts could be resolved via ARI's board. But when major conflicts have broken out among board members, only one source of authority could be relied upon: Leonard Peikoff. Peikoff himself, in his apologia for having McCaskey removed from the ARI board, explained how this all works:

An organization devoted to spreading an ideology is not compatible with “freedom” for its leadership to contradict or undermine that ideology. In theory. the best judge of such contradiction would be the person(s) , if he exists, who best understands and upholds the ideology, as evidenced objectively by his lifelong intellectual consistency, philosophic attainments, and practical results. In practice, the best judge would be the person, if he is still alive, who founded the organization and defined its purpose, in this case as a step in carrying out a mandate given him by Ayn Rand. On both counts, only one individual qualifies: me.

The logic of this argument could be extended to cover any conflict, not just ones arising from intellectual criticism of one of Peikoff's pet projects. Because of Peikoff's unique position as the heir of Rand's estate and the individual who, among the living, "best understands" Rand's ideology, he was the obvious choice to occupy the role of Objectivist pope. Peikoff, however, will not be around forever. After Peikoff leaves the scene, who will be "best qualified" to fill the necessary role of authority at ARI (and, by implication at least, of the orthodox Objectivist movement)?

The most plausible answer is: no one. There are several reasons for this.

1. Peikoff had one advantage that can never be duplicated by any successor: namely, Peikoff could say, I spent more years with Rand than any living person. I taught a course on Objectivism that was approved by Rand. I wrote a book that was given unqualified praise by Rand. I was named by Rand as the heir to her estate. These are essentially the reasons why Peikoff became the highest authority among orthodox Objectivists, despite his increasingly eccentric views.

2. Peikoff founded ARI. No one else will ever be able to claim that distinction.

3. Peikoff, by misusing his authority, has brought disrepute upon it. This is most clearly seen in the McCasky imbroglio, which I suspect hurt Peikoff's standing among the Objectivist faithful. In that distasteful affair, Peikoff behaved in a manner that was both arbitrary and arrogant, both thin-skinned and tone-deaf. Like Rand, he exaggerated McCaskey's mild criticism into something a great deal more sinister. Intead of handling McCaskey's opposition with tact and reserve, he issued an email where he treated  ARI board member, Arlinne Mann, with an astonishing high-handed, patronizing contempt, railing at her, "I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status in Objectivism." He also threatened Yaron Brook with sundering his connection with ARI unless McCaskey was safely disposed of ("someone has to go, someone will go"). After publication of his contemptuous email raised a chorus of criticism, even among the Objectivist faithful, Peikoff issued an apolgia of sorts that, although more carefully worded, was, if anything, even more rude and obnoxious. Among other things he would admit in that email "that a few longtime Board members and I are on terms of personal enmity, and do not speak to each other" and that he judged McCaskey to be "immoral" because, as Peikoff put it, "I regard him as an obnoxious braggart as a person, and a pretentious ignoramus as an intellectual." At the time, many of the Objectivist faithful decided to swallow hard and accept Peikoff's blatant sophistry; but the bad taste lingers still.  There must be at least some orthodox Objectivists who look forward to time when ARI cannot be held hostage to the whims of an arrogant old man, no matter what his credentials otherwise might be.

4. Peikoff is not going to announce an intellectual heir. The apostolic succession will be sundered at the very root. No one at ARI will be able to say, "I can trace my intellectual status back to Rand herself." Not that that would be terribly convincing in any case, even among Ayn Rand cultists.

So no one is "best qualified" to fill the role of chief authority figure over at ARI. But someone will have to fill that role nonetheless. Who (or how) will it be filled?

It will probably be filled by whoever is executive director of ARI. This individual's authority will not, however, quite reach what Peikoff has enjoyed. There will be no published emails with the phrase "I hope you still know who I am." An executive director can be fired. His power rests on the degree to which he can win support from board members, which in turn depends on such things as fund raising ability, charisma, competitiveness, skill at chicanery and manipulation, and other executive skills. Steadfastness to Objectivism will of course be a necessary prerequisite for attaining the position of ARI's directorship. But expertise in Objectivism, particularly in the more remote and abstruse parts of the doctrine, won't be necessary; indeed, it might even be a hindrance. The sort of individual who would be willing to master, say, Rand's epistemology, is not likley to be the sort of person best fit to lead the institute and raise donations. Intellectuals don't ordinarily make particularly good leaders or fund raisers. If ARI wants to move forward and increase its influence on the libertarian right, they will probably have to look to the business sector for leadership. And someone with a business background is likely to be less doctrinaire and more pragmatic than an intellectual. To succeed in business, you need to know how to manage people. That's a skill in short supply among Objectivist intellectuals whose background is mainly academic.

The only real question is whether people with business backgrounds can be found to head-up ARI. Orthodox Objectivism is fortunate to have found Yaron Brook; for, despite his many flaws, he appears to have been a considerable improvement over his predecessor, Michael Berliner. But who is going to be Brook's replacement? Will the ARI board have the foresight to look for a businessman to head up the institute, or will they hire another sleepy academic? Arguments could be made both ways. ARI is dominated by academic intellectuals. So why wouldn't they want an academic to lead them? While Brook does have business experience, he also has a PhD in Finance. How many businessmen have PhD's, have taught at a college, and are orthodox Objectivists as well? Probably not many. Perhaps none at all. If a PhD and college teaching experience are necessary prerequisites for the directorship of ARI, then the ARI board may have no choice but to hire another intellectual. However, given that someone with business experience would likely be a better director, with more contacts in the business world and better opportunities to raise money (after all, who would likely bring in more money to ARI, John Allison, who is friends or acquainted with a large number of wealthy people, or Michael Berliner, who's an intellectual with a background in academic administration?). I suspect that pressure to maintain current funding levels will force the ARI board to make the more pragmatic choice of an individual with business experience, particularly in fund raising and running a corporate organization. I suspect as well that Brook himself will desire a successor that can carry on his work, and not some doctrinaire academic who will bring back the good old days, when ARI was the private preserve/cash cow of a handful of prominent Objectivist intellectuals, to the exclusion of nearly everyone else.

If, as I suspect, ARI ends up looking to the business world, rather than academic world, for leadership, this will likely further the trend toward a brand of Objectivism that emphasizes the political aspects of the philosophy and which primarily seeks to provide the Right with a moral argument for free markets. It could also mean a less doctrinaire organization. By less doctrinaire, I don't mean to suggest that ARI is going to become a bastion of "tolerance." There are limits of tolerance in any organization. You're not going to find non-Objectivists, let alone critics of Objectivists, occupying prominent positions at ARI any time soon. But that's true of virtually any ideologically motivated institute. How many socialists work at the CATO institute? How many progressives at the Heritage Foundation? How many conservatives at the Center for American Progress?

To be sure, ARI is more doctrinaire than any of those organization. However, at the same time it must be admitted that many of the worst excesses of ARI can be traced to its founder, Leonard Peikoff. From Rand herself Peikoff inherited a kind of condescending attitude toward the essential practical mechanisms for advancing an ideology. Just as Ayn Rand had no compunction over hurting the movement in order to punish Nathaniel Branden, Peikoff felt no compunction over hurting ARI in order to defend his ego in the McKaskey scandal.  When Peikoff departs the scene, ARI will no longer have to deal with an individual who cares more about shielding himself from criticism than he does with the putative goals of the institute he founded.


Neil Parille said...


I don't think the future leaders of the ARI will be academics.

On the other hand, Peikoff started the ARI and will be leaving (I assume) Rand's papers and some of her copyrights to it. I think he will want to ensure some way of maintaining ideological purity. Of course, no one will have the leverage he has (as in the McCaskey affair).

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Neil: I think he [Peikoff] will want to ensure some way of maintaining ideological purity.

I don't think so.

As far as I can tell, Peikoff's penchant for authoritarianism begins with Rand and ends with himself. He sees himself as uniquely endowed with an understanding of her philosophy gleaned from his years as her student -- and therefore uniquely positioned to help others reach a correct understanding of Rand's ideas. Anyone else would just be a fallible interpreter, and so everyone will be better off relying on his own mind than relying on fallible interpreters.

Keep in mind that Peikoff is a true believer. In his view, anyone who reads Rand and uses his own mind will eventually get it right because Rand's conclusions are inevitable from the evidence of the senses and proper reasoning. Ideological police are neither useful nor necessary. Further, because most people don't use their mind properly or consistently -- including anyone he might designate as ideological police -- error will creep in if Objectivists and would-be Objectivists rely on any authority other than Rand (and himself due to his unique and unrepeatable history with her).

In Peikoff's view, the only possible chance of preserving Objectivist ideas in pure form once he's gone is to preserve What Rand Wrote (and said) -- and What Peikoff Wrote (and said) about What Rand Wrote (and said). As long as that is preserved, then first-handed intellectuals will be able to get it right without being misled by authorities who failed to get it right. In his mind, pointing everyone to the books, articles, and recorded lectures by Rand and himself is much safer than anointing an official interpreter; the interpreter might get it wrong, but the words themselves are True.

To that end, he has publicly recommended that Rand's writings (and I think OPAR) should be printed on indestructible acid-free archival whatever paper and stored in sealed chambers in caverns in multiple locations so that if and when civilization collapses, people will still stand a chance of finding them. (I picture a Yucca Mountain of Objectivist lore.)

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Greg: But who is going to be Brook's replacement? Will the ARI board have the foresight to look for a businessman to head up the institute, or will they hire another sleepy academic?

I think they'll stick with the businessmen. There was some resistance when Brook was first considered; several prominent figures thought they needed a philosopher to replace Michael Berliner. But now that they have seen what a businessman can do for them, nobody thinks that.

Peikoff himself is a huge -- and vocal -- Yaron Brook fan. As I recall, he has said he does not think the Objectivist movement could have a better champion.

Neil Parille said...


I was thinking of something unofficial, a "shadow committee." In any event, whether by LP's director or just intertia, I don't think Reisman, McCaskey, Hsieh and others (much less Kelly) will be "rehabilitated" after Peikoff is gone.

Anon69 said...

Given the need of the orthodox minions for "intellectual leadership" I wonder if the ARI wouldn't benefit from the appointment of a "chief philosopher". If that is too challenging to the authority of Rand they could go with something lesser like "foremost authority on Objectivism". I like what Echo Chamber Escapee said about Peikoff's views but I tend to agree with Greg: there has to be an authority figure at ARI. The essence of orthodox Objectivism is taking the word of an authority like Peikoff and pretending that his views are one's own convinced judgments. It is groupthink and political goose-stepping and cannot survive without authority, any more than an ant colony could survive without a queen.

Mark Plus said...

Successful businessmen as representatives for the Rand cult also have the advantages of better social skills and their willingness to make deals with people through the market they might not like or respect otherwise. They can read the interests and desires of target audiences better than the socially retarded Objectivist authorities we've seen, and they can create effective sales pitches on the spot to sell Ayn Rand's philosophy as a product. This will lead Objectivism into some unexpectable directions.

Go look at the videos of Yaron Brook's speeches about selfishness at the 21 Conventions, for example. Brook feels comfortable talking to a room full of 20-something guys who want to optimize their physical fitness and "game" so they can attract and bed all the beautiful women they want. Does Brook hold up the adult virginity of the 30-something John Galt as a standard for their sex lives? Or does he praise the sexual exile of Galt's friend Francisco d'Anconia, who apparently never got another woman naked for him after his college romance with Dagny? No, Brook pretty much issues a dispensation for the popular young male Objectivist to try to live out the fantasy promoted and allegedly realized by "game" bloggers.

seymourblogger said...

I can't believe people still argue about Rand and this stuff the way they do. Her fiction remains and everything you want to know is in there. But can you read her through Nietzsche, Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida. Imperative that you do as she anticipates Foucault, Baudrillard, and some of Zizek who reads her partially correctly but then he isn't as familiar with her life as most of us are. And it doesn't matter very much. All these post modern philosophers (to attach a stupid label)all came to their work through fiction. But it was French fiction and Nietzsche and this is where Rand crosses with them. Nietzsche. And did she ever know him.