Thursday, May 20, 2021

Yaron Brook converses with Anarchist Michael Malice

Yaron Brook is still seeking conversations with intellectual figures who can draw a larger audience than he can muster on his own. He managed to pull of one of his more successful efforts along these lines on a podcast hosted by Lex Fridman, where Brook engaged in a hour and a half conversation with self-proclaimed anarchist and twitter troll extraordinaire Michael Malice. The YouTube video of the resulting conversation has been seen by over 250,000 persons, and the accompanying podcast has probably been listened to by many more:


Since not everyone will be up to watching all four and a half hours of this video, I will provide a general overview. Malice, as can be expected, intersperses more serious comments with bouts of humor and other jests. As a big Rand fan, he more often than not sides with Brook, even at times pushing Brook aside and giving the appropriate Randian response to one of Fridman's inquiries. He shows himself to be very much the Ayn Rand nerd, sharing obscure trivia and stories about Rand and generally taking a very laudatory view of the author of Atlas Shrugged. Only on a handful of occasions did Malice take a more oppositional stance, as, for example, when he jumped on Brook for believing that words have "real meanings" (which of course they don't). And of course once the discussion took on the issue of anarchism, then the sparks began to fly. For some, this will be the high point of the discussion. At last some conflict! But I have always found debates over non-mainstream political ideals to be somewhat besides the point. It's sort of like two people arguing over the best way to cook and serve and dodo bird. Undoubtedly culinary enthusiasts might find something of interest in such verbal tussles, but the fact that no such dish will ever be cooked and served renders all such speculations about the best way to prepare it rather otiose. We shall never see either the minarchism endorsed by Brook or the anarchism endorsed b Malice implemented on a significant scale anywhere in the world. Why then should we bother our heads over which of these two systems is "better"?

More significant is what this conversation represents — what it indicates about the future of Objectivism. Regardless of what anyone might think of Brook, no matter what criticisms one might throw in his direction (whether for his lack of philosophical expertise in Objectivism, his rather hawkish — in the worst sense of the word — foreign policy, his TDS, and his curious mania for open borders and "free trade") nonetheless it must be admitted that under his leadership orthodox Objectivism has become less narrow and parochial, especially when it comes to its interaction with the outside world. For years, orthodox Objectivism regarded libertarians and anarchists as "worse than communists" (Peikoff's words). Thirty years ago, David Kelley was given his walking papers for a talk he gave at a Laissez-Faire Books supper club (a talk in which he argued that liberty required an Objectivist foundation). The fact that the old guard (i.e., the first generation of post-Rand objectivists) has mostly either retired or passed from the scene has softened many of the old hatreds (particularly for the Brandens) that throttled ARI in its first few decades. Some of credit for this evolution must be given to Brook, who has actively sought to have conversations with all kinds of people, not just Malice. What does this say about the future of orthodox Objectivism? Well, two lessons can be drawn from it. Brook's eagerness to talk to anyone with an audience is in some respects an outgrowth of his career as a fund raiser. What I mean by this is: if you're asking fans of Rand to donate money to the Ayn Rand Institute, you have to make them feel that they are getting something for their money. What kind of impact is the Ayn Rand Institute exercising on the culture? How many people has ARI, through it's various programs and agitations, converted to the Randian creed? Atlas Shrugged was published nearly sixty-five years ago. Supposedly, eight per cent of the adult population has read Rand's massive paean to John Galt. Rand and her disciples have had more than six decades to spread the "good news" promulgated in Rand's novel. What have they achieved during that period of time? If eight percent of adults have read Atlas, you can't reasonably assume that eight percent are now full-fledged Objectivists, swearing fealty not merely to Rand, but to Peikoff and Yaron Brook as well. A good share of those who read Atlas are probably more like Michael Malice. That is, while they may be "big fans" of Rand and her literary works, they are hardly Objectivists in the Peikoffian or even Brookian sense. Like Malice, they may hold to their bosoms all manner of heresies, from anarchy to Trumpism. The lasting impact of Rand may be little more than a vague penchant for "freedom" — a penchant that will mean different things to different people. Oliver Stone, for example, is a big fan of Rand's The Fountainhead. He has even wanted to make a movie of the novel. Yet from the viewpoint of the typical Objectivist, what good has Stone's admiration of The Fountainhead done him or anyone else? He's not even close to being an Objectivist. In his own way, Malice is an example of this mutation of influence as well. While in his conversation with Yaron Brook he would sometimes sound like an orthodox Objectivist, he of course is no such thing — and not merely because of his anarchism. He is on record as promoting Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind and James Burnham's The Machiavellians. Neither of those books (particularly Haidt's) is compatible with Objectivism. If Haidt and Burnham are right, then Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism is largely wrong.

And this leads us to the second lesson to be drawn from the Fridman podcast: pumping for Rand, to the extent that it has any effect on the broader culture, won't necessarily have the effect which Brook and the denizens of ARI are seeking. Rand's novels are perennial classics and will likely be read for many decades to come. Yet how Rand's books affect the people who read them will vary from individual to individual. At the end of the day, a great many people see the world through the prism of their personalities. Indeed, the best measurable predictor of political belief is in fact character, personality, "soul" — call it what you will. Since people are not all the same, since we don't all exhibit identical sets of personality traits, diversity of belief is essentially a built-in feature (or bug). It's built in genetically, and it's built-in socially; for where genes leave off, society takes over. 

Human beings are, by and large (although not exclusively), status seeking creatures. That alone, irrespective of differences in personality, would divide people into various factions, for the simple reason that status seeking is, at best, a zero-sum game and, at worse, a negative sum game. Societies are governed by ruling elites who compete among themselves for the highest positions, economically and politically, in society. He who climbs highest on the greasy pole "wins." But in this rivalry among elites for top positions, factions are enlisted among the ruled masses to give heft to each of the cliques competing within the elite. What emerges from all this jostling for status is an evolved political "arrangement" which does not perfectly correspond to any one person's will or intention.  It certainly isn't the product, as Rand supposed, of philosophical premises or ideas. Arguing about politics is in some respect like arguing about the weather. For those of us outside the ruling elite, politics, like the weather, will do whatever it damn pleases, regardless of whatever thoughts, wishes, feelings, or delusions we bring to the table. 

What this means for evangelical Objectivism is, at least in terms of politics, it is doomed to perpetual failure. The society of Rand's dreams will never exist. No ruling elite would ever stand for it. In that sense, there is no real justification for ARI. It can never have the impact over the social order that it desires. Giving money to ARI on the presumption that it can succeed in changing the culture and the politics of society by spreading Rand's ideas far and wide is irrational — it's irrational because it's not going to happen. At some point, even the most besotted Rand admirer is likely to notice that ARI is spinning its proselytizing wheels. Hence the imperative that ARI had to become less parochial going forward. In the nineties, the people who ran ARI just wanted to be left alone to do their thing. This is in some respects why the Schwartzes and Binswangers turned on Edith Packard and chucked her out of the institute. Packard and her husband, George Reisman had independent sources of income, and were therefore not reliant on ARI money. Hence they were inclined to invest what little money ARI had at its disposal in developing younger Objectivists. The other board members, who wanted the ARI money for themselves, had other plans.  

The problem with this modus operandi is that it could not possibly work long-term. At some point, donors to ARI would realize that their money was doing little to promote the spread of Rand's ideas — that they were merely providing salaries to the Ayn Rand nerds running the institute. If Yaron Brook, during his years as director of ARI, sought to make the institute relevant in the eyes of the Objectivist faithful, he had to, at the very least, make it appear as if something  was being done to change the culture in a Randian direction. And that had to be something more than just sponsoring essay contests for high school students or passing out free copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged

Now it has taken Brooks years to break down the native insularity which dominated ARI when he took over. But his years of painful effort apparently are beginning to pay off. Orthodox Objectivists can now talk with libertarians and anarchists without facing dire repercussions. Hence a new chapter opens for ARI. If you are affiliated with the institute, you are now allowed (and perhaps even encouraged) to talk to all kinds of people. 

In the long scheme of things, however, this will not radically change anything. This chapter in ARI's history will end as all other chapters have before it: that is to say, without  achieving any real success at influencing the future course of the West. But this is something else that is "built-in" — both genetically and in the "structure" of political reality. There is no way to get around it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You might find this recent video from Binswanger interesting. He doesn't know much about evolution or evolutionary psychology

-Johnny Rochester