Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ayn Rand's We the Living

Originally published in 1936 and re-released in a 60th anniversary issue (1995), We the Living was Ayn Rand's first novel. Rand is credited as the founder of objectivism, a philosophy followed implicitly or explicitly by free-market capitalists and others who believe that the only way human beings can strive to their greatest potential is by being true only to themselves and leaving the welfare of the collective up to the natural system of rewards and consequences. I read three of her other books, Anthem, Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, in my early 20s, when I was just coming into advanced graduate study and my career. I also had a fascinating organization behavior professor at the University of Maryland, Dr. Ed Locke, who was deeply devoted to Rand's philosophy and eventually served as the figurehead for the network that still studies and advocates her views.

I picked We the Living up when I was home for the holidays. It was sitting in our window seat in Oxford and I was curious to renew my understanding of objectivism following Greenspan's (former Federal Reserve Chair) announcement that the Fed policy he advocated was based on Rand's views (I don't have the actual language of his acknowledgement handy). I wanted to read it so I could understand and potentially argue more effectively with its premises because the last decade of economic policies have had a fairly devastating impact on us all.

We the Living is a historical/political/philosophical novel that depicts the years after the 1917 Russian Revolution when Czarist Russia was replaced by the communist dictatorship of the U.S.S.R. Rand's story is powerful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that she, herself, escaped the U.S.S.R. in the soviet days and fled to the U.S.A. where she wrote stories to discourage any possibility of the spread of communism, a political and social system she believed sucked the core from humanity's creativity, purpose, and effectiveness.

The three central figures engage in a complicated love affair with each other, with Kira (the heroine) achieving extraordinary levels of self-sacrifice and self-indulgence at the same time. Kira's first and only real love is Leo who is a stately aristocrat representing the privilege and elitism of Czarist times. Driven out of privilege by communism, he grows ill and Kira seeks a relationship with Andrei in order to finance Leo's recovery and return to good health. Leo is a staunch "Party" member and struggles to maintain his deep infatuation with Kira, even though her obvious anti-communist political leaning is a liability to him. After maintaining relationships with both Leo and Andrei, Kira rises in economic means but descends to emotional deprivation when she sees Leo deteriorating into hopelessness. As a party official, Andrei discovers that Leo is part of a scam that lines the pockets of not only Leo but two influential party leaders. In an attempt to expose the two party leaders who represent the hypocrisy of the communist ideal, Andrei unwittingly allows the blame to fall on Leo. It is when Leo has been arrested and on the verge of being prosecuted and hanged that Kira reveals to Andrei that the money he gave her to save her family actually went to pay for Leo's healing care. It was hard in parts to determine who was being true to themselves, to their ideals, or to others. Ultimately, Andrei is true to his ideals in committing suicide in the face of the failures of communism, Leo maintains his egotistical arrogance by accepting the care of a prominent socialite, and Kira attempts to escape to the west, the place where she hopes to find the love that she was ultimately denied.

The plot sounds messy and it is. Rand sought to tell the story of the ills of communism and how any form of collectivist dictatorship only undermines human striving.

While the objectivist philosophy has appeal for me - in relation to working hard, uncompromising excellence, and dedication to honest competition, it troubles me as a philosophical proposition that does not recognize the unevenness of the human condition. As we view various people around the world who suffer natural disaster, who are beaten down through lack of natural resources, and have little access to infrastructure to pull themselves up from poverty, objectivism just doesn't work. Perhaps the alternative is a form of social entrepreneurship or compassionate competition that at least seeks to level the playing field while allowing those with extraordinary talent and privilege to excel.

As leaders around the globe aspire to create governments that help the hopeless while rewarding innovation and creativity, perhaps they will find a balance that will save us all. Especially as the U.S.A. attempts to refine its economic and social policies, it is important to recognize the complexity of political decision making rather than allowing the rhetoric to slip into right versus left, republican versus democrat, or capitalist versus socialist.

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