Self-interest and altruism, P2P vs. Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society. – Gore Vidal

Michel Bauwens:

It is my view that that traditional pre-modern societies were mostly determined by a social morality (I’m aware this is a very broad generalization ,but please indulge me in this reasoning). Though they had mostly a dire view of human nature, adherence to divine precepts was the guarantee for altruistic behaviour (since Man was fallen, the good could only come from the outside). Problematic in this system was that the people who claimed to adhere to the divine precepts found it justified to repress those that they deemed unwilling to do so. The three centuries before the European Enlightenment were marked by a ongoing religious civil war, in which each side claimed to have the divine mantle and demonized the other side. As a psychological-cultural system, it was marked by the inability to see the evil in oneself, and the systematic projection of evil in the other. Enlightenment, ‘capitalist’ philosophy was a rebellion against this perceived hypocrisy in which great evil was perpetrated in the name of good. Let’s recognize that we are selfish, pursue business out of self interest, sublimate warfare into business competition, and all will be good. But there was always also a counter-movement that insisted that the human was inherently good, but made evil through oppressive social systems, and therefore, based on the idea of inherent altruism. This was of course very broadly the position of emancipatory social movements and the left.

I consider that P2P is a philosophical counter-reaction to the last three centuries of individualistic capitalism, and the increasing harm that it is doing to both the social fabric and the destruction of nature. But, it is neither a return to premodern altruism, nor a simple re-iteration of the belief of the good human being in an oppresive society. Rather than a system which trusts that the invisible hand of selfishness will lead to the common good, it insists to see the human being as complex, and to design the common good as a visible hand through new forms of social design. In P2P systems, the attempt is to align self-interest and the common good, not as an automatic by-product, but as a consciously designed objective. Hence, any motivation to improve a software program, leads to the improvement of an universally available operating system (Linux), hence, any improvement of an encyclopedic knowledge base, leads to a universally available open encyclopedia (Wikipedia). The altruism here, is not dependent on the goodwill of the individual, self-interest is not denied or repressed, but it is harnessed more directly for the common good.

But that doesn’t make P2P philosophically into a system that glorifies self-interest, or denies altruism.

All of this to introduce what is almost the exact philosophical anti-thesis of the peer to peer sensibility, the most extreme manifestation of the cult of selfishness, i.e. the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. Below, we quote the recently deceased author Gore Vidal. Of course, Rand’s philosophy was, a most visceral reactions to the extremely hypocritical, ‘fake altruistic’ society that was the Soviet Union, which culturally was a re-iteration of the same type of oppressive systems that the Enlightenment had fought against. But whereas the Enlightenment philosopher’s had clear emancipatory intentions, and a conception of the common good which would flow from the invisible hand, Rand’s philosophy is an expression of pure resentment and a total rejection of all kinds of altruism, which explicitely rejects the common good, and advocates a split society as a virtue. It is therefore, the anti-thesis of the P2P philosophy. However, because of its integrative nature and social design, P2P social systems are able to integrate these types of thinking and behaviours and make them productive for common P2P projects. I.e. as long as an objectivist coder contributes free software or shared designs, co-existence is possible. And precisely because P2P social systems honour self-interest as a possible contributing force, quite a few P2P systems have in fact been led by present or former Randians (such as Jimmy Wales in Wikipedia). To the degree that they design common good systems however, they are in direct contradiction of the prescriptions of Ayn Rand, as you will see from the quotes below. P2P is of course also a reaction to the failure of the Soviet experiment and its ‘obligatory altruism’, but it believes that cogent social design can enable its free expression in more vibrant and sustainable ways.

Gore Vidal on Ayn Rand:

“Ayn Rand is a rhetorician who writes novels I have never been able to read. She has just published a book, For the New Intellectual, subtitled The Philosophy of Ayn Rand; it is a collection of pensées and arias from her novels and it must be read to be believed. Herewith, a few excerpts from the Rand collection.

• “It was the morality of altruism that undercut American and is now destroying her.”

• “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. Today, the conflict has reached its ultimate climax; the choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequence of freedom…or the primordial morality of altruism with its consequences of slavery, etc.”

• Then from one of her arias for heldentenor: “I am done with the monster of ‘we,’ the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: ‘I.’”

• “The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself.”

• “To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men.”

• “The creed of sacrifice is a morality for the immoral….”

This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the “freedom is slavery” sort. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her “philosophy,” but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.

She is fighting two battles: the first, against the idea of the State being anything more than a police force and a judiciary to restrain people from stealing each other’s money openly. She is in legitimate company here. There is a reactionary position which has many valid attractions, among them lean, sinewy, regular-guy Barry Goldwater. But it is Miss Rand’s second battle that is the moral one. She has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ. Now, although my own enthusiasm for the various systems evolved in the names of those two figures is limited, I doubt if even the most anti-Christian free-thinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels. To reject that Christ is to embark on dangerous waters indeed. For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil. For one thing, it is gratuitous to advise any human being to look out for himself. You can be sure that he will. It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbor to build a dam or to defend a town or to give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine. But since we must live together, dependent upon one another for many things and services, altruism is necessary to survival. To get people to do needed things is the perennial hard task of government, not to mention of religion and philosophy. That it is right to help someone less fortunate is an idea which ahs figured in most systems of conduct since the beginning of the race. We often fail. That predatory demon “I” is difficult to contain but until now we have all agreed that to help others is a right action. Now the dictionary definition of “moral” is: “concerned with the distinction between right and wrong” as in “moral law, the requirements to which right action must conform.” Though Miss Rand’s grasp of logic is uncertain, she does realize that to make even a modicum of sense she must change all the terms. Both Marx and Christ agree that in this life a right action is consideration for the welfare of others. In the one case, through a state which was to wither away, in the other through the private exercise of the moral sense. Miss Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all.

Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society.

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