I'm Not Part of Any Organized Movement, I'm an Objectivist
I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the latest Objectischism—you know, that thing we Objectivists do every couple of years when we decide that our movement isn't small enough already, so we have to split it into even tinier fragments.
This is the point at which I would normally invite anyone who does not follow the internal office politics of the Objectivist movement to tune out and skip this edition of the newsletter—but I'm not going to do that this time, because it involves issues that are wider than the details of this little breakup, and it relates to the future of this newsletter. So if you have even a little knowledge of or interest in what's going on, please keep reading.
First a very brief overview of the details of the latest crackup, though the whole thing makes me want to borrow the old Will Rogers line: "I'm not a member of any organized political party. I'm a Democrat." I'm not part of any organized intellectual movement—I'm an Objectivist.
Hold that thought in your head, because it's going to be my main theme here.
As usual, this whole thing might seem to an outside observer a bit like a spat between high school cliques, with a lot of controversy over who said what to whom, who was mean to whom, and who is still friends with whom. To those who know the people involved and have dealt with them in a professional capacity, you may find a few recognizable features. There is Yaron Brook being a politician, listening very politely to your concerns, expressing sympathy, and promising to address the issue—and then nothing changes. There is Onkar Ghate, the Ayn Rand Institute's "chief philosophy officer," being installed as the ultimate arbiter of Objectivist philosophy without anyone ever really having decided that he was the best person for this job. There is ARI's response to Carl, which literally just lists the credentials of its board members, the basic message being, "Don't you know who I am?" And then there is the scrum over who enjoys the blessing of an aged Leonard Peikoff. Carl says Leonard is mad at Yaron for saying Objectivists can't vote for Trump (oh, the irony); Yaron says he's talked to Leonard and patched things up.
But all of this is not the real issue. The immediate issue, and the subject of Carl's first post, is that he is angry because ARI made promises to bring Craig Biddle back into the fold after blackballing him during a previous Objectischism, and then they reneged. The wider issue, and the subject of his second post, is Carl's case that the Ayn Rand Institute is "failing"—and by implication so is the Objectivist movement as a whole—and it needs to be rescued by some kind of revolt among its donors, supporters, and board members.
Now that is a topic worth discussing. Is the Ayn Rand Institute failing? Is the Objectivist movement stalling out?
Carl's case on this is marred by its focus on his complaint that ARI is failing to promote his current favorite intellectual, as well as his complaints about how "the Objectivist community is sick of hearing ranting and raving about politics (Trump in particular), and so much hostility and negativity." In other words, he's cheesed off that Objectivist intellectuals are criticizing Trump. I'm not really sure what he expected to happen.
So too much of this is: ARI is failing because they are not implementing Carl's own personal preferences.
But he does take a look at some of the broader picture, and he draws some conclusions that should worry the rest of us. Here are the most interesting excerpts from his rundown of the state of the Objectivist movement.
1. Contributions/donations: ARI's revenues have been trending down for about 10 years—even apart from the loss of my contributions. By contrast, consider the huge increases in revenues (sometimes double, or thrice, or quadrupled) for organizations such as the CATO Institute, Prager University, the Foundation for Economic Education, and even The Atlas Society—all of which have shown huge increases in revenues in recent years. If anything, given that we have a philosophy that is true and supportive of human life, we should be way ahead of them.
Major contributors to ARI (including at least three board members) have been withdrawing their funding or cutting back. They don't want to pay for unproductive intellectuals, rants about politicians, and low-quality articles. That is not the return on investment contributors want.
2. Objectivists: The number of people attending OCON has been flat to down beginning 10 years ago. If you take out the "paid-for attendance" (i.e., scholarships), attendance has actually declined. Attendance by now should be in the thousands! Where are all the new Objectivists, and where are the new intellectuals?
The Objectivist Academic Center (OAC) under Onkar Ghate has produced little in the last 10 years; it lacks energy and impact. Auditors aside (who merely listen in), it has fewer actual students today than it did 10 years ago. Few graduates have made substantial contributions to the advancement of Objectivism. (I bet you can count on one hand graduates of the OAC who are advancing Objectivism.) This is a huge and tragic failure.
This is something I've noticed and have been wanting to comment on for a while. I've been involved in some successful ventures—the Tea Party for a brief while, The Federalist in its early years (before Donald Trump wrecked conservative media), and to some extent The Bulwark right now—and I know what it looks and feels like when a new idea is taking off. Objectivism these days does not have the characteristics of a growing movement, not even an incrementally growing one. I love my subscribers, who have provided me with a core audience and base of support over the years, which has made it possible for me to go out and reach a wider audience through more mainstream publications. But when I go through the subscriber list, I've been finding that I recognize too many of your names. The same applies when I go on social media to see what the chatter is among the Objectivist rank and file—and it's largely the same people I knew ten or twenty years ago. If Carl is right, and I think he is, this is a pretty universal experience: There is no wave of new people flowing into the movement.
This pattern is even more striking and tragic when I look for new Objectivist intellectuals, and I wonder: Where is the kid in his twenties who is doing what I was doing 25 years ago?
Ask yourself the same questions. Something has gone wrong if such powerful ideas are not finding a large new audience and fresh new voices year after year.
Carl cites one more statistic I think is important.
3. Ayn Rand book sales: Book sales in America have been declining for about eight years (they've been growing internationally, in part because of activities funded by my Prometheus Foundation). This is perhaps the most damning statistic of all. ARI's efforts are not increasing book sales, and they're doing little directly or specifically to increase sales. It's just not part of their strategy.
This comparison is a bit misleading, because ten years ago was the height of the Tea Party movement, when Ayn Rand was enjoying a bit of a vogue. We should not necessarily expect to match those years. But I'll take seriously his claim, from the perspective of a former ARI board member, that they are not taking promotion of her books seriously.
His next complaint is about ARI's impact on the "morale" of the Objectivist movement. Like I said, this is mostly centered around complaints that we're not all on the Trump Train, but one broader observation is on target: "The Ayn Rand Institute should be uniting the Objectivist movement, not dividing it."
The problem with the intellectuals at ARI is not just that they have the wrong approach or aren't doing the most productive things. It's that they don't like to tolerate anybody else doing things differently. Elsewhere, Carl notes, "For about 10 years, on and off, certain people at the Ayn Rand Institute, most notably Onkar Ghate and Yaron Brook, have been publicly and covertly (through phone calls, emails, and social media) denouncing and blacklisting Craig Biddle and The Objective Standard." Boy does that sound familiar, because they did exactly the same thing to me five to ten years earlier. It's just a shame that I didn't have anybody of Carl's stature to go to bat for me.
And that indicates the big limitation of Carl Barney's critique of ARI and the Objectivist movement.
Notice that this all about getting Craig back into ARI, and about saving ARI, on the assumption that this central organization is the one place where everything should be done. The wrangling isn't about the organization of the movement, just the personnel. The implication is that if we ditched Onkar Ghate and elevated Craig Biddle everything would be fine.
This is a pattern that goes back half a century, back to the original Objectivist crack-up in 1968. Every once in a while, there's a big knock-down drag-out fight and an Objectivist institution implodes, and everyone assumes that it's just the fault of some one person, and once he is duly purged, then everything will be fine. It's just Nathaniel Branden, or David Kelley, or George Reisman, or me, or John McCaskey, or Craig Biddle, or David Harriman, or whoever. And you can make a case for or against any of these people. But the problem is that the system has to be changed. We have to change our way of organizing the movement and our thinking about how it works.
As it is, what we get often ends up sounding a lot like an endless battle between cliques—in this case, the Barney-Biddle faction versus the Brook-Ghate faction. That's why when I asked you to keep reading about this, a lot of you thought, "Ugh, do I have to?" And that's the real problem.
I feel like a bit of a Cassandra on this, because I've been warning about this privately going on 20 years, and I did it very publicly almost exactly ten years ago—and at the time, I encountered very few people who wanted to listen. I'm hoping more of them will be interested in listening now.
Back then, I warned that ARI had gone off the rails and asked readers to overcome their reluctance to "contemplate the time and effort and the millions of dollars that have been wasted." Now, ten years later, here is a major donor to ARI, purporting to express the views shared by other big donors, lamenting "the results of my contributing a total of about $40 million to ARI."
I think I'm entitled to say that I told you so.
The problem, as I diagnosed it back then, is that the Objectivist movement has always been organized in too much of a top-down and centralized way. When I complain that Onkar Ghate has been installed as the new central authority on Objectivism, I don't mean this merely as a criticism of his personal inadequacy for the job. I mean that nobody should be doing that job.
That's why it's so misguided for Carl Barney to be launching a quixotic campaign to take back ARI or get his people installed there. Carl has all the resources he needs to start his own foundation, which he has done, and I'm well aware of this because his organization provided me with some small amount of support a few years back, for which I am very grateful. (I do not receive any funding from him currently.) So why not just continue doing that—and encourage other donors to do the same?
This is the program I laid out ten years ago, after the John McCaskey fiasco. I called it "Independent Objectivism."
I summed up the problem by citing its roots in a passage from Ayn Rand's essay, "For the New Intellectual": "The professional intellectual is the field agent of the army whose commander-in-chief is the philosopher."
This is a bad analogy, though its impact is mitigated to the extent that one takes it only as an analogy, and a very loose one at that. (And to the extent that one remembers Ayn Rand was the same person who wrote the character of Howard Roark.) As I pointed out, "You can see the potential for mischief, and I think we can now understand how Ayn Rand's successors believe that when they announce a philosophical conclusion, other intellectuals are supposed to salute smartly and stick to their marching orders."
Unfortunately, this "commander-in-chief" metaphor has been taken literally by many of Ayn Rand's followers. Hence the Ayn Rand Institute's attempt to set up a command post and install a commander-in-chief (under the title of "chief philosophy officer")—and hence Carl Barney's attempt to organize a mutiny in the command post and wrangle over the appointment of its general staff. What everybody ought to be questioning is the whole idea of establishing a command structure for a philosophy.
I don't think attempts to reform ARI's approach are going to work. It's management is very entrenched and is not going to change. So what does that mean for what donors or supporters should do?
Ten years ago, I predicted that there would be "a long, ugly period of crisis, and it will take years for 'organized Objectivism' to reconstitute itself." As you can see from Carl Barney's blog posts, and particularly his discussion of the declining support for ARI over the past ten years from donors and board members, that's precisely what has happened. But notice how different my solution is. "But perhaps Objectivism will be better off remaining unorganized—or at least, remaining without a single, central, dominant institution.... I think the Objectivist movement will be more vibrant and effective if it is the product of the independent efforts of entrepreneurial intellectuals." That's what I mean by Independent Objectivism.
Using a slightly different metaphor, I think the problem is the presumption that a small group of intellectuals and businessmen is going to sit down around a boardroom table and decide what is the one best way to promote rational ideas in the culture, and then shift all the available resource in that direction. We need an approach that is modeled more on venture capitalism: a variety of patrons or investors evaluating the merits of a variety of intellectuals, directing their money and support in many different directions and seeing what works.
I haven't encountered any particular eagerness on the part of major Objectivist donors to sign on to this approach. From what I can tell, they either back ARI or quietly disappear. Carl Barney is the first in a long time even to talk about branching off and doing something on his own, and we'll see where that leads. But this represents a longstanding problem with the funding of intellectual organizations. The people with the money to finance the ideas tend not to have a detailed working understanding of those ideas or an independent ability to judge what is a productive and valuable project. So they do what they do in other forms of charitable giving: go with the recognizable brand name. This effect is well known for producing bloated and ineffective organizations that limp along forever on the strength of a universally recognizable name. (The Red Cross and the Southern Poverty Law Center are notorious examples.) The Ayn Rand Institute is the big brand name of the Objectivist movement. It tends to draw in people who are excited to do something to promote rational ideas, and when they eventually grow frustrated at the lackluster results, they don't know where else to turn and they give up.
That's a shame. But in the meantime, I haven't waited for the big money guys to figure things out, and neither should you. This is the internet age, so we can crowdfund our philosophical venture capital from a larger number of smaller donors. Many years ago, I built my own platform for this—big enough, so far, only for myself—using a hybrid of subscriptions and donations, which is becoming the dominant model for writers who want to preserve their independence. (The latest example is Vox cofounder Matt Yglesias deserting his own creation after discovering that he's not woke enough.)
Yes, I think ARI is failing, and yes, I suspect that the Objectivist movement has, for the moment, stalled out. The answer is neither to reform the entrenched organizations nor to give up. The answer is to reach out into the world, find the independent efforts that are working, and give them the support they need. For myself, I am eager to throw myself more fully back into this arena—my book on Atlas Shrugged is just a start—and I have a number of new projects that I'm putting in motion now that the election is over. I'll have more to say about the specifics soon, but my readers know me. You know the quality of my work, the level of my productivity, and my track record.
If you want to support my efforts—well, please consider throwing a little of your metaphorical venture capital my way. Donate now or renew your subscription ahead of a planned rate increase at the end of the year, and please consider doing so in the next week. As I said before the election, I'm planning to take a couple weeks off between now and December to retool and improve my website and to prepare some new projects. So act now to help me get the job done.
I'm not part of any organized movement, I'm an Objectivist—and that's just fine. Join me in this non-organized, decentralized, entrepreneurial movement, and let's get things done.