Category Archives: Dialectics

Another Side to Eric Fleischmann: Soy! Live!

My friend Eric Fleischmann has published widely at the site of Center for a Stateless Society, including, recently, some very fine, original essays on the thought of individualist anarchist Laurence Labadie. I have previously written about his work on Notablog, here and here (where he critiqued my monograph, “Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation“). In addition to his developing scholarship, he’s a regular rabble-rousing activist anywhere he goes!

Not many people know of yet another side to Eric. His “secret” was safe with me—until now. Check him out tonight with the band Soy, which will run a live show, taped on January 2, 2022. He is a roaring lion on stage! It’s at 7 pm (ET) tonight! Don’t miss it!

Coronavirus (36): Denialism = Death

Back on March 14, 2020, I began a series on the Coronavirus, which continued through 35 installments (the most recent of which was posted on November 10, 2021).

This is not technically an installment of that series, but it addresses another kind of infection, which persists to this day among a certain brand of “libertarians”—who exhibited symptoms of it way back in the 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS crisis took hold in the United States. After seeing so many libertarians dismiss the COVID-19 “pandemic” (scare quotes intended) as non-lethal at best or an outright hoax at worst, I—a witness to hundreds of people in my hard-hit Brooklyn neighborhood being rushed to hospitals or off to funeral homes—was sickened, but not surprised by the denialism on display. On May 5, 2020, in the twenty-first installment of my Coronavirus series, “Lockdowns, Libertarians, and Liberation“, I wrote:

[T]here was something about the early response [of libertarians] to the coronavirus as a “hoax” or an “exaggeration” that was eerily familiar to me. Back in the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was killing off a generation of gay men in the West (while ravaging a largely heterosexual population in Africa), some libertarians (including those influenced by Ayn Rand), ever fearful of those who proposed a growing governmental role in both medical research and in locking down bathhouses that were transmission belts for promiscuous, unsafe sex, grabbed onto the work of the molecular biologist Peter Duesberg, who played a major role in what became known as the AIDS denialism controversy. Duesberg was among those dissenting scientists who argued that there was no connection between HIV and AIDS, and that gay men were dying en masse because of recreational and pharmaceutical drug use, and then, later, by the use of AZT, an early antiviral treatment to combat those with symptoms of the disease.

If the scientific community had accepted Duesberg’s theories, hundreds of thousands of people would be dead today. The blood supply would never have been secured, since HIV screening of blood donors would never have become public policy, and countless thousands of people receiving blood transfusions would have been infected by HIV and would have subsequently died from opportunistic infections. …

So, while many libertarians have been at the forefront of rolling back the state’s interference in people’s personal lives, advocating the elimination of discriminatory anti-sodomy and marriage laws, there were some libertarians who, early on, in the AIDS epidemic, grabbed onto Duesberg’s theories as scientific proof that the whole HIV/AIDS thing was a pretext for the expansion of the state-science nexus.

While I do not dispute the dangers wrought by nearly a century of incestuous ties between government, science, and the medical, pharmaceutical, and health insurance industries, I do not believe that all the by-products of “state science” are “dangerous” to our health, as Edmond S. Bradley claimed back in 2006. Bradley, a doctor of music arts and composition, goes so far as to echo the Duesberg theory, which was dealt a serious blow by research developments in the late 1980s that bore fruit for effective treatments for HIV/AIDS by the mid-1990s.

Thinking that this 2006 Mises Institute article was an “outlier,” I was recently involved in a Facebook discussion where I was attacked by yet another “libertarian” for having proposed that there was something wrong with the Duesberg denialists. And then, on the site of the Property and Freedom Society, on January 5, 2022—only yesterday—a 2009 video of Duesberg was posted [YouTube link]. This resurrection of denialism is, of course, part of an overall pushback with regard to all things COVID. But it is not COVID that concerns me here.

The first cases of the “gay cancer” were reported in June 1981, but it was not until 1985, that HIV was first identified as “the causative agent of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and its complete genome was immediately available.” With nearly 48,000 people dead in the U.S. from AIDS by 1987, the formation of the group ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was a turning point for bottom-up civil disobedience against the administrative bungling, political in-fighting and bureaucratic red-tape that made it virtually impossible for any drugs under development to be used in the fight against HIV/AIDS. AZT, the first drug approved for use in this fight, certainly had some of the horrific side effects that Duesberg highlighted, but back then, it was being administered in much higher doses, given the lack of alternative treatments.

The big breakthrough came with the discovery of HIV protease-inihibitors in the late 1980s. Protease inhibitors played a crucially important role in the creation of
highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). Proteases are

basically proteins that are used to break down other certain chemical structures of protein in your body—a process that can help with digestion or healing wounds. However, proteases are also necessary for certain conditions—including HIV—to thrive.  ‌Protease inhibitors, which figure among the key drugs used to treat HIV, work by binding to proteolytic enzymes (proteases). That blocks their ability to function. 

Protease inhibitors don’t cure HIV. But by blocking proteases, they can stop HIV from reproducing itself. As such, they lower the body’s viral load—a term that refers to the amount of HIV in the body—and slow the progression of HIV. 

It took about ten years for the first protease inhibitor to reach the market. Take a look at this table below—which will no doubt be dismissed by Duesberg denialists as CDC “fictions”:

The Duesberg denialists cannot explain what happened between 1993-1995 and 1996-2000. They cannot explain why the death rate from AIDS fell by nearly 50% in 1997 alone. I want an answer from these denialists as to why this happened. Did all those dirty, drug-addicted, gay men simply “straighten” up their act, and stop taking those recreational drugs that Duesberg saw as the cause of AIDS? Quite frankly, given that there were a reported 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021 alone—augmented by two years of a COVID crisis that has led to a significant rise in both mental health and substance abuse problems across the population regardless of sexual orientation or sexual practices—I’m wondering why, given Duesberg’s assumptions, we have not seen a corresponding rise in AIDS cases.

The Duesberg denialists have absolutely no explanation whatsoever for the remarkable turn of events from 1993-1995 to 1996-2000. It was with the introduction of “cocktail” drug therapies, which combined three or more antiretroviral drugs—chief among them those protease inhibitors that were able to prevent HIV from multiplying inside the body—that significantly reduced patients’ viral loads to undetectable levels, and that have curtailed the scourge of opportunistic infections that were killing people by the hundreds of thousands in the 1980s and early 1990s. Today, there are an estimated 1.2 million people living with AIDS in the United States—not dying from it.

This is personal. And I’ll even grant that it’s anecdoctal evidence. But in the 1980s, I was busy DJ’ing and dancing, though pharmaceuticals and unsafe sex were not part of the party. I knew scores of gay men, many of whom were very dear friends who died from AIDS. Only a handful of these friends could be characterized as recreational drug users.

One of my dearest friends in the world nearly died of AIDS in 1996, and if it were not for those miracle antiretroviral treatments, he would have been six feet under. Today, he is living and flourishing, without any detectable viral load, thanks to the medical breakthroughs from which he was able to benefit. Had he been diagnosed only two years before, I am convinced he would never have survived.

The Denialists have no answers. All they have is their stultifying ideological pseudoscience.

So I will declare this without an ounce of regret. To echo ACT-UP’s refrain that “Silence = Death“, I say “Denialism = Death.” And if you are among the denialists, then you have blood on your hands.

A H/T to my friend Ryan Neugebauer for some of the links in the above Notablog entry.

Postscript: Folks can check out the public discussion of this post on my Facebook Profile. For the benefit of readers, I reproduce several of my comments from that discussion here.

One commentator posted a link to this older 1996 piece, which was self-refuting, because it did not take into account the miraculous turnaround in AIDS-related deaths that occurred from 1997 to the present day. Then, the commentator posted a link to this dissenting voice to the scientific consensus, which focuses on the use of “poppers” (amyl nitrite) as a causal factor in HIV/AIDS. I wrote in reply:

It appears that Gary Stein (in the comments section of that link) had an effective response. I’ll reproduce it below for the benefit of readers. As the author himself notes, poppers are widely available over-the-counter and can be ordered online. Unless it can be demonstrated that there was a humongous decline in the use of amyl nitrite in 1996 leading to a 50% drop in AIDS deaths in 1997, I don’t see how any of this holds.

There are no drugs on the market that don’t come with potentially horrific side effects. Turn on TV or radio at any hour of the day or night, and all you will see are 50 disclaimers for every advertised drug imaginable: “This drug could cause anything from suicide to homicide, liver failure, heart failure, kidney failure” … and so forth. I have not said in my post that every drug is safe for every person in every context. I’ve simply asked a question: How can any of the Denialists explain the steep drop in AIDS deaths that occurred in the wake of the use of protease inhibitors? If there is no connection between HIV and AIDS as Duesberg claimed, then protease inhibitors should never have worked.

AIDS is not a pretty disease; even with the treatments available, it remains a brutal disease. The best thing is not to get it in the first place. But unlike the 1980s and the early 1990s, those who are HIV-infected today do not face an almost certain death sentence. I think the evidence is overwhelming that the drug cocktails have kept people alive. Here is how Gary Stein responded to the above author in the link you provided [I’ve edited the full reply for Notablog readers, but it is complete here]:

“There is no such evidence that poppers are in anyway associated with the development of AIDS. The study that the denialists like to claim as there own proof on this subject does not show any relationship between AIDS and Popper use. It does show a relationship to Popper use and KS [Karposi’s Sarcoma] but only if you read the report as carefully edited by the denialist so that they can make the claims they do about the reports results.

“Also relevant is the fact that immune problems haven’t been reported with the medical use of amyl nitrites or nitrates in nearly 150 years of use. There was also a huge exposure to people, tens of thousands of whom worked in industrial settings from the 1900’s to 1970’s, especially those working in the manufacture of nitroglycerin explosives and no immunity based problems were ever reported for those groups either. … [H]eavy drug-users were 1.56 times as likely to develop AIDS because they were 1.43 times as likely to be HIV-infected than light drug users. Further, it is of critical importance that HIV-positive individuals were equally likely to develop AIDS irrespective of their drug use pattern (51.4% AIDS among heavy-users versus 47.4% among non-users or light-users), which is hardly a robust affirmation of a drug-dose dependent hypothesis; this and the failure of even 1 of the 39 seronegative heavy drug users to get AIDS is inconsistent with Duesberg’s prediction that the incidence of AIDS should be drug-dose dependent and unrelated to serostatus.”

As my friend Ryan has pointed out, this link provides the most balanced discussion of the relationship of popper-use and HIV.

The same commentator then raised this article, which questions the HIV-AIDS relationship. I pointed out that the article had been formally retracted. I added:

Protease inhibitors target HIV specifically. They are not simply “antiviral” or “antibacterial”; they are commonly used as part of a cocktail of drugs that include antivirals. To cite a very clear explanation of how protease inhibitors work: “The main purpose of HIV is to copy itself as many times as it can. However, HIV lacks the machinery it needs to reproduce itself. Instead, it injects its genetic material into immune cells in the body called CD4 cells. It then uses these cells as a kind of HIV virus factory.”

“Protease is an enzyme in the body that’s important for HIV replication. Protease inhibitor drugs block the action of protease enzymes. This prevents protease enzymes from doing their part in allowing HIV to multiply, interrupting the HIV life cycle as a result. This can stop the virus from multiplying.”

Protease inhibitors are targeting HIV specifically, not the opportunistic infections. That was the game-changer. Not a cure. There are still major issues and drug side effects that require continued work in research and development. But stopping HIV replication in its tracks and reducing viral load to undetectable levels has been a key component to fighting AIDS. Since I do believe that there is a connection between HIV and AIDS, in contrast to the Duesberg Denialists, yes, I think that this is what drove death rates down dramatically.

The Duesberg Denialists have yet to explain what it was in 1996-97 that led to that dramatic drop—a drop that has continued till this day.

Another commentator remarked that Anthony Fauci was hated by gay activists, and I replied:

Ironically, Larry Kramer called Anthony Fauci a murderer and an incompetent idiot precisely because he saw him as part of an establishment that did not act to save the lives of people who were dying from AIDS. In 1988, he wrote:

“Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers. Your present inaction is causing today’s increase in HIV infection outside of the Queer community.”

Their relationship changed dramatically overtime, however. See here.

There is a very fine documentary on the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the ACT UP response. It’s called “How to Survive a Plague“—and most of it highlights the kind of bottom-up pressure necessary to get “the FDA to approve drugs which could slow or even halt the AIDS virus, and demanded that drug trials (which would usually take 7–10 years) be shortened so potentially life-saving treatments could be made available. The film also documents the underground market for HIV drugs: many people relied on drugs imported from other countries, which were believed to potentially slow down the HIV virus despite not being FDA-approved.”

The film also highlights the strength of voluntary mutual aid among a community of marginalized people who were being told by the evangelical right that AIDS was God’s punishment for their sins and a government that indeed was a major obstacle to the development of life-saving treatments. But again, even these activists, staging “die-ins”, recognized that they had to deal with the conditions that existed, and in many instances, this meant dealing directly with Big Pharma companies to jump-start drug trials that the FDA was dragging its feet on.

Moreover, activists were attacking the government because of its inaction or obstacles to action. Reagan didn’t even mention AIDS until 1985. Some of this was, no doubt, politically motivated, since AIDS was seen as a “homosexual” disease—not something easily focused on by the administration’s evangelical supporters.

There is a bit of a debate about this, and it’s not inconsequential. But it has been said that Duesberg’s theories informed the policies of South African president Thabo Mbeki’s response to AIDS—which led to the deaths of 300,000 people in South Africa. See here and here.

Turning to the political and ideological issues underlying the problem of denialism, I made a number of comments that I bring together here:

In my experience with the libertarian movement for 40+ years, I’ve seen the pattern of deny or downplay over-and-over again when it concerns virtually any large-scale problems. The knee-jerk reaction seems to be to either deny that the problem exists or downplay its seriousness. And if anyone contradicts them, they dismiss the “evidence” (in scare quotes) with ridicule or an endless parade of “alternative facts” that don’t add up.The sad, but implicit premise behind this knee-jerk response is that they seem to be conceding that to merely address such problems, if they do, in fact, exist, one must also embrace full-scale “big government” solutions. That does not automatically follow, however. If the work of Elinor Ostrom has taught us anything, it’s that in the case of say, the ‘tragedy of the commons’, it is possible for communities, cooperatives, trusts, etc. to prevent resource depletion without widescale government intervention. But this still does not address the issue of how to handle large-scale catastrophes, be they pandemics, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc. Even Ayn Rand had more to say about the “ethics of emergencies” than most fundamentalist libertarians.

The problem here is that ideologues of any stripe often deal with the world as they wish it could be rather than the way it actually is. This is, dare I say it, a very undialectical way of handling real-world problems.

The only route to genuinely radical social change is to deal with the conditions that exist. We begin with the cultural and structural institutions that exist and respond with the tools at our disposal. If you’re a lover of liberty, you do your best to raise the flag of vigilance. You can scream, you can holler. But if you’re unwilling to even acknowledge that a problem exists because you think that the mere acknowledgment of the problem is a threat to your ideology—then it’s time to rethink the premises and implications of your ideology.

It is true that governments never met a crisis they didn’t like. This is the basis for everything from War Collectivism to erecting a Corporate State in response to a Great Depression. But there are certain “externalities” that have not been dealt with sufficiently in libertarian circles. I opened this post by freely admitting that the whole state science-medical-Big Pharma nexus is noxious. But this is what exists; we can hack at it by attacking oppressive licensure laws, IP regulations, health insurance oligopolies, and so forth.

But as someone whose policies disgusted me (D. Rumsfeld) once said: You go to war with the army you have, not with army you wish you had. If a “war” comes—a major public health emergency, a tsunami, a massive earthquake… what do you do? Not enough work has been done in libertarian circles on the response to catastrophes. I’ll note just two here (this and this), but they are woefully inadequate (even if they make legitimate points).

When people are so wedded to a limited perspective, it’s not necessarily the case that they are being intellectually dishonest. They just can’t entertain certain facts that don’t coalesce with their worldview. There may be very deep psychological reasons for this (and it must vary from person to person), but I suspect that the worldview somehow informs their sense of self, and if something threatens the worldview, it becomes a threat to that self. That skewed way of looking at the world, sadly, can become lethal—not only to those who hold onto it for dear life, but to everyone around them trying to survive a catastrophe and the catastrophe after that.

So when you engage such people in a critical discussion, they just keep throwing one ‘alternative fact’ after another at the wall, hoping one of them will ‘stick.’ And no matter what you say to people with those skewed perspectives, they’ll keep serving up another ‘fact’. And then, they hang out with people whose function is to serve as an echo chamber of the views they espouse, no matter how discredited those views are. And this is not just a problem within libertarianism; it’s a problem for any person involved in movements, left or right, or even religions, which provide “canned” answers to every issue they encounter.

The tragedy is that people who get caught up in this dynamic can’t allow themselves to think outside the square they’re imprisoned within. And yet, for people so imprisoned, being part of a group that is inside that same square with you also provides a sense of ‘community’… especially when you and those you associate with are the only ones with access to The Truth. It’s no wonder that folks like that more often than not find it difficult to have civil discussions with people outside their square. “Can’t you see The Truth!” they scream! And they’ll beat you over the head with their Truth no matter what you say to challenge them.

Of course, I didn’t pull any punches in this Notablog entry, which is why I said that folks who continue to engage in denialism (on the HIV-AIDS connection) have “blood on their hands”… quite literally, since governments, like that of South Africa, adopted the Duesberg thesis, and it’s estimated that 300,000+ people died without access to any of the effective treatments then available. Hence, the title: Denialism = Death.

I have no idea how to penetrate folks who are caught up in these kinds of mind-sets. Let it be known that I don’t have access to The Truth, myself, but I’m consciously wedded to—and practice—the very dialectical method I preach, which, in its origins, is founded on engagement, requiring one to keep shifting perspectives, vantage points, levels of generality, so as to get a better picture of the wider context. The method has, over the years, become a check against the entrenchment of self-imprisoning ideology in my own consciousness. It opens you up to intellectual and psychological evolution in a healthy way, which challenges you to “check your premises” (as Rand would say)—over and over again. Yes, I know, ironic coming from a woman whose acolytes created a cult of Truth Tellers. But the best of Rand is, as I’ve argued, highly dialectical. If only some of her followers had understood what they actually read. I suspect that ‘deprogramming’ oneself will vary from one person to the next, but clearly, engaging with the wider world is one step in the right direction.

I often joke about my half-Greek, half-Sicilian ancestry: the Greek side is ever-reasonable, seeking empathetic and compassionate engagement; the Sicilian side is more akin to the “Blood Bat” scene [YouTube link] from “The Untouchables.” I guess we all need some “Base-ball” to shake things up every so often.

For those of us who have had it “Up To Here” (using Sicilian hand gestures) with some people, the baseball bat is very useful! But the libertarian in me holds me back from using it against the folks I disagree with. Find a hard service and make sure to wear goggles so that no flecks blind you as you bang out your frustrations. This, accompanied by Sicilian curse-words tinged with a heavy Brooklyn accent, can be helpful, in a primal way. 🙂

Finally, in response to somebody who asked me what I thought of the “death” of New York City, I responded:

I don’t believe NYC is dead. Not by a long shot. This city has survived 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, and will survive all that has surrounded the COVID crisis. I’m a native New Yorker, have lived here all my life, and I remain a proud current resident of Brooklyn, New York. Don’t ever count this city out. But you know me well enough to know that I’d never feel any differently about this place—still the greatest city in the world.

Joel Schlosberg cites my thoughts about NYC in his essay, “A New Year One for Gotham.”

Postscript II: (18 January 2022): In light of the above, check out “COVID, AIDS, and Trying to Save Ourselves,” a poignant article by Jennifer Boulanger.

Facebook: Philosophers as Profile Month 2021 (II)

As readers know, I chose Don Lavoie (1951-2001) as my first profile pic for the event, “Philosophers as Profile Pictures Month.” In keeping with the holiday season, however, I’m straying from the rules a bit, and staying with my current goofy profile pic on Facebook. But with a H/T to my friend Cory Massimino, who sponsored this year’s event, I wanted to highlight yet another philosopher, posting a passage that I initially discovered in an essay written by Cory, which is featured in the Routledge Handbook of Anarchy and Anarchist Thought, a worthwhile collection edited by my friend Gary Chartier and Chad Van Schoelandt.* The passage below is from a writer with whom I have some differences, but whose work, The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Crossing Press, 1983), contains so many thought-provoking pieces.

The author is philosopher Marilyn Frye and the passage contains one of the most dialectical formulations of the notion of “Oppression”—the name of the essay from which it is taken—that I’ve ever read. Frye begins by asking us to “Consider a birdcage” …

If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in the moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon. (pp. 4-5)

I have to say that I can think of no clearer exposition of what it means to think dialectically about the interlocking social conditions that are inimical to the struggle for human freedom and human flourishing. Personally, I have authored a trilogy of works devoted to understanding the importance to libertarian social theory of grasping the full context of social relations and institutions—from the personal to the cultural to the political and economic dynamics—that constitute the given structural conditions of our world. Oppression is not strictly a personal or a cultural or a structural phenomenon. It is a condition that must be analyzed systemically and dynamically in its full context if it is to be changed radically.

In light of my recent series highlighting a new article, coauthored by Pavel Solovyev and me, on another woman philosopher, Ayn Rand, and her Soviet education during the Russian Silver Age, I wish to emphasize that Rand herself would have agreed both methodologically and substantively with this powerful description of the nature of oppression, even if she would have parted company with Frye’s “radical feminism.”

I should point out, however, that in coediting, with Mimi Reisel Gladstein, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, a 1999 anthology in the Penn State Press “Re-reading the Canon Series,” I am acutely aware of the tension between—and congruence of—Rand’s work with the many stripes of contemporary feminism.

In any event, as a concluding post for “Philosophers as Profile Pictures Month” (even if I’ve not changed my pic), I offer this portrait of Marilyn Frye. The eloquent passage I’ve highlighted is a stern warning of the dangers of reifying a single wire—a single part—as if it were the whole. To shift our vantage points, our perspectives, our levels of generality so that we can truly apprehend the larger cages that inhibit our ability to be free and to flourish is a monumental undertaking. Here’s to the day when our social life encourages, nourishes, and challenges each precious, individual human being to dismantle the cages and take flight, free as a bird.

Marilyn Frye (born 1941)

* Ah! I knew I’d seen this passage even before Cory introduced me to it! Yikes! It actually appears in a book I coedited, with Roger Bissell and Ed Younkins: The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom. The essay, “Why Libertarians Should Be Social Justice Warriors”, is written by my friend Roderick Tracy Long. Check it out here. As I stated on Facebook:

I honestly did forget the Frye reference in Roderick’s chapter, which preceded my having seen Cory’s chapter in the Routledge anthology. And as coeditor of The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, that’s my bad! Granted, I edited and proofed that chapter back in 2018-19, and the book was published in June 2019, and I coordinated our online Facebook seminar on the book, which ran for the first few months of 2020, in the middle of a pandemic. (And in truth, I’ve been juggling a few personal challenges and professional projects for over a year now… but that’s another story!)

Still, as one who cherishes charitable attribution, I apologize for having forgotten the Frye reference in Roderick’s wonderful chapter. But also, in truth, it was Cory’s terrific paper in the Routledge anthology, which highlighted that passage, and which sparked my interest to actually go out and get the Frye book and read it! And I’m glad I did. Hence, this post.

So my thanks to both Roderick and Cory for alerting me to this writer, and especially, this particularly eloquent passage from a 1983 book of which I was not aware—and yet, which encapsulates the kind of dialectical insights that I’ve been championing for the bulk of my professional life, stretching back more than four decades.

The Rand Transcript Revealed (Part III)

This is the conclusion of a three-part preview to a newly published article coauthored by Pavel Solovyev and me: “The Rand Transcript Revealed” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, December 2021, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 141-229). Part One informed readers of the publication of this important article, while Part Two situated it in the growing scholarly literature on Rand’s Russian roots.

In today’s final installment, I’d like to turn attention to what this newly published project offers. In this article, Pavel and I analyze and interpret facsimiles of important original documents—published for the first time—that are deeply relevant to the education of the young Ayn Rand at the University of Petrograd. We contribute what we consider to be a definitive reading of source material that provides a significant documentation of Rand’s courses, teachers, and textbooks—and what she might have learned from them. Other original source materials are revealed to advance further investigations of this key period in Rand’s life. We also include discussion of recent commentary on Rand’s education by other writers (such as Gary H. Merrill, in his book, False Wisdom: The Principles and Practices of Pseudo-Philosophy, which is reviewed in the same December 2021 issue by Roderick Tracy Long).

I was first introduced to Pavel in October 2020, through my friend Marsha Enright, after he posted many of these images to the public Ayn Rand Facebook page. What I found there astounded me—only because I possessed poorer black-and-white photocopies of many of these same images, and here they were, in pristine color, with brief descriptions by Pavel. Contacting him, learning from him, working with him has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. He has become not only a colleague and coauthor, but a friend.

Pavel earned his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. His “hobby” over the last 10+ years has been research in history, genealogy, and Russian and foreign archives. Some “hobby”! I was so deeply impressed by Pavel’s meticulous research, which, over our many months of working together, produced an overwhelming amount of information—the raw material—for use in this article.

Every time we came upon a puzzling detail, somehow, someway, Pavel would discover a startlingly new piece of information that opened promising paths as our research project unfolded. Based on his painstakingly accurate translation of key sources and his remarkable ability to decipher signatures on Rand’s university records—and then to track down matching signatures to authenticate them (images of which are also provided in the article)—we were able to diligently analyze, contextualize, and interpret this material. His superb detective work is an invaluable contribution to our understanding—such that no future scholarship on Rand’s university years will move forth without reference to it. Indeed, the publication of this important project is simultaneously an invitation to other scholars to critically examine and evaluate, so as to widen the community for interpretive analysis and discussion of this significant period in Rand’s formative intellectual development.

Rand certainly bore the scars of her Russian past but she also absorbed gems of wisdom bestowed on her by professors of significance. It’s all in the article—including information with regard to whether or not Rand studied with Kareev or Karsavin or even Lossky—a mystery that we devote much space to. We offer short biographies of every professor whose name appears on Rand’s matricula. Our work confirms that the overwhelming majority of those who were signatories to the matricula were among some of the finest teachers that Petrograd University had to offer.

But the story that unfolds is also a portrait of a very precarious time for intellectuals in the years after the Bolshevik Revolution. As we write:

An omnipresent thread that runs in the tapestry of academic life during the period of Alissa Rosenbaum’s university education was the politicization of scholarship, in which some professors targeted their colleagues as “counterrevolutionaries,” leading to their dismissal from teaching posts or exile abroad, only to be attacked later by university and state administrators who rewarded their formerly “loyal” informants with internment in prisons and concentration camps or execution by firing squad. As we will see, the lives of many of Rand’s professors at Petrograd University—regardless of their political beliefs or affiliations—were affected profoundly by this tragedy of mounting proportions, which devastated an entire intellectual generation.

Back in 1997, in reply to the many critics of my historical work on Ayn Rand, I freely admitted that on the basis of limited evidence, I had “engaged in an empirical investigation with a dose of judicious speculation.” As that evidence has unfolded over the years, we have gotten closer and closer to understanding more and more of what Rand studied and with whom she studied. In an appendix to the article, we present a table in which readers can see how our knowledge of Rand’s education has evolved over these last 2+ decades of research.

And that is as it should be. I’ve always viewed this research project as open-ended. Speaking for myself, I got a lot right, and some wrong—that’s what a learning experience is all about. In the end, however, I firmly believe that the data, though still incomplete, fully supports my argument that Rand was exposed to something of great value from her teachers—a profoundly dialectical way of looking at the world—and that this mode of inquiry would have an enormous impact on her life’s work.

For those who have been offended by the mere suggestion that Rand could have learned anything of value from her Russian teachers, all I could say in reply is to quote Hegel: “No one . . . can escape the substance of his time any more than he can jump out of his skin.” Rand proclaimed that she was a “radical” thinker, a person who sought to go to the root of so many important issues. But not even the most radical among us exists—from some Archimedean standpoint—outside the world we seek to change. Even as we seek to shape the world, we are shaped by it. Part of what it means to be dialectical is to accept what is as the basis for all that could be.

We invite you to check out our project. Yep, and here’s the sales pitch: It’s currently on JSTOR. I will announce its appearance on Project Muse shortly. And it will be in the hands of JARS subscribers soon—though the full color images can only be found on e-platforms. To subscribe to the journal, see here.

One final teaser … taken from a page of the article: An image of the title page of Alissa Rosenbaum’s Second Matricul …

Postscript: And check out the public Facebook discussion that followed. In one thread, one commentator stated that in many ways, Rand was like an “inverted Bolshevik”—with her emphasis on the opposition between productivity and parasitism. I responded:

A very interesting observation (and in many respects, my reconstruction of her thought in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical shows the very inversion you allude to).

I should point out of course that some of the worst “parasites” in her novels, especially The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are “capitalists” of the crony kind, part of “the aristocracy of pull” peddlers, using government to gain privileges and wealth. But her antipathy toward business extended as well to the stifling atmosphere of corporate conformity—against which Howard Roark (her protagonist in The Fountainhead) must struggle. In fact, her earliest published writing (while she was still in the Soviet Union) on Hollywood films and film stars contain some strong indictments of studio owners. A recent two-part article by Shoshana Milgram quotes Rand as follows:

“But directors have an enemy. An omnipotent and indomitable enemy. An enemy whom it is difficult to fight — the firm’s owner. At any moment in his work, any director may be interrupted by the appearance of a decisive businessman, who states categorically: ‘This must be changed. This must be cut. This character must be omitted entirely. Cut out the ending.’ And the studio’s sovereign dares not argue.” The owners and presidents of film studios force their views and demands on the directors. They greedily pursue the public’s tastes. Like obedient slaves, they strive to satisfy every desire of the omnipotent public. They want to release only that which is popular. They are frightened by the new and unusual.”

Milgram’s article is in two parts:

‘Capitalism’: When and How Ayn Rand Embraced the Term (Pt. 1)

‘Capitalism’: When and How Ayn Rand Embraced the Term (Pt. 2)

In a follow-up reply, that pertains to the differences between the views of Karl Marx and Ayn Rand on productive work, I said:

There’s a section in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical that speaks to the issue … [of] Rand exhibiting traits of the ‘inverted Bolshevik’. I’ll quote a long passage from the book (pp. 271-73):

Interestingly, Rand enunciated a principle that Marx would have accepted in starkly different terms. For Marx, capitalist “exploitation” is a direct outgrowth of the separation of the product from the producer. In the production process, the laborer endows the product with its value and receives in return only enough for his or her own subsistence. The extraction of surplus value makes possible capitalist accumulation. But it is symptomatic of a condition in which the capitalist consumes value without producing it. In this regard, Marx views the capitalist qua capitalist as a parasite on the production process.

Paradoxically, Rand’s criticism of the Marxian doctrine of exploitation illustrates her own endorsement of a form of the labor theory of value. Rand presents a caricature of the classical labor theory, when she argues that in Marx’s view, “the material tools of production” (that is, “machines”), determine thinking, and that it is “muscular labor” which “is the source of wealth” (New Intellectual, 33). As we have seen, Marx’s conception of human labor was far richer than Rand presumed. Nevertheless, Rand criticized Marx for obscuring the intellectual praxis at the foundation of production. For Rand, an innovation, an idea, is the creative force behind the production of material values. The implementation of creative ideas are a permanent benefit to the day laborer, much more valuable than the hourly expense of merely physical work that extends no further than the range of the immediate productive process.

Rand presented a view of the capitalist as creator, inventor, and entrepreneur. It is the creator who stands at the top of the intellectual pyramid of ability, contributing “the most to all those below him,” but receiving far less in material payment than his or her innovations make possible. In Rand’s view, even though day laborers contribute their energy to the production process, they would starve outside the wider social context because they depend for their employment on the innovations introduced by those above them. Even the machines that laborers use are “the frozen form of a living intelligence,” expanding the potential of the laborers’ lives by raising their productivity (Atlas Shrugged, 1064–65).

Contrary to Rand’s assumptions, Marx did not endorse a vulgar version of the labor theory of value. Marx postulates all sorts of complex labortime derivatives, such that the labor-time expended by a skilled worker, even by a capitalist in his capacity as a skilled innovator, is a multiple of simple labor-time. And for Marx, it is obvious that the material forces, the “machines” as Rand puts it, do not strictly determine consciousness. In Marx’s view, “Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified” (Grundrisse, 706).

Rand grossly distorted the mature Marxian perspective. But in contrast to Marx, she offered a more sophisticated view of the creative process. As I have suggested in previous chapters, Rand saw creativity as a constellation of rational and emotional, conscious and subconscious, articulated and tacit elements that cannot be quantified as complex multiples of simple labor-time. Creativity is the lifeblood of human action. It is the very fuel of the capitalist system. It is an expression of the individual’s integrated nature as a rational being, and it is the source of values for human consumption and enjoyment. Indeed, as Barry (1983, 109) remarks, there are times in which Rand seems so awestruck by the creative qualities of the innovator and the entrepreneur that she occasionally “slips into a crude intentionalist explanation of the free economy; as if it were the virtues of capitalists that produced the system.” This, however, is not Rand’s view, but it does underscore Rand’s conviction that capitalism as a social system rewards such virtues, raising people to a higher standard of living, and challenging them to greater knowledge and greater achievement. Such a system enriches the efficacious, self-esteeming individual. It promotes the mastery of particular skills, even as it beckons the laborer to expand his or her capacities and earn the values that sustain life.

The Rand Transcript Revealed (Part II)

Yesterday, in “The Rand Transcript Revealed (Part I)“, I discussed the publication of my new Journal of Ayn Rand Studies article, coauthored with Pavel Solovyev, which features 28 archival images in color (and four tables), documenting—as never before—the details of Ayn Rand’s Soviet education at the University of Petrograd.

Today is the second of three posts previewing our newly published article.

My 1995 book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, was the first scholarly work to argue that Rand had a deep intellectual debt to the Russian context within which she came to intellectual maturity. This debt didn’t relate merely to some substantive similarities with ideas current during the Russian Silver Age of Rand’s youth. It was a distinctly methodological debt, which she owed to the dialectical modes of analysis that were endemic to virtually every school and tradition she would have encountered during that period. As my own work on Rand’s education at the University of Petrograd documented, these dialectical motifs were present in Rand’s coursework, textbooks, and in the lectures given by the teachers with whom she most likely studied.

To reiterate for the umpteenth time: Dialectics is the art of context-keeping. It demands that the theorist never disconnect a single event, issue, or problem from its relationships to other events, issues or problems, all existing within a larger context, examined across time.

My seemingly innocuous argument that Rand learned something from her teachers was initially met with a firestorm of criticism—from Rand-haters who viewed her as outside the Western canon of legitimate thinkers and from Rand-acolytes who viewed her as having sprung ahistorically from the head of Zeus as a modern-day goddess of wisdom.

Ironically, those acolytes, who accept Rand’s own acknowledged debt to Aristotle and even the early influence of Nietzsche, drop historical context, since even Hegel, Marx, Engels, and Lenin viewed Aristotle as the “fountainhead” (Hegel’s term) of dialectical inquiry. Moreover, Nietzsche’s influence on the Russian Silver Age was one of its defining cultural characteristics.

In the years that followed the publication of Russian Radical, a growing number of writers have been exploring Rand’s Russian roots. I’ve discussed these in previous articles, such as my “Reply to the Critics of Russian Radical 2.0: The Dialectical Rand” and in my essay, “Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism” in The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom.

Other discussions of Russian influences on Rand have appeared in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, including essays by Peter Saint-Andre and Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal. More encouraging is the appearance of recent Russian-language books by Ludmila L. Nikiforova and Mikhail B. Kizilov and Anastasiya Grigorovskaya, each exploring Rand as a Russian émigré writer. And a new book by Aaron Weinacht, Nikolai Chernyshevskii and Ayn Rand: Russian Nihilism Travels to America, is a “profoundly significant” contribution to Rand studies—as I state in a blurb that I provided for the book. (Weinacht previously published in the July 2017 issue of JARS.)

Unfortunately, Weinacht’s superb book was moving toward publication as our own article was already in page proofs, so we were unable to discuss his thoughts on Rand’s education. It’s worth noting that Weinacht worked in the Ayn Rand Archives and his book benefits from access to its collections. Among those collections are documents that my coauthor Pavel Solovyev was able to secure independently from the Saint Petersburg Archives. Pavel’s superlative detective work will be the subject of my concluding post tomorrow.

Of all the professors that Ayn Rand may have studied with, only one—Nikolay Onufriyevich Lossky—was named by her in the Branden Biographical Interviews (specifically in Interview 6, conducted on 3 January 1961). I devote a full chapter to Lossky’s life and thought in Russian Radical. Weinacht writes:

As Sciabarra has noted, it is impossible to prove conclusively that Losskii was one of Rand’s teachers, as she claimed, but it seems likely that she took at least some instruction from him, albeit in an unofficial capacity. Losskii was banned from teaching at his St. Petersburg State University post in 1921, the same year Rand entered the university, and was exiled in the fall of 1922, along with Nicholas Berdiaev, Semen Frank, and Sergei Bulgakov of the Vekhi group (among others). I am inclined to agree with Sciabarra’s judgment that Rand had no compelling reason to lie about her connection with Losskii, particularly given her usual reticence to mention any thinkers other than herself. Additionally, Losskii’s mother-in-law Mariia Stoiunina ran a girl’s school, that was located at #20 Kabinetskaia Street in St. Petersburg. Rand lived in two main locations in St. Petersburg, one of which was approximately two-thirds of a mile southwest of the school, and the other less than half-mile northwest of the school. Between Rand’s own mention of Losskii and the fact that she lived in two locations that were within close walking distance of a school with which Losskii was personally connected, the suggestion that Rand took some unofficial instruction from him does not seem implausible. (p. 17)

On the Stoiunin gymnasium, I should note that there is firm evidence that Rand attended the school—something I first proposed in Russian Radical and documented in my follow-up essays on her education. This was subsequently substantiated in 2010 by Anne C. Heller in Ayn Rand and the World She Made (pp. 17-20, 26), and Shoshana Milgram in Essays on Ayn Rand’s “We the Living” (second edition, 2012, pp. 108-10, n. 23).

Weinacht hypothesizes that also among Rand’s teachers was

the well-known Russian historian N. I. Kareev* [who] was on the university faculty in St. Petersburg when Rand was a student there. … Rand’s college transcript lists a total of sixteen history courses she took at the university, and also contains the signatures of the courses’ instructors. The signatures on twelve of Rand’s history courses are illegible, and circumstantial evidence would suggest a high likelihood that Kareev was the professor of at least a few of these courses, and probably at least one non-history course, as well. (p. 17)

Weinacht expresses his “thanks to Professor Cynthia Ruder, of the University of Kentucky, for assistance in deciphering the signatures on Rand’s transcript. Sciabarra has made similar conjectures as to Kareev’s teaching” (p. 29, n. 90).

Tomorrow, in the conclusion of this miniseries, I will discuss how my colleague and coauthor, Pavel Solovyev, not only deciphered the signatures, but provided us with the most conclusive evidence yet of those with whom Rand studied—and what they taught.

For now, I’ll leave you with another archival image from our article … a photo of the young Alissa Rosenbaum taken from her second matricul (“matricul” is the name of a document certifying the admission of a student to the university, and also serving as the examination book).

* The name Kareev shows up in Rand’s fiction (see below). There was also a professor named Lev Platonovich Karsavin in the History department of Petrograd University. Does his name or the name of Kareev show up on the transcript? Readers will find out, but I’ll have more to say in the concluding part of my miniseries preview to the JARS article tomorrow. From Russian Radical (p 414 n37):

Karsavin is a White Army leader who is captured by Andrei Taganov, the idealistic communist soldier. Captain Karsavin is forced to commit suicide. It is possible that Rand modeled the captain after his namesake at the university, who was eventually exiled by the Bolsheviks for his counterrevolutionary ideals. The “Captain Karsavin” episode appears in We the Living, 101–3. Another of Rand’s early Russian characters, from the screenplay Red Pawn, is named “Kareyev.” Kareyev is the commandant of Strastnoy Island. Rand (1931–32), “Red Pawn,” in Early Ayn Rand, 111. Likewise, Rand may have taken the name “Kareyev” from Petrograd history professor, Kareev.

Postscript: And check out the public Facebook discussion that followed.

The Rand Transcript Revealed (Part I)

It gives me great pleasure to announce that JSTOR has published the December 2021 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. Project Muse will be publishing this issue soon.

Today, I’d like to begin a series of posts discussing the lead essay in the current issue. That essay, “The Rand Transcript Revealed,” coauthored by Pavel Solovyev and me, is currently available on the JSTOR site. For the benefit of all future scholarship on Ayn Rand, the article provides 28 archival images pertinent to Rand’s education in the Soviet Union. The images appear in color on all e-platforms, and in black and white in the printed hard copy that will be mailed to subscribers soon.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of this essay. My own former detective work, which investigated Rand’s education at the University of Petrograd (formerly the University of Saint Petersburg, later the University of Leningrad, and now the University of Saint Petersburg again), began with my book, published in 1995, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (Penn State Press). In that book, I made a lot of educated guesses on what Rand studied and with whom she may have studied, based on my understanding of the enormous changes that were instituted at the University of Petrograd in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. I drew much from Rand’s own recollections, as recorded in a series of biographical interviews conducted by Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden in 1960-1961, as well as from contemporaries of Rand and scholars of the historical period in question.

A lot of what I suggested in that first approximation was given evidential support in the essay that opened the very first issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies: “The Rand Transcript,” published in the Fall of 1999, based on the Leningrad State University diploma of the young Ayn Rand, born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum. That was followed in the Fall of 2005, with “The Rand Transcript, Revisited,” an analysis of much more in-depth records of Rand’s courses, generously provided to me by Anne C. Heller, who wrote the biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (2010). Both of these articles were subsequently republished in 2013 as the first two of three appendices in the second edition of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. (The third appendix addressed criticisms of my historical work, followed by another “Reply to Critics” [pdf] published in the December 2017 JARS.)

Unable to digitally reproduce poor photocopies of all the records I had examined, I was elated to discover that in October 2020, Pavel Solovyev had begun to post to a public Ayn Rand group on Facebook many of those same documents, which he had obtained—in pristine color—through the website of the Saint Petersburg Archive. Subsequently, Pavel and I struck up a wonderful collegial friendship, which enabled us to work together toward the publication of this article.

I will have a lot more to say about the article—and the trailblazing analysis of the documents that it contains—over the next few days. For now, on behalf of Pavel and myself, I’d just like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the JARS editorial board and the entire Penn State Press family, especially Joseph Dahm, Rachel Ginder, and Komal Ganjoo, for their helpful guidance in the production of this important project.

Though some on Facebook may have previously seen this image (below), I reproduce here the cover of the personal file of Alissa Rosenbaum (as it appears on page 145 of our journal article)—still rendered in the pre-1918 alphabet—from the Saint Petersburg State Archive. Stay tuned … so much more to come!

Postscript: And check out the public Facebook discussion that followed.

Empathy—and Dismay

On Facebook, I gave a H/T to my friend Joshua Zader for his re-posting of this graphic on the subject of “empathy” …

As I wrote on Facebook, this encapsulates one important way by which to celebrate the goodwill of the holiday season: Learning empathy.

I added: “If I’d boxed myself within the conventional left-right continuum, I would never have opened my mind to learning from a Marxist mentor (Bertell Ollman), who both encouraged me and challenged me in my growth as a student of intellectual history. (In fact, Bertell was more encouraging of my work on Ayn Rand than 98% of the folks in Rand-land.) I’ve been enriched by drawing from all parts of the ideological spectrum. The very origins of what it means to be “dialectical”—grasping the full context—emerges from the art of dialogue, and it is through such dialogue with those outside our framework that we evolve intellectually, psychologically, and even emotionally.”

Well, I’d like to say that this message got through loud and clear, but it never ceases to amaze me how consistently people show up to demonstrate the point of the posts—in reverse.

Before you know it, my opinions on the nature of the Enclosure Acts and of the origins of capitalism suddenly took center stage, with one person suggesting that I’m parroting “Marxist” and “totalitarian lies.” I pointed out that in Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, I critique Marx on a number of issues, including his theory of history. I give credit to Marx on a methodological point: the dialectical method applied to the analysis of social problems, a method that goes back to Aristotle and that has been used to varying degrees by thinkers in the classical liberal/libertarian tradition, from Menger to Hayek to Rand. I most definitely reject the materialist theory of history. 

Well, that just took us down a road that had nothing to do with the topic of the thread, but which illustrated what happens when folks refuse to give you the benefit of the doubt or to adopt even a remotely charitable interpretation of your views.

First, it should be noted that empathy doesn’t mean that we are required to empathize with those who are out to kill you. I would limit it to folks with whom we just might have some civil disagreements … not folks looking to gouge my eyes out. In civil discourse, I think much can be learned from Nathaniel Branden, who stated in his essay, “Objectivism and Libertarianism“:

About ten years ago, I came across a saying from the Talmud that impressed me profoundly. I have not been able to stop thinking about it. I have often wondered what might have happened if I’d had the chance to discuss the idea with Ayn—if there would have been any way to break through. Who knows what might have been different in the years that followed?

The line that so impressed me was: “A hero is one who knows how to make a friend out of an enemy.”

After nearly 50 comments, I concluded with the following statement:

Well, before I turn in for the night, I’d like to extend my thanks especially to those who understood the spirit of this post. My empathy is alive and well, not just at this time of year, but all year round.

For those who didn’t quite get the spirit of this post, I’ll repeat what I said above, alluding to my half-Greek, half-Sicilian ancestry: “The ‘Greek’ side of me is always trying to find reasonable common ground with an open heart. The ‘Sicilian’ side of me tells me when no common ground is possible, and I’m like: ‘Fuhgedaboudit! Enough with this!'”

Given that no common ground is possible in some instances here, I’ll therefore conclude with “Fuhgedaboudit! Enough with this!”

Many more threads to follow… to the delight of some and the dismay of others. G’nite, folks!

Hayek as Democratic Socialist?

Les Leopold has a Common Dreams essay entitled “Was Frederick [sic] Hayek a Bernie Sanders Socialist?” that checks off the many areas in which Friedrich A. Hayek favored social welfare “safety net” protections that are on a par with the policies advocated by many “progressives” today.

My friend Ryan Neugebauer shared the article on his Facebook Timeline (so a H/T to him!). And it prompted a productive exchange between us.

Ryan observes correctly that Hayek was “a strong proponent of governmental countervailing power within a capitalist economy,” much “closer in line with [Bernie] Sanders than … with Ayn Rand or [Ludwig von] Mises.” For Ryan, “as long as Statist Capitalism exists (the only form that has ever existed), some form of Social Democratic project is in order.” He therefore favors “a synthesis of libertarian and social democratic thought, … promoting bottom-up dual-power/mutual aid projects [that depend] on the state less and [that build] ‘an alternative society in the shell of the old.'” He argues, correctly in my view, that “it makes no sense to take away the crutches before you strengthen and heal the broken leg.”

Ryan points out further that it was the reactionary conservative “Otto von Bismarck who erected the modern welfare-regulatory state in response to Socialist revolutionaries agitating for change in Germany during 19th century Industrial Capitalism. When people are distressed by poor working conditions, poor pay, and see no end in sight, they agitate for radical change.” Though he embraces long-term anarchist goals, he argues that as long as you have “a situation where a nation state is … affected by crony interests and a distorted banking sector, having a form of social democracy is the preferable option in my eyes. … In contrast to many Progressives and State Socialists, I prefer polycentric systems and multiple option arrangements/escape potential.” He provides a key example:

I would prefer a situation where Trans individuals wouldn’t be dependent simply on the public system, which could restrict their options due to political control, and instead be able to access alternative private options if they should choose or are able to get support to access. I would prefer people being able to access different forms of schooling and not be forced to attend a public school system. Given that the political mechanism is often captured by right-wing interests, it does not make sense to crowd out alternatives, require “public only” arrangements, and simply count on always having “the right people in”, as many Progressives and State Socialists do. I gave a few examples, but I typically prefer having more options than less and power distributed as much as possible.

One can achieve that while maintaining a robust social insurance system. It just will likely always be up for grabs such as long as it is attached to a political system that is easily captured by nefarious interests.

In the Facebook discussion that followed, I wrote:

This is a very nice discussion about the kinds of alternatives that people—who favor freedom and flourishing—must face given the conditions that exist. While Hayek most assuredly was not a strict libertarian on matters of government “intervention”—and I put this in scare quotes because the state has always been intimately involved with all things economic—I think there are two important takeaways from The Road to Serfdom that advocates of more benign social-democratic measures forget at their peril.

The first is this: Politics in general and the state in particular have always been central to the constitution of class structures in society. The more political power comes to dominate social life, the more it becomes the only power worth having (which is why I applaud your support of bottom-up, polycentric, decentralized models of social decision-making). In Hayek’s view, however, the growth of political economy engenders a process in which “the worst get on top” necessarily. And “the worst” are, for Hayek, almost always those drawn from those predatory business-class interests within capitalism that had the most to gain from the regulatory, welfare-warfare state.

Given this reality, even the most benign of social-democratic “safety net” measures that Hayek favored could not escape a class character. Historically, as you suggest, “safety net” measures have often been enacted to not only benefit certain elements of the “ruling class”, but to undercut working class revolts (a la Bismark). (As an aside: I’d go so far as to say that historically, confrontational labor strikes and unrest have been intimately tied up with the depressionary phase of the boom-bust cycle, which both Marxists and Austrians root in the state-banking nexus. Pardon the plug, but on this, see my own undergraduate history honors thesis.

The second takeaway is Hayek’s view that extensive government control produces a socio-psychological alteration in the character of individuals within the larger culture. This social-psychological corruption is both a reciprocally related cause and effect of advancing political economy, a process of mutual reinforcement that undermines accountability, personal responsibility, and the autonomy of the individual’s moral conscience.

As a long-term alternative, Hayek advocated social change for sure, but with a dialectical sensibility; he believed that it could only occur through a slow and gradual change in cultural mores, traditions, and habits, which are often tacit. Like you, he argued that trying to impose such change “top-down,” without the requisite cultural foundations, is doomed to fail. And yet despite this almost Burkean emphasis on slow and gradual change, Hayek adamantly declared he was not a conservative. He embraced the essence of a radical approach. “We are bound all the time to question fundamentals,” he said; “it must be our privilege to be radical.”

I think this was a worthwhile discussion … and wanted to preserve it on my Notablog.

Take What You Want and Move the F&*K On!

This is a Facebook post from my friend Ryan Neugebauer. I’m reposting it here because I’ve been thinking the same thing for a long time, given my experiences on social media. From Ryan:

I’ve noticed that there are trends for hating on certain thinkers/figures in different political spheres. People in both groups will chastise them and make them out to be valueless.”In left-wing spaces it will be Ayn Rand or some free-market economist (Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, or Friedman). In right-wing spaces it will be Karl Marx, Saul Alinsky, Noam Chomsky, or some self-described Socialist politician.

I have NO USE for this kind of tribalism. I take insights from thinkers across the political spectrum. I’ve read people like Edmund Burke, G.K. Chesterton, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Benjamin Tucker, Mikhail Bakunin, P.J. Proudhon, Kevin Carson, and numerous others. Some of those are Traditionalist Conservatives, Classical Liberals/Right-Libertarians, left-wing Anarchists, as well as State Socialists & Social Democrats.

I have disagreements with all of the thinkers I read. Some more than others for sure. But I won’t throw an entire person out just because of significant disagreements. I won’t pretend they don’t have insights just because I really hate something they say. I take the good, understand and reject the bad, and simply move on.

It’s important to learn to engage diverse thinkers and not close yourself out. It’s also important to be reasonably charitable and not write someone off entirely unnecessarily.

Though this approach will not help you with group membership in a political tribe, it will help you with being a better thinker and a better interlocutor. So please choose that over fitting in.

And let me just add: If you’re not capable of thinking outside the square of a stultifying ideology, you’re impoverishing your own critical thinking abilities. My own approach for every thinker I’ve ever read has always been the same: Take what gems you can find in each writer and/or school of thought you are exposed to; criticize that which you reject (but PLEASE, OH PLEASE understand what you’re accepting and what you’re rejecting!), and MOVE THE F&*K ON!*

* This is a play on the old Spanish proverb often quoted by Ayn Rand and her followers: “God said, take what you want and pay for it.”

Postscript: In the Facebook discussion that followed, I made these additional points:

1. Evil may be real, and we can call it for what it is. But there are many insights that one can glean from thinkers that many libertarians and Objectivists might consider “evil”. Many of those on the left brand Rand and Hayek as evil, as apologists for a system of exploitation, but if left-winger Slavoj Zizek can find value in Ayn Rand, and “postmodernist” Michel Foucault can find value in F. A. Hayek, surely those on the other side of the divide can find something of value in the works of Hegel, Marx, Engels, and others.I, myself, give enormous credit to Marx for bringing a dialectical sensibility to the analysis of social relations. As I point out in my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy” (Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism), it was Hegel who viewed Aristotle as the “fountainhead” of dialectical inquiry (and he used that word), which compelled the theorist to look at every issue, problem, or event by tracing its relations to other issues, problems or events within a wider system across time. Both Marx and Engels did enormously important work in applying these insights to the analysis of social systems, crediting Aristotle (in the words of Engels) as “the Hegel of the ancient world,” among “the old Greek philosophers [who] were all born natural dialecticians … the most encyclopaedic intellect of them, [who] had already analyzed the most essential forms of dialectic thought.”

Even Lenin (!) worked on a lengthy treatise dealing with dialectics, in which he praised Aristotle for providing theorists with “the living germs of dialectics and inquiries about it.”

One can reject so much in Hegel, Marx, Engels, and others, and still marvel at the ways in which they applied this essentially Aristotelian mode of inquiry to the analysis of social relations, systems, and dynamics. The whole point of my own trilogy was to reconstruct that mode of inquiry as a tool that could be used fruitfully by libertarian social theorists. And for this project, I had to face the wrath of scores of folks who labeled me a nutjob.

Well, I may still be a nutjob—but I stand by my conviction that dialectical inquiry is something of great value, and that there is much to be gained by studying the works of those on the left who have used it. I may disagree with many of their conclusions, but I can still give credit where credit is due and, as I said in my post, “move the f&*k on.”

2. As someone who embraces dialectical method (the art of context-keeping), it is context above all that matters here. Which is why we can take the gems from other thinkers and reinvent them, reconstruct them, invert them, and place them in a larger context that speaks to the real conditions that exist, in our attempts to change them fundamentally.

WTC Remembrance: Twenty Years Later

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Since 2001, I have been writing annual installments to a series that came to be known as “Remembering the World Trade Center.”

My 2021 installment encapsulates all of the previous entries in the series, revisiting my own personal reflections, pictorials, and interviews of people who were deeply affected by the events of that day. Folks can read the newest essay here:

Twenty Years Later: Remembrance and Rebirth

As I state in the conclusion of my essay:

I have always touted the importance of a dialectical method of understanding the world—a method that requires us to look at each issue, social problem, or event by situating it in the larger context of which it is a part.

In this series, however, I made a conscious decision not to focus on the “big picture” in which the events of 9/11 took place or their historical background. I have not examined the wider political, social, and cultural context that made 9/11—and its aftermath—possible. I have done that elsewhere. I was less interested in those larger questions and more interested in understanding the personal tragedies of that day, because all too often, it is the personal that gets lost when one looks at the sheer scope of the catastrophe that was 9/11, with its monstrous loss of human life. Over these last two decades, I was persuaded that something unique was to be gained by piecing together a tapestry of tragedy—and of hope—not only through my own reflections and pictorials, but through the voices of individual human beings, each of whom had their own contexts, their own lives, their own futures altered so fundamentally by the events that unfolded on that late summer morning.

I have long believed that a future of more humane possibilities can only emerge when one does not disown memories, no matter how painful, sad, or tragic these might be. In the context of September 11, 2001, remembrance and rebirth entail one another. Remembrance has its therapeutic value, but it is also cathartic insofar as it makes possible our own ability to rise above the tragedy. Rebirth is itself an act of catharsis, of cleansing, almost by definition. It is my hope that this series of twenty-one installments has contributed to that project of remembrance and rebirth. It has been a tribute to those we have lost, and a paean—a song of praise, indeed—to those who survived, who demonstrated the life-affirming power of a community of individuals coming together to aid one another in the face of unimaginable horror. It is the power of life over death. It is the power of love over hate.

Though each of the previous installments is noted in the current piece, I provide below a convenient index to the entire series:

2001: As It Happened . . .

2002: New York, New York

2003: Remembering the World Trade Center: A Tribute

2004: My Friend Ray

2005: Patrick Burke, Educator

2006: Cousin Scott

2007: Charlie: To Build and Rebuild

2008: Eddie Mecner, Firefighter

2009: Lenny: Losses and Loves

2010: Tim Drinan, Student

2011: Ten Years Later

2012: A Memorial for the Ages: A Pictorial

2013: My Friend Matthew: A 9/11 Baby of a Different Stripe

2014: A Museum for the Ages: A Pictorial

2015: A New One World Trade Center Rises From the Ashes: A Pictorial

2016: Fifteen Years Ago: Through the Looking Glass of a Video Time Machine

2017: Sue Mayham: Not Business as Usual

2018: Anthony Schirripa, Architect

2019: Zack Fletcher: Twin Towers, Twin Memories

2020: Firefighter Gerard Gorman: Ultimate Survivor

2021: Twenty Years Later: Remembrance and Rebirth

Never forget. ❤

The Twin Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Photograph by Chris Matthew Sciabarra