Monday, 9 September 2019

Mary Wollstonecraft was England’s “first feminist”, at least a century before her time

Mary Wollstonecraft died aged only 38, after giving birth to a girl, in 1797. She has been described as “England’s first feminist”. The ideas in her book The Vindication of the Rights of Woman written in 1792, including that men and women have equal ability to reason, and an equal right to education were considered outlandish and extraordinary by her contemporaries, both men and women.

Wollstonecraft was at least a century ahead of her time. Her contribution to the cause of women’s equality was not widely recognised until the 1960s.

Advances in women’s rights in Western countries are still very recent. The words feminist and feminism were not coined until the 1890s. Take the crucial example of voting: women got the vote in the USA only in 1920; all women in UK in 1928; in France it was not until 1944; and in Switzerland it took until 1971.

Like many others who have challenged the accepted wisdom and standards of their age, Wollstonecraft paid dearly for it. In her case, she was the target of sustained misogynistic abuse. Horace Walpole, a leading Establishment figure of the time, described her, in one notorious example, as “a hyena in a petticoat”.

The abuse intensified after Wollstonecraft’s death. Her grieving husband of a few months, William Godwin, a radical philosopher who believed in the paramount importance of truth-telling, wrote a biography which was loving but revealed scandalous facts, including Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate child and her two suicide attempts. Godwin’s book provided the enemies of Wollstonecraft’s ideas with sufficient ammunition to blacken her name for decades.

In The Vindication, Wollstonecraft made the revolutionary claim that men and women were equal “in reason” and equal in their ability to be “fully human”. The fact that this appeared to many people not to be the case was, she said, because women were deprived of the education which men received. “Until women are given the tools of reason, their minds valued as well as their bodies, they cannot be free, or even fully human.”

In the words of Godwin, when Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication, “She stept forth boldly, and singly, in defence of that half of the human race, which by the usages of all society, whether savage or civilised, have been kept from attaining their proper dignity – their equal rank as rational beings.”

The key for Wollstonecraft was education. “I have a profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore.”

Education is to be understood here as far wider than the classroom. It also means addressing the cultural conditioning imposed on girls and women.

Wollstonecraft is clear that The Vindication is particularly aimed at middle class women. She is scathing about rich women and hardly mentions poor women.

Wollstonecraft argues that women were being educated to be convenient domestic slaves” or “alluring mistresses”. Society was using a disguise to “place on women the silken fetters which bribe her into endurance, and even love of slavery.”

In order to be “fully human” she argued, women had to be independent of a man. “I love man as my fellow; but his sceptre real or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.”

She challenged women, as well as men. “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone”.

Women, Wollstonecraft argued, could pursue careers should they so choose, "women might certainly study the art of healing, and be physicians as well as nurses . . . they might, also, study politics . . . Business of various kinds, they might likewise pursue."  It was not until 1876 that the first woman was admitted as a doctor in the UK and it was many decades after that before such a thing was common.

Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 in London into a world in which it was accepted as the natural state of affairs that women were inferior to men. That had been the position for almost all of recorded history. As the leading twentieth century feminist, Simone De Beauvoir observed, “Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers, and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth.”

It was generally accepted that women were too emotional, too hysterical to be capable of rational thought.

Wollstonecraft understood well the power of the consensus view. “Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they cannot trace how, rather than to root them out. The mind must be strong that resolutely forms its own principles; for a kind of intellectual cowardice prevails which makes many men shrink from the task…”

Wollstonecraft had been born into a middle-class family which got steadily poorer throughout her childhood. She ended up supporting the family. Her father drank and could be violent and her mother gave her little attention or love. As Godwin wrote “Her father was a despot and her mother was one of his subjects”.

Her schooling was basic; she was effectively self-taught. She first left home to earn her way in the world at the age of 16. She tried a number of ways of making money including setting up a school and being a governess. However, aged 28, she found herself homeless, with no job and in debt.

It was at this stage that, in a life-changing move, Wollstonecraft was helped by Joseph Johnson, a radical publisher with a shop near St Paul’s Churchyard in central London. She began work as a reviewer, and editorial assistant. It was Johnson who later published The Vindication and who provided Wollstonecraft with an entry into the world of radical literary London.

The French Revolution of 1789 was a seismic event for the radicals in London. Once the French people had successfully attacked the “sacred majesty of kings”, anything seemed possible. It did not, however, live up to its initial heady expectations. Any hopes that the cry of liberte, egalite, fraternite would extend to the rights of women were dashed by the time Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication.

It was this failure of the Revolution that caused Wollstonecraft to write The Vindication in a remarkable period of only 6 weeks.

The book attacks at length the ideas on education of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He had been the principle intellectual force behind the Revolution but his ideas about the place of women in society were anything but revolutionary. He argued that women should be educated for the pleasure of men, to be docile and sweet and to be good wives and mothers.

A few months after she wrote The Vindication, Wollstonecraft went to Paris, which was still very much in the grip of revolutionary turmoil. It was a characteristically independent step. In Paris, she saw the doomed King Louis XVI pass by in the street.

She also met a man there whom she fell passionately in love with. Gilbert Imlay was an American adventurer and businessman. Wollstonecraft and Imlay had a baby girl, but Imlay did not reciprocate Wollstonecraft’s passion and he deserted her. She left Paris to follow him. Time and again, in France and then in London, Imlay treated her, now with their baby girl, appallingly.

Twice, in despair over Imlay, Wollstonecraft made suicide attempts. In the first, she swallowed an overdose of opium. In the second, she threw herself off Putney Bridge into the Thames.

Wollstonecraft’s critics were to later gleefully point out that the woman who in The Vindication had sternly advocated that women be independent of men had not lived up to her own advice.

Eventually Wollstonecraft moved on from Imlay and eventually married William Godwin. The couple had the baby girl whose birth led to Wollstonecraft’s death, and who grew up to be famous herself. She was Mary Shelley, who wrote the famous novel, Frankenstein.

Wollstonecraft’s message resonates in the twenty first century far more than in the eighteenth. “Rights of man and rights of woman are the same.”

Wollstonecraft was clear eyed about the resistance her ideas would encounter. She wrote these lines of herself a few months before her death, "Those who are bold enough to advance before the age they live in, and to throw off, by the force of their own minds, the prejudices which the maturing reason of the world will in time disavow, must learn to brave censure. We ought not to be too anxious respecting the opinion of others... Those who know me will suppose that I acted from principle. - I am easy with regard to the opinions of the best part of mankind - I rest on my own."

She urged women to be strong and independent, for their own sakes, “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”

In the end, it was a matter of justice. “It is justice not charity that is wanting in the world!”

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Ayn Rand preached selfishness is a virtue. Her ideas have caused terrible harm.

No doubt, there have always been selfish people, who care only about themselves and who never help or care about anyone else. However, such nasty behavior has never been encouraged or sanctioned by any major religious or secular system of morality. At least, not until Ayn Rand, Russian-born American writer and philosopher, created what she described as “a new code of morality”, Objectivism, in the mid-twentieth century.

Contrary to existing ideas of morality and to common sense, Rand preached that selfishness is a virtue and that a person’s only moral obligation is to their own happiness. “Man exists for his own sake, the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”

Altruism, Rand declared, is evil and "the curse of the world”.

Rand’s ideas still matter in 2019 because they have had, and continue to have, a profound influence in the West generally and particularly in the USA and the UK.
Tens of millions of copies of Rand’s books have been sold. In surveys conducted in the USA, her book, Atlas Shrugged, came second only to the Christian Bible when readers were asked which books had "made a difference" in their lives.
Initially through her novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and later through non-fiction books, Rand persuaded some people that it was cool to be selfish. She made nasty people feel good about themselves. She gave a specious morality, a fraudulent respectability to terrible behaviour.

Rand’s ideas became an important component of the ideology known as neoliberalism which has held sway in the West since President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher came to power in the 1980s in the USA and the UK respectively.

Reagan called himself “an admirer of Ayn Rand”. The New York Times referred to Rand as the Reagan administration’s “novelist laureate”. 

In 2019, Rand again has an avowed fan in the White House in Donald Trump.

Rand’s ideas crossed the Atlantic. Thatcher famously declared in 1987, “There's no such thing as society”. She was echoing a phrase from a book of Rand’s, straightforwardly entitled, The Virtue of Selfishness.

In 1986, Berkeley, a prestigious American university, gave the honour of delivering its commencement address to Ivan Boesky, a prominent Wall Street financier. Boesky told the students, some of America’s future leaders, “Greed is all right… Greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”  This was Rand’s message.

The following year,1987, the Hollywood film Wall Street popularised the phrase “Greed is good”. The film-maker had intended to satirise but, instead, many took the phrase at face value.

Interestingly, Rand did not believe that mankind is inherently, naturally selfish. She accepted the evidence that hunter-gatherers must have worked together as a community to hunt and to survive. She argued that the process of civilization meant that such “primitive” behaviour was no longer needed and should – morally – be avoided.

American author, Gore Vidal summed up Rand’s ideas, “Ayn Rand's 'philosophy' is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society.... To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.”

Objectivism was concerned with more than morality. It was also concerned with economics and society. Rand preached that capitalism was the only moral way to organise a society and explained, “When I say “capitalism”, I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism - with a separation of state and economics.”  
One of Rand’s closest disciples in the cultish group that surrounded her for decades, Alan Greenspan, was at the centre of the American and world financial systems as Chairman of the Federal Reserve for almost 20 years up to 2006. His following of Rand’s ideological obsession to do away with regulations and supervision and anything that impeded the “free market”, was held to be a major cause of the Global Financial Crash of 2008.
It was Greenspan who had given the eulogy at Rand’s funeral in 1982 – standing next to a six-foot-tall floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign; the giant dollar sign being a key motif in Atlas Shrugged.

Objectivism had consequences for society too. Rand lauded individualism and ruthless unfettered selfishness. According to her, success in life was all down to effort and ability and adverse circumstances were irrelevant. Empirical evidence shows that in most societies for most people this is not true. Some will, of course, succeed against the odds but most will not.

Rand was an unapologetic elitist. She taught that the rich, and particularly bosses of big companies, CEOs, were heroic figures who deserved admiration. In her worldview, wealth and virtue were closely linked.

She had a battery of insults for the lazy and unambitious, including moochers, parasites, second-handers, leeches and looters.

She had contempt for those who do not make it, who struggle in life. In her eyes, they deserved their plight. Even those with disabilities. Even children.

Rand opposed all types of what she called “collectivism” i.e. the subjugation of an individual to the group. She regarded taxation and all redistribution of wealth as theft. In America, opponents of higher taxes on the rich will often use rhetoric taken from Rand and argue that it is immoral to “confiscate”, “loot”, “steal” their money.
It is possible to hear Rand’s contempt for the poor echoed in many politician’s speeches and newspaper front pages. The idea that the poor deserve their poverty has been an important factor in levels of inequality soaring under neoliberalism and to increasingly punitive systems of welfare.
Rand’s hatred of collectivism was shaped by her childhood. She was born Alissa Rosenbaum in 1905 in St Petersburg in pre-revolutionary Russia. She was 12 years old when the Russian Revolution turned her world upside down and the Communists seized power.

Alissa’s father had a profitable pharmacy business. The Communists confiscated the business and justified their action by saying that it was for “the benefit of the people”.

In 1926, aged 21, Alissa Rosenbaum managed to leave the Soviet Union to live in the USA, where she very soon changed her name to Ayn Rand. In the Soviet Union, the horror of Stalinism was to unfold.

It is easy to see why Rand hated Soviet Communism. However, her hatred extended to any type of collective organisation, any acts of redistribution, regulation or altruism. 

After she arrived in the USA, Rand headed for Hollywood and earned a living there until she hit success with her novel The Fountainhead. This book and then Atlas Shrugged, made Rand a celebrity and a household name in the USA.

These two novels are the main vehicles Rand used to set out the contents of Objectivism. Characterisation and plots are subordinated to Rand’s desire to preach.

The heroes, Howard Roark in The Fountainhead and John Galt in Atlas Shrugged are Rand’s conception of ideal men: strong, creative, independent and, of course, selfish.

Roark is an architect. When his designs for a housing development are changed without his agreement, he blows the development up with dynamite. At his trial, Roark tells the jury that his vision was “mutilated by second-handers”. He explains to the jury how - as the creator - he was within his rights to destroy the building.

“I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need. I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others. It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.”

The jury duly acquits. Roark is vindicated, according to the author.

In Atlas Shrugged, the United States is languishing under a government which is stifling business with regulations. The bureaucrats are “thieving” and the social workers are “simpering”.

A small group of CEOs go on strike and hide themselves away in a hidden valley. Without these leaders, society collapses, food runs out and people riot.
According to Rand, it is not the workers who create value. It is the CEOs.
John Galt, the leader of the strike, ends up addressing the citizens and declares, “I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another human being, or ask another human being to live for mine.”

The final years of Rand’s life were difficult. Despite inveighing against welfare for decades, she ended up accepting it for herself.

Rand herself was a deeply flawed person. However, it is the continuing power of her ideas to cause terrible harm that should be of most concern.