The Existential Hero

I made a comment over at Jim’s Blog on the topic of working-class consciousness, how whites needed to see themselves as workers as well. Jim responded pretty strongly to this, to the original comment and to the extent of making a post directly on the topic, Working class consciousness, dismissing the idea comprehensively as leading to Nazism or communism.

It turns out Jim isn’t a “neo-reactionary” at all but just a very familiar figure, a Randian capitalist libertarian. According to Jim, people don’t make things, joint-stock corporations make things.

I don’t like to put my own links in comments, but the comment I made on quasi-black nationalist/comic book nerd/Howard University dropout Ta-Nehisi Coates is strangely enough appropriate for Jim. My comment on Coates was that black people don’t make things, white people make things; my comment to Jim, with only a few side comments needing changes, is that joint-stock corporations don’t make things, white people make things.

Ayn Rand is regarded pretty snidely by the good people- a crazy woman a few nerds like in high school, and some black-hearted libertarians and Republicans. And yet the Randian hero- a capitalist who strives against all odds, opposition, and even the law to build his empire- is at least as much a hero of progressives as of neoconservatives. Who is more the Randian hero than Steve Jobs? More the progressive ideal? Less heroic, but still in the mold, are Mark Zuckerberg, the Google guys, and various other tech capitalists. (The more socially conventional engineers who made it all possible with the actual technology are conveniently forgotten- after all they are just white guys making stuff in their garages like my uncle.) Unrestrained capitalism of the right sort is deeply admired by progressives. Blacks, latinos, women, and gays have rights, but workers are just losers, whatever their skill level.

The existential hero- a more modern version of the German Romantic hero- is the individual who defies fate and the conventional order to create his own destiny, to remake the world in his own image. Ayn Rand saw the mass-manufacturing capitalists of the late 19th century as her ultimate models, and yet the communist terrorists of the same era fit the bill at least as well. The existential hero shapes the colorless and dull mass of humanity to his ideal.

So both the idealized market economy and the two basic kinds of leftism- the cultural kind, progressivism, and the economic kind, communism- place great importance on the figure of the existential hero. Here’s the thing, though- there is no existential hero. Every human being is at the mercy of, a product of and hostage to forces far greater than he and far outside his power and control. The ostensible existential hero is only one, more visible member of a greater human community, and above that creation itself.

Pride is said to be the ultimate sin, but I’m not completely sure about that. Pride is an ambiguous thing that has positive uses. What you might call the bad forms of pride, selfishness and arrogance, definitely are.

Because humans exist in a greater community and in creation they must humble themselves to God’s law. Everybody has rights and everybody has responsibilities. No person or group of people can take an excessive amount for themselves, or abuse others. The scriptures warn against this repeatedly.

(Cross-posted with substantially overlapping content on my politics blog here.)

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7 responses to “The Existential Hero

  1. Pingback: The Existential Hero | Deconstructing Leftism

  2. jamesd127

    Suppose you have a bunch of workers, and all the raw materials that go to make up a pencil, but in their raw form that they come out of the earth, for example you have a tree for wood, plant seeds and minerals for paint and glue, charcoal and clay for the pencil lead. Can they make a pencil?

    To make a pencil, or to make anything, someone has to withhold from present consumption so that tools can exist, and has to have expertise and knowledge so that they can be rightly applied, and has to have authority to command that these resources be used rightly in accordance with that expertise and an knowledge, and has to have the will to issue that command.

    You cannot replace the capitalist with the workers, and if you replace the capitalist with the state, you get actually existent socialism – communism or nazism.

    • To make pencils, you need workers, but either socialist organization or capitalist organization will work. The inherent ability of the workers to make pencils is independent of the form of social, economic, and legal organization. Whether this group of workers can organize themselves to successfully make pencils depends on the same factors.

  3. RS

    The original existential hero is prometheus, and more generally it is no inconsiderable facet of the hellene personality. But you are right to locate it in germany wrt modernity, as the germans were more obsessed with the greeks than any other nordish.

    Nietzsche wrote that sin was the most prominent hebrew conception, while the greeks left pretty considerable space for the virtues of transgression. The hebrew prophets are always talking about the sins against god, that have produced the captivity by various empires after a rather brief period(s) of freedom. Whereas a lot of people at that time were probably more apt to temper their affection for gods who couldn’t prevent social calamity. The celts were happy to syncretize about 1:1 with the religion of the conquering romans, which I think is rather more than the latter demanded.

    Nietzsche is probably the greatest modern promoter of the hero mythos, which I credit a bit more than you do — it’s very ironic though just how much he drew on earlier thinkers, exactly along the lines you describe. When I was a boy he seemed inhumanly original ; getting a little more education I saw more and more how much he depended on Stirner, Pascal, Stendhal, Rouchefoucauld, and fifteen others, as well as the ancient Mediterranean above all, so that he seemed /way/ more like one of them, though for me still perhaps the most distinguished of them.

  4. RS

    Over-exalting the hero has its problems. I think you were more explicit about this on your other blog.

    At the same time the hero is ideal in human form ; the inspiriting, even ecstatic self-projection of the individual, society, and civilization. States of morale and demoralization have massive import. As does everything in a broad sense ‘psychological’ : that is largely missing in nonfictional English letters, which is why I have worked with mostly Continental materials.

    As you say, pride cannot possibly be all evil — this is quite the error. I wonder how prominent this notion has been in the various spatiotemporal permutations of Christendom. As you have said, equality is arguably the core decadence in our present mores, going back to 1789, so pervasive that in your words, if our leaders decided they didn’t believe in any of this anymore, and just wanted to quit, there would be hardly anyone in the world to step in under a fundamentally different philosophical aegis — it barely exists anymore.

    Dagne Taggart makes a bit of a thin hero. I mean, railroads save labor, allowing us to have meat and potatoes for dinner, well-seasoned. And spend leisure with family. Nice things, but I’m more excited by uebermenschen and Thomas Tallis, though I certainly yearn badly to have a family. Nonetheless, since it seems to me the pitch of hero culture in general has been brought too low, not too high, I evaluate Rand positively overall. Also for her setting it stark that in philosophical and ethical matters, you can’t just make up whatever you want. She stood for a rigor and self-consistency that was rapidly becoming very old-school, and this is coming from a guy who is ‘dialetheist’ (ie, at least some contradictions are true) and believes that ‘a foolish consistency’ really is, to a fair degree, ‘the hobgoblin of small minds’.

  5. RS

    The point someone like Rand can help you reach, though she does not reach it at all, is that dialetheism is not really something to be proud of. A good dialetheist makes war on his dialetheism (while a monalatheist is just a fool).

  6. RS

    I don’t know, perhaps actually existing capitalism has been so destructive that Rand is a net bad. I disagree wholly that ‘socialist organization’ is as good for pencilmaking, as the term is usually understood. But I demand a ‘Prussian socialism’ that makes the economy serve the social body at day’s end, not plutocrats. Prussian socialism was Spengler’s term for a society with organic cooperation and esprit de corps, which might or might not necessarily perform some presumably-minor economic redistribution (a la Bismarck). While XIXc. fascism is not my ideal kind of society, in economics it is close enough. And the extent to which it reordered economics (in Germany, the only case I really know) is easily exaggerated.

    The thing is, I don’t blame our plutocrats /that/ much for being how they are ; specifically for their political acts. They were propagandized from what, age six. By scholars and people organized by scholars. Their nature is not study, inquiry, or immunity to propaganda. They would fail to seriously evaluate bolshevism, confucianism, nazism, isolationism, anti-isolationism, maoism, or the New Deal, just as they failed to seriously evaluate sophistic anti-organic late modernism, and just as history shows few intelligent people deeply evaluated the other said isms. For that sort of gig, nature made you and me. I have an ex-friend with >$20 M, born to no wealth. He was actually very similar to us (more than most big capitalists are), but he /always/ had the money thing, by nature. He talked about how he would probably retire sometime to a life of inquiry but it sounded kind of wan. Nature is nature, salmon aren’t trout, etc. He’s been too focused on that stuff to reject his indoctrination they way you and I have (he and I were raised on coastal 90s SWPLdom, but I’m not sure the difference from your indoctrination is so vast).

    Old-time plutocrats were at least a little better, but I’m not sure how much. They probably needed to be sorted out pretty hard by some Prussian socialism.

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