Growing Up Objectivist, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 13 2011 @ 7:44pm

A reader writes:

I've never read Ayn Rand.  My experience with the writer extends to a particular video game franchise, BioShock.  (If Roger Ebert continues to insist that video games should not be considered as art, I'll point him to this one.) BioShock is set in an underwater city called Rapture, designed and built by one Andrew Ryan.  You first meet this Captain Of Industry on a journey downward to the city, where a projector plays a recorded message laying out Ryan's philosophy:

I am Andrew Ryan and I am here to ask you a question:  Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?  No, says the man in Washington; it belongs to the poor.  No, says the man in the Vatican; it belongs to God.  No, says the man in Moscow; it belongs to everyone.  I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture.  A city where the artist would not fear the censor.  Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.  Where the great would not be constrained by the small.  And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.

Sound familiar? 

Andrew Ryan's name is obviously based off Ayn Rand.  I doubt many of your readers will play the game, so I feel safe revealing spoilers. 

Ryan's philosophy ultimately creates a caste system between the extremely wealthy (backed by Ryan) and an underprivileged class (manipulated by a former mobster named Frank Fontaine).  Here's where science fiction enters in: a new genetic technology based on stem cells is discovered, allowing users to enhance themselves with superhuman abilities.  Fontaine discovered the tech and used it, along with a smuggling operation, to become immensely powerful and try to overthrow Ryan.  Ryan, in response, becomes increasingly paranoid to maintain control and starts a genetic arms race.  The end result is war.  Rapture as a city no longer exists by the time the player arrives.  It's a wreck, ruined by a civil war between two factions who still fight it out, one controlled by Ryan, another controlled by Fontaine. 

One would think a man intelligent enough to somehow plan, construct, and populate and underwater city would have the foresight to see Fontaine coming.  And Ryan did see what Fontaine was doing.  However he refused to do anything about it, adhering to his ideology of market forces, free will, and capitalism above all, so long as his own position at the top of the pyramid was never seriously challenged. 

The point of the whole story is Objectivism run amok.  Ryan's disdain for "the losers" and his selfishness, hoarding his wealth and building more, more, more for himself, creates the very conditions which lead to his downfall.  

I guess the thing that strikes me most about this ideology is that I was raised to think a culture is best judged by how it treats its poorest and weakest.  Objectivism as a philosophy seems to discard these people as useless bugs – less than human.  And it forgets that at some point in life, everyone needs a helping hand.

Adam Serwer blogged about BioShock a while back. First, the Ebert bait:

I'm not a fan of shooters, because I'm just generally not very good at them. Most of them are built for a multiplayer experience, and I tired of getting my butt kicked by my prepubescent cousins and better coordinated friends shortly after Halo came out. But the first Bioshock game was something different–it was a shooter, but with the thematic complexity and consistency approaching that of literature. It's not that BioShock tries to be a movie or a book–it's that it utilizes the limitations of the video game form as plot devices the same way a poet wields rhyme and meter in a sonnet.

The heart of his long and engrossing post:

Sophia Lamb works as a replacement antagonist in [Bioshock 2], but her fall from doting mother to radical collectivist is less interesting than Ryan's because her particular brand of evil is so recognizable. The collectivist cult of personality Lamb creates in the aftermath of Rapture's destruction is so clearly inspired by real-life monsters responsible for the death of millions (i.e. Stalin, Mao) that there's little payoff. It's not hard to imagine how Lamb's dream got twisted. 

Ryan's fall is more interesting because we've never actually seen a society completely based on extreme libertarian ideals, so the reimagined sci-fi "Galt's Gulch" is fascinating. BioShock imagines a kind of society that hasn't had a real world proxy, and that's what makes it so engrossing. 

The most potent details in BioShock 2 are still the ones that explore the death of Ryan's dream–or more accurately, the way Ryan destroyed his own dream. The absence of a welfare state prepares the people of Rapture to accept his nemesis Frank Fontaine's charity, Fontaine's alias Atlas' underclass revolution, and Lamb's collectivist "rebirth." We hear about the bank runs, and the descents into religious bigotry. And in the final level of the game, we are presented with the ultimate perversion of Ryan's ideal of "freedom:" the deep sea gulag Persephone, where Ryan spirited away ideological dissidents who dared to challenge him. The wretches are then forced to be guinea pigs for Ryan Industries' grotesque genetic modification experiments. Ryan founded Rapture because he believed government was an impediment to freedom–but the absence of a competent government that can intervene on the side of the downtrodden proves just as fatal to society. 

E.D. Kain engaged Serwer on Serwer's review of Bioshock 3, which focuses on American exceptionalism:

As Serwer notes, “Having gone from Rand to Marx, it sounds like the third BioShock might have a sprinkling of Niebuhr.” Naturally, few of BioShock’s fans will be familiar with Reinhold Niebuhr or his critique of American exceptionalism but that’s neither here nor there; it’s the ideas that count, not how we come by them.