Friday, June 5, 2009

Ayn Rand, Apollo & Woodstock

In Ayn Rand’s Anti-Industrial Revolution, there is an essay, dated January, 1970, called “Apollo and Dionysius.” She compares unfavourably the 500,000 who attended the Woodstock festival in Bethel, New York, in August, 1969, with roughly the same number who camped out near Cape Canaveral, Florida, a month earlier, to watch the moon-shot blast-off. The latter, Rand states, were driven by the Apollonian values of reason and sobriety, as represented in the moon mission — which was also called Apollo. Unlike the festival-goers in Bethel, the Apollo pilgrims did not take drugs, have sex publicly, disturb others, become covered in mud or leave the countryside in ruins. The Woodstock festival, Rand writes, was the apotheosis of the spirit of Dionysus, the god of wine and love. 

Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, 1943.

What Ayn Rand says about the Woodstock festival-goers may be, more or less, correct. But I’m not sure why an objectivist such as her would find so much to praise about the Apollo programme. It was, after all, a massive expenditure by government which never would have been undertaken by the free-marketplace. 

What’s more, I don’t know if the motivation for the moon-shot was not the less irrational (if not Dionysian) than the Woodstock festival. It was, in fact, the latter which came about as a result of free-market calculus. 

As revealed in the book Young Men with Unlimited Capital, the “three days of peace and music” was organized by a partnership trust-fund hippies and wastrels, with a cold-eye for big bucks. By early ‘69, it was clear to rich bohemians that the counterculture was a gold mine, and the four men went to plant their stake. The results were initially, a infamous fiasco. Several hundred thousand more people showed up than the organizers had planned for, so many that the New York upstate arterial highway simply turned into a parking lot. Most of these did not possess a ticket for the festival, and upon arrival, simply kicked down and walked over the flimsy fences erected to keep gatecrashers out. 

Ultimately, of course, recordings and a documentary made of the festival turned the Woodstock festival into a multimillion dollar enterprise. There was a Woodstock ‘89, others held in 1994 and 1999. The ‘94 festival ended up like the original, rained-out and a free concert. The ‘99 event, which was held on a former U.S. army base in northern New York state, was also successfully crashed by tens of thousands of people, who went on to trash the place, committing at least some rapes and many assaults. 

Couple at Woodstock festival, 1969.

The ‘69 festival may well have turned into “another Chicago” had not it been rescued by the federal government, which declared the area a disaster zone and sent in U.S. military assistance. Such is one result of the operation of the free-market. 

The Apollo programme, on the other hand, was a smash success, given its aim — in the famous words of president Kennedy, “to send a man to moon and return him safely, by the close of this decade.” Given that, in 1961 or ‘62, when these words were spoken, the United States could scarcely launch a rocket that did not shortly crash back to earth, this was a remarkable achievement. 

It was, in the end, the history’s most expensive science project. Its purpose was the programme itself, getting to the moon. Why the moon? Because it’s there. There is no there, there, but we got there... 

It was conceived in the aftermath of the hysteria over the launch by the Soviets of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite in 1957. The fear was that the Soviets would get to the moon first. What they would do with it, no one was certain. 

The moon exercises an important place in virtually all world mythologies, and no doubt the Soviet slathered over the dream of planting the Hammer and Sickle before the Star and Stripes, on the lunar surface. It was apparently inconceivable, even for the learned and rational technocrats of the Kennedy administration, that the Soviets would get there first. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe describes how the space race was a return to single-combat joust of past times. 

On medieval and ancient battlefields, well-matched armies would decide to forego full engagement, for a limited contest between each side’s best horsemen. In the nuclear age, when it became impossible to use the most potent weapons for strategic purposes, cold warriors instead opted to put forward their most daring and elite warriors, blasting them in capsules to progressively greater orbits with each flight.  

Modern-day cavaliers.

On both sides, the spacemen came from the ranks of the fighter pilots of the respective air forces. From its origins in the First World War, air combat had retained the characteristics of the joust. As dogfights invariably broken into contests between two or a handful of planes, pilots came to exemplify the ancient ideal of the aristocratic warrior, according to historian Robert O’Connell (writing in Of Arms and Men). During the Great War, for example, air combatants developed codes of war, forswearing “second-runs” at crashing opponents, or the targeting of enemy parachutists. The Right Stuff describes how the Gemini astronauts were turned into national heroes overnight, lunching at the White House, hosted by beautiful starlets, pursued by groupies, known to every person in America, the gang who would “set things right.” 

Initially, of course, the Soviets were far more successful in the space race than the Americans. The CIA had no idea that the U.S.S.R. could launch a satellite. Sputnik was as much a surprise to president Eisenhower as to Mrs. and Mr. Main Street. 

It was received by the powerful and menial as a complete disaster for the United States. It sparked immediate worries about a “missile gap”, which became an issue in the 1960 election campaign. 

The Soviets were so successful at satellite technology precisely they operated under a command economy. Satellite technology is now commercially successful, but it was not considered, before Sputnik, a viable investment for the private marketplace. It is very capital- and labour-intensive, while its commercial applications, at least in the first years, were limited. 

This was no barrier to the allocation by socialist planners of enough people and resources to actually send a missile into orbit. Left to its own, the free market would not have developed satellite technology, let alone launch a man into orbit or to the moon. This was true of the U.S.A. as the Soviet Union. 

The Americans, investing anywhere from twenty to forty billion dollars of public money (hundreds of billions in today’s currency), entered the space race out of the irrational desire not to be bested by a determined opponent on an entirely novel “battlefield”, outer space. 

Great Apollonian determination was placed in the service of what was not at all rational. It was, of course, single-combat jousting. At first, the goal of the U.S. was to get the first man in space. When this proved elusive, the goalpost was reset to the next available “landmark”, the moon. Having got there, the Americans discovered a huge sphere consisting of rock. They went back a few times, played a round of golf, and haven’t bothered with it much since. 

Stanley Kubrick's footprint, left behind when he directed the fake moon landing.

NASA has since then focussed on the space shuttle, and the international space station, which are for any practical purpose just as useless as the moon-shot. Space exploration serves no strategic end, if it ever did. It is certainly not economical. It is simply a continuation of the multibillion-dollar science-project that was the Apollo programme. 

Perhaps, some day, space tourism might provide an economic basis for commercial space flight. But perhaps not. There is little possibility that being blasted into space will not be prohibitively expensive for all but the super-rich. How sustainable such a market would be is uncertain. The convenience of getting from New York to London in two hours was not enough to sustain Concorde as a commercially viable entity, before it went belly up a few years ago. 

No matter what the future prospects of space travel as a commercial concern, it would not have been possible without the active intervention of the state, in both command and “free-market” countries. 

Rock festivals such as Woodstock are not held very frequently, and when they are, the events themselves (leaving aside the subsequent merchandising through recordings and films) are not commercially successful. There is no practical way to house several hundred thousand people without the venue being breached by gatecrashers. 

This was proven by all the Woodstock festivals, even the last one, held on an ex-military base with twelve-foot high fences. In 1970, another famous rock festival was held, on the Isle of Wight, just off southern England. Many Woodstock alumni performed; it was one of Jimi Hendrix’s last performances. It, too, was a commercial enterprise that failed. 

The promoter, documented in a film of the event released a decade ago (after years of legal wrangling), looked on in dismay as the festival was overrun by gatecrashers. Even on an island, he said, such people couldn’t be avoided. 

Thus, the Dionysian Woodstock makes about as much commercial sense as the Apollo programme. Such festivals can be carried out successfully. Certainly, organizing a multi-day concert involving several dozen performers, with hundreds and possibly thousands of crew and staff, is a feat of logistics in itself, although not at the level of the moon-shot. 

The Woodstock organizer’s immediate motives — profit — were far more all-American than the grandiose ambitions of the moon programme. Rock festivals cannot, for the reasons outlined above, be profitable, however. Half a million people are willing to cram into one place to hear music. It does, however, have to be without charge. 

This fact has been acknowledged by very big acts, such as Simon and Garfunkel and the Dave Matthews Band, who have put on free concerts in New York’s Central park, with each event attended by several hundred thousand people. Similarly, the Rolling Stones performed at a race-track outside Toronto in 2003, to help that city after its tourist industry was hit by the SARS virus. Attended by as many as 600,000 people, the concert necessarily had to be for free (although the Stones received a substantial fee for performing). 

In the end, the motives of the half-million who watched the moon-shot, and the same number who attended the Woodstock festival a month later, were not altogether dissimilar. Each event was essentially a celebration of us — of mainstream America on the one hand, and countercultural America on the other hand — and that is all. Neither had any other practical purpose, and if the Apollonians of south Florida were less messy than the Dionysians of upstate New York, their enterprise was quite a bit more expensive, not to mention: more in keeping with the collectivist spirit that Ayn Rand so despised in her life and philosophy, than the commercial enterprise that was the Woodstock festival.


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  2. Very insightful response. I am also a great Ayn Rand fan, but am the first to say some of her philosophy is flawed. Never the less she makes interesting food for thought... As do you, sir. Hats off