Wednesday, March 11, 2009
The Failure of Ayn Rand: George W. Bush's America
by Johann Hari
In a depression triggered by raw greed and unhinged deregulation, who should you turn to for advice? I would say the last person - the very last on earth - would be Ayn Rand, the Philosopher-Queen of America's billionaire CEOs, a woman who wrote a book called 'the Virtue of Selfishness' and meant every word. Yet she is one of the strange beneficiaries of this crash.
Her philosophy was summarised perfectly on 30th December 2004, when it was becoming clear that the Boxing Day tsunami had washed away whole generations in South East Asia. The Ayn Rand Institute sent out a stark press release. It was headed: "US Should Not Help Tsunami Victims." Do not give cash. Do not send help. Leave them.
This was not a random piece of spite. It expressed - with admirable clarity - a philosophy that has influenced some of the most powerful people in the world. Ayn Rand is the only novelist whose work has been read by every single US Congressman. Nor is her appeal confined to an elite: when the Library of Congress recently conducted a massive poll to find the most influential book in the US, her 1070-page parable of market fundamentalism, Atlas Shrugged, came second. The only author to beat her was God. Rand's centenary was greeted with a slew of official celebrations, including a US postage stamp bearing her fierce smile.
The story of Ayn Rand is strangely revealing about the world - and the America that is slipping away. She was born into a family of wealthy Russian merchants during the moody dawn of the twentieth century, and she spent her teenage years watching their riches and their dignity being stripped away by the Bolshevik Revolution and the psychopathic police state it created. She escaped as a young woman to America, and began to outline a philosophy called 'Objectivism' that was the exact opposite of everything she had fled. Where the Bolsheviks collectivised everything and left the individual with nothing, Ayn demanded a mirror-image world where everything was privatised and nothing - no scrap of humanity - was left for the public sphere. The pure, unfettered individual was all. There should be "no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest" - so taxation should be abolished, and all human worth should be measured by "exchange value". Altruism - like giving to an orphaned tsunami victim - is an "evil" betrayal of your own ego, an unforgivable act of pity. The only beneficiary of you actions should be you.
She explained her philosophy at first through pot-boilers like The Fountainhead. One of her heroes boasts that he is the polar opposite of Robin Hood: "He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. I'm the man who robs the poor and gives to the rich, or to be more exact, the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich." If you want a sign of Rand's quiet victory, close your eyes and realise this could be Dick Cheney in one of his more candid moments, explaining the logic behind his massive tax cuts for the wealthy.
Rand's morality was a perfect fit for the age of the celebrity billionaire. She conjures a world where the CEO is Messiah, where the sign of the Cross is replaced with the sign of the dollar, and where hideous penis-proxies like Trump Towers are the pinnacle of human achievement. In her novel Atlas Shrugged, the world's billionaires - the Ted Turners and Donald Trumps - go on strike in protest against the "insane regulations" and "exorbitant tax" handed down from Washington D.C. The country quickly regresses into anarchy, with businesses collapsing, food distribution networks falling apart, and America becoming a wasteland - until finally the grateful populace welcomes back their economic Overlords and promises to never again pester them with wild notions like taxation or regulation.
Rand's extremism is often indistinguishable from parody. In an episode of The Simpsons, baby Maggie is despatched to the Ayn Rand School For Tots, motto: Crying is Futile. The headmistress explains that babies are not allowed bottles because "When a baby reaches for a bottle, she is saying 'I am a leech!' Our aim here is to develop the bottle within." But is this more comic than the actual decision of the Ayn Rand Institute to picket Bill Clinton's summit discussing how to increase volunteerism in the United States, on the grounds that unpaid voluntary work is an "unforgivable act of altruism"? Is it more ludicrous than that fact that when Rand died in 1982, her body was laid out beside a six-foot tall floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign?
It is just about possible to understand how Rand herself could have formulated this preposterous vision as a kind of political post-traumatic stress disorder after the nightmare of Leninism. But how can we explain her extraordinary popularity in the United States among people who have never experienced communism? Many of Rand's personal disciples now fill the most powerful slots in US public life, from the benches of the Supreme Court to (until this year) the head of the Federal Reserve. For example, Alan Greenspan - who was considered by many people to be the most powerful man in America for the decade he headed the US central bank - was a fervent Randroid. He wrote that Atlas Shrugged is a great novel because it shows how "parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish, as they should." Her appeal spread higher still: Ronald Reagan loved her novels, and if George Bush could read, he would too. Nor is her appeal narrow: her books still sell half a million copies a year, and even the freshmen class of the putatively liberal Berkeley campus recently voted her the author who had most influenced them.
Of course, her practical influence should not be exaggerated. Even most right-wing Americans consider the specifics of Rand's philosophy to be loopy. Many prominent conservatives loathe her strident atheism (one of her few appealing characteristics), and some even see fascism in her tracts. Whittaker Chambers famously wrote in the National Review, "Just as her operatic businessmen are, in fact, Nietzschean supermen, so her ulcerous leftists are Nietzsche's 'last men', both deformed in a way to sicken the fastidious recluse of Sils Marnia... [In her vision] resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final can only be wilfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and , in fact, reason itself enjoins them. From almost every page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding, "To a gas chamber - go!""
But Rand's rabid anarcho-capitalism has clearly tapped into something primal in American conservatism: it is revealing that she is almost invariably described as an "idealist", rather than a maniac. She appeals to the ugliest side of Americanism (contrasting with its many, many strengths): a fear and hatred of the state, even in its most democratic form, and of wider collective action. Rand has only one conception of liberty -freedom from government. As one of her heroes, Howard Roark, says, "The only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is - hands off!" Like most of the American right, she has no conception of positive liberty. When asked how free a man in Harlem with no healthcare insurance and a kid with cancer is, she has no answer. She cannot see when hands have been kept too far off.
And - again like the rest of the American right - she finds it impossible to imagine a clash between the interests of the super-rich and the rest of society. While Rand is (rightly) appalled when the state kills people, she considers businessmen taking risks with the lives of ordinary people or government bureaucrats to be actually heroic. In Atlas Shrugged, the heroic Nat Taggart "murdered a state legislator who attempted to revoke a charter granted to him" and (ho, ho) "he had no trouble with legislators from then on." And that's not all: "He threw down three flights of stairs a distinguished gentleman who offered him a loan from the government." Anybody who tries to impose regulations to protect ordinary workers is "a louse." This is partly because she really does seem to see the rich as more deserving of life than the poor. She refers to the rich as "really alive," while ordinary people are described variously as "savages," "refuse," "inanimate objects," "imitations of living beings." Who cares if the Ubermenschen take risks with these creatures? Who needs regulation?
Indeed, her contempt for ordinary people extends so far that when a railway worker in 'Atlas Shrugged' decides to punish the wicked socialist government by making a train crash happen, Rand implies the passengers had it coming. She runs through the politics of the train crash victims, implying they were accessories to the socialist government that is being justly punished: "The man in Bedroom A, Car No One, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that everything is achieved collectively, that it's the masses that count, not men... The woman in Roomette 10, Car No 3, was an elderly school teacher who who spent her life turning class after class of helpless schoolchildren into miserable cowards, by teaching them that the will of the majority is the only standard of good and evil, that they must not assert their personalities, but do as others were doing." And so endlessly on, through over a dozen deserving victims. "There was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas," she notes - so let them burn.
Rand did not even understand why her beloved capitalism works. She attributed its success to the unleashing of the "motive power" of a few rich men, a concept chillingly similar to Nietzsche's will-to-power. In fact, markets are a useful tool - provided they are checked by democratic regulation, a redistributive state and strong trade unions - for Haykian reasons, not Randian ones. Friedrich von Hayek saw that the strength of markets lies in their epistemological function: markets can access dispersed pockets of knowledge and process them better than any central planner. Look at the housing market, for example. Hundreds of thousands of dispersed home buyers sending signals about what kind of house they want by buying them is a far more effective way of gauging the kind of homes people actually want to live in than a central planner - however smart - trying to guess their desires. But Rand cannot see this reasoning. She cannot see that even if her beloved handful of geniuses did indeed go on strike, market economies would still be fairly efficient at generating wealth, and the world would carry on much as before. The genius (such as it is) resides in the system, not in a string of Ubermensch at the top gazing in horror at the imbecile masses.
But that is not the only flaw in her understanding of markets. She did not understand that the kind of pure selfishness she advocated would quickly corrode capitalism itself. The economist Alfred Marshall has shown that without "economic chivalry" - a willingness to stick by the rules, even when they work against your selfish interests - markets become unworkable. Only regulation by (cue thunder) the state can guarantee this chivalry. Rand's philosophy would simply create an unsustainable Enron economy of rip-off merchants - much as the Bush administration's bonfire of regulations has. But Rand could not see the dense interconnection between the market and the state: she spoke absurdly of establishing "a separation between government and economics" analogous to the constitutional separation between church and state. But without institutions of government like the police and courts, who would enforce contracts? Nor could she admit that the corporations she lauded as heroic were just as often beneficiaries of government subsidy as of market innovation. Wal-Mart, for example, is often supposed to be an icon of the success of the free market, when in fact it has - according to Multinational Monitor's investigations - received over $1bn in state subsidies.
Although Rand despised Russia, she was far more shaped by her Russian adolescence - and her interaction with Bolshevism - than she could ever have imagined. Even as she preached freedom, she created a personality cult around herself - sardonically dubbed The Collective - which permitted no dissent and even adhered to her list of banned books. Any dissent from the Leader's opinions was punishable by excommunication - a fate that even befell her lover, Nathaniel Braden, when he withdrew his sexual favours. She ended up creating a Leninism of the market fundamentalist right, based on the need for a small cadre of true believers to enact a violent revolution against the state (democratic or otherwise) that will usher in a utopian society without conflict, modelled on the Ideal Man of her own creation. Even her Objectivist epistemology reeks of Lenin's dialectical materialism.
It is a sweet, neat irony that the centenary of this fifth-rate Nietzsche of the mini-malls was marked by something she would have despised: an unprecedented burst of charitable giving in response to the corporate elite. No society, not even George Bush's America, could be run on Randian principles. When confronted with raw human need - or a single crying child - the elaborate reasoning behind Ayn Rand's off-the-peg morality for an off-their-head corporate elite melts. Yes, read The Fountainhead if you must - but as a guide to the philosophy that brought us skidding into the catastrophe, not a roadmap for how to get out.here. Part Two is here.