Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Right Wingers Continue To Turn To Ayn Rand. Even Though It Was Greed and Selfishness That Got Us Into This Mess.
| Culture of corruption: the legacy of Ayn Rand |
By Julian Edney
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Jan 24, 2006, 22:16
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A Zogby poll conducted when Bush was re-elected showed American voters actually more worried about economic justice than abortion. Specifically, when asked to choose the most urgent moral crisis, 33 percent of voters chose ‘greed and materialism’ and 31 percent ‘poverty and economic justice.’ Twenty percent named abortion .
We’ve had no moral relief in the intervening year. More high profile businessmen have appeared in court after looting their clients; the Senate majority leader booked on money laundering charges; Martha Stewart, style-setter -- in and out of jail and grinning for the cameras. Those petro giants’ profits while some poor could not afford to buy gas; other people lined up in droves to file bankruptcies.
A recent poll shows 49 percent thinks Congress is corrupt . The official line is that the place to find evil is in the Middle East.
Whichever way you connect this year’s dots, there is a shadow on the land.
My point: we haven’t been ambushed. We’re not entitled to surprise. This corruption is a slowly rising tide and plenty of time to notice, but once more, the public just doesn’t know what to do. Largely, we just stare. So typically, when New Orleans filled with water and FEMA did nothing, we stared, and we watched an old pattern unfold: where there are a lot of people in crisis, somebody will make formidable money.
We should have known it was coming.
If FEMA’s response had been swift and effective it would have looked heroic, for both the common person and for the common good. FEMA’s inaction was not a botch. There are deep corridors behind this.
It was close to what Ayn Rand’s disciples have in mind, and I believe there are plenty of Rand’s disciples in places of high influence.
Ayn Rand’s ideology, powerful since the 1940s, denies the common good. It actually prescribes not helping. In particular, selfishness and greed are virtues, altruism is a vice.
You laugh: that’s a stretch, nobody reads Rand anymore. Actually Rand’s ideology, an elaboration of the Nietzschean superman ethic which was carried in two novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and two books of essays  is still selling very well; one biographer estimates that after 50 years, Ayn Rand’s books and those of her followers are still printed worldwide at 400,000 copies a year  -- and I am guessing there are dog-eared copies on many American baby-boomer’s bookshelves.
While she was alive and touring, Rand’s oratory was persistently confrontational. She was restlessly negative and she did everything she could to hoist herself up to position of philosopher and authority, to establish her dogma. In practice she was a humorless bully, and she browbeat her students. Philosophers largely rejected her published harangues, but she did attain status as an ideologue of the era.
Rand’s toxic ideas of the good life, and how businesses should be conducted, are more than popular: they saturate upper business echelons. Alan Greenspan was a personal student of Rand’s; he contributed three of the essays to her Capitalism . The Reagan administration was largely Randian . And her values, expanded in derivatives such as Ringer’s popular Looking Out For Number One and Winning Through Intimidation were catalysts for the ‘me’ generation of the 1970s and 80s. They continue to spread.
The trademark arrogance in her ideas (and personally Rand always insisted on everything) also animates her novels’ protagonists. They were heroes who were no-holds-barred productive, and who were arrogance incarnate. Rand rewrote Nietzsche’s point that very successful people, the very strong, are categorically different from the rest of us. They are above public morality. Rand also insisted on no compromises, because compromise betrays weakness . She argued for a return to the 1890s Golden Age style of business, monopolies run on personal will power, in which great fortunes were made, partly through inhumane exploitation of immigrants and the poor.
The dark side of business is nothing new, but in Rand’s utopia there was nothing wrong with letting the laggards perish. Rand was also a Social Darwinist. Social Darwinism was a robber baron-era philosophy which held that evolutionary pressures -- natural selection -- apply to humans. It held that you actually help the nation along by permitting the weak to fall by the wayside: thus welfare is a mistake because it interferes with nature’s way of weeding out the unfit. Absolute laissez-faire was Rand’s ideal -- no government constraint on business and no assistance to the poor, only glorious liberty to be as selfish as you want. This, she said, is also rational.
One of her novel’s heroes stated that a nation’s morality is its money. That was a silly thing to say; but modern Libertarians embrace these points, and many young readers still find her message uplifting.
My second point: if you tried to overlay the administration’s post-Katrina actions on Ayn Rand’s dogma, the fit would be snug.
In the days after hurricane Katrina folded death and despair into the doorways of New Orleans, the Wall Street Journal blithely ran a front page interview with a member of the city’s moneyed elite, whose house was largely spared, being on higher ground. Sipping a highball he told the reporter that after the worst was over he and his neighbors had plans for New Orleans to be rebuilt differently. New Orleans had a teeming underclass; and this Great Gatsby character was going to change all that. What local African American leaders fear now is that the moneyed elite plan a rebuilding which shifts the political base by largely excluding the poor and blacks .
We all read the news. The tectonic divide between American rich and poor grows. American poverty is up , American hunger is up , more and more ordinary people are deeply in debt; and the nation itself is deeper than ever in deficit.
Trust is fading year by year . Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is required reading in many corporate boardrooms. Citizens everywhere continue to buy guns.
In many quarters it appears the rich are disinterested in any but the rich. Whatever happened to the concept of the common good?
This is the threat: Without a focus on people helping one another, for the common good, it may be difficult to prevent a gradual decay into a war of all against all. But Ayn Rand’s propaganda -- and she insisted her ideology was propaganda  -- dismantles the common good. In Rand’s utopia, the good people are brass-knuckled individualists who are never interested in anything average; they despised the weak. The powerful are in splendid position to loot lesser people, and this never offended Social Darwinism.
So we read the news, and wonder: is the official policy in New Orleans a war on the poor?
I am saying there is nothing here that could not be predicted. This past year’s events in New Orleans are a legacy of sorts. We are where Rand in the 1960s wanted us to go. The concept of the common good has all but disappeared. This, I believe, goes hand in hand with the nation’s ebbing morality -- the common factor is a decline in altruism, which Rand actually insisted was incompatible with freedom  and destructive to civilization.
Pick that copy of Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness off your bookshelf and glance through it:
“It is only on the basis of selfishness . . . that men can live together in. . . . society.” [p. 32]
Something out of a bad dream.
Ayn Rand is not with us any more, but the ideological boulders she pushed down from her heights are still falling; in fact they are gathering. Public corruption is getting worse.
After decades of “looking out for number one,” it is not surprising the left wing has been brought to a collapsing halt. It stands ideologically naked. Now in policy making, and now in business, Liberty exalts; Equality hides her face.
Social Darwinism is rising again. It is poisonously inegalitarian; it is a frontal threat to democracy. But we have heard so much, and with such insistence, that we have become cowed. We have become like dogs that bite the stones thrown at us, not the thrower.
In conversations with right-wing business people, I hear the same timbre: this insistence. Liberals, unfortunately, sound different. From them I hear a kind of thin and sophisticated despair, a hope that somehow this will all be humanized. But that is not enough to halt corruption.
There was no Ayn Rand of the left. So what are we supposed to be doing, and which direction to start?
As grim as Rand’s rants were, she reminded us ideas are everything.
The first order is awakening, a raising of consciousness and a reclaiming of our positions. Policy makers will hear us if we also start insisting.
Our values are not abandoned. Nor is reason. We can still watch for justice, pick up our concerns over greed and materialism which were dropped after the ‘60s. We should reclaim these basics: What is isn't the same as what is right. Might still does not make right. Selfishness is still a vice. Corruption is still wrong. Democracy is still precious. The common good exists.
Stand up. Bring it up.
Explain: We want our morality back.
1. “American voters say urgent moral issues are peace, poverty and greed,” The National Catholic Peace Movement -- Zogby International, 11/12/2004.
2. “Poll: -- Half believe Congress is dirty” CNN.com 1/3/2006.
3. Rand, A. Capitalism: the unknown ideal. New York: Signet Books, 1946 and The
virtue of selfishness. New York: Signet Books, 1961.
4. Walker, J. The Ayn Rand cult. Chicago, Ill. Open Court. 1999.
5. Rand, A. Capitalism: the unknown ideal. New York, Signet Books, 1946.
6. Walker, The Ayn Rand cult.
7. Rand, The virtue of selfishness, p. 68.
8. Cooper, C. “Old-line families escape worst of flood and plot the future.” Wall Street Journal. A1. 9/8/05.
9. Havemann, J., and Alonso-Valdevar, R. “US poverty rate rises again in 2004.” Los Angeles Times 31 August 2005 p. A 13. This article reports some recent US Census Bureau statistics, and other sources.
10. Nord, M., Andrtews, M., Carlson, S. Household Food Security in the United States, 2004. United States Department of Agriculture report ERS-ERR-11, October 2005.
11. Lane, R.E. The loss of happiness in market democracies. 2000. New Haven: Yale University Press.
12. Walker, The Ayn Rand cult. p. 288.
13. Rand, The virtue of selfishness. p. 94.Julian Edney teaches college in Los Angeles. He can be contacted through his website.