Lately the name Ayn Rand has been popping up in regards to political thought; in particular Libertarianism. It’s been a couple of decades since I had to read one of her books that was on my high school summer book reading list. I don’t recall reading The Fountainhead but I did slog through Atlas Shrugged. Translation: I skimmed most of the end in late August so I could write a passable book report in September. Can you blame me? It was over 1000 pages long. No offense to Rand, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, and others similarly overwhelmed with the creative muse but this is why you write sequels.
During that same period one of my favourite songwriters in one of my favourite bands, who was heavily influenced by Ayn Rand, apparently had worn off on me and showed up as an influence in my songwriting. The first two words in the title of this article for example are from a song I wrote about Atlas getting fired after sneezing and dropping the world. The Gods give him his pink slip and he subsequently goes postal, kidnaps a daughter of one of the Gods (Venus, I believe) and goes on a universe-wide road rampage across the galaxy a la Thelma and Louise. I think the chorus went something like this (I’m recalling from memory because the lyrics are buried in a notebook somewhere):
When the weight of the world Becomes too much to bear And the rest of the universe is waiting out there When you get sick of riding On the merry go round Order up some champagne and put the world down
Not too dissimilar to Ms. Rand’s characterization in her novel. I remember not being impressed with what parts of the book I read and I was old enough to pick up on the whole ‘the world is becoming communist’ theme throughout the story. But I probably didn’t pick up on the main points of her philosophy of objectivism that Rand was attempting to make. Which would account for the ‘C’ I got on the report (Mrs. Kofsky could always tell when I was phoning it in). Hence, any Ayn Rand phase I may have experienced was short lived or didn’t stick.
But in an effort to understand what’s been happening in our current politics I’ve been struggling to comprehend this overreactive jerk to the right. Initially, I just chalked it up to the discomfort of having a president who isn’t a male GOP cracker. Many of the legislative items the Obama administration has proposed have been former Republican ideas but no matter what they are, the Republicans immediately reject them and say ‘no, we’re going even further right’.
Next I thought that perhaps it’s just the Jesus folks feeling like they’re losing their hold on the American Dream illusion that I’ve written about previously. A fear that the post WWII era where everyone has a car, a house, 2.2 kids, a dog and a cat, Mom stays at home and bakes apple pie while Dad is off at the plant and Timmy is team captain of the baseball team is coming to an end. But maybe it’s a combination of these things.
So I thought I would look back into the writings of Ayn Rand and see if I could find a pattern (you’ll be getting the Clif Notes version because I’m still not re-reading the damn thing). More and more Republicans are coming out as being influenced by Ayn Rand including Paul Ryan who has said,
“Rand more than anyone else did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism.”
Clarence Thomas requires his law clerks to watch The Fountainhead. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck reference her in their radio shows repeatedly. Economist Alan Greenspan, who read drafts of Atlas Shrugged as she was writing it, lists her as an influence. Ron Paul and his son Rand both cite Ayn Rand as a major influence. Rand Paul claims he isn’t named after Ayn Rand (his name is Randal) but you have to wonder why his nickname is Rand and not Randy as it was when he was growing up. And Fox News repeatedly promoted the release of Atlas Shrugged Part I and interviewed many of the cast recently. Incidentally, this movie is currently tanking at the box office and I pity the producer that has to take on Part II.
And what of Ayn Rand herself? She is a complete atheist which is causing some alarm amongst religious leaders regarding her rising popularity within the GOP. She moved to America from Russia during the roaring twenties and worked in the movie industry until her writing began to take off. The Fountainhead was finished in 1943 and became a worldwide success. The protagonist, Howard Roark, was an individualist architect and many of the themes in the book would be echoed in Rand’s future books.
Rand was a staunch laissez-faire capitalist and the influence of the Austrian School of Economics is evident in her writing. Likewise, she was a fierce opponent of any kind of collectivist or statist philosophy such as fascism, communism, or socialism. In fact, she participated in the anti-communism movement in Hollywood when Senator Joe McCarthy was conducting his unAmerican witch hunt.
Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged would be her last work of fiction and her greatest literary achievement though she would continue to write articles and philosophy books. In it she describes the ‘morality of rational self-interest’ which would become the foundation of her philosophy of Objectivism. The plot centers around the world’s scientists and industrialists who go off and create a completely independent free market economy while the rest of the world’s economy collapses. If that sounds vaguely familiar in modern terms it’s because I think this is where Republicans are drawing this notion that they need more tax cuts because they are the ‘producers’ and as such deserve to dictate how the government is run. It isn’t surprising that hints of Randian influence began showing up in the Reagan era when Greenspan was appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve.
This influence is also present in the Tea Party of today. Signs with John Galt, the protagonist of Atlas, began showing up at Tea Party rallies not long after they began in 2008. The whole notion of the individual as paramount is flawed. I don’t think the concept of all of the laissez-faire capitalists going off and starting their own government would work. That philosophy is predicated on inequity and an unlimited supply of natural resources and an unlimited supply of consumers to buy the stuff. The idea of enriching the few at the expense of everyone else already exists and I think what your seeing with Paul Ryan’s plan is an attempt to perpetuate that Randian philosophy. This knee jerking to the right; the waving of hands in the air with their hair on fire that we are in some kind of dire financial cataclysm where we must all sacrifice (except for the producers because only they can save us) is the result of Objectivism.
I think perhaps the wheels were set in motion over thirty years ago to create this unsustainable, untenable, and unethical system. The election of Obama and the groundswell of resistance to the simmering mistrust scared the Ayn Rand followers in the Republican and Libertarian camps. They almost had us but the frog felt the heat and jumped out of the frying pan. This madness on the right is a last ditch effort to salvage operation Randtopia.
The thing that gets lost in this selfish world is that collectively, we can accomplish more for the greater good without having to sacrifice individual accomplishment. It’s possible for things like universal health care to co-exist with private enterprise. But it is not possible the other way around. Under the Rand philosophy, there must always be losers. The wealthy minority can only exist at the expense of the rest of us. I’ve never understood what is so difficult to grasp in that concept.
- Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand Problem | Swampland (lynchatlarge.wordpress.com)
- Ayn Rand: The GOP’s Godless Philosopher (Time.com)
- Concern Over the Republican Embrace of the Ayn Rand Poison (Huffington Post)
- Catholics Take on the Republican Cult of Ayn Rand [Video] (gawker.com)
- Ayn Rand and Objectivism (The-Philosophy.com)