Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ayn Rand and the neo-Dickensians

In his AlterNet article "How Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the U.S. Into a Selfish, Greedy Nation," clinical pyschologist  Bruce Levine writes:
The good news is that I’ve seen ex-Rand fans grasp the damage that Rand’s philosophy has done to their lives and to then exorcize it from their psyche. Can the United States as a nation do the same thing?
Rand was a writer and philosopher of an earlier generation who continues to damage the society in which she thrived. She elevated selfishness to a virtue, and helped make the United States a less caring nation in which poverty and inequality persist to degrees far greater than would be suggested by this country's wealth, Christian heritage, and rhetorical commitment to the value of children. (Even the conservative London Economist writes that the United States is "in a class of its own as the only rich country where women get no paid maternity leave at all.")

Levine describes in some detail the workings and influence of Rand's inner circle, improbably named "The Collective," which either included or influenced many important neocon figures, from Alan Greenspan and Ronald Reagan to Ron Paul and his rather demented son Rand.

The title and opening paragraphs of the article suggest that the influence of Rand came to define an entire generation. Though I do not think he makes the case for a reach that is quite so broad, Levine is right to take Rand's influence seriously. Because some of Rand's staunchest disciples do now have considerable power, his analysis of her most problematic ideas is quite useful to those concerned with today's politics.

Two passages illustrate some of the more pernicious contradictions of Rand and her followers. First, the champion of rugged individualism has helped to put economic liberty above political liberty, and has put individuals in the thrall of corporations. As Levine explains:

While Rand often disparaged Soviet totalitarian collectivism, she had little to say about corporate totalitarian collectivism, as she conveniently neglected the reality that giant U.S. corporations, like the Soviet Union, do not exactly celebrate individualism, freedom, or courage.
Second, Rand has been embraced by many who consider themselves Christian. Not only does this require believing in a Jesus very different from the Nazarene who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, but it also requires ignoring huge swaths of Rand's writing. Again, Levine explains:
In recent years, we have entered a phase where it is apparently okay for major political figures to publicly embrace Rand despite her contempt for Christianity. In contrast, during Ayn Rand’s life, her philosophy that celebrated self-interest was a private pleasure for the 1 percent but she was a public embarrassment for them. They used her books to congratulate themselves on the morality of their selfishness, but they publicly steered clear of Rand because of her views on religion and God. Rand, for example, had stated on national television, “I am against God. I don’t approve of religion. It is a sign of a psychological weakness. I regard it as an evil.”
To be pro-Rand and pro-Jesus requires a politics in which reason and evidence are diminished and even reviled. Unfortunately, even a cursory examination of talk radio and political debates suggests that is very much the world in which our politics now occurs.

For more about Rand, see my Reason Shrugged and Libertarians in Space posts, in which I describe her thinking on public-sector workers and the delusions of independence among fringe libertarians.

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