Ayn Rand vs. America’s Social Safety Net

Normally I prefer to write on great literature, not on novels that make our lives worse.  But given the outsized impact that novelist and social philosopher Ayn Rand is currently having on current American political discourse, literature blogs need to pay attention.

Rand’s ideas, apparently, are a source of inspiration for Paul Ryan, whose budget balancing plan involves privatizing Medicare and slashing Medicaid, Pell grants, food stamps and low-income housing.  It also involves extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and, in fact, increasing them.  Ryan says we must make sure “that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.”  The implication here is that many of those struggling economically are just not sucking it up.

While there has always been a Randian strain in American politics, it is different this time because Ryan’s plan recently passed the House of Representatives, with all but four Republicans voting for it.

Jonathan Chait of Newsweek describes Rand’s philosophy as “Marxism flipped upside down.”  As Chait describes it, “Rand viewed the capitalists, not the workers, as the producers of all wealth, and the workers, not the capitalists, as useless parasites.”

Chait also quotes the following passage from Atlas Shrugged, now a motion picture that will be coming soon to a theater near you:

The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”

Maureen Dowd, writing on the current resurgence of Rand’s popularity, notes that Barack Obama is antithetical to Rand’s architect hero, Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, who “violently refuses to exist for others.”  Obama, on the other hand, says things like, “We also have this idea that we’re all in this together, that we look out for one another, that I am my brother’s keeper.”  Dowd notes that Rand “would have considered this warmed over, mommy party, it-takes-a-village piffle.”

What I find puzzling is that even members of the Christian Right are embracing Rand, despite the fact that Rand, borrowing liberally from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, saw Christianity as essentially a resentment-driven slave religion (with its notions that the meek shall inherit the earth).  A social conservative like Cal Thomas might express queasiness, noting that Rand’s objectivism “is a philosophy devoid of God and the opposite of what Thomas Jefferson rightly believed to be the source of our rights, that they are “endowed by our Creator.”  Nevertheless, Thomas is so frightened of Obama’s “socialist state” that he is willing to give Rand’s ideas a hearing:

This religious vacuum does not mean Rand was not on to something.  Capitalism and entrepreneurship are under constant assault.

The fact that John Galt, Rand’s capitalist hero in Atlas Shrugged, would have utter contempt for many of those who sing his praises is not a contradiction.  A strange psychological phenomenon that I’ve never understood but that has often surfaced in populist fascism (most notably with Hitler) is people licking the boot that kicks them.  “Every woman loves a fascist,” Sylvia Plath has written, indicating that the phenomenon also applies to abuse victims.

Whatever one thinks of Ayn Rand’s novels—I have written about their poor literary quality here—the mere fact that they are packing such a punch indicates that fiction is more than “just stories.”

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  1. farida
    Posted April 26, 2011 at 3:19 am | Permalink

    The vast inequalities in the well being and welfare of people of different clasess, backgrounds etc is increasingly disquieting.

    On a somewhat related note, watching/listening to the news of late ,I found it very strange how the Western media is reporting on the uprising of the people against dictators/ royal families and centuries (in some cases) of privilege for the ruling elite in the Middle East while in the same breath bombarding us with news of the upcoming British royal wedding…with no correlation between the arbitrary privilege and entitlement of leaders/royal families of the Middle East and that of the British royal family. It’s all very disconcerting… and I was glad to hear Seinfeld at least draw attention to the absurdity of the royal wedding…

    The growing frustrations of masses of people in different parts of the world brings to mind Harlem (Dream Deferred) by Langston Hughes. In the age of the internet the disparities between the haves and have nots are glaringly visible…and the people without are now very aware of the dreams and possibilities that exist for some while finding that they are frustratingly out of reach for so many others. It is impossible in my part of the world to shield yourself from these inequalites and the frustrations are beginning to show.

    And I think the Western world may also begin to face increasing turmoil if they keep removing the social safety nets that many people rely on… Although of course in the U.S they’ll find a way to blame it on President Obama..

    There is a poem that I came across by Carl Sandburg…that I think resonates with the issues in your post today…

    I am the People, the Mob
    by Carl Sandburg

    I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
    Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
    I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and
    I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me
    and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons
    and Lincolns.
    I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing.
    Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out
    and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes
    me work and give up what I have. And I forget.
    Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history
    to remember. Then—I forget.
    When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the
    lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year,
    who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the
    world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his
    voice or any far-off smile of derision.
    The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then

  2. Jason
    Posted April 26, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Jonathan Chait’s evaluation of the novel is as off the mark as it could possibly be. I wonder if he has actually read the novel or is simply parroting what others have said before him. Many of the main “villians” in Atlas Shrugged were capitalists(specifically Jim Taggert and Orren Boyle for those who have read the novel). They were the first in line for government handouts and used government contacts and “pull” for their profits rather than production. The novel praises the mind and its use, regardless of a person’s place in the social heirarchy. Mr. Chait needs to read the quotation he chose more carefully. The key word is in the first sentence. Intellectual. While the pyramid symbol may bring to mind the modern corporate beaurocracy, in this pyramid it is the CEO who coasts on the abilities of his predecessors and his engineers that is near the bottom of the pyramid. The hero of the novel, John Galt, was an engineer at an automotive plant, not the owner. Just another detail that may escape those who have not read the novel.

    On the other hand, I one hundred percent agree with your assertion that John Galt would have nothing but contempt with most of those who invoke his name. Like most religions, Objectivism is most misunderstood by those who claim to follow it.

    Also worth noting regarding Ryan’s budget proposal which recently passed a house vote… one of the four Republicans who voted No was Ron Paul, who is probably the most “Randian” member of congress.

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Farida, I think you have put your finger on the crux of the matter in talking about the growing income disparity. If unbridled capitalism really were the engine for true economic greatness, then we should be doing better now than we were doing in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when taxes were higher and regulations stricter. Instead, we had the middle class getting poorer and the rich getting richer—and these rich operating out of a sense of greed and self absorption that showed they were more interested in themselves than in their companies or their country. It’s as though we gave Atlas more leeway than he had had in a while and he casually tossed the world aside. True believers, meanwhile, told us that maybe he would act differently if we removed even more of the restrictions.

    One Randian who has sobered up somewhat is Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve. Greenspan professed bewilderment that “infectious greed” had taken over the business community. Imagine that all obstacles were removed from the path of Howard Roark, the architect hero of The Fountainhead. Are we absolutely confident that he would devote his life to the true and the good and usher in a new age? Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is given everything he says he wants and he abandons his gifts and lives only for personal self indulgence.

    Thanks also for sending the Carl Sandburg’s powerful poem—a reminder that America is more than those who grab the headlines.

    Jason, you have a point when you say that far too many people are commenting on Rand’s novels without having read them. Yes, Rand goes after capitalists. I assume she would go after a number of the “masters of the universe” who, in the last decade, sold fraudulent mortgages and the like and helped tank the economy. Many of them were brilliant minds, the best and the brightest from Ivy League schools, and they used those minds to pull in untold wealth for themselves.

    Thanks for mentioning Ron Paul, who, to his credit, did point out that Paul Ryan’s plan raises the debt by several trillion dollars (and would require Congress to raise the debt ceiling) before bringing it down in some rosy future when good times are here again (thanks to a tax structure more favorable to business and individuals taking over their own Medicare plans). That so-called conservatives would think that unbridled individuality would usher in a golden age seems a contradiction of staggering proportions.

6 Trackbacks

  1. By Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist on July 26, 2011 at 8:59 am

    […] The appearance of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on Breivik’s list is almost boringly predictable.  Anyone who fantasizes that the world is going to pot without him, and then imagines appearing as a savior to pick up the pieces and build a perfect society, likes Atlas Shrugged. It’s the ultimate power trip.  But it’s no way to run a society. (My post on Atlas Shrugged can be found here.) […]

  2. By Ryan’s Randian (and UnChristian) Budget on May 3, 2012 at 1:02 am

    […] I wrote a year ago about Paul’s celebration of Ayn Rand. He regularly hands out copies of Atlas Shrugged to his staffers and has said, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” […]

  3. By Lit Sightings in Political Op-Eds on August 11, 2012 at 10:24 am

    […] out her hostility to Christianity. (I’ve previously blogged on Ryan and his love for the novel here.) But in a video clip that blogger Digby provides for us, the Congressman is clearly drawing on […]

  4. By With Ryan as VP, Rand Seizes the GOP on August 13, 2012 at 1:01 am

    […] a year ago I wrote a post on Mitt Romney’s new vice-presidential pick and the novels of Ayn Rand. (You can also read a post […]

  5. By Speaker Paul Ryan in Literature on November 4, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    […] long been concerned about Ryan because of his devotion to the ideas and novels of Ayn Rand, which I view as threatening the United States in potentially disastrous ways. For today’s post I go back and […]

  6. By A Cosmic Theory of Literature on November 15, 2015 at 9:27 am

    […] A couple of weeks ago I promised a follow-up post on a topic that elicited thoughtful responses from friends. The question was whether literature can be a force for evil as well as for good. And by literature I mean high quality literature since I have no doubt that bad literature can have very bad effects (e.g. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged inspiring certain rightwing lawmakers to attack the social safety net). […]


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