Dystopia Weekend: America’s Ayn Rand Problem

It was only six years ago — but it seems so much longer than that — that I wrote a book called Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters). This book emerged from a series of blog posts I was composing (under my then-pseudonym Levi Asher) called Philosophy Weekend.

Philosophy Weekend was a wild ride and a big success on Litkicks, generating an incredible number of intelligent comments from highly engaged readers who wished, along with me, to delve deeply into the topic of morality and political ethics. I loved every minute of this, but eventually had to halt this series because work, family and other projects were demanding my attention. I hope Philosophy Weekend is still happily remembered by the hundreds of people who kept up a vigorous debate with me in our comments section — often about hot topics of the day, which we discussed in light of the writings of various progressive social philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Auguste Comte, William James, Dorothy Day, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Carl Jung, Yoko Ono and Abbie Hoffman (all of whom I respect and consider important) … along with those of several influential materialists or conservative “realists” like Thomas Hobbes, Friedrich von Hayek, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman (whose asses I tried to kick in these debates).

“Idealism” and “materialism” are highly loaded terms, but the words point to the core question of ethical philosophy. How can individuals exist together in a society? This is the question that every great religion answers, from ancient religions to Judaism to Christianity to Islam to Hinduism to Buddhism to Confucianism. It’s also the question that every political philosophy tries to answer, in one way or another, from Plato’s concept of virtue to Kant’s categorical imperative to Nietzsche’s existential wind-swept voids to Jean-Paul Sartre’s belief in freedom to Carl Jung’s psychological insight into the power of the collective unconscious.

The fact that there are many answers to the great question of human co-existence doesn’t mean that there is a single answer. To counter some perceived excesses of idealistic philosophy, a sort of “anti-ethical” front has developed into its own branch of ethics. Believers in this form of political philosophy celebrate selfishness, strategic dishonesty and “dog eat dog” social structures. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince is a classic of this genre. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan presents a vision of life as simply “short and brutish”, apparently requiring an ethical philosophy that aims no higher. More recently, in the past century the bold and quirkily fascinating novelist Ayn Rand became a global phenomenon with a philosophy called Objectivism that embraces open greed, rejection of empathy and strict atheism.

We ended up spending a lot of time on Philosophy Weekend talking about Ayn Rand, who has had a burgeoning renaissance in the United States of America since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. (Reagan was himself an enthusiastic Rand believer, though the irrepressible and fearless Ayn Rand, then in her final years, hated Ronald Reagan’s phony religious posturing and repressive policies on women’s issues, and wouldn’t support Reagan in return.)

More recently, the eager young Objectivist Paul Ryan, who just six years ago was still openly gushing about Ayn Rand in speeches, began rising to power within the Republican party. In 2012, this canny and skillful politician was chosen by Mitt Romney to run for Vice President … and suddenly Ryan’s deep belief in the economic philosophy of Ayn Rand had to be shoved under the rug. Paul Ryan quickly became a “devout Christian” in time to run with Mitt Romney (Ayn Rand would have surely been disgusted). He hasn’t mentioned Ayn Rand’s name since.

Today, six years later, our country is suffering under the ridiculous “leadership” of the baby tyrant Donald Trump, who has assembled a team of wealth-obsessed closet Objectivists. Just like Paul Ryan, now Speaker of the House, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin never talks about Ayn Rand. Neither do Trump’s economic advisors like Mick Mulvaney or Gary Cohn. Nobody knows or really cares if Trump himself reads Ayn Rand. It’s doubtful that he ever got through ten pages of any book, but it is clear that he embodies a base version of Rand’s economic philosophy: greed is good, let the rich get away with whatever they can, don’t even pretend to care about society as a whole.

Of course, Donald Trump is not Ayn Rand’s fault, just as the eventual failure of Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down economics” was not Ayn Rand’s fault. At its best, Objectivism is a coherent if questionable philosophy, a stunningly bold expression of individualistic energy by an undeniably original and courageous writer, and to many readers a unique, meaningful personal expression of what it means to be alive. That’s at its best. At its worst, unfortunately, Objectivism is a convenient philosophical cover for oligarchy and fascism. That’s what it is in the hands of Donald Trump, Steve Mnuchin and Paul Ryan.

What about the rest of the Republican party, who are right now preparing a “tax reform” (actually an obscene money grab for the Republican donor class) that promises to be an epic disaster for our country if it passes? Is it possible every single Republican Congressperson and Senator is an Atlas Shrugged-carrying Randian? Of course not — but you’d never know it from the way they vote.

I was certainly on to something back in 2011, when I observed the rise of the creepy Paul Ryan and realized that America was developing an Ayn Rand problem. I’m glad we put together a serious critique of Objectivism here on Literary Kicks, and I do believe we produced a genuine and definitive rejection of this highly limited idea.

But our philosophical debate was not able to stem a growing tide, and even I had no idea how bad our Ayn Rand problem would get by 2017.

As I write this, the demented and incompetent Donald Trump “presidency” is a dystopian nightmare, an embarrassment to the world, a cancer within our social body. We risk environmental tragedy, war with North Korea, and a new round of deregulated Wall Street corruption that will once again leave the taxpayers holding the bag after the inevitable crash.

After I stopped writing Philosophy Weekend blog posts every weekend in 2014, I began working on a new project related to pacifism and antiwar activism. I launched Pacifism21.org in late 2015. My timing was bad. Donald Trump’s corrupt rise to power began at the same time. The season in which American fascism and white nationalism began to emerge as a gritty new reality was not the right season to launch a new organization and website dedicated to hopes for world peace.

The rising tide of fascism and white nationalism is not just an American problem, of course. The United Kingdom is dealing with a similar crisis. Russia has already fallen to a fascist dictator who murders journalists and mocks democracy. Poland and the Philippines are in similar straits. I don’t know if these countries are having an Ayn Rand problem, but I do think the citizens of all of these troubled areas are struggling with the important moral dilemmas that we debated on this site years ago, and which resulted in my book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong.

It seems to me a good idea to begin exploring these topics again on Literary Kicks, as time permits.

4 Responses

  1. I agree that there is an Ann
    I agree that there is an Ann Rand problem in the US and it has infused itself into Chicago school economics. The “ends justify the means”, Machiavellian win at any cost modus operand (of politics, business, & economics) is killing the planet, destroying cultures, economies, peace, and humanity in countless ways. Those inherent ideological premises (Randian/Chicago school) have been the back-bone of fascist government dictatorships and authoritarians governments the world over. A well-researched book on this topic is “The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism” by Naomi Klein. (Just stumbled upon your website – thanks for going to all the effort to maintain it.)

  2. Thanks, Mark – and I
    Thanks, Mark – and yes, I absolutely agree that Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” is a must-read. It explains the disasters of recent American policy (from the Iraq War to the 2007/2008 financial crash) better than any other book I can think of. And it explains why our current “government” (I can only put the word in quotes, because a Trump administration is no government) is willing to allow similar disasters to happen again. We the people must stand up and end this cycle of disaster and profit – those in power will not stop it, because they are the ones raking in the profit.

  3. I just read Why Ayn Rand is
    I just read Why Ayn Rand is Wrong. It was a morning well spent, and despite being the most expensive book I’ve ever purchased on a per-page basis, money well spent, too.

    I fundamentally agree with your arguments (admittedly, perhaps simply because I share your general political philosophy). Because you’ve provided this avenue I’d like to add a couple thoughts of my own.

    First, I would cite Rand’s own text to support your case against egoism (chapter 3). No doubt, the fact that Atlas is generally panned as a work of literature owes greatly to the non-human nature of the book’s dialogue. People simply don’t talk the way Rand portrays. And if humans don’t talk like that, why should we imagine that they THINK like that? As you correctly state, egoists don’t merely argue that egoism is how people should think, but how they do think. The fact that egoism is not substantiated by real existence is embodied in the unreal nature of Rand’s dialogue.

    Second, as you used Sims to illustrate contradictions in egoism, I’d like to suggest another computer program. Created by Craig Reynolds in 1986, a program he called Boids applies a few very simple rules according to which objects on the screen uncannily mimic the flocking behavior of birds or the schooling behavior of fish. I won’t go into more about Boids here. But it seems to me that Boids offers an interesting metaphor of how group behavior can be created by individual members simply following rules. Randers see economic behavior in a similar way; by individuals pursuing self interest the “flock” magically moves as one — the all boats rise theory. But one should observe that in any flock at any given time there is a hierarchy of leaders and followers, and that some objects around the edges can splinter off into oblivion because the rules governing the flocking behavior no longer apply to them (they require nearby objects to establish their individual heading). If Rand is correct that the world is divided into two groups, makers and takers, it also stands to reason that there will always be makers and takers, or in economic terms, winners and losers. The fact that all boats rise in the water doesn’t change this fact. A society that does not actively manage this reality subjects itself to almost certain revolution.

    Lastly, it seems obvious that Rand saw herself in the character Dagny, and that Dagny’s sexual behavior, which is arguably promiscuous, is an objectivist metaphor – I want you. You want me. Why not? As your blog describes, this didn’t play out very well for her in her own life. Just another example of egoism not having a firm basis in reality.

    Thanks for the publication!

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