There is always a certain amount of perverse pleasure to be gathered from witnessing George Monbiot in full flow. His most recent outburst is a tirade against Ayn Rand, in, of course, the Guardian. George is to reasoned understatement what Homer Simpson is to dieting. You should thank me that I occasionally read the Guardian thus saving you the embarrassment.
George is incensed that people, especially a growing number of young people, are reading Atlas Shrugged Rand’s nearly unreadable novel.
According to George, Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, “has a fair claim to be the ugliest philosophy the postwar world has produced. Selfishness, it contends, is good, altruism evil, empathy and compassion are irrational and destructive. The poor deserve to die; the rich deserve unmediated power…”
“Rand’s is the philosophy of the psychopath, a misanthropic fantasy of cruelty, revenge and greed. Yet… she has become to the new right what Karl Marx once was to the left: a demigod at the head of a chiliastic cult. Almost one third of Americans, according to a recent poll, have read Atlas Shrugged, and it now sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year.”
Now, we Christians know that the Bible is the best selling book . We also know that any poll about the Bible reading habits of Christians would have to be interpreted with a great deal of charity. If in reality one third of Americans ere reading Atlas Shrugged we would have expected a drastic slump in the sales of insomnia remedies.
Why should Monbiot mount a jeremiad against Rand, an author whom hardly anyone in Britain has heard of never mind read? It is because in his fervid imagination Rand is supposedly beloved of the Tea Partiers. You know, those foaming at the mouth extremists who Guardianistas reckon want to establish a Taliban style theocracy in the USA.
To suggest that Tea Party populists are disciples of Rand is the type of hyperbolic scaremongering in which progressives habitually indulge. There are many reasons why Rand and Tea party activists have little in common.
Most Tea Party activists and followers are Christians. Rand was an aggressive atheist who argued that Christianity inhibited self-interest. In the Rand lexicon self-interest is a good thing, even the good thing. Like Nietzsche she saw God as a barrier to greatness. Like Marx she saw Him as a distraction from material reality. At one point she declared that anyone who believed in God was “a damned fool.”
The Tea Party are strong supporters of what used to be called “family values.” Rand disparaged the family. For her, family was an accident of birth and marriage merely the partnerhsip of two people with shared ambitions. She often stated that it was “immoral” when someone put their family or their friendships before productive work. Love or duty come very poor second bests to rationality in the work of Rand.
Rand was an extreme individualist, not a libertarian. For Rand one individual mattered above all others, namely Rand herself. She was unable to tolerate any form of opposition and followers who stepped out of line were airbrushed from her history in true Stalinist manner. Her leadership style is diametrically opposed to the Tea Party refusal to become a vanguard movement supporting the ambitions of any individual politician.
The small-town, Calvinist populism of the Tea Party is light years from Rand’s libertine utopianism. Ayn Rand was a individualistic revolutionary. There is nothing in her writing of the simple values and wholesomeness of American conservatism. Tea Party attitudes are more concerned with making a go of life than they are about the strong triumphing over the dependency of the feckless.
There are, however, elements of co-incidence in their views. But then there are coincidences of view between Ian Paisley and the pope. Both believe in the Trinity and the deity of Christ.
Like the Tea Party Rand stressed respect. For her the most moral act was a free exchange between people who had respect for their own work, and only by respecting oneself could one respect and value others.
Also, Rand’s core objection to talk of who deserves what and why came from the insight that the idea of “deserving” depends upon people outsourcing responsibility for outcomes to others, thereby becoming “second-handers”.
We see the results of dependency and second handers around us. Sometimes a single incident throws everything into sharp relief.
In Scotland in 2008 Alison Hume died because emergency rescue workers outsourced their responsibility to others. Returning home in the dark Alison fell 50 foot down a disused mineshaft near her house. The alarm was raised and a fire crew attended.
Equipment was available which would have enabled them to rescue Alison. Eighteen of the firefighters present had been trained to use the equipment and wished to rescue Alison. Senior officers wouldn’t allow them to use that gear because of rigid compliance with health and safety rules. Firefighters were forced to wait for a police mountain rescue team, who took hours to arrive.
All they were allowed to do was send a man down into the shaft to comfort Alison. At this time she had suffered pneumothorax, broken ribs and a broken sternum.
Eight hours later when she was brought out she had hypothermia and suffered a heart attack. Alison died.
This explains why some people still read Rand’s work, not because of its non-existent literary merit or its total lack of narrative verve. They read it because of its critique of the cynicism of statist politicians. This explains why Monbiot and the Guardianistas are so eager to denounce her. She highlights the failure of the state when it demands ever greater control over ever more aspects of our lives.
The core message of Atlas Shrugged, and why it is still read, is that we ordinary people have to think and accept responsibility for our own lives, and refuse to be spoon fed by the elites who run our societies and the chattering classes who fawn upon them.
For George the problem with people who want to reduce government interference in their lives is that they are rejecting the leadership of the intellectual elite, some of whom, like George, even managed to get a second class degree.