Tuesday, 13 March 2012

'Atlas Shrugged' by Ayn Rand. Is this the 'philosophy of the psychopath?'

'Atlas Shrugged' written and published by the Russian emigre, Ayn Rand, in 1957, is one of those books that I've always been meaning to read but somehow never got round to reading. Its been estimated that almost one-third of Americans have read the book which now sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year. Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, who knew Rand, is said to have been a devoted follower and part of her inner circle, and according to some, her philosophy is now "the guiding spirit of the Republicans in Congress and the American 'Tea Party' movement."

Though Rand's belief system has become popular and influential through books like the fictional 'Atlas Shrugged' and the non-fiction book 'The Virtue of Selfishness', she is not without her detractors. The Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, recently described her philosophy as the "philosophy of the psychopath, a misanthropic fantasy of cruelty, revenge and greed." He believes that she has become a 'demigod at the head of a chiliastic cult' and has become for the 'new right', what Karl Marx once was for the left.

Central to her core belief is what Rand called 'objectivism'. She was once asked if she could define the essence of 'objectivism' while standing on one foot, and she replied:

METAPHYSICS - Objective reality
ETHICS - Self-interest
POLITICS - Capitalism

What Rand meant by 'Objectivism', is that reality (the external world), existed independently of man's consciousness, and was independent of any observer's knowledge, beliefs, feelings, desires or fears, and that things are what they are. For Rand, the task of man's consciousness was to perceive reality and not to create it or to invent it. 'Objectivism', also rejects any belief in the supernatural and any claims that individuals or groups create their own reality. She described 'Objectivism' as a "philosophy for living on earth" and rejected all forms of determinism such as those ideas and beliefs that suggest that man is a victim of forces beyond his control i.e. God, fate, upbringing, genes or economic conditions. For Rand, man was a rational being of 'volitional consciousness'. She also rejected all forms of collectivism such as fascism, socialism, wealth redistribution or the mixed economy, and was in favour of laissez-faire capitalism.

Yet what is philosophy if not an attempt to create an orderly set of ideas by which to live and interpret the world. As the famous economist E.F. Shumacher points out in his book 'Small Is Beautiful', what we understand as thinking, is by and large, the application of pre-existing ideas to any given situation or set of facts. As Shumacher says:

"The way in which we interpret the world depends very much on the kind of ideas that fill our minds, there is a two way connection between thinking and events."

And when we think about this, how could it be otherwise? None of us live in a vacuum and the very world that we are trying to understand, we are part of. Therefore, how we think about things does influence the events in which we participate - there is 'reflexivity', cause and effect. When we try to apply ideas about the meaning of reality in the field of the social sciences to such things as politics, economics, psychology, sociology, and to notions about human nature, things can become problematical.

Ayn Rand believed that selfishness was good and empathy and altruism were evil, irrational, and destructive. Yet while avarice and selfishness may well be aspects of human motivation, they are by no means, the only human characteristics or necessarily the most dominant. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle(384-322BC), (who Rand admired with reservations), believed that mutual aid was natural to humankind and that the key to human happiness, lay in conformity with nature.

In his synopsis of Rand's book 'Atlas Shrugged', Monbiot had this to say:

"Atlas Shrugged (1957) depicts a U.S. crippled by government intervention in which heroic millionaires struggle against a nation of spongers. The millionaires, who she portrays as Atlas holding the world aloft, withdraw their labour, with the result that the nation collapses. It is rescued, through unregulated greed and selfishness, by one of the heroic plutocrats, John Galt. The poor die like flies as a result of government programmes and their own sloth and fecklessness. Those who try to help them are gassed..."

Although over the years, Rand's views and books have increased in popularity, when 'Atlas Shrugged' was first published in 1957, the book and its author were criticised in both the U.S. and elsewhere, for showing an absence of morality. Rand argued that the only moral course was that of pure self-interest and that we owed nothing to anyone, including members of our own families. In her view, the poor and weak were 'refuse' and 'parasites' and she castigated those who sought to help them. She also believed that the only role for government was to provide armed forces, police and courts. She despised what she called the 'intrusive state' and opposed government intervention in areas such as social security, education, transport, and believed there should be no regulation or income tax. In short, Rand believed in total unfettered capitalism and in a society where the rich have absolute power and the poor deserve to die.

Despite the manifest absurdities in Rand's philosophy, Monbiot believes that her ideas have become increasingly influential on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S.- where the richest one percent of Americans bank-roll the election campaigns of both the Republicans and Democrats and expect a great deal in return for their money - 'Tea Party' supporters while despising the 'intrusive state', hanker to get into government and carry placards proclaiming, 'Who is John Galt?' and 'Rand was right'.

Her devoted follower former U.S. Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan, who believes that unregulated capitalism is a 'superlatively moral system', refused to regulate the credit derivatives world when he was Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve from 1987-2006, believing that credit derivatives made markets more efficient. His policies of cutting taxes for the rich, repealing laws constraining banks and his refusal to regulate, almost brought the U.S capitalist financial system close to collapse.

As for the heroic millionaires who like Atlas, are holding the world aloft, in the UK, the so-called free market in banks collapsed four years ago and had to be sustained by government money. What we now have in Britain's financial sector, is a banking industry where profits are privatised and the risks are nationalised.

As the Cameron government embark on their scorched earth policies for the poor and those on low incomes, cutting public services, increasing unemployment and reducing wages and workers rights, and dismantling what is left of the UK's public services, a corporate welfare state is being built where vast resources are being transferred over to the rich in the form of EEC agricultural subsidies to rich English landowners, fat contracts from NHS reforms and PFI deals given over to capitalist cronies, some of whom, bank-roll the Tory Party.

Though Ayn Rand railed furiously against the 'intrusive state' and government welfare programmes, it is ironic that towards the end of her life, she signed on for both 'Medicare' and social security. One feels that if she had been sincere in her views, then she would have picked up a gun and blown her brains out rather than seek assistance from the state, and the hoi polloi who she so despised. Alternatively, in the world of Atlas Shrugged, she would have been classed as 'refuse', and left to die.

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