Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Atlas Shrugged, so Blame the Poor!

Ayn Rand emigrated from the Soviet Union to the US, then wrote her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, in 1957. It is a paeon of praise to libertarian individualism, rational self-interest, and laissez-faire capitalism. She considered her 1200 pretentious pages to be the core of her “philosophy” of “objectivism”. The novel is set in a dystopian USA. Furious at being exploited by a society depicted as bleeding them dry with taxes and regulations on behalf of the masses (“parasites” and “moochers”), industrialists and corporate bosses “stop the motor of the world” by going on strike. To let the weak see they can never cope when the elite withdraw their labour, the striking “men of the mind” (inventors, entrepreneurs, and industrialists, so read capitalists) retreat to a camp in the mountains of Colorado protected by a special shield. In the freedom of their mountain hideaway, unregulated and untaxed by government, they build an independent economy free from the imperatives of human society like compassion, justice and mercy! Starved of their genius, society collapses, wars break out and eventually the bureaucrats beg the rebel leader, John Galt, to take over. So Rand believed the whole world would collapse unless the “best people” are allowed to be as selfish as they like. Curiously, she writes:
It only stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.
It sounds almost communistic. If there are no masters, then there are no slaves, but the message of her writing is that the masters must be allowed to remain masters, and untrammelled by any concern for the wretched. Slaves must be slaves forever! It is all they are good for. Rand believed that altruism was evil. So any redistribution of wealth, even voluntarily, is weakening to society. How can such a vision be anything other than Nazi? Rand’s vision of the world in Atlas Shrugged inspires either slavering devotion or disbelieving ribaldry. Leading philosophers ignore it as puerile. Noam Chomsky even called her “one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history”. But Rand’s adherents see parallels in today’s economic events. Faced with Obama's Keynsianism, the thought of a right wing strike has its sympathisers among the caste of Republican politicoes on Capitol Hill. Some foresee a Rand revolution, in which those unwilling to pay their taxes decide to “do a Galt”, arrange a strike of the wealthy. Obama’s policy of creating work by injecting cash into the economy, they argue, smacks of socialism, forcing the strong and successful to prop up the weak, feckless and incompetent. Business commentator, Stephen Moore, wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
The current economic strategy is right out of Atlas Shrugged. The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you.
The Republican congressman, John Campbell, told The Washington Independent:
People are starting to feel like we’re living through the scenario that happened in Atlas Shrugged. The achievers are going on strike. I’m seeing, at a small level, a kind of protest from the people who create jobs… who are pulling back from their ambitions because they see how they’ll be punished for them.
They cannot mean the bankers! Among the bankers, brokers and industrialists, whose greed brought on this recession, were adherents of Rand’s ideas, like Alan Greenspan, for long boss of the Federal Reserve. They just love Ayn Rand. Ideas like hers justify their “rational self-interest” in packaging up debts as leveraged private equity buyouts, but theirs turns out to be an “irrational self-interest”. The system was an elaborate pyramid selling scheme that some didn’t catch on to and others ignored to get the most out of it while they could—not via the phony bonds themselves, but the bonuses for selling them! We need to force more of them to give up their ill-gotten gains, then send them on a permanent enforced strike in some suitable penitentiary. Just to prove how out of touch with reality modern Republicans are, Campbell gives Rand’s book as gifts to his interns. The conservative right wing ignore history in favour of these infantile fantasies like Rand's. Penelope Newsome, writing in The Guardian, brought all this to mind. She talks about J M Keynes, 70 years ago, revealing the two great mistakes in economic policy capitalist governments make in a recession. Keynesianism was taught as received wisdom in university economics courses until about 35 years ago, when Milton Friedman's monetarism became fashionable, and set us on the road to our present state. Ayn Rand was obviously not a Keynsian.
  • First Mistake—Governments should reduce interest rates and increase the money supply then businesses will borrow and invest and create a recovery in output and employment. Not so! Businesses will not borrow, even at zero interest rates, when there is no demand for their output. And why would banks lend money at zero interest rates, especially to businesses with no demand even for their existing output.
  • Second Mistake—Governments should cut wages and allow costs to fall then prices will fall and demand will increase, lifting output and employment. Not so, again! Output and employment will not rise even if prices do fall, because the fall in incomes imposed first must mean that workers do not have the cash to spend, especially when they are scared of becoming unemployed.
Sound economics, for the rich as well as the poor, is to ensure everyone has an income, and therefore has money to spend. Those inclined to right wing politics prefer strong men to sound economics. The yearning for strong men, for strong leaders is immature and elitist, and elitism is at the core of fascism. Elitism is right wing, and egalitarianism is left wing—the two are not the same. As someone said online, the fetishization of Nazi chic is nearly always the mark of an infantilized society and a childish mind. Children want simple answers because they have not yet reached the level of thinking required for subtlety, but the world is not simple. It is subtle. Society does not exist just for some supposedly superior types. It exists for all its members, and unless it does, it will certainly fall apart. Then everyone suffers, until a new society is built. Fairness to all is more important in society than favoring elites, and empathy more important than disregard for others. Denmark is the least corrupt country in the world and Danes are egalitarian and happy. For them, being kind to each other is more important than being rich at someone else’s expense. Yet Rand envisions the successful society as being one entirely of chiefs with no indians. A reviewer wrote quite rightly that bad artists are rarely good guides to economics, politics, or anything else. Rand fled from communism. Plainly she hated it, and the Russian peasant, the working people. For her, they were shirkers but she seemed quite unable or unwilling to see that workers actually work, and often in hard or soul destroying jobs. But many sons of the wealthy are just idle playboys, true parasites and shirkers, or those like our modern bankers giving themselves undeserved bonuses. It usually works out well when you decide on your own remuneration! And that is just what executives of our corporations do! A capitalism with no regulation will always raise up people to take advantage of others. And they will always find some way to justify it. Obama, the leader of the Western world, worked his way up, but he is an excellent writer. Anyone tempted to read Ayn Rand should read him instead. The only country still able to buy any goods is China, and China is dealing with the recession by following Keynesian economics. The Chinese government is putting money directly into the economy—into construction and health—not into banks to stash away for executive bonus payments. It is putting it directly in the pockets of the common people who will spend it in the economy. Ordinary “moochers”, if that is what they are in the Rand world, need to be able to spend if anyone is to make money. Capitalists make money by providing goods and services for ordinary people to use. That simple fact is what so many right wing fantasists cannot comprehend.

1 comment:

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