The Randian Fault That Could Shake Conservatism
Frederick Clarkson and Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon May 02, 2011 at 03:32:26 PM EST
   The spectacular failure of the film version of Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged has drawn fresh attention to one of modern conservatism's most influential and controversial figures. Movement conservatism usually presents itself as the stalwart guardian of traditional faith. But conservatism may experience a profound identity crisis due to the increasing popularity Rand's philosophy of Objectivism -- which celebrates selfishness as a virtue; declares religious faith to be incompatible with reason; and altruism -- including self-sacrifice - is a vice. Objectivism says there are only two kinds of people in this world, creators and parasites.  Suffice to say, such a view is very far from the vision of most conservative Christians.

    All this suggests a deep fault line just below the normal fractiousness of the active factions of conservatism.  If the exposure of the Randian Fault is a quake waiting to happen among movement conservatives, it could very well be The Big One.

    Indeed, we may be starting to see some shaking in the debate about the Republican budget proposals. Recently I (Frank) contributed an essay on the economic philosophy of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) to the web site of New Deal 2.0.  Oddly, Ryan claims that Rand's selfishness is all about morality.


In a Facebook video posted in 2009, the Wisconsin pol was gushing about the wisdom to be found in "Atlas Shrugged."  He boldly declared, "And a lot of people would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel -- and metaphorically speaking." He elaborated, "But more to the point is this:  The issue that is under assault, the attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America is an attack on the moral foundation of America."

    Returning to Rand, Ryan proceeded to frame his moral vision within the context of laissez-faire capitalism:


And Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism. And this to me is what matters the most:  It is not enough to say that President Obama's taxes are too big or that the health care plan does not work, or this or that policy reason. It is the morality of what is occurring right now; and how it offends the morality of individuals working for their own free will, to produce, to achieve, to succeed that is under attack.

    In other words, altruism deters excellence. Only selfishness breeds true success.

    Rand's Objectivism is devoid of a higher form of love --  in which individuals are willing to sacrifice for other members of society; an essential element for any functioning democracy.  Because this is so, a dilemma may be dawning for conservatism:  Do they need to force a rift with the overt Randians?  Unfortunately for conservatism, if they fail to address the Randian heresy of selfishness-as-virtue, the result may be he same -- as liberals are starting to catch-on.

    Self-sacrifice and love of others has been long part of the dominant forms of conservatism. It is at the heart of Neo-conservatism's call to lay down one's life for a Pax Americana. Although cynically and corruptly, that particular political philosophy views religious orthodoxy as but one leg of a three-legged stool for society (the other two legs being nationalism and laissez-faire economics). Conservative icon Russell Kirk defined Christian morality and self-sacrifice as essential to a conservative vision.

    Indeed, there have always been conservative leaders who recognize the shallowness and recklessness of Rand's beliefs. The late William F. Buckley, for example, unsurprisingly dismissed Atlas Shrugged as "ideological fabulism."  But former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson's recent critique of Objectivsm is so devastating that liberals of all stripes should sit-up and take notice.

    Gerson recognizes that Objectivism is a profound betrayal of conservative Christianity and the general direction and tone of movement conservatism:


None of the characters expresses a hint of sympathetic human emotion - which is precisely the point. Rand's novels are vehicles for a system of thought known as Objectivism. Rand developed this philosophy at the length of Tolstoy, with the intellectual pretensions of Hegel, but it can be summarized on a napkin. Reason is everything. Religion is a fraud. Selfishness is a virtue. Altruism is a crime against human excellence. Self-sacrifice is weakness. Weakness is contemptible. "The Objectivist ethics, in essence," said Rand, "hold that man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself."

    If Objectivism seems familiar, it is because most people know it under another name:   Adolescence. Many of us experienced a few unfortunate years of invincible self-involvement, testing moral boundaries and prone to stormy egotism and hero worship. Usually one grows out of it, eventually discovering that the quality of our lives is tied to the benefit of others. Rand's achievement was to turn a phase into a philosophy, as attractive as an outbreak of acne.

    Buckley's and Gerson's protestations not withstanding, Objectivism shares one common element with other forms of conservatism:  Neo-platonism, an outlook seeing social inequality as a natural condition of society.

    Neo-conservatives hold that orthodox faith and its hierarchy should inform secular leaders of what should and should not be. This God and Country approach helps to sustain the willingness of the citizens to die in the pursuit of empire. Paleo-conservatives, (when they believe in change), demand that it offer deference to tradition, even if it is unjust. As Russell Kirk wrote in 1993, "Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don't know." But unlike the Neos, the Paleos eschew foreign military adventures.  (For its part, Christian Reconstructionism demands pluralistic democracy be replaced by a Christian theocracy.)  But all of conservatism's variants believe in some form of laissez-faire capitalism.

    But Objectivism throws open the windows on conservatism's not so secret dirty truth, and let's the sun shine in on laissez-faire's darkest corner: Unmitigated Greed -- the dark star of economic activity, powerfully consuming everything in its path. (Reinhold Niebuhr would describe it as egoism, the will-to-power.)  The realities of greed are partly concealed by other conservative philosophies, but they are also too often given a free pass.  Michael Novak and Catholic Neo-cons, for example, skirt the matter by saying that unregulated capitalism is a system for sinners, and leave it at that.

    But greed is still understood by most people of all political and religious persuasions to be a threat to all that they hold dear.  Gerson and other conservative sophisticates also know that this is the fetid rot at the core of the pillars of their coalition, and that Objectivism, for all of the immaturity it reveals in its adherents -- risks exposing the Randian Fault that underlies the fractious conservative coalition.  The risk of this coalitional collapse is particularly so between the Religious Right epitomized by Michael Gerson, and the secular libertarianism of many more conservatives than always meet the eye.

    So when conservatives thump their chests about the stakes in the supposed "clash of civilizations"; and rail about the threat of "internal subversion", perhaps they will turn their attention to the proponents of Objectivism, who in some cases, will be themselves. If they do, the Randian Fault could very well shake contemporary conservatism to an ideological rubble.  If they don't, resurgent liberalism may very well do it for them.

Actually liberals should be pointing out these contradictions, and be doing so quite forcefully. The idea would be for the mainstream press to address this fault-line.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon May 02, 2011 at 04:15:05 PM EST
I am not counting on the mainstream press to do any critical thinking on this score, however. They often ignore very real problems and the right knows how to play the false equivalence game very well.

by khughes1963 on Mon May 02, 2011 at 07:25:42 PM EST

it takes me here: _Rand%29%E2%80%9D should that link to "Objectivism" be this?

by peg1 on Tue May 03, 2011 at 04:36:32 PM EST

...I remain amazed at how manifestly possible it is for ordinary "pew sitters" to hold and act on two contradictory principles at the same time. Some of my educated friends revere Rand and spout Religious Right missives that make my hair stand on end. They are, though, fond of economic messages that any person of faith could endorse on Easter, Christmas and 9/11, Katrina, Discovery, the recent tornadoes...Neither logic, Bible study nor economic evidence to the contrary have made them less conservative over time. Now if some personal situation intercedes ("Scott Walker's taking away my policeman's pension!" or "Pope Benedict won't let my daughter get married in the Church!"), some rethinking might occur...but on very limited levels. From my own experience, religious rightists crave tribal, not logical, justifications for greed and selfishness, keeping women as second-class citizens and homosexuals in the closet far more than ideological coherence. They will keep picking and choosing between Leviticus and Rand, and if these don't suit their needs they'll "rediscover" William F. Buckley and some of Paul's verses out of context. What they will not do in large numbers is drop Rand for Dorothy Day or Leviticus for Leonardo Boff. I wish mainstream media's adoption of a more critical stance, or better Democratic, UU, Methodist or Episcopal advertising, etc. might help and truly don't have any better answers than the above. But I think the "fault line" posited above can only be seen by those whose eyes are open to logic.

by oevp4ever on Mon May 02, 2011 at 09:47:19 PM EST

that the Randians might be a wedge between the two slants of Conservatism, if Greenspan hadn't been feted as a genius by the press, knowing full-well the ties he had to Rand, personally and in his worldview. I mean, it was mentioned quite a few times, but none of them tried to tie his economic malfeasance to his greed-based love affair with Ayn. Or at least none of the "serious" pundits.

by trog69 on Mon May 02, 2011 at 10:30:48 PM EST
What was then was then, what's now is now.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue May 03, 2011 at 12:15:10 AM EST
Something about...expecting different results by doing the same thing, over and over?

by trog69 on Wed May 04, 2011 at 02:31:26 AM EST

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed May 04, 2011 at 10:41:23 AM EST

It's important to note. Anton LaVey credits Rand with inspiring his book the "Satanic Bible." Bringing the media on board by pointing out that the Religious Right and Satanists now share common values should be enough to marginize Rand's current resurgence.

by Stacey Tallitsch on Tue May 03, 2011 at 08:48:41 AM EST

By the factor of compartmentalization of the people involved in their thought processes and the adherence to that different Christianity---Dominionism that has as its foundation the mentalities of warfare, domination, Inquisition and Crusader ideas. Wrapped in the accutraments of Nation, (white) race and family. With their laissaize faire economics as the grease or blood keeping their imperial machinery of state going. Using the cafeteria method they pick and choose what parts they like of Christianity and Objectivism and their own personal likes. Greed sells, so does unbridled search for personal power. It plays to some of the worse parts of humanity, the darkest elements swathed in the glowing light of righteousness and purity. Like a ripe juicy looking apple with poison in its center. Should they ever get control it would be ugly indeed not only for us but for the world. Worse than it is now.

by Nightgaunt on Sun May 08, 2011 at 09:59:05 PM EST

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