When I was a teenager I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged several times. I wasn’t, unlike a lot of conservatives now, favorably impressed. I remember discussing this with a patient in the hospital where I was then working. She was saying that Atlas Shrugged was an exciting book, and she’d liked it for that. I said my dominant impression of it was, pound, pound, pound: you MUST believe this.
Robert Anton Wilson, a writer I’ve often enjoyed, said that in his young adulthood he did a lot of intellectual exploring, joining a variety of groups with different worldviews. Two such groups, with very different worldviews, were the Trotskyites and the Randites. He said they had one thing in common: members were expected to totally buy into the worldview. Both were ostensibly in favor of freedom, but not the freedom to think for one’s self. He had the same reaction I did, and from closer up.
What exactly did Rand say in Atlas Shrugged? As I remember it, society would fall apart if the people who produce new ideas and products went on strike. That these people were being exploited and expected to support people who were their inferiors, and who didn’t care to exert themselves. Rand was Russian, and had lived under the early years of the Communist regime there. It was an extreme society on the way to becoming more extreme, so there was some reason for her extreme reaction.
The problem with her formulation was the usual one: it was too black and white, or at least susceptible to being taken that way. Communists demonized capitalists, and capitalists demonized Communists. Each was a system that had started out with a good idea that got corrupted. Production of goods on an industrial basis produced a higher standard of living for a lot of people, but capitalists seem always to have been reluctant to share their profits with employees. The Communist idea that the actual laborers should get at least a fair share of the profit, if not the whole thing doesn’t seem wholly wrong. But both systems provided scope for abuse and tyranny. Communism in practice became a nightmare in Russia and elsewhere. Capitalism had its share of nightmarish episodes too, which highlighted the need for regulation when people were unwilling to regulate themselves. The question always is, who will guard the guardians? It has yet to be satisfactorily answered for very long.
Fast-forward about 60 years, in Wilson’s case, and about 45 in mine. Randites have reached positions of power, and their point of view seems to be plausible and acceptable to many. They have decided that wealthy people (the job-creators) are good, and that people who depend on jobs or on government support (“handouts”) are bad. They’re determined to either convince the rest of us or impose what they believe on us. And they have a handy lever to help them.
The previous president of the USA started two unnecessary wars at the same time as lowering taxes so we couldn’t pay for them without borrowing. That left us with a dangerously immense debt that threatens the whole country. Under these circumstances, it makes sense to cut spending. Randites beliefs, which agree with those of conservatives, is that most of the cutting should be from social services–Medicare and Medicaid in particular– (strong individuals shouldn’t NEED social services) and specifically from Social Security, which doesn’t contribute to the debt. The idea is that people will either learn to stand on their own feet or go under. That’s Social Darwinism, a point of view I don’t care for, though I don’t disagree that individuals should be as self-sufficient as possible.
There are other members of society that don’t or shouldn’t need help, like big corporations, but conservatives don’t wish to cut THEIR assistance from government. That assistance includes tax breaks and subsidies that most individuals can’t get. Conservatives say that 47% of the country pays no taxes, forgetting that most states have sales taxes, and that these impact unemployed or underemployed people much more than they do others. But facts are not the point here. The point is identifying an enemy that a fairly large part of the electorate can be counted on to hate. The enemy here identified are the poor and middle class.
Consider where cuts have been made in the past 5 years: police, firefighters, and public education. Conservatives have been dismissing public education for years, and touting charter and private schools as giving far superior education. The record, from what I hear, is mixed on charter schools, and private schools can’t serve the educational needs of all. This country’s education has become inferior to that of quite a number of other countries. Conservatives want this country to not only compete with the rest of the world, but to dominate it. Destroying public education is a bad way to achieve that goal.
It does, however, fit with the conservative form of the Correct Line, which includes never switching from a hydrocarbon energy system to a more sustainable one, absolutely unregulated capitalism (in which profit is the only ethic), denial of any validity to climate change science (especially that human activity is an important component of climate change), and (of course) that minorities are inferior and to be hated. Domestic politics could get nastier, but this is quite nasty enough.
But what about international politics? We may still be the most powerful nation in the world, though China seems to be catching up fast, but thanks to the previous president, we’re no longer the richest. National wealth has become private wealth, and if China decides to call its debts in, we’re going to become a Third World country in nothing flat. To rebuild our wealth we need all the good brains in the country to be well-educated and productive. In cutting education, conservatives are helping to destroy our competitiveness.
Competition is a holy word to conservatives. But, as John Kenneth Galbraith observed in a history of economics, a lot of effort has historically been put into suppressing and destroying competition. That, I think, is what’s going on here, underlined by the gerrymandering that ensures safe Republican (but less often Democractic) seats and the attempts to block certain classes of voters and to change Electoral College rules. Evidently Republicans don’t believe enough in their own message to allow it to compete in a truly open market, as it were.
A science fiction novel by James H. Schmitz, The Demon Breed, has an alien race trying to invade a human world. The race is repelled with relative ease and few human casualties. The people doing most of the repelling are very intelligent and highly trained, but in the circumstances have to work almost alone. The alien race ultimately fails because it has assumed that humans could not possibly be superior to them. That’s an unwise assumption to make. That’s something the Republicans ought to take note of in their attempt at conquest or reconquest.
There’s another aspect to this situation. Samuel Johnson, of whom I wrote recently, was a self-made man fully as much as Ayn Rand achieved her success mostly by herself. The difference between him and Rand’s followers is compassion. He suffered most of his life, and rather than allowing it to make him hard, recognized the suffering of others and deplored it, helping as many of them as he could. He didn’t expect everyone to accomplish as much or in the way that he did. He realized not all could be so talented or so strong. He also appreciated what help he got. He often had to struggle alone, but eventually he did get help, and was able to make the most of it.
Randites like Paul Ryan, as well as other conservatives, prefer not to acknowledge the help they’ve received, from government as well as other sources. No doubt it makes them feel superior to think they’ve succeeded altogether independently, but it’s not true. Some of them had wealth to begin with. Others had help from the government in one way or another. They also had the advantage of living in a society in which individual talent is accepted and rewarded. Apparently acknowledging that would make them feel inferior, so they prefer to pull the ladder they climbed up behind them, to prevent others from climbing it.
In doing that, they are short-sighted, to say nothing of unpatriotic. If they succeed in their aims, they’ll have power as individuals and a group, but their country will suffer. That may not matter to them. Dehumanization is a popular way to make it easier to treat groups you don’t like badly, and deny responsibility you have to the society as a whole. Of course you can redefine society as you like, but that won’t change the facts. When all society is not included in the definition, you are inevitably leaving out individuals that could help your country compete in the world. That’s not only hypocritical, but eventually suicidal.