By naming her as his favorite thinker, and requiring his staffers to read her, Paul Ryan has brought the right wing’s dominant yet usually little mentioned philosopher to center stage, where she belongs. Understanding Ayn Rand, and her impact on America’s right wing, sheds enormous light on the movements growing ruthlessness and disregard for either truth or morality.
I will make the case that she is the principle ‘vector’ by which Nietzschean nihilism became established in the American right. The ideology she and now Paul Ryan represents is in radical opposition to this country’s founding principles, even as it pretends to respect them. My point has nothing to do with her atheism.
The American right’s individualist roots, which it shares with so many of the rest of us, are too deeply rooted for the kind of collectivism and state worship popular in European fascism. No mass marches in unison and in uniform have any appeal for most of our right wingers. The American right’s love of hierarchy and its authoritarian spirit take a different form, one very open to Rand’s version of the Nietzschean “superman” once the moral restraint growing from their earlier belief in natural rights had dwindled away to meaningless incantations.
People defending Ayn Rand will object “Wasn’t she a firm defender of individual rights?” No, she wasn’t. Rights matter only when respecting them is inconvenient to the person doing so. When it mattered, Rand tossed away talk of rights as so much hot air. Not only that, as we shall see, she blamed the victims.
Ayn Rand’s rights rhetoric was pretty icing atop a cold and hard Nietzschean cake that held the strong should dominate the weak, using them as resources for realizing their dreams. Rand’s fictional characters exhibit her theory of what human beings truly are, a theory based on her early fascination with Friedrich Nietzsche’s division of humanity into an aristocracy of virtue and ability, and inferior people who either appropriately respected or inappropriately resented their excellence. In Atlas Shrugged her hero, John Galt, said:
The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all their brains. Such is the nature of the “competition” between the strong and weak of intellect.
John Galt’s description of superior and inferior human beings carries four additional qualities that appeal to the American right.
1. Individuals are radically atomistic. Their superiority over the rest of us is self-contained. They owe nothing to anyone.
2. Virtue and excellence ultimately exist along a single continuum. As Galt explained, “Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all others proceed.” Given the right’s rejection of science this might seem a contradiction, but the underlying value here is not thinking, but rejection of emotion and caring. Man has to do something, and if the heart is rejected thinking is all that remains as a claim to superiority. But really, rejection of caring is the core attraction, flowing from point 1.
3. Most people are incompetent to live their lives unassisted by the creativity and ability of the elite. Absent this belief the entire premise of Atlas Shrugged dissolves into absurdity.
4. About the only way the less able can repay the more able is through money, for money expands their power over resources so they can better realize their dreams. Pay, and get out of the way of your betters is the job for most people in Rand’s ideal world.
What Rand’s view shares with the American tradition of respect for individuals is recognition that individual creativity and hard work are sources of humanity’s greatest achievements. What it lacks is grasping that these achievements are promoted and often made possible by existing within relationships of mutual respect for all. Here Rand’s ‘individualism’ looks to European traditions of thought rooted in the collapse of transcendental values within deeply hierarchical cultures based on the domination of the many by the few. It has no American roots.
When Rand published Atlas Shrugged, the pre-eminent laissez faire economist of his time, Ludwig von Mises, wrote to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.” Mises, who also spent much of his life in undemocratic countries, had a European’s contempt for “the masses,” a term unknown in American traditions of thought and alien to the thinking of our Founders, such as James Madison, who emphasized the variety and diversity of interests and people necessary within a free society.
Rand’s supporters might respond that she emphasized that relying on the weak and inferior to realize one’s dreams, such as using government to tax them, made even the superior slaves to their resources. They might quote Rand’s word from The Virtue of Selfishness:
“When one speaks of man’s right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest—which he must selflessly renounce. The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men.”
The true individualist would supposedly never rob another, legally or illegally.
But these brave words said nothing as to what might be the case if the “inferior” stood in the way of the supermen’s plans. Not to then eliminate them was to sacrifice their self-interest to respect the weak.
In the first edition of her first American novel, We the Living, Rand depicts an argument between her heroine Kira, and a communist. Kira denounces the communist sacrifice of the superior for the good of the “masses.” Her own view is different: “What are your masses but mud to be ground under foot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it? What is the people but millions of puny, shriveled, helpless souls that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, who eat and sleep and chew helplessly the words others put into their mildewed brains.”
Rand excised this passage from subsequent editions of We the Living, and its deletion has since been described as showing how the American tradition of individual rights ultimately over came her commitment to the Nietzschean superman. But no such change occurred. Rand simply changed the packaging to make it more palatable. For example,decades later, in 1974 she gave an address to the cadets at West Point. Afterwards a cadet asked her what she thought of our country’s long record of aggression against American Indians, Rand replied:
They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country. And you’re a racist if you object, because it means you believe that certain men are entitled to something because of their race. You believe that if someone is born in a magnificent country and doesn’t know what to do with it, he still has a property right to it. He does not. Since the Indians did not have the concept of property or property rights–they didn’t have a settled society, they had predominantly nomadic tribal “cultures” — they didn’t have rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights that they had not conceived of and were not using. It’s wrong to attack a country that respects (or even tries to respect) individual rights. If you do, you’re an aggressor and are morally wrong. But if a “country” does not protect rights–if a group of tribesmen are the slaves of their tribal chief — why should you respect the “rights” that they don’t have or respect? The same is true for a dictatorship. The citizens in it have individual rights, but the country has no rights and so anyone has the right to invade it, because rights are not recognized in that country; and no individual or country can have its cake and eat it too — that is, you can’t claim one should respect the “rights” of Indians, when they had no concept of rights and no respect for rights. But let’s suppose they were all beautifully innocent savage — which they certainly were not. What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence; for their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched — to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it’s great that some of them did. The racist Indians today — those who condemn America — do not respect individual rights.
Her words were republished in 2005 in Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A. So her followers, or those who speak most confidently as her heirs, agree. Rights are not basic, they require the ‘right’ holder to act in a manner approved by Ayn Rand. Thus they are not rights at all. No absolute monarch would have any problem with such a view.
A strong case can be made that by most definitions of savagery, many Europeans were far worse than most Indians. Missionaries were often shocked (and disturbed) at the respect Indians showed women compared to Europeans standards. In no tribe of my knowledge was there anything remotely like tribal members being “slaves of their tribal chiefs,” a view closely resembling European arguments defending absolute monarchy. In virtually all cases the land was powerfully and deliberately changed by human action, but within a very different model of a culture’s relationship with the other-than-human world. Given the chance, many white settlers “went native” because the Indian quality of life exceeded what they experienced in “civilization.” I am aware of no Indians who voluntarily joined European ways of life. Many early settlements even had to outlaw people’s leaving, a situation whose most recent examples might be the Berlin Wall and the North Korean border. Everyone who “voted with their feet” went to the Indians. The Europeans, not the Indians, were treated like slaves to the powerful.
There is little difference between these very late sentiments and those from the first edition of We the Living. Just change Indian to masses.
That Rand was wrong all the way through in her denunciation of the Indians adds another level of support for rejection to her doctrine of ‘rights.’ Surely someone who genuinely respected rights would at the least assume the Indians were innocent until proven guilty, and if uninformed about their case, as she was, they would have withheld judgment. At least.
What Rand is worshiping is not individualism, nor is it even creativity. It is power, but power by an elite over everyone else, not power equally distributed. The superior are powerful and can properly impose their dreams on the world so long as others do not stand in their way. If they stand in their way, murdering them is apparently not really murder and stealing from them is not really theft.
This is nihilism, the worship of power alone because there are no transcendent values above or immanent values within the world. When power is worshiped, the most powerful are most worthy of worship. Her nihilism is tarted up in the language of rights, but when asked to actually speak that language, she proves herself a stranger to the entire concept. Being able to put a word in the proper place in a sentence does not mean the writer knows what the word means, as anyone who has read a lot of student papers is well aware.
Ayn Rand represents the triumph of Nietzschean nihilism in America, many decades after it triumphed in so much of Europe, helping to drench that continent in a second blood bath. It was slower in coming here for two reasons. First, we did not go through the unbelievable carnage of WWI and the resulting disillusion with the inherited society nearly to the extent the major European powers did. Second, our culture, outside the South anyway, did not possess a strong anti-democratic and illiberal tradition. Across a wide range of views Americans accepted the liberal regard for the individual that underlay the principles of our Declaration of Independence. They might not always follow it, but appealing in those terms was never time wasted, as Martin Luther King demonstrated so well.
But today right wing nihilism is flourishing here. The individualistic right to which it appeals has lost all sense that the rights they used to speak of are real. Like their talk about ‘religion’ and ‘family values,’ the language of rights serves as a pretty wrap on a package that actually seeks total power. Having lost any genuine moral foundations, the search for power is all they think is left, and they figure who better than themselves to wield it. The ease with which they reflexively support police power against citizens other than themselves is evidence for that, if anyone needed any.
This nihilism also appeals to the narcissistic sons of certain well-to-do families who, having not really accomplished much themselves, are searching for a guilt free way to enjoy their wealth without concern for others. Their ‘self-interest’ is virtuous, without ever having to think about what a “self” really is.
For those with a strong sociopathic bent, Rand’s nihilism provides an ideology where they do not have to acknowledge their culture, their friends, and their luck as elements in their success. It is all them, all the way. We see this in the right wing ‘outrage’ over President Obama’s having made the pretty commonplace observation that in reality no one makes it big entirely on their own. The right wing has lost any concept of what constitutes a genuine public good.
Millions of Americans have read Rand as young people. I am among them. Some of us found her message bracing as we discovered our childhood faith in society was not warranted, and we sought to develop the strength to live our lives with integrity. But those who succeeded in this outgrew her heartlessness and refusal to acknowledge our connections to others. But some never outgrew her. And others absorbed some of her elitism and contempt for others because it was dressed up in seemingly American terminology.
Here is the deepest spiritual cause, I think, for the vicious attacks on others by the right, their utter lack of humanity towards those who disagree, their ease at approving government killing and disdain at government helping the majority. Rand gives the spoiled sons and daughters of privilege who have not opened either their hearts or their minds the comfort of knowing they are superior rather than the poor examples of human beings that they are. It gives those equally damaged but not so wealthy the fantasy that, were it not for others, and for government helping the less than successful, they to could join the ranks of supermen.