Saturday, June 11, 2011

America's Lenin

I've always been struck by the drift of the United States over the last 30 or 40 years from a country whose intellectual life was once famous for its skepticism and pragmatism into a kind of ideological state with a national philosophy of life, the universe, and everything.

I think this process began with the Cold War. The Soviet Union had an ideology, and so we decided that we needed one too. We bent over backwards to turn the thoughts of a Scottish pragmatist about relieving shortages into a coherent all-embracing philosophy of life along the lines of Marxism. Adam Smith was made over into Karl Marx's good twin, a fit that was always awkward at best.

As our politics drifted further to the right, and we created an ideology of "free market" and "freedom," Adam Smith became an ever more awkward fit into the role of ideological prophet. Contrary to the wishes of today's free market ideologues, Adam Smith believed that a certain measure of taxation and government regulation were necessary to maintain a decent society for all to live in. He also thought that labor was entitled to bargain collectively for their wages and working conditions.

Apparently the old Scottish pragmatist is now discarded as ideological prophet, precisely because he was so pragmatic. The new ideological American right replaced him with someone who actively sought the role of prophet, who fits it so much more neatly, Ayn Rand. The old pragmatic Scot who thought a certain measure of taxation was necessary is now replaced by someone who said that all taxation is "theft." The old Scot who saw the relationship between labor and capital as a kind of partnership (an unequal partnership, but a partnership), is now replaced by a woman who describes everyone other than capital as "parasites." She goes even further, describing things that most people would consider basic measures of decency like selflessness ("altruism"), equality, democracy, and public responsibility as "evil." What is doubly remarkable is the rush to embrace her on the part of far-right Christians. Anti-abortion activists now read literature written by a woman who declared that no one has a right to live. Publicly pious political demagogues like Glenn Beck actively embrace the philosophy of a woman who was an atheist and who hated Christianity for its self-sacrificial altruism.

Progressives are baffled by these glaring disconnects, and there are so many. It seems to make no difference when anyone spells out and catalogues those disconnects.

I think there is a definite reason why some people feel that they can keep the Bible and Atlas Shrugged on the same shelf. That reason is supremacism. Ayn Rand's philosophy, like all right wing philosophy, is about supremacy, in this case, it is class supremacy. Fundamentalist Christianity is also about supremacy, the supremacy of The Elect over all the rest of humankind. The Apocalypse imagined by most Christian fundamentalists is not a vision of final reconciliation between Heaven and Earth, Flesh and Spirit, but one of triumph over enemies and inferiors. The Elect expect to be taken up into everlasting glory while all those who persecuted or ignored them will be doomed to a horrible and painful destruction. Calvinist doctrines of predestination harden that conviction of being set apart from the world and superior. It is but a short step from the Calvinist Elect to übermensch.

Ayn Rand is in serious contention to become the official American Lenin. A lot of the power establishment, especially the financial industry, embraces her (she's had a cult following on Wall Street for decades). The former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan was one of her minions in The Collective. Major contemporary political figures from Rush Limbaugh to Rep. Paul Ryan publicly embrace her philosophy. She is tirelessly promoted on Fox News. There is even a United States Senator named for her.

No, I really don't like her ideology, but I don't like any ideology. To my mind, there is no greater oxymoron than "ideology of freedom."


Robert Brenchley said...

They seem to have developed a sort of secular Calvinism where the rich become he elect, and their lifestyle the Kingdom of God.

Bex said...

The contrast between Rand's face on a stamp and Rembrandt's Crucifixion couldn't be more stark. Unfortunately many Christians in this country have decided to worship the former.