February 22, 2019

Flirting With the Right: The Enduring myth of the Randian Hero

The rise of neo-conservatism and the popular resurgence of the right in Europe and America has produced the new right-wing outsider. In Britain we have seen the UKIP phenomenon which revolves around the figure of Nigel Farage, in America Donald Trump has confounded his critics by appealing to many Republican voters and in France Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is making it ever more acceptable to be a right wing nationalist. These figures speak to their native brethren by reflecting back to them their concerns and dreams and they each in their own way stand for something particular about the nation they’re from. Farage appeals to the nostalgic idea of a post war Britain, his advocacy of smoking and drinking brings to mind Gene Hunt the 70s alpha male of ‘Life on Mars’. His suspicion of foreigners and his advocacy of traditional values make him a popular figure for people who long for a society they imagine existed before the European union and immigration complete with bunting, smoky pubs and far less brown people. In America Trump stands for something more toxic his mantra of ‘we will build a wall’, his open racism against Hispanics, his hatred of the media who he denigrates much to the amusement of his audiences brings to mind a more terrifying episode of our history, this is the voice of people who want to wield power frustrated by global integration. Trump stands for the resurgence of America as the only super power at a time when that seems to rest of us as an impossible and dangerous manoeuvre. In France Le Pen is media savvy, she is a rising star who in the country that produced Sartre is making it cool to be far right, she is attracting more and more followers to Front National.

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While each one is well suited to appeal to a particular portion their particular nation; British no-nonsense, nostalgic, plain speaking man in the pub, America, brash, confident non-PC, womaniser, France, sleek, intelligent respectable, there must be more to their appeal and there is one thing they all have in common, faith in the free market. Each one is connected to business and to money, Farage is a public school city boy, an ex ‘commodity broker’ and a keen supporter of the financial sector, Trump is a billionaire and businessman whose financial interests are predicated on a solid real estate development business and Le Pen studied business law before committing to her office and married wealthy businessman Matthieu Decosse.

Each outsider has obvious character flaws which were it not for the potent tonic of financial/business credibility would/should finish them politically. Farage is a figure of a lost empire much like the man he admired Enoch Powell and his continuous appearances with pint in hand and sanguine grin is becoming self-parody. Do any of us really think all woes are down to immigration? But it doesn’t matter, he’s pandering to us and anyway hasn’t he done well for himself.

Trump resembling the Billionaire villain Biff Tannen from the back to future trilogy complete with sexist remarks is so outwardly and openly obnoxious that he almost defies criticism since his many vices are so self-evident he even has the bully boy tendency of drawing attention to his opponents weight or smell often referring to people he doesn’t like as slobs and famously telling Larry King his body odour was bad so he better sit back, charmed I’m sure. When I found out he was running for president I remember thinking we were another step closer to the dystopia described in Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Robocop’ where corrupt businessmen rule America with an iron fist. Again would we take this person seriously if he wasn’t a self-evidently successful rich man? Ah but hasn’t he done well for himself.

And of course Le Pen should have condemned her grandfathers anti-Semitism more robustly by supporting his removal form the party, she didn’t of course she let the spin doctors sort it out and avoided upsetting her grandfather or the French right. Le Pen’s attempted appropriation of Napoleon is a very shrewd move he is just distant enough to be symbol that will broaden her appeal with even more of the general public, again she is credible by her mainstream conservatism, slick, business smart, married, traditional and patriotic this is the surface which lends acceptability to the exciting radical ‘outsider status’ which simply translated to those of us not in thrall goes like this she will punish foreigners and restore my national pride.

The world of the businessman lends credibility to these people they are successful in this world, Farage working the cogs as a commodity broker, Trump owning the means of production and ever expanding and Le Pen understanding the rules that guarantee and underpin the functioning of the system proving our system works for those worthy and able to get on.

How do we penetrate to the core of this ideology to truly understand what it is that really convinces us of the value of the wealthy business men?

There are examples of the celebration of the businessman in popular culture from Wall Street to the Wolf of Wall Street, oh yes I know that you will tell me these films show excess and end badly for the central figures but only after affording all the best lines and recruiting the most charismatic actors to play out the glorious downfall of these characters! I would posit that we don’t watch Wall Street to see the father and son reunion at its close but rather to bare witness to Gecko’s potency and his ‘Greed is Good’ speech. There is also ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Dragons Den’ that act as propaganda for the self-made man but analysis of these would leave the core of the phantasy hidden, to really get inside this force we should look to the ultra-conformist endorsement that capitalism and the entrepreneur gets from Ayn Rand and her ideas about positivism.

In 1957 Random House publishing company released ‘Atlas Shrugged’ the epic novel which expounded the ideals of what would come to be known as ‘Positivism’ the philosophy of Ayn Rand via a story about creative individuals and their struggles with bureaucracy and the ungrateful masses, its tenants were absolute rationality, self-interest and the simple idea that naturally good and strong people would rise to the top in society, given their intrinsic superiority. These titans for Rand were the driving force propelling society forward,

“A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others,” Ayn Rand

She saw examples of these kinds of people in the great capitalists of 18th and 19th century and in her own time she looked to the men who controlled the rail companies which united the huge cities of America from coast to coast,

“Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values,” Ayn Rand

This idea, the heroic capitalist, the unsentimental rational man of vision, is deeply embedded in our society and is not simply the result of Rand’s ultra-conformist attitude. It is easily evidenced by those who have money, after all if they weren’t worthy of it then how could they have come by it? Inheritance only confirms the genetic quality ‘in the blood’ so to speak, rather than undermining individual achievement and so convinces many people. The greatest evidence for the Randian hero’s entitled superiority is the actual existence of wealthy business people. Those of us who condemn the vast accumulation of money and the exercise of power by the few, well, we are guilty of sour grapes and to make it worse we resent the very people who have provided us with relative security and decent living conditions, The character Francisco d’Anconia from ‘Atlas Shrugged’ lays out Rand’s vision of the playing field,

“So you think that money is the root of all evil? … Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or the looters who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil? … Not an ocean of tears nor all the guns in the world can transform those pieces of paper in your wallet into bread you need to survive tomorrow. … Whenever destroyers appear among men, they start by destroying money, for money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence,”

Rand is clear that the abstract nature of money is both a defence against emotional manipulation or being ‘looted’ and that money is closely linked with the idea and forming of civilisation.

Again this is not simply Rand’s notion but clearly a part of our collective consciousness visible in the endless tabloid obsession with benefit scroungers, ‘moochers’ and by extension anyone who wants to take advantage of our wealth, the wealth of better people following Rand’s logic, also the obsession with theft and radical programs for change which are seen as much the same thing ‘looters’ who want to take the wealth of better people by force.

The economist Ludwig von Mises irritated at the criticism of Rand’s celebration of the entrepreneur puts it the most clearly and least sensitively,

“… Atlas Shrugged is not merely a novel. It is also (or may I say: first of all) a cogent analysis of the evils that plague our society, a substantiated rejection of the ideology of our self-styled “intellectuals” and a pitiless unmasking of the insincerity of the policies adopted by governments and political parties … 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 efforts of men who are better than you.”

I would ask the reader do you accept this? Is it sour grapes to speak about the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the workers movements who had to fight for various improvements in our daily lot? Can you imagine quoting Ludwig von Mises words to a group of African American’s or women fighting for equal pay? It’s not unfair to Mises to apply these contexts; after all he addresses his criticism to the masses with all their partisan concerns. So we, and I’m assuming that you are not a part of the business elite have these Randian titans to thank for paternity leave? The weekend? Minimum wage? the vote? National health? Well simply put, no, these things and many more are not bestowed upon us by our betters but come out of bitter ongoing struggle or due to a calamity like a plague or a war (the European plagues for example meant that craftsmen and workers could demand better treatment and move around and the second world war offered the opportunity for women to show they could also do men’s work and finally they got the vote)

When writing an article like this it would be naïve of me to think that I could undermine a true ‘positivist’ or ‘Randian’ or right wing business man, so what’s the point? Well my real target is the aspect of the Randian hero that comes in the form of the philanthropist entrepreneur. These people are the shadow of figures like Farage, Trump and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, and liberals and leftists are attached to the idea of the good rich man in a way that allows the Randian myth to endure and lend credibility to anyone who makes money, for example Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Anne Dias-Griffin from Britain, America and France respectively. Like the aforementioned political outsidersthey are the acceptable face of the same ideology, that of the Titan who wields power, the creative individual who has earned their status and each of these positive positivists is engaged in both making and giving away their money.

The problem is that power and wealth while focused in the few will never benefit the masses. For our global lot to be improved, Titans, politically embarrassing or well intentioned must go, and the wealth they decide to horde or mete out to their projects should be used to truly benefit the ‘masses’ a designation to which we all belong. This in no way is a judgement on certain individuals or indeed on the idea of the individual rather it is the humble idea that no one person should be able to acquire enough wealth to manipulate a country, to put themselves above the law or crucially to solve famine, health problems and so on, why should such important gestures be left to the conscience or self-reproof of one man or woman? Shouldn’t we all be involved in these solutions or at least elected representatives on our behalf? If you are affronted by Farage, by Trump or Le Pen then you must also cut the cord so to speak that attaches you to charitable heroes. The super rich are contradictions, even more so the rich who displace this absurdity by giving away some of their money (never enough to make them ordinary or even upper middle class in economic terms, no, remember they earned that they remain super rich) Rand did not believe in contradictions stating that,

“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”

She goes further and states that a true positivist hero,

“…does not permit himself to hold contradictory values, to pursue contradictory goals, or to imagine that the pursuit of a contradiction can ever be to his interest,”

So which is it? Should the super rich identify with their liberal conscience and give away the bulk of their wealth for good causes or identify with their wealth in the Gordon Gecko style of ‘greed is good’ to resolve this contradiction? I can tell you that our current glut of entrepreneurial philanthropists will never resolve this problem. They are committed to the status-quo which bestows upon them the twin prizes of money and moral superiority. This is the world of the super-rich titan and we are subject to their whims, we are convinced by the logic they expound be it the self-styled no nonsense right winger or the liberal capitalist with a bleeding heart, they are two sides of the same coin and if you don’t want one you can’t have the other.

by Michael Eden

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