Fairy Tales for Adults: It’s Time to Outgrow Ayn Rand and ‘Atlas Shrugged’
Like a lot of people, I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in college, which is probably the worst damned time I could have done so. It was Freshman year, and like everybody else, I was still caught up in the high of being (what we called) free for the first time: Free to skip classes whenever we wanted, free to stay up until 4am wandering campus and climbing trees, and free to make all kinds of sweeping pronouncements about The Way Things Oughta Be.
Now I’m 26, and an adult by most definitions. For better and worse, choosing to read Atlas Shrugged in those formative years had a profound impact on my life for a long time. It gave me its kindly blessing to continue believing the things I’d always believed, but that also meant it removed any incentive I might have had to ask myself some really important questions about how the world works. Objectivism is like most other religions that way.
I won’t tell you that I’ve categorically renounced Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism; I find the whole Secure your own oxygen mask first thing to be pretty on-point. But what I can tell you is that I’ve matured and grown as a person, in some highly surprising ways, since reading Atlas all those years ago — so much so that I now find myself mentally retreating from her uncompromising vision of a society ruled by greed. I’ve seen what becomes of such a country, and it scares me. Actually, I see it every day — we all do — and it is grotesque.
How’d We Get Here?
In case you’re not familiar with Objectivism, I’ll give you a crash course. The more philosophical definition says that what we perceive as reality exists independently of our notion of consciousness. It’s only through rationality and inductive logic that we’re free to attain “objective knowledge.”
But that’s hardly all of it. Objectivism also teaches that self-interest is the purest and most righteous motivation in life and that altruism is the source of all evil. I wish I was making this up. This vile maxim provides the childish logic that fuels concepts like laissez-faire capitalism, and is much of the reason why navigating rush hour traffic is such a consistently horrific experience. When did the Zipper Merge become a lost, arcane art? Right after we decided it was socially acceptable to look after only ourselves, and fuck everybody else.
So Objectivism is a bit of a mixed bag, yes? If Objectivists followed the example of modern Christianity, they could select and adhere to just those principles that don’t sound batshit insane, while casting the rest onto the philosophical refuse pile. (Love they neighbor as thyself, but eat shellfish to your heart’s content. Observe the Sabbath, but let homosexuals attend if they happen to love the same God you do. [Though why they’d want to is beyond comprehension.])
But that’s not how this should work. To cherry-pick your ideals from a supposedly closed system is to betray Dogma and Reason. Even Christians look down their nose at this kind of aimless faith, calling it, among other things, “Cafeteria Christianity” — this, despite the fact that the entirety of the Old Testament is considered borderline apocryphal these days. What we need instead is the courage to throw out these very flawed systems and learn to stand up for common sense and decency without the help of a guiding hand — Divine, governmental, or otherwise.
But here’s the biggest problem I have with Objectivism: For all its talk of “rational self-interest” and institutionalized avarice, Objectivism is a decidedly optimistic system. Its credibility depends on the wild assumption that every “actor” in a system ruled by Objectivism will behave rationally at all times and do no harm to others in their Melvillian search for self-edification.
In case you haven’t looked out the window lately, or turned on the television, that’s a gigantic leap of faith. Almost as gigantic as crediting the Almighty with the design of the fairly unremarkable human body. I’ve always been a pessimist, and I tend to expect the worst from strangers. Greed and stupidity will always exist, so why would we actively encourage them with poisonous strictures that preach more of the same?
In short, I no longer believe that 100% laissez-faire capitalism is realistic, moral, or even possible. And I most certainly don’t believe that altruism is the devil’s plaything. I’m sure some of you are wondering what the hell took me so long, so let me walk you through my process.
What’s Become of Capitalism
So why this about-face?
For starters, it’s because, under the rules of our current economy, the idea of healthy competition is all but dead. A curious thing, given that competition is (ostensibly) one of the immutable pillars of Capitalism, Objectivism, and Libertarianism. But it certainly asks a lot of us, and we frequently prove we’re not up to the challenge.
I’ll remind you of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, and the recently abandoned Pfizer-Allergan merger. Is this what capitalism was supposed to be? Survive until you achieve a monopoly in your industry, and then coast to retirement on your stock options? Where’s the competition? Where’s the innovation? These proposed monolithic corporations give us a startlingly clear look at the sort of world we’d live in if we embraced a 100% unregulated free market.
Or how about the fact that just six companies control assets that amount to 61% of our nation’s GDP? Capitalism has shown its true colors in every single industry it’s touched, which is pretty much all of them: Companies don’t want to compete any longer. That would be really, really hard. What they want instead is to collude with other companies in order to protect their profits, not to mention the lifestyles of their aristocratic CEOs. Comcast and Time Warner Cable are, quite literally, two of the worst and most hated companies in America. You can be sure their proposed merger has nothing to do with creating a better product for their combined 30 million subscribers, and everything to do with securing a greater profit.
In other words, combining two of the most wretchedly out-of-touch, manipulative, and corrupt companies in America would not suddenly result in a single virtuous institution. As they say in the computer world: Garbage In, Garbage Out. The merger would also give an unprecedented amount of control over the telecommunications industry to a single monolithic conglomerate. The US is already home to what are essentially statewide monopolies on the flow of information. Do we really want to make things even worse?
In an unfettered free market, these mergers would be old news by now, and would have dramatically reduced, rather than improved, competition in their respective industries.
How Big Business Bought the Internet
I’ll give you another example: One that has to do with the very purpose of the Internet.
We have already monetized every corner of the Internet. It was originally meant to be a globe-spanning tool for communication and collaboration, and instead we’ve turned it into a tool for greed, and, therefore, misinformation. It’s the reason Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver devoted a significant portion of a September show to taking Corporate America to task for their tone-deaf, ignorant, or downright offensive tweets. One example: DiGiorno’s absurd appropriation of the #WhyIStayed hashtag. What was intended as a worldwide statement of solidarity for victims of domestic abuse instead became a mechanism to sell frozen pizzas.
Twitter faux pas are one thing, so let’s speak more broadly: What is the purpose of the Internet?
In the late 1960’s, when the Internet was known as ARPANet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), it was only to be used as a research, communication, and collaboration tool. In fact, it was literally illegal to use this proto-Internet for personal gain. In those days, it was used almost exclusively by the US Department of Defense, but the influx of new users over the coming years would see those standards relaxed. Like, a lot. Consider this excerpt from the DoD’s “Etiquette” section of ARPANET’s rules (emphasis mine):
It is considered illegal to use ARPANET for anything which is not in direct support of government business … personal messages to other ARPANET subscribers … are generally not considered harmful … Sending electronic mail over the ARPANET for commercial profit or political purposes is both anti-social and illegal.
Damn, but things have changed — and in only 40 years! It’s obviously a very good thing that the government eventually opened up the Internet for use by The Common Man, but to so thoroughly abandon one of the Internet’s original core tenets is a decision we’ll be living with for a very long time — at least, until we tear down the Internet and build something better where AdBlock Plus, Tor, and VPNs are no longer a daily necessity.
But it’s not just about wading through a sea of advertisements in order to watch an 18-second YouTube video; it’s literally about the spread of information. For instance, if you rely on your cable subscription to deliver truthful news reporting, your credulity comes several decades too late. The mainstream media conglomerations have no interest in the unbiased reporting of facts (and certainly have nothing to do with the fabled “liberal agenda”), and have made it abundantly clear that they equate the phrase “pro-corporate” with the phrase “pro-America.” They regurgitate Conservative talking points as gospel so the teeming masses can nod their heads emptily.
And they’re coming for the Internet, too. The FCC has proposed common-sense regulations that would prepare the way for honest-to-goodness competition in the Internet Service Provider industry, just as they did a generation ago for telephone service in America. Guess who’s suing to protect their interests, and their ownership over the spread of information? AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast — all of the usual suspects, in other words.
Here’s a very simple question: Do you want more companies to provide access to information, or fewer? If you answered fewer, then you tacitly agree with the proposed government regulation (there’s that scary, scary word!) that would reclassify the Internet as a public utility. It’s called Title II, if you’re interested in learning about it.
In the meantime, we see with the Internet, as with everything else, that every system we create, where profit is the Prime Mover, invariably slips toward entropy and chaos. Objectivism is no different.
We Break Everything We Touch
So that’s just the Internet. In its current form, it’s only been around since the 1980’s or so, and what John Oliver described in his segment was only about what happens in broad daylight. So how much more egregious do you think things are behind the scenes?
The US government has been around quite a lot longer than the Internet — some 230 years. And where are we today? I’ll put it to you this way: If you don’t believe that the government now effectively serves as another branch of the private sector, you’re hopelessly naïve.
Lobbying is so rampant in Washington that I’m well past believing either the Democratic or Republican Parties (which, combined, represent barely a third of voting-eligible American adults) have any interests in mind besides those of their corporate benefactors. We are no longer their constituents, no matter how many times we chant our dead liturgies about representation, freedom, and justice.
Failed Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz spent the last few weeks trying to halt the government’s inquiries into Big Oil’s obfuscation of climate data over the last 40 years. Meanwhile, Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, the wretch who calls herself the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, sold out her constituents to side with the universally hated payday lending industry.
These are the assholes we allow to masquerade as “public servants.” The problem lies not in government, or in the size of government, but rather in a general and widespread ignorance of how the aristocracy has twisted the very idea of Democracy to serve their ends alone.
Who speaks for you?
Imagine what would happen if unaffiliated and non-registered Americans actually came together and got something done. The quaint fairy tale we tell ourselves about our two-party system being the “only choice” has made it possible for Objectivism to convince those with money and power that the needs of the few should outweigh the needs of the many.
As another example of how crooks in government have sold America’s integrity to the private sector, consider President Eisenhower’s warning in 1961 to look out for the rise of the Military Industrial Complex. In 2016, we’re living in the very future he feared. The American people have, justifiably, never been less sure of their government’s motivations for waging war. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of the previous administration’s ties with Halliburton, or Hillary Clinton’s loathsome habit of pushing less developed countries toward fracking during her tenure as Secretary of State.
Of course, our foreign policy is just one example of our leaders putting corporate America’s interests before those of its citizens. We still throw money at destructive industries like coal and oil in the form of subsidies and tax breaks, and thanks to corporate influence in Washington, we can’t seem to gain any ground with alternative energies like solar and nuclear. There is a campaign of fear in this country — and I really wish I could assume it was borne of ignorance rather than pure and desperate avarice — about the purported dangers of nuclear energy. The truth is something else entirely, and until we can separate fact from fiction, our progress — not as a nation but as a species — will continue to grind to a halt.
Nothing that I’ve just described was done in the name of Objectivism. We think of other, gentler names for our shitty Midas Touch. But make no mistake: “Me First” is the twisted logic that has waited, like a stalking butler, behind the scenes of every significant turning point in human history. Do we need to revisit America’s systematic destruction of Native American culture? How about Japanese internment? Or maybe the many spectacular failures of our Supreme Court, such as the Dred Scott decision of 1857, or Citizens United in 2010? And then we have the Deepwater Horizon clusterfuck from a few years ago — an unprecedented man-made disaster for which no man was willing to shoulder the blame.
It would take several lifetimes to account for each time we chose to serve Profit instead of the Common Good. And yet we still pretend that venomous screeds like Atlas Shrugged are morally and literarily worthy of being handed down like precious heirlooms.
Right now you’re probably thinking the government is no better. Why should we trust the government, rather than Objectivism, or the free market, or organized religion, with our well-being? All are very human institutions. The answer is both simple and sad: The government, if it actually answered to Reason first and foremost, would be a totally impartial entity, capable of rationally discussing — and acting in favor of — the common good without the shadow of Corporate America warping the language or intent of the conversation. Government — society as a whole, really — is the engine that delivers consensus. Objectivism delivers tyranny.
Corporate interests — not the working poor — are the parasites here, eating away at the foundation. And the Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United, while frequently blamed for our government’s spiral into shameless corruption, was hardly the first step — it was simply the most public.
So What About Jesus?
Ayn Rand is pretty much the only atheist most Christians are comfortable quoting on Facebook.
Those on the Rightmost end of the Political Spectrum conveniently explain away the incompatibility of Objectivism and Christianity by, well, not explaining it at all. While it’s true that Ayn Rand herself was as staunch an atheist as you’ll ever find, she was also so much of an atheist that faith, religion, and the Holy Ghost didn’t actually factor into her calculations. Not even a little bit.
That’s how Conservatives reconcile their two diametrically opposed belief systems: By never letting the two meet. They speak out of one side of their mouth about Christian grace, love, and forgiveness, but out of the other side of their mouth they champion not just greed, but the ugly nihilism of Objectivism. And yes — belief only in yourself still counts as nihilism.
The funny thing, of course, is just how similar Objectivism and Christianity really are. The former prescribes a myopia so complete that we cannot envision a world beyond our own blood, flesh, and money. Meanwhile, the latter is almost belligerently incompatible with most civilized definitions of social justice and scientific due process.
There’s a scene that keeps playing itself out in my head. It’s completely fictional, of course, so you’ll excuse the anachronisms. It takes place thousands of years ago — early on in the development of humankind. It involves a group of older white men (because of course they’re white) gathered around a table, drinking Old Fashioneds and fiddling with their Blackberries. They’re coming up with ways to steer the course of human development.
One of them gestures grandly to a whiteboard where, on one side, he’s drawn the symbol of the Almighty Dollar — and on the other side is a bad caricature of Jesus Christ.
The focus groups are still looking at these, he begins. But gentlemen, he says, now looking slowly around the room, between the two of these icons, we’ll have them all right where we want them.
We Deserve Something Better
You should know that I’ve fought a difficult battle for a long time. I’ve already rejected my childhood fear of all things supernatural, and I’m now beginning to outgrow the notion that self-interest ought to be the primary driving instinct in our lives. Trust me when I say that it’s been difficult.
But isn’t every part of our emergence from childhood?
Yes; you still need to look out for Number One. Secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist your neighbor. But we are, right this moment, living in the troubled world fashioned by our taking that philosophy to its absurd, and sadly inevitable, extremes.
Serve thyself, fuck over thy neighbor, and store up treasures for thyself on earth. Don’t we want something better?
This essay also appears on Medium.