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Utopian Dreams ~ Ayn Rand, John Calvin & the Conservative Right

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course,  involves orcs.

                                                                         ~ Paul Krugman

Extremism is so easy. You’ve got your position, and that’s it. It doesn’t take much thought. And when you go far enough to the right you meet the same idiots coming around from the left.

(Interview, Time Magazine, February 20, 2005)

                                                                              ~ Clint Eastwood

Utopian dreams, whether in the form of religious utopias or in the form of secular/atheistic utopias, are unrealistic and incompatible with human nature and real life. Utopian reason is mostly extremist in its absolute black-and-white logic, devoid of subtlety, excessively demanding, and unrelentingly exclusive. It is mostly inhumane in practice since it ignores the natural diversity of life and is disparaging of human frailty.  Adolescent in its romantic visions, utopias encourage “heroic” efforts to cure the world by changing the character of people. Their unquestioned assumptions generate “magic thinking” instead of real creative thought when faced with injustices, or the complexities of human nature.

 With all utopian ventures, the unavoidable fatal flaw is that the participants must accept the ideology of the utopia and act according to the rules.  The reality, of course, is that this unanimity is not long lasting.   Disillusionment caused by human failings is the usual reason for the collapse of utopian dreams.

Ayn Rand (b. 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia – d. 1982 in New York City) was a Russian atheist who rejected the religious mysticism of the Russian Orthodox Church and the collectivism of the Russian Revolution. She had been a supporter of Alexander Kerensky, the Prime Minister of the provisional government after the fall of the Tsar and before the Bolshevik Revolution. Like Kerensky, Ayn Rand was a member of the middle class in Russia and was well educated. But, she witnesses the failure of Kerensky’s democratic socialism and, of course, strongly objected to socialistic Bolshevism. Rand came to idealized the individual freedom found in the United States. Her opportunity to have an higher education lead to her interest in the cinematic arts. In 1925 she came to the U. S. and decided to stay.  She moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter and novelist.

She espoused in her stories and novels an extreme capitalistic/ atheistic utopia in reaction to the Bolshevism of her youth in Russia, which was, after all, a socialistic/secular/atheistic form of utopian extremism.  In many ways she went “far enough to the right” to “meet the same idiots coming around from the left.”  The “idiots” mentioned in the Eastwood quote above are “ideologues,” who by nature are extremists, who believe that their singular all-embracing analysis of human nature will cover all contingencies in life and will address the vast needs of all human diversity.

In her novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and her non-fiction books such as “The Virtue of Selfishness” (1964) and “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” (1966), Ayn Rand depicted a society based on ultra-capitalism, which encourages a radical individualism.  In the individual is found true authority and not in any type of social hierarchical organization.  Surprisingly, this  extreme individualism would not lead to chaos, or, at the very least, injustice. Instead, it would, according to Rand, nurture society, which can only survive through the attainments of radically free creative individuals who have adopted a “rational selfishness,” an ethical egotism.

Professional and financial success, become the signs of  “true individuals,” the “prime-movers” of society.  They struggle against “the second-handlers” of society, who look to others or social hierarchical organizations as authorities and not to themselves to define their own values and beliefs.  “The second-handlers” are also known as “the moochers” who find their meaning in religion, governments, and philosophies. Because they are weak, they have a co-dependent relationship on the “prime-movers.”  The concept of “self-sacrifice” as found in the Judeo-Christian ethic and practiced by “moochers” is  the weakness that thwarts the rational ethical code of the “prime-movers,” whose “rational selfishness” sustains society.

Rand believed that “rational selfishness” embodied the correct rational and liberating understanding of human nature. This reality of human nature in all its excesses contributes to society when participating in a liberated laissez-faire free market.  Rand defined the ideal nature of an individual capitalist thusly:

He must exist for his own self, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.  The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”

The preponderance of all this rational self-interest will bolster a strong economy.  But, in response to this Randian belief, it must be asked, can capitalistic competition correct or heal the flaws of human nature?  This was Rand’s hope. The human inclination to greed will flourish in an unregulated environment, this being the true pursuit of happiness, and somehow this will produce a successful society.  Rand believed that government only should exist to maintain a police force, the military, and the judiciary; the more limited the better.

Rand’s political theory is known as “Objectivism.”  For the individual to find happiness, s/he must be radically free to create and his/her motive to create must be firmly rooted in the profit motive.  Indeed, if the profit motive is reduced by the socialistic meddling of a government through regulations, society would eventually collapse because the three pillars of society are:  Reason, Individualism, and a radical laissez-faire Capitalism.  The rich and the successful must be preserve at all cost since their creativity preserves the whole structure  through their production.  One might say, the benefits of this elitist group of business creators “trickle down” to the dependent “employees.”  The capitalists are an elite group that are “job creators.”  Like most utopian social visions, humanity is divided into two fundamentally-different groups locked in an eternal, if not cosmic, conflict.

Unlike communism, Rand’s ultra-capitalism, was not classless.  She referred to it’s ranking as “natural honor” and not class, but, none-the-less, there is an “aristocracy of money” in “Galt’s Gulch.”  Her upper class is made up of the great “industrialists.”  Underneath is the less capable “employees.”

Rand’s novels ignore real thorny issues of governance in a utopia.  She assumes that rational creative individuals (the “industrialists”, following their reason and logic, would offer their “employees” a fair wage for a fair day’s work.  And, the “employees,” in turn, would gratefully work a fair day’s work for that fair wage.  But what happens if this amiable arrangement doesn’t work; when this rational ethic does not curb greed or it does not fulfill basic human needs? Radical freedom to gather wealth may not sate greed or other human desires.  Most religious utopias established rather ridged authoritarian structures with rules and regulations to deal with human foibles and irrationalities, i.e. the severe Millennial Laws of the Shakers. The national examples of Soviet Russia (USSR) and Mao Zedong’s Communist China illustrate this same kind of autocratic authority from the top down. Of course, Rand rejected any governmental authority outside of the individual.

Rand also seems unconcerned about the availability or lack of resources for everyone in society, i.e. should there be a high level of education only for those who can afford it, or, a high level of education for everyone? How does she handle availability of natural resources?  How available is health care?  How is unfair competition and privileges dealt with?   The availability of resources effects how people can rise in class if they are ambitious. Even ultra-capitalism has to deal with the inequalities in the distribution of resources.

Utopias notoriously don’t know how to handle people who disagree with the ideology of the utopia.  Even ideologues sometimes fail to live up to their own ideals.  What to do with the “moochers” in general?  Rand opted for an all-or-nothing option for the “industrialists.”  When tensions increase, let the co-dependent “moochers” of society self-destruct but don’t ever give up on the sequestered“rational selfishness.”

In Atlas Shrugged the leading character, John Galt, in reaction to “the moochers” who live off of other people’s achievements, decides to lead “the prime-movers” on a strike into “Galt’s Gulch.” This action is the exact opposite of  strikes organized by workers seeking greater access to social mobility and justice.  “The prime-movers” withdrawal into isolation and allow the “moochers” to destroy society through their weakness and socialistic dependencies.  Eventually, society will arise again through the efforts of the “prime-movers” like a phoenix from the flames, but the cycle of build up and failure will begin once again, ad infinitum .  If this isn’t “class warfare,” I don’t know what it is!  It is also an innately unjust process, generating suffering, which could be avoided.

The American democracy has hosted many utopian experiments during its history which were seeking to build perfected communities on earth:  the Ephrata Cloister, the Fourierists, the Icarians, the Shakers, the Mormans, Nashoba, Harmony, and New Harmony, Brook Farm, Fruitlands, Oneida, Armana, the Moravians, Hutterites, Branch Davidians, and many others.  Most of these experiments were religious in nature and short lived.  They could flourish in the U.S. due to the freedom of groups of individuals to gather into associations to attempt experimental ways of living and human improvement.  Utopian experiments are extreme examples of attempts to improve human nature, but, there are other models of change, that are far more acceptable to most people, that actually are rooted in the historic mainline Protestant legacy of the 19th century.  They have become so pervasive in our culture they have even influence people without any religious convictions. Two images of God the Father have influenced these models of human change: the strict Father and the nurturing Father.

 Strict Father/Profound Corruption of Human Nature:

  1. The Calvinist and Free Market model based on changing individual social behavior through punishment (force).
  2. The Evangelical and Revivalist model based on a “born again” conversion to change individual behavior and also buttressed with Calvinistic punishment (force).

 Nurturing Father/Human Nature both Good and Bad:

  1. The Liberal-Progressive model based on changing systems and institutions to change human behavior on a collective level over a period of time.

The theology of Protestant minister and theologian John Calvin (b. 1509 in Noyon, France-d. 1564 in Geneva, Switzerland) preached the extreme position that human nature is irrevocably corrupted and that humanity is radically dependent on a strict God.  Consequently, humanity can not in any way help change itself for the better. The extreme interpretation of Calvinistic theology and eschatology also divides humanity into two castes:  the Elect and the Reprobate.  John Calvin himself twice tried to establish a very strict Christian utopia in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation.  There was peace along with virtually a police state!   The absolutist nature of Calvinism still lives on today in a muted form in the first two models listed above.  Ayn Rand would have nothing to do with religious oriented utopias since church government can be as manipulative and confining of human freedom as secular government, possibly more so.   There must not be any governmental limitations on the Randian “prime-movers” who are the creative, or, dare we say, the equivalent of Calvinistic “Elect” who receive all the blessings of God even if they don’t deserve them.  Traditional Calvinistic Double-Predestination is radical, divisive, judgmental, and punishing.  It is similar to Randian “Objectivism” ~ unashamedly elitist.  A certain group of people, who garner and manipulate every ounce of power there is, is morally better than all other groups of people in society.  For Ayn Rand, money and political might makes right.  For Calvin, money and political might proves right.  Rand would argue that human nature doesn’t need to change to be moral whereas Calvin would say that immoral human nature can’t change since it is so corrupted but it needs the grace of God to find salvation.

The conservative movement in the late 20th century and early 21st century has been influenced by a variety of philosophical and theological ideas. The growth of conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism has had a huge impact.  The philosophy of Ayn Rand was gladly adopted by conservatives who wanted to limit government and by right-Libertarians, although Rand resisted the label of Libertarian for herself and had conflicts with many noted Libertarians.  Starting in the 1980s Ronald Reagan’s “supply-side” economics, also known as “voodoo” economics was popularized and rests on four pillars: the reduction of the growth of government spending, reduction of income tax and capital gains tax, reduction of government regulation of the economy, and control of the money supply to reduce inflation.  The claim was that we were returning back to pre-Roosevelt economics. Reaganomics fit well with the attitudes of modern evangelicals and fundamentalists and Reagan invited southern evangelical conservatives to join the Republic Party to strengthen it.  Christian conservatives are prone to resists all forms of “statism,” the expansion of the power of government, because that is seen as the growing secularizing force in American culture. Ayn Rand would promote the secularizing of American society.

It is a conundrum that Christian conservatives do not apparently perceive laissez-faire capitalism as a secularizing force itself in our culture.  Does a Randian-style “aristocracy of money” lead to moral justice?  Have Americans forgotten the injustices of the “Gilded Age” (1870-1900)?  Was the phenomenal rise of corporate business a “magic bullet” of greater morality? There was a growing gap between the rich and the poor.  The power of the corporations actually was destroying some of the free-market and competition as it had been experienced earlier.  It was an age of incredible economic growth and economic exploitation.  These inequalities lead to the Progressive Movement, which was a populist movement. It was the beginning of “Trust-Busting” as a corrective to the excesses.

The liberal Progressive Movement had it roots in the Antebellum social movements such as the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements. Those movements were rooted in the liberal Evangelical impetus of that time to improve society in preparation of the return of Jesus Christ after a thousand years work, the Millennium. Theologically, this is a Post-Millennialism that preached a positive view of human nature, which is called to cooperate with God’s grace to create a better world.  After the Civil War, the evangelical movement in the U.S. became more fundamentalistic, which stressed the corruption of human nature à la Calvinism.

The fundamentalist point of view has religiously dominated the 20th century. The belief that people and situations can’t change can be used as an excuse for glorified selfishness à la Rand.  The motivation for effective human intervention can dwindle when the primary belief is that only God by Him/Herself can make a definitive difference. I feel like we have lived in an increasingly selfish society for the last forty years.  When there is no sense of common purpose and no one feels obliged to sacrifice for the greater good, then we are weakened because we have turned into a self-centered society.

The present “Tea Party” is a combination of traditional fiscal conservatism, the libertarian limitation on government, popularism, social conservatism (the old Christian Right), powered by the influence of billionaires such as David and Charles Koch.

Like the recent popular book, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, which is a “mash-up” of two very different literary genres, biography with a fantasy about vampires, the conservative-right today is a “mash-up” of irreconcilable philosophies (social and economic) with theology.

Ayn Rand, herself, if she was alive today, would ridicule such a “mash up” because she was a militant atheists and quite liberal in her opinion about social issues. She would belittle the “cultural divide” in this country generated by the divide between the conservative Christian right and liberal Christianity.

Actually, she insisted that “Objectivists” were not “conservatives” but radical laissez-faire capitalists and that her form of capitalism was a moral social system that nurtures moral individualism.  Like separation of organized church and state, Rand wanted absolute separation of the state and the economy. She would resent that her philosophy of  “Objectivism” was cherry-picked to defend policies of which she would not approve.  Although she would probably agree with Grover Norquist’s statement, “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” she would not approve of the coalitions united in the effort: ethnic and religious minorities.  She would criticize the religious right as the authoritarian voice of the culture wars and would fear that they will use the government to enforce their view of morality on individuals.

Only democracy and a robust political process can deal with the natural diversity in society.  Fanciful utopias and most “-isms,” although they can be very compelling and even inspiring, can’t, and, they usually adopt systems of excessive and secretive control.  Only democracy can deal with the diversity of social organizations and associations, which express their opinions and needs.  The checks and balances in our government are meant to help reduce the effects of our human proclivity to enjoy all the flaws flesh is heir to.  The length of the process is meant to help us reflect on the ramifications of any piece of legislation.  The democratic process moves on by the collaboration of people and, dare I say, even compromise, to achieve a common purpose.

Only democracy can fight for human rights for every individual.  Real justice can only come from a government of the people, by the people, for the people; not just a privileged few. The political parties and the political process, which indeed can be a very long and messy process, are the means for the people to fairly elect the leaders of the government, to execute the will of the people, and to seek the general welfare, the common good, of all the people.

The government is meant to be a fair conservator or steward of human resources through an enlightened, cautious, and monitored measure of social and industrial justice.  The Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought in their reform movement to:

  • prevent industrial accidents and occupational diseases by establishing safety and health standards and a system of compensation for death or injury at work,
  • prevent child labor,
  • prevent excessive overwork by establishing an eight-hour day and a day of rest during the week,
  • prevent excessive low wages by establishing the standard of a livable wage,
  • prevent ignorance through greater and universal educational opportunities,
  • To prevent punitive unemployment by the organization of workers,
  • and other ill  effects of industry.

The above reforms are now so common and accepted, most people don’t even think about it nor would they question the justice of their existence.  Ideally the government is a servant to the people and politicians and civil servants are public servants. The government is controlled by the people for the propagation of the public interest. Consequently, the people need to be involved and part of the process.  I disagrees that the government itself is the problem and I believe we are entering a new age of progressiveness.  As the government is a servant and should strive for more transparency, so too should the corporate world see itself as a servant, not just only to share-holders, but to our whole culture and it should also strive for more transparency.  The public sector and the private sector need to cooperate with each other.

As a Christian I believe that what can change or heal human nature is  God’s transformational grace, which can enter every individual heart directly and can also be shared in the larger culture through grace-filled  and service-minded people who sacrifice to seek the common good and help others.

President Obama, in his proclamation of the National Day of Prayer, which was held on May 3, 2012  prayed:

“May we embrace the responsibility we have to each other, and rely on the better angels of our nature in service to one another. Let us be humble in our convictions, and courageous in our virtue. Let us pray for those who are suffering around the world, and let us be open to opportunities to ease that suffering.”

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