Aug 27th 2012

Ryan, Rand and 'Altruism'

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

Ayn Rand -- of Fountainhead / Atlas Shrugged fame -- hasn't been in the news since one of her prize disciples, Alan Greenspan, proclaimed her as the inspiration for a way of thinking that brought the world financial system to wrack and ruin. Rand spawned a juvenile creed of unmitigated selfishness that resounded for a while with young egoists who fantasized that they were 'supermen' who should disdain the social ethics that enslaved lesser men. She, and her dogma, has now reemerged as the model for Paul Ryan's inchoate thoughts about the evil of government, the gold standard, and the virtue of getting rich at any cost -- among other brilliant ideas for rescinding the social policies of the 20th century.

The phenomenon's significance lies not in the anthropological curiosity item that is the sociopathic Randian sect. More compelling is its melding with atavistic elements of American tradition into a movement of the disaffected, the deluded self-styled heroes, the status deprived, and the cynical that is endangering the humane decency of the country we have worked to perfect over 225 years.

The sect's component groupings, in their various modulations, having annexed the Republican party, are on the verge of seizing control of the entire federal government. Once in their hands, the levers of power will be used to restore the free-wheeling, government-lite America of the 19th century, only in the economic sphere, where the domination of financial elites will be consolidated. In the social and cultural spheres, they will be used to impose codes of conduct that cripple liberties. The latter was not the ideal of Ayn Rand (she favored unrestricted abortion rights), but rather confirmation of the inescapable destination to which a mutant form of her doctrine leads when all sense of community is denigrated. For one is disparaging humanity thereby.

Alexis de Tocqueville long ago identified the two Achilles heels in American popular democracy that could be our undoing, if we are not alert to the danger: extreme individualism and extreme materialism. Today, we are witnessing that threat as manifest. Those intertwined, mutually reinforcing impulses shape our attitudes and guide our behavior about private affairs and public affairs alike. Together, they have prepared the ground for the successes of the Tea Party, of its willing instrument -- the Republican Party, and of those seekers of power and/or glory who either drive the movement or simply find it in their personal interest to gloss over the unsettling truth about the pathologies that are deforming American ideals.

For narcissism is now the national religion. That is to say, a religion that recognizes only one sovereign power and worships at only one altar -- the all-demanding and all-consuming self. Narcissism is dressed out in a multiplicity of styles -- masquerading as enlightened reform (doing away with the rights of salaried workers and their access to public services, deregulation, privatization); as old time religion (God and his prophet as a spiritual Swiss army knife that justifies prejudice and encourages fearful, sweaty egos in their relentless search for 'meaning'); as family responsibility (looking after the extended Number 1 menaced by those anonymous forces who would steal your comfort and transfer it to the unworthy); as defense of 'Liberty' for true, rugged individualistic Americans whose gun collection is the only thing that stands between freedom and socialists, aliens, terrorists and other assorted hobgoblins imagined by insecure and fevered personalities.

The extent to which a narcissistic perspective on life has permeated our consciousness is evident in the current discourse about 'altruism.' How do we explain something that is counter to common sense? What social influences lead some people some of time to behave in this odd way? Is it religious dicta inscribed in holy books whose lessons have been drummed into us in houses of worship? It may be inborn in mothers sacrificing for their offspring but why should it include 'others' who are natural competitors of their progeny?

This mysterious thing called 'altruism' covers a wide range of behaviors: freely giving away money and goods (i.e. philanthropy); lending a helping hand to strangers; worrying and carrying about groups in society that you have no direct connection with; coming to the assist of the vulnerable who could be viewed as burdens on productive members of society and/or simply the losers in the game of natural selection. These questions today are earnestly debated in serious journals, on the web, in scholarly circles, and in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times -- the ultimate arbiter of upper middle-brow thinking.

The fundamental point is that the question is almost universally considered legitimate and puzzling. For it is widely taken as given that "altruism" is an aberration from the norm. In truth, it indeed has become an aberration in terms of how vast numbers of people relate to their fellows. We have lost track of who we are. We have lost track of human identity as a social being. We have lost track of our evolution as members of communities -- immediate and abstracted. We overlook some elementary facts about ourselves.

Humans have an instinct to bond -- in families, in extended families, in small tribal groupings, in larger tribes. We have a further capacity for empathy that extends beyond those groupings. It doesn't take social learning, much less instruction, to feel the impulse to protect an endangered relation -- or any other member of the species for that matter. In fact, these instincts are readily observable among higher mammals, primates surely and also others, e.g. an elephant herd, a lion pride. Even a rogue elephant, the pachyderm counterpart to the Randites' 'superman,' has been filmed coming to the rescue of a stray baby stalked by predators -- oblivious to the risk he is running of weakening the moral fiber of the elephant community by this unseemly act of altruism. Yet for many, similar behavior among humans is interpreted as requiring a special explanation. They get nothing from the animal kingdom while grasping for convenient verities in the prolix pages of Ayn Rand and the like. Quite apart from nature shows, one can only shudder at the impoverished lives these people must experience. They "dwell in deficiency," to borrow a phrase from the Gnostic gospels.

This narcissism grounded pathology is most widespread in the United States. More qualified variations are surfacing in Western Europe, especially within the copy-cat government of Britain's David Cameron. But only a doctrinaire few over there can contemplate repealing the great advances of the past century that have extended the logic and sentiment of human solidarity to entire countries. Only a few can imagine a society that amends the admonition that "humanity is the ultimate measure of what we do" while embracing a doctrine of all against all with the privileged getting a head start. Only a few can fail to see the connection between implementing a plan of greedy individualism and the reversion of relations among countries to the conflict mode of yesteryear. America, unfortunately, is the trailblazer and pacesetter -- and it is Americans, politicians and journalists and intellectuals, who are having a powerful influence on how the rest of the world thinks about all this.

The developed world, in the second half of the 20th century, achieved something historic; something that only visionaries in an earlier era could have imagined. Societies build on practical principles of mutual obligation and individual dignity enjoying unprecedented domestic tranquility and material well-being. That required acts of intellectual, ethical and politically creativity. Positive inertia kept them going. For the past 30 years or so, that positive inertia has given way to a combination of complacency about of the fruits of our great achievement and disparagement of its mainspring.

Today, especially in the United States, a new class of ambitious strivers are making their mark by destruction -- not by creation. It is an alliance of the powerful and power hungry, the insecure comforted by fanciful nostrums, and the opportunists. The last is a broad, heteroclite assemblage -- in academia, media, politics and the professions. They will have the most to answer for as the project of destruction progresses.

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