Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Constitutional Ideology: Ayn Rand Division

Ken Kersch

A recent edition of The New Republic (November 3, 2011) reinforced what is now fairly well-known about the influence of the radical free-market propagandist Ayn Rand on the mind (and, more importantly, the emotions and imagination) of key figures on the contemporary Right. The magazine tells us, for instance, that Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin assigns Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as required reading for his staff.

With this in mind, I recently re-read the conservative (Communist Party defector, ex-Soviet spy, and Alger Hiss-accuser) Whittaker Chambers’s eviscerating review of Rand’s
Atlas Shrugged, published in William F. Buckley Jr.,’s National Review on December 28, 1957.

“The news about this book,” Chambers wrote, “seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do.” Rand’s 1168 page “novel” – which Chambers insisted was less an actual novel than “a tract for the times,” was a cartoon cast in black and white – the black being the “looters” (socialists-in-fact of all names), and the white being the “looted”: imaginative, talented, productive, visionary free-market capitalists. “Robin Hood is the author’s image of absolute evil,” Chambers observed, “robbing the strong (and hence good) to give to the weak (and hence no good).” Although she had burbled on about Aristotle, Chambers fingered Friedrich Nietzsche at the Russian-born author’s paramount intellectual influence.

What so disgusted the conservative Chambers was Rand’s abject materialism, in which the compulsive acquisition and consumption of capitalism (the more rapacious the better) was all. Chambers warned that “It is when a system of materialist ideas presumes to give positive answers to real problems in our real life that mischief starts. In an age like ours, in which a highly complex … society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities.”

While he had no love for the (socialistic/bureaucratic) governing elite, Chambers pointed out that it did little good to simply “plump for” a would-be “industrial-financial-engineering caste” to take their place. These people, fed on Randian fairly tales about “an aristocracy of talents,” would soon imagine themselves to be “living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto [themselves].”

Content aside, Chambers was particularly struck by “the book’s dictatorial tone.” “Out of a lifetime of reading,” Chambers wrote, “I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.”

Sound familiar? Chambers take-down of
Atlas Shrugged for postwar conservatism’s flagship magazine reminds us of the powerful insights of which conservatives were capable before most became slaves to the tyranny of talking-points -- the true Gods of America’s new Gilded Age.

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