A serial journal of cogent reflections and irreverent insights on the social effects of capitalism and the roots of partisan politics. Pairing prose with HDR photography and “flash points” drawn from current and historical perspectives, the author seeks to recover lost wisdom and courageous action beyond the shouting and noise of today's headlines.
The Organization Man Meets Radical Self-Interest
Time Range: 1956 – 1960, 1987 – 2008
In 1956–1957, two enormously successful books came out that might be thought of as shadow documents for this period of history — shadow in the sense that they exposed unstated fears and extreme reactions that lay just outside the upbeat portrayal of American society. The first was The Organization Man, by William H. Whyte. Decrying the subtle homogenization of thought and attitude in American society, Whyte warned that a new form of false cooperation was being preached in corporate hallways. Having conducted interviews at General Electric and Ford, he came to believe that a collectivist ethic was leading to a pathological love of safety and fear of risk taking. The emerging language of corporate human relations was nothing more than a justification for hiding in crowds and expecting a predictable career path.
The shadow of emerging affluence was people without character, without a soul. For those who still remembered Marx, it was a confirmation of his warnings about human degradation and loss of authenticity. For others, it was a clarion call to advance the value of self-reliance and the importance of individual self-interest against the wave of homogenizing influences.
In 1905, a nice Jewish girl named Alisa Rosenbaum was born in Russia. She was educated there and came to the United States in 1926. She could have been my father’s older sister, as he was also Jewish, was born in Eastern Europe, and came to the United States in 1925–1926. They both believed in an individual’s capacity via hard work and persistence to shape his or her own destiny. My father’s path was to work in New York City’s garment district selling fabric and wire for hats until he invented a small hand machine that set rhinestones and nailheads into clothing. He called it the Brisk-Set.
Alisa took another path. She became a Hollywood screenwriter and wrote novels. She demanded reverence for her ideas, and her wild mood swings may have been influenced by the amphetamines that she took. She called herself Ayn Rand and in 1957 published her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.
Shrugged, which I read in
high school, struck some fundamental chord in the American psyche. The book
launched her from an already-successful author to a major intellectual force,
and the book still sells well to this day. Championing a morality of radical
self-interest, Atlas Shrugged was a
fictional account of a brilliant and creative man who simply did not feel
appreciated enough. We can only begin to imagine how many people identified
with such a hero.
In Rand’s social dystopia, society had been hoodwinked, and the best and brightest were being compromised by illegitimate attitudes of altruism, collectivism, and state-controlled interventions. From what she believed was a rational and objective perspective, society owed its future to the few truly extraordinary individuals, and government should get out of their way. She certainly viewed herself in this way, declaring herself on national television the most creative thinker alive, although one of her admirers, Newt Gringrich, might have had a quarrel with her on that score.
Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was also a great admirer, paying his respects at her funeral and sharing with her a deep faith in laissez-faire capitalism and individual rights. He served as chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, and his disdain for regulation was almost as revered as his reputation as a financial wizard. However, something went awry a couple of years after he stepped down. He acknowledged to Congress in testimony regarding the economic collapse of 2008 that he simply could not believe that markets would not be self-correcting. “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief” (New York Times, October 23, 2008).
He acknowledged a “flaw” in his conceptual framework of reality and was distressed by it, believing the model had worked, in his mind, exceedingly well for 40 years. Hearing him speak in his gray monotone style reminded me of a computer initiating a safety check, looking for bugs in the code that might be influencing the computer’s efficiency.
In metaphoric terms, Ayn Rand was writing code back in the ’50s for successful individuals to separate themselves from others without guilt or shame. This had been achieved in the past by royalty, having associated their divine rights with God, but for Rand this could not be the justification.
Instead, she welded her very real distrust of central authority encountered in Russia with a mandate for individual self-esteem, an emerging philosophy of positive self worth that would crest in popularity late in the 1960's. She proclaimed that what benefited societies were people who used their talents to the full and who were not inhibited or regulated by others. Laissez-faire capitalism was simply the economic and social extension of these ideas.
Unfettered capital accumulation by the individual was only logical to Rand – one should keep what was personally earned. The individual had to be constantly at war with the collectivist viewpoint, a battle that must be waged continually, or risk the very moral fiber of the nation. This was a battle that transcended Rand herself; individualism was a philosophy associated with triumph.
The pristine nature of these libertarian ideas was like a tonic to the ambitious organization man. Here was a remedy for the forces of conformity and homogenizing influences of a mass-producing culture. In Rand’s model of a robust society, individual self-esteem and making lots of money were inseparable. How could this not be right? It was the perfect marriage. The organization man meets a tough and spirited woman in a cocktail bar called Capitalism, and they go at it. If only it were so. The ’50s in the United States had an underlying tone of self-congratulation that was about to change quite dramatically.
April 17, 2012
Paul Ryan Suddenly Does Not Embrace Ayn Rand Teachings
WASHINGTON- Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) tried to send the message this week that, contrary to ‘urban legend,’ he is not obsessed with philosopher and author Ayn Rand.
"'I reject her philosophy,’ Ryan told the National Review on Thursday. ‘It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don’t give me Ayn Rand.’
“Best known for her novels ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ Rand advocated a philosophy that emphasizes the individual over the collective, and viewed capitalism as the only system truly based on the protection of the individual. She has been a significant influence on libertarians and conservatives.
Ryan, whose name has been floated as a possible running mate for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, appeared to be distancing himself from Rand in response to a public letter he received this week from nearly 90 faculty and administrators at Georgetown University. In their letter, they criticize him for misusing Catholic social teaching in defending his budget, which hurts the poor by proposing significant cuts to anti-hunger programs, slashing Pell Grants for low-income students and calling for a replacement of Medicare with a voucher-like system. They also invoke Rand’s name.
“‘As scholars, we want to join the Catholic bishops in pointing out that his budget has a devastating impact on programs for the poor,’ said Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, one of the organizers of the letter. ‘Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.’
“But any urban legend about Ryan’s affinity for Rand surely started with Ryan himself, who, prior to this week, had no qualms about gushing about Rand’s influence on his guiding principles.
“‘The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,’ Ryan said during a 2005 event honoring Rand in Washington, D.C., the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in April 2009.
“During the 2005 gathering, Ryan told the audience, ‘Almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill … is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict — individualism versus collectivism.’ The event was hosted by The Atlas Society, which prominently features a photo of Rand on its website and describes itself as a group that ‘promotes open Objectivism: the philosophy of reason, achievement, individualism, and freedom.’”
~ Huffington Post
“PBS Frontline Investigation into Financial Crisis Suggests Another Disaster on Horizon
April 24, 2012
“On Tuesday night PBS will air the first two parts of a four-part documentary on the crisis, called ‘Money, Power and Wall Street,’ with the second two parts to air next Tuesday, May 1. …
“It puts credit derivatives in their rightful position as the ultimate cause of the financial crisis — not the selling of houses to poor people, not super-low Federal Reserve interest rates, not a surplus of savings from China or Japan. …
Derivatives — bundles of securities that sliced and diced mortgages and sold them to investors, and credit default swaps that helped investors pretend they’d bought insurance against those bundles going bad — fueled what Frontline calls ‘an unfettered brave new world of banking,’ spreading credit liberally throughout the land, feeding the housing boom and exposing the banking system to nightmarish risk.
“And this all happened far, far away from the oversight of regulators, who bought the arguments of Alan Greenspan, the Thomas Friedman of finance, that any fetters on the free market would block the free flow of credit.
“‘The regulation of derivatives transactions that are privately negotiated by professionals is unnecessary,’ rasped the Ayn Rand acolyte, who seems to grow more monstrous with hindsight. ‘It hinders the efficiency of markets.’
“Banks, meanwhile, whined that they would lose their ability to compete in the global financial system if the government didn’t immediately break down the Depression-era rules that prevented them from getting too big to fail. Okey-doke, said both Congress and the Clinton administration. You got it.”
~ Huffington Post
Next Week: How Wealth Became Concentrated and the Poor Were to Blame
“Paupers are everywhere.” ~Complaint heard from Queen Elizabeth, late 16th century, after returning from travels in the English countryside.
Michael Harrington, political activist, socialist, and professor of political science at Queens College, was no Queen Elizabeth, but his research on poverty came to the same conclusion. As he wrote in his book The Other America, he was horrified to find that 40 to 50 million Americans lived in poverty, a fifth to a quarter of the entire US population in 1962. Where were they hiding?