Ayn Rand 2.0

by Stan Sorscher

Stan Sorscher

I went to France in June and couldn’t help comparing the French revolution to our own. So let’s start with aristocracy, then we’ll get to Ayn Rand. Stick with me.

In a nutshell, shortly after our revolution, peasants in France concluded that aristocrats were giving them a really crappy deal. Within a short time, peasants and workers rounded up aristocrats, and took them to Place de la Concorde in downtown Paris, and chopped off their heads. Very serious stuff.

In a museum, I saw “The Gleaners,” a famous work by Jean-François Millet, depicting 3 peasant women stooping over to pick up wheat left behind in the harvest. I knew this painting from Sunday school, where I learned as a child that people of wealth have a moral obligation to acknowledge the dignity of poor people.

Gleaning in the fields was a case in point, going back to the Old Testament.

The Gleaners (Des glaneuses) by Jean-François Millet

Imagine my shock to hear from the museum audio guide that the painting was controversial when displayed in 1857. Aristocrats (evidently some had survived with their heads intact, if not their human compassion) regarded the three peasant women as brutes. Aristocrats objected to painting peasants in a sympathetic light.

On the opposite wall in the museum was another example of French realism, painted a few years later by Jules Breton. Its title is translated as “Recalling the Gleaners from the Field.” This one was amazing – more compelling than The Gleaners.

In the second painting, the peasant women are just as poor, with bare feet and torn clothes, but this is a work team, with confident presence – all business, capable, focused even at the end of the working day. The women seem to communicate among themselves instinctively, like players on a strong sports team. Their recent ancestors had chopped off the heads of aristocrats, and they seem ready to do it again, if needed.

Recalling the Gleaners from the Field (Le rappel des glaneuses) by Jules Breton

Which brings me to Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand’s books, Atlas Shrugged in particular, serve as an intellectual foundation for free market ideology. Atlas Shrugged came out as a movie recently. At the time, Rand’s outlook regarding the rich was characterized in these terms:

“… wealthy people “produce” and are rich because they “produce.” The rest of us are “parasites” who suck blood and energy from the productive rich, by taxing them.”

Jon Stewart captures this in one of his videos.

I completely disagree with Ayn Rand’s reasoning about how rich people become rich. My success depends on strong communities, shared prosperity, opportunity and fairness, and investment in the future. Alex de Tocqueville called this “self interest, properly understood.”

As Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.”

Eric Reinert asks why a barber in Honduras earns less than $1 per hour while the standard of living for a barber in Ohio might be 30 times higher, even though both are comparably productive and skillful, and the two are equally deserving of prosperity. Simply put, the Ohio barber’s customers are more prosperous.

This stands in contrast to the Ayn Rand view that rich people succeed largely as a consequence of their inner nobility. I call that the Ayn Rand 1.0 perspective. Ideally, in an Ayn Rand 1.0 world, some people acquire great wealth, but the political and economic system will maintain an equitable social balance and healthy dynamic between different income groups, with upward and downward mobility, and opportunity for all – the American Dream, as it were. Rich people can imagine for themselves whatever inner qualities they want. Anyone would have the chance to succeed.

However, consider an Ayn Rand 2.0 world, where the wealthiest accumulate unchecked power and dominate policy-making.

For three decades, we’ve seen a steady shift in political power away from workers and communities and toward corporate interests and investors. Wages have stagnated, jobs have moved to low wage countries and government policies now align primarily with business, leaving workers and civil society behind.

If those around us do worse, we will also do worse.

America’s founding fathers rejected aristocracy. Our Constitution prohibits titles of nobility. But nothing in the Constitution prevents us from sliding backwards into a functional aristocracy.

We are becoming a society of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent. If we allow the top 1% to rewrite policies to solidify their positions of privilege, we will have a functional aristocracy, a shrunken middle class and millions of workers in wage peonage.

Let’s go back to the two paintings. We can see others as brutes, and extract wealth from those beneath us, or we can see others as neighbors, co-workers, teammates, or even simply as customers, whose prosperity is tied to ours.

Stan Sorscher is Labor Representative at Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), a union representing over 20,000 scientists, engineers, technical and professional employees in the aerospace industry. He has been with SPEEA since 2000

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4 Responses

  1. so just be done with it already. cut off the heads of the 1% you people demonize endlessly ad nauseam — the ones who currently pay most of the income tax. While you are at it, slaughter the other 10% making over $200,000 who pay the rest of the income taxes. naturally, you will confiscate their wealth first.

    then let’s see how you do. ask yourself: ‘Hmmm those are the parasites, but after we kill them and distribute their wealth, thinly, over 280 million people, i wonder if we might regret doing it because one or two of them were such stupendous productive geniuses. After all, even Marx said we have to leave the bourgeoisie alone to some extent so they can produce the wealth so we can take it and distribute it.’

    [and of course your construction of Ayn Rand’s position is a slanted smear: Rand did not judge people’s character by the amount of money they had; she judged them on if they were achieving and producing, no matter what their current state of wealth. Yes, in a fair free nation, such people do usually acquire wealth.]

  2. Thank you for this. I plan to share it with family and friends.

  3. You have distorted what Rand said. She never said “the rich” (she did not believe in class warfare) are noble, productive, etc. – some of her worst villains are businessmen – read “Atlas Shrugged” – her most loathsome villain is a corporate President and heir to great wealth. Time for people to read what Rand actually said. Many times over she said that the more “common” people were less corrupt and more rational. She’s become a whipping-post for projections from both left and right. Try reading her all the way through. This, by the way, does not mean I agree with everything she wrote. But accuracy is a must.

  4. You seem to believe that factories and commerce are a given in nature. That all the apparent prosperity in a town/country is really lots of people doing their own thing, interacting but independent of each other and the rich person in town is just an equal. No better of worse. No special significance is warranted or deserved.
    Tell me what happens when that person pulls out. closes up shop. shuts down. Ceases to function. The town dies an ugly, painful death. Stores close, The good people move away, the bad people start destroying what’s left of the empty shell. Oh sure, there are exceptions but it’s not the rule. That one person stops it becomes a recession.
    A good/great leader inspires lots of people around but without that person spontaneous prosperity almost never happens.

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