There’s something darkly appealing about the whole spectacle of contemporary politics. The distinct magnetism of the performative theatrics, the moral histrionics, the impassioned talk show hosts, the platoons of vaguely menacing student protesters with impeccable placards angry at things that they can’t quite articulate. The US midterm elections have been another fantastic example of what you get when you put populism on steroids as an antidote to increasingly aggressive identity politics. It might all prove to be toxic for the democratic nation-state, but no one can deny that it’s entertaining as hell.
But, just like eating KFC, once you’ve had a certain amount you start to feel disgusted with yourself. A greasy sense of shame sets in and you become forced to confront the fundamental question that underlies your interest – are these people serious? Am I a terrible person for failing to understand the single greatest moral threat that has ever faced humanity? Is Donald Trump literally Hitler?
The short answer is no – he’s not. The longer answer involves Ayn Rand and the philosophical concept of objectivism. Objectivist thought is largely derived from the (recently) radical concept that A is A – in other words, that there is a real, objective external reality, and that humans should recognise this fact and act accordingly. An objectivist would support the notion that Donald Trump is not endeavouring to turn the USA into a fascist dictatorship, amongst other things.
Predictably, to even mention Rand is largely seen as a hideous crime against civilised discourse. As such, Rand’s extensive body of work is usually taken out of context to be mocked, or it isn’t talked about at all, leading to a scenario where people either a) don’t know much about Rand except that she is to be made fun of mercilessly or b) have never heard of one of the most significant public intellectuals of all time.
For context, Rand was invited to talk about her predominantly counter-cultural philosophy on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson twice in 1967 – a rough modern-day equivalent for this would be giving someone like Steve Bannon an entire week on The Project to chat about the advantages of economic nationalism with Waleed. Her work was controversial at the time, but hugely popular, and Carson rightly sought to interrogate this for the benefit of the discerning viewer. There was indeed a time when talk show hosts were a vertebrate species.
Rand authored two of the most influential works of fiction in human history – The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Both are vehicles for her objectivist philosophy and serve to expand on her beliefs that humans should have strong negative individual rights and exist primarily for the fulfilment of their own desires. To borrow a Randian term, we are heroic beings – beings that primarily exist to attain happiness, and that are equipped with the rational faculties and inherent potential to do so.
So what is it that makes objectivist thought particularly relevant now? For starters, Rand despised collectivism of all forms. Positively loathed it. She fostered a level of hatred for Nazis that most Antifa members could only dream of attaining. But the corollary is that she also hated communists, and socialists, and trade unionists – any political organisation that sought to elevate itself above the rights of the individual in the pursuit of the ever elusive common good.
As an advocate of individual responsibility, she would have found the concept of white guilt abhorrent. Affirmative action would have personally offended her. Naturally, her philosophy is totally antithetical to any modern progressive agenda – the thought of enforcing a subjective social policy decision on another would have made her vomit. Rand’s solution to the persistent disagreement that characterises human interactions was to argue that no-one had the power to force their personal views on society at large. Idealistic, but also immensely attractive. You can solve the problem of political polarisation if you gradually reduce the impact of politics in everyday life – funny how Rand figured this all out well over seventy years ago.
To Rand, the height of evil was to forcibly demand something from another person to serve a nominally altruistic cause. Atlas Shrugged is often satirised for taking this concept to its extreme, but in writing Animal Farm George Orwell employed the exact same tactic – using a fable to illustrate a broader political point. If you thought that Harry Potter was a masterful take on fascism you’d do well to acquaint yourself with the undisputed heavyweight world champion of political fiction.
Ultimately, Rand believed that the state had no right telling you how to act and feel, nor the right to demand you subjugate your own wellbeing for the sake of another person. If this kind of thinking appeals to you, and you’ve ever wondered if there was a coherent philosophical or political framework that ties it all together – objectivism is the word you’ve been looking for.
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