Ayn Rand, Pope Francis and the philosophy of greed

Ayn Rand is a bourgeois who is very popular with the right-wing elite in the US (and elsewhere).  Public followers of her philosophy of greed and self-interest include ex-Chair of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan, leading Republican Congressman and Tea Party ‘libertarian’ Ron Paul.  Rand’s philosophy is really the epitome of thinking by the modern rich elite of the world.  She did not believe in God, did not want a monarchy or an aristocracy and certainly not democracy.  Society should be ruled by the wealthy and powerful who knew what to do.  In this bourgeois Platonic world, the elite would operate purely on self-interest and greed would be their watchword.  The rest of us were no more than human garbage to be used to make society function for the rich.  The rich elites were the heroes and the masses were a dangerous mob that must be suppressed if they sought any democratic say in the running of this ‘pure capitalist’ society.

When all the pious propaganda is stripped away, Ayn Rand tells it like it is.  And so it seems does the Conservative mayor of London and aspirant for the job of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.  A man from an elite family (he frequented the top elite clubs at Oxford University like the current prime minister David Cameron), he also tells it like it is.  Commenting on the increasingly visible inequalities of wealth and income in British society and elsewhere, Johnson did not mince his words in a speech recently.  Yes, “the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever,” (cornflakes?), he said.  But you see “I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”

Johnson echoed the words of that fraudster mogul of the 1980s financial boom, Ivan Boersky and epitomised in Oliver Stone’s film, Wall Street, by Gordon Gekko, who pronounced that ‘greed is good’ in true Ayn Rand style.  This is the real unvarnished philosophy of ‘political economy’.  Competition for profit with no holds barred.  But it is not pretty and much of the time, those who support this system of social organisation try to present a more ‘humane’ image of the ‘market economy’.  Back in the 1970s (which I remember), when again the rotten nature of capitalism seemed visible to many, the then British Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, condemned the ‘unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism’  in describing the chief executive of a large asset-stripping conglomerate Lonrho, Tiny Rowland.

More recently, Mario Draghi, the head of the ECB and former executive of Goldman Sachs also sought to ameliorate the ‘unpleasant’ nature of Ayn Rand capitalism.  As a good Jesuit, Draghi commented: “our striving for excellence had to be paired with integrity and a moral message – an ultimate sense of purpose in the service of social justice and fairness….Ultimately, we must be guided by a higher moral standard and a profound belief in creating an economic order that serves every person.”  (see my post, https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/the-other-mario-and-the-other-marx/).

And now the first Latin American Pope has delivered a radical address against the iniquities of capitalism and its driving force of greed and self-interest.  Pope Francis released his Evangelii Gadium, or Joy of the Gospel, attacking capitalism as a form of tyranny and calling on church and political leaders to address the needs of the poor.  He was against ‘an economy of exclusion’ and inequality: “Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

Francis went to reject the Ayn Rand idea that if the rich get richer and stay in power, somehow the rest of us will benefit from a ‘trickle-down’: “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

The pontiff tells us, echoing Marx, that under capitalism, money becomes an idol and human beings are alienated in an impersonal economy that rules over human actions: “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”

Francis again lashes into the Rand philosophy of greed and the Johnson belief that inequality is good: “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

But what to do?  The simple answer is that we must replace a system of production for profit and a society based on greed and self-interest with one that is commonly owned and planned for the needs of all and based on cooperation and support.  But this simple answer passes our radical Pope Francis by.  Instead, he makes a plea for the rich and powerful to ‘share’ their wealth and act ‘ethically’ and in a ‘fair’ manner. “Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs…. a financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.”

This is ironic coming from the head of a Christian church that holds huge amounts of wealth, with a separate state power to defend it, wielding that wealth and power in secret, and plagued by scandal and abuse.

So the answer is not to replace capitalism, but to make it more ‘ethical’.  This is the sentiment pronounced by the banker Draghi and also by Britain’s own opposition Labour leader, Ed Miliband.  Ed wants us to aspire to a “responsible capitalism”
(https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/ed-miliband-and-responsible-capitalism/).  The aim is not to replace it because socialism should not be a ’rigid economic doctrine’, but a ‘set of values’.

This all hogwash, of course.  Beneath the claptrap of the Pope, the head of the ECB and the ‘socialist’ leader of the British Labour party is the reality of Ayn Rand’s view of capitalism.  Greed is good, inequality is necessary and might is right.

13 Responses to “Ayn Rand, Pope Francis and the philosophy of greed”

  1. Warren Says:

    Agree Michael, you can’t have an ethical responsible capitalism that has class conflict built into the system’s DNA. But Pope Francis’ emphasis on the stark inequalities capitalism creates; the life threatening damage it is doing to our environment; and perhaps because of the conservatism of his predecessors in the neoliberal era, does, at least, sound refreshingly different.

  2. MKS Says:

    You are not including all words from Pope: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems, he wrote. That is changing the whole picture. http://rt.com/news/pope-francis-capitalism-tyranny-324/

  3. Booboy Says:

    We may ask, why does the Vatican and the Church of England hold such vast wealth if they are so concerned about the poor and the injustice of capitalism?

  4. JUDITH MCVEY Says:

    Yes, Pope Francis understands, it seems, the dire state of the world economy and lack of democracy and is reflecting the ever-present yearning of ordinary people for reform in the sense of an end to inequality and greed etc. Many of us can see that capitalism cannot be improved for most people because of the massive resources owned by the wealthy to protect themselves from the masses and the poor, and their strong connection to state power. I enjoy reading Michael’s blog because he has shown how we can better understand the system in order to connect with fellow workers and students in order to build a powerful alternative movement to change capitalism structurally from below. This article is correct to link those who talk about the need for reform and a nicer capitalism (the smarter apologists for the system) with the crooks who show only blatant disregard.

  5. Mike Ballard Says:

    While I welcome the Papal replacement of the Polish Pope (now saint) and his German clone with Francis (who sounds more and more like Ernesto Cardenal), the point Michael is making is well taken: there can be no such thing as an ethical wages system of slavery. The ethical thing to do is to propose a commonwealth where the producers socially own and democratically manage the wealth they create.

  6. Larry Mutter Says:

    Its the old Capitalism with a human face theory,but as long as the wealthy make the rules it will exist in only one form.

  7. Edgar Says:

    I think the empirical evidence suggests democracy, even in its stunted bourgeois form, works far more effectively than despotism of any kind.

    The internet age allows for a further flourishing of democracy I think. Johnson doesn’t even represent capitalism, which relatively speaking relies on a widespread and universal division of labour. Johnson represent a mindset from another age, unable to get to grips with the reality of development.

    The division of labour effectively says that no one can know everything, we must all rely on each others skills. Skill and knowledge must be spread around. The so called elites rely on the division of labour just as much as the lowest and most humble subject. Send an elite into any library and they immediately know less than 1% about anything.

    The more knowledge is expanded and people are allowed to flourish the more everyone benefits. The internet allows for this shared knowledge. People can share information on a massive scale. From my work experience in systems development, multi development is far more effective then single development. The more knowledge is democratised the better. Imagine 2 developers, both bring different knowledge and experience to the subject. The developers collaborate and they learn more knowledge from each other, soon you have a knowledge multiplier affect.

    Collaboration is better than competition.

    Johnson’s beliefs are apology for a system that delivers sickening inequality. What else could he say to justify such iniquities?

  8. matthewrusso9 Says:

    Shouldn’t that be, “bourgeois *Plutonic* world”?

    In any case, it is clarifying that the rhetorical gloves are coming off with the official spokespersons of capital. It is a recognition that people aren’t stupid, and can see plainly what is happening. None of this “lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty” blarney from them!

    Maggie Thatcher had it right when she let it slip that “there is no such thing as society”, leaving out only that this is true under capitalism. Capitalism is a system, *not* a form of society. It is a systematic anti-society, and its positive defenders are all driven to be misanthropic sociopaths by necessity.

  9. Kyle Becker Says:

    Inequality is not the problem, the standard of living and opportunity for people to remedy their own problem is. Oxford and Yale Global Studies point out that hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty since 2000, and neither the edicts of Popes, nor the wealth redistribution schemes of governments, were responsible. It was the introduction of market reforms in formerly socialist nations like India and China.

  10. The Man With No Name Says:

    Free market reforms? Market reforms maybe. Anyway, this suggests China had a lot more to do with ‘lifting people out of poverty’ than India and the process has been going on for 30 years, not 10 or so.

    http://socialisteconomicbulletin.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/china-accounts-for-100-of-reduction-in.html

    A more critical perspective here of ‘lifting people out of poverty’ here:

    http://www.socialiststudies.org.uk/article%20poverty.shtml

  11. Wynn Horton Says:

    I have read a LOT of Ayn Rand, but not all of it. SOme of these things you say she said or wrote, I have never seen. I never remember her saying the wealthy should rule. She is against democracy because the lazy and the ignorant are allowed to carry an equal vote as that of the industrious and/or brilliant, and, so, weaken society, and maybe vote themselves benefits ($$$$).
    The Catholic church is like any other large ruling body – they take advantage often and misspend money. The church should be more modest and give more money to educate the poor, to lift the poor OUT of poverty.

  12. Rick Flanders Says:

    Your case would be far more convincing if you presented Rand’s side honestly rather than knocking over straw men. She never called the poor human garbage. Rather than relying on Hollywood’s caricatures like Gekko, you should read Rand’s books for yourself.
    In the Fountainhead, the main character Howard Roark lived in poverty, doing hard labor in a rock quarry rather than compromise his principles. It is a starving artist story who was born to create even if no one cares. Same in Atlas shrugged. The creative lost everything as the government ran them out of town. Rand was against totalitarianism and for the individual who should be free to be all he can be. This is the American Dream.

    • ssamayoa Says:

      Look… Everybody against individualism normally are those do not pay taxed (or pay very low) or who wants else to pay the bill. I personally want TO KEEP THE MONEY I EARN, those who don’t earn it want other people to pay for their “rights”.

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