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.