Aug 27th 2012

Ryan, Rand and 'Altruism'

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

Ayn Rand -- of Fountainhead / Atlas Shrugged fame -- hasn't been in the news since one of her prize disciples, Alan Greenspan, proclaimed her as the inspiration for a way of thinking that brought the world financial system to wrack and ruin. Rand spawned a juvenile creed of unmitigated selfishness that resounded for a while with young egoists who fantasized that they were 'supermen' who should disdain the social ethics that enslaved lesser men. She, and her dogma, has now reemerged as the model for Paul Ryan's inchoate thoughts about the evil of government, the gold standard, and the virtue of getting rich at any cost -- among other brilliant ideas for rescinding the social policies of the 20th century.

The phenomenon's significance lies not in the anthropological curiosity item that is the sociopathic Randian sect. More compelling is its melding with atavistic elements of American tradition into a movement of the disaffected, the deluded self-styled heroes, the status deprived, and the cynical that is endangering the humane decency of the country we have worked to perfect over 225 years.

The sect's component groupings, in their various modulations, having annexed the Republican party, are on the verge of seizing control of the entire federal government. Once in their hands, the levers of power will be used to restore the free-wheeling, government-lite America of the 19th century, only in the economic sphere, where the domination of financial elites will be consolidated. In the social and cultural spheres, they will be used to impose codes of conduct that cripple liberties. The latter was not the ideal of Ayn Rand (she favored unrestricted abortion rights), but rather confirmation of the inescapable destination to which a mutant form of her doctrine leads when all sense of community is denigrated. For one is disparaging humanity thereby.

Alexis de Tocqueville long ago identified the two Achilles heels in American popular democracy that could be our undoing, if we are not alert to the danger: extreme individualism and extreme materialism. Today, we are witnessing that threat as manifest. Those intertwined, mutually reinforcing impulses shape our attitudes and guide our behavior about private affairs and public affairs alike. Together, they have prepared the ground for the successes of the Tea Party, of its willing instrument -- the Republican Party, and of those seekers of power and/or glory who either drive the movement or simply find it in their personal interest to gloss over the unsettling truth about the pathologies that are deforming American ideals.

For narcissism is now the national religion. That is to say, a religion that recognizes only one sovereign power and worships at only one altar -- the all-demanding and all-consuming self. Narcissism is dressed out in a multiplicity of styles -- masquerading as enlightened reform (doing away with the rights of salaried workers and their access to public services, deregulation, privatization); as old time religion (God and his prophet as a spiritual Swiss army knife that justifies prejudice and encourages fearful, sweaty egos in their relentless search for 'meaning'); as family responsibility (looking after the extended Number 1 menaced by those anonymous forces who would steal your comfort and transfer it to the unworthy); as defense of 'Liberty' for true, rugged individualistic Americans whose gun collection is the only thing that stands between freedom and socialists, aliens, terrorists and other assorted hobgoblins imagined by insecure and fevered personalities.

The extent to which a narcissistic perspective on life has permeated our consciousness is evident in the current discourse about 'altruism.' How do we explain something that is counter to common sense? What social influences lead some people some of time to behave in this odd way? Is it religious dicta inscribed in holy books whose lessons have been drummed into us in houses of worship? It may be inborn in mothers sacrificing for their offspring but why should it include 'others' who are natural competitors of their progeny?

This mysterious thing called 'altruism' covers a wide range of behaviors: freely giving away money and goods (i.e. philanthropy); lending a helping hand to strangers; worrying and carrying about groups in society that you have no direct connection with; coming to the assist of the vulnerable who could be viewed as burdens on productive members of society and/or simply the losers in the game of natural selection. These questions today are earnestly debated in serious journals, on the web, in scholarly circles, and in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times -- the ultimate arbiter of upper middle-brow thinking.

The fundamental point is that the question is almost universally considered legitimate and puzzling. For it is widely taken as given that "altruism" is an aberration from the norm. In truth, it indeed has become an aberration in terms of how vast numbers of people relate to their fellows. We have lost track of who we are. We have lost track of human identity as a social being. We have lost track of our evolution as members of communities -- immediate and abstracted. We overlook some elementary facts about ourselves.

Humans have an instinct to bond -- in families, in extended families, in small tribal groupings, in larger tribes. We have a further capacity for empathy that extends beyond those groupings. It doesn't take social learning, much less instruction, to feel the impulse to protect an endangered relation -- or any other member of the species for that matter. In fact, these instincts are readily observable among higher mammals, primates surely and also others, e.g. an elephant herd, a lion pride. Even a rogue elephant, the pachyderm counterpart to the Randites' 'superman,' has been filmed coming to the rescue of a stray baby stalked by predators -- oblivious to the risk he is running of weakening the moral fiber of the elephant community by this unseemly act of altruism. Yet for many, similar behavior among humans is interpreted as requiring a special explanation. They get nothing from the animal kingdom while grasping for convenient verities in the prolix pages of Ayn Rand and the like. Quite apart from nature shows, one can only shudder at the impoverished lives these people must experience. They "dwell in deficiency," to borrow a phrase from the Gnostic gospels.

This narcissism grounded pathology is most widespread in the United States. More qualified variations are surfacing in Western Europe, especially within the copy-cat government of Britain's David Cameron. But only a doctrinaire few over there can contemplate repealing the great advances of the past century that have extended the logic and sentiment of human solidarity to entire countries. Only a few can imagine a society that amends the admonition that "humanity is the ultimate measure of what we do" while embracing a doctrine of all against all with the privileged getting a head start. Only a few can fail to see the connection between implementing a plan of greedy individualism and the reversion of relations among countries to the conflict mode of yesteryear. America, unfortunately, is the trailblazer and pacesetter -- and it is Americans, politicians and journalists and intellectuals, who are having a powerful influence on how the rest of the world thinks about all this.

The developed world, in the second half of the 20th century, achieved something historic; something that only visionaries in an earlier era could have imagined. Societies build on practical principles of mutual obligation and individual dignity enjoying unprecedented domestic tranquility and material well-being. That required acts of intellectual, ethical and politically creativity. Positive inertia kept them going. For the past 30 years or so, that positive inertia has given way to a combination of complacency about of the fruits of our great achievement and disparagement of its mainspring.

Today, especially in the United States, a new class of ambitious strivers are making their mark by destruction -- not by creation. It is an alliance of the powerful and power hungry, the insecure comforted by fanciful nostrums, and the opportunists. The last is a broad, heteroclite assemblage -- in academia, media, politics and the professions. They will have the most to answer for as the project of destruction progresses.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "