I will not live my life for any other man, nor ask any other man to live his life for mine.
— Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
As I’m writing this, it’s the eighth day of the shutdown of the federal government, and there’s no end in sight. What’s more, unless Congress acts to expand the so-called “debt ceiling” — the total amount of money the federal government can borrow to fund its current obligations — by October 17, the U.S. could default on its loans for the first time in its history. Economists and businesspeople are warning that this could be catastrophic for the future not only of the U.S. but the entire world’s economy. As Douglas Cote, chief market strategist for IMG Investment Management U.S. in New York — not exactly your most flaming liberal or Leftist source — was quoted in the October 3 Los Angeles Times, the politicians who have brought about the government shutdown and are threatening to force the U.S.’s first-ever default are playing “a form of Russian roulette with a loaded gun.”
Not that this matters a damned bit to the Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives — a minority of the total body but a majority of the Republican caucus — who have forced the shutdown and are threatening to bring about the default. They are playing a longer game than either the President, the Democrats in the U.S. Senate, or the mainstream business community (including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) that recoils in horror at the thought of a U.S. default. They subscribe to a radical libertarian ideology that regards all government intervention in the economy as not only bad policy but downright immoral. They believe the only legitimate functions of government are national defense, law enforcement and maintenance of a judicial system to settle contract disputes between individuals and corporations in the private sector.
This ideology of the modern-day radical Right was first put before the general public by 20th century political writer and novelist Ayn Rand. In her two major novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), she expressed an extreme individualist philosophy she called “Objectivism” but which has become better known today as libertarianism. Rand, who was born in Russia and fled the Soviet dictatorship in 1928, drew on the work of Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Like them, she argued that value was not created by the workers who actually mined ore, smelted metal, cut trees, built houses or assembled cars. Rather, value was created by the handful of genius capitalist entrepreneurs who invented those industries as well as the products they produced. Therefore, she said, as superior humans the capitalists were entitled to everything their genius produced.
These ideas led Rand to reject not only Marxism’s call for a more equal distribution of wealth and income but also all liberal efforts to regulate capitalism. She opposed public education, minimum-wage laws, protection of workers’ rights to form unions, and any other measures that might allow what she called the “moochers” and “leeches” to claim a greater share of society’s prosperity. When asked whether she thought society had an obligation to take care of the sick and disabled, she answered, “Misfortune does not justify slave labor.” She meant that any taxation of the rich to pay for social programs to benefit the not-so-rich turned the rich into slaves by forcing them to give some of their wealth to their inferiors. And while she said it was O.K. for her successful capitalist heroes to give to charity if they chose to do so voluntarily, she made it clear in the plots of her novels that the rich she most admired were those who didn’t give any money away.
Rand’s ideas permeate the Republican party today. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 and chair of the House Budget Committee, reportedly gives copies of Atlas Shrugged to everyone he hires for his staff to make sure they understand where he’s coming from and what he wants from them. Romney himself, in his infamous meeting with fellow fat cats in Florida in May 2012, struck Randian notes — even though he didn’t credit her — when he said, “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. … My job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Romney played from Rand’s songbook again in November, when he said he lost because Obama was “giving a lot of stuff to groups that they hoped they could get to vote for them and be motivated to go out to the polls, specifically the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”
It is impossible to understand America’s modern-day radical Right in general, and the Tea Party in particular, without knowing Rand’s ideas. It’s true that the radical Right is a sometimes unwieldy coalition between the Randian libertarians who want government to get out of the way of private enterprise and stop funding a welfare state, and the social conservatives of the religious Right who want a highly activist government when it comes to policing people’s private lives, both in terms of whom they’re allowed to have sex with and how they deal with the consequences therefrom. (Rand herself was an atheist who believed that if two adults wanted to have sex with each other, it was nobody’s business but theirs.) But that seemingly contradictory coalition has held strong — and has, indeed, dominated American politics — for over three decades, ever since it came together to elect Ronald Reagan President in 1980. Indeed, ask virtually any Right-wing political activist what are the two books that most influenced them and best express their philosophy of governance and a just society, and they will name the Bible and Atlas Shrugged.
The plot of Atlas Shrugged offers some striking insights into why the modern-day radical Right, including the Tea Party extremists who dominate the House Republican Caucus, are so anxious to bring the U.S. government to a standstill and even wreck America’s credibility in the world financial markets. It deals with a group of Rand’s super-capitalists who gradually withdraw from the rest of the world and found their own libertarian utopia in Colorado. Their head is John Galt, a mysterious, reclusive genius who invented a motor that runs entirely on air — the fact that Rand believed the spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism was so powerful it could literally defy the laws of physics goes a long way to explain the modern-day Republicans’ vicious anti-environmentalism — but refused to allow it to be used under the collectivist governments he and his fellow capitalists were determined to destroy. At the end of the book — after the world has almost totally collapsed from the absence of Rand’s capitalist superheroes — Galt emerges and serves notice: “If you want to have an industrial society, you will have to have it on our terms.”
That is what the Republicans in the House of Representatives are saying to America: if you want to have a government at all, you will have to have it on our terms. The battle over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling is only incidentally about the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare,” which the House majority has voted to repeal an astounding 41 times. The battle is really about repealing the very notion of a social welfare state, getting rid of any laws protecting workers or the environment, eliminating virtually all taxes on the well-to-do, and essentially remodeling society according to Rand’s notion of a libertarian utopia, what Garrett Epps in the current issue of The American Prospect calls “tough-luck libertarianism” in which if you get sick, disabled or unemployed, it’s your own damned fault and nobody is going to help you but yourself.So when Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus wrote on September 30 — the eve of the government shutdown — that he couldn’t understand how Senator Ted Cruz (R-FL) could compare Obamacare to the Nazi dictatorship, he was missing the point. “Never mind that we willingly rely on our government to provide health care for seniors, low-income people and the disabled; to shield seniors from poverty; to protect us from unsafe food, water, medicine and consumer products; to maintain public order; and to perform countless other tasks,” Lazarus wrote. He either ignores or doesn’t realize that in the kind of libertarian state Cruz and his fellow Tea Partiers want, government would do none of those things except maintain public order. They’re not upset about Obamacare because they want to destroy the signature domestic-policy achievement of his first term, as Lazarus argued. They’re against Obamacare because it threatens to extend the social-welfare state the libertarian Tea Partiers want to smash once and for all.
Not, of course, that they can destroy the welfare state all at once. The Tea Partiers are aware that millions of Americans still depend on Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation and all those other dreadful mechanisms for enslaving the rich into the service of the not-so-rich. So they’re seeking to kill these programs through what Sax Rohmer, the British novelist who created the character of Dr. Fu Manchu, called “the death of a thousand cuts.” They’ve already had experience with this strategy in regard to women’s right to reproductive choice. Though the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t yet formally overruled Roe v. Wade, states have artfully hedged the right to abortion with residency requirements, “waiting periods,” forcing women to watch horrifying (and scientifically inaccurate) videos, on up to the Virginia legislature’s recent attempt to require women seeking abortion to have transvaginal probes inserted inside them first. They’ve been helped by a complaisant Supreme Court that has upheld most of these restrictions as “reasonable” and a terrorist campaign by anti-abortion extremists against doctors and clinics. The result has been that up to 85 percent of all U.S. women no longer have access to a safe, legal abortion within a convenient distance from where they live.
More recently, the Congressional Republicans’ wish list for keeping the U.S. solvent and letting the government reopen has been released — and it’s breathtaking in the scope of its ambition. Under “Economic Growth,” it demands increased offshore oil drilling, more energy production on federal lands, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (which climate-change activist Bill McKibben has called “game over for the climate”), prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases, and an end to “Net neutrality” regulations so Right-wing media conglomerates can make the Internet as much of a transmission belt for Right-wing propaganda as all other electronic media are already. Under “Non-Health Care Reforms” it calls for eliminating the Dodd-Frank act — Congress’s one attempt to re-regulate the financial industry to prevent another 2008-style economic meltdown — eliminating funding for public broadcasting, getting rid of block grants to the states for social services and requiring that people claiming a child tax credit have a Social Security number. Under “Health Care Reforms” it demands making it harder to get Medicare or Medicaid, making it harder to sue doctors for malpractice and eliminating funding for public health.
Ignore much of what you’ve read about the government shutdown and the alleged long-term problems of the Republican Party. Though the Republicans and the radical-Right Tea Party that dominates them may loathe what Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler stood for, they’ve learned from them as strategists and tacticians. From Lenin they’ve learned “democratic centralism,” the art of settling their differences behind closed doors and presenting a solid front of unanimity to the outside world. From Hitler and the Nazis they’ve learned the art of using their power in the legislature deliberately to sabotage the government and run the economy into the ground, thereby creating chaos and then presenting themselves to the people as the only people who can fix it. Though the Tea Party’s libertarian utopia would be a very different place from the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, they have absorbed Lenin’s and Hitler’s examples of how a sufficiently determined and united minority can impose their will upon a majority. And since they already own the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, they are just two elections away from capturing the Presidency and the Senate — and implementing a far-reaching radical-Right agenda that will erase the social gains of the last 130 years and return America to what the Right thinks are the good old days of the 1880’s robber barons.