Politically, the United States appears to be a deeply polarized nation. But beneath the superficiality of America’s contemporary political rhetoric, there is uniformity on several key topics that, when boiled down, could be categorized more broadly as one single topic: confidence in government.
Since the founding of the United States, Americans have always been critical and mistrustful of government. Thomas Paine himself observed in his revolutionary treatise, Common Sense, that “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one”. But Paine and his contemporaries were not anarchists and did not share the opinion of today’s anti-government extremists which view all government as deterministically “bad”. On the contrary, Paine clearly indicates that “miseries” accompany a society without a government and goes on to say:
“For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least.”
As indicated by Paine, a level of suspicion toward government is healthy for a democracy. This critical attitude is built into American political culture but, as Paine makes clear, it is necessary for a conscious American to “surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest.”
Over roughly the last thirty-five years, however, the patriot’s critical eye has been clouded by a new ideological lens that views all forms of government as inherently evil. How did this come to pass?
A quick inventory of the two prevailing trends in America’s anti-government subculture provides the necessary clues. For instance, looking at Tea Party rallies over the last five years, the political aesthetic is designed to remind us of America’s founders. First, the title of their movement was selected to remind us of the Sons of Liberty’s action against the East-India Tea Company. This action, of course, was not an anti-government action but a protest against the imperial British government’s move to compel people in the American colonies to subsidize the multi-national. In another move by the contemporary Tea Party to convince onlookers of their patriotism, we see tri-cornered hats from the colonial period and the occasional citation from the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights. But there is another staple that has appeared consistently at Tea Party rallies across the nation that acclaim the principles of the ideologue, Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand is the pen-name for Alisa Rosenbaum, a Russian-born Jewish émigré who appeared in the United States shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. She, like many of her generation, drew her inspiration from Friedrich Nietzsche and other social-Darwinists influenced by the works of Herbert Spencer. Her first published writing was a play called Little Street which portrays William Edward Hickman, the real life a serial killer that preyed upon little children, as a sort of Nietzschean “Ubermench” (superman). Although Rand’s later works wax philosophical over larger social, ethical and economic questions, her writings are by no means scientific but are, by and large, primarily fiction. And of course, with fiction there is no need for citing facts to bolster one’s perspectives because, quite simply, the author is in control of the entire imagined universe and can create any scenario needed to support the writer’s ideological beliefs.
How then did Ayn Rand, an avowed atheist, crypto-anarchist and defender of child-killers who opposed democracy and championed “The Virtue of Selfishness”, come to be identified with American patriots like Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine? Unlike George Washington who wrote “Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals,” Rand writes the contrary, equating the individual and his desires with God: “And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: ‘I.’”
Ironically, long periods of Ayn Rand’s writing career were sustained by government assistance programs. But it was Rand’s powerful proponents in banking that carried her views from the fringes into the Board rooms of America’s most powerful corporate magnates and ultimately all the way to the White House. Specifically, Alan Greenspan, one of the key architects of Ronald Reagan’s Neoliberal policies, writes in his autobiography “Of all of my teachers, Arthur Burns and Ayn Rand had the greatest impact on my life.” Later, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed Greenspan Chairman of the Board for the Federal Reserve Bank – a position he held until his retirement in 2006.
The critical difference in the American founding fathers critical attitudes toward government and the attitudes of twentieth century anti-government extremists can be found in their epistemology, or theory of knowledge. Thomas Paine observed that government was a subjective social structure that could be useful and helpful to the people when they control it through their democracy. Paine clearly states that “society in every state is a blessing” but acknowledges that a government which is not accountable to the people can cause “miseries…which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT.”. From this passage, Paine clearly indicates that he has set himself apart from the misanthropes that oppose all government. Rand, on the other hand, maintains a different epistemology which views government as evil. This position she draws from a European intellectual tradition with roots in ancient metaphysics reaching all the way back to Philo of Alexandria which holds that humanity itself is deterministically evil. Rand simply proceeds from the ideological position that views human beings and all material reality to be itself irrevocably evil by design. Logically, then, Rand’s misanthropy would oppose all human organizations because, when humans combine their energies in larger groups, either governments or labor unions, they inevitably become more evil.
Clearly, the ideological current of misanthropy is alive and well today in the United States. Rand is certainly one of its greatest purveyors, although hardly the only one. This misanthropic world-view has become so widespread it is taken almost as though it is a social fact about the human existence without question. But such a view is more than ugly; it is dangerous. It rests on an ideological hatred of all things human. According to this world-view, government – democratic or otherwise – has a power of its own that tempts the evil inborn in humans to do even greater evil. In this sense, the contemporary conservative’s disparaging view of government is a radical break from theviews of America’s actual founding fathers. Today’s anti-government “patriot” has assumed the metaphysics of paganism which imbues inanimate objects with metaphysical powers independent of those who wield the object. Government, to the Neocon, is something like the Ring of Power from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novel in which the Ring of Power strips its bearer of his Free Will and causes him to become evil, regardless of what he was like before he carried the Ring. Strangely, however, the Neocon will take the opposite position on issues such as gun-control, where they accept that guns – undoubtedly a tool that enhances an individual’s power – have no will of their own and only do the bidding of their bearer. Liberals then respond to the conservative’s opposition to gun-control using the same logic that the Neocons apply to government, assuming that certain types of guns inevitably make the bearer more “evil”. Where the metaphysics of contemporary American liberals and conservatives tend to meet is on the subject of labor unions which both seem to agree are necessary evils at best, but deterministically evil nonetheless.
The critical point is to understand this: negative metaphysics in the United States has eroded the epistemology of the Enlightenment to such a degree that the fabric of our society is fraying. When we allow ourselves to believe that humans are evil by nature, then we concede to a dark epistemology in which all authority is deemed legitimate. The result of this has played out in our schools and families where children have no respect for their parents or teachers, in our jobs and unions where workers are mistrustful of their unions and in our society where government is viewed as deterministically evil and law – all law – as inherently oppressive. Under a society where misanthropy and ideological cynicism have burrowed from the extremist fringes into the heart of mainstream American culture, life itself becomes cheap, war becomes “a fact of life” and the health and well-being of our fellow countrymen becomes “their problem”.
While the “patriotic” self-proclaimed Christian leaders of the extreme right and the pessimists of the liberal Left continue to unwittingly sell misanthropy and ideological cynicism as part of America’s canonical belief system, we – those of us who continue to hold the line in the labor movement – are one of the only sectors of our society poised to reverse America’s downward spiral. To do so, we must take a hard look at the beliefs we carry into our unions – beliefs about humanity itself, about the nature of government and society – and recognize the fact that America’s cynical corporate culture has infiltrated the minds of both the liberals and conservative establishments. To win the war against corporate power and secure the prosperity of America’s working-class, the labor movement must first wage a war of ideas within its own ranks. We must account for our fundamental beliefs, ask difficult questions and ultimately rededicate ourselves to the “big picture” objectives that have always given the movement of organized workers in America its strength and focus.
By M. Sullivan
 Ayn Rand, Anthem, (50th Anniversary Edition, Signet: NY: 1996), pp. 134-135.