Ayn Rand Speaks on Today’s Occupy Wall Street Protests

Ayn Rand was more than a giant of philosophy, she was also a pre-eminent expert on radical movements. As such, her description and explanation of the leftist Berkeley student rebellion presages the Occupy Wall Street protests  now flaring up around the country. In an essay called “The Cashing-In: The Student Rebellion,” which has been reprinted in a phenomenal collection of essays entitled The Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, she perfectly captures the essence of today’s radical protests through their foreshadowing in the turbulent 1960s.

Like those who participated in the Berkeley student rebellion of 1964, also known as the Free Speech Movement (FSM), today’s college-educated Occupy Wall Street activists are more aptly described as nihilists and anarchists than Marxist ideologues. They are socialists in a sense, but they are ‘beyond ideology.’ Ayn Rand described the rebels of her era as “Castroites,” and pointed out that they are more driven by existentialist angst than by ideological fanaticism.

This certainly holds true for the majority participating in the current demonstrations. The numerous contradictions in the Occupy protesters’ thinking, such as simultaneously supporting anarchy and government-administered welfare programs, expressing anti-corporate messages on their Iphones and laptops, speaking “truth to power” by voting for statist Democrats, claiming “we are the 99%” – thus publicly disenfranchising those not in the top 1% of income earners who disagree with their message, and hurling epithets at Wall Street, the backer of their beloved candidate Barack Obama, who in turn shoveled trillions in stolen cash into the bankers’ stashes, all shows the mind-muddled mess the political elites are molding into an  irrational, angry, and potentially violent street mob.

Rand’s essays are essential reading for those attempting to  interpret the flurry of modern events and make sense of them. Her visionary warning to Americans rings as true today as it did in her time.

From Ayn Rand’s The Return of the Primitive [Since you will not find the text online, I transcribed these words from an audio recording. This constitutes fair use of the material, as it is being utilized for educational, non-profit purposes. However, there may be a slight deviation in syntax, punctuation, and composition from the original printing. For the most accurate rendering, I encourage the reader to purchase the work, or the audiobook.]:

“The [Berkeley] student rebellion is an eloquent demonstration of the fact when men abandon reason, they open the door to physical force as the only alternative and the inevitable consequence. The rebellion is also one of the clearest refutations of the argument of those intellectuals who claimed that skepticism and chronic doubt would lead to social harmony.

‘When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute. When loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it is picked up by scoundrels. And you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good, and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.’ [Atlas Shrugged]

Who stands to profit by that rebellion? The answer lies in the nature and goals of its leadership. If the rank and file of the college rebels are victims, at least in part, this cannot be said of their leaders.

Who are their leaders? Any and all of the statist-collectivist groups that hover like vultures over the remnants of capitalism, hoping to pounce on the carcass and to accelerate the end whenever possible. 

Their minimal goal is just to make trouble, to undercut, to confuse, to demoralize, to destroy. Their ultimate goal is to take over.

To such leadership, the college rebels are merely cannon fodder. Intended to stick their headless necks out, to fight on campuses, to go to jail, to lose their careers, and their future, and eventually, if the leadership succeeds, to fight in the streets, and lose their non-absolute lives, paving the way for the absolute dictatorship of whoever is the bloodiest among the thugs scrambling for power. Young fools who refuse to look beyond the immediate now have no way of knowing whose long-range  goals they are serving.

The communists are involved, among others. But like the others, they are merely the manipulators, not the cause of the student rebellion. This is an example of the fact that whenever they win, they win by default. Like germs feeding on the sores of a disintegrating body, they did not create the conditions that are destroying American universities; they did not create the hordes of embittered aimless neurotic teenagers; but they do know how to attack, through the sores, which their opponents insist on evading.

They are professional ideologists, and it is not difficult for them to move into an intellectual vacuum and hang the cringing advocates of anti-ideology by their own contradictions. For its motley leftist leadership, the student rebellion is a trial balloon, a kind of cultural temperature-taking, it is a test of how much they can get away with, and what sort of opposition they will encounter. For the rest of us it is a miniature preview, in the microcosm of the academic world, of what is to happen to the country at large if the present cultural trend remains unchallenged.

The country at large is a mirror of its universities. The practical result of modern philosophy is today’s mixed economy, with its moral nihilism, its range of the moment pragmatism, its anti-ideological ideology, and its truly shameful recourse to the notion of government by consensus. Rule by pressure groups is merely the prelude, the social conditioning for mob rule. Once a country has accepted the obliteration of moral principles, of individual rights, of objectivity, of justice, of reason, and has submitted to the rule of legalized brute force, the elimination of the concept legalized does not take long to follow. Who is to resist it? And in the name of what?

When numbers are substituted for morality, and no individual can claim a right, but any gang can assert any desire whatever, when compromise is the only policy expected of those in power, and the preservation of the moment’s stability of peace at any price is their only goal, the winner necessarily is whoever presents the most unjust and irrational demands. The system serves as an open invitation to do so; if there were no communists or other thugs in the world, such a system would create them.”


The Road to Hell, and The Way Back

It is the unfortunate state of our nation today that a significant minority of Americans labor under the delusion that increasing or concentrating power in the presumably democratic state is not only fairly without danger, but is actually beneficial as long as the politicians accumulating the power are “well-intentioned” or seek to “do good.” But what is missed by these overly trusting citizens is that the diminution of individual liberty, which is the power for each person to determine the means and ends of his life, and the resultant increase in state control, necessarily produces an increase in arbitrary state power.

What is meant by ‘arbitrary’ power is that the ends of action are indeterminate, or in flux, or conditioned by personal prerogatives such as power-seeking for its own sake, and therefore, individuals who may have yielded personal power to ‘well-intentioned’ politicians with the understanding it would be utilized to serve ‘the greater good,’ may find themselves irreconcilably vulnerable to whatever whims and desires those at the helm of the state develop. The person yielding liberty to the end of a higher morality might find that his lost personal power is subsequently directed towards what he once considered to be an immoral end (war being one prominent example). History is rife with examples of future bloodthirsty dictators promising to further ‘the common good’ when coming to power, and once there, engage in popularly undesirable acts and rampant suppression. (Ayn Rand cites some prominent examples in her essay, “The Only Path to Tomorrow,” Reader’s Digest, January 1944, 88-90)

An individual, out of a sense of compassion, or duty to humankind, or love of country, might partake in a mass movement on behalf of an ostensibly magnificent aim (environmentalism, for example), only to find herself or her children to be no more than fodder for the ultimately failed and miserable schemes of central planners. And at what cost? The loss of one’s life – metaphysically, and in some cases, physically – is this not the greatest tragedy that can befall a human being? To lead a life where one’s merit, one’s virtue, is inconsequential, and all that matters is his ability and willingness to serve as a tool for some faceless bureaucrat or some megalomaniacal dictator to promote some pointless or even malevolent end?

Indeed, it is the sad and irrefutable lesson of history that any system of concentrated power would foster the development of wicked and cruel personalities and bring them into positions of greater power. Immorality, that is, an infinite flexibility of morals, would become the new virtue.

One of the key thinkers whose work elaborated on this general line of thought was F.A. Hayek. His The Road to Serfdom exposed how even the most well-intentioned of planners may create a system that ultimately leads to undesirable and even evil results. As Hayek wrote:

It is not only, as Russell has so well described, that the desire to organize social life according to a unitary plan itself springs largely from a desire for power. It is even more the outcome of the fact that, in order to achieve their end, collectivists must create power – power over men wielded by other men – of a magnitude never before known, and that their success will depend on the extent they achieve such power. […]

This remains true even though many liberal socialists are guided in their endeavors by the tragic illusion that by depriving private individuals of the power they possess in an individualist system, and by transferring this power to society, they can thereby extinguish power. What all those who argue in this manner overlook is that by concentrating power so that it can be used in the service of a single plan, it is not merely transferred but infinitely heightened; that, by uniting in the hands of some single body power formerly exercised independently by many, an amount of power is created infinitely greater than any that existed before, so much more far-reaching as almost to be different in kind. (University of Chicago, The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, Vol. II, 165.)

Hayek’s thesis bears extremely close resemblance to that of the German sociologist Robert Michels, who lamented socialist revolutions’ propensity to develop into despotic oligarchies. In his Iron Law of Oligarchy, Michels noted that several factors contributed to the necessary control of a complex organization by insiders, even in the case of revolution: the need to coordinate communications regarding who represented the organization and what the organization stands for; a nearly ubiquitous desire by the masses for leadership, especially in time of tumult; and the drive by the elites to maintain order and control, and thus preserve themselves in power.

Ayn Rand formulated a view very similar to Hayek’s theory in her collection of essays The Return of the Primitive. As Rand put it:

Once a country has accepted the obliteration of moral principles, of individual rights, of objectivity, of justice, of reason, and has submitted to the rule of legalized brute force, the elimination of the concept legalized does not take long to follow. Who is to resist it? And in the name of what? When numbers are substituted for morality; and no individual can claim a right, but any gang can assert any desire whatever; when compromise is the only policy expected of those in power; and the preservation of the moment’s stability of peace at any price is their only goal; the winner, necessarily, is whoever presents the most unjust and irrational demands. The system serves as an open invitation to do so. If there were no communists or other thugs in the world, such a system would create them. (Ayn Rand, The Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, transcribed from audiobook available at Audible.com.)

In contrast to Hayek’s and Rand’s respective hypotheses, that the state becomes corrupt despite all best intentions, and that the collapse of morality and individual rights produces immoral states, we have the hypothesis of Eugen Richter, whose novel Pictures of a Socialistic Future paints socialist leaders as malevolent actors who fully intend to enslave their fellow man. From professor Bryan Caplan‘s foreword to the novel:

Lord Acton and F.A. Hayek have inspired the two most popular explanations for the crimes of actually existing socialism. While Acton never lived to see socialists gain power, their behavior seems to perfectly illustrate his aphorism that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For all their idealism, even socialists will do bad things if left unchecked. Hayek, with the benefit of hindsight, suggested a slightly different explanation: under socialism, “the worst get on top.” On this theory, the idealistic founders of socialism were gradually pushed out by brutal cynics as their movement’s power increased.

Richter’s novel advances a very different explanation for socialism’s “moral decay”: the movement was born bad. While the early socialists were indeed “idealists,” their ideal was totalitarianism. Their overriding goals were to engineer a new society and a New Socialist Man. If this meant treating workers like slaves—depriving them of the freedom to choose their occupation or location, forbidding them to quit, splitting up families without their consent, and imposing draconian punishments on malcontents – so be it. (Eugen Richter, Pictures of a Socialistic Future, ix, available for free from Mises.org.)

The meaning of The Enlightenment was to escape the arbitrary edicts that sprang from Absolute power in the state and to re-found societies on the pillars of enlightened self-interest, and Constitutionally limited government. Supposed “progressivism” is nothing less than a return to the status quo ante and an ushering into power of the oligarchs whose ancien regimes were once lost. What makes this situation perilous is that the oligarchs who return to power will have the past benefits of free market capitalism at their disposal – the surveillance, computing, and military equipment – under which to establish a dark age that could last a thousand years.

The only way to prevent the rise of this existential threat is to stand up for the ideals that gave rise to freedom; not the imaginary freedom the socialists promise, but true freedom. Freedom is nothing less than the ability of each man to follow his conscience, to live his own life, to pursue his own dreams, to personally live according to his own values, as long as he does not seek to deprive this same golden opportunity from others. If one urgently, desperately, desires to “change the world,” or more accurately, to make a better world, the lesson of history is that to ensure one’s moral ends are not perverted, it is best to take action oneself, and to enlist those of like-mind to join you on a purely voluntary basis. In this way, one can truly serve humanity, while ensuring that humanity doesn’t serve you, or those who act in your name.

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