Atlas Shirked: The Teenage Revolt Against “the Nanny State“

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Now that Paul Ryan has backed away from his fervent embrace of Ayn Rand, claiming that she is merely one of many influences on his political thinking despite video of him declaring that she was his primary reason for engaging in politics, and despite the fact that he requires all of his staff members to read her work, it’s possible the author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead will begin to lose some of her cachet among the Tea Party right.

I read Ayn Rand when I was in high school – I was a pretty indiscriminate reader in those days – and even then I found her waterlogged novels turgid and boring, her characters so wooden they make Mitt Romney look like a young Bob Dylan, her plots over-determined, her dialogue laughable. In theory, her “philosophy” of Objectivism should have held some appeal to me as an autodidact cum laude with a strong sense of superiority – driven, of course, by typical teenage insecurities. After all, I was a big fan of Nietzsche, one of Rand’s putative inspirations, devouring, without necessarily digesting, his epigrams and ideas.

But there are several key differences between her and Nietzsche. For one, he was a great writer, one of the sharpest prose stylists of his day. For another, he was, however tormented and doomed, an essentially decent human being who lived and worked alone, with no claque of acolytes seeking his approval – in fact, it was Richard Wagner’s cultivation of such a claque that drove Nietzsche to break with the composer. For yet another, his work is still pertinent, still provocative, whether one agrees with him or not.

Rand, on the other hand, was not a decent human being. She used and discarded people at will, was more than happy to surround herself with a cult of young people drunk on her moonshine, and, as we now know, perfectly willing to receive Social Security payments from that same “collective” she supposedly despised so thoroughly. As for her philosophy, let’s just say it is crude Social Darwinism fueled by her hatred of the Communist system that had taken over the Russia of her youth, her ideas something that shouldn’t hold any appeal for anyone over the age of, say, 21 .

With its loose talk about “looters” and “producers,” “job creators” and “job destroying” entitlement programs, public employee unions, progressive taxation, and even minimal government regulation, the Tea Party right has been accused of proposing an updated form of Social Darwinism. But that’s not really quite right. The original Social Darwinism was a misreading of Charles Darwin employed to justify a European imperialism that was already several centuries in progress. However wrongheaded and racist it might have been, it was an ideology trumpeted by the winners of that era’s global shakedown.

While Social Darwinist ideas have indeed been on the lips of certain members of the 1% to justify their windfall from today’s global shakedown, the legions of Rand followers are not drawn from the pool of rich and powerful but from the far larger ranks of folks like thee and me – ordinary Americans, buffeted by forces far beyond our immediate control, operating at the margins of an economic system that demands that we do what it tells us to do — or else. From the ranks, in other words, of Americans for whom the triumph of Social Darwinism is not at all in their interests.

To understand why people that Ayn Rand would probably spit on now worship at her altar we have to dip into terminology from contemporary psychology – a field my old friend Nietzsche helped inspire via his influence on Freud and other pioneers of the discipline. That term is “hostile dependency.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but a state of dependency does not always inspire gratitude on the part of the dependent partner in a relationship. On the contrary. More often it inspires feelings of entrapment, helplessness and rage. Hostile dependency is a good way to describe the relationship most adolescents have with their parents or other authority figures. Hostile dependency is also a good way to describe the malice and narcissism that lies at the root of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Hostile dependency is also a good way to describe the motivating force behind the rage – either hot and in-your-face, or cold and sullen – expressed by the Tea Partiers against the freedom-crushing, independence-throttling “nanny state.”

Now, just think about that term: “nanny state.” Is it possible to imagine a more self-revealing epithet to hurl at the government – i.e., the collective? What does a nanny state do to its citizen/subjects? It treats them like children; or, more accurately, like teenagers, old enough to perform chores, earn some money and contribute to the household, yet not mature enough to decide whether to save some of that money for college or blow it on a muscle car.

During the course of adolescent development, hostile dependency is probably an unavoidable by-product of the necessary process of individuation by which we separate psychologically from our parents and find our own sense of autonomy and agency in the world.

Carried forward into the life, though, the kind of hostile dependency exhibited by the Tea Party right speaks more of stunted development. It is the whiff of intellectual immaturity that lends a risible air to the out-of-our depths posturing of today’s Rand-lovers like Paul Ryan.

In its political applications, however, there is nothing particularly funny about the rotten fruits of Ayn Rand-worship; we see them today in the attacks upon labor, women, immigrants, the poor, and the unemployed. Fascism, we should recall, is also an adolescent fantasy of omnipotence masquerading as political philosophy – which is why fascism is as incoherent an ideology as is Objectivism.

Both philosophies are faintly comic – at least until people like Ryan or his Badger-state colleague Scott Walker end up in charge, in which case it ain’t funny anymore. It’s grim.

Even grimmer than laboring through an Ayn Rand novel.