Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Why ideas matter - they can change and devastate lives

Quakers haven't always welcomed discussion of ideas, of ideologies. They can be dismissed as mere 'notions' - in Quaker parlance a derogatory term implying something worldy and human-made, not emanating from God. But ideas have traction - they create actions, alliances, policies and real effects. On the left, think of Karl Marx, on the right, think of Ayn Rand.

You'll certainly have heard of Marx; you might not have heard of Rand, but now is the time to find out - we need to know what we're up against. Her (in)famous novel Atlas Shrugged has gained notice and popularity among the American Right (and notoriety among liberals), and continues to sell in high numbers.

There was BBC documentary about her broadcast last year, covering her life and her ideas. Much of it was familiar to me, but I was shocked to discover that Alan Greenspan had been one of her close disciples - the man who ran the US Federal Reserve for so many years, close to the centre of not only US, but world power.

Rand propounded a doctrine she called Objectivism - a philosophy claiming that the only way to live was to be guided by pure selfishness. Compassion, empathy, care, fellow-feeling, fairness, justice . . . all these were to be cast aside. The poor and the sick deserved their fate. Family, children, friends . . . all were to be thrown over for naked self-interest. [See also the Ayn Rand Institute]

What was so extraordinary was that she gathered a group of disciples around her - Greenspan among them - who hung on her every word. In the filmed extracts that the documentary screened, she came across as such a thoroughly unpleasant person, so utterly unlikeable, that it seemed most strange that she gained so much influence. Her attitudes fit very closely with a psychiatric profile expected of a psychopath. And she was not even consistent - she was to act entirely selfishly, but if any of the young men who danced attendance on her chose his own self-interest over hers, then she became furious, punitive, vindictive. And in her old age, she signed up for both Medicare and social security, even though she had railed against them all her life - ideology has no answers to old age and ill-health.

In a recent Guardian column, George Monbiot discussed Rand, in the wake of a new book just out. In his article 'How Ayn Rand became the new right's version of Marx' he addresses how 'her psychopathic ideas made billionaires feel like victims and turned millions of followers into their doormats'. The new book that has occasioned this is by Gary Weiss, a US investigative journalist. In Ayn Rand Nation: the hidden struggle for America's soul he explores the people and institutions that remain under Rand's spell. He charts Rand’s infiltration of the Tea Party and Libertarian movements, and provides an inside look at the radical belief system that exerts a powerful influence on the Republican Party and its presidential candidates. He describes in detail how Alan Greenspan implemented Rand's ideas - deregulating with ideological zeal, and then seeking to conceal her influence on his life and thinking. We are all living with the catastrophic results of Greenspan's belief that, 
'the 'greed' of the businessman or, more appropriately, his profit-seeking … is the unexcelled protector of the consumer'
and, for bankers, their need to win the trust of their clients guarantees that they will act with honour and integrity - unregulated capitalism, he maintains, is a 'superlatively moral system'.

This reminds me of James Murdoch, giving the McTaggart Lecture in 2009, proclaining that the profit motive is the only guarantee of a free press: 'The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.'

And it's not only the rich and powerful embracing these ideas. You may have seen on TV, last September, the shocking spectacle of Ron Paul (US Congressman seeking the Republican presidential nomination) adressing a live studio audience on CNN. CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer asked whether an uninsured 30-year-old working man in a coma should be treated. 'What he should do is whatever he wants to do and assume responsibility for himself,' Paul responded, adding, 'That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risk. This whole idea that you have to compare and take care of everybody…'  The audience erupted into cheers, cutting off the Congressman’s sentence. After a pause, Blitzer followed up by asking, 'Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?' to which a number of audience members shouted 'Yeah!' [watch a video clip here].

In case we in Britain fall into thinking that this is just a USA matter, it's instructive to turn to Polly Toynbee, just a few pages after Monbiot in the same day's paper. She's writing primarily about the government's proposals for cuts in legal aid, currently heading for the House of Lords: Yes, legal aid will be cut, but not where it hurts the silks: 'Lawyers have much to lose in Clarke's bill, and it's only when Tories' interests are involved that their sense of injustice twitches'. She writes:
[Kenneth Clarke] blurs the difference between fat cat barristers earning fortunes from legal aid in high-profile criminal cases, whose fees he leaves untouched – and the work of social conscience lawyers, whose fees he is abolishing completely. Public interest lawyers earn very little in law centres and Citizens Advice bureaus, helping people lost in the legal wilderness of welfare, tenancies or working rights. As a result, law centres and CABs will close.
Fewer victims of domestic violence will bring their abusers to court when a far tougher measure of 'objective evidence' means half the cases will never be heard. Half the victims at present on legal aid will no longer qualify, when medical evidence from A&E, GPs or a women's refuge will not be enough [. . .] Sometimes I find I have to pinch myself to believe these things are really happening.
A Labour debate highlighted the under-publicised savagery of tax credit cuts that next month take between £3,000 and £4,000 away from low-earning families who can't get their working time up to 24 hours a week. Hundreds of thousands of people and 470,000 children still have no idea of the devastating income cut about to hit them on 6 April. [. . . ] The Lords debated the legal aid bill which removes all legal support that ensures people at least get the benefits they are entitled to. Legal aid is abolished for 'social' cases, even if people risk losing their homes and livelihoods.
But what stirs a sense of injustice among restless Tory backbenchers is none of these – which they heartily support. They are exercised over cutting child benefit for higher earning families. Here is an unfairness they understand because it's happening to their people.

In Chapter 3 of Costing Not Less Than Everything (see top right) I discussed some of what we are now learning from research in the fields neuroscience and behavioural economics. I then wrote:
How do we become the change we want to see? How do we motivate ourselves and others to do what we know is needed? How do we, as a community of Friends, as a religious body, become beacons, ‘patterns and examples’? Alongside members of other religious groups, we have deeply held views about the nature of human beings. We also believe that the best can be elicited from people, given love and the right circumstances [. . .] We need to be more bold in our beliefs in the face of what can often seem to be an indifferent and cynical world.
Empathic, cooperative, fair-dealing traits are not superficial aspects of human behaviour, not merely a thin skin of civilisation – they are embedded in our evolutionary past and in our biology. This means that the spiritual perception and the religious world-view are not ‘soft’ models that can easily be swept away by antagonistic political or economic ideologies. That is not to say, of course, that these traits cannot be over-ridden or distorted beyond recognition by adverse circumstances [. . . ] To go forward, using the best of what humanity can be, expecting the best of ourselves and everyone else, leading by example and doing so in a confident and cheerful manner, has the backing of science as well as spirituality.


  1. I'd love to see some discussion of some of the research you mentioned at the end of this blog in a future post. I find the idea that cooperation is deeply embedded in human biology a really interesting one, but it's not something I know where to find more references to.

    1. Well, Ben, I'm so sorry to carry on plugging the book, but all these references are in the Endnotes to Chapter 3 !

  2. Ah. Note to self: must read more carefully....