My name is Marc Mulholland. I am a Fellow (lecturer and tutor) in the History Faculty of Oxford University. My College is St Catherine's. I come from Ireland.

This is a blog relating to my book published in 2012 by Oxford University Press, Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservativism.
Now on sale here and here. If you want 20 per cent off the price, I can arrange that! Send me a message or leave a comment, and I'll tell you how.

The thesis my book is examining was rather pithily summarised by Leon Trotsky in 1939: "Wherever the proletariat appeared as an independent force, the bourgeoisie shifted to the camp of the counter-revolution. The bolder the struggle of the masses, the quicker the reactionary transformation of liberalism." [Context is here]

However, my book isn't a defence of Trotskyism, or indeed any particular ideology. It's a study of an idea that took shape in Left, Right, and Centre variations.

This blog has tid-bits not included in the book, and other thoughts that occur.

You can see book details at the
OUP website.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Ayn Rand's Superiority Complex

I barely mention Ayn Rand in my book. She's relegated, I'm afraid, to half a footnote, which reads: "Ayn Rand, influential on the American libertarian right, thought that the welfare-state - preserving private property in production but directing its use - was essentially ‘fascist’. Ayn Rand, ‘The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus’ [1965] in her Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York, 1966), 237."

This struck me as interesting. The 1960s New Left was often criticized for chucking hysterical accusation of fascism hither and thither. Rand's essay made the point, which I write about more in the main text, that both New Left and New Right shared a common sense of often fevered insurrection against the establishment (this isn't an argument at all unique to me, of course).

Rand appeals to certain teenagers, I thought, and hardly deserves much attention in a book ranging over 250 years. Besides, I wasn't keen to grapple with tomes such as her 'philosophical novels', Atlas Shrugged or the Fountainhead.

Now that the Republicans have adopted Paul Ryan - a Rand enthusiast - as Veep candidate, I rather wish I'd made more of her. In his excellent essay on Rand, Corey Robin quotes Ludwig von Mises (a much more serious thinker, of course) writing to her:

You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you.

[In Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 91].

That's a great quote: I wish now that I'd pinched it for my book! It nicely captures what Rand-ism distilled. It's a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the 'bourgeois ideology' of 'career open to talents'. As inequality is naturally based, there are no a priori moral limits on its extent (except, perhaps, some kind of utilitarian calculus).

Robin's essay makes the point that Rand's viewpoint also has something in common with the "drill march of fascism" (87). Now, this is not to say that Rand was fascist, or quasi-fascist. The point is simply that fascism championed that part of bourgeois ideology that embraced natural inequality and gave true leaders unrestricted prerogative. In my book, I make a somewhat similar point: fascism didn't reject bourgeois ideology so much as demand that its defence of the 'right to manage' be extended massively. The ethic of natural inequality should burst out from the factory to transform society and state. (Just now, Robin and Chris Bertram are involved in writing interesting stuff on the extraordinary prerogatives being claimed by managers over employees;  rights to domineer that would be seen as incompatible with democracy if they were accepted as transferable to general citizenship).

Of course, there's more to fascism than natural, unfettered leaders. Its statism, hyper-nationalism and militarism are incompatible with bourgeois liberty, and in the end is clearly destructive of bourgeois civil society itself. Fascist racism, moreover, is in strict contradiction to the ideals of performance-based  hierarchy.

As a modern ideology, fascism inevitably overlapped with other political outlooks: it borrowed from conservatism, liberalism, and not least socialism. Randism, therefore, isn't at all fascism, because fascism isn't reducible to a small a subset of its self-justifications. But then, we began with Rand's willingness herself to throw around the 'fascism' accusation (a gambit still popular on the wackier Right); and, contra Rand (and Ryan?), the welfare state isn't fascist either!

No comments:

Post a Comment