Ryan: a Reactionary Without Scruples

We’re approaching a stretch of time when it would be a blessing to fall into a stupor; better that than endure two mind-numbing marketing campaigns — one promoting a corporate ass kisser and drone-wielding devil we know, the other a corporate asshole and devil we’d rather not.

Apologies for not putting the point more decorously.  But in this instance, let the language reflect William Blake’s teaching: “as the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.”

Before Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan for a running mate, there was a slim chance that the election might at least be amusing.   If only he had named a certifiable whack job  – there were so many to choose from!   I was hoping for Rick Perry, but only because Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann were too preposterous even for Mitt.

Would that Sarah Palin was back!   Last time, she was icing on the cake because the election was already interesting, even for those of us who never bought into  “hope” and “change.”  It was interesting for what it revealed about race and racism in America at the time.  Four years later, we already know all we need to know about that.  So except for the chance to ridicule Mormon snake oil – its main fault is that it hasn’t had time to age as long as the more familiar brands — we’re looking forward to a big Nothing.  Where are you, Sarah, now that we need you?

Everybody knows the answer: she’s out bilking her celebrity for all it’s (still) worth.    Meanwhile, we’re left with an Ayn Rand besotted policy wonk whose most worthy accomplishment to date was driving the Oscar Mayer wienermobile around the upper mid-west – that and supplying the Tea Party with “ideas.”  The latter job was, pardon the pun, less taxing.

Romney could even have done something mildly constructive had he chosen Marco Rubio.  Not doing so might also have cost him Florida.  Now he has a running mate who wants to privatize Medicare and, until he flip flops as he likely soon will, end the embargo of Cuba.  These are hardly winning formulae in a state with a huge elderly population and a Cuban-American community still in the grip of gusano fanatics.

With Rubio for a running mate, attention would have had to focus on the criminality (and stupidity) of our five decades long Cuba policy.  It can hardly survive scrutiny.  But now the anti-Castro lobby will be able to slouch on (sans Fidel) for a while longer — like its big brother, the Israel lobby — until the harm it does becomes so palpable that grudging acquiescence will turn to a degree of outrage so intense that even the most intimidated politicians won’t be able to ignore it any longer.   But the time for that is – not yet.

Indeed, the time for anything but falling into a stupor is – not yet, not until after November 6.   Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan quashes all hope of salvaging anything worthwhile or even interesting from the 2012 presidential race.

Gingrich’s “charm” is that he presents himself as smart, though he cannot smart his way out of a paper bag; not that it matters since Republican voters aren’t equipped to notice and Republican donors hardly care.  With Ryan, it’s much the same.

But unlike Gingrich, whose purported smartness manifested itself in ludicrous but flashy proposals and declarations, Ryan is just a lumbering right-wing wonk, an unimaginative one at that.

Even so, the conventional wisdom, echoed now even by Barack Obama, has it that Ryan is an intellectual leader.  Really?  How smart do you have to be to figure out how to dismantle the last vestiges of the New Deal and Great Society so that obscenely rich malefactors can become even richer?  That’s all the Ryan budget comes to; it’s about “starving the beast” in ways that even the villainous Reagan would never have dared.

To be sure, Obama is poised to compromise away most of what Ryan would obliterate in one fell swoop; he, like most Democrats these days, is on the same page as the GOP.   But, as a Democrat, obliged to bring along those who would be most harmed, he has to move slowly and with a certain finesse.  That’s what Bill Clinton did, and it’s what Obama did too in his first term.

Ryan faces no such constraints and, as a reactionary, he knows no scruples.  Forget about finesse: Ryan would
have Congress and the White House “Just Say No.”

Those three words, if not the strategy behind them, have been a joke from the moment the Lady Gipper, Nancy Reagan, first uttered them.  But she was taking about drugs and therefore taking aim at human nature.  Her thinking was as fatuous, if not as godly, as that of evangelical “educators” who think that teachers of sex education courses ought to promote abstinence only.

In the perpetual war on drugs and sex that Republicans wage, “Just Say No” blocks measures that might actually be efficacious and helpful; the harm the Lady Gipper’s theory and practice does is passive.

The harm Ryan wants to do is of a different order altogether.  A Ryan-style assault on the good and decent things states do for the people who comprise them and on institutions that give expression to a modicum of social solidarity would have more direct consequences – devastating ones.  It would wipe out more than a century of (modest) progress.

I am not too worried about that because I don’t think that miscreants as unlikeable and uncharismatic as Romney and Ryan have much chance of winning a general election even in a post-Citizens United world.

I am more worried that Ryan’s defense of the social and economic policies of the bad old days will move Obama and the Democrats even farther to the right — as they hone in, yet again, on what they take to be the “center” of the current political scene.

* * *

Romney must truly be running scared to have chosen Ryan.  It is as if he’s written off the “center” Obama courts, deciding that his only chance of winning in November is to pander to his party’s base.

It has been clear for some time that, in the Republican world these days, the inmates run the asylum.  But thanks to family traditions, class loyalty, and limitless greed, a lot of plutocrats are still on board too, and they are, as always, funding the operation.  In recent decades, Democrats have been doing their utmost to win the plutocracy over, but they have so far met with only partial success.

And so, the plutocrats – Romney among them – and the others must somehow coexist.  It’s an impossible situation, and it’s especially hard when a plutocrat gets it into his head to take charge himself, as Romney did (for reasons that only his psychiatrist, if he has one, would know for sure).  It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for that rapacious scoundrel.

Had he gone for a “moderate” running mate, he would have a better chance against Obama, but only if he could keep that loony-tune base of his on board.   The problem there is that the base hates his guts.  His hope all along has been that they hate Obama’s guts more.

With the party convention just a few weeks off, Romney and his advisors evidently decided that they’d lose the base unless Romney named a vice presidential candidate to their liking.  And so, encouraged by Wall Street Journal editors and other like-minded arbiters of the GOP establishment’s interests, they went for a Tea Party pleaser; one who, without being creepy, is acceptable to “values voters,” and who can appeal to libertarians.  It didn’t hurt either that Ryan is much loved within the bankster community — not just for the congeniality of his views but also for services rendered.

* * *

I do believe, as I have written before, that awful as Romney is, especially now that he has jettisoned his Governor of Massachusetts persona, that were he to shellac Obama, the outcome, all things considered, might not be worse than were Obama to shellac him.

Were Romney president, Democrats might recover the little bit of backbone that sprouted out from nowhere during the second Bush term.  That might even lead them to block Republican efforts to undo programs Obama seems intent on compromising away, just as they did after the 2004 election, the last time a president set his sights on Social Security.

Best of all, with Romney in the White House a healthy class-consciousness might finally seep down into the layers of the population that Tea Party entrepreneurs have been able to exploit.  And it would give the Occupy movement a new lease on life as well.  With Romney as the face of the one percent, expect “eat the rich” T-shirts to come back into style.

Still, I confess, I’d rather Romney be the one who gets shellacked.  My reasons are selfish, and more aesthetic than political. It comes down to this I dread the thought of having that man in my life for four or eight years – seeing his face everywhere, listening to his self-serving, pro-one percent nonsense.

It’s even worse now that Paul Ryan is in the mix.  It isn’t so much that I find him personally repellent – yet.  It’s an Ayn Rand thing.

* * *

Remember back when the neocons were calling the shots after 9/11; remember all the prattle then about Leo Strauss.  Because some of them had been Strauss’ students years earlier at the University of Chicago, the idea was out, in both liberal and conservative circles, that to understand what was happening in our political scene, a keen understanding of Strauss’ thought was indispensable.

It wasn’t.  Strauss was a decent, though basically undistinguished, scholar; a man of a few novel ideas, all of which pertained to interpretations of classics of Western political thought.

Except perhaps for his efforts to rehabilitate Plato’s notion of the Noble Lie – the idea that governing elites (philosopher kings) can and often should deceive non-elite strata for their own good — his ideas had almost no conceivable relevance to real world governance.

The neocons were, and still are, a malevolent lot, and some of them do claim Strauss as a teacher and guide, but the connection between Straussian political philosophy and their real world machinations exists only in their minds.

Nevertheless, for several years, poor Leo Strauss figured in on-going political debates.  It could have been worse; it may soon be.  But there is only so much Strauss one can take.  Even academic philosophers have more important things to discuss.

Once this became impossible to deny, talk of him receded – to about the point where it had been before 9/11.  There are still a few Straussians around in political science departments and some of his interpretations of classical and early modern political theory remain points of reference in scholarly discussions.   But, unlike the people he was supposed to have influenced, he has all but dropped out of public awareness.

I fear that with Ryan on the ticket we are about to witness a similar phenomenon this time centered on a much less worthy figure.  It’s not a pleasing prospect.

Unlike Strauss, Rand and her disciples (there’s no other word for them) produced a comprehensive, almost systematic, body of doctrine; complete with a metaphysics, an epistemology, and an aesthetics along with the ethics and political philosophy for which she is mainly known.

Unlike Strauss too, there is hardly a professional philosopher who takes her work seriously, though there have been a few who have written occasional pieces about it.  It is surprising how little of that there has been because, if you are a college professor, it is hard to ignore Ayn Rand completely; there are always a few undergraduates, boys mostly, who claim an interest and keep bringing her up.

Of course, the judgment of academic philosophers is hardly sacrosanct.  But it is telling that, in university circles, Ayn Rand’s “objectivism” is about as respectable a position as, say, “intelligent design” or “scientific creationism.”  Proponents of those latter positions have a ready-made audience, the Scopes monkey trial notwithstanding; small wonder therefore that a few of them find their way into the nether reaches of the academic scene.

Admirers of Ayn Rand have a ready-made audience too: adolescent boys drawn in by her soft porn (even these days, when so much better is available) and borderline sociopaths, rich and poor, who welcome her justifications for their otherwise mindless egoism.

If anyone is curious, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a comprehensive and remarkably non-judgmental account of her positions and also a bibliography of writings by her and about her work.  It will tell you more than you need to know.

There actually is a small Ayn Rand literature out there, but what most people who have read anything by her know are two massive novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957).

Their influence far outweighs their literary merits, and I would venture, again, that their popularity has at least as much to do with their steamier parts than with their philosophical ruminations.  Though both are touted as philosophical novels, readers are hard put to find any actual philosophy in them.

What there is instead are glorifications of ruthlessness and wealth.  Rand defends raw, untrammeled egoism.  She therefore attacks morality which, as we know from the Golden Rule and Kant’s categorical imperative, involves impartiality, a deliberative vantage-point according to which what matters is what people have in common, not what distinguishes them from one another.

This is why morality and Randian egoism are incompatible.  The heroes of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged do not do unto others as they would have others do unto them, and they certainly don’t act in accord with principles that are binding on rational agents as such.  They just do what they want.

Years before Rand, Friedrich Nietzsche raised superficially similar objections to the moral point of view.  Nietzsche, however, made his case with considerable cogency and philosophical sophistication.  Rand’s brief against morality is neither cogent nor subtle.

I have no idea how much, if anything, of the Randian world view Ryan shares (or understands).  It hardly matters.  What does matter is that Ayn Rand’s philosophy coheres well with the free market theology Ryan promotes and with the diffuse libertarianism of the American right.

This is why I think it is fair to conjecture that Ryan’s commitment to Rand’s objectivism is shallow; it is just a carapace for housing libertarian intuitions.  Indeed, I would venture that he is not really committed to ideas at all, but just to the interests of those plutocrats who feel no sense of obligation to the people who make their wealth and power possible.

In support of this conjecture, I would adduce the undeniable fact that Randian philosophy, or pseudo-philosophy, conflicts with other positions Ryan endorses.  The conflict is blatant and undeniable.

Rand was not just an atheist; she disparaged believers (illustrating how even a stopped clock is right twice every twenty-four hours), and none more than those who adhere to the dictates of the Church of Rome, the Church into which Ryan was born and to whose uppity bishops he expresses obeisance.

Of course, it could just be that he is an opportunistic panderer; after all, no Republican who, say, favors abortion would have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anywhere in today’s GOP.  But Ryan seems to be a true believer, as sincere a Catholic as the man who chose him is sincerely Mormon.

He is reported even to have told those bishops that his favorite philosopher, after Ayn Rand of course, is Thomas Aquinas.  It would be hard to imagine a more impossible marriage of views or, for that matter, a more unequal fusion of philosophical positions.

Thomas Aquinas – wrong and wrong-headed as he may have been — was one of the premier philosophers of all time.  Though there are objectivist positions on some venerable problems of philosophy, it is something of a stretch to count Ayn Rand as a philosopher at all.

Ryan’s self-declared Randian-Thomism is an especially ironic concoction in view of the fact that Aquinas’s case against interest – against money ‘earning’ money – went on to shape Church thinking on usury and, more generally, on banking.  It kept Catholics out of the banking business for centuries.

As capitalism came to supplant the feudal world in which Thomas Aquinas lived, it became impossible for the Catholic counterparts of today’s GOP establishment to leave banking to Protestants and Jews.  Therefore that part of the Thomist system has fallen away.  It was a case of God versus Mammon and, not surprisingly, Mammon won.

But the philosophical conflicts remain.  Tellingly, they touch on issues Ryan is on record supporting.  Aquinas’s arguments are straightforward consequences of the ‘natural law’ approach to social policy questions that Ryan says he embraces.  But what’s good for abortion is evidently not good for issues affecting bankers.  Does he have a reason why?  I doubt he’s even given it a moment’s thought.

It hardly matters.  Ryan may be the Republicans’ thinker of the hour.  But it’s hard to deny the obvious: there’s no there there.

Banksters can therefore rest easy.  That is hardly news.  They figured out from Day One that in Paul Ryan you have a reliable menial at their service.  He may get points in benighted circles for presenting himself as a serious thinker; why not, it works for Newt Gingrich?  But his Thomism and even his identification with Ayn Rand’s silliness is only window-dressing at best.

That may not matter to banksters and their comrades in the class struggle, but it is not without consequence.  The neocon prattle over Leo Strauss was hardship enough.  But at least Strauss was a full-fledged citizen of the republic of letters; making much of him didn’t befoul the ambient political scene.

Rand is a different story, a borderline charlatan.  Introducing her into the fold only serves to underscore how decrepit our intellectual and political culture can be.  It’s a painful reminder.  For anyone who cares about such things, the temptation to say “better Obama than that” – especially when it’s not clear otherwise where the balance falls — is hard to resist.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).