Guest post by Stan Sorscher
I went to France in June and couldn’t help comparing the French revolution to our own. So let’s start with aristocracy, then we’ll get to Ayn Rand. Stick with me.
In a nutshell, shortly after our revolution, peasants in France concluded that aristocrats were giving them a really crappy deal. Within a short time, peasants and workers rounded up aristocrats, and took them to Place de la Concorde in downtown Paris, and chopped off their heads. Very serious stuff.
In a museum, I saw “The Gleaners,” a famous work by Jean-François Millet, depicting 3 peasant women stooping over to pick up wheat left behind in the harvest. I knew this painting from Sunday school, where I learned as a child that people of wealth have a moral obligation to acknowledge the dignity of poor people.
Gleaning in the fields was a case in point, going back to the Old Testament.
Imagine my shock to hear from the museum audio guide that the painting was controversial when displayed in 1857. Aristocrats (evidently some had survived with their heads intact, if not their human compassion) regarded the three peasant women as brutes. Aristocrats objected to painting peasants in a sympathetic light.
On the opposite wall in the museum was another example of French realism, painted a few years later by Jules Breton. Its title is translated as “Recalling the Gleaners from the Field.” This one was amazing – more compelling than The Gleaners.
In the second painting, the peasant women are just as poor, with bare feet and torn clothes, but this is a work team, with confident presence – all business, capable, focused even at the end of the working day. The women seem to communicate among themselves instinctively, like players on a strong sports team. Their recent ancestors had chopped off the heads of aristocrats, and they seem ready to do it again, if needed.
Which brings me to Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand’s books, Atlas Shrugged in particular, serve as an intellectual foundation for free market ideology. Atlas Shrugged came out as a movie recently. At the time, Rand’s outlook regarding the rich was characterized in these terms:
“… wealthy people “produce” and are rich because they “produce.” The rest of us are “parasites” who suck blood and energy from the productive rich, by taxing them.”
Jon Stewart captures this in one of his videos.
I completely disagree with Ayn Rand’s reasoning about how rich people become rich. My success depends on strong communities, shared prosperity, opportunity and fairness, and investment in the future. Alex de Tocqueville called this “self interest, properly understood.”
As Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.”
Eric Reinert asks why a barber in Honduras earns less than $1 per hour while the standard of living for a barber in Ohio might be 30 times higher, even though both are comparably productive and skillful, and the two are equally deserving of prosperity. Simply put, the Ohio barber’s customers are more prosperous.
This stands in contrast to the Ayn Rand view that rich people succeed largely as a consequence of their inner nobility. I call that the Ayn Rand 1.0 perspective. Ideally, in an Ayn Rand 1.0 world, some people acquire great wealth, but the political and economic system will maintain an equitable social balance and healthy dynamic between different income groups, with upward and downward mobility, and opportunity for all – the American Dream, as it were. Rich people can imagine for themselves whatever inner qualities they want. Anyone would have the chance to succeed.
However, consider an Ayn Rand 2.0 world, where the wealthiest accumulate unchecked power and dominate policy-making.
For three decades, we’ve seen a steady shift in political power away from workers and communities and toward corporate interests and investors. Wages have stagnated, jobs have moved to low wage countries and government policies now align primarily with business, leaving workers and civil society behind.
If those around us do worse, we will also do worse.
America’s founding fathers rejected aristocracy. Our Constitution prohibits titles of nobility. But nothing in the Constitution prevents us from sliding backwards into a functional aristocracy.
We are becoming a society of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent. If we allow the top 1% to rewrite policies to solidify their positions of privilege, we will have a functional aristocracy, a shrunken middle class and millions of workers in wage peonage.
Let’s go back to the two paintings. We can see others as brutes, and extract wealth from those beneath us, or we can see others as neighbors, co-workers, teammates, or even simply as customers, whose prosperity is tied to ours.
Note: Stan Sorscher is Stan Sorscher is Legislative Director at the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) and an EOI Board member. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of EOI.