Public health in England is suffering multiple blows from the refusal of the Johnson government to take timely action to prevent the spread of the Omicron virus. The very limited steps taken so far, like masks in public places (often ignored) and vaccination of health workers, have been bitterly opposed by the right wing of the Tory Party, which clearly has strong support not just in Parliament, but also inside the Cabinet.
Even if the British government now takes further measures along the lines of the Scottish and Welsh governments, it may be too late to prevent Omicron infecting half the population in England and probably more in London.
The idea that Omicron is a ‘mild’ illness is unproven, and the notion that Covid will become endemic ‘just like ‘flu’ is absurd. This is not an illness like influenza: it is much worse and often wrecks the long-term health of patients. We cannot ‘live with’ this terrible disease, which will only get worse if unchecked.
But in addition to being an assault on public health, Tory resistance to restrictions is an assault on the NHS. Tens of thousands of NHS workers are going down with the disease and existing acute facilities are being overwhelmed. Thousands of people needing treatment for other severe conditions will not get it, just as occurred in the Spring of 2020.
Restrictions on mass-spreader events – sports fixtures, nightclubs, large parties, etc – are being opposed under the banner of personal ‘freedom’. Not only among Tory MPs, but also on the banners of anti-vaxx cranks and fascist thugs, like those who assembled outside Downing Street on 18 December to denounce the ‘tyranny’ of mask-wearing and fight the police.
Where does this hypocritical ideology of personal ‘freedom’ – against the collective well-being of society – come from?
The Tory Right and Libertarian Ideology
A clue can be found in the parliamentary speech last November of Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe and a key leader of the Tory right. The debate on wearing masks and vaccination, he said, was about the kind of nation, and indeed civilisation, we want to build. Did we want one based on ‘freedom’ and individual choice, or did we want one based on state regulation?
Baker asked, ‘What is the relationship between the state and the individual? Are we to be empty vessels or mere automata – things to be managed, as if a problem? Or are we free spirits with, for want of a better term, a soul?’
The connection between having a soul and a right to infect other people with a deadly disease may seem a bit obscure, but behind it is a philosophy of ‘libertarian’ reaction which goes way back – at least as far as certain political theorists in the United States in the middle of the last century.
The kind of freedom advanced by Baker and his friends is in fact the untrammelled right of property and wealth, and corresponds to the idea that individuals should be entirely responsible for their own economic and social well-being – and that of their children and families more generally. ‘Society’ collectively has no obligations to anyone, and especially not to the poor or otherwise disadvantaged.
Extreme individualism of this sort was more recently summed up in the book Britannia Unchained (2010), written by then-backbenchers Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore, and Liz Truss – a team that includes some of the most influential cabinet ministers today (and potential post-Johnson Tory leaders).
Behind this book is the political theory of the Russian-American theorist Ayn Rand (1905-1986), who rejected all altruism as evil, and waged an unceasing war in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s against the post-war mixed economy and welfare state, even in its weak American form.
At the time, even in the United States, Ayn Rand was regarded by most people as a crank. That changed with the advent of the Ronald Reagan presidency in the United States (1980) and the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher in Britain (1979). Rand was a strong influence on Reagan and also on Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve during the key period of US neoliberalisation from 1987 to 2006.
The Britannia Unchained team, and the Steve Baker trend in the Tory party, are the children of Ayn Rand. They want to destroy what remains of the post-1945 welfare state, of which the strongest elements are public education and healthcare. Their aim is the complete privatisation of both.
In 2008, Dominic Raab summed up the philosophy of Britannia Unchained in his pithy statement: ‘I don’t believe in social equality and I don’t believe in economic equality.’ Another classic Raabism is his statement in the linked video that people who use food banks are not poor, but merely suffering a cash flow problem. It’s no wonder, then, as the Foreign Secretary, Raab led Britain’s attack on international human rights’ law and institutions.
Human rights cannot be separated from economic and social justice, which in turn is based on the fundamental human emotion of altruism – respect, empathy, and support for others – the very basis of all human civilisation.
The interconnection between these things – empathy, altruism, human rights, social justice – is expressed in the demand that the vaccine imperialism of the rich countries and big pharma be ended, and that poor countries have access to the jabs they desperately need.
Rejection of this is prolonging the pandemic by allowing the virus to spread and mutate in poorer countries. This rebounds on the richer countries – as the Omicron crisis has demonstrated. And we learn from this that human solidarity is the basis of general human welfare.
We can extend this argument to all matters pertinent to general human well-being – the climate crisis, women’s rights, racism, the rights of the disabled and LGBTQI+ people, world poverty, and so on. It is through collective action and basic solidarity, through sharing and caring, that we create a society that is decent and safe for all.
The argument of Ayn Rand and Britain Unchained is a projection onto society of the logic of corporate power and capital accumulation; it is the idea that greed and selfishness, competition and materialism, the rich trampling on everyone else, is some sort of social ideal.
So the Britain Unchained authors argue that Britain’s economic and social problems are down to a ‘bloated public sector’ (which, by 2010, had already been eviscerated) and to the laziness and lack of enterprise of British workers, in thrall to a ‘dependency culture’.
The intellectual hollowness of these arguments should not distract us from their import. The stupidity is obvious. Apparently, the rich, with their grotesque wealth, accumulated through the exploitation of thousands of working people, do not suffer from a ‘dependency culture’ – only the poor. Apparently, mega-corporations like Amazon and Apple, hoovering up profit across the globe, are not ‘bloated’ – only public institutions like the NHS, one of the most efficient and comprehensive healthcare systems in the world.
But reason and truth are not the issues here. We are confronting a tidal wave of ignorance and irrationalism. We have to understand its ideological wellsprings.
Ayn Rand systematised uber-Thatcherite thinking in her famous books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The state, she claimed, has no legitimate function other than the defence of citizens against violence – that is, the provision of police and army. In particular, it has no right to ‘rob’ individuals by demanding taxes from them.
This, of course, is zany stuff. Capitalism cannot exist without the multiple functions of the state, not least its function in boosting capitalist profits and insuring giant corporations and banks against bankruptcy in a crisis. Capitalists universally become advocates of their own ‘dependency culture’ when there is a banking or other economic crisis, as when the banks became recipients of untold billions after the Great Crash of 2008.
But the state also needs to take on numerous planning, funding, and infrastructure roles that require a state-wide and an international overview – and which individual capitalists will not take on.
At the heart of Rand’s ideology (and that of the Tory right) is profound ignorance of the history of capitalism, which has involved a tight nexus of state, finance, and industry from start to finish. Capital today remains dependent on the state for everything from military contracts to the provision of roads to the education of the next generation of workers.
Yet 39 years after her death, Ayn Rand continues to be seriously debated in the US, her books sell hundreds of thousands each year, and her views are propagated by right-wing ‘think tanks’ (a misnomer if ever there was one) and by politicians who regard themselves as ‘libertarians’.
Most of these ‘libertarians’, it should be said, are fully supportive of repressive legislation, like the current Police, Crime, Courts, and Sentencing Bill, which closely resembles laws used in apartheid South Africa to ban individuals, demonstrations, and parties.
They also support the Nationality and Borders Bill, which effectively removes all British adherence to international refugee and citizenship legislation. Britain can now remove the citizenship of anyone whose parents were born outside the UK. If such people fall foul of the existing order, they can henceforward be deemed ‘non-citizens’ by state diktat.
According to the Times Educational Supplement:
The surge in interest [in Ayn Rand] has also been propelled by the millions of dollars given to 25 universities by the charitable foundation of banking giant BB&T, run by one of her adherents. But even this funding, handed out so institutions can teach and study Ms Rand and to establish centres for the advancement of American capitalism, has been controversial. The faculty at Meredith College in North Carolina rejected a $420,000 (£260,000) grant because it came on the condition that Ms Rand’s work be taught there, and there was a similar uproar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte…
Alan Greenspan was part of Rand’s cult-like entourage as a young man and remained faithful to her views throughout his career – catastrophically so as far as the US economy was concerned. According to The Week magazine:
Rand attracted a group of disciples, known, with self-conscious irony, as the Collective… It wasn’t just her ideas that inspired the group, it was Rand’s charisma. At the height of her popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s, Rand cut a highly exotic figure with her bobbed hair, Russian accent, dollar-sign brooches, and long cigarettes, smoked through a holder. She saw smoking as a Promethean symbol of creativity and regarded health warnings as a socialist conspiracy. When she died of lung cancer, in 1982, a 6-foot-high floral dollar sign was erected by her open coffin (16 April 2009).
It might be added that, when she was dying of lung cancer, Rand did not reject the health care at that time provided by the American state (but which would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s system).
The Rand legacy
Astonishingly, the advent of the world banking crisis in 2008 led to an upsurge in Ayn Rand book sales. The Ayn Rand Institute, which continues to defend the faith, argued strongly against state money bailing out the banks, and unsurprisingly Randites were in the forefront of opposing US President Barak Obama’s rather mild plans to extend health-care insurance.
In Cold War America, her vogue with the rich created links with the film industry and enabled her to get her first major novel, The Fountainhead, turned into a 1949 film starring Gary Cooper, Patricia Neale, and Raymond Massey. A film about her love life, The Passion of Ayn Rand, was released in 1999 starring Helen Mirren as Rand and Peter Fonda as her long-suffering husband Frank O’Connor. The same year she was even put on a US postage stamp.
Rand’s extreme, libertarian, stateless capitalism is a curious ideological construct which could never exist in the real world. She seems to think that everyone comes into the world with equal opportunities, and that all wealth is the result of strenuous innovative business (and scientific) entrepreneurship. This peculiar notion, which ignores class, inheritance, and established wealth, is the basis of her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, in which the world’s capitalists go on strike against overbearing taxation and regulation. The book’s hero, John Galt, who leads the capitalist rebellion, makes a court-room speech outlining Rand’s philosophy which takes up 50 pages in the book.
Ayn Rand became famous through The Fountainhead in 1943, and remained prominent until her death in 1982, speaking at numerous meetings, notably the Ford Hall Forums in Boston, and appearing on radio and television. Her great ideological battle was against the mixed economy/welfare state model of capitalism – the Keynesian model – a battle waged by the US right during and immediately after the Second World War, and roundly defeated when the extreme-right Republican candidate Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election to Lyndon Johnson.
Rand herself declared her main opponents were altruism, collectivism, and mysticism (i.e. religion). It was her opposition to religion that got her into trouble with many on the US hard right, then as now a Christian redoubt.
To give Rand her due, she loathed and detested religion as not based on reason (obviously). This led her into many battles with more mainstream conservatives, for example William F Buckley, influential editor of the National Review in the 1960s and a key supporter of the Goldwater candidacy. Rand was vicious in her denunciation:
The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive – a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence… Man’s mind, say the mystics of spirit, must be subordinated to the will of God… Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man’s power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith… The purpose of man’s life … is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question (from For the New Intellectual).
Rand also annoyed mainstream conservatives with her views on abortion:
An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn)… Abortion is a moral right – which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?
Rand made many searing attacks on the anti-abortionists, not because she saw herself as a feminist – she told a Ford House Forum on feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment that she ‘disagreed with all that’ – but because she saw it as a matter of individual rights. Philosophical individualism was the cornerstone of her system.
The Children of Ayn Rand
Whether consciously or not, the increasingly dominant Britannia Unchained and Steve Baker wing of the Tory party is striving towards a version of Ayn Rand’s ‘capitalism unchained’ – though without the illusion that the state can be entirely done away with. In a sense, the right-wing Tory project is a fulfilment of what Andrew Gamble in the 1980s described as Thatcher’s project of The Free Economy and the Strong State.
As the pandemic has shown, attempts to impose individual ‘rights’, like refusing vaccinations, not wearing masks, and rejecting social distancing, ends up catastrophically harming the rights of many other individuals and society as a whole. And this comes right to the heart of the ‘social contract’, mediated by the state, between the individual and society.
In fact, most people recognise that the state is entitled to act to restrict individual behaviour that is anti-social. Traffic laws and the wearing of seat belts are classic examples. The banning of smoking in indoor public spaces is another. Nearly all societies have laws – on paper at least – that prohibit murder, rape, and violent physical assault.
Some on the left are confused because the existing state is, of course, a repressive institution controlled by the ruling class; their instinct, therefore, is to oppose all forms of ‘state power’. This is hopelessly reductionist and means they end up aligned with the Tory ‘libertarian’ right.
There is only one state and it performs multiple functions. For sure, it defends class society against revolt from below, but it also provides many services needed by ordinary people, and when it does this it gives expression to the universal interests of society as a whole. The state uses the police to attack protestors, but it also funds the NHS.
The Tory right, note, support the former, but not the latter. Socialists who find themselves backing the ‘libertarian’ demands of people like Steve Baker – on pandemic precautions or any other matter – may need to ask themselves some questions about their politics.
Society as a collective has the right to demand obligations of its citizens. Socialists see those obligations as contributing to education, healthcare, and social welfare (in the form of taxes) and to equal opportunities (in the form of laws against discrimination against women and minorities). Indeed, socialists routinely demand far more of the state – such as the housing of the homeless or the payment of benefits sufficient to lift people out of poverty.
For the children of Ayn Rand, there are no such collective rights, only the ‘rights’ of the capitalist class to enrich itself, and to promote the racism, sexism, homophobia, and disablism that are the key to dividing the working class and keeping capitalism in power.
Further reading: ‘Myths of Ayn Rand’ by Phil Hearse (Rustbelt Radical).