The cult of Ayn Rand has never been stronger on the American Right. Rand’s influence on groups such as the Tea Party and politicians like Rand Paul — who is, after all, named after her — is intense, and clearly growing in popularity. Indeed, the Tea Party began with a pundit who called himself “basically an Ayn Rander.” For many on the Right, Rand has become something approaching a messiah, or at least a patron saint. American conservatives, looking for a way up from the defeats of the Obama era, appear ready to embrace this trend. This is, needless to say, an extremely bad idea.
First, it is politically suicidal. The U.S. is mired in an economic crisis that has been brewing for some time, and shows few signs of disappearing. And this crisis was caused, to a great extent, by Randian economics. Eschewing traditional fiscal conservatism, the American Right embraced for the better part of three decades a messianic form of capitalism that demonized the state and society, while fostering an idolatry of the individual entrepreneur, the corporate CEO, and the unabashed pursuit of money as the highest moral good.
That this has had horrendous consequences cannot be denied. If money is the highest moral good, then making money — by whatever means — overrides all other concerns, even legality, prudence, and common sense. The result has been massive economic inequality, recklessness on the part of the private sector that brought it close to self-destruction, the gutting of public assets, and the negation of even the idea of a collective good.
This is much in contrast to traditional conservatism, which acknowledged the self-evident fact that society is a collective endeavor, and the interests of the individual must be balanced against those of the collective. It also acknowledged — indeed, insisted — that a society can reach a consensus on what constitutes the good, and pursue it on a collective level to the benefit of all. Indeed, Edmund Burke based his entire critique of the French Revolution on the idea that the good can only be achieved by particular communities with specific values, and not through universalist individualism. Rand, in contrast, regarded society as fundamentally evil and the mortal enemy of the individual; a point of view that can, in fact must, lead to a state of anarchy and social collapse that benefits no one and destroys precisely what traditional conservatism seeks to preserve.
Thanks to my mother’s English heritage, and her dedicated preservation of it, I may be one of the few non-British viewers to have seen the original House of Cards long before the American remake. Having just “binge-viewed,” as Netflix no doubt intended, the remake – now the talk of the chattering classes and the entertainment industry – I wonder if this was a disadvantage for me. I was left constantly comparing the two, and while the American House of Cards is good television, beautifully made and surprisingly addictive, it is nothing compared to the BBC’s 1990 masterpiece.
As many readers likely now know, 2013’s version of House of Cards features Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, a skilled but utterly amoral House Majority Whip who, refused a major cabinet post by the new president, schemes his way to the top over the bodies of his rivals. Along for the ride, consciously or not, are his mistress, an ambitious reporter played by Kate Mara; a troubled congressman Underwood ruthlessly uses and discards; and the one person he never truly betrays, his loyal but conflicted wife.
It has its virtues, no doubt. Spacey is brilliant, as he always is when he plays monstrous but charming and fascinating anti-heroes. The machinations of both press and politicians seem far more realistic than on such idealized shows as The West Wing. And under the supervision of talented film director David Fincher, the show looks extraordinary, with cinematography and production design that easily surpasses most current feature films. Nonetheless, it doesn’t quite work; and likely because it either ignores or consciously throws aside everything that made the BBC House of Cards a landmark and a legend in the history of British television.