Boris Johnson had what alcoholics call a ‘moment of clarity’ whilst on his sickbed, announcing, “there is such a thing as society”; a superficial contradiction of Thatcherism. Where Thatcher may have little in common, rhetorically speaking, with Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, the outcome of her policies illustrates some similarity.
The Russian-American author’s novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, cloaked her philosophy of Objectivism as the musings of the greatest men who ever lived. It is explained best by Rand herself, who once said in an interview: “Why is it good to want others to be happy? You can make others happy when and if those others mean something to you selfishly.”
Johnson imagines himself as a Churchillian leader. But to gain this coveted status, he must cast off conservative orthodoxy. You might be thinking, hang on, what does that mean? Boris doesn’t have any ideology other than Boris!
But Rand’s philosophy is still alive and well in Johnson’s cabinet. Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, among others, collaborated on a book called Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, which reads like a second-hand account of The Fountainhead.
This is the consequence of individualism, a philosophy not too dissimilar to Objectivism that preaches economic self-preservation, and it has permeated our culture for decades. Think of the bare supermarket shelves at the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak. There was enough to go around, but our culture tells us to look out for number one.
When selfishness is a virtue, a person’s worth is determined by how much they can accumulate. This thesis is, of course, nonsense — merely a rationalisation to assuage guilty elite consciences. The truth is, this ideology promises unhappiness for all in society. Because even if you’re super-rich, there’s always someone with a bigger yacht.
Studies show that beyond a certain point, once your needs are met, being extremely wealthy actually correlates with higher rates of depression.
Furthermore, our societal prescriptions for mental health fundamentally misunderstand psychology. As Johann Hari points out, our culture prescribes counterproductive individualistic responses like ‘retail therapy’ and ‘me time’.
A recent American Psychological Association study tested people in the United States, Russia, Taiwan and Japan — if they deliberately tried to make themselves happier, could they do it? Those in the US found their conscious attempts to improve their happiness didn’t work. But in the other countries, it did. The reason? Their cultures had a collective conception of happiness, which involved doing something for others rather than themselves.
It is, therefore, solidarity among people that breeds happiness because we are a naturally cooperative species. Humans would have died out long ago if we’d all acted as individuals.
Consequently, the philosophy of rugged individualism has to die if humanity is to survive. An internal study by fossil fuel bankroller JPMorgan Chase documented our unsustainable global trajectory. It said something had to change, “if the human race is going to survive”. The Financial Times even warned of the “increasing reputational damage” climate change would do to companies, such as JPMorgan.
Johnson must know the anger, for which Brexit was a release valve, will be turned on him if neoliberalism continues once we leave Europe. His best option? Become a ‘class traitor’ like Franklin D. Roosevelt.
However, an FDR style New Deal program is unlikely to be sufficient for the looming crisis. It was World War II that finally pulled the US out of The Great Depression, and the subsequent post-war boom came from massive borrowing and investment, leading to innovation and modernisation. Therefore, by responding to climate change as if it were a war, Johnson could make Britain a genuine world leader again. The only impediment is ideological.
Words by Tom Brady
This article was originally published as part of The Indiependent’s May 2020 charity magazine, which is still on sale and is raising money for the British Lung Foundation. Find out more here.