Political philosophy: Rand vs. Sinclair

by Judy Ferro

A revival of reports of Paul Ryan requiring his staff to read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand set me to thinking of which book my ideal presidential candidate would share with his staff.

Not Atlas Shrugged, though I’d expect anyone politically savvy to have read the epic work which Idaho Sen. Goedde credits with bestowing a sense of personal responsibility and making his son a Republican.

In the world Rand fashioned, looters (government tax and regulatory officials) and moochers (those demanding help for the needy) have created so many hurdles for the titans of industry that the latter go on strike, break the economy, and ultimately save the nation by taking over the government.

Rand’s leaders of industry are the life-force of massive companies, not corporate bureaucrats hanging onto inflated salaries until they are replaced without fanfare. Forever struggling against lesser creatures, her heroes invent new wonders to benefit the world and never stoop to buying, cheating, or suing competitors out of business.

In short, Rand was an unabashed elitist. A fan from the Austrian School of economists gushed, “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you.”

As one of the masses, I don’t find the message appealing.

No, my ideal presidential candidates would be more apt to require staff to read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Unlike Rand, Sinclair didn’t write of an imagined future. He wrote of the 1900’s Chicago he knew, of the meat packing industry where he’d worked undercover as a reporter and of a raw capitalism where factory owners paid seamstresses $3 a day and their mistresses 20 times as much.

Sinclair’s work exposed the deplorable state of an industry which processed downer and tubercular cows and days-old scraps swept from blood-soaked floors. Rotten meat simply got more spices and a higher price. In one scene, processing of “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard” continues after a man has fallen into the rendering tank

After its publication, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered a report on conditions within the processing plants. The companies cleaned up for inspection, but the report was still damning. That year Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. For some reason, the public didn’t see the laws as “looting” or the “titans” of meatpacking as heroes.

The bulk of Sinclair’s epic chronicles the moral and physical decay of the workers whose long hours of work in dangerous conditions while hungry, wet and cold make “their betters” rich. A Christian, close-knit immigrant family, including Jurgis Rudkus, comes to Chicago believing that hard work will make it possible to buy a home and send the kids to school.

They are cheated of their savings, forced to work faster and longer for the same pay, and fired when they are injured or simply fail to please a supervisor. One child after another is pulled from school and put to work. One freezes his ears while walking two miles home alone in Chicago’s ice and snow.

After being forced into sex in order to keep her job, Jurgis’s wife dies in childbirth because he cannot afford a doctor.

Dreams shattered, Jurgis becomes at times a drunkard, a hobo, a scab, an enforcer for the union, a cog in the city’s political corruption. A sister-in-law becomes a prostitute and drug addict.

It’s worth reading for they say those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.