Mein Kampf for Douchesby Brandon Edmonds / 15.11.2011
Reading this “book” is like being in the trash compactor scene in Star Wars. If the trash compactor walls were made of dull. One banal “insight” after another (“I hate the gym” / “I loathe environmental activists” / “I really don’t like the idea of human sacrifice”). We literally learn the name of Gareth’s sister’s dead cat at one point, and by then the reader envies the pussy wholeheartedly. There’s a whole chapter devoted to brain anatomy because, you know, the brain is important. We do discover Gareth owns a licensed gun and is kind to she-midgets at parties: “I asked her if she’d like to go up on my shoulders”. And he once “walked into the SABC carrying a sharp, cold-steel cavalry saber.” But overall it’s just a benumbingly awful reading experience, a lot like getting stuck alongside an annoying second cousin at Christmas. The one in marketing. Who nobody wants to sit next to and everyone wishes was dead. Gareth Cliff is a boring fucking travesty, a nullity, a raging symptom of the mediocrity of post-apartheid life and culture, the worst possible outcome of a negotiated settlement.
What a thankless, vile and dispiriting read this is. The book ought to be banned. It really should. For tendentious self-regard. For tepid provocation. For claustrophobic smugness. For oh just ignore it wherever you see it. Physically turn away. Every copy ought to be shot into space at the sun. I called the review “Mein Kampf for Douches”. Cliff’s book is almost as mean-spirited towards collective humanity – “the more stupid, poor or ignorant a person is, the more likely they are to spawn offspring in large numbers and at random” – as the Fuhrer’s autobiography was towards Jews, gypsies and other specimens of “racial decline”. But that would be an insult to Hitler. Rim shot. Thank you.
Alright, lets earn our scorn analytically.
There’s a great South American summer dish called ceviche. You essentially marinate fresh raw fish in lemon or lime with chilli. The acid in the juice “cooks” the fish. Asked what he considers “required reading for all matric pupils”, Cliff answered “anything by Ayn Rand”. Her radical-individualist, pro-capitalist ideas, turned into bewilderingly popular fictions, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, are the acid in Gareth’s gormless ceviche. They turn a well-off dullard into a hate-filled hazard.
As Eliot Spitzer, so good in the documentary Inside Job, puts it in his useful new book Government’s Place in the Market, Rand was “an articulate voice for libertarianism, the notion that each of us individually deserves to own what he or she creates, and that the role of government must be minimized.” Her ideas have shaped conservative thinking for over 30 years. They dominated the recent Republican nomination debate in which every candidate tried to outdo the other over how many government departments they would vaporize, how many social services they would gut, and how much tax they’d eliminate to ‘balance the budget’. This from a political class that bent over backwards to take care of the financial elite with public-funded bank bailouts in the trillions of dollars.
Paying for the bailouts has ushered in an age of jobless precariousness for ordinary people as welfare programs are slashed and traditional government support (education, health, grants) for the struggling majority is outsourced to the predations of the market. The popular response has been momentous uprisings and intense social conflict. The recent “riots” in London (the Arab Spring and the ongoing Occupations) are surely symptoms and Cliff offers a vivid Randian take on such social protest: “These kids are greedy criminals without any discipline or direction… the offspring of parents who got everything the welfare state could dole out to them. This is the terminus to which political correctness, banal multiculturalism, left-wing soft psychology and social welfare have brought us.” Feel that acid burn.
As Spitzer reminds us, “the total embrace of the language of libertarianism in public discourse has created a deep public ambivalence, even disdain, for government over the years.” Such disdain marinates Cliff’s book. “These days the dim ones last longer – thanks to democracy, welfare and liberal humanitarianism (that ridiculous school of thinking that treasures human life, even stupid human life, above all).” How can valuing human life be ridiculous? How did Gareth arrive at such a poisonous position? The answer lies in the life and work of Ayn Rand.
“Show that humanity is petty. That it is small. That it’s dumb, with the heavy, hopeless stupidity of a man born feeble-minded.” This from one of Rand’s early notebooks when she was a struggling screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930’s. She had only just escaped Stalinist Russia and her brush with the Bolsheviks implanted a mortal fear of the collective, the masses, the totalitarian State. She was also reading a shitload of Nietzsche.
As Jennifer Burns’ even-handed book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand & the American Right suggests, “Rand’s bitterness was undoubtedly nurtured by her interest in Nietzsche” whose “elitism fortified her own”. The Superman, the will to power, the great-soul’s vaulting over ‘herd-mentality’ all fortify Rand’s focus on the individual over the collective. For Rand, the common good is a “meaningless concept” and Cliff stays right on message: community, he writes, “is the root of many of our problems, from lack of personal responsibility to corruption, deceit and the aggregation of power in dark corners.” How Rand’s radical-individualism is an advance over indigenous African approaches to the social which tend, historically, to privilege communal ties and sharing, the ‘shock jock’ doesn’t say?
Rand, who saw altruism as ‘moral cannibalism’, advocates, instead, the “virtue of selfishness”. Great (business) men like the architect Howard Roark, in The Fountainhead, who destroys his design for public housing after government meddling and John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged, who creates a capitalist utopia, where entrepreneurs and scientists and exceptional individuals are free of big government and the tyranny of the “human incompetent”, are the truly exploited of liberal democracy. They contribute the most. They are the best and the smartest. Unlike the freeloading masses.
“The man at the bottom,” Rand writes, “contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all their brains.” Concern for the struggling majority, the social good, the poor and the marginalised, just gets in the way of those at the ‘top of the pyramid’, the 1%. You can see why the ruling elite has an ongoing love-affair with ‘the goddess of the market’! As Cliff puts it: “poor isn’t poor because you don’t have; poor is sometimes poor because you can’t make.”
We’ll finish with a sublime Brecht poem that deftly decimates libertarian bullshit but first Gareth’s highly suggestive, self-confessed anal-retentiveness.
Cliff writes: “To arrange my life in an organized, clean way, brings me equilibrium.” He goes further. “Everything has its place and there must be a place for everything.” He can’t concentrate around “sticky floors, dusty surfaces, curling carpets” and “grew up tidying my immediate surroundings instinctively… because it made me happy”. Yikes. That mania is possibly the emotional source of Cliff’s taste for Rand’s atomizing acid. He likes everything in its place. Especially the filthy mass of humanity. It explains his sexist aside about 22 year old girls who lay on their backs with their legs open. Runaway sexuality will lead to unwanted pregnancy and increase the sum of useless population. “Many poor people,” he writes, “are just not very good at, or for, anything.” More lemon in the ceviche.
Thankfully we have Brecht’s brilliant reminder of the real motor of history: the struggling class of workers. In the poem, “A Worker Reads History”, Brecht dynamites Rand’s “great capitalist individuals” approach to progress. “Young Alexander conquered India. He alone? Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army? In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished / where did the masons go? Imperial Rome is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up?”
Give me the warmth of human solidarity over the acid bath of individualism. Give me Brecht over Rand. Give me anybody over Gareth Cliff.