Will Rubenstein, Opinions Editor

In case you’ve missed it, a new line of attack has recently opened up against the progressives whose defiance toward financial industry corruption is increasingly dominating the U.S. political discourse. The conservative noise machine has evidently noticed that some of the politicians and commentators who advocate a stronger social safety net and higher taxes on the wealthy are themselves Americans of substantial means. The mantra, used against upper-class progressive figures like Massachusetts U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and financier Warren Buffett, is that such well-off champions of the non-well-off are nothing but hypocrites.

Think about this for a moment. A wealthy person who wants our society to demand more of the wealthy is a hypocrite? Obviously, this could only be true if the definition of “hypocrisy” included any action contrary to one’s direct individual self-interest. Go-to progressive pundit Paul Krugman outlined this point in a recent blog post, closing with the following words: “If people can’t comprehend what it means to work for larger goals than their own interest, if they actually consider any deviation from self-service somehow a sign of phoniness, we, as a nation, are lost.”

It’s no great secret that one of the conservative movement’s fundamental goals is to bring our notions of selflessness and altruism to their knees. Ayn Rand, whose writings are to neoliberal ideology what Tolkien’s are to less subtle fantasy, distilled her philosophy of Objectivism into a short oath: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Her novels depict a world that only functions due to the brilliance and determination of a small group of single-mindedly selfish individuals — most of whom are wealthy businessmen who inherited their status of wealth and influence, exemplifying the notion of being born on third base and thinking you’ve hit a triple. Meanwhile, a horde of collectivist-minded miscreants in control of various governmental and scientific institutions, described throughout Rand’s works with epithets like “moocher” and “parasite,” threatens to bring about total collapse with redistributionist policies less reminiscent of Krugman than of the Soviets from the movie Red Dawn.

Disentangling modern right-wing thought from Rand’s ideology and affinity for strawman arguments is practically impossible. The adulation is so deep-seated that new staffers at the libertarian Cato Institute who had not yet read her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged were once (and quite possibly still are) dubbed “virgins.” Atlas is even being made into a movie, or rather movies: The exceedingly long-winded book is being adapted in three separate films, starring primarily television actors and directed by a novice whose most prominent acting experience was a guest role on the show One Tree Hill. I suppose as long as wingnuts watch the films and absorb their message that selfishness is the principal virtue, it’s only in keeping with that message to disregard artistic value and to wring as much money from the franchise as you possibly can.

This all-encompassing gospel of self-interest is evident in the otherwise incoherent demands such right-wingers have leveled at Occupy demonstrators. Protesting because you can’t find work? Stop whining and get a job, you lazy good-for-nothing! Protesting because you do have a job but you still can’t make ends meet? Suck it up and get back to work, and maybe you’ll succeed! Protesting because even though you may be perfectly well off, you find our system so unjust toward others that you still can’t support it? Class warrior! Elitist! Socialist! Hypocrite! Come on, let’s find an insult that sticks to these people so they’ll get out of the streets and into the cubicles! If there’s any subgroup of the protesters whose presence isn’t an offense of some kind, the Right has yet to find it — meaning that perhaps they object less to specific protesters’ motivations than to the very idea of the protests themselves.

The common thread in such demands toward agitators like Warren, Krugman and the Occupiers is this: No matter who you are or what your problems with the system may be, you must attempt to solve them through individual and not collective action. After all, collective action means acting in the interests of others, which may as well be the Original Sin of the Objectivist religion. Struggle all you want on a personal level — an ethic exemplified by the many proud-to-be-overworked postings on the right-wing “We Are The 53%” Tumblr account — but perish any thought of peaceably assembling to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Why are you relying on the government to redress your grievances for you? Are you a producer or a parasite? A job creator, or a welfare queen?

Of course, these borderline sociopaths will never be able to completely eliminate selflessness from our common heritage. From our proud Declaration in 1776 that the People can collectively alter or abolish a tyrannical government, to JFK’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” to the First Amendment’s explicit protection of peaceful activism, we have a long tradition in this country of pursuing group solutions and not merely our direct individual self-interest. It can be easy to forget when we’re making fun of hippies or trust-fund babies camped out in Lower Manhattan, but the alternative to a society in which all of us (even the wealthy) feel a sense of civic virtue and responsibility for each other’s welfare is a society in which we don’t. And outside of Ayn Rand’s fantasy world, such an alternative resembles not Galt’s Gulch but Somalia.