It’s been fascinating to read that the writings of Ayn Rand – in particular her dystopic novel Atlas Shrugged – are gaining currency again. Celebrities queue up to be numbered among her admirers. In many ways, of course, she’s never been away; she’s one of the great influences on neocon ideology, and it’s well known that Alan Greenspan was among her most influential cheerleaders, although no academic philosopher takes her work remotely seriously. But it’s widely reported that as the world sinks into economic depression, sales of her books are booming.
Atlas Shrugged is about individualism, and sets out the Rand philosophy most fully. It describes a society in which the “men of the mind” – really a euphemism for entrepreneurs – withdraw from a society which is intent on bleeding them dry with regulations and taxes into their own mountain fastness. The world descends into a mire of war and bureaucracy, until those same bureaucrats beg the entrepreneurs’ leader to bring them back out of exile.
So, what’s the appeal?
One explanation is that there is a similarity to what is happening today, with vast handouts to failed bankers at the expense of the prudent. And there’s always been a tendency for the Right in the United States to hitch itself to any ideology which legitimises the refusal to pay taxes and condemns public altruism. This is a body of work which is uniquely useful to anyone who wants to legitimise private greed and avoid any guilt about those whom society leaves behind.
But I think the issue goes a bit deeper than that. One of the really interesting things about this work becoming more popular now is that what is happened in the real world is the complete antithesis of what Rand predicted. The current crisis is above all the creation of the “men of the mind” who have increasingly been let of the leash; who have pursued their version of entrepreneurship without the petty burden of regulation, in an environment in which the ruling ideology has been that their enrichment of themselves has been beneficial to society. Rational self-interest on Rand’s model has proved to be irrational and destructive.
So where does this leave us? I think Atlas Shrugged is the security blanket of the neocons, a desperate attempt to find some vestige of legitimacy amid the chaos they have created. The renaissance of Ayn Rand is a spasm of deluded resistance.