The appeal of the writing of Ayn Rand persists – two new biographies are reviewed at length by Corey Robin here in the Nation, reflecting an upsurge in interest this writer, especially in the United States, following the economic crash in 2008.
The Nation review’s title – Garbage and Gravitas – seems to be as good a three-word summary of Rand’s output as one is likely to find, and the review is substantial and challenging. It indicates clearly Rand’s massive egotism and grandiosity, the poverty of her scholarship, her lack of intellectual rigour, her kinship with Fascism – based on a vulgarised reading of Nietzsche. And Robin seeks to answer the crucial questions – why Ayn Rand? And why now?
Corey argues crucially that Rand’s work is not, as some claim, about the conflict between the individual and the masses, but between the born leader and the little, unproductive people – bureaucrats, intellectuals – that stand between the great man and the masses. To that extent it’s a deeply fascistic vision but one, she argues, that is very typical of the neo-con right.
For me, there’s a fascinating irony at work in Rand’s post-2008 crash revival.
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 today?
One explanation is that there is a similarity to what has happened in the last couple of years, 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; Corey Robin quotes a Hollywood actress as claiming that Rand taught her you don’t have to be nice to everyone. More generally 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.