Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ayn Rand: Meditations on a Crock of Shit

Ayn Rand seems to have crept back on to the agenda. I keep seeing her works, invisible not so long ago, in bookshops and free marketeers are suggesting persecuted bankers will do a John Galt. Galt was the hero of Rand's Atlas Shrugged who led a capitalists' strike against socialism, in our present predicament represented by the various government packages and bail-outs. The neo-Randian argument appears to be the same as that of unreconstructed Marxists. The latter said Marx was right but his ideas were never properly applied, the former say the same about Rand's radical free market libertarianism. In other words, we are in our present mess because of the lack of free markets. I have some sympathy with this. As I say, bankers' bonuses were so catastrophic precisely because they insulated bankers from a free market in anything. But, beyond that, Rand is - forgive the technical terminology - a steaming crock of shit. As a novelist she was laughable. The Fountainhead is a rabid tract full of wooden characters - indeed, I have always assumed King Vidor was being rather witty when he cast the supremely wooden Gary Cooper as the hero Howard Roark in the film version. (And I certainly found it funny when certain radical young architects in the sixties and seventies embraced The Fountainhead because of its defence of modern architecture - but then the radical right and the radical left have always been two sides of the same coin.) Meanwhile, Rand's philosophy of objectivism appears to be that of a not very bright fifteen-year-old with issues. Its extension into the economic realm is fatuous. The problem is one of abstraction. People often defend the idea of the free market as something that is in accord with human nature. In a way it is, but not in the way they mean. It is very human to create inhuman abstractions and then worship them and the free market is, indeed, an inhuman abstraction. Like Euclidean geometry, it's a nice, often helpful idea but it is seldom if ever evident in the real world. If I were to take three planks and toss them into the air, the chances of them falling into the form of a perfect Euclidean triangle are close to zero. If I were to toss all human activities into the air, the chances of them forming themselves into a perfectly free market are exactly zero. In both cases, external factors - chance, gravity, friction, wind, the compulsive human desire to use power to rig things in their favour - destroy the possibility of perfection. Or, to put it another way, Rand was, like Marx, a utopian with little grasp of the consistency of human imperfections. The one interesting thing about her current resurrection is that it demonstrates once again the strange and inhuman partnership of the far right and the far left, their complicity in the project of punishing people for being merely human.


  1. Perceptive as ever, Bryan.
    As with bankers and economists so it is with all our noble, mad, greedy human endeavours. I think it all boils down to John Gray's philosophy in 'Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia.' We'd be better off if we accepted life with all its imperfections, but the irony is we can't help ourselves, we just have to keep trying (and failing) to make things perfect. It's in our nature. All our troubles are nasty hangovers left behind by our hopelessly addictive imaginations. No amount of rehab can wean us off the heady drug of imagination, it is after all our principal evolutionary advantage. Go cold turkey and we stop being human, carry on abusing it and humans might make themselves extinct, or more prosaically, saddled with a nationalised economy.
    What a wonderful paradox.
    Great to have you back, Bryan, by the way. Thanks for recommending John Gray, too.

  2. Ayn Rand. The most pathetically thin form of Social Darwinism, masquerading as a blueprint for society, culture, economics, etc., etc..

    Can you imagine what she must have been like at a dinner party? Anne Widdecombe without the self-awareness. It also tells you all you need to know about that risible specimen Alan Greenspan, that he used to literally worship at her feet.

  3. I've been hearing friends tell me for years to read her books, raving about them and even bringing them to me. Being somewhat of a book snob, I tend to avoid reading things my friends bring me.

    Now that I've read this "Crock of Shit" analysis, I will consider myself educated on the topic. Thanks.

  4. " We'd be better off if we accepted life with all its imperfections, but the irony is we can't help ourselves, we just have to keep trying (and failing) to make things perfect. It's in our nature"

    Gray doesn't think this is natural to humans, though. He thinks humans have historically been non-utopian and the utopianism that we're currently living through is a product of Christianity.

  5. Chaps, it was a fictional novel. Rand is something you grow out of after you graduate. Mind you, these days we could do with some capitalist heroes, even fictional ones.

    P.S. She was a bit bonkers.

  6. If you toss a bee into the air stinger up, it may stick in the ceiling, but it wont come down as honey either.

  7. I LOVE the title of this post! She *was* cracked and she wrote quite a few crocks of, er, well -- you said it.

  8. I was never sure if Cooper's performance in that film was intentionally or unintentionally funny, but funny it was. Many years ago I gave a lecture that was attended by a fairly large contingent of "Randians". As hostile and self-important a group as you are likely to encounter. Absolutely impervious to dialogue. Still, for whatever reasons - certainly not literary merit - her klutzy books are having an uptick in sales.

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