Wednesday, March 18, 2009
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.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 8:09 am