Ayn Rand Was Here

Of all the pricks against which the philosophically-minded person must kick, few are as galling as the persistent tendency of booksellers to shelve the works of Ayn Rand in their ever-dwindling philosophy sections. It’s bad enough that the works of Aristotle and Plato must compete for shelf space with titles like The Simpsons and Philosophy and the works of Bernard-Henri Lévy.

The latter is actually not a bad stylist, even if intellectually insubstantial (Perry Anderson once characterized Levy in print as a “crass booby”.) The former has at least the potential to lighten the boredom of an after work bus ride. Rand’s turgid natterings preclude even this low level diversion. Her novels (and it is Atlas Shrugged that one more often than not finds weighing down the shelves) contain an interminable alternation between lifeless characterization and sock-puppet dialog. Worse yet is her more “straightforwardly” philosophical Objectivism, a paean to adolescent solipsism and whingeing self-indulgence.

True, there are many ways to approach philosophy. One can, like Heidegger, engage the entire Western tradition, or, like Wittgenstein, studiously ignore it. One can be emotional, like Nietzsche or Bergson, or blandly rational like Russell, or any logical empiricist one wants to name. Rand’s approach is simply to bowdlerize philosophy from Aristotle onward, which in every instance she either completely misunderstood or willfully misrepresented, all in the service of her obsessive crusade to justify the sort of base selfishness that would seem overweening in a suitably developed five year old. In Rand’s writing, the human instinct for self-preservation amounts to a moral foundation for selfishness.

Rand’s work is experiencing one of its periodic upswings in public profile. Tea Party darlings like Scott Walker and Paul Ryan (the latter once derided by Paul Krugman as “a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like“) are fond of invoking Rand’s name in order to add a bit of intellectual heft to their public personas. This is a little bit like trying to certify the credibility of one’s taste in rock music by reference to one’s collection of Hootie and the Blowfish bootlegs. But, putting this to one side, it is also arguable that Rand’s views on economics and politics played an important role in the outbreak of the crisis that shook the financial world, and then the world economy more generally, starting in 2007.

Brixton High Street, August 2012.
Brixton High Street, August 2012.

Demonstrating this is the agenda of a book published in graphic novel form by the British cartoonist Darryl Cunningham. In The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis, Cunningham seeks to show that Rand’s ideas, translated into policy and actions by the likes of Alan Greenspan and Murray Rothbard, as well as a host of lesser known disciples, laid the groundwork for overlapping institutional and intellectual formations that paved the way for the speculative economy to spiral out of control.

Cunningham’s narrative is broken into three parts. The first comprises a biography of Rand herself, from her flight from Bolshevik Russia to her work as a Hollywood script writer and the formation of her highly dysfunctional inner circle. It is difficult, and Cunningham’s narrative makes it no easier, to imagine sources for Rand’s obsessive insistence on the primacy of the self than the neurotic insecurity that drips from every pore of her biography.

Rand’s public life was shaped by her need to create a circle of slavishly like-minded devotees to imbibe and disseminate her philosophical agenda. Her private life was a series of loveless, manipulative relationships, finally cut short by the infirmities of age and the lung cancer which (despite her stated commitment to objectivity) she could never bring herself to like with her heavy smoking. Both aspects of her life provide considerable grounds for doubt that the aggressively self-centered orientation that Rand promoted was likely to create much in terms of personal happiness, even among those that she considered “superior.”

Along the way, Cunningham shows the transition of Rand’s thought from salon Tartuffery to self-help industry. Unsurprisingly, Rand’s intellectual enterprise succeeded in ensnaring a number of young intellectuals, the most important of being the young Alan Greenspan, whose later application of Randian ideas would have disastrous consequences.

In the second segment, Cunningham bridges from Rand’s ideas to the post-2007 financial crisis. His narrative is deft, highlighting in turn the infiltration of Randian ideas into the leading segment of political and economic life in the United States and Great Britain, and the space for catastrophe that the bearers of this deregulationist agenda created. Cunningham’s explanation of exactly how the financial crisis arose and the way that it spread, first through the various regions of the financial world and then wreaking serious havoc on a wide of range of sectors in Europe and North America, is itself worth the price of the book. His art is spare, yet startlingly expressive, and the terse explanatory text presents the origins of the crisis clearly, and with a minimum of distortion.

Turin, May 2013.
Corso Moncalieri. Turin, May 2013.

In the third section of the book, things become slightly more complicated. Cunningham seems determined to explain the differences between the political left and right, but chooses to do so in a “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” sort of way. He goes to great lengths to illustrate the different modes of thought and valuation characteristic of the two groups, such as when he argues that liberals value equality, while conservatives value (or at least claim to value) equality of opportunity. Much of Cunningham’s argument is well-founded in terms of the underlying data, and the section is not without interest.

Yet there is an odd process of triangulation that goes on as Cunningham discusses the social consequences of these competing worldviews.  Appearing to need to balance his criticisms of the socially restrictive and unequitable consequences of conservatism, Cunningham claims that this rise was due to an increase in social permissiveness on the course of, and in the wake of the movements (both social and political) of the 1960s. This is a rather weak argument, because the relevant “permissiveness” is extremely difficult either to define rigorously, or to quantify in any significant way. Cunningham seems strangely oblivious to the influence of the dramatic slowing of the postwar boom in this period, as well as to the increasing incidence of the two income family, which was one consequence.

This problematic interlude points to a larger issue. For Cunningham, the various modes of social and political action that shape society are, to a great degree, a matter of inclinations formed by the cultures of the left and the right. While these factors cannot be entirely discounted, it should also be noted that any such actions are constrained by the logic of capital and class around which Western societies are built. While not determining every outcome, these do constitute parameters within which the choices that define social action are undertaken. This makes a certain amount of sense, given Cunningham’s narrative agenda, and the obsession with self and self-legislation characteristic of Rands and her followers. But the transition from the industrial to the speculative economy has an important structural dimension beyond the choices and inclinations of individuals, This is hardly visible in Cunningham’s narrative.

Still, The Age of Selfishness is an entertaining and valuable text. Much as the situation is somewhat more complicated than Cunningham represents it, he still manages to present a compelling and plausible account, both of the financial crisis itself, and of the influence that Rand’s ideas had in making it a possibility. Rand’s ideas, as Cunningham deftly shows, have synergized with the ideology of the Tea Party and its various offshoots, but also of the wealthy, anti-regulationist coterie that funds it. A fuller understanding of their role in modern political and economic discourse is important for those trying to direct that growth of national and world economics down more sustainable, less lunatic paths.

Cunningham has provided the discerning reader with a useful textbook on the structure and formation of modern conservative ideas, and presented it in a format that is palatable and entertaining. In doing so, he has performed a yeoman’s service, even if one may quibble with individual points. Rand’s life and work were an expression, and a self-fulfilling prophecy, of her intense personal unhappiness. Cunningham’s (so to speak) graphic illustration of this point goes a long way to making clear the consequences of the original and fundamental error of Rand’s thought, a crucial matter if we are to avoid further bedlam.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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