Friday 4 December 2009

Romantic capitalism

What explains the enduring appeal of Ayn Rand?

‘Who is John Galt?’ The question-cum-slogan from Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged has appeared on placards at recent conservative protests against President Barack Obama’s economic policies, and even at the ‘anti-capitalist’ G20 demonstrations in London in April. Reviews of two new books about Ayn Rand’s life and work have suggested the current economic situation is fuelling a renewed posthumous interest in the ideas of this eccentric Russian-American libertarian (1,2).

John Galt is a heroic capitalist in Rand’s cult dystopian novel, whose name becomes emblematic of a mysterious backlash against an encroaching ‘collectivism’, or state control of the economy, which punishes enterprise and encourages dependence and economic parasitism. For some right-wing libertarians, the recent bailouts of failing banks and effective ‘nationalisation’ of a section of the US car industry evoke the nightmare scenario imagined by Rand. And given that the current president is a Democrat who has been accused of all kinds of scary political heresies, some hope to enlist Ayn Rand in a conservative backlash against creeping ‘socialism’.

In fact, the bloated, bailout state is something President Obama inherited from George W Bush, something built up over several decades of supposed ‘neoliberalism’. The notion that Obama’s presidency represents a significant change of direction, away from ‘free-market capitalism’ and towards unprecedented forms of regulation, is a self-serving delusion on the part of American conservatives (albeit one shared until recently by many liberals). The suggestion that Obama is a socialist is simply illiterate. Nonetheless, unease about the still-expanding role of the state is understandable, and to the extent that people are thinking seriously about it rather than just sloganising, this is to be welcomed, even if Ayn Rand is far from an ideal starting point.

Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Market, argues that the importance of Rand is that she cemented a pro-capitalist form of libertarianism, allowing a section of the 1960s hippy movement to combine their rebellious social attitudes with a belief in private property and free enterprise (3). This is an important observation, as while there has always been a right-wing free-market strand in economic thought, the writings of Hayek and von Mises were never going to inspire a generation. Rand’s influence has always been limited, too, but she speaks to idealistic young people in a way the Austrian School does not, making a rigid moral philosophy of individualism and the pursuit of profit, while denouncing altruism as not just ineffective but evil. Rand’s followers famously include former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan (though he notably failed to live up to her principles in that role). More generally, the archetypal Ayn Rand devotee has a lot in common with the archetypal Star Trek fan. She has a following, then, but its actual influence is questionable.

Moreover, as Burns points out, the alliance on the American right between libertarians and conservatives has always been an uneasy one. Rand was a trenchant atheist for one thing, and libertarians have little respect for the social institutions revered by conservatives, who are far more numerous. And even among right-wing libertarians, not everyone has time for the portentous libertarian moralising of Rand’s books (4). But the biggest obstacle to Rand’s ideas sweeping the American right is that they have nothing to do with capitalism as it actually is. Free-market purists like Rand have a lot in common with the type of socialist for whom socialism is an ideal system to be imposed on the world rather than something that might be derived through politics from the world as it is. They are just as politically naive, and indeed romantic. The difference is that whereas socialists dream of a fundamentally different kind of society, free-market libertarians idealise certain aspects of capitalism, imagining that they are some how separable from all the other stuff they don’t like.

I read Ayn Rand’s other major novel, The Fountainhead, about 10 years ago, aware of her reputation as a champion of capitalism, but finding the novel to be more of a paean to individual integrity, and enjoyable for that, if rather wooden. The heroic architect Howard Roark stands for everything that is good and noble and glorious about humanity, except that he isn’t a convincing human being. I liked the stuff about great architecture demonstrating the beauty of function perfectly served rather than fashionable ornamentation, and the hero pursuing his own path rather than courting popularity or even wealth for its own sake, but I could have done without the endless polemics against ‘collectivism’, and without Rand’s alarming sexual politics.

Atlas Shrugged is also an enjoyable read, though brevity is not among its merits. I confess I skipped the notorious 50-page radio address by the hero John Galt at the end of the novel, reasoning that I’d got the gist from the previous thousand pages of polemical narrative. On reflection, perhaps I should have read the radio address and skipped the rest, but then I wouldn’t have had the fun of spending time with Dagny Taggart, Francisco D’Anconia, Hank Rearden and John Galt, the heroic capitalists who, we discover at long length, are doing the shrugging of the title, and thus showing on whose shoulders the world really rests. In a deliberate reversal of the Marxist idea that the workers produce society’s wealth while capitalists rake it in, Rand has the capitalists themselves as the producers of wealth, snapped at by rapacious ‘looters’ and ‘collectivists’ who think the world owes them a living. When the heroic capitalists decide effectively to go on strike, the snivelling masses are taught a lesson.

Well, you can see her point of view… In fact, if you avoid taking the bait and spluttering incredulously about the exploitation of the workers, Rand’s celebration of the creativity of industry is quite inspiring. Her enemy is not actually the working class, but rather the lily-livered bureaucrats and bleeding-heart intellectuals whose disdain for the making of money is matched only by their determination to redistribute it. For Rand, self-interest is not sordid but rather the creative force that drives society forward. Industry is not dirty but rather the foundation of all other human activity.

For a flavour of what is good about Ayn Rand, consider this passage from the opening pages of The Fountainhead, where the young architecture student Howard Roark stands at the top of a quarry. ‘He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to emerge as girders against the sky. These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.’

Of course Rand is presenting essentially social processes as a matter of individual agency – Howard is not about to do all these things single-handedly – but she is nonetheless describing human activity in a positive way that is strikingly at odds with contemporary attitudes. For many of today’s self-styled anti-capitalists, it is not the exploitation of labour but the business of production itself that is the problem: all that splitting, ripping and pounding, all that exploitation of the environment. One crucial moment in Atlas Shrugged comes when Dagny Taggart catches sight from her train of a farmer driving a horse and plough, and realises that society is actually regressing; the collectivist state cannot keep its factories running or maintain the supply of fuel. In fact, whether such things are best done through the market or through some form of conscious collectivity is a moot point today, when society is in a collective state of denial about the need to do them at all. And that collective state includes capitalists, too.

Contrary to Rand’s image of heroic capitalists as beacons of integrity and thrusting enterprise, the capitalist class has shown itself in recent years to be every bit as snivelling and mendacious as the worst of the collectivist villains in Rand’s fiction. Who’s been raking in all that bailout money, after all? The proximate cause of the credit crunch that precipitated the current crisis was the practice of shuffling money around in a bid to make a profit without risking it as capital in enterprises that might benefit society (and just might make serious profits in the process), safe in the knowledge that risks in the financial economy were effectively ‘socialised’ in cosy arrangements with the state. This is contemporary capitalism, not something else.

As long as capitalists can make money by cosying up to the state, they will. And as long as society at large is uneasy with the idea of large-scale production, rising living standards and Progress with a capital P, capitalists will fail to innovate on the scale such things need. Instead they’ll go on doing the same old things in the same old ways, including ‘going green’ and talking up ‘corporate social responsibility’, both well-established orthodoxies of contemporary capitalism.

All those ‘to be…’s in Howard Roark’s thoughts at the quarry – the cutting of granite, the splitting of trees, the development of software for that matter –  do require someone to take responsibility, to decide what is to be done, whether it’s an individual entrepreneur, a state agency or someone or something completely different. There is nothing in the essence of capitalism or capitalists that makes this happen. But nor is it capitalism itself that prevents it from happening: the intrinsic limits of capitalism are currently the least of our problems. Until a significant movement within society begins to make the case for consistent material progress, debates about free markets versus planning will have little more urgency than debates about Star Trek versus Babylon 5.

Heroic capitalists are not going to emerge from Galt’s Gulch to lift the malaise, while the increasingly illegitimate political class is more interested in posturing than acting decisively, even if our feckless politicians knew what to do. That leaves the rest of us, individually and collectively, to transform our political culture in such a way as to make debates about the economy count for something. The eccentric philosophy of Ayn Rand has little to offer in this regard, but some of the thrusting agency and heroism demonstrated by her characters would not go amiss.


This article is republished from the November 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Books discussed:

Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns, OUP USA.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C Heller, Anchor Books

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, Penguin Modern Classics. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, Penguin Modern Classics. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Ayn Rand’s Revenge, by Adam Kirsch, New York Times Book Review, 29 October 2009

(2) Why Ayn Rand is hot again, by Brian Doherty, Washington Times, 5 October 2009

(3) Watch Jennifer Burns on the meaning of Ayn Rand on Fora.tv here.

(4) Will Everyone Please Stop Freaking Out Over Ayn Rand?!?, by Peter Bagge, Reason, December 2009


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