In the past half-decade, the name and legacy of Ayn Rand have become the subject of much prominent comment, debate, analysis, and punditry in the English-speaking press, where a swelling sea of multiform journalism examines her enduring and pervasive (some would say insidious and awful, while others would say heroic and wonderful) influence on American politics, culture, and economic policy. Nor is her influence limited to just one nation; as reported in 2009 in Foreign Policy magazine, she has become roaringly popular in India. This is precisely what her admirers would hope; one of them recently averred in The Guardian that Europe’s woes have resulted largely from its adoption of ideas and policies contrary to the Randian ethos of economic egoism.
The entry of Paul Ryan into the current American presidential race has naturally occasioned an explosive new surge of Randian journalism, since Ryan is an avowed admirer and semi-disciple of laissez faire libertarianism’s high priestess. (The public recognition and analysis of this fact is, however, not at all new.)
So in the midst of all this, it’s interesting to see what may be the single most useful — as in compact, accurate, engaging, detailed, and user-friendly — introduction to Rand’s life, work, and legacy appear not in an American publication at all, but in BBC News Magazine. “A Russian-American writer who died 30 years ago is still selling hundreds of thousands of books a year, and this week one of her former devotees, Paul Ryan, became Mitt Romney’s running mate in the US presidential election,” says the teaser/lead-in. “So why is Ayn Rand and her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged, so popular?” The article then proceeds to illustrate and answer that question. If you’re in need of an Ayn Rand primer, then this piece is for you, since it includes not only information about her life, work, philosophy, and influence but a rundown of prominent characters, quotes, and ideas from her books. It’s also even-handed, in that it explains the views of both Rand’s admirers and her detractors.
If you’re not informed about Ms. Rand right now, then you’re not clued in to one of the most significant philosophical conflicts — with real-world practical ramifications — that is presently informing (some would say deforming) American political, economic, and cultural reality. This is an opportunity to remedy that.
It’s 1,200 pages long and was panned by critics when it was published 55 years ago. Yet few novels have had an impact as enduring as Atlas Shrugged, a dystopian allegory in which captains of industry struggle against stifling regulations and an over-reaching government and one by one close down production, bringing the world economy to its knees. Rand’s philosophy, which she called objectivism, tapped directly into the American ideals of freedom, hard work and individualism. In novels like Atlas Shrugged, and her non-fiction like The Virtues of Selfishness, Rand argued for the removal of any religious or political controls that hindered the pursuit of self-interest.
… [M]illions were drawn to her central message of individualism and unfettered capitalism, even if they didn’t buy into her whole philosophy. In the 1990s, a survey by the Library of Congress named Atlas Shrugged as the most influential book in the US, after the Bible. And more than 50 years after publication, sales are booming … Beyond politics, the novel also had an impact in Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs identified with its emphasis on heroic individuals and their work ethic. Some have named their companies or their newborn children after the author or her characters. Rand’s popularity is not confined to the US, however, with healthy book sales in the UK, India, Australia, Italy and South Africa.
… The emergence of the Tea Party — a wing of the Republican Party which favours a shrinking of the state — appears to be driving her recent resurgence.
— Tom Geoghegan, “Ayn Rand: Why is she so popular?” BBC News Magazine, August 17, 2012
Image by Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons
If you, like me, are consistently struck these days by a kind of unpleasant, inverted sense of numinous awe at the spectacle of economists still occupying major positions of mainstream power and respect in our culture instead of walking around in hairshirts and beating their breasts with heads bowed in unbearable shame, then Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin has an excellent piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Brainstorm blog (a consistent source of insightful posts about trends and ideas in academia and elsewhere) to help cleanse your spiritual palate. In “Have Economists Learned from the Great Recession?” (June 12, 2012), he pulls together various pieces of data indicating that economists truly haven’t learned anything from their epic failure to foresee the great financial collapse of 2008. Notice that I didn’t say the piece is comforting or mollifying, but just cleansing. As I’ve mentioned many times here, there’s much of value in seeing someone do an able job of articulating and substantiating your own running insights and intuitions.
The cover feature for the current issue of Boston Review, titled “How Markets Crowd Out Morals,” takes the form of a hugely stimulating forum on the thesis put forth by Harvard government professor Michael Sandel in his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (which I’ve referenced here previously). Sandel argues that America’s market-based master meme, which says absolutely every aspect of life can and should be commodified and conducted according to monetary ideas of gain and loss, has gotten out of control and begun to corrupt personal life and civil society by invading realms totally unamenable to them. In the forum, which is available in its entirety online, Sandel leads with an essay derived from his book, and this is followed by nine responses plus his collective reply to them.
The past year has witnessed the rise of a kind of cottage industry of speculative blogging and associated online chatter about the idea that America’s ruling economic and political institutions — which have now, let us note, collapsed together to become one and the same — are ideologically and bureaucratically structured to attract and promote psychopaths. The general idea is that if you examine the lists of personality and psychological traits that are formally used for diagnosing someone as psychopathic, you’ll find that they line up astonishingly well with the very same characteristics that are required for, and amenable to, success and upward mobility in corporate America. Read the rest of this entry