In Tobias Wolff's all-but-masterpiece Old School, he describes a schoolboy's infatuation with the Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand. The narrator hears that the writer may be visiting his school and buys a copy of her novel The Fountainhead. "To read it," he says, "was to feel this caged power, straining like a damned-up river to break loose and crush every impediment to its free running." Under the spell of her work, he looks at his grandparents and sees only their weakness. And he learns that the welfare state is a "wasteland of coerced mediocrity" and that "the dream of universal equality leads not to paradise but to Auschwitz".
It's perhaps a little alarming, then, that Ayn Rand is undergoing a revival. Sales of her book Atlas Shrugged tripled over the first seven weeks of this year. A week before Obama's inauguration it even, briefly, sold more on Amazon than The Audacity of Hope. For those who haven't yet read this 1,200-page doorstopper, here's a little taste: "She sat listening to the music. It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive." Rousing stuff – if you like your prose the deepest purple, or if your idea of cinematic heaven is, say, Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.
The novel depicts a dystopian United States in which industrialists and other creative individuals "stop the motor of the world" by going on strike. In the freedom of an unregulated, unnannied, untaxed mountain hideaway, they build an independent free economy. When "men of the mind" – inventors, entrepreneurs, industrialists – withdraw their labour, it's implied, the whole world is screwed. Let the weak see how they cope without them! Let the sickly petals wither on the bough. "People are starting to feel like we're living through the scenario that happened in Atlas Shrugged," the Republican congressman John Campbell told The Washington Independent. "The achievers are going on strike." What, men like Fred the Shred? Aren't strikes unpaid? But Campbell is serious. He gives the book as gifts to his interns.
I've just come back from a country that's a model of rugged individualism à la Rand, a country where strong men flourish and the weak – well, fail. It's beautiful, hot, full of pretty temples and lovely food. It's called Cambodia. The temples are the main attraction and the main source of tourist revenue. Or they would be, if they were, to borrow a Blairite phrase, run by the people, for the people. They aren't, of course. Angkor Wat, the magnificent medieval temple city, is privately run and only a tiny proportion of its gargantuan annual takings filter down to the Cambodian people. Who have to queue overnight for injections for their children, offered by foreign philanthropists. In a league table of corruption around the world, Cambodia holds the 136 th place out of 147. He who pays the bribe gets to survive.
In the grounds of Angkor Wat, I saw a child fall out of a tree. When she crashed to the ground, she couldn't move. The Cambodians around her carried on chatting; it was the tourists who rushed to her aid. Perhaps this is what happens when a society has survived the horrors – the live burials, the beating up of babies – of the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps this is what happens when life is cheap, but food isn't, when your government doesn't care and your boss doesn't care, and when NGOs come and go and elections come and go and tourists come and go and nothing ever, ever changes. Perhaps this is what happens when strong men are in charge.
In countries where strong men worry less about being strong and more about being fair, things are a little different. Countries like Denmark, for example, which is the least corrupt country in the world and, in economic terms, the least unequal and, as far as you can measure these things (and you can, apparently) the happiest. Danes, unlike their most famous (fictional) spokesperson, know that the real question isn't to be or not to be (ie about survival) but whether to be kind.
The truth is, the yearning for strong men, strong leaders, the impulse towards fascism, in fact, and the fetishisation of what Bryan Ferry called (without irony) Nazi chic is nearly always the mark of an infantilised society and a childish mind. In Old School, the narrator meets Ayn Rand and is cured of his obsession. "She made me feel the difference between a writer who despised woundedness," he says, "and one for whom it was a bedrock fact of life." You could say, in other words, that he grows up.
Bad artists are rarely good guides to economics, politics – or anything else. Rand's Amazon rival, on the other hand, the leader of the Western world, appears to be doing rather well on all these fronts. He's also, by the way, a very good writer indeed.