Christina Patterson: Ayn Rand is the last role model we need right now

Bad artists are rarely good guides to economics, politics or anything else

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam