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Why Ayn Rand is still relevant (and dangerous)

Hers is the spirit of the age: the age of selfishness. An age of greed, financial crime, and indifference to the poor, sick, and disabled.

Illustration by Darryl Cunningham

I can’t remember how I first came across Ayn Rand. I know I was already aware of Rand when news broke of her death in 1982. This suggests that I was a teenager when I initially came across the First Lady of Logic. Back then I was dimly aware that she had some dubious political views and was a hate figure to those on the left, but beyond that I knew nothing. Yet, she’s gone on to have a profound influence on me, not because I share her philosophy, but because I don’t.

I was drawn to Ayn Rand because her politics are almost exactly the opposite of my own. I tend to take the side of the underdog and I have a keen sense of injustice. She cared little for those crushed under the wheels of capitalism and considered economic failure to be your own fault if it happened to you. To help another just for the sake of it with no benefit to yourself, was in her eyes, a moral weakness. She developed a whole philosophy – the philosophy of Objectivism, in order to justify her own selfishness and contempt for the needy.

Rand is little known in Europe, but in the States, 30 years after her death, she still has a huge following. Her books, especially Atlas Shrugged, sell in their thousands. Top businessmen and politicians name her as an influence. Objectivism is a very convenient philosophy if you’re someone who venerates your own needs over everyone else’s.

My book on the 2008 financial crisis, Supercrash, starts with Ayn Rand. I wanted to write about Rand, because I felt if I could understand her, I could get to the heart of what has gone wrong in Western politics over the past three decades, and at the same time, define my own beliefs more thoroughly.

Ayn Rand’s hand in the 2008 financial crisis, through her influence on the chair of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, has been well documented. Rand was Greenspan’s mentor in the years before he reached high office when he completely bought the Objectivist line, that the free market was entirely good and government regulation entirely bad. As a result, his zero touch approach to mortgage and banking regulation led directly to the financial crisis. He felt, as Rand did, that business could regulate itself more effectively than any government could. After all, banking CEOs were hardly likely to destroy their own businessess, were they? In short, Greenspan took his hands off the steering wheel, allowing the car to veer off a cliff.

Rand’s fear of government control stemmed from her youthful experiences in Russia during the revolution. She was born in Saint Petersburg in the early years of the 20th century and emigrated to the US in the 1920s. She’d seen the horrors of totalitarianism first hand, and she forever-after associated government regulation, no matter how benign, to be a sign of creeping communism. She saw how her father’s business had been appropriated by the Bolsheviks, "for the good of the people". This, in her view, was altruism being used as a cover for theft. It marked the beginning of her distrust of altruism as a concept and her embracing of selfishness as a virtue.

In Rand’s philosophy an individual’s needs matter more than the needs of the majority, taxation is theft, and the welfare system should be allowed to wither away (along, presumably, with the poor).

So a world of low taxes, low business regulation, welfare state rollback, and government reduced only to matters of policing and the military, while all else is farmed out to giant corporations, is a world Rand would much approve of. If this picture looks familiar, it’s because it’s the world that those on the political right have been moving us towards for the last thirty years.

All of the above shows us why Ayn Rand is still relevant. Hers is the spirit of the age: the age of selfishness. An age of greed, financial crime, and indifference to the poor, sick, and disabled. Where most work harder for less and a tiny percentage of people at the top of society own the majority of all wealth.

Darryl Cunningham’s “Supercrash: How to Hijack the Global Economy” is published by Myriad, £14.99

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism