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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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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