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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

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder