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28 July 2021

The ghost of Ayn Rand lives on in the Conservatives’ Covid-19 policy

Sajid Javid’s remark on “cowering” before Covid-19 was no accident – he believes in the survival of the fittest.

By Paul Mason

Sajid Javid has apologised for accusing the British people of “cowering” from Covid-19. But this was no slip of the thumb. The Health Secretary is a lifelong devotee of Ayn Rand, whose philosophy glorifies the selfish brutality of capitalism. 

His twice-yearly ritual is to read a defiant speech from Rand’s The Fountainhead. You will get the drift of it from just one passage: “The creator lives for his work. He needs no other men. His primary goal is within himself. The parasite lives second-hand… The basic need of the second-hander is to secure his ties with men in order to be fed. He places relations first. He declares that man exists in order to serve others. He preaches altruism…”

In the lexicon of Rand’s philosophy, “cowering before nature” is what primitive peoples do (she classified Arabs and Native Americans among others as primitive). But in the 1960s, as the New Left challenged American conservatism, she extended the charge of primitivism to feminists, ecologists and multiculturalists. By fighting to protect nature, and against the US’s white, militarist monoculture, she said, they too were akin to savages: irrational, fearful, reliant on group identities instead of on tough, self-centred amoralism.

Not all hedge-fund cowboys are Rand obsessives, but it helps. The mindset Rand advocates – rely on no one, follow no morals but self-fulfilment, recognise no social obligations – is perfect for the kind of person who will sit in New York, engaging in financial speculation that undermines Mexico’s economy, as Javid did at Chase Manhattan.

As soon as he got the chance to bring his world-view to the task of managing England’s health service, Javid did so with gusto. Learning to live with Covid, not to “cower” before it, is Javid-speak for unleashing the virus on a semi-vaccinated population, inviting further mutations, while declaring that the end of lockdown is irreversible.

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It is not just that Javid is prepared to ignore the science. It is that he believes, philosophically to the core of his being, that the survival of the fittest is the surest route to human progress. The result is that we are all now part of a public health experiment that has left the world’s scientific community aghast. But the political experiment has only just begun. 

On 24 July a group of anti-vaxxers, Covid-deniers and far-right activists in London took part in a global day of action against both vaccines and lockdowns. From Sydney to Paris and Milan, protesters defied rules on public gatherings, clashed with police and shared crazed, irrational theories – from David Icke’s “lizard theory” of global governance to the allegation that 5G telecoms spread the virus. 

In Glogow, Poland, the crowd chanted: “Every Pole can see today that behind the ‘plandemic’ are the Jews.” In both London and Paris, some protesters reportedly wore yellow stars, recalling the ones Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany. 

On their own such protests over the past 18 months have been a dangerous irritant at worst. They have acted as a magnet, drawing people from diverse conspiracy theories and cults towards the generalised far-right ideology of QAnon. And they have knowingly spread the disease itself.

But from this summer onwards they have the potential to grow and merge with the much wider discontent among people who have borne the financial and social brunt of the lockdowns. Many young people, it turns out, are sceptical of vaccines: they don’t want to risk three days off sick in a season when many of them have to work; or they believe any Covid-19 symptoms they suffer will be mild. 

The Tory leadership, in response, is said to be livid – and considering compulsory vaccine passports for students returning to lectures and halls of residence, and indeed vaccine passports for major events and venues. The logic is clear. Having decided to stake everything on herd immunity and having yet again abandoned the test, trace and isolate regime, the government needs mass uptake of the vaccine before it can declare any kind of decisive “victory” over the virus. It needs victory because, lurking within the Javid/Sunak wing of the cabinet is the deep desire to start slashing public spending and raising taxes.

What we’re left with are the competing philosophies within modern conservatism: libertarianism, which demands outright opposition to vaccine passports; authoritarianism, which demands passports for all; science scepticism, which has encouraged far-right conspiracists; and the Randian doctrine of self-preservation, which tells people to “stop cowering and get out there”. In the middle of it all, bobbing around ideologically like a cork, is Boris Johnson, staging inconsequential speeches and vapid policy announcements.

This is government by incoherence, but I doubt it can last. Keir Starmer has rightly understood that, while people will tolerate much harder lockdown restrictions than the Tories suspected, they will not put up with a permanent ID system based on epidemiological status. While venues may want the right to run their own temporary passport systems, any attempt to make this statutory and permanent outside conditions of lockdown would swell the ranks of the protesters way beyond cranks and fascists.

At worst, it could push the mood of complacency and fatalism among the 16- to 24-year-olds to breaking point. You can only return to “normality” if you have the virus under control. At present, Covid-19 is most definitely not under control – even if deaths and hospitalisations have become detached from the case rate. And that is without any further variants emerging.

This autumn we will approach a crunch point. The right of the Tory party will demand spending cuts, the end of the furlough scheme, the reversal of the increase in Universal Credit and a return to the evict-at-will culture of the private rented sector. For a Labour Party still ideologically committed to fiscal expansion, that should be easy to oppose.

But fighting Johnson and Javid’s let-it-rip Covid policy will be more challenging. If the Tories were not so terminally reactionary and culturally hostile to the values of young people, they might find ready allies among 16- to 21-year-olds desperate to go on clubbing, holidaymaking, dating and working in the face of Covid. 

Rand is legendarily popular with teenagers because she promotes a world-view in which everything is possible, ambition limitless and social obligations irrelevant. Live for now, ignore the rules, revel in your own glory and forget the collapsing ecosystem is the message – and it’s a tempting one if we’re faced with yet another winter of chaos, mutant strains and the reimposition of lockdown.

Throughout the pandemic, libertarian conservatism, right-wing populism and youthful anti-authoritarianism have never quite managed to be on the same page. We should be thankful for that, but it may not last.

The ultimate fight, during this pandemic, has been for social solidarity – the recognition of mutual obligations between people and the practice of the very thing that Javid, through his ritual Rand readings, gets to sneer at twice a year: altruism.