Saint Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin, and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both
Each January I embark on a ‘long read’. Not a ‘long read’ in the way a Twitter user would perhaps define one, but a long read in a more classical sense – a book of about 800 odd pages or more – usually a classic, I guess, something that you can ease yourself through the opening, dull and dark moments of the year with.
Following on from War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo and Infinite Jest comes Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In hindsight, Infinite Jest was perhaps not the wisest to start the year with last year – it took me the best part of three months to finish, and was far from an easy intro the year. Atlas Shrugged, thankfully, is, at least in terms of the writing, fairly easy to get through and I’m making light work of the first half.
Rand is an interesting character and someone I first encountered in Adam Curtis’ brilliant documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, which aired on the beeb a few years back.
At the beginning of the documentary we see Rand outline her personal philosophy of how the world works, a philosophy called Objectivism. More recently the documentary explains – her ideas were used by the early software pioneers in Silicon Valley; who believed themselves to be Randian Super heroes – bending the world to their will, using their individual knowledge and expertise to produce, to create.
Another person mentioned by Curtis is Alan Greenspan, who, during the Clinton administration was the head of the US Federal Reserve. He was profoundly effected by Rand’s teachings, and even asked a very liberal, socially minded Clinton – who, incidentally would have been a villain in Atlas Shrugged – to limit government intervention in society and allow the markets to pull up the slack.
It was this idea that set in motion a significant deregulation of the US and global financial systems, which in turn led to the biggest the financial crash of 2008. Greenspan later appeared before a congressional hearing to apologise, to suggest that there had been a fatal flaw in the way he saw the financial world and it’s systems.
But, the ironic thing, is that there is a warning – almost tailor made for the 2008 crash – in plain site within Atlas Shrugged, the book that embodies the ideas and philosophy that Greenspan held so dear and used in formulating his view of the financial world.
Francisco D’Anconia, one of the characters in the novel suggests that:
Whenever destroyers appear among men, they start by destroying money, for money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. This kills all objective standards and delivers men into the arbitrary power of an arbitrary setter of values. Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced. Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist…. Paper is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs; upon the virtue of their victims
Sound familiar? Men who produced nothing other than worthless paper.
It’s interesting to see that Rand has been adopted by the far right in the States – her ideology though, one of selfishness, of sexual liberation, does at time fly in the face of the traditional family values held so dear by the Tea Party.
Time will tell whether the book is worth the effort; it’s influence however, is clear for many to see even if it’s words have been ignored by those closest to it.