Monday, 18 April 2011

Objective Objectivism: Why now?

So, as I've mentioned in passing but not explained in any depth, my next novel, 'The Earth Trembles' (currently in pre-production), is an attempt to write a left-wing response to 'Atlas Shrugged'. This is an introductory post on the subject, and for now I want to focus on why I'm doing this now, and why it's important to do it at all.

I'm in the strange position with this project of being a British author writing about an American icon. Ayn Rand is barely-known over here, and generally regarded (where she's known at all) as a total lunatic with no good ideas. In America, by contrast, there are still a huge number of people who regard her as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. It's a little trite, but of course the truth lies somewhere in between.

Having read two biographies of Rand (of which more in a moment) and three of her four novels, I've come to the realisation that certain elements of American culture which seem incomprehensible to many Europeans can only properly be understood if you get a grip of Rand's work. In particular, it's only possible to understand the Tea Party phenomenon - a phenomenon regarded with a mix of derision and fear in this country - if you understand the influence Rand has had on the Jeffersonian/libertarian streak in American political thought.

I'm going to take a moment's digression and recommend to everyone even faintly interested in contemporary American politics, or Rand and objectivism, or even 20th-century history in general, to read Anne C. Heller's 'Ayn Rand and the World She Made' and Jennifer Burns' 'Goddess of the Market'. Heller's book is one of the finest biographies I've ever read in terms of making her subject feel a real person while still capturing the intense high drama of Rand's life; Burns' book is more about the political history of Rand's oeuvre, but does a fab job of explaining all those bits of American culture which seem so strange to a European. Both books hold up very clear mirrors to objectivism, relatively free of bias but not shrinking from criticism where appropriate.

Anyway, the point I'm making is that Rand's ideas have been hugely influential, and with a US election next year which is likely to be dominated on one side by Tea Party-style voices for vigorous economic libertarianism, they seem to be on the rise again. I can't remember where I saw the stat, but I think I remember reading that sales of Atlas Shrugged are on something like a 20-year high. There's also recently been a film version of the first part of the book, so clearly some people think it's time for a fresh look at Rand.

I'd be dishonest to pretend that I wasn't hoping to turn some of that renewed interest into marketing opportunities and sales, but I don't see anything particularly unethical about doing so (and Rand would certainly approve the opportunism). However, my main intention is to use Rand's ideas to frame my own arguments on the subject of sociopolitical ethics.

That may sound rather grandiose, but it's just a posh way of saying I have some ideas of my own that I want to put out there. I certainly don't agree with Rand on a lot of things, but some of her ideas about the nature of human beings are very appealing to me. My criticism of Rand's arguments, I hope, will bring out the good in them as well as throwing out the bad.

'The Earth Trembles' isn't going to be a blanket statement of my entire philosophy, or even the socioeconomic part of it. What I want to do is make an argument which starts from the points I agree with Rand on, and highlights several places where I think the conclusions she reaches from her premises are amiss. For example, I agree with Rand that it is defining of mankind that we are in her sense 'rational', but I don't agree with her that it follows from this that we should never help each other (in the interests of keeping this post short, I'll argue this point another time; bear with me).

Anyway, there's never been a better time to know about Ayn Rand and to give her resurgent ideas (or at least, the Tea Party-mangled version thereof; there are certainly some Tea Party ideals which I'm sure Rand would never have countenanced) a thorough going-over. I hope you'll follow my journey, and please feel free to challenge anything I say with which you don't agree.

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