Friday, 13 August 2010

"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand

Some months ago I compared The Berlusconi Bonus with 1984. So might one Atlas Shrugged, though the latter is much, much longer.

Ayn Rand was born in Russia before the Revolution, but managed to escape to America in 1926, where she spent the rest of her life. She was a philosopher and historian as well as a novelist and at one stage founded an institute to promote her ideas, run by and named after her lover, Nathaniel Brandon.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand constructs a nightmarish alternative reality which is truly Orwellian. Private enterprise and entrepreneurialism are first attacked and finally banned altogether in a rising tide of repressive regulations, driven by the unwillingness of the "moochers" to take responsibilty for their own affairs, and their envy of those who are successful in business, and the greed of the "looters" who, whether state, group or individual, would rather steal the fruits of someone else's labours than create wealth for themselves. Doubly nightmarish, in fact, since much of what she portrayed as science fiction in 1957 has largely come to pass in real life, at least here in the cuddly old European Union.

There is much more to her philosophy than that. She champions the use of reason as the only valid basis for decision on making and government policies, and the right of the individual to self-interest as long as this does not harm any third party. There is much talk of Aristotle, though I was reminded also of Kant and John Stuart Mill.

Here we find what is perhaps the main objection to the book for, though extremely well written, it is undeniably a piece of propaganda for a particular set of beliefs. She was happy for it to be referred to as "a philosophical novel", and the old question of where literary persuasion ends and propaganda begins rears its eternal head. There are long, strongly reasoned and strongly expressed speeches which sound oddly in the mouths of the characters. There are "good" and "bad" characters. There is clearly expressed "right" and "wrong".

All of which gets in the way, rather. Which is a pity because this is a very well written book indeed, which also works perfectly satisfactorily on the level of a simple narrative. A book, moreover, which every politician and regulator in the world should be forced to read, as an awful warning of what can go wrong.

The Fountainhead, her earlier novel from 1943 is now on my reading list.

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