As they plough through their GCSE revision, UK students planning to take politics A-level in the autumn can comfort themselves with this thought: come September, they will be studying one thinker who does not belong in the dusty archives of ancient political theory but is achingly on trend. For the curriculum includes a new addition: the work of Ayn Rand.
It is a timely decision because Rand, who died in 1982 and was alternately ridiculed and revered throughout her lifetime, is having a moment. Long the poster girl of a particularly hardcore brand of free-market fundamentalism – the advocate of a philosophy she called “the virtue of selfishness” – Rand has always had acolytes in the conservative political classes. The Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, is so committed a Randian, he was famous for giving every new member of his staff a copy of Rand’s gargantuan novel, Atlas Shrugged (along with Freidrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom). The story, oft-repeated, that his colleague in the US Senate, Rand Paul, owes his first name to his father Ron’s adulation of Ayn (it rhymes with “mine”) turns out to be apocryphal, but Paul describes himself as a fan all the same.
Not to be left out, Britain’s small-staters have devised their own ways of worshipping at the shrine of Ayn. Communities secretary Sajid Javid reads the courtroom scene in Rand’s The Fountainhead twice a year and has done so throughout his adult life. As a student, he read that bit aloud to the woman who is now his wife, though the exercise proved to be a one-off. As Javid recently confessed to the Spectator, she told him that if he tried that again, he would get dumped. Meanwhile, Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP many see as the intellectual architect of Brexit, keeps a photograph of Rand on his Brussels desk.
So the devotion of Toryboys, in both their UK and US incarnations, is not new. But Rand’s philosophy of rugged, uncompromising individualism – of contempt for both the state and the lazy, conformist world of the corporate boardroom — now has a follower in the White House. What is more, there is a new legion of devotees, one whose influence over our daily lives dwarfs that of most politicians. They are the titans of tech.
blockquote>(…) What of the current moment, shaping up to be the fourth age of Rand? The Randian politicians are still in place: Ryan is now boosted by a cabinet crammed with objectivists. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson named Atlas Shrugged as his favourite book, while Donald Trump’s first choice (later dropped) as labor secretary, Andy Puzder, is the CEO of a restaurant chain owned by Roark Capital Group – a private equity fund named after the hero of The Fountainhead. CIA director Mike Pompeo is another conservative who says Atlas Shrugged “really had an impact on me”.
Of course, this merely makes these men like their boss. Trump is notoriously no reader of books: he has only ever spoken about liking three works of fiction. But, inevitably, one of them was The Fountainhead. “It relates to business, beauty, life and inner emotions. That book relates to … everything,” he said last year.
Rand scholars find this affinity of Trump’s puzzling. Not least because Trump’s offer to the electorate in 2016 was not a promise of an unfettered free market. It was a pledge to make the US government an active meddler in the market, negotiating trade deals, bringing back jobs. His public bullying of big companies – pressing Ford or the air-conditioner manufacturer Carrier to keep their factories in the US – was precisely the kind of big government intrusion upon the natural rhythms of capitalism that appalled Rand.
So why does Trump claim to be inspired by her? The answer, surely, is that Rand lionises the alpha male capitalist entrepreneur, the man of action who towers over the little people and the pettifogging bureaucrats – and gets things done.