Our new Home Secretary Sajid Javid is a big Ayn Rand fan: twice a year, he reads the courtroom scene in ‘The Fountainhead’. He said so in an interview with The Spectator: “It’s about the power of the individual … About sticking up for your beliefs, against popular opinion. Being that individual that really believes in something and goes for it.” This curious fetish for Ayn Rand extends to conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic – Paul Ryan often gives Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’ as a Christmas present.
Javid is a capable figure who has no less of a chance of ascending to the top than any other of the Tory leadership hopefuls. If he is successful, the party of Burke and Oakeshott might just become the party of Rand. He could write the next chapter in the enduring influence of Ayn Rand’s philosophy on the Conservative imagination.
So who was Ayn Rand? And why does she resonate with Javid? In her essays, novels and philosophy, she promoted – in an extremely repetitious style – an aesthetic of individual liberty, the intrinsic morality of individual acquisitiveness, and the joy of individual self-empowerment.
Here is Stephen Davies, Head of Education at the free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs: “Followers of Rand are not really conservatives in the proper sense of that term. What they are is supporters of a particular economic position (free market capitalism) who are also fans of small government in general and are admirers of individualism as an ethical and social position. Rand articulates very powerfully and clearly things that they feel in a much less articulate way, above all an assertion of individual will and autonomy against social conventions and the will of the majority.”
Rand’s intellectual worldview was formed as both a response to and rejection of the Austrian School of economists, a group which included Friedrich Hayek. Stung by the failures of Municipal Socialism in Austria, Hayek and his contemporaries developed a fierce opposition to all forms of state planning. For Hayek, the emergence of Fascist politics could be traced to state involvement in the economic sphere.
While absorbing the intellectual basis for a rejection of state control, Rand went still further than the Austrians. She even criticised Hayek for arguing in a very modest way for transport provision as a public service, claiming that he was ‘saturated with all the bromides of collectivism.’ When Hayek argued for ‘defined limits’ on individual morality, Rand responded: ‘Oh God damn the total, complete, vicious bastard! This means that man does exist for others, but since he doesn’t know how to do it, the master will give him some ‘defined limits’ for himself.’
The ‘courtroom scene’ speech that Javid so admires, delivered by the novel’s main protagonist Howard Roark, really is an example of great oratory. It includes powerful flourishes, bold ideas, and is written with a great sense of style: ‘The great creators – the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors – stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed.’
‘No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers … His truth was his only motive.’ Commitment, friendship, love – the whole scope of human relations – is narrowed into a drama of the heroic individual who lives in freedom, without attachment. Roark continues: ‘But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought … The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself.’
At best, the speech can be read as a call for moral independence in the face of the impersonal and exploitative modern state; at worst, it can be read as a paean to the kind of pure moral autonomy that is the hallmark of ‘evil’ as it has been traditionally understood. It offers a vision of individuality that is not so very far away from the creative nihilism of Milton’s Satan: ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n … Here at least / We shall be free.’
That’s troubling, as philosopher and theologian John Milbank explains: ‘It is extraordinarily disturbing that any mainstream politician should express any admiration for Ayn Rand. We should be concerned that someone like Sajid Javid can now hold high office within the United Kingdom. Rand promoted a cult of amoral selfishness and ruthlessness that is certainly not conservative in any traditional sense – certainly not Burkean, but quite emphatically Nietzschean. The cult of Ayn Rand represents exactly the point where neoliberalism tends to veer towards a particular niche corner of the Far-Right. For there is little in her outlook that would necessarily favour democracy.’
So Rand’s philosophy is not so much a prompt for concrete collective action in the real, complex world as a mystic rhetoric of imminent individual liberation, always in the process of just about manifesting itself in human relations.
Jeremy Corbyn has been chastised for hanging out with people who indulge in quite weird ways of interpreting the world – 9/11 truthers, blood libel enthusiasts, etc. But that is not that much weirder than the mythology of the individual promoted by Rand and her followers – the mythology that Javid finds so inspiring.