It may no longer be surprising to read references to Ayn Rand in the Anglo-American press, but to find an article about the much dismissed author in the primary leftist French foreign policy outlet is rather astounding. It means that as far as the left is concerned, Rand can no longer be ignored. Indeed, as far as the left is concerned this is the perfect time to confront her. After all, doesn't the recent market collapse demonstrate that her belief in Capitalism is plain wrong? Moreover, don't Madoff and company illustrate that her trust in the morality of businessmen is similarly fallacious? Even her protege, Alan Greenspan, admitted as much.
The article begins with an anecdote from the latter's autobiography:
Alan Greenspan recounts in his memoir The Age of Turbulence (1) how “mind-boggling” he found it to be approached after an International Monetary Fund meeting in 2004 by Andrei Illarionov, Vladimir Putin’s economic adviser, with the question: “Next time you are in Moscow, would you be willing to meet with me and some of my friends to discuss Ayn Rand?”
Perhaps, it is this incident that led François Flahault to include her in his book Le crépuscule de Prométhée : Contribution à une histoire de la démesure humaine from which this article is extracted. English speakers can be dismissed but when their ideas are taken up by Putin and company, they must be confronted. It should not be forgotten that Ayn Rand was Russian, that Russians are most familiar with the reality of post revolutionary Russia Ayn first experienced then described in "We the Living" (in which she does deal with familial relations Flahault argues she avoids) and that their shared experience forms the basis of her virulent rejection of any state interference in economic affairs.
Flahault ignores "We the Living" focusing, instead, on the better known The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). He writes: "Like Nietzsche, Rand thought it is great men who justify humanity’s existence. The artist is the master of his work; his refusal to conform to society’s demands gives society its greatest benefit."
Actually, Rand does not argue that great men justify Humanity's existence. She does not feel any need to justify humanity's existence any more than there is a need to justify any other kind of existence. She does argue that the artist is the sole owner of his work but so is every other person. She does not believe that one human being has a right to appropriate the fruit of the labor of another human being regardless of the use the appropriator (she aptly calls looter) intends to make of it. In other words, she objects to the taking of private property in the name of the greater good, be the property intellectual or material. She accurately predicted, what Communist regimes eventually proved, that general poverty, not prosperity is the outcome of the confiscation of private property. Hence, her opposition to the income tax.
She does argue that the fruits of creative/inventive individuals working for self expression often end up benefiting a large number of people. But benefiting people is not their primary motivation merely a side effect. Hence, people need not feel beholden to them. Each person according to their ability. Of course, it is only a truth universally known that the ability of some is far greater than that of others. Flahaul quotes Rand hero, Howard Roark:
The creator served nothing and no one. He had lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement. … The work of the creator has eliminated one form of disease after another, in man’s body and spirit, and brought more relief from suffering than any altruist could ever conceive. … The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. … The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of men. The creator lives for his work. He needs no other men. His primary goal is within himself. The parasite lives second-hand. He needs others.
Flahaul sees the advocacy of such proud individualism as naive because it does not take into account the realities of power:
Ayn Rand defends an ethic which is remarkable for its absence of any obligation towards others, only towards oneself. As if by magic, this spirits away multiple forms of interdependence, power relations, and abuses of power, and the violence and injustices which poison human existence and against which in real life the appeal to reason is ineffective.
But is it really? The Financial channels were all a buzz with news that Steve Jobs is once again leaving Apple. Last time he did the company went down hill. They are those who argue that this time is going to be different. This time Apple will do just as well without him. Investors know better. He is a typical Ayn Rand hero, a man who works for his own sake. Does that mean he does not benefit others?
Moreover, as Nicholas Kristof dares to point out people who work in development know that those much maligned sweat shop owners provide the poorest of the poor with the greatest opportunity for a better life. The same cannot be said about foreign aid or international agencies such as the IMF, the World Bank or UNRWA. Those merely coddle dictators and enable terrorists ( U.N. Agency That Runs School Hit in Gaza Employed Hamas and Islamic Jihad Members ). After all, they are the best producers of the commodity altruists seek most, misery. You wish to see the results of the toil of greedy sweatshop factory owners? Go to China where hundreds of millions have been lifted from poverty. You wish to see the result of the toil of NGOs and International institutions? Go to Gaza where over 80% of the people depend on foreign aid.
Why? Because, as Ayn Rand understood, to do good they need to be needed. The greater the misery, the more important they are. One of the most touching scenes in Atlas Shrugged is the one in which a social worker realizes the parasitic logic of her relationship with her clients. For clear sighted honest observers the post Rwanda holocaust refugee crisis provided a similar moment of truth:
From the point of view of aid workers trying to cope with the needs of refugees, the journalists were in many ways a nuisance. They added to the chaos of clogged roads. They inflated the cost of hiring a car or an interpreter. Nurses resuscitating children with cholera found themselves tripping over tripods and cameramen looking for a better angle.
But aid agency press officers – ever mindful of the hot competition for funds back home – pursued journalists, proffering not only updates and interviews, but free transport and accommodation in return for covering their agency's programme. The aid agencies needed the journalists, and the journalists needed the aid agencies.
I can almost hear Rand say: told you so. Rand rejects the notion that individuals have obligations towards others. Yet, her characters are inherently generous. How come? They act out of compassion and empathy instead of guilt. Nor are they power hungry. Rand's heroes are man like Vincent Van Gogh, Albert Einstein or Bill Gates, not Genghis Han, Napoleon or Lenin. She is well aware of abuses of power but, she argues, creative individualists are not the ones guilty of it. Power hungry looters who have nothing to contribute and therefore seek to control those who have are. In other words, her enemy is not the worker but the dictator. Therefore, as Flahaul quotes Rand, she is in favor of overthrowing them before they succeed in extinguishing freedom eveywhere:
The role of a free country such as the US is thus to make sure that things go in the right direction: that of an alliance between democracy and radical capitalism. “Any free nation had the right to invade Nazi Germany and, today, has the right to invade Soviet Russia, Cuba or any other slave pen” (6). “The invasion of an enslaved country,” Rand maintains “is morally justified only when and if the conquerors establish a free social system” (7).
Yes, Rand would have agreed with Ruth Wisse that George W. Bush was superior to Bill Clinton because Bush Destroyed a Dictator. Clinton Installed One. She would have agreed that Israel is acting morally in fighting Hamas in Gaza, Sri Lanka in fighting the Tamil Tigers in Jaffna and Colombia in fighting FARC. She would merely wish them to do so more consistently and energetically.