Sunday, 16 November 2014

Anthem - Ayn Rand


Well, at least Ayn Rand is interesting, which is a lot more than can be said about a good many writers. She's interesting because she's thought-provoking which in any day and age can only be a good thing. She's also - or has been - a massively influential writer, more so perhaps than what most people might even realise.
Rand set down through her books an idea, a philosophy she called 'Objectivism' which when looked back on in hindsight was obviously picked up on by a large number of people who subsequently went on into influential political and economic positions, particularly in the USA.
Objectivism is essentially all to do with self-interest. It's a cocktail of atheism, existentialism, laissez-faire capitalism, narcissism, Nietzscheism and selfishness; eliminating all notions of altruism. Aspects of her philosophy are actually very good in many ways but it's the selfishness that underpins it all that's the major problem because basically - it's against nature. Co-operation, mutual-aid and altruism is what practically all species on earth practice and ultimately it's the only way that anything can survive, evolve and move forward. Selfishness is a dead-end in more ways than one.
Ayn Rand is most famous for two of her novels - The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged - both of which give full vent to her ideas but before these she'd already written two other books, Anthem being one of them.

Anthem is a future-shock sci-fi novella depicting the world in an unspecified future time where all concept of individualism has been outlawed and eliminated. It's written in the first-person but because all sense of individuality has been eliminated, the narrator refers to himself as 'we' rather than 'I', as do all other characters.
At birth, children are separated from their mothers and housed in special units where they are raised and schooled before being assigned life roles. The narrator, going by the name of Equality 7-2521 is assigned the role of 'Street Sweeper' and re-housed into another unit for those in a similar vocation. The world is a bleak, sterile, totally regulated place where every thought and every action is for the benefit of the whole rather than the individual: "What is not thought by all men cannot be true. What is not done collectively cannot be good."
Equality 7-2521, however, is curious of mind and on discovering an old abandoned tunnel full of relics from the past, allows his curiosity to run riot and through experimenting with copper wires and 'globes of glass containing metal thinner than a spider's web', discovers and harnesses the power of the sky. It turns out that what he's discovered is an old subway tunnel, the globes of glass are light bulbs, and the power of the sky is electricity.

He takes his discovery to the World Council of Scholars believing himself to be the bearer of a great gift for mankind but the Council denounce him and his discovery as a threat to all that is held dear: "This would wreck the Plans of the World Council, and without the Plans of the World Council the sun cannot rise. And if this should lighten the toil of men then it is a great evil, for men have no cause to exist save in toiling for others. It must be destroyed!" And so too must Equality 7-2521 so he flees for his life and ends up living in an old house deep inside an uncharted forest where he comes to understand the meaning of freedom and individualism. The narrator's voice changes from 'we' to 'I' and his vision for life is laid out in a final hymn to self.

Rand didn't write Anthem for it to be The Great Novel or to show the world her talent for writing, she wrote it to communicate an idea and this she does reasonably well. So with this in mind, it's helpful to read the book as simply a vehicle for that idea as anything more will probably just lead the reader to being disappointed.
Whenever Rand is criticised, her supporters more often than not jump up and accuse the critic of being either weak-minded or a socialist. Or they say Rand is being misinterpreted or misunderstood. Well, I've no intention of criticising Rand at all because as I said, I actually find her interesting. And I'm neither weak-minded nor a socialist. What I will criticise, however, are her supporters because Rand is dead and they are the living, and it is they who are the interpreters of her ideas and philosophy into the world as it is today.

For some reason, all her supporters just happen to be right-wing conservatives and neoliberals - now why might this be? - who tend to use Rand as their own private backbone of morality to their selfishness and greed. But then how else could they sleep at night? How else could they live with themselves without some sort of moral justification for their world-view? Misanthrope propels them to distance themselves from life, nature and human emotion as they embrace certain aspects of Rand's philosophy and reject others. For them, laissez-faire capitalism and self-interest is all fine and dandy but atheism is contentious so they overly embrace religion almost as a cloak to cover their actual spiritual emptiness. Splendid isolation is justified as being God’s divine will when in actual fact it's existentialist and God is dead. So the aspects of Rand's philosophy that are beneficial to their greed are promoted whilst the aspects that gain them nothing are set carefully to one side and not spoken of.

Rand warns against the world turning into some kind of ultra-communist, sub-Korean super-State where subservience to collectivism morphs into a hell on earth. And she's not wrong. A world of such extremes would indeed be a living nightmare. What she and her supporters promote to counter this, however, is equally as hellish: A world in which self-interest is the guiding star, where capitalism is given free reign and profit for the individual is the be all and end all. Where nature and the environment is incidental or just something else to be exploited, where the world is ruled for the benefit of an elite 1% and the other 99% can go hang, or go beg, or go starve, or as writer Whittaker Chambers once put it: "To a gas chamber - go!"

I wonder: Does this world sound familiar to anyone in any way at all?

Over 29 million copies of Rand's magnum opus Atlas Shrugged have been sold to date and at one point just back in the Nineties it was cited in a poll to be the most influential book upon those taking part in the poll second only to the bible. Anthem has sold nowhere near those amounts and is lesser known than Rand's other books but as an insight into what Rand's about, it's a good place to start.

Narcissist babe extraordinaire
John Serpico

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