It's a fair question, and I've put off answering it for a while because I wanted to get my head straight on the issues. When that didn't happen, I thought 'fuck it', and decided to forge ahead anyway.
Rand expounded (love that word, it means 'came out with') a philosophy of living which she called 'Objectivism' or 'Rational Egoism.' At the core of it lies the idea that rational selfishness is the highest moral good.
Ayn (pronouced "eye - nnnn") Rand wrote two main books. One was called The Fountainhead and another is called Atlas Shrugged.
She is one of the most influential people of the 20th Century.
To sum it up in her words:
"My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."
Hear it from the horse's mouth:
Rand believed that meaning in life came from independent creativity, individual achievement.
What was collective was deadening, lifeless. Only selfishness was moral.
Socialist laws from on high shackled the best humanity had to offer to the service of the lazy and the weak.
And worse still, instead of just penalizing the best individuals to help the weakest, the weakest were kept weak by being made comfortable in their shittiness by handouts.
Social welfare (to give just one example) was a crime to it's beneficiaries - the enlightened thing to do would be not to shield them from the consequences of failure.
In those consequences would be the motivation they would need to climb high, and realise their potential as creative, independent individuals. I use the idea of a welfare state because it was something Rand specifically railed against... and because it's something we can all wrap our heads around. She extended the principle of what she called the 'parasite' of altruism to everything, including moral values.
So was she right? Well, the welfare state in Britain has indeed aided in the creation of a subclass that we call 'chavs.'
If you look at Chavs, it's hard not to concede that Rand had a point.
But let's take it to a broader level - if you look at the cultural fate of communist countries, it's pretty shocking.
Russia, home of Tolstoy, the world's greatest novelist, became a cultural wasteland for near to a century.
China's 'Cultural Revolution' cut through it's heritage like a chainsaw. Artists, poets, martial artists and visionaries were butchered like animals.
Eastern Europe was plunged into the darkness of a police state where the creative impulse was either used for propaganda, shackled, or crushed.
Indeed, you can go further. Because there was one major experiment in the thought of Ayn Rand in the 20th century. You may have heard of it. It's called America.
Ayn Rand's book 'Atlas Shrugged' has had more influence on US politics, business and culture in the second half of the 20th century than any other work. By miles. Nothing else comes close.
The second half of the 20th Century has been Republican. JFK got shot, Carter got kicked out after one term, and Clinton's 2 terms was the only extended period of Democratic leadership in the whole 60 year period since the war.
The Republican party was heavily influenced by Ayn Rand. The idea of laissez-faire (unregulated and unrestricted) capitalism had always been a core part of America's national identity. After Rand and McCarthy, it was fully realised as a moral imperative.
But let's look, shall we? Was it a bad thing?
Well, let's look. If we take the second half of the 20th Century as being influenced by Rand, how was the USA at the end of that Century?
- By the end of the Century of Rand, America was the world's only Superpower.
- It was militarily untouchable to an extent not seen since the height of the Roman Empire.
- It's economy was the largest in the world, dwarfing it's nearest rival.
- It had an output of films, music and international business brands that instigated profound cultural changes in every nation on earth.
- It was one of the leading lights of advances in communications and technology that had revolutionised human interactions on a global scale, bringing human culture together in a way never before seen.
So to simplistically discard Ayn Rand (or the Rand-influenced ideals of the Republican party) out of hand is, to my mind at least, an inadequate response. As far as I'm concerned, the USA has has a pretty impressive track record with this.
So what does this tell us?
It tells us that whatever else you might want to say about Objectivism, you'd be a fool to suggest it wasn't incredibly effective at creating success.
Which is why you'd think that the dawn of the 21st Century would have been a major coup for America. 8 more years of Republican leadership. As we all know, it didn't work out that way.
The America that stood triumphant in 2000 is not the America we have today.
- By 2008, a massive crash shattered America's financial industry.
- The two most profitable sectors, mortgage lending and investment banking have disintegrated.
- The legendary Wall Street now consists of two surviving companies, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Lehman Bros is gone. Bear Stearns. Gone. Merrill Lynch. Gone.
- The American collapse precipitated a global financial meltdown which bankrupted the economies of several nations including Iceland and Hungary.
- Even the great economies of Europe were brought to their knees as their banking institutions shattered like glass in the shockwave from Wall Street.
- The mighty American army is caught up in two wars in lands on the other side of the earth. Bogged down by guerilla warfare of the kind that bled the US army - and the US national wallet - dry in Vietnam, no victorious end to either conflict is in sight in 2008.
- An explosion of industry in China coupled with the carnage in America's own economy dealt it's supremacy a double blow.
- Imprisonment without trial, kidnap and torture have been openly endorsed at a Presidential level.
- The image of America abroad is in pieces. The goodwill in the wake of 9/11 has evaporated so completely that basically every American straying beyond the US border faces a barrage of venom.
Before we start getting into this being 'so bad' or 'so terrible', just hold. Hold off.
This is not that kind of blog. Although I do feel that it's sad, what's happened, I am not here to bemoan America's fate, blame the President or the Neo-Conservatives, or play armchair quarterback (to use an American phrase) to the decisions made over the past 8 years.
What I want to do is to step back from the glass.
To get away from the easy judgements, the easy posturing of 'this side' or 'that side.'
Step back with me.
Try not to rail against anything, Try not to hate. Try not to defend, and try not to justify.
Don't judge it. Just look. The temptation to judge will rise. You can feel it. It feels like righteous suffering. Like fire.
Don't get sucked in.
Now what's interesting is this - in my life I've had similar patterns. This soaring achievement, and catastrophic fall.
It's happened to me a couple of times now. And that's a weird thing to say, because you'd think that once was enough. You think after the first time I had a shatteringly nasty crash which erased my successes like they'd never been and punched me through the bedrock, I'd think again before getting back into the sky.
You see, the fall is always nastier than the rise. It gives a lot of motivation - a lot of motivation to change.
Yet as you probably know either from your own life or from the life of people you've met, soaring highs and crushing lows are a recurring pattern that can lock people in for their whole lives.
This is very much the life I've led. Like Icarus, the winged man of Greek legend, I'd soar high...
...then crash out.
Then I'd spend a year or so piecing myself together, rebuild the wings in a new way, take a run up, fly, soar and crash.
Now this isn't just a pity party. I bring this up because it makes no sense. After I crashed out the first time, why am I so eager to get back up there, again, and again, and again, and again?
And in a way, I wasn't. Every time I crashed out financially, emotionally, professionally, personally - in whatever sense - I resolved at as deep a level as I could to change things so that I wouldn't fuck up again.
Just as the financial markets are, right now, looking at bringing a raft of legislation and regulation to stop another global collapse from happening in the future.
But no matter how deeply I resolved to change, I would always end up flying too close to the sun, always end up falling, and dashed on the rocks. It didn't matter how many times I'd piece myself together. I'd always end up gathering more and more damage.
Well, on the one hand I think it's true to say that the reasons I couldn't stop crashing out is that I was doing it for reasons I wasn't aware of and didn't have conscious access to.
And on the one hand that's true. Obviously. If I'd have been able to break the pattern, I'd have broken it. I didn't break it, therefore I didn't see what was really going on.
The same thing is true of the boom-and-bust cycles of the capitalist economy. It has a bipolar quality to it, with soaring highs and crushing lows. Unluckily for us, we just went over the edge.
But here's the thing - this isn't just something that's happening in our economy. It's something that's happening in our civilisation. The soaring highs. The crushing lows.
And there is a certain kind of romance to that life - when you're soaring. But the low will take that from you. It takes everything from you. I know that much from my own experience. So while it's easy to defend the highs and lows now, when you're knee deep in the howling you'll not be so convinced.
There is a pattern here, that seems to extend out from the individual to society itself. Essentially, what is going on with the Western economies right now is a large-scale version of how the population of the Western World lives their lives.
That is to say, like Icarus.
How does Ayn Rand fit into all this?
Ayn Rand takes the wings off Icarus and replaced them with a rocket engine.
The reason Rand has been so successful is because her work works.
If you see the world from her point of view you'll feel a total certainty to forge ahead.
You'll feel a burning righteousness even when you suffer in the pursuit of your goal, and that will become pleasurable to you because you are suffering for a moral cause: yourself.
You will be unburdened by guilt or shame and you will achieve.
You will achieve, in real life. Check this out - it's a short mash-up of speeches from the Ayn Rand inspired computer game Bioshock:
Yes, thinking like this, you will achieve.
And in achieving, you will gain a sense of accomplishment. This will happen.
Well of course, you'd be forgiven for bouncing up and down on your seat in excitement. Me too.
Swap the wings of Icarus for a Jetpack? Sign me up. I want a jet pack.
I've wanted one since I was 6. I will never stop wanting one. I want one right now.
And if that sense of accomplishment that you get from achievement is sustainable, Rand's philosophy is - as far as I can tell - watertight.
Let's look at it, and see, shall we?
In the world around us, and in your own life, there is a certain kind of success which has a destructive quality.
And the level of destruction this success has is related to the height of the achievement it originally gave you. The higher you climb, the greater the impact.
I say related - but not proportional. That has never been true in my life. The downswing is always profoundly more extreme than the upswing.
To illustrate with the Jetpack metaphor - no matter how cool it is to fly around with a jetpack, it's not ever really going to be good enough to justify going home in a matchbox after they mop you out of the crater you've made in the highway.
So what is it about this form of success that causes it's destructive aspect?
What is it in success that leads to ruin?
And is this destructive success and the kind of success that Rand posits as the highest moral good - are they always the same?
Fascinating questions, all. I'll throw up some ideas.
The truth is, this whole issue runs very, very deep in all of us. There are no easy answers - but there are answers.
I hope you've noticed that my moral condemnation of Ayn Rand is conspicuous by it's absence.
There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'm not here to bash anyone. Secondly, I'm especially not here to bash someone who seems to be going out of their way to make me condemn them.
Rand has a habit of stating things in a highly provocative way, and almost for that point alone, I think it's important that we refuse to be provoked.
It is very easy to morally condemn Rand's thought, her deification of the self. That makes it boring, at least to me.
It's very easy to look down on the defiant and open self-obsession which Rand promotes as the highest moral good. It's also a waste of my keystrokes when I could be doing something more productive, like looking at porn or setting things on fire.
But I'm not here to look down on anything. I'm here to look.
The fact is that whatever it is Rand is suggesting, it works.
It seems to me that Rand has given form and voice to something that dwells inside each of us - a deep impulse that gives rise to striving and success - almost in the same way that Tolle gives voice to another deep impulse in human nature.
Neither of them are really the inventors of their philosophies. It would be more accurate to describe them as cartographers, mapping something they have found within themselves that is common to the human condition itself.
The success Rand's thought lionises is a very particular kind of success. It is a success that has certain qualities to it. It's not success in general - this is important. It's success of a certain kind.
It's a kind of success that is defiant. It is highly conscious of the superiority it has over the unsuccessful. This is not necessarily a bad thing - again, no judgement one way or another. This is just a quality it has.
It has a deeply moral resonance to it - which is to say that in this world view success and a higher morality are the same. That means that those who fail are not just inferior - they are morally inferior.
Again, let's not judge this. Let's not say 'oh no, what a bitch.'
And if you're on the other side of the coin and you agree with Rand, try not to get too caught up in that either - the 'Damn straight, fucking hippies' mentality.
Just step back from the glass as much as you can and look at it.
Because here's my thoughts on Rand. And indeed, success.
I've achieved success of the kind Rand talks about in several different areas of my life. It's all fallen apart since, so I guess I'm off her Christmas list, but I know how it feels to succeed.
And it's very interesting, because there's one question we have to ask ourselves:
What part of us are we feeding?
You see, if the success feeds that part of us (and it is a voracious part of us) that wants to be morally superior, then that part will grow.
And as it grows, it gets more and more ravenous, and more and more hungry.
As it does, it twists our perceptions of the world into terms of moral superiority and moral inferiority.
It's not that we're 'bad people' - but we see the world through such a compelling and simple lens that we are unable to resist the parasite within us. A parasite grown fat on our victories. A parasite called 'moral condemnation'. Otherwise known as hate.
It is the hatred of the weak embedded in the structure of moral judgement itself which is what shatters all success gained from a self-worshipping mindset.
Why? Because it is morally 'bad' to hate the weak? Or perhaps it is I who am 'wrong' about this because I just don't get how good Rand is?
Bad. Wrong. You see how subtle they are? How easily they creep unnoticed into our minds?
Creep? No, even that's not true. We welcome them in. We love to have the feeling of pure purpose, certainty and meaning that condemnation brings. We welcome it. We look for things to feed it.
Look at a newspaper or watch the news tonight. Or better still go right now to CNN.com, or BBC.co.uk/news. Look at the tabloid websites like News Of The World, or the quality papers like The Independent.
It is as if the journalistic industry gathers outrage from around the globe every day - like a harvest. It then presents it to the world like food. Delivered fresh in the morning, and in depth at night. There's even the websites to give you a snack in the daytime if you get peckish.
Moral judgement is like an insect, a parasite.
It takes you over, pretends to be you. Gives you in one instant a massive hit of righteous fire.
But it's based on a fiction that success sends spiralling out of your control.
The fiction deepens, becomes more compelling and more simple. From your point of view everything is swimming into focus, but what's really happening is that you're getting more and more lost.
It always ends up consuming you.
And the higher you climb, the further you will fall and the more anguish you'll feel when reality rips you to pieces.
The problem with Rand is not with Rand. It is with US. We are locked in this world of morally-charged identity. Fictions that we were born into. Fictions of right and wrong, good and evil.
Fictions that claim to be the storehouse of all righteousness, be they religious, cultural, whatever.
But they are not the storehouses of righteousness.
They just tell you what to hate.
Has Rand heard this before? Yes. And she's defended herself against it to:
"A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others. "
This is fair.
But there is a link between the desire to achieve and madness itself.
Is it always to be so? Can we never seek to achieve? I don't know. I hope not - but what I will say is this:
Our cultures, our worlds - and our minds - are so deeply infected with the parasites of moral judgement, division and conflict that our desires to achieve are doomed unless we deal with the problem at the source.
Moral arrogance is the fate of those people - and those nations - who feed that part of themselves that likes to be superior to others, that likes to condemn, that likes to be in the right.
Not a "side effect" of those who feed their sense of superiority through achievement.
Not a "danger" of those who feed their sense of superiority through achievement.
It is the fate of those who feed their sense of superiority through achievement.
You think I'm talking about America now, right?
I'm talking from my own experience - and that of my own country.
In the 19th Century, the British Empire straddled the globe.
It was the largest empire ever seen in history. The Mongols, the Romans, Japan, the Chinese, the USA, Germany, Russia - none of these giants of history has ever even come close to having an Empire on the scale of Britain's.
Britain initiated the industrial revolution, the revolution that made all modern technology, culture and capitalism possible. Without Britain's industrial revolution, we'd all still be living on farms - and not the techno-farms of today. Old school farms. With horses, and everything.
Britain spread it's language throughout the globe. It brought parliamentary democracy to the planet. It built roads, set up infrastructures.
It did a lot of good.
But alongside that was the haughtiness and arrogance for which Britain is still - to this day - renowned. The aloofness, the coldness. The inhumanity. The total moral arrogance that looted India and Africa. That massacred people at Kawnpoor and Rhodesia.
Mike Davis, a historian of the period, estimates that there were between 12 and 33 million avoidable deaths by famine in India between 1876 and 1908. The cause? Callousness of the ruling class, and their free-market ideology.
And of course we all know that Britain gave up it's Empire willingly. And that is true.
But even then the moral arrogance that had come to characterise the British rule led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands - maybe even millions - in India and Pakistan.
The British government had scheduled India's independence for 1948. Mountbatten cut the time by half to mid-August 1947 because he was impatient to get back to England and build his naval career. Something in the region of 500 000 people died in the resulting chaos.
Look, I love Britain. But Britain has a major self-image problem. It's the only country I know of where if you say "I love my country" people look at you like you're a freak.
Again - see the urge in yourself to morally judge this fact. Don't get sucked into it. And don't get sucked in to the urge to condemn Britain's past either. There is a deeper truth here.
The reason British people don't say 'I love Britain' anymore is that we were shocked to discover what we became - what power made us. Britain was always about honour, about decency and fair play. Just as America is all about freedom, opportunity and justice.
British people don't say 'I love my country' anymore because of what we became when we said it last time. We became arrogant. Terrible, destructive caricatures of who we are, of what Britain really stands for.
It was as if our self belief contained something more terrible even than the self-doubt that we were so eager to run from. Something we had to let go. Something we had to let die.
I went to America recently, and travelled quite a bit. And a lot of things blew me away. It's an incredible country.
But there was at least one thing I encountered that I didn't expect. Something that I don't think America's experienced before - even back in the 60's with Vietnam.
With Vietnam, America reacted with shock and outrage to it's own atrocities.
This is different. It's not the fiery moral outrage that says 'I still believe in America, and this is not it!'
It's the jaded cynicism that says 'I don't know what America has become now.' It's the horror of seeing through a mesh of lies and not knowing if there's any decency left in the dream that was once the United States.
The past 8 years have discredited more than the Republican party.
It is as if they have discredited America in the eyes of America.
Just as Britain's essential goodness was discredited in the eyes of Britain.
And, in a more extreme way, the way that Germany's essential goodness was discredited in the eyes of Germany. Although it happened much faster and much more violently, the deep structures that led Germany into barbarism were not of a different type.
They were just more intensely followed, more intensely believed. More industrially implemented. Everything else was in place. The moral righteousness. The total self-belief. The rapacious hunger for victory and achievement to feed the fiction.
When I was in the states that sense - not of Americans hating America, but of Americans deeply questioning America's essential goodness - was something I came across time and again.
And not just in California, but deep in the heartlands of the South, the engine of America's self-belief.
What were they rejecting? Were they rejecting freedom? Opportunity? Justice?
They were, and are rejecting the terrible, destructive caricature of itself that America has become.
It's funny- it almost reminded me of home, so deeply did it resemble the self doubt of my own nation.
I love America, I really do. I feel it's turned a corner now, and I am hopeful for it's future. Even had Obama lost, the last eight years have shown America a side of itself that it never knew existed. And after having seen what it has seen, perhaps it's politics have turned a corner.
I don't know if the damage done to it's self-belief is enough to grant it the wisdom it needs, or if America will sink into indolence and self-hate. Or perhaps neither of those things will happen, and America will forget. The next generation will ignore the warnings and the cycle will repeat all over again.
Until eventually the fall is so massive and so extreme that the world will die before America faces it's demons.
Time alone will tell.
But I talk about this to raise the point that moral arrogance does not come from nowhere.
Moral arrogance is a very specific thing and it does not just rise out of the ether.
It comes from a very specific set of behaviours, both external and internal. It is very deeply rooted in the human condition and is ultimately no more than a magnified version of a voracious weakness that infects all humanity.
This is not an American problem. America is going through this right now because it is the most successful nation in a world right now. When Britain was, Britain went through it. And if you ever become successful as a person, you will go through it.
If you are successful, perhaps you're going through it right now, and you don't even know. But if you are - you'll find out soon enough. Reality has its ways of making sure of that.
And at the end of the day, this destructive cycle has one centre. Just one.
Drawing your meaning, purpose and happiness from your personal achievements.
And not because it is 'bad' in some vague moral sense, and not because your achievements 'belong to everyone' or because they 'should support your fellow man' or any of that crap.
It's bad because it feeds a part of you that will twist you out of all recognition and turn you into a monster.
But of course, that begs a question that I think is very high on everyone's priority list.
Is there another option?
Is there a way to be successful - in real life, in the real world?
Is there a way of living successfully that will not obliterate what is highest and best within you, and turn you into first a monster, and then a wreckage?