The looters of Thomas Cook
In Atlas Shrugged there are three types of people who matter. There are the god-like ‘rational men’, whose every action is dictated by reasoned self interest, there are the ‘moochers’ who seek to be parasitic on them, pleading always for hand-outs based on their ‘need’, and there are the ‘looters’, who want much more and take action, sometimes violent, to ensure that they get it. Ordinary people are barely mentioned except when they bestir themselves enough to enter one of those three groups.
Looking at the UK today, it is clear that we are living in a looter-dominated society. That, of course, is not unusual. Throughout most of human history there has been a disconnect between those who contribute most to the common good and those who take the most out of it, and at least in today’s UK the looters’ tools are less likely to be battleaxes or guns and more likely to be arcane manipulations of financial markets that are increasingly divorced from reality, if not from real consequences. Some of those consequences have recently become headline news, as the collapse of Thomas Cook has left customers stranded across Europe and beyond and staff unpaid and resorting to food banks. A collapse that had, it seems, been predictable for some time but had remained unpredicted by the management of the company as they extracted pay and bonuses to the tune of tens of millions of pounds. The usual excuse, that high levels of executive pay are trivial compared to the bottom line, cannot be applied, because what was extracted from Thomas Cook was a significant fraction of the debt that ultimately brought the company down.
Was Ayn Rand then, far from being very silly, a far-sighted prophet?
It takes no genius to predict that where there is loot there will be looters, but the dystopian America imagined in Atlas Shrugged has little else in common with today’s neo-liberal ethos. It was based on the Soviet Union as it was when Rand left it in 1925, modified only slightly by what she learned about it, from a distance, in the years that followed, and it existed in a world in which every other country had wholeheartedly and without exception embraced the Marxist ideal of “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. Her America was going down the same route, but was still far enough from succumbing to be able to send relief supplies to the starving populations of places such as France and Norway. The storm clouds, however, were gathering, and altruism was taken an ever tighter hold.
It is, of course, unfair to criticise a fantasy novel for its initial premises, and the world of Atlas Shrugged is far more fantastical than the world of The Fountainhead, but Rand wrote to promote her ‘philosophy’, and that makes her books fair targets. In Atlas Shrugged she was less interested in how the altruism came to be society’s guiding principle than in how it could be defeated, and her solution was a drastic one. The ‘rational’ men (and a few ‘rational’ women) withdrew to a hidden valley somewhere in the Rocky Mountains and waited for the collapse that their inaction made inevitable. Atlas Shrugged ends when that collapse has come and the exiles are preparing to return, to a country destroyed by accident, civil war and famine, and set everything to rights. Setting things to rights for the starving and decimated population is not, of course, their aim, but Rand thought that it would miraculously happen if her exceptionally talented heroes stayed true to their guiding principle, of never living for the sake of other men, or asking other men to live for theirs .
Even if we accept the fantastical premise, we are entitled to ask what would happened next, and then immediately encounter one of Rand’s most fundamental problems. She believed not only in the self-interest of rational men, but also in the sanctity of private property, and the right of those with property to pass it on to their heirs (as her father would, presumably, have done had the Russian revolution not intervened). But even in her fantasy US there was no guarantee that the close relatives of rational men would themselves be rational. Hank Reardon’s brother was a classic moocher, and Dagny Taggart’s brother, who inherited the railroad from the pair’s ‘rational’ father, was a leading looter.
In so far as Rand offered any solution to this problem, it was that unworthy heirs would inevitably destroy their inheritances, so it would all come right in the end. Which brings us back, by a circuitous route, to where we started. The looters of Thomas Cook were not there by inheritance (and it would take several more blogs to analyse how they did get there) but looters they were, and at the time of writing it seems that they have walked away with their loot, abandoning the thousands who worked for the company they ran into the ground. To Rand such an outcome was a matter of supreme indifference. As it appears to be to many of her modern disciples.