There’s a charming story in Jennifer Burns’ biography of Ayn Rand, “Goddess of the Market”. In the dark days of the New Deal, when Roosevelt was collectivizing the U.S. economy, Rand’s first books obtained for her a circle of admirers heavily salted with the various Babbits and small business owners who’d been abused by the first generation of American naturalists. Among them, one, a letterhead manufacturer, wrote to her that her novel, We the Living, had aroused him to the depths of his being: “ ‘I thought I was one of the few who was really awake. I thought I knew and appreciated what we have, but now I know that I was at least half asleep.” Midway through the novel, Emery paused to inspect his full refrigerator, newly grateful for the bounty contained therein.”
I am not exaggerating when I say that I paused, after this paragraph, and distinctly heard the ghost of Flaubert screaming in pained laughter. Homais, of course, is eternal.
And yet… Surely our letterhead manufacturer was not wrong to inspect his refrigerator searching for clues to his way of life. Where he may have erred, however, is in thinking that Rand’s wavering historical light would have explained that bounty in any way. Rand would not have understood the collaborations – the mixture of state purposes and corporate logic – that provided the framework for the generation of refrigerants that were invented after WWI, nor would she have understood just how much of the railroad system that brought beef and veggies to Ohio in midwinter had been created out of government grants of land that it possessed by main force – and that it was beginning to support with the boldest socialistic ploy of the era, the price supports for farmers, which, combined with the engineering of the U.S. water supply, was instrumental in dropping U.S. food prices – as well as in creating nationwide corn obesity.
All of which, in some ways, doesn’t matter. The great Enlightenment ideal of prosperity reaching down into the ranks of the lowest and the most humble has been realized to an astonishing degree in developed 20th century economies – and as it is realized, a strange thing has happened. As populations get richer, they get both more timid and more savage – they feel ever more vulnerable, and are made ever less able to understand the narrative that leads to the refrigerator; they lose all sense of sacrifices that lead to long term collective benefits, which requires a historical narrative, and they operate on short term fantasies that are ceaselessly reinforced by the stream of media that fills their days. Liberty, republican virtue, culture, science – the accompaniments, according to the Enlightenment thinkers, of opulence – slowly lose their capacity to arouse any feeling whatsoever. Like a monster, an engulfing private life, rising up from the refrigerator and the Rand epic, creates a sort of public viciousness – fed by the sweetmeats of bourgeois living.
Mr. Emery, in his own way, saw the future. Our present is now filled with Emerys, and they weigh upon us like a nightmare.
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