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Can Selfishness Be a Virtue?

Through the magical intersection of text and image The Age of Selfishness seeks to clarify the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and how it influenced the Masters of the Universe.

The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis

Publisher: Abrams Comicsarts
Length: 232 pages
Author: Darryl Cunningham
Price: $17.95
Format: hardcover
Publication date: 2015-03

Ayn Rand, the novelist-cum-philosopher, seems to come back in vogue each election season. While a certain political party carries bits of her stamp, emblazoned as it is in the prescriptions of several famous candidates, Rand seems uniquely suited to a culture such as ours. Speak the devil’s name and he appears.

In a country that once advocated, and still does advocate, robust individuality, property rights trumping human rights (think 250 years of slavery), and stalwart self-reliance, what other school of thought has been birthed here but Rand’s Objectivism? For all of the focus on various transcendentalist and pragmatist underpinnings in American letters, the acolytes of Rand seem to be in the ascendant, partly guiding policy and discourse to this day. Are any rising politicians or public figures named after Emerson or Thoreau?

This is not the most objective way to begin this review of Darryl Cunningham’s The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis. This is because Cunningham approaches his subject with an axe to grind, much like I opened with an axe to grind. The cover of his graphic polemic features an illustrated Rand amidst the fall of skyscrapers, as if the weight of the symbols for dollars, euros, and pounds above them are too much for the buildings to bear.

What The Age of Selfishness seeks to do is clarify, through the magical intersection of text and image, the person of Rand, her books and philosophy, and how that thinking influenced the Masters of the Universe; those holding the purse strings, controlling our student debt, mortgages, and credit card statements. As he decodes Rand’s teachings, providing a compact biography, he spins these origins outwards, highlighting their precipitation of the financial crisis and the Great Recession.

Cunningham’s choice of a graphic narrative is smart. Text is suited to nuance, depth, and reflection. An image is immediate, present, and can concretize the abstract. Comics work because they take both and meld them together. The complex can be rendered simple, the simple made complex. Although Cunningham’s art may not be for everyone, sitting somewhere between Chris Ware, Bruce Eric Kaplan, and the Sunday paper, it does exactly that: clarify a complex figure who espoused a simple ideology that rippled through some of the most dense and labyrinthine structures around; namely, financial institutions and governance.

Say what you want about Objectivism, but on the surface, it is a deceptively simple outlook on life. Of course, there’s always more to the story than a humble review can pack in, but for those unfamiliar, Rand’s teachings were codified in a series of novels, essays, and lectures. Her thoughts formed a philosophy that valued the individual above all, of extremely limited government, of suspicion towards altruism and an advocacy of self-interest and, doubly emphasized in her novels, a Manichean divide between producers and moochers. It’s simple, in the race of life: me first and to hell with you. If you’re a lonely college student in your dorm room with a staggering sense of your own superiority, just keep thinking the way you already do.

Again, not objective. But neither is Objectivism.

Regardless, Cunningham is dealing with complex issues here, issues of philosophy, of finance, of securities, derivatives, and mortgages -- issues most people can’t, or don’t have time to, understand. I certainly stumble far more than I stride. But these are key issues. Most are probably familiar with the what and when (market crash, loss of jobs, recession, foreclosure) but the how and why are, as usual, the more interesting and stickier questions. Crafting this as a graphic novel enables Cunningham to show and tell, simultaneously.

That ability to entertain and explain elevates subject matter that is otherwise inherently dry and abstract. For the sheer compression and ambition, Cunningham deserves praise. He is also a gifted illustrator. Again, his style may not be for everyone, but Cunningham knows how to structure a page and to toy with the intersection between pictures and words. Often panels come unexpectedly, especially during the first section, focusing on Rand’s biography, undercutting the pretensions of the characters or adding ironic counterpoints.

During parts two and three, (especially two) Cunningham has his hands full. The cast of characters and quantity of events begins to drain some of the energy from his initial narrative. Comics can work wonders with time, jumping years between panels without spraining an ankle. Still, the constant shifts, montage like, press down on the sense of intimacy and immersion created from the beginning. Though this doesn’t break the book by any sense, the sheer scale of what’s being described threatens to overwhelm Cunningham’s panels, showing how the ability to make the complex simple requires something approaching alchemy.

Although some of the details may gum up the works, nevertheless, this is an expertly crafted book, both entertaining and informative. It should be required reading for anyone turned off by thousand page tomes on the financial crisis, both of the past, recent present, and possible future sort, or sick of the soundbites offered up by pundits, politicians, and policymakers.

While Rand’s teachings may have their tendrils deeply rooted in our discourse, certainly when it comes to debates on regulation, welfare, and the public sphere, Cunningham shows it hasn’t always been so. More importantly, he shows where this kind of thinking comes from. Though it’s simple to think only about yourself, life is rarely that simple, nor should it be. The Age of Selfishness brings that to light.


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