The triumph of mediocrity

by Terence MacNamee

Ayn Rand’s novels are unique and wonderful, even if one considers that the philosophy or political programme she developed out of them was, to say the least, overdone. To me, the novels are essentially about the triumph of mediocrity: the mediocre run the world, and whenever creativity or innovation appears, they do their best to squash it. It is Ayn Rand’s achievement to have shown how this happens with merciless clarity.

Thus the brilliant architect Roark can’t get a look in, while the untalented and unscrupulous Keating thrives. The superbly capable businesswoman Dagny is frustrated at every turn by her feckless brother Jim, who is president of the company and takes all the credit. The novels are also larded with withering quotes about boards and committees being “a great big nothing”, the lowest common denominator of incompetence.

Now, if you like, you can call this a political problem. Ayn Rand seems to have regarded it as such. In Russia, her native country, under Stalin, the person of ability didn’t stand a chance because everything was collectivized; in America, her adopted country, the person of ability did have a chance, even though he was likely to be stymied by committees and the like.

But there may be no real political solution to what I will call Ayn Rand’s problem. As likely as not, mediocrity will always rule, at every level, and it doesn’t matter what kind of state you have. Whether in a bourgeois democracy of political parties, or a country ruled by a Communist Party like China, the committee men are going to wield most of the power.

In England, C.P. Snow was quite aware of this, but seemed not to be unduly bothered by it. In his novels he often wrote about brilliant people who couldn’t get a hearing from committees, because to do so one needs to be “not too different from one’s fellow-men”, in other words: at least pretend to be mediocre.

There is a general problem here, I think: with discourse becoming more and more homogeneous, how is the thinker with a startlingly discordant message going to get a hearing? He has to become a kind of trickster, standing on his head in an effort to get the committee men’s attention. It may or may not work.