Pride and Prejudice
The legacy of Ayn Rand
In August 2002 Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, walked out of a US Senate committee room with cries of ‘Judas’ circling his head. Normally an oracular event, his appearance before the Senate was on this occasion characterized not so much by economic mysticism as by painful plain speaking. Greed, he told the Senators, had created fraudulent growth in financial markets, and was ‘harmful’. Such statements rarely betoken treachery unless, like Greenspan, you cut your teeth in The Collective, the 1950s New York salon hosted by the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-82), where real-life Gordon Gekkos proclaimed greed to be not just good, but the very meaning of human existence. By casting doubt on the desirability of selfishness, the FRB’s Chairman had betrayed one of the central tenets of the Randian faith.
At the centre of Rand’s work stands the idea of a super-class of individuals who are heroic, self-interested and the ultimate arbiters of value. In Anthem (1938), an early novella and singular influence on the landmark Rush album 2112 (1976), she details the struggles of one man, Equality 7-2521, against a cod-communist collective in some distant, dateless future. In one scene the protagonist is admonished for his nascent individualism, and his response provides a perfect example of Rand’s tendency to naturalize the notion of the élite: ‘There is evil in your bones, Equality 7-2521, for your body has grown beyond the body of your brothers [...] But we cannot change our bones or our bodies.’ This theme of the sparkling few versus the lumpen many crops up again and again in Rand’s novels, a reflection, perhaps, of both her background as a Russian émigrée and her formative years as a Hollywood screenwriter. (Script-writing by committee, I imagine, can only have added to her fervour for unalloyed self-hood.) Anthem was followed by the blockbusters The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), which between them have sold a staggering 20 million copies. In these Nietzschean tales of the modern übermensch, the moody architect Howard Roark and the mysterious John Galt fight the good fight against mediocrity in all its forms, from the personal to the political.
From the 1960s onwards Rand expanded this sleek individualism, a polarized version of the American dream, into several sets of ‘Objectivist’ philosophical books - including the bullishly titled The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (1963), Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966) and Philosophy: Who Needs It? (1982) - as well as newsletters, tapes and other ephemera, published with her one-time lover Nathaniel Branden. This body of work evolved into the California-based Ayn Rand Institute, a rattling closet of skeletons headed by Rand’s ‘heir’, Leonard Peikoff. Today it is the chief guardian of Rand’s legacy, sponsoring, among other things, the Capitalism Defense Project (which provides, according to its mission statement, ‘the intellectual ammunition for capitalists to fight back’) and writing competitions for high school and university students with a hefty prize fund of $75,000 per year. Whether Peikoff’s institute is, in fact, a movement of one remains unclear, an ironic state of affairs at best, given the philosophical values at stake. Libertarianism is a powerful force in present-day American politics, but Rand’s beliefs, despite being endorsed by the right-wing policy lobbyists of the Cato Institute, remain too controversial to be adopted wholesale by a mainstream party. Then again, this is all of a piece with the Randian project - the foremost mission of those in the ‘Objectivism’ business has always been the continuous expansion of the doctrine of selfishness into areas where it either fits or splits the debate.
Determined to leave no philosophical base uncovered, Rand turned her attention to aesthetics in The Romantic Manifesto (1969). Here her belief that man is a fundamentally rational being led her to define art as a handmaiden of truth, as ‘a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgements’. Another way to think about art, of course, is as propaganda. Rand’s works of fiction (and the meta-works made by their protagonists) are focused firmly on promulgating her ‘Objectivist’ values. The creative act, here, is also an act of teaching. John Galt’s 60-page radio broadcast-cum-manifesto in Atlas Shrugged is the most obvious example of this, but many of the more literary passages in Rand’s novels and short stories also serve as veiled affirmations of the value of the individual, the evil of the masses and the thrill of freedom. Symbols become inhabited by their maker(s), quarried granite states querulous defiance, and - most problematically - rape is reconfigured as a powerfully erotic act that affirms the independence of the ‘masterful’ rapist. But despite her tendency towards the parabolic, Rand believed, like all good Modernists, in the purity of art. This view provided her with one of her most vivid scenes. In The Fountainhead Howard Roark (a figure based, legend has it, on the architect Frank Lloyd Wright) dynamites a low-cost housing project he has designed, fearing that his enemies will pollute his vision with ‘popular’ changes. His defence, presented alone at trial, is based only on the right of the individual above all else to his own work. When one’s message is obscured, whatever bears that message is not fit to exist.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rand’s thinking on art as propaganda was ultimately of the ‘two legs bad, four legs good’ variety. In 1947 she appeared before the anti-communist House of Un-American Activities Committee, home of the investigations that led to the blacklisting of the ‘Hollywood Ten’. Called as a friendly witness on the basis of her beliefs and her Russian heritage, Rand deconstructed the film Song of Russia (1943), railing against its (mis)representation of the USSR as a paradise of comfort, beauty and plenty. (The movie, in fact, was intentional wartime propaganda, produced by Hollywood to shore up the public’s support for America’s alliance with the Soviets.) In a nod to her long-winded literary style, Rand ran through page after page of existential reminiscences of life in Bolshevik Russia and, although she was supposedly obliged to stick to the facts, her digressions into ‘Objectivist’ philosophy brought her no reprisals. At the end of her testimony no one, not even a fresh-faced Congressman named Richard M. Nixon, had any questions.