On Last Week Tonight, perhaps to balance out his less-than-friendly main segment on Obama’s drone policies, John Oliver asked a question that has bothered people about Ayn Rand since she first emerged in the middle of the twentieth century: why are people into this dreck?
Rand was the founder of Objectivism, a sub-Nietzschean philosophy that glorified selfishness and denigrated altruism, aggressively detailed in two novels bearing both the weight and prose style of a cement brick. Not surprisingly, this organized atavism never gained serious purchase: during her lifetime she was rejected by everyone from literary critics to philosophy professors to Frank Lloyd Wright, who didn’t appreciate her cribbing protagonist Howard Roark from his biography.
But her views achieved both outsider chic during the rise of the Great Society and some establishment cred when Alan Greenspan smuggled them into economic policy. Her tomes were bestsellers. And, in a vulgarized form Rand would almost certainly reject, they have spread even further since her death in 1982. Lawmakers cite her; celebrities namedrop her; fringe movements style themselves her heirs; scores of Twitter users swipe her visage as their avatar. A film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged lasted three installments (and outlasted its budget). There’s even going to be an off-Broadway musical this fall.
Rand’s political and pop cultural cache has risen even as her ideas fail basic empirical challenges. The 2008 financial collapse, an historic repudiation of rational self-interest on a systemic level, forced even Greenspan, a former friend of Rand and lifetime devotee of her philosophy, to admit a foundational flaw in his free market ideology. Yet Atlas Shrugged continues to sell. Oliver’s question deserves to be taken seriously: what’s to account for Rand’s unlikely and long-lasting cultural influence?
Paul Ryan and the Defense of Elitism
Almost seventy years after she first became involved in the American political process, Rand has finally made it into the halls of power. She has the extreme right wing to thank. Representatives Steve King (R-IA), Mike Mulvaney (R-SC) and former Rep. Allen West (R-FL) all tout her. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) pitched her book on the Senate floor. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) claims he’s not named after her; nobody believes him.
But House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who requires staffers to read Atlas Shrugged, has labored the hardest to legitimize Rand. The wonk-whisperer’s specific brand of Rand devotion suggests that her true lasting power is seen not in the portable axioms about freedom and tyranny parroted by tea partiers but in Ryan’s more nuanced strategy to preserve the conservative elite.
Since Edmund Burke conservatism has been the defense of the distressed elite disguised as populism. Rand was a perfect iteration of this. Born into wealth in St. Petersburg, she formed an early sense of disenfranchisement when her father’s chemistry shop was seized by the Soviets and her family was plunked into the proletariat. As Burke cried for Marie Antionette, so Rand burned over her lost privilege for her entire life, reading her personal expulsion into a society-large injustice orchestrated by a succession of mobs. Burke had the Jacobins; Rand had the Democrats. The philosophy she forged was a counterattack on behalf of an aristocracy she thought threatened, first by Lenin, later by LBJ.
Ryan, a conservative technocrat who sees budgets as vehicles for social reengineering, fits this Burke-via-Rand mold impeccably. His Ancien Régime is America’s 1%. Armed with charts and graphs, Ryan declares that the job creators must be protected from a metastasizing federal government taxing them into oblivion to fund a decadent welfare state. (Rand called the latter second-handers.) His massive upward redistribution of wealth is portrayed as a rational rescue of the producer class, the engines that selflessly generate the economy for the rest of us. It’s the encapsulation of Rand’s central ideal of economic activity as morality, one that anoints the moneyed elite as not only deserving but Good.
But when Ryan was selected as Mitt Romney’s running mate he discovered just how difficult it was to pull this bait-and-switch on an entire nation, especially when Romney’s infamous 47% remarks too baldly expressed Rand’s anti-mob fever. Sure enough, Ryan crabwalked away from his former idol, carefully severing himself from her philosophy—though not, pointedly, her ideas. (That’s his story, anyway.)
It didn’t take; voters rejected Ryan’s plan to salvage the 1% from the claws of the state. But even as the intensity of Rand’s followers hasn’t translated into widespread appreciation Ryan continues to tote her elite philosophy to the Capitol, where the defense of the wealthy is an ever-present crisis.
Start-ups and People as Corporations
None should be surprised that Wall Street investors seized upon Rand’s muscular view of capitalism as a sort of intellectual codex to Gordon Gecko-ism. Rand fetishized greed, né self-interest, as not only a beneficent aspect of human nature but a catalyzing moral force. If you weren’t reading carefully—and accounts of the derivative markets and bank leveraging suggests nobody was doing anything carefully—you could easily take from Rand’s works a near-religious imperative to grab as much money as possible without regard to consequences.
But Rand resonated even more deeply among a different style of businessmen. Oliver’s show chose early dot-com mogul Marc Cuban as the modern Randian; counted with him are tech figures and venture capitalists like PayPal founder Peter Thiel, Uber founder Travis Kalanick, Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson, Foundry Group’s Brad Feld, and more.
Start-up figures wear their libertarianism like their hoodies, but there’s a reason they hat-tip Rand above anybody. Here Jennifer Burns’ biography Goddess of the Market is instructive in its reading of Atlas Shrugged. Burns distinguished in Rand’s view the capitalist—who could be as bland a conformist as could a Bolshevik—from the entrepreneur, who was creativity incarnate. Never an economist, Rand developed instead a metaphysical theory of capitalism in which industry became the incorporated expression of the individual will. Objectivism was less about the rational distribution of resources or allocation of profits than it was a vision of how the economy and the human will realized each other.
The belief that entrepreneurs are a fusion of personal and economic invention is not an idea exclusive to Rand, though she certainly invoked Edison and the Wright brothers as examples of her self-made, and self-making, supermen; it was Rand’s elaboration of the corporation as a cathectic object, through which the energy of the individual is projected and embodied, that made it hers.
Lululemon founder Chip Wilson captured this process when he smacked a John Galt reference on one the company’s tote bags (to the horror of his customers). “Only later, looking back, did he realize the impact the book’s ideology had on his quest to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness,” Wilson explained (in third person). “It is not coincidental that this is Lululemon’s company vision.”
Not coincidental at all: Rand and the ascendant brand of tech entrepreneurs don’t see corporations as people but a select echelon of people as creative energy literally incorporated. Corporations aren’t people; people are corporations. Rand was fond of quoting Aristotle’s rule of identity, A is A (something Corey Robin convincingly argues in The Reactionary Mind she misunderstood). So Chip Wilson’s values are Lululemon’s values and vice versa; it’s the real life enactment of Rand’s vision of personal morality as economic activity, the other side of the equation Ryan wants to promulgate politically.
Thanks to the Supreme Court, it’s also now a legal theory of corporate personhood that includes religious rights, showing just how far Rand’s theory of wealth as morality has spread.
Narcissism and the Rise of Self-Esteem
The least appreciated but perhaps farthest-reaching of Rand’s impacts was achieved through neither her philosophy nor her novels, but through her longtime lover, business partner, and protégé Nathaniel Branden.
Branden was an early convert to Objectivism, and by the time he ended his protracted affair with Rand he’d become the second most important member in the Collective, the cult-like cadre of followers who orbited Rand. Branden spearheaded a sort of mail-order Objectivist college, which sent taped lectures to budding Objectivists around the country, published pored-over newsletters, and constructed an entire alternate culture in New York City that promoted Objectivist values. More than anyone he was responsible for inflating Rand’s philosophy into a movement, albeit a restricted and insular one.
Branden was never Rand’s visionary equal, but where he could only enunciate her ideas in philosophy, he was able to transform them in psychology. After his dramatic break up with Rand, which all but toppled the Collective and marked the end of her public life, Branden moved to California and developed the Objectivist idea that one should always act for oneself into the extraordinarily influential theory of self-esteem.
As Rand found “living for others” to be the fundamental weakness of the modern condition, one that gave rise to both decadence and totalitarianism, so Branden theorized that living for others created pathologies of unfulfilled self-conceptions. Branden retained pillars of Objectivism, such as self-awareness via rationality and an immediacy between conviction and actions, but changed the goal from metaphysical triumph to personal happiness.
Like his former teacher’s novels, Branden’s book The Psychology of Self-Esteem was a runaway bestseller. Here Objectivism’s permanent exclusion from the academy not only helped Branden’s book sell to a wide lay audience but propelled the idea of self-esteem into the mainstream consciousness, from which it’s never left. (Though it’s been definitively rebutted.) Self-esteem is now so enmeshed in American culture that its Randian origins are entirely forgotten.
Oliver featured a clip from a snotty reality show as a vulgar example of Rand’s “virtue of selfishness,” but it was more an example of her views filtered through Branden’s psychological conception and several decades of American consumerism. Rand viewed economic activity as morality, which (theoretically at least) entailed the creative energies of the producer. But Branden raided Rand’s theory and distributed the cause of individual fulfillment to the second-handers. Where Rand praised Howard Roark as the rare hero, Branden allowed everyone be their own Howard Roark.
Rand, ever the elitist, would have loathed such a popular end. If she were alive today, she might, like Oliver, wonder about why everyone was so into her.