Ayn Rand's post-traumatic ideology: How her difficult early years fueled her philosophy — and created the Great Recession

The libertarian novelist and heroine was as selfish as you'd think, artist-author Darryl Cunningham tells Salon

Published April 9, 2015 5:54PM (EDT)

 Ayn Rand (AP)
Ayn Rand (AP)

With Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul having recently announced his intention to be the next U.S. president (an announcement he delivered, incidentally, from Louisville's Galt House Hotel), now seems as good a time as ever to reexamine the life and legacy of one Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum, a woman better known as Ayn Rand.

This is not the first time that an avowed fan of the novelist, polemicist and pseudo-philosopher has reached such heights of American politics, of course. Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP's vice-presidential nominee in 2012, at the very least used to be a big fan; and her views were well-aligned with those of Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party's 1964 presidential nominee (of whom she was a big fan). Her ideas — especially her uncompromising opposition to redistribution — permeate throughout the conservative movement still.

Yet while there have been books about Rand before, none of them have been quite like "The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality and the Financial Crisis," a new graphic novel from artist, photographer and sculptor Darryl Cunningham. The artist and former mental health care worker combines mediums to take a long look at Rand's history, but he goes one step further, looking at how her influence extends into the present day, and even played a role in bringing on the Great Recession and financial crisis.

Recently, Salon spoke about the book with Cunningham via Skype. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

When did you first come into contact with Ayn Rand? 

I think it would have been back in my 20s, sort of generally reading about things, and I think it possibly came up in connection with people I was reading like Robert Heinlein or science fiction stuff. A lot of more right-wing stuff seemed to ape a lot of philosophical ideas, and I came across her then without really knowing anything about her.

 Through the years, I read bits about her and I was quite appalled because her philosophy seemed quite opposite to everything I seemed to believe, myself. I was drawn to it like you're drawn to a car crash, really; with horror and fascination. Fascination because her view of things was so upside down, I just wanted to get to the nub of how she could come up with such conclusions. Along the way, a book seemed to be a good way to explain the attraction of neoliberal politics and how come we live now in a society so dominated by neoliberal politics. Looking at the philosophy and the psychology at the same time, using her as a starting point.

Did your research on Ayn Rand change your perspective on her at all? Was there anything about her that surprised you?

I found myself to be more sympathetic toward her as a person than I initially was. Having read her story— I read two of the big biographies of her and then some smaller books— I began to see that she was quite a sympathetic person, really. She could hardly be other than what she was. Although she could be monstrous, you could understand her outlook and the way she formed her views because it came out of a childhood, out of the difficulties she and her family had during and after the Russian Revolution. That forever colored her view of humanity.

 What was it about her childhood that was so traumatic that made her particular worldview understandable, if not quite persuasive?

She grew up in St. Petersburg; her father owned a pharmacy, and they were quite a well-to-do middle-class family. Come the Revolution, the father's business was appropriated by the Bolsheviks for the good of the people, and so they were left basically with nothing and had to leave St. Petersburg and go to the Crimea and try to make a living.

When they eventually returned to St. Petersburg, they found that the apartments they had had been taken over by others and they had to share just a small part of it with another family. The streets were filled with ex-soldiers and it was just a disaster, basically, all around. I think she saw how altruism had been a cover for a sort of naked grasp for power or money, so she became suspicious about altruism and to see selfishness as more of the real virtue and altruism as a vice to be avoided. It seemed to come out of those incidents.

When you were doing research about objectivism, was there anything there that wasn't what you expected to find? Was it less weird or weirder than you thought?

There's much to be said about the philosophy of objectivism in terms of standing up for yourself or not compromising your beliefs. These are things everybody certainly should learn, to have strength of character, but she just takes it a little too far. It becomes about basically dominating other people, and that I can't agree with. There were good and bad things about objectivism, but overwhelmingly, I found it a bad experience to read about.

How much did it feel that you were sort of a psychoanalyst in looking into her life and her philosophy? Is it wrong to look at objectivism as a philosophical version of what's ultimately an emotional or psychological response to trauma?

I think at the root of her philosophy was an emotional response, that she was genuinely quite a selfish woman. Intellectually, she had to find a way of justifying it, and the whole philosophy of objectivism came out of that. Part of my sympathy to her is that my background is in mental health, so I naturally think in those terms. I was looking at her from a psychological point of view.

Do you think that selfishness was reflected at all in the people who gravitated toward her?

I think young people in particular are attracted to objectivism and toward Rand because, certainly when you're a teenager, you feel quite often very alienated. If you want to raise your self-image, there's no better way than to read objectivism because it puts you at the center of the universe; you can be more important than everyone else. If you want to feel that everyone else is a fool and a sheep, then objectivism will give you that power; it will lift your self-esteem.

I think most people grow out of that approach and see a more equal way of looking at things. That sounds like I'm dismissive of younger people but I'm not at all; I went through it just like everyone else.

Sometimes people, in their personal lives, aren't how they're perceived in public. Was that the case with Rand? Was she generous on an interpersonal level? Or was she selfish, there, too?

She was very much like her work; she was a very difficult woman to get on with. It was said that she never lost an argument. If you got into an argument with her, you'd kind of lose your bearings because she would simply outflank you in every way. People didn't want to get involved in her inner circle because they felt they'd get sucked into this little cult that she had built up around her and see the things the way she saw them.

She was quite domineering and magnetic, really, but she was full of contradiction as well. She believed she was considered to be the first lady of logic, but she often didn't see things that were right in front of her, even though the evidence was there all along. The younger man she had an affair with for years [Nathaniel Branden] was two-timing her with another woman, and although the evidence was there for all to see she just could not see it, would not accept it. She was as capable of being flawed in that way as anybody else.

You get into some pretty complicated stuff about financial transactions and mortgage law. Did you find any one part of your book more difficult to explain than any other? Or did your approach make it easier than it might have been if you were just writing?

I think having the ability to actually draw it, visually, made it a lot easier to explain. When it comes to trying to explain things like derivatives, it's very complicated. It took me quite a while to get my head around some of it, and I had experts looking over the material as I was doing it and partly rewriting some of it for me so I'd get a clearer picture. Certainly, to be able to visually show it as well as being written in the text above is incredibly useful.

In terms of economics, there is a sort of Grand Canyon-size gulf of understanding between the general public and economics, and I think that's something we'd all benefit from understanding a little better. I think the media have done a very poor job of explaining these things to the general public; I certainly didn't know anything about it before I set off on this road of research. My math is terrible, but just because you can't do math, doesn't mean you can't understand the general concept.

Why is Ayn Rand still so influential? What has made her relevant to multiple generations?

I've been asked this a number of times and I still struggle with it a little. The British edition of the book is called "Supercrash" and it doesn't mention her on the cover at all. The reason for that is that my European publishers didn't think she was much of a draw in Europe, and she isn't; she's hardly known.

In America, of course, she's very well known and my publisher in the U.S. wanted her front and center on the cover for that reason. I think it has something to do with the American character itself. Being a younger country, there's still that hangover from the frontier days of individualistic liberalism, which there isn't so much in Europe because we have countries and governments that have been there for many centuries. I think that might be part of it, but I do struggle to understand exactly what the difference is.

Do you think Ayn Rand was a happy person?

No, I think she struggled with happiness. However much success she had, I think she looked around and saw that she wasn't changing the world in the way she had hoped to. Her personal life was also a struggle, so I think she had some success but I don't think she was a particularly happy person throughout.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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