LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE
‘The Creator’s concern is the conquest of Nature. He needs no other men’
Ayn Rand skilfully spread her ideas to a huge audience through her bestselling novels, turned into major films; and disciples tried to turn her fictional utopia into a reality. Like Nietzsche, Rand thought it is great men who justify humanity’s existence. The artist is the master of his work; his refusal to conform to society’s demands gives society its greatest benefit
Alan Greenspan recounts in his memoir The Age of Turbulence (1) how “mind-boggling” he found it to be approached after an International Monetary Fund meeting in 2004 by Andrei Illarionov, Vladimir Putin’s economic adviser, with the question: “Next time you are in Moscow, would you be willing to meet with me and some of my friends to discuss Ayn Rand?”
Ayn Rand, who was a friend of Greenspan’s, is little known in Europe, but she’s the author of two books which are huge bestsellers in the United States, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). The latter is a saga which combines an investigation into the disappearance of great American entrepreneurs with a vision of utopia. Highly talented individuals go missing one after another with the result that American society starts to crumble. The investigation focuses on John Galt, an engineer, who is among the missing. His disappearance is all the more surprising since he leaves behind an (incomplete) revolutionary invention which he hasn’t sought to profit from: a motor which runs on a free and inexhaustible energy source: static electricity.
The reader learns that Galt’s withdrawal from society was voluntary. He believes that its unproductive members suck the life-blood from its creative, productive individuals, in an abuse of power made possible by the state. Galt has persuaded other great minds to follow him, in effect bringing about the most disastrous strike in US history. Galt and his companions found the city of Galt’s Gulch in a remote, mountainous part of the US, where these economic outlaws can make use of all their gifts of creativity, invention and enterprise. A film of Atlas Shrugged is currently being planned starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, both admirers of Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand’s popularity is comparable to that of L Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology, so it’s not surprising that a group of her disciples tried to turn her fictional utopia into a reality. In 1995, 13 years after the author’s death, full-page announcements appeared in The Economist and Time magazine declaring the big idea of this “prophetic genius” to be no longer a dream, but a reality in the shape of Laissez Faire City. Volunteers from around the world were invited to come and join.
In 1998 the members of Laissez Faire City formulated a plan to buy land in Costa Rica. They ran into problems and turned instead to the idea of a virtual community on the internet. Since the fundamental idea came down to not paying taxes (an immoral levy, according to Rand, by which the state seized money that rightfully belongs to individuals), the promoters of this utopia finally realised that it already existed in the flourishing, if less inspiring form of tax havens.
Reagan was a fervent disciple
Ayn Rand’s biography goes some way to explaining her ideology: Alice Rosenbaum (as she started out) was born in Russia in 1905 and fled to the US in 1926. Communism and free-market capitalism both feed into the Promethean myth: in her journey from east to west, Rand left a country which distorted Promethean, utopian ambition for one which, in her view, embodied its triumph.
She remained active until the late 1970s (she died in 1982) and exerted a powerful influence on American intellectual and political life, especially the upper echelons of the Republican party. Ronald Reagan was one of her most fervent disciples. An Ayn Rand Institute (2) remains dedicated to spreading her “objectivist philosophy” in order to promote the free market, the individual, freedom and the exercise of reason as antidotes to the forces of multiculturalism, environmental politics and ideologies which give too great a role to the state and other such manifestations of irrationality. Every year, half a million copies of Ayn Rand’s works are sold, which has led some of her disciples to put her on a par with Hannah Arendt.
The Fountainhead is Rand’s other bestselling work. (The fountainhead of the title refers to the creative force which comes from within the individual: “A man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.”) The book tells the story of Howard Roark, a headstrong, misunderstood architect of genius who comes into conflict with the forces of conformism. At the end of the novel Roark appears in court accused of blowing up a recently completed public housing project which he himself designed. He destroyed his own work because he felt its execution had distorted and bastardised his conception: despite guarantees that it would be constructed as he had conceived it, the buildings were altered to suit public taste. There follows one of those courtroom scenes familiar to readers of American fiction in which Roark conducts his own defence. Here is how he begins:
“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light. He was considered an evildoer who had dealt with a demon mankind dreaded. But thereafter men had fire to keep them warm, to cook their food, to light their caves. … That man, the unsubmissive and first, stands in the opening chapter of every legend mankind has recorded about its beginning. Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures – because he had stolen the fire of the gods. Adam was condemned to suffer – because he had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. … The great creators – the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors – stood alone against the men of their time.”
The destruction of the buildings, Roark pleads, is not a crime: the artist is the master of his work and has the right to destroy it if it doesn’t correspond to his creative idea. It is precisely the artist’s refusal to conform to society’s demands which gives society its greatest benefits. A latter-day Prometheus, Roark defends the values of the individual, which in turn are the values of America. The jury returns a not-guilty verdict.
In 1949 King Vidor brought The Fountainhead to the screen with a screenplay by Ayn Rand herself and Gary Cooper in the role of Roark. Coming across the film by chance while channel-surfing, it seems like so many other Hollywood movies: Cooper is the solitary, indomitable hero surrounded by conformism and pitted against powerful, cynical men. Reversals of fortune flip him from success to failure and back again, and there’s even a seductive, independent heroine whose resistance is eventually overcome. It’s got the lot.
What European viewers may miss is the film’s propaganda message. (Ayn Rand also avoided making the political message of her novel too blatant.) She doesn’t try to impose her ideas but, more skilfully, to show reality in such a way that the public is captivated by the picture she paints and so sees her ideas as natural.
Like most American films with patriotic, religious or political aims, The Fountainhead knows how to let the viewer simply enjoy the story. Hollywood propagandists know that a subtle message goes across more effectively than a strident one. Roark dramatises the universal desire to live free. He is a creator who follows his own path and for whom only his work matters. No one has control over him, neither God nor master.
In Europe, it was poets, writers and musicians who provided the archetypes of the Romantic genius. As updated and Americanised by Rand, the creative genius no longer tries to escape the material world but instead seeks to transform it. The architect is an artist but also a builder. The European Romantic artists’ domain was the salon. Roark by contrast is a workman, a man of the construction site, an American Stakhanov. In Rand’s writing, Man affirms himself through his mastery of matter using his brute force and virility. From the first page of the novel she shows her colours: Roark is introduced standing naked at the edge of a cliff.
Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand thinks that it is great men who justify humanity’s existence (and too bad for ordinary people, among whose ranks she doesn’t count herself, of course). She shares his critique of philanthropy, his disdain for the crowd and most of all his faith in the individual who exists in himself without need of others and who draws his creativity from his own resources. Ayn Rand’s Prometheanism doesn’t suggest the bigotry which surrounds the neo-con revolution; it has close affinities with Romantic revolt and its neo-paganism (3). Roark’s courtroom defence is in fact a long paean of self-praise:
“The creator served nothing and no one. He had lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement. … The work of the creator has eliminated one form of disease after another, in man’s body and spirit, and brought more relief from suffering than any altruist could ever conceive. … The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. … The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of men. The creator lives for his work. He needs no other men. His primary goal is within himself. The parasite lives second-hand. He needs others.”
The baker, according to Adam Smith, bakes his bread not out of philanthropy but self-interest. In living for himself and fulfilling himself as a pure individual, each will involuntarily collaborate and moreover contribute to the common good. This optimism is in turn based on the belief that interdependence is in no way a defining characteristic of the human condition, but simply part of its pathology (albeit a widespread one) which points up the true nature of man in a healthy state. Thus the only form of relations which exists between independent beings is, according to Rand, free exchange: “the rational interests of men do not clash and … there is no conflict of interests among men … who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value. The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships” (4).
Ayn Rand defends an ethic which is remarkable for its absence of any obligation towards others, only towards oneself. As if by magic, this spirits away multiple forms of interdependence, power relations, and abuses of power, and the violence and injustices which poison human existence and against which in real life the appeal to reason is ineffective.
Ayn Rand’s ideology is addressed first and foremost to the powerful. She confirms their favourable self-image and allows them to overlook what they really are: members of powerful networks striving to maintain their positions within them. But her popular appeal extends to people in less exalted positions; the models of Galt and Roark offer them an imaginary compensation for feelings of loneliness and inadequacy and provide a source of self-respect. She allows them to feel proud of what in reality makes them weak. As faith in the individual is founded on the example of those who succeed, the social capital from which the successful benefit goes unmentioned so as to increase their personal value. For those who are at the bottom of the ladder, failure is attributed to a lack of personal qualities.
One inevitable (and beneficial) form of dependence is the familial links through which each generation is attached to the preceding one. In this regard it is telling that despite the great length of her two bestsellers, Ayn Rand has no place for child characters, since the very existence of children entails relations between generations, which would be enough to ruin the model of the individual which she exalts. Ayn Rand’s radical individualism implies at heart that, as Margaret Thatcher said, society doesn’t exist.
“All ‘mixed economies,’” Ayn Rand wrote in 1963, “are in a precarious state of transition which, ultimately, has to turn to freedom or collapse into dictatorship” (5). The role of a free country such as the US is thus to make sure that things go in the right direction: that of an alliance between democracy and radical capitalism. “Any free nation had the right to invade Nazi Germany and, today, has the right to invade Soviet Russia, Cuba or any other slave pen” (6). “The invasion of an enslaved country,” Rand maintains “is morally justified only when and if the conquerors establish a free social system” (7).
(1) Allen Lane, New York, 2007, p 323.
(3) Neo-paganism preaches the cult of strength, of the leader and of race.
(4) From “Objectivist Ethics”, reproduced in The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, 1964.
(5) Ibid. “Collectivised ‘Rights”, 1963.
(6) Ibid. It’s not hard to divine what Rand’s view of the invasion of Iraq would have been.
(7) Ibid. Rand uses one of the commonest arguments employed in the 19th century by supporters of colonial expansionism.
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