It is hard to write about Ayn Rand because she has become, for left and right alike, a joke; she is somebody not to be taken seriously, on the other hand she is someone whose views we all supposedly “know”—although it is unclear if we really know what we think we know about her. Rand is not to be ignored; her influence has been substantial, though not, as she conceived herself, as a “philosopher”. There are some people for whom the designation “philosopher” or “artist” means a lot from the standpoint of personal vanity, and I have even heard university lecturers in philosophy describe themselves as “philosophers”—as if a clutch of derivative journal articles makes you Kant or Wittgenstein.
In reality, the title “philosopher” is bestowed by history, it cannot be awarded from an organisation or—worse—assumed from personal vanity. The designation is not really an occupation or a concrete achievement in ordinary life; and perhaps only a thousand people, maybe fewer, in history deserve to be called philosophers or artists. When Hannah Arendt was called a philosopher by a television interviewer she replied that Kant was a philosopher, whereas as she had simply written a little political theory—such humility is rare today.
Human vanity knows no bounds, and a quick browse on YouTube reveals numerous self-declared philosophers and artists, each with a considerable following. Rand belongs among these people, yet what she really was—from her very beginnings in Russia—was a scriptwriter and image-maker; her first published works were about film, and when she left the Soviet Union to come to America she started to work for Hollywood—indeed, the first thing she ever wrote, aged 8 ½, was a little screenplay. What Rand is really remembered for is two vast novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, that are simply epic movies, stuffed with clichés, melodrama, and even pirates and written in simple English, as befits an immigrant, designed to appeal to anyone who is bored in a gas station and pauses to rotate a carousel filled with cheap paperbacks.
This is why, incidentally, Rand has a reputation for being much more cruel and vindictive than her ideas actually are. When people think about Rand certain clichés suggest themselves: “cruel”, “selfish”, “sadistic”, “nasty”, and so on. As far as her intellectual outlook goes—her formal thought, “Objectivism”—these commonplace assumptions about Rand bear no weight: she advocated solid Aristotelian virtue ethics, mixed in with a little Nietzsche—then again, Nietzsche’s ethos is really Aristotelian anyway. The view that Rand is somehow “nasty” and “selfish” comes, in part, from the usual lies and rhetorical smears that any right-wing ideas—explicitly elitist ideas—receive from the left, but also from the fact that if you know Rand you really know her from her novels, not her “philosophy”; and, a bit like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, Rand’s novels are really women’s romantic literature, and women’s romantic literature always features a good measure of sadism and cruelty from brutal men who, at any moment, might turn into werewolves and rip a bodice or three—and possibly worse than that.
As a result, Rand is perceived as an advocate for general viciousness and cruelty: the image, even the popular paperback image, is much stronger than reality. So when you think about Rand you think about a sadistic man who is utterly callous, cruel, and self-centred, a man who is ready to rape and beat you. In other words, you think about the kind of man women find sexually attractive, because Rand, who self-described her novels as being Romantic, in the capital “R” Heathcliffian sense, produced characters who appealed to her feminine imagination—she was romantic in both the capital “R” sense, and in the little “r” Mills and Boon sense. Now all her novels have become mixed in, particularly by her fans, with her portentous philosophy, Objectivism—a name so cultic in its aspirations that it mirrors a contemporary invention, Scientology—so that people cannot separate Rand’s low art from her ideas; at core Rand is pure pop culture and bubble gum imagination.
Rand was a little Jewish girl who wanted to spend all Saturday in the cinema, and who fondly imagined the harsh, indifferent kisses of Rhett Butler and similar screen devils. As an aside, she developed a set of ideas borrowed from elsewhere that vaguely supported her sexual fantasies, and then hammered them into a cult with the same business acumen as L. Ron Hubbard. “See, thing is, bud, this here Scientology is a quality product. You can tell because it has ‘science’ in the name. Science means quality. It means it’s true, ain’t nothing these scientific folk can’t do today. Just look at that there atom bomb.” “Well, I dunno ‘bout that, Chuck, I like to think of myself as a rational fella, that’s why I’m an Objectivist. You can tell it’s rational, it’s in the name! I am completely objective.” “Naw. Scientology is the technology for life, I tell ya…!”
Rand raises a few interesting questions about sexuality, for her fans are mostly male; and yet they are male fans of women’s romantic literature—an unusual crossover to say the least. Now Rand had a slight butch lesbian tinge to her, her stern bobbed hair and generally sharp appearance suggested a Tamara de Lempicka portrait; yet, on the whole, she seems to have been straight—essentially, she was just a rather ugly woman who had to draw attention to herself somehow, such as with severe haircuts and an outspoken worldview. She was definitely an androgyne in her intellectual aspirations; her homespun philosophy makes a great fuss about objectivity, logic, and reason—all qualities women lack, or possess in small measure. Indeed, Rand explicitly rejected instinct, intuition, and hunches—she took umbrage with Kant for this reason—and, again, these are generally taken to be feminine attributes.
Rand’s fascination with objectivity, logic, and reason was more about the qualities she wished to see in a man rather than qualities that existed in her: Objectivism is an advertisement for a partner, just as her novels cover the more earthy elements required in a man. After all, her real success was made with novels, plays, and films: all entirely irrational, illogical, and unobjective pursuits—or largely so, being primarily about the creation of feeling and sensation, even if achieved via logically consistent plots.
Similarly, Rand liked to emphasise what is today called the “non-aggression principle”, the idea that non-coercion is the foundation for human relations: our ideal is non-coerced cooperation, the state is the enemy because it is the principal source of coerced cooperation. This outlook led Rand to her more utopian statements, visions of frictionless cooperation once the state is pruned back—statements that make her, as we shall see, a closer cousin to Marx than de Maistre.
Yet these statements, from the view of the contemporary pickup artist, simply represent the typical female shit test. “I will not be, on any grounds, coerced to work with you,” says little Ayn to the handsome surfer in the beachside coffee shop. “People who coerce are the most evil people on earth,” she adds; as she does so her eyes flash a challenge. Reader, Rand was only interested in non-coercion—bangs on about it—because she really, really wanted to be coerced; her novels cry out for coercion, and her heroines get it. So much for rational philosophy, it was all generated, as is so much in life, by thousands of years of evolutionary sexual imperative.
The most simple conclusion that we can draw from Rand’s popularity in America is that most American men, particularly self-declared libertarians, are latent homosexuals, since they enjoy romantic fiction written from the female viewpoint; they want to be, as more esteemed and storied writers have suggested, “dominated by Doug”. Indeed, Rand is often remembered for her “selfishness”, although she owes this reputation to her own—strictly unobjective and irrational—trick to generate scandal and attention. When Rand says “selfishness” she means “self-interest”, and these are different things; selfishness is excessive self-interest, when your pursuit of self-interest becomes detrimental to yourself and others. Rand just called self-interest “selfishness” to generate a good book title and create controversy as “the philosopher of selfishness”—so unobjective, twisting words that way.
Yet, in her advocacy for self-interest, Rand was consistently feminine: the woman is a cat, it looks after itself and it betrays with ease—the man is a dog, or a wolf, loyal to his pack. Rand lauded the self-interested businessman as a hero for America’s democratic commercial society, yet she neglected the masculine warrior and priest; she was a strict atheist, and placed little emphasis on war. The warrior has loyalty to his band and the priest loyalty to the sacred, to something higher and more inviolable than money—yet for Rand it is all money, there is no God or tribe. For Rand, there was only money, sex, and self-interest; and this is how women think.
Rand’s greatest trick has been to convince a great many people that her books represent some masculine ideal. On the contrary, to be godless, obsessed with money and sex, and without loyalty is to be a woman, not a man. Rand’s success in America, among American men, points to the spiritual feminisation of America; it points to a society that only values commerce, not warriorship and spirituality. American men read women’s romantic fiction, in the guise of Rand, because, in their hearts, they are already women.
As with Tom Clancy, we all have a very clear image as to how the average Rand reader appears. The Clancy reader sits with his USS Los Angeles baseball cap pulled down over his head; he is hidden in his office, an office located about thirty-five miles from his suburban home—and, let me assure you, it is a spacious and comfortable home. He has told his wife that he has to stay late to finish up a project; instead, he has read fifty pages of dense technical information that describes a notional war between North Korea and America. Now, dubiously sipping on his Budweiser—just a single can and no more—he has turned on a submarine simulation game; the sky turns violet outside, the shadows fall on the family photo of his wife and two kids—and their Labrador. He gives a small shiver of pleasure at his stolen hours, his illicit activity; he imagines himself at the submarine’s con, he gives his orders in a confident voice…yet he is slightly concerned that at any moment the phone will buzz with a text from his woman.
Similarly, the Rand reader conjures a definite image: an adolescent, possibly with a Gothic affectation—a fifteen year old who likes to name-drop Nietzsche and acquired a second-hand copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra from Oxfam. Actually, he shoplifted it as a protest against this pathetic weakling charity that supports the deformed and lame—those who, in a sane world, would be put straight out of their misery. However, he struggles over Zarathustra’s dense language; and despite his close relationship to his English teacher, a man with a post-graduate degree in philosophy reduced to work as a Further Education lecturer, his mentor lacks the heart to tell the young superman that it is pronounced “Nietzscher”, not “Nietzschee”.
Our young antihero has proclaimed himself “a philosopher”, and upset his aunt when she visited last Easter when she expressed views that he deemed “illogical” and “not objective”. When the latest Superman series appears on Netflix he makes a big show on Saturday afternoon at a friend’s house about how Lex Luthor is really a misunderstood man, truly a hero held back by the resentful.
Naturally, he dresses entirely in black and, on one occasion, if American, made references to Elliot Rodger and Columbine in a portentous voice intended to be overheard; however, nobody noticed, since someone moved a table in the cafeteria at a critical moment in the speech and the loud squeak obscured the intimations of schoolyard murder. For him, Rand provides a readymade worldview that is more digestible than “the hard stuff”, Nietzsche and so on. This stage will not last and, within three or four years, our antihero will cringe to remember his younger self; indeed, as he has now just arrived at university, he is quite into social justice and has developed a few earnest views about Marx.
Yet there are other, more disturbing, Rand readers: men in their fifties, usually employed at grey government or corporate bureaucracies, who are, at heart, religious men. For them, Randism is a religion: the idea that they are self-interested and rational people fills them with religious enthusiasm. One day, so they dream, they will finally “go Galt”; cut free and proceed in a rational and logical manner towards independence. Then they glance at their plain wife, consult the small print for their 401(k), and crack the spine on their well-thumbed—though diligently and carefully preserved—copy of Atlas Shrugged.
Rand is really the female Karl Marx; she is Marx’s true antipode, a Jewish woman who rejected everything Marx the Jewish man advocated. It must be remembered that Rand spent her youth in the Soviet Union and her entire worldview really amounts to an inversion of that experience; hence, in Rand’s world, the cartoonish piggy capitalist of Soviet propaganda, with his monocle and cane, becomes heroic; although without much reversal as regards his nature—he remains hard, cruel, and sadistic; except these qualities are now “good” or “objective”. Perhaps this was a natural reaction to life in the early USSR: if the authorities lie about everything, perhaps the truth is simply the opposite of what they say—the cruel and callous capitalists in the propaganda are cruel and callous but this is a good thing, not a bad thing. Rand’s inversion mirrors Marx’s own inversion; he took Hegel and inverted his ideas, stood them on their head—so Rand inverts Marx, the proletariat are the exploiters and the capitalists are the exploited.
Hence, in her world, there are two classes, the productive heroic individuals—the Galts—and the “looters” who are subservient to the state. Life would improve if the “looters” and “parasites” were exterminated, just as the Marxist thinks that life would be better if the bourgeois parasites were exterminated: the idea that perhaps humans are not organised into two mutually opposed classes, parasite and exploiter, in any dimension does not occur in Rand. When her heroes fight for individuality they form a trade union and attempt a capital strike: Rand’s political sensibility, her doctrinaire attitude, remains decidedly Soviet; she merely decided the capitalists should be on strike, not the workers. The idea that strikes in general are plain criminal actions does not occur to her.
Rand is a right-wing thinker, but she is not very far on the right; her outlook mirrors Marx in the way she cultivated a fanatical cult, a cult that is supposedly grounded in a particular method—dialectical materialism for Marx, Objectivism for Rand. The cult worships an abstract method, supposedly objective reason for Rand, that is meant to lead to dramatic progress if followed. What Rand lost from Nietzsche was his artistic stance, his partiality for music and poetry—for Rand it is “reason” and logic that should rule, she drops Nietzsche’s Dionysianism. She had that Puritanical edge, the Soviet iron petticoat—the spirit of a Hebrew prophetess—that tends to preclude genuine aesthetic enjoyment. Nietzsche would have loathed her crass fascination with money and reason; her vast novels, equal to the Twilight saga in length, that reiterate the same arid worldview with feminine-Judaic fanaticism.
Everything about the right that is instinctual and organic is absent in Rand; and we feel she overcompensates for her feminine nature by placing emphasis on logic and reason—and yet women are usually not regarded, certainly on the right, as objective or logical; so there is a strong element in Rand that pushes against nature. As with Marx, Rand is the entrepreneurial preacher, a phenomenon common in Judaism and Protestantism, who founded her own cult—her own faith, really—as an antidote to Marxism.
The Randian individual is an atom without family, faith, or nation; he—she, really—is the final product of the Soviet system: a person stripped down of anything particular, since those ties are reactionary dreck, and left, as Rand was, with reason alone; they become nothing more than a rational individual, and to be more perfect means to move further away from their animal instincts and be even more, supposedly, objective. The Chinese, at the moment, embody this quite well: Marxism stripped out their particularity, now they are purely rational units devoted to making money—their infrastructure projects are Randian in proportion, if soulless and ugly.
Rand’s religious sensibility—religion cloaked as reason, as is tediously usual in modernity—explains why her followers often emanate from the large state and corporate bureaucracies, quite contrary to what her views would be expected to produce. As often happens, people join religions because they lack the qualities the religion extols; for example, I have seen ample bitchy old church ladies in desperate need of a Christ-like attitude and benevolence towards others, presumably, in part, why they need to be in church. In the same way, Randians tend not to embody her heroes so much as to be men who wish they could be that independent; in fact, Objectivism attracts people with a religious sensibility, since the heroic individuals, for the most part, are too busy being heroic individuals to join a quasi-religious cult devoted to heroic individualism. Hence Alan Greenspan, who once presided over the Federal Reserve, a very unRandian and unlibertarian institution, was a committed Objectivist; and this gives us a hint that Objectivists do not practice what they preach, but do enjoy the fantasy—as a schoolgirl fantasist, Rand is not for those people in love with reality.