Ayn Rand’s writing is highly-influential today in USA politics - the current presidential contest features two candidates who stand precisely for and against her philosophy.
The Russian-born writer Ayn Rand (born Alisa Rosenbaum) wrote two lengthy (definitely overlong) novels, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” (1957), that were met mostly with scathing censure or just indifference by the literary establishment. I think her writing is mediocre at best. Nonetheless, they quickly became (and remain) bestsellers.
I doubt it was because of the merits of the novels. These books, especially the second one (and various essays), amount to a manifesto of a political view that promotes rational self-interest above anything else; in other words, extreme materialism. She scorned the concept of community and even depicted greedy capitalists as a persecuted group. Therefore she is often quoted by those who believe in “laissez-faire capitalism” (read “unregulated greed”).
Alan Greenspan, the influential Federal Reserve boss who engineered the dotcom bubble of the 1990s and the real estate bubble of the 2000s, was a lifelong fan.
In general, according to Rand, the only purpose of your life is your own happiness. Her “objectivism” basically rules out moral values. Whatever is good for you is also morally right. If you are an altruist, you are something akin to a genetic mistake and deserve to fail. Passages of her philosophical meditations read like footnotes to something that Nietsche (“the concept of man as a heroic being” sounds a lot like the ubermensch) or even Hitler (survival of the fittest race) could have written, minus the racist overtones. And her dogmatic tone frequently echoes the Lenin-Stalin kind of communist propaganda, but she probably didn’t know or it was common in her times to use that tone.
Wildly popular in colleges around the USA (although virtually unknown abroad), her books have raised a generation of young North Americans who are motivated only by self-fulfillment and the belief that you are the only thing that matters, and who apply this principle to their sexual lives, to their work lives and to their political lives. The “Ayn Rand ideology” (that there is no moral value other than self-fulfillment and that government should never interfere) spilled over into what i call the Wall Street dictatorship currently ruling the USA: let corporations run the country because they know better, let sweatshops in poor countrie help stockholders get filthy rich, give power to attorneys and financial investors, get rid of all regulations on corporations, give tax breaks to the wealthy at the expense of the middle class, etc. Whether that’s what she intended or not is another story (i think she did).
Foreign observers often neglect the influence of her books on what the USA became in the 1990s. Just after Greenspan had started the first of his terms, a national poll of 1991 showed that Rand’s Atlas Shrugged ranked in the USA as the second most influential book for book readers after the Bible, despite being boycotted by the political and intellectual establishment. That was pretty much the case for Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” in Germany in the 1930s. You can’t explain what happened in Germany in the 1930s without explaining why Hitler’s book became the second most popular book after the Bible, despite being boycotted by the political and intellectual establishment. Today’s USA is Ayn Rand’s nation pretty much like Germany in 1939 was Hitler’s nation. (Of course, the similarities between the two end here, if nothing else because she never ran for office).
From the connections that i made you can guess that i consider Rand’s ideology as a fusion of some of my least favorite ideologies of the 20th century. Like it or not, she is very much at the center of the political debate of 2012, even among those who never heard her name. On one hand there is an incumbent president, Barack Obama, who personifies everything that Ayn Rand stood against: a populist who started out helping disadvantaged minorities and went on to invest trillions of tax dollars in community infrastructures around the USA, and who now wants to increase taxes on capitalists to help a shrinking middle class. On the other hand, there is a challenger, Mitt Romney, who stands for precisely what Ayn Rand believed: let the rich get richer and get government out of the way (Romney’s choice for vicepresident, Paul Ryan, was, guess what, a fan of Ayn Rand in college). This confrontation has been building up over the years.
During the 1990s and in part during the 2000s the various Greenspan bubbles (or should we call them “Ayn Rand bubbles”?) created a false sense of security and therefore enough popular consensus to let extreme capitalism run the nation. After the Great Recession people are not so sure anymore. People woke up to the simple fact that the income of the middle class (adjusted to real cost of living) has been steadily declining since the 1970s while the richest 1% of the nation has been getting wildly richer (so much so that the richest person himself, Warren Buffet, has pleaded “stop cuddling the rich”).
The Great Recession was a tragedy of pure greed: Wall Street literally mortgaged an entire nation, and was on its way to mortgage the entire planet. (Main Street was an involuntary accomplice). It is becoming more apparent every month that many political decisions (including the ones that cost the lives of thousands of people in Iraq) were driven by Wall Street’s ideology of maximizing profits. Some people don’t like it, but some like it.
Obama said “You didn’t build that” to small businesses, implying that the whole of society has to work in order for a few to succeed. Romney retaliated by repeating Obama’s statement (in mocking tones) over and over again to anyone who has succeeded in her or his field, implying that the opposite is true: your own hard work and intelligence turned you into a top Stanford student, not your parents’ wealth, or into a rich startup owner, not the fact you happen to be in Silicon Valley at the right time. Romney thinks that the Great Recession was just a blip on the radar of the great endless rise of capitalism. Obama thinks that the roots of the nation’s crisis are systemic, and the seeds were planted long ago (by unbridled capitalism of the kind advocated by Ayn Rand and now Mitt Romney).
And, incidentally, even right-wing Republicans occasionally embrace the view that something is fundamentally wrong with the USA of 2012: the decline of moral values. While they think of abortion and gay marriage as examples of that decline, the underlying philosophy is actually similar to the philosophy of left-wing Democrats: there is a fundamental problem, and it has to do with moral values. The right wing and the left wing of the USA fight over which are the correct values, but they at least agree that there must be values. Ayn Rand always represented a much colder view of the world, one in which the only moral value is pure self-interest. Everything else is artificially fabricated and not “objective”. And that is the view embraced by Romney and Ryan. The moralistic and sometimes bigot right-wing of the Republican Party does not realize that, in a sense, Obama is closer to their view of the world than Romney.
Obama vs Romney is more than just an ordinary presidential election: it is becoming a referendum on Ayn Rand, a referendum on whether moral values should matter or not in an advanced capitalistic society. Do moral values create a better society around you or do they stand in the way of fulfilling your aspirations?
If you want to know more about Rand’s books, read articles by: Jesse Larner, Adam Kirsch, Harriet Rubin, and Whittaker Chambers (a 1957 review by a former Communist) and maybe this modern response by Jason Lee Steorts.
piero scaruffi is an author, cultural historian and blogger who has written extensively about a wealth of topics, ranging from cognitive science to music.