It's Scary -- Ayn Rand's Nutty Ideas Are Being Taken Seriously, Even in Canada
Ayn Rand was a kind of running joke when I was a kid in the 1950s. I knew about her thanks to the 1957 publication of Atlas Shrugged and its instant rise on the best-seller list. That in turn drew attention to her philosophy of Objectivism, which promoted selfishness as a virtue and damned altruism as a vice -- a self-evident joke.
Rand also got attention because of her anti-Soviet views. She and her prosperous Russian family had managed to get out of the U.S.S.R. in 1926, and ever after she seemed to have taken the Russian Revolution awfully personally. Nothing the Soviets did could possibly be any good; when they launched Sputnik, the first earth satellite, Rand insisted it had to be a hoax -- and of course the joke was on her.
One or two of my friends loved Atlas Shrugged, which I tried and failed to get into. So for me Rand and Objectivism were just part of the right-wing background noise of the era, along with the John Birch Society and William F. Buckley's National Review. All were mildly scandalous because of their extreme views. But they were trivial compared to the segregationists and mainstream red-baiters who ran the U.S. in those days.
Still, Rand refused to go away. She popped up on TV, she published new books, and her followers published new books about her. Until her death in 1982 she was a presence; Objectivism -- and Objectivists -- survived her, and clearly crossed into Canada. Alberta's Wildrose Party leader leader Danielle Smith and Vancouver's lululemon founder Chip Wilson are among high profile Canadians who pay homage to Rand's teachings today.
The greed beat goes on
Gary Weiss's new book argues that Objectivism has not just survived, but flourished. Its followers have infiltrated the Tea Party movement, which in turn is a force in the U.S. Congress and the Republican Party. Worse yet, he claims, Objectivism long had an agent in place on the commanding heights of the U.S. economy: Alan Greenspan, for decades the head of the Federal Reserve and a dedicated disciple of Ayn Rand for 60 years.
Weiss makes his case with some plausibility. A veteran business journalist, covering what he calls "the greed beat," he knows what's been going on in banking and finance. He writes personally and fluently, describing his efforts to learn not just about Rand but also about her "nation" -- the legions of teenagers, activists, bloggers, bankers, and ordinary folks who accept part or all of her philosophy even when it seems against their own interests. He even describes the enjoyment he gained from re-reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
The Ayn Rand Nation that Weiss encounters comes across as a pretty thoughtful and likeable crowd, with diverse views. For many of them, teenage exposure to her novels was a life-changing experience. Some went on to study her nonfiction articles and books. Most recognize some of the contradictions in Objectivism, though Rand insisted such contradictions are impossible.
"Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction," he quotes her, "check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong." Weiss then suggests her own incorrect premise: Objectivism is free of contradictions.
Cult or Soviet parody?
Some of his sources go back to the beginnings of Objectivism, and their recollections portray the movement as a cult -- or even as a kind of parody of Soviet communism. Its early members agreed with her in all things, or were expelled and shunned. (Nathaniel Branden, the number-two Objectivist after Rand herself, was expelled after he stopped sleeping with her.)
Like 1920s communists despising mere socialists, Objectivists rejected libertarians and other right-wingers for years. The movement suffered a schism in the late 1980s, something like the split between Stalinists and Trotskyites, over whether to start talking with libertarians. Today the Ayn Rand Instituteand the Atlas Society continue to attack one other. But they find libertarians are now acceptable "fellow travelers."
Weiss does a good job of letting his sources speak for themselves, though he clearly disagrees with them. He portrays a genuine culture, full of people who have found some contentment and purpose in Objectivism. That again echoes the culture of most extremist parties and other fringe groups.
But he also cautions us that this is not just a fringe group. Objectivists have a lot of money -- some of which they've earned in business, and much of which goes to support the movement. The Ayn Rand Institute, for example, holds a yearly essay contest for college and high school students, with $100,000 in prize money.
A best-seller for 55 years
They also have the ongoing impact of Rand's book sales. The Ayn Rand Institute late last year reported that total English-language sales of her books in 2010 were 872,770. In the first half of 2011, Atlas Shrugged alone sold 292,000 copies (including ebooks). Fifty-five years after its first appearance,Atlas Shrugged currently ranks #479 on Amazon.ca. It ranks #2 in "United States" and "Classics," and #40 in "Science Fiction and Fantasy." In addition, ARI distributed almost 272,000 copies of Rand's book free to classrooms.
By comparison, Weiss's book ranks #240,751 on Amazon.ca.
Weiss spends a sizable part of the book dealing with Alan Greenspan's career, first as a young economist drawn to Rand in the early 1950s, and then as an increasingly powerful figure in government that climaxed in his years as the head of the Federal Reserve -- where, Weiss says, Greenspan effectively discouraged any efforts to regulate an increasingly wild banking industry. He argues that Greenspan always clung to his Randian views (despite the contradiction of serving in government), and that those views helped to precipitate the crash of 2008.
Greenspan certainly emerges as a slippery apparatchik in Weiss's portrait, though much of the evidence is circumstantial. But Weiss shows a lot of very clear connections between Objectivism and the rise of the Tea Party, both at the grassroots level and in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Rand's ideas have effectively taken over the Republican Party, and we can see them in any number of budget cuts and public-service layoffs at the state level.
Rand's Canadian branch plant
The Objectivists have their eye on us as well. In a publication of the Atlas Society, Bradley Doucet published a long analysis of Stephen Harper as a "radical for free-market capitalism" who has drifted deplorably into the mainstream:
"Even if Prime Minister Harper still believed what he used to believe, he did not campaign on a radical free-market platform, and most voters would not stand for it if he suddenly tried to slash the size and scope of government... But this is not reason to despair. We need to remember that in the grand scheme of things, these are early days."
Conservative cabinet member Rona Ambrose has reportedly expressed support for Objectivism, and Rob Anders is said to be a former Objectivist. Wildrose's Danielle Smith has praised Ayn Rand's "celebration of entrepreneurship."
And Vancouver's own lululemon athletica has put "Who is John Galt?" on its shopping bags. Why? The yoga wear maker's website explains that company founder "Chip Wilson first read this book when he was 18 years old working away from home. 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 (it is not coincidental that this is lululemon’s company vision)."
The official voice of the stretch pants empire goes on to exhort: "We are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make and how we spend our days through the choices we make... Life can be hard, challenging and unfair. What we can control, however, is our reaction. We can choose to rise up and be great..."
Why do they even bother?
Gary Weiss makes a strong case that Ayn Rand Nation is real, large, and growing despite the many contradictions its members tolerate: Like Atlas himself, her religious, emotional Tea Party fans shrug off her rigid atheism and rationalism.
But Weiss fails to spot the contradiction that I'm still struggling with when I consider Ayn Rand and her radical capitalism: Why do her Objectivists even bother with essay contests and educating a new generation? It makes them look like altruists, trying to do the rest of us a big favour by converting us to their creed. What's in it for them if we all become selfish Objectivists too?
After all, some very John Galtian people like the billionaire Koch brothers have made fortunes under the current regime, however oppressive they may consider it. The present American Senate and Congress are made up mostly of multimillionaires, and no bankers have suffered for the misdeeds that led to the crash of 2008. How would their lives be improved under a no-tax, no-government Objectivist state of affairs?
After all, instead of letting ordinary taxpayers foot the bill for an army, the rich would have to pay for their own private mercenaries. The mercenaries would be as reliable as the Praetorian Guard, which routinely murdered Roman emperors who didn't pay them enough. The billionaires would have to battle one another like so many Somali clans, just to survive.
Meanwhile we ordinary folk, uneducated, ill-housed, and diseased, would make unproductive employees for the brilliantly imaginative Randian capitalists seeking ever greater profits from the creation and sale of their new inventions. We'd be too poor to be customers for those inventions.
Ruling a wasteland
Future John Galts would have to sleep in castles, behind a wall of guards protecting them from us. A philosophy that detests the "gun" of government coercion would survive only by imposing such coercion on everyone else.
The masters of a Randian society would rule a wasteland of clear cuts, poisoned streams, and empty seas, except for those patches they personally owned and protected. To maintain themselves would be vastly more expensive, in wealth, time and energy than it is today: their own farms, their own roads, their own firefighters and teachers and engineers.
Marx made no predictions about the shape of a communist society. Similarly, Ayn Rand and her followers really don't (or can't) imagine what their own utopia would be like.
That in itself is the final contradiction of Objectivism: A philosophy of radical capitalism, without a business plan. But it's no longer a joke.