Without trying very hard, every once in a while I run into someone who is a fervent Ayn Rand fan. No better way to talk about Libertarians, really, except as fans of Ayn Rand. God knows the philosophy isn’t tenable enough to be considered livable, and the only reason I balk at calling them a religion is because they’d bulk against far more humane beliefs. Calvinist Christianity had more going for it than Objectivism. I’ve never liked Ayn Rand. Perhaps hate is the wrong word for what I feel — too emotional. Despise would be better. I despise what the woman stands for, and what she made herself into.
Rand was a novelist and self-styled thinker who promoted a philosophy she titled “Objectivism.” She wrote two major novels and a whole slew of minor works of both fiction and nonfiction, but her major impact has not been literary; rather, social.
I can sum up what’s wrong with Objectivism in one sentence: Objectivism is a philosophy by, and for, the sociopathic at heart. It is not even a true philosophy, but a method of justification, from which people can draw excuses to support their actions.
“Greed is good”
What is Objectivism, exactly? It’s a philosophy that places human self-worth and achievement above all else — including, apparently, sanity. The much-quoted Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s insightful Wall Street summed her philosophy in the simplest terms possible: “Greed is good. Greed works.” Good, sure, but for whom? And who does greed work for, and against? Rand writes tracts to excuse greed for the ones who wield it, and also provides them with a convenient scapegoat.
After all, Ayn Rand did it all the time. She was the textbook student of her own philosophy. She carried on an affair for many years with a younger man while her husband slid into alcoholism. She ostracized anyone who disagreed with her, branded anyone who took exception to her personal behavior as a traitor, and so on. People who say that we should separate Ayn Rand the writer/philosopher from Ayn Rand the flawed human being do not seem to understand that Rand’s philosophy and writing were direct extensions of who she was as a person: embittered, paranoid, self-important, and insanely jealous of anyone who was awarded merit she felt they didn’t deserve.
Who was the scapegoat in Rand’s mind? The radical left, it seemed — the “parasites” who advocated socialism, the same socialism that had turned Russia into such a pesthole for so many. Eventually the definition of who constituted a “looter” — her word for anyone who practiced an altruistic way of life, whether or not they chose to recommend it to anyone else — was expanded to include anyone who wasn’t on her side in no uncertain terms, a move which belied the real origins of her philosophy and its true intentions. Whether or not she knew it, Rand had reinvented fascism and made it palatable for an American audience, given it a veneer of capitalist positivism and free-thinking Outward Bound uplift. But fascism it was, and fascism it remained. The word “looter” became the metal spike onto which she could jam any enemy, like the bills of lading in a pawnbroker’s office.
Most of the people who dig Objectivism are not people who would normally benefit from a healthy dose of self-reliance, but antisocial rich-kid types who need something sufficiently middlebrow to justify their sense of being misunderstood geniuses. (I always felt genius was a label applied from the outside, and one to be resisted to a degree. If people call you a genius, that says more about them than it does about you. If a whole bunch of people call you a genius, that says a good deal about the society you live in. If everyone calls you a genius, you’re either a genius or you’ve got a really good publicist.)
Rand’s first major exposure to the public was not her novel We the Living, a surprisingly desperate book (for her) which had many flashes of real value, and an appropriately cynical ending. It’s best read as a book written in the shadow of Stalin; outside of that, it loses a great deal of its immediacy. The book which did bring her into the public eye was her follow-up, The Fountainhead, about the “nonconformist” architect Howard Roark and his struggles against the … you know the next word, don’t you? Establishment! (Objectivism, for all its crowing about being a philosophy of the living, is anti-society, anti-humanity and downright anti-life as well.)
I disliked The Fountainhead when I was young, and if anything I dislike it even more today. The thing I hated most about the book when I plowed through it in high school was how dishonest it felt. I’d already grown wary of people trying to sell me on nonconformity, and the book seemed like the motherlode from which a great deal of that drivel had been mined. Not that I wanted to conform, mind you — just that all of the talk about nonconformity around me at the time had the air of a strawman argument. I didn’t consciously choose to stick out like a broken thumb, I just did, and the few times I tried to choose not to stick out only made things worse. The Fountainhead was like a sop to my neuroses about being “weird.” I didn’t like being that way, but I didn’t have much of a choice. Being encouraged to “embrace” it was like telling a man with a broken leg that he can walk if he just thinks about his leg really hard.
The book’s problems are twofold: it introduces one of the most oversold characters in all of fiction, and then places him in a stacked deck. The only reason Howard Roark comes away looking good from The Fountainhead is because Rand surrounds him with people who are even worse. A friend of mine who reviews bad movies as a hobby has a term for this: he calls it “The Law of the Designated Hero.” A lot of bad movies have someone who’s intended to be the hero or protagonist, but who are such jerks that we wonder why the movie doesn’t realize how ill-equipped they are for the role. Roark’s “rebellion,” infantile and pointless as it is, gets rewarded thanks to the closed-ended construction of Rand’s idiotic moral universe.
As someone who has the occasional pretense towards being a creative artist, I’ll ‘fess up right now that the last thing on earth I want is to emulate Howard Roark. The only reason Roark doesn’t wind up as an alcoholic, ulcered wreck sucking a gun in a damp basement apartment is because Rand writes fiction through and through. The idea that someone of Roark’s repulsive personality should be an artist or a successful one at that is a fiction of the basest stripe. Sure, some artists are assholes, but if we’re dealing with ideals, then why stick someone as repellent as Roark on a pedestal?
Rand also has no idea how to make us believe Roark is much of an artist — she rhapsodizes endlessly about his work, but doesn’t have a clue how to demonstrate that his work is in fact good. She talks her way around the issue and sets up a whole platoon of straw men to either praise or damn his creations depending on where they stand in her (tiny) moral universe. One of the drawbacks of Rand starving her universe of genuine moral complexity is that it makes her characters — and her universe, for that matter — flat. No one has any existence in her books except as either a mouthpiece or a manufactured opponent to her outlook. If that was the point, then it was a very ill-chosen point indeed.
Roark is Rand’s “ideal man,” all right: a self-absorbed sociopath who still has to justify his vile self to others. Hence the ten-page courtroom monologue at the end, which makes it clear that Roark — and many of Rand’s characters, who pontificate similarly — aren’t nearly as confident in themselves as we would be led to believe. Hence lines like this:
“If you want my advice, Peter, you’ve made a mistake already. By asking me. By asking anyone. Never ask people. Not about your work. Don’t you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?”
Why ask? Because that’s often the only way you do know. A person who never asks other people if they’re doing the right thing is not a paragon of moral power who draws upon only himself for the right answers. He’s an idiot who’s depriving himself of the chance to use his mind to evaluate what perspectives other people have to offer. And who knows — sometimes they may even be right, too. Just because you ask other people doesn’t mean you’re honor-bound to implement what they say.
“You don’t have to care what other people think” is the most boiled-down version of this attitude I can produce. A better way to put it would be: “You don’t have to put credence into what other people think.” Meaning that you can still hear them out, but that whether or not you invest anything in what they say is up to you. There’s nothing there that requires one becoming an Objectivist to implement. The unspoken assumption that by asking someone else for their opinion you are therefore bound to put it into action is insanely literal-minded. But Rand was never really a champion of using one’s own mind, anyway. She was championing a philosophy of applied sociopathy.
Roark never tries to figure out if he’s right — he just IS. Rand built him from the ground up to be right, and inserted him into a world that ultimately vindicates him. The most interesting thing about Roark how little genesis there is in his thinking: there’s just the Randian world-view, fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, from page one. Barring that oddity — which would be doubly nifty if Rand had been aware of it — he’s a thundering boor.
The Fountainhead was a mess, but the follow-up, Atlas Shrugged, is a two-hundred-car freeway pileup. It is quite possibly the single worst successful novel ever written, a work of Edward D. Wood-ian awfulness that doesn’t have the saving grace of being good-naturedly funny. Loathing of humanity drips from every page. The book is not suffused with the joy of life that Rand claims to be an advocate of, but sadistic, self-important gloating masquerading as noble purpose — a genuinely sick book written by a genuinely sick human being. (For the record, I also consider Naked Lunch to be the product of a sick mind, but with enough self-awareness and insight that it redeems itself.)
Atlas Shrugged takes place during an undetermined period of American history — it was written in the Fifties, but it reads like a retro-Thirties SF novel, since the most important mode of transportation in the book is the railroad. Everything appears to be on the verge of breaking down. Dagny Taggart, the female railroad magnate who serves as the book’s heroine, is struggling to keep her empire together in the face of economic collapse. She eventually catches wind of an elite group of industrialists and thinkers — Prime Movers, if you will — who have decided that they aren’t going to stick around to watch the world fall apart, and have abandoned their responsibilities to the world in favor of a secret desert hideaway. She joins them and finds they are led by John Galt, a man who’s name has become something of a popular catchword after he refused to allow his super-efficient engine to be exploited by the “undeserving.” After some sub-action-movie heroics, they emerge from their hideaway to reclaim the world which has conveniently been destroying itself for them. The end. (If you don’t feel like reading the book, you could always sit through the movie.)
Rand’s characters aren’t merely cardboard; they’re stamped out of sheet metal. None of them has a function outside of providing a mouthpiece for her ideals, whether pro (clumsily) or con (even more clumsily). This leads to some of the most atrocious dialogue in history, culminating in a massive speech by Galt that drones for dozens of pages with no end in sight. But in no other book is Rand’s contempt for the human race plainer, even when she is allegedly showing up the dominant moral screed.
As this double-jointed, double-standard morality splits you in half, so it splits mankind into two enemy camps: one is you, the other is all the rest of humanity. You are the only outcast who has no right to wish or live. You are the only servant, the rest are the masters, you are the only giver, the rest are the takers, you are the eternal debtor, the rest are the creditors never to be paid off. You must not question their right to your sacrifice, or the nature of their wishes and their needs: their right is conferred upon them by a negative, by the fact that they are ‘non-you.’
The Randian answer to this, of course, lies in the absolute opposite approach: Judeh Verreckh!
The only remotely human character in the whole book is Eddie Willers, the Everyman who somehow manages to get through the entire book relatively unscathed (he even survives the various apocalypses that claim most of the rest of the world). Rand makes him worship Dagny, who isn’t interested, and then leaves him in the desert to die — presumably because he didn’t force his will on her the way Howard Roark did with his women. His lack of “assertiveness” does him in.
At the end of the whole mess, she spits out at the reader in a postscript: “And I mean it.” Genocide, sociopathy, sexism — she means it? The only sane response is to shut the book and drop it in the trash. The only difference between Atlas Shrugged, The Turner Diaries and Mein Kampf is in their choice of scapegoat — and sometimes not even that. All of them have the same refrain: “Everything will be just fine once we get rid of those miserable bastards!”
It’s no accident that Rand has millions of anonymous (and therefore disposable) people murdered at the end of Atlas Shrugged, and had a select clutch of her uebermenschen rise from the desert sand to remake the world. The book’s heart is the fiercest shade of Aryan Blue, a fevered Armageddon dream where the unrighteous are wiped from the face of the earth by those who will themselves to be gods. Rand probably didn’t even realize it herself, but her fevered fantasy of wiping the world clean of “parasites” and then letting the Chosen Ones take over is pure Endloesung. Guilt rains down equally on the innocent and criminal in her world; the one true crime is not being one of the moneyed elect.
I’m not saying that it can’t happen. It came damned close to happening in the middle of the 20th century. The fact that it can happen, and does, makes it all the more repellent. When Rand has the masses exterminated, she forgets that every man, regardless of his station, is also part of a crowd. Contempt for “the masses” is thinly-disguised self-contempt. Seen from the right angles, anyone can be (and is) part of a mass, and no amount of running and hiding can distance you from that. Once the burning wheel starts rolling it crushes everything in its path, and consumes all who ride with it as well. Atlas Shrugged is Auschwitz with a happy ending.
…The rest of the story
This brings to mind something I once put together for an essay I never completed on fascism. The problem with any fascist philosophy is that it is not for anyone, really. It is adopted in self-defense, as a reaction or a way of offsetting potential criticism of one’s present or future actions. Fascism is a justification, and a rather shoddy one at that, since the ones you are crushing can just as easily adopt your justifications without having a leg to stand on either.
The ones who compose such excuses for themselves today never really imagine themselves under the bootheels of the people also penning it tomorrow. They always believe, mistakenly, that they can keep the horde at bay, forgetting that they are their own horde. Once you’re one of the beasts, you never leave the pack. Fascism is about everyone else being the prey, and never wanting to believe that the other guy might be thinking the exact same thing.
Fascism is also about the worship of force as the prime motive of life, rather than reason or cooperation. Hitler renamed it “will,” but force it remained. Rand claimed to abhor violence, yet advocated that the state (the state she also abhorred for having the nerve to collect taxes!) be the final repository for force. This little internal contradiction never bothered her, apparently. Presumably she was talking about a rational, Objectivist state, nothing like the ones we have now — although we’re left without a word as to how such a state could be formed or maintained. I guess she never figured it was her problem to tell us how to do that.
Internal contradictions were the stock-in-trade with Objectivism. It was impossible to avoid them, since the whole thing was not about creating a sustainable way of life or even a philosophy to defend free trade and free thought. Objectivism consists of selfishness for dubious present gains, rather than altruism for a more sustainable future gains for both yourself and others. In game theory, such a strategy would be discarded, since it would leave everyone dead fairly quickly. Another reader summed up most of the way the contradictions broke down like this:
While about on a walk, one sees a child teetering on the brink of a well, about to fall in. One such as myself would naturally seize the child to prevent her from perishing. However, according to Objectivism, one should allow the child to fall to her death, both for fear of dirtying one’s suit, and because the charity of such an act would be degrading to both involved.
Most Libertarians would probably answer this statement with spluttering outrage: Of course an Objectivist would stop the child from falling in, they just resent being forced to do so, etc., etc. The question of where the force comes from is an open one. If they’re talking about the coercion of behavior implicit in social morals — if you rob a bank, you go to jail, etc. — then there squirming on the hook ends in nothing more than a rejection of being social creatures.
Once again, Objectivism is sociopathy writ large. In place of the strawman of pure altruism, Rand erected a statue to an equally unreal (not unrealistic) pure greed. Rand’s rhetoric of personal responsibility rings quite hollow when the “responsibility” in question is not much more than a matter of satisfying one’s tastes. I’m reminded of a vulgar passage in a 1950’s novel that explained how existentialism meant “you do as you goddamn please.”
Objectivism doesn’t deserve to be called a philosophy — it’s more like est or Dianetics, a motivational system that taps into emotion, rather than reason. What Rand knew — or believed she knew — about the history of philosophy and history in general was either incredibly inaccurate or so ad hominem as to be worthless as serious discussion. Her discussion of Kant, in my opinion, constitutes character assassination. I’m a little surprised the amount of sheer meanness, the level of flat-out bullying and sadism in her non-fiction hasn’t been discussed more, but people who wonder why Rand is not taught in philosophy courses should look no further than this particular fact. This meanness squares perfectly with her habit of scapegoating everything that wasn’t exclusively about her.
There is a difference, and a profound one, between individualism and sociopathy. Individualism is about not having to depend on any one person in particular, and allowing everyone in general to help you. Sociopathy is when you depend on no one, and want no one to depend on you. If no one ever says “Thank you” in one of Rand’s books, it’s most likely because she could never speak those words herself. (I am reminded of the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” in which Kirk says to Judith Keeler that “Let me help” is just as important as “I love you” — maybe even more so. He speaks of a classic work of fiction to be produced on that theme. I am still waiting for it to be written, myself.)
Rand does not tap into self-esteem or even appeals to reason as the cornerstones for her work. She chooses instead to mine scapegoating, self-importance, arrogance, greed — many of the same things that a certain German paperhanger and his cronies tapped into with horrible ease. In the Germany of the Twenties and Thirties — rife with depression, desperate, hungry, isolated from the world — it worked. In postwar America, it seemed mostly a bizarre curiosity, and never took hold with the same horrid fervor.
Connections, more than tenuous ones, exist between Rand and the Marquis de Sade. Both wrote voluminous tracts attacking with varying degrees of success many of the largely unquestioned principles of the day. Both were fascinated by sadomasochistic behavior — Rand covertly, Sade overtly. Both harbored violent, pathological resentment against the world that rejected them. Both despised religion and denied the existence of God (not that denying God is a bad thing, but that they were consistent on this point). Both tried to make the world fit their beliefs, with predictably horrible results.
Incidentally, I have found that by and large people who despise children intensely are generally consumed with a high level of self-hatred. In the child they see all the things that make them uncomfortable: innocence, naÃ¯vetÃ©, fragility. Both Rand and Sade shared this. In other words, all the things they would rather not have in themselves. No children are ever mentioned in any of Rand’s books, and despite much vigorous (and unplanned) sex between lovers, no one ever gets pregnant. (Sade also found children repulsive and pregnancy abhorrent; he once described how a woman’s breast was not good for anything but wiping one’s backside. Rand doesn’t come quite that close.)
One common explanation of Objectivism’s incompleteness is that Rand never had the chance to develop it completely during her lifetime. I disagree. I feel that Objectivism came into quite full flower while she lived, and that its state of disarray was simply a product of its nature. In plainer language, there was nowhere for it to go. It comes as no surprise to me to see subjects like “Are Psychopaths [Sociopaths] Non-Objective Pragmatists?” in Objectivist journals. Said essay conveniently ignores the fact that sociopaths are by and large irrational, impulsive people who will use any pretext, including the semblances of logic and reason, to exploit others. Like Ayn Rand did.
Why, then, does Objectivism continue to command an audience? Probably because, like Dianetics or fundamentalist Christianity, it offers seductively easy answers to thorny social questions: poverty, morality, ethics, social organization. It reassures us that we can have our cake and eat it too, even if it gives us diabetes.