by Barry Edelson


Rand Panned

None but the faithful will notice or care
about a movie version of "Atlas Shrugged"

Imagine that you had a strict upbringing, in which you were taught to sublimate your baser desires for the higher purpose of serving your god and your fellow man. You would have been made to feel ashamed for indulging your own selfishness, and castigated for behaving cruelly towards others. You would have been exhorted and intimidated into following the rules laid down for you by your elders, and been rewarded with praise and status according to your conformity to stated ideals. Any impulses to the contrary would have been condemned as anomalous and immoral, and, as you matured into an adult member of your community, you would have been expected to demonstrate increasing mastery over such unwanted tendencies.

However, in your own mind, you never quite mastered the overpowering inclination to pursue your own desires. Though you may have created a convincing mask of confidence and self-denial for others to see, and been respected within your family and social sphere as a model of acceptable attitudes and behavior, you secretly harbored persistent doubts. Not only did you question your own ability to constrain yourself within the proscribed rules, but wondered about the validity of the entire system of beliefs on which you were weaned from infancy.

Now, suppose that someone gave you a book that validated these doubts. The story was replete with examples of others who felt as you did, and who unshackled themselves from the oppressive restraints of their upbringings. The author showed you that feelings of self-regard and moral superiority were to be celebrated, not suppressed, and that the highest purpose a human being can serve was the expression of his own abilities and desires. Reading this book, and other books and articles to which you were subsequently led, became an act of liberation, and gave you license to think and act as you pleased.

This scenario, in broad outline, could describe the intellectual coming of age of many people. The main variable in this familiar narrative is the nature of the liberating texts, which differ as widely as individual tastes and predilections will allow, from the philosophers of ancient Greece to those of the Enlightenment. The awakening of moral consciousness can also run in the other direction, too, from a path devoid of serious thought onto one that leads to the discovery of the New Testament or the Koran. For a good many young people over the last half century, that trajectory has taken them to the words of Ayn Rand. In which of these many possible directions that particular awakening points is not altogether clear.

The degree to which a particular person sheds the familial swaddling clothes for garments of his own choosing has much to do with how tightly the infant wrapping was tied, and, naturally, the temperament and personality of the child so dutifully bound. It would be difficult to imagine a fold in which individual will is more completely subsumed than the Soviet Union, which erupted into existence when Rand was 12 years old and living in St. Petersburg. The Bolsheviks enforced not only their might upon the nation but attempted to inject their ideology into the brains of their subjects. The rough and tumble of capitalist America, which Rand first experienced in her twenties, could hardly have presented a more stark contrast in how to organize a society and how to live in it. From one extreme grew another, as Rand's early experience of totalitarianism spawned a philosophy utterly opposed to the fettering of individualism in any way. Her school of thought, which she called objectivism, elevates the rational self above all forms of social, governmental or religious collectivism, eschews charity, and views selfishness as the major organizing principle of human interaction.

A lack of empathy
may be integral to Rand's
philosophy, but it is
fatal to literature.

Rand's adherents like to point to a 20-year old poll that placed her most famous work, the novel "Atlas Shrugged", as the second-most influential book for Americans, after the Bible (a distant second). Indeed, one could hardly find two books that each represent an ethos more thoroughly at odds with the other. In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I was unable to finish either "Atlas Shrugged" or Rand's earlier major novel, "The Fountainhead," despite the fact that I first attempted to read them in my decidedly rebellious and contrarian teens. Even at that impressionable age, both books seemed irredeemably pompous and relentlessly silly. The stories were implausible to the point of absurdity, and presented a vision of human nature which was alien and frightening. There was nothing about the protagonists with which to empathize, which was presumably Rand's intention: the utterly self-reliant hero is not concerned about anyone else, nor does he need or want anyone else to be concerned about him. This may be integral to her philosophy, but it is fatal to literature.

With the release last week of a movie adaptation of "Atlas Shrugged" — a project as anticipated by Rand's followers as it was shunned by Hollywood studios — we are confronted with a long-simmering and largely pointless debate between small-government conservatives and egalitarian liberals. Those who would like to see the federal government of the United States shrunk to the size it was during the John Adams administration have hijacked Rand and her philosophy for their own purposes, imagining that her disdain for collectivism provides the recipe for deregulation, and that her worship of entrepreneurship is a tacit endorsement of corporate hegemony over American life. This is unfortunate, on several counts. First, free-market capitalism was not the main object of Rand's thinking, but a symbolic manifestation of her espousal of egoism as the driving force of human society. She was as dismissive of corporate welfare as she was of the entitlement variety, and would hardly recognize the kleptocracy that American capitalism has increasingly become in the 30 years since her death. Second, though her literary skills were appalling and her humanity questionable, her thinking skills were powerful, so to reduce a system of thought as wide-ranging as hers into talking points for right-leaning politicians and "greed is good" sloganeers is hardly a compliment to her life's work.

Finally, despite her obvious excesses, there are some elements of Rand's thinking that are worthy of consideration. In particular, her commitment to rationalism and disdain for blind faith are noteworthy in their departure from conventional moral argument. Those conservatives who abhorred communism primarily on the basis of its "godlessness" tend to lump her in with the totalitarians. And liberals generally see her embrace of Nietzsche and her extreme individualism as too close to fascism for comfort. In truth, she was neither here nor there, but spread her ideas across so broad a tableau as to make her work highly vulnerable to misappropriation, a fate shared by every other sprawling text that vainly attempts to encompass the whole of human experience.

Rand had only her simplistic novels to blame for the many misinterpretations of her ideas. Where her philosophy primarily goes off the tracks is in its notion that the hero must be free to create his own morality. According to the tenets of objectivism and egoism, great individuals ought not to be subject to society's conventional notions of good and evil. Charity is as undesirable as coercion. But how, exactly, could such a system operate in reality? The idea of the talented striver as a kind of superhuman leader of a vast symphony is very seductive, but what prevents all of the musicians from adopting egoism for themselves and refusing to play from the score that the great timekeeper devises? In a system without ordinary standards, in which no one is expected to care for anyone but himself, against what measure can any individual decide that he is superior to his fellows, other than his own self-regard? How could the masses of the non-great distinguish truly worthy leaders from charlatans or the merely ambitious? More important, why should anyone consent to be a follower?

Her novels give no clue as to how to resolve this contradiction, because they don't depict real human organizations in any but the most superficial ways. It may warm the cockles of her many admirers' hearts to watch as Rand's heroes, on paper and now on film, rise above the everyday rabble and stake out new and uncharted territory upon the heights of Olympus. But her mythical enterprises don't look any more like real-life workplaces than they do in the soundbites of capitalism's contemporary apologists in the media. She emphatically professed a hatred for all forms of tyranny, whether socialist, fascist or theological, but what made her think that, given enormous power and little restraint, the corporate chief would not turn into a monster as odious as any king or emperor, and that his minions would not suffer accordingly? Perhaps it is telling that Rand's philosophy emerged primarily in response to the horrors of Soviet Communism (which got a lot worse under Stalin, after she emigrated) and not on any meaningful experience of the business world. She never had a corporate career, and never ran anything, except perhaps the tiny group of acolytes who formed a kind of proto-thinktank of her own invention.

In her utter negation of man's social characteristics, she was blind to the careful balance that societies attempt to achieve between individual desire and the collective good. The most successful societies teeter in the middle ground between these two poles; the worst succumb to absolutism on one extreme or the other. But any country that attempted to exist in a purely Randian universe would inevitably descend into the very dictatorship that she detested. Excessive restraint chokes societies of their creativity, but too little restraint invites anarchy, which, as Rand herself acknowledged, leads back to tyranny. Her imaginary universe supposes that sheer force of will, guided by pure reason, is sufficient to organize humans into orderly, productive and advanced societies. Yet every actual attempt to impose an ideology on vast numbers of people has ended in tragedy on a vast scale.

When even a famous protegé, like the once-lionized but now much-derided Alan Greenspan, is forced to reconsider his faith in self-regulating markets in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial implosion, it is hardly an auspicious moment to revive Rand's iconoclastic vision. Of course, nothing will stop the faithful from celebrating that vision, even if all the evidence points in another direction.

April 19, 2011


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