Last Friday, the long-delayed, nearly fabled, movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged was released, to less than rave reviews. Yet, as Roger Ebert noted, the movie got a four star rating from readers on the internet before it had been publicly released. Rand’s epic clearly has a certain power to fascinate. It’s even ensnared me: as left-leaning as I am, I can’t help having a soft spot for Atlas Shrugged, in the way that bad movie buffs think fondly of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I read it several years ago, and felt as if I had discovered a sort of master codex to the dysfunction of American politics. I’m putting my ideological cards on the table so that the reader will be able to gauge what size grain of salt to take this with, in case the title was not warning enough. If I seem overly biased against the author on ideological grounds, let me say that I think Rand was a competent writer of nonfiction. A very bad storyteller, given the odd placement of a detailed and well-written tract explaining her philosophy near the climax of a novel and unconvincingly passed off as character dialog, but the infamous Galt Speech was serviceable at clearly explaining her ideas.
The issue that brings me to the keyboard today concerns a suspicion I have had ever since reading the Galt Speech, the seed of an insight which grew more and more plausible as I thought back over the events of the novel. This blooming suspicion cast its shadow beyond the novel the more I read about Ayn Rand, her life and ideas, the much remarked-upon pseudo-cult that formed around Rand in the 1970s, and her adolescent crush on a child killer. These are often treated as “exceptional” items in Rand’s biography, unfortunate extremist phases or passing fancies. I can’t accept these excuses, though. My suspicion is that these episodes are integral to Rand’s entire worldview, in ways unrecognized by most commentators, and probably by Rand herself. The more I think about it, the more I realize that in terms of theme, the only thing separating Atlas Shrugged from The Iron Dream is irony. Ayn Rand was one of the great stifled totalitarian dictators of the 20th century.
If you’re still reading: no, I am not kidding you, and yes, I am still going to go on about this. The movie came out on April 15th, the usual, but this year symbolic, Tax Day. So today, on the real deadline for U.S. tax returns, I’d like to look at the reality behind the symbolism: the latent dictatorial spirit behind the individualist facade of Atlas Shrugged.
Before that, let’s address some of the reasons why this might seem unbelievable. First and foremost is Rand’s background. One of the most compelling parts of her biography is the story of her childhood in Russia: how the revolutionary government seized her father’s pharmacy, and how she lived for several years under Soviet rule before she eventually escaped to the United States. One can’t help but sympathize with her experiences and understand why she would turn so utterly against the ideology forced upon her, going straight to the opposite extreme. This turning is probably the most obvious argument against the idea that Rand is a crypto-totalitarian. And yet, just as abuse victims may, later in life, inflict on others the treatment they suffered, it could be that Rand picked up the wrong lessons from her time in Soviet Russia, a hatred for its ideals even as she accepted its premises. She did, after all, live there for her formative years and graduated from a Soviet university. It’s not a stretch to say that some of this may have rubbed off on her. Actually, there is an oddly Marxist bent to many of her political and economic ideas.
If it seems like I am merely digging myself a deeper hole, hear me out. Let’s think about the Protestant Reformation. Today, most people, including most Christians, will accept that Protestants and Catholics are all Christians; they have some doctrinal differences but adhere to the same basic creed. This was not an obvious conclusion in the 1500s. Adherents to the Church of Rome saw Protestants as heretics in revolt against Christ’s Viceroy on Earth. Protestants had a complementary opinion, that the Pope was the Antichrist and the Church was the Whore of Babylon. The point is that one can’t always tell what counts as a definitive point of dogma. What matters deeply to followers of rival sects may seem like a minor nitpick, trivial variances in a large body of shared beliefs, from the outside. Rand herself provides an interesting example: while outside observers might see much in common between her Objectivism and libertarianism, she would have none of it, insisting on a doctrinal split so seemingly petty that it’s surprising it did not come out of the radical left. (But pay attention to which ideologues she feels she could reach a greater understanding with than libertarians.)
So seeming ideological opposites can sometimes reconcile if they share much in common, but what if they really are utterly opposed in their aims, not just in the details? Would anyone suggest that devil worshipers are Christians? Well, consider that Satanists of the Anton LaVey, “edgy spooky radical individualist” sort, who see Satan merely as a provocative symbol of rebellion and freedom and hedonism, disdain those who literally worship the Satan of the Bible, deriding them as “Reverse Christians.” In a way, this label makes sense. Devil worshipers might not disagree with Christians about a whole lot, in terms of cosmology or mythology. They would both believe in Yahweh, Jesus, Lucifer, angels, demons, Heaven and Hell. The difference lies in the identity of the protagonists of this spiritual drama. No one could say that devil worshipers are coreligionists with Christians, but they certainly share a lot of basic theological premises.
In a similar way, we can look at the premises of Rand’s political, historical, and economic ideas. Keep close to hand the Communist Manifesto and the abridged or, for the stout of heart, the full Galt Speech as reference points. All of the following are propositions Marx and Rand agreed on:
- Reality is observable, knowable, composed of matter and energy.
- Human society hinges on the ways humans use the material world to meet their needs; i.e., the production of needed commodities, the economy.
- From this, it follows that technological gains in productivity, scientific innovations and applications, are critical to the advancement of civilization.
- This focus on productive innovation remakes the human world, creates a new and more prosperous society, and rends both the tyrannical bonds of feudalism and the veil of religious superstition.
- The leaders of this innovative revolution, capitalists, constantly look for new ways to increase productivity, searching after greater and greater profits.
- The society created by this economic activity is one defined by markets, in which money is the necessary lifeblood of any person’s economic activity, and is divided roughly into entrepreneurs and workers, and one side of this divide is critical to production but oppressed.
- Unjust power is maintained in the world by mystifying the oppressed, thus blinding them to their true interests, keeping them pliant to the interests of their exploiters, and sustaining an otherwise unsustainable, contradictory system.
It is in the last two points that the doctrinal divergence appears. Marx and Rand both agree that workers can be easily replaced; in Marxian terms, unemployment creates a “reserve army of labor” which capitalists can call up to replace any troublesome or unprofitable workers. For Marx, though, this is a burden upon the workers, who are unfairly exploited by these conditions. Despite their necessity in creating commodities, capitalists have found a way to make them disposable, even though their profits depend on the labor of others. While accepting this divide, Rand argues that the entrepreneur, as an innovator and organizer, is the critical component, the linchpin of economic activity, without whom all falls apart. It is the entrepreneurs who are oppressed by governments acting to serve the needs of the common man at their expense. Such a view, however, necessarily accepts the divide between capitalists and workers. It is the mirror image of Marxism. What Marx decries Rand sees as right and just, and Rand’s heroes are Marx’s oppressors… but the battle lines are the same.
The point of this digression is that Rand clearly absorbed much of the doctrine of the state under which she grew up and which educated her, and while many of her specific political and economic arguments were conscious refutations of Marxist ideas, this does not diminish the significance of these shared premises. Since Rand’s understanding of Marxism developed within a tyrannical regime inspired by his ideas, the parallels between Rand and Marx are illustrative of the larger point: that as she absorbed many of her ideological premises from her formative environment, so could she have absorbed its worldview of absolute ideology enforced by absolute power. While I noticed many of these parallels independently, I am indebted to other authors for much of this analysis. Since I do not have space to cover this comparison in more depth: The genesis of my thoughts on the subject came from this early review of Atlas Shrugged from the National Review; on its last page, it outlines the very basic overlap in the materialism of Rand and Marx. Additionally, this blog post by Vladamir Shlapentokh is very informative and goes into much more detail on Rand as Reverse Marxist than I can hope to here. He seems to have lived in Russia through the Soviet period far longer than Rand and is familiar with not just with the ideology, but also the practice of Marxism in Rand’s homeland.
Still, whatever abstract parallels in basic premises I have uncovered, wasn’t Rand one of the most outspoken critics of collectivism, a champion of individualism against state tyranny? She has written extensively on the subject. Let’s look at this essay as an example. (And pay close attention to her identification of a dualistic antagonism as the pattern of human history: “The history of mankind is the history of the struggle between the Active Man and the Passive, between the individual and the collective.” All it’s really missing is the word “hitherto.” The choice of phrasing may be an ironic wink, but the sentiment is sincere.)
We should first note that, regardless of her insistence to the contrary, she is not writing against totalitarianism per se, but collectivism. She identifies them as one and the same, but this is not how political scientists use the term. The essential feature of totalitarianism (according to the most trustworthy source I can think of) is the power of the authoritarian state to control every aspect of society, culture, and the personal lives of its subjects, to bring them in accordance with its official ideology. In most manifestations, there is a very personal character to this state; it focuses on a single individual, the dictator, as the hero and avatar of the ideology, creating a public cult of personality around him or her.
Since Rand was opposed to the state, it seems like it should be impossible for her to ever found a totalitarian regime; besides lacking the opportunity to do so, this would be a major impediment to an actual Objectivist dictatorship. What I am arguing, however, is not that Objectivism could ever be consistently applied to the creation of a totalitarian state, but that Rand herself was a totalitarian in spirit: that she was preoccupied with the sort of power and control a totalitarian regime maintains.
In the first case, consistency is not really an issue. Rand herself notes that brutal and exploitative regimes come to power on the promise of acting for everyone’s benefit, or the common good. Such a regime could also use freedom in the same way: freedom from exploitation by capitalists, freedom for the noble German people, freedom secured by the overthrow of thrones and altars. This last example is worth exploring, because Rand is on shaky ground when she references Napoleon. It’s worth considering the context in which Napoleon came to power: the aftermath of the French Revolution, a crusade for individual rights, equality before the law, democracy, free trade, reason; all things Rand seemed to overtly favor. If such a revolt can lead to the dictatorship of Robespierre, convinced that his bloody revolutionary terror was necessary for the preservation of republican liberty, why should we assume that anti-state individualists would be incapable of the same behavior?
In the second case, when I call Rand a totalitarian, I am obviously not suggesting that any nation has been dominated by her ideology, or even that she had any intention, much less chance, of bringing any state in line with her ideals. What I am suggesting is that she has all the hallmarks of a total dictator in her worldview. It doesn’t really matter that she claimed to stand for the rights of the individual against tyranny, anyone can say that. Her actions and the subtext of her writings have a very different set of implications. Many others before me have observed some inconsistencies, disturbing or humorous by turns, between Rand’s stated ideals and her real world behavior, most notably her infatuation with child murderer William Hickman and her bizarre cult of personality. While these are important pieces of the puzzle, and I intend to make use of them, it seems to me that no one has gone far enough in interpreting them. When anyone has commented on the implications I’m highlighting in regard to these episodes, they have chalked them up to an anomalous effect of the episode in question, or a strange perversion of her ideas, or an exception, or a personal attack on her failings as a hypocrite.
Nothing could be further from the truth. These episodes are completely consistent with Ayn Rand’s worldview, in ways until now (as far as I am aware) unexplored, and which she probably never suspected. My intention is to focus not on the well-known real life incidents which tarnish the Art Deco chrome of Objectivism, but rather on their basis in the text of Atlas Shrugged. I will reveal the hidden totalitarian message at the heart of her epic ode to individual liberty.
My first clear inkling that not all was as it seemed, or rather, what caused me to look back over vaguely suspicious elements of the narrative in a new light, was the following passage from the Galt Speech:
When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think and whom your spend your time denouncing.
It’s the part in bold that disturbed me. The most charitable way of reading such a passage is pedagogically: philosophers train people in reasoning skills which allow them to think things through and learn effectively. But I had to dismiss this immediately when I placed it in the context of the novel, because it aligned with other elements in unsettling ways. The philosopher whom Galt surely had in mind was Hugh Akston, his teacher, and I remembered the scene where Akston imparted on Galt and his friends a truth about the human condition that was less a lesson than a revelation, in tone. When Rand wrote, “how to think,” it seemed as if she must have meant “what to think.” On its own, such a connection is tenuous, but this wasn’t the only eerie resonance.
Understanding what Rand really meant by “how to think” requires consideration of the nature of John Galt’s activities. His aim was to enact a “strike of the men of the mind,” in order to prove that it is not the common worker who creates wealth and makes civilization possible, but the exceptional, talented, hard-working, creative individuals, such as scientists and entrepreneurs. Accepting this position for the sake of argument, it is clear why he might want to steal away engineers, scientists, managers and industrialists. These are all people engaged in the production of wealth, without whom the economy would crumble. My initial disquiet at Rand’s suggestion that philosophers “teach men how to think” came from a few unlikelier suspects: the philosopher himself, a composer, an actress, and a writer.
Akston’s reasons for joining the strike are curious. He claims he could not share his profession with other philosophers who were convinced of ideas to which he was diametrically opposed, specifically that rationality was impossible in a fundamentally mysterious world. Continuing as their colleague would sanction their poisonous ideas, which he believed were hollow apologia for unjust power. Akston is the template for understanding my suspicions about Rand’s true motivations. For Galt’s strike to work, each person he withdraws must be critical to the world in some way, such that without that person, society falls to pieces. The argument for Akston is that without his ideas, people will be confused, immoral, easily enslaved; he claims, and other strikers accept, that his ideas could save the world. Yet despite claiming that being a philosopher takes more courage than any number of adventurous professions, his actions don’t seem in accordance with this.
One has to wonder what value to academia Akston, a philosopher who refuses to defend his ideas, would really be. After all, Rand insists that an economy of voluntary trade based on individual estimation of value is her goal. If people don’t accept Akston’s ideas, who is he to complain? Other academics Galt collected because they couldn’t keep teaching jobs; they were fired for teaching the truth. However, isn’t it a school’s choice whom it employs? If consumer choice, to trade for things in which the consumer finds value, determines someone’s worth, what worth do teachers unable to find paying students have? And in any case, if they aren’t able to find work teaching, or if no one would listen to them, what opportunity would they have had to help the world, that going on strike prevented? It’s only when you realize that each of these characters exists to impart some of Rand’s thoughts on their professions that you see why Akston is so valuable: he is valuable, indispensable, simply because Rand values his ideas.
Take a moment to consider the authoritarian implications of Rand asserting that without Akston’s philosophy, really her philosophy, to “teach men how to think,” the world falls apart.
This is not a fluke, by any means. Let’s consider Richard Halley, a composer. It’s automatically suspicious that the world will suffer if deprived of any musician’s songs, as much as if deprived of industrial production, but on top of that, his reasons for striking are truly bizarre. To hear him tell it, he simply wasn’t appreciated enough. Or more accurately, in the right way. He spent much of his career without critical acclaim or popularity, and during these times he consoled himself that it would take people time to learn to appreciate his brilliant and novel music. When one of his performances finally garnered applause and rave reviews, he was dissatisfied because the members of the audience seemed to feel that they owed him nothing for the gift of his amazing music. He expected his audience to apologize for being so slow to appreciate him. This is a frankly amazing entitlement complex. We should wonder again how sincere Rand is in insisting that free trade is her goal, since apparently buying a ticket and giving applause is not enough tribute for the genius of Richard Halley. What exactly are people losing that is so critical in this self-important petulant child? Nothing but sweeping heroic music which Rand was convinced the world needs.
These motivations grow more and more petty by turn. Kay Ludlow, an amazingly beautiful actress, went on strike because she was type-cast as a seductive “bad girl” who always loses out to the sweet mediocre girls-next-door. Got that? She quit simply because she did not like the roles in which she was cast. Where does she get the idea that she deserves any roles but the ones directors freely choose to cast her as? What is the loss to the world of one vain, if talented, actress? How much will the world really suffer and stagger for having poorly-acted movies starring unexceptional beauties? Once again, it is another demonstration of Rand’s aesthetic ideals: Kay was spurned for her amazing beauty, her directors would not exalt her clear superiority.
The most telling example of this pattern is “the fishwife,” a writer who could not get published in the corrupt looter’s world because she was too honest. This unnamed character is suspected to be an author-insert. To sum up: Rand was fully convinced that without her ideas, her taste in music, her standards of beauty, and her writing, the world would fall apart, that their clear inherent correctness is value enough, regardless of what customers choose to indulge of their free will. Apparently, the world would be better off if everyone’s philosophy, art, and personal taste conformed with Rand’s! So much for individualism over collective tyranny.
Once you start seeing this stuff, it’s nearly impossible to not notice, like some sinister Magic Eye image repeatedly resolving to the words “Big Sister Is Snubbing You.” Look at Dr. Hendricks, who went on strike because of socialized medicine. Unlike haughty actresses and composers, or cowardly philosophers, a world without skilled doctors would be quite worse off, so it makes perfect sense for Galt to poach him. If we accept Rand’s premises that the highest motivation is personal gain fueled by loving mastery of one’s craft, we can understand his complaints about a state-dictated salary and restrictions on the conditions under which he practices medicine. These are not his only concerns, though. He stresses lack of choice in patients, that the state only considers the welfare of patients, without a thought for doctors’ “choice in the matter.” The matter, presumably, is saving lives. One would assume that when someone chooses to be a doctor, to practice the art of healing, one’s motivation is to heal. For Hendrick’s complaint to make sense, it could only be by analogy: to Hank Rearden’s choice in ore for smelting, say. Patients, that common herd of sick parasites, resolve to so much base material in the doctor’s craft. Hendricks asks whether anyone should feel safe under the care of a doctor incompetent enough to accept a state wage, or only accepting it under duress. I can think of another type of doctor who scares me: one who sees the privilege of choosing who lives and who dies as a fundamental right of the profession. What a strange preoccupation with power Rand reveals here!
At this point, all of this is merely circumstantial. Sure, she has a lot of ideals for a wide swath of human activities, and she does seem a little imperious, but where is the totalitarian platform? Having strong convictions is not exactly a smoking gun. Understanding Rand’s fundamental totalitarianism requires looking at more than these suspicious examples. We must take into account the large scale themes of Atlas Shrugged, and compare them to three critical elements for a totalitarian plan: the utopian vision by which totalitarian governments motivate their subjects and justify their rule, the supreme leader who embodies its ideals and acts as a focus for public adoration while personally dictating the acts of government, and the method of enforcing the official ideology, of organizing society around its principles with unquestioning, fanatical zeal. In short, the dream, the hero, and the cult.
The dream, the perfect vision of human society which Rand strove for, had its cradle in Galt’s Gulch. As an element of the novel, the Gulch itself is suspicious. In terms of genre, Atlas Shrugged most closely resembles the dystopia, a form which exists to show the horrible consequences of the hubris of forcing society to conform to an abstract ideal. Dystopian fiction was a response to utopian fiction, which wholeheartedly endorsed idealistic plans for remaking society. Fictional utopias have aligned with radical ideologies and have inspired or justified real-world totalitarian regimes, and so the dystopia has served as an antidote to naive utopian idealism. It is strange, then, that nestled within Rand’s dystopia of mediocre collectivism, she guides the reader through an enthusiastic utopia of individual achievement and liberty; at the very least, one might think she had her fill of utopian visions when she left the USSR.
The reader is first introduced to the Gulch through the eyes of the story’s heroine, railway magnate Dagny Taggart, who has been searching for the man who is convincing all the able and intelligent people to quit their posts and retreat from the world. The man, whom she refers to as “the destroyer,” is John Galt himself, and he’s been taking them to the mountain valley secret society that bears his name. Dagny’s every moment in the Gulch has a mystical quality, an air of contentment and relief that begins when she first opens her eyes, having been rendered unconscious in her forced entry by plane crash. The basic description of the scene is that Dagny wakes up with a stranger, a man she’s never met, looking over her. But she immediately perceives, somehow, that this is the world she’s been dreaming of all her life. We might wonder how hard she’s bumped her head except that this theme of wonder, of mystically understanding how the Gulch’s society is how people were meant to live, permeates her entire tour, for the entire month of its duration. Finally, she is free of gibbering incompetents and parasites, finally, she is with the worthwhile, exceptional people in whose company she rightly belongs. Galt’s Gulch seems to her like Heaven on Earth.
I can think of another book in which a character had this kind of experience:
Being a participant in the birth of our new society has has been tremendously exciting and rewarding for me, and our work is just beginning. New projects are being launched every day, and I want to be a part of them. We are laying the foundations here for the new social order…
[She] was full of questions about what life is like in the liberated zone, and I tried to tell her as best I could, but I am afraid that mere words are inadequate for expressing the difference between the way I felt in [there] and the way I feel here. It is more a spiritual thing than merely a difference in the political and social environments.
These quotes are from Earl Turner, protagonist of the white supremacist adventure novel The Turner Diaries. Here are some other of his thoughts on the ideal society his movement has built:
And to be able to live and work in a sane, healthy, White man’s world-that is something which is beyond valuation for me. These last few weeks have been wonderful. It is terribly depressing to think of leaving this White oasis and plunging once again into that cesspool of mongrels and Blacks and Jews and sick, twisted White liberals out there.
As we stood there talking above the swirling eddies at the end of the bridge, our bodies pressed together, the world growing dark around us, a group of young Negroes came out onto the other stump of the bridge, from the Washington side. They began horsing around in typical Negro fashion, a couple of them urinating into the river. Finally one of them spotted us, and they all began shouting and making obscene gestures. For me, at least, that accentuated the difference which I could not find words to express.
The Turner Diaries is, like Atlas Shrugged, a utopian novel nested within a dystopian novel. Unlike the Gulch, a place for the elite men and women of skill and virtue, free of vile looters and moochers and other weak parasites, Turner’s utopia, a racially purified California, is a place for the noble men and women of the white race, free of any people of color, Jewish manipulators, and their debased white sycophants. In both novels, the world is decaying because the wrong types of people are in power, and the right types of people are oppressed. In one novel, the right types of people are the exceptional, talented, intelligent, hard-working men of the mind, oppressed by the insane and evil government of incompetents and thugs. In the other, the right type of people are white people, inherently virtuous and superior, oppressed by the insane and evil government of Jews and their brainwashed white supporters and thuggish black shock troops. If you find these parallels unfair or in poor taste, I invite you to seek out a copy of The Turner Diaries and see for yourself; it’s a quick read, the hardest part is how it turns your stomach.
The meaning of the word “utopia” is “no place,” indicating its ideal, unreal quality: a place which does not exist, yet should. The fundamental flaw of a utopia is its one-size-fits-all vision for how humanity ought to work, its confidence that everything can go according to a master plan and just work out. The dystopia pours cold water on this feverish fantasy, showing the hidden and fatal flaws of such plans, and the brutal conditions that result from forcing the plan to work. We all should be suspicious of utopian dreams if we have any conception of 20th century history, but Rand especially. And yet, despite her attempts at showing the horrible implications and consequences of collectivist plans for society, she seems to be incapable of such critical insight when evaluating her own ideas. Or else, she believes her own hype fully, is completely incapable of seeing how divorced from reality her ideal world is.
Galt’s Gulch is a community of perhaps a few hundred people, all very important, talented, skilled, rich, and used to mastery and control. They seem to have, in a few short years, replicated hundreds of years of industrial development all on their own. This is based on Rand’s conception of the exceptional individual’s ability to heroically master any art he applies himself to. No skilled trade, from the preparation of cuisine, to animal husbandry, is outside their purview: a philosopher makes the best short-order cook anyone could ask for, an aeronautical engineer and airplane line magnate effortlessly masters livestock ranching, indicating that these men, far from having varied strengths and weaknesses, talents they follow and apply themselves to rather than areas in which they are not gifted – in other words, unlike real people in the real world – are omni-capable and wholly self-sufficient.
They need no one but themselves, no labor force at all was required to build their infrastructure of houses, roads, industries, and farms, or to produce their food and clothing and furnishings. A few hundred scientists, bankers, managers, engineers, stifled artists and academics, all very competitive individuals accustomed to command and mostly unaccustomed to manual labor, are capable of building this from scratch within their tiny individualist market economy. These capitalists, unlike any businessmen I have ever met in reality, do not fear competition or even losing their market and their business to rivals. They are happy to work in the enterprises of the victors, who edged them out, and these victors eagerly look forward to the arrival of industrialists even more competent than they, who will wipe out their business and put them to work as more-productive subordinates. Despite the dense collection of dominant, competitive personalities, their designated arbitrator of disputes has never been called upon to preside over any mediation: they all just get along. The creepy implications of Rand’s Manichean elitism combine here with an utterly unrealistic conception of typical human behavior and capabilities. The radical change needed to bring such a society into real existence is disturbing to contemplate, but Rand seems to fully realize that this vision of a new world requires a total sweeping away of the old. In fact, the destruction of the old world is one of her major preoccupations.
Willian Hickman, the child murderer with whom a young Ayn Rand was infatuated, was Rand’s dream of the overman, the superior human who disdains all the laws of the corrupt world. His is the godlike power of destruction and renewal: he tramples to dust the old world and makes it anew, with new principles and laws which are the product of his own genius. Consider some remarks by Rand about her killer hero. Hickman’s credo that “What is good for me is right,” she proclaims “The best and strongest expression of a real man’s psychology I have heard.” From his example, she believes that the ideal man…
…is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness — [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people… Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should.
From here, she writes in her notes the driving ethos of her first, prototypical paean to individuality, The Fountainhead, that “One puts oneself above all and crushes everything in one’s way to get the best for oneself.” This essay provides a more thorough analysis of the psychology of this kind of adoration, but suffice to say that Rand is quite smitten by the idea of violent, destructive power to change the world, to spurn the morals of common man and blaze a new self-obsessed path. It is a theme she would never let go of, which would be made manifest in her hero John Galt.
I am reminded at this point of another idealistic Russian intellectual who dreamed of radical power to reshape the world, of superior humans trampling the common dross underfoot. I mean, of course, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the fictional protagonist of Crime and Punishment who is nonetheless more real and fleshed out than any hero or villain Rand tried to sketch. Raskolnikov believed that like Mohamed or Napoleon, figures whom Rand surely would denounce, he was a potential overman, with the right to ignore man’s laws and do anything to create a new world. It took an experimental act of murder for him to learn his lesson to the contrary. I consider it a mark of Dostoevsky’s genius that in Crime and Punishment he deconstructed Nietzsche before Nietzsche, and had time on the side to deflate Rand’s second-hand rational egoist Übermenschen in the pathetic minor villain Peter Luzhin, a rich lawyer who seeks out a poor wife who will be beholden to him out of need. I have read that Rand was a fan of Dostoevsky, and I wonder how she could have misunderstood the lesson of Crime and Punishment. Of course, if she derived her ideal of radical transformative power from a sick and cowardly butcher of children, it seems that she might have been beyond education on this matter.
Without this example, the idea of Rand as a lover of destruction and violence might otherwise be another difficult claim to believe. After all, didn’t she insist that coercion is the tool of tyrants, and uphold the principle of non-initiation of force? Wasn’t her entire point in Atlas Shrugged that hers is the philosophy of life and creation, opposed to a philosophy of death and destruction? Of course, she doubtless had many beliefs about the morality of force, but this does not change the fact that, starting with Howard Roark’s righteous demolition of buildings constructed according to a perversion of his blueprints, destruction has been a valid method for Rand of enforcing her principles, and an important one.
John Galt, Rand’s overman hero, is quite frank about the necessity of destruction for his vision. He knows full well that his plan will destroy the world economy and reduce civilization to ruins. He clearly states that the day of his victory will be the day this happens, and that then the world will be ready for the men of the mind to rebuild it. By the end of the novel, he sees that the time is right for their reconquest, and traces his adopted symbol, the dollar sign, in the air to christen his archetypically bourgeois project of remaking the world in his image.
One may say that he is not destroying anything personally, that he is simply removing a support and seeing if the world can hold itself up, as its inhabitants believe. None of the strikers, after all, are “initiating force.” But these are moral fig-leaves. We can accept for the sake of argument that Galt’s passive campaign of world destruction is righteous. We cannot ignore that Galt’s creator still wrote a novel about this destruction as a necessary precondition for the creation of her ideal world. We can accept that Elis Wyatt, in destroying his oil fields, was returning them to the undeveloped state in which he found them, but we cannot ignore that his doing so created an ever-burning oil torch, ceaselessly destroying natural resources and wrecking the ecology of Colorado, tantamount to BP intentionally causing the Deepwater Horizon spill, which Rand presented as a shining beacon of freedom and defiance. We can accept, perhaps, that all those people who died in the Taggart Tunnel disaster are morally complicit in creating the conditions that allowed it to happen, but we cannot escape the fact that Ayn Rand wrote a scene in which she sends a rogue’s gallery of her ideological villains to a horrible death.
This issue of destruction is most awkward when discussing the campaign of philosopher-turned-pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld. Rand, never shy of a lengthy philosophical lecture justifying her ideas, had to summarize his explanation for why his methods, acknowledged to be controversial among the men of the mind and only grudgingly accepted by Galt, are justified, leaving the details so vague that we only get the idea that it’s acceptable to steal things bought with income tax, and that he is simply fighting on the corrupt world’s terms of force. This is hard to reconcile with Rand’s insistence elsewhere that the assumption of an evil world by default does not sanction evil actions. More puzzling still is her insistence that science subordinated to the state is corrupted to the purpose of destruction, since it’s hard to imagine how else a single philosophy student is supposed to be consistently winning against the worlds’ navies without greatly superior firepower. Nonetheless, whatever his awkward justification, Rand created a hero who waged piratical naval warfare, an act of destruction and seizure.
The overman is critical to the institution of totalitarianism: his is the personality, charismatic and unerring, around which the state revolves. So, too, does the Gulch revolve, in shocking detail, around the person of John Galt. To begin with, obviously, the place bears his name, chosen spontaneously by its inhabitants. These people look to him naturally as a leader, despite the fact that each of them is a leader in their fields. Composers dedicate symphonies to him. The public decoration of the Gulch is stamped with his presence and personality: its principle work of public art is a gold-plated sculpture of a dollar sign, supposedly erected as a joking tribute, but wholeheartedly adopted as an emblem thereafter. The dollar sign is personally symbolic of Galt in the novel: his cigarettes have a golden dollar sign on them, and it is the dollar sign he traces in the air to inaugurate his reconquest of the world. The most bizarre example of this phenomenon is the Gulch’s power plant. He built it with an engraving of his personal motto over the door, which will only open to those prepared to recite it with conviction.
John Galt is mythically heroic. His intellectual father, Hugh Akston, foresaw a great destiny for him when he was a child. Galt travels the world as a missionary prophet, gaining audience with the most important and powerful people of his age, persuading them to leave their worldly wealth behind and join him in a wilderness retreat. Such is his amazing charisma and the strength of his ideas. This persuasiveness seems passive and almost mystical: within seconds of meeting him, Dagny has already fallen in love, despite her prior attachment to a good man who is convincingly portrayed as a worthy match. Galt’s heroic aura dissolves all such bonds. He is nothing less than the semidivine guru of a small cult of personality, a totalitarian regime writ small.
In its doctrinaire control over all aspects of its subjects’ lives, a totalitarian state is a kind of secular theocracy, with the leader as prophet. So by extension, a totalitarian state is a cult of personality write large. Rand might never have founded an Objectivist state, and such a state might not look anything like North Korea or Fascist Italy, but she had her own adoring cult in the Nathaniel Branden Institute, a flock which submitted itself to her guidance in all things, and whether intentionally or not, the prototype for this cult was the society of Galt’s Gulch.
Dagny’s stay in the Gulch has the characteristic of a recruitment retreat. She is introduced to all the worthies, the top disciples of the prophet, and is repeatedly amazed by their insights, by every aspect of their lifestyle. (Her awe is honestly ridiculous in places; at one point she is shocked to hear that someone is married.) Dagny undergoes a friendly indoctrination, promised that she will rediscover the mental keys to understanding which she feels she has lost. Every inhabitant of the Gulch has apparently gone through the same confusion and agony of separation. There is even a room, in Galt’s house, where every one of them has spent their first night, tossing and turning as they tried to decide to join him and leave the world behind, with Galt standing by as the psychopomp to console them on the journey of their souls. Before leaving the room, they etch messages on the walls for the next inhabitants, assuring them that the spiritual trial, however agonizing, will pass. Those who passed this initiation insist they will not force Dagny to make any choice. Like any good cult, she is theoretically free to turn them down. But not right away: as she trespassed on their sacred ground, Galt justifies detaining her for one month as a consequence.
Like all cult gurus and dictators, Galt’s authority is arbitrary and inconsistent. He who convinced the world’s leaders in order to conquer it advises Dagny against doing the same after she leaves. He insists at times that they have no rules in the Gulch, or rather on several occasions that they have only one rule. At other times, he implies a number of rules to follow: the first, apparently, is a requirement to see things for oneself, an demand on how one thinks about the world. Later on, Galt clarifies his position, stating that there are no formal laws, but merely traditional customs all the Gulch inhabitants observe. He then goes on to forbid Dagny from saying the word “give.” Another of these customs, perhaps the second and complimentary rule to the already mentioned first, is to never assert, but to prove, to never tell, but to show. (A rule Rand herself might have benefited from observing more closely.) A singular exception to the theoretical anarchism of the Gulch is a requirement that all inhabitants swear to abide by Galt’s code of conduct for the strike. This includes rules against practicing one’s chosen profession, providing unearned sustenance, with an escape clause for the “mutual exchange” of the family structure, and against communication with the outside world.
Thus, besides regulating thought, communication, exchange, and choice of profession, Galt enforces the hallmark of the cult: isolation from the uninitiated world. This requirement is absolute. No communication is allowed, not even untraceable messages, not even to assure loved ones of one’s safety, as this would give comfort to “scabs” and those who still support the “looters.” Even the family is not exempt from this: spouses of initiates do not gain automatic entry, and must also swear Galt’s oath and live by his rules, or else their marriages and families must be discarded, their children abandoned. Cult-like in its isolationism, as a society and a locale, Galt maintains a near-dictatorial strictness in control over entry to and exit from the Gulch.
Libertarian Murray Rothbard has gone into detail on the operations of Ayn Rand’s real-life cult of personality. Based solely on personal observation and anecdote, some might doubt his account. Yet given all this, the clear evidence of Rand’s absolute utopian thinking, her self-confident assumption of the superiority of her own values, her idolization of radical charismatic power and control, her complete acceptance of the sealed society of the cult, should we really find it so unbelievable that she apparently regulated all aspects of her followers’ lives, from personal style to taste in music to romantic and friendly association to personal habits such as smoking? Should we not regard her excommunication of Nathaniel Brandon, her designated heir and lover, for the crime of being unfaithful to their adulterous affair, as a petty dissident purge? There can be no doubt that, whatever her protests to the contrary, Ayn Rand had the worldview of a dictator, of an absolutist authority, whose ideology was perfect and unquestionable and fit to force on the world.
Why am I writing this? Some might suspect personal antagonism for Ayn Rand or her message. Well, the woman died before I was born, and while everything I have read about her makes me think she must not have been a very pleasant person, there is no reason to care about the personality of someone I will never meet. As for her message, it’s true that I reject much of it. But there is some good to be found in it: her optimistic outlook on life, her insistence on personal confidence, her championing of reason over faith, all of these are admirable values one can take from Rand. And besides, even the political and economic ideas I reject, of laissez faire capitalism and the minimal state, do not hinge on her personal worldview. I would never suggest that anyone who believes in these things is a brainwashed cultist.
Still, I see some reasons for concern. Her doctrinal rejection notwithstanding, Atlas Shrugged has had a great impact on the libertarian movement. In recent times, people have bought into the simplistic idea that current events are unfolding as Rand described in the novel, that the productive creators who hold up the world are unfairly persecuted for the system’s failures, that the economy will groan and snap under the burden of supporting the least able. The body politic is now openly exhorted to “Read Ayn Rand.” It seems to many that “Atlas is shrugging.”
Given the full scope of Rand’s ideas, I find this a disconcerting trend. It’s not so much the austerity measures and the movement towards propertarian minarchy that concern me here, although I don’t support them and worry about their consequences. What I find especially frightening is that people are internalizing Rand’s view of human virtue and worth, the idolization of a technocratic, entrepreneurial elite and the disparagement of the common man. It has been a long-standing trend for working Americans to see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” and thus to hopefully support policies against their own economic interests. Now, however, it seems that many do not even care what is in their interests. Mr. Shlapentokh has another post about how Rand’s ideals are entirely opposed to the populist spirit of the Tea Party. In this, I think he misses the mark. Rand (rightly) railed against the unjust elite of business interests supported by corrupt government patronage, and this is a key part of the Tea Party’s anti-elitism. However, I don’t think that they would be against Rand’s preferred elite of job-creating productive entrepreneurs. They accept that their bosses have a right not only to set terms of employment, but to rule. That the interests of the rich are not just in the interests of everyone, but that their interests deserve to be served regardless of how it affects anyone else. We are slowly accepting the idea of plutocracy as the right and just form of government, Rand’s “aristocracy of wealth.”
Rand did not seem to have any respect for democratic institutions. We can infer this from the character of Wesley Mouch, who was Hank Rearden’s lobbyist, charged with ensuring that Congress stayed off Rearden’s back. Rand portrayed this as a dirty job, but a necessary one, no more immoral than a king retaining an assassin or a dictator a head of the secret police. After all, democratic government is simply the tool of the common parasite, swayed by demagogues to bridle the heroic entrepreneurs who uphold civilization. With the correct perspective, Rand’s perspective, the people would see that the rich deserve to rule, that it is simply right for government to conform to their economic interests. It’s not so much the policies this thinking supports, but the entire worldview, and the forms of power it supports.
While one may still be skeptical that Objectivism could be the motivating ideology of a totalitarian state, one should pay close attention to the nature of the power Rand supports: propertarian power. Each of her heroes, the saints of her pantheon, is a little absolutist dictator unto himself, with a dictator’s monomaniacal goals. Galt’s personality, as discussed, is stamped on every facet of Gulch life. Hank Rearden would wholeheartedly support this, wishing to see not just Rearden Steel or Rearden Coal, but Rearden Life. Ken Dannager is a man like no other, a coal magnate who has no friends, family, lovers, or pastimes, who exists, according to Rand, solely to manage his business. Each of these entrepreneurial heroes creates their own little dictatorship in the companies that comprise their world.
Here, then, is the true danger of Rand’s totalitarianism: it gives sanction to the worst excesses of corporate control. Individual employers vary in temperament and policy, but free of any external restraint, corporate governance has the potential to be as authoritarian and controlling, if not as ruthless, as any dictatorship, from rigid rules of conduct that serve to give an employer an excuse to fire anyone, for the pettiest transgressions of byzantine rules, to the stifling necessity of conforming to corporate culture and re-arranging one’s working life and one’s personal time to meet the needs of the company bottom line. Even the theoretical choice of which employer to work for can be subverted: by the fraudulent, feudal dependency of the company town and payment in company scrip, by the uncertainty of risking one’s livelihood to try for another job without any social safety net, and by the fact that choosing which dictator to submit oneself to is a false freedom of choice.
This is not the nature of all employment. Not all bosses are tyrants, not all companies are cultural ant farms. But it is the asymptote of corporate power without any external restraint. It is a model of living Rand’s totalitarianism gives complete sanction to: employment is a private contract, employers have absolute discretion to set the terms and conditions of participation with their property, the government should have no ability to interfere in any way at all, and this is not simply a matter of economic policy, but of moral right. Employers have the right to be dictators of their companies, to bend the whole organization of their employees absolutely to their will, and nothing should be allowed to stop them besides a prohibition on “initiation of force.”
Whatever we might think about the bounds of the right of free association and contract, or of workplace regulations, their moral or practical justification, shouldn’t we be a bit concerned about supporting an ideology so contemptuous of freedom in practice, so disdainful of rule accountable to the governed? Should we not be concerned that when we suggest paring down the government to the institutions necessary to protect property and physical safety from assault, we hand over institutions from democratic control to the rule of potential tyrants? Even if we accept that these policies are sound for practical reasons, why should we accept a philosophy that sanctions their worst possible consequences: a world subordinate to a technocratic elite of wealth, of government empowered only to enforce the contracts, prevent crime, and wage war, which has no power to regulate any other conditions, no matter how dire, in which the average person’s options in securing his or her survival are limited to the choice of tyrant to serve.
You might not agree that this is the inescapable end result of austerity measures and minimal government. You may say the risk of these excesses of unrestrained capitalism is worth some practical economic gain. But how is it reasonable to support an ideology that says that such horrible outcomes do not matter? That they are not possible so long as the ideology is strictly adhered to, and that it would not matter if they did obtain, as no matter how dire the outcome, the system is inherently just for conforming to the will of the world’s rightful rulers. That besides wealth and luxury, power to rule is a proper reward for achievement in business, and no matter how destitute or subordinate one’s lot, it is a fair consequence for possessing insufficient virtue to buy one’s way into the absolute aristocracy of wealth.