Ayn Rand preached selfishness is a virtue. Her ideas have caused terrible harm says Tom London.
No doubt, there have always been selfish people, who care only about themselves and who never help or care about anyone else. However, such nasty behaviour has never been encouraged or sanctioned by any major religious or secular system of morality. At least, not until, in the mid-twentieth century, Russian-born American writer and philosopher, Ayn Rand, created Objectivism – what she described as “a new code of morality.”
Contrary to existing ideas of morality and to common sense, Rand preached that selfishness is a virtue and that a person’s only moral obligation is to his own happiness. “Man exists for his own sake, the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.” Altruism, Rand declared, is evil and “the curse of the world”.
Rand’s hatred of altruism and collectivism was probably shaped by her childhood. She was born Alissa Rosenbaum in 1905 in St Petersburg in pre-revolutionary Russia. She was 12 years old when the Russian Revolution turned her world upside down and the Communists seized power.
Alissa’s father had a profitable pharmacy business. The Communists confiscated the business and justified their action by saying that it was for “the benefit of the people”. In 1926, aged 21, Alissa Rosenbaum managed to leave the Soviet Union to live in the US where she very soon changed her name to Ayn Rand. In the Soviet Union, the horror of Stalinism was to unfold.
It is easy to see why Rand hated Soviet Communism. However, her hatred extended to any type of collective organisation and any acts of redistribution, regulation or altruism. After she arrived in the USA, Rand headed for Hollywood and earned a living there until she hit success with her novel The Fountainhead. This book, and then Atlas Shrugged, made Rand a celebrity and a household name in the US. These two novels are the main vehicles Rand used to set out the contents of Objectivism. In them, characterisation and plots are subordinated to Rand’s desire to preach.
“Rand’s ideas still matter in 2019 because they have had, and continue to have, a profound influence in the West.”
The heros, Howard Roark in The Fountainhead (1943) and John Galt in Atlas Shrugged (1957) are Rand’s conception of ideal men: strong, creative, independent and, of course, selfish. Roark is an architect. When his designs for a housing development are changed without his agreement, he blows the development up with dynamite. At his trial, Roark tells the jury that his vision was “mutilated by second-handers”. He explains to the jury how – as the creator – he was within his rights to destroy the building:
“I came here to say that I do not recognise anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need. I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others. It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.” The jury duly acquits. Roark is vindicated, according to the author.
In Atlas Shrugged, the US is languishing under a government that is stifling business with regulations. The bureaucrats are “thieving” and the social workers are “simpering”. A small group of industry chiefs go on strike and hide themselves away in a hidden valley. Without these leaders, society collapses, food runs out and people riot. According to Rand, it is not the workers who create value. It is the chief executives John Galt, the leader of the strike, ends up addressing the citizens and declares, “I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another human being, or ask another human being to live for mine.”
“Her book, Atlas Shrugged, came second only to the Christian Bible when readers were asked which books had “made a difference” in their lives.”
Rand’s ideas still matter in 2019 because they have had, and continue to have, a profound influence in the West generally and particularly in the US and the UK. Tens of millions of copies of Rand’s books have been sold. In surveys conducted in the US, her book, Atlas Shrugged, came second only to the Christian Bible when readers were asked which books had “made a difference” in their lives.
Initially, through The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and later through non-fiction books, Rand persuaded some people that it was cool to be selfish. She made nasty people feel good about themselves. She gave a specious morality, a fraudulent respectability to terrible behaviour.
Rand’s ideas became an important component of neoliberal thinking. Reagan called himself “an admirer of Ayn Rand”. The New York Times referred to Rand as the Reagan administration’s “novelist laureate”.
Rand’s ideas crossed the Atlantic. Thatcher famously declared in 1987, “There’s no such thing as society”. She was echoing a phrase from a book of Rand’s, straightforwardly entitled, The Virtue of Selfishness.
“In 2019, Rand again has an avowed fan in the White House in Donald Trump.”
In 1986, Berkeley, a prestigious American university, gave the honour of delivering its commencement address to Ivan Boesky, a prominent Wall Street financier. Boesky told the students – some of America’s future leaders – “Greed is all right… Greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” This was Rand’s message.
The following year,1987, the Hollywood film, Wall Street, popularised the phrase “Greed is good”. The film-maker had intended to satirise but, instead, many took the phrase at face value. In 2019, Rand again has an avowed fan in the White House in Donald Trump.
Interestingly, Rand did not believe that mankind is inherently, naturally selfish. She accepted the evidence that hunter-gatherers must have worked together as a community to hunt and to survive. She argued that the process of civilisation meant that such “primitive” behaviour was no longer needed and should – morally – be avoided.
American author, Gore Vidal summed up Rand’s ideas, “Ayn Rand’s ‘philosophy’ is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society…. To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.”
Objectivism was concerned with more than morality. It was also concerned with economics and society. Rand preached that capitalism was the only moral way to organise a society and explained, “When I say “capitalism”, I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism – with a separation of state and economics.”
“It was Greenspan who had given the eulogy at Rand’s funeral in 1982 – standing next to a six-foot-tall floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign.”
One of Rand’s closest disciples in the cultish group that surrounded her for decades, Alan Greenspan, was at the centre of the American and world financial systems as chairman of the Federal Reserve for almost 20 years up to 2006. His following of Rand’s ideological obsession to do away with regulations and supervision and anything that impeded the “free market”, was held to be a major cause of the Global Financial Crash of 2008.
It was Greenspan who had given the eulogy at Rand’s funeral in 1982 – standing next to a six-foot-tall floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign; the giant dollar sign being a key motif in Atlas Shrugged.
Objectivism had consequences for society too. Rand lauded individualism and ruthless unfettered selfishness. According to her, success in life was all down to effort and ability and adverse circumstances were irrelevant. Empirical evidence shows that in most societies for most people this is not true. Some will, of course, succeed against the odds but most will not.
Rand was an unapologetic elitist. She taught that the rich, and particularly bosses of big companies, were heroic figures who deserved admiration. In her worldview, wealth and virtue were closely linked.
She had a battery of insults for the lazy and unambitious, including moochers, parasites, second- handers, leeches and looters. She had contempt for those who do not make it, who struggle in life. In her eyes, they deserved their plight. Even those with disabilities. Even
Rand opposed all types of what she called “collectivism”: meaning, the subjugation of an individual to the group. She regarded taxation and all redistribution of wealth as theft. In America, opponents of higher taxes on the rich will often use rhetoric taken from Rand and argue that it is immoral to “confiscate”, “loot” or “steal” their money.
It is possible to hear Rand’s contempt for the poor echoed in many politician’s speeches and newspaper front pages. The idea that the poor deserve their poverty has been an important factor in levels of inequality soaring under neoliberalism and to increasingly punitive systems of welfare.
The final years of Rand’s life were difficult. Despite inveighing against welfare for decades, she ended up accepting it for herself. She was a deeply flawed person but the continuing power of her ideas to cause terrible harm remains a real concern.