Guru of greed: The cult of selfishness
Fifty years after it was first published, Ayn Rand's most
influential book offers a vital clueto why so many Americans
vote against their economic and social interests.
By Leonard Doyle
Independent" -- -- Why is it that millions of
ordinary Americans vote for conservative policies that seem
inimical to their lives? Why are the politicians who support
healthcare reforms to give access to a doctor for the 47 million
Americans without insurance branded as closet socialists or
Why, in this upside-down world do so many blue-collar Americans
vote Republican, and family farmers support a President whose
Wall Street friends would gladly push them off the land?
Why do people shrug and say "tough", when they read that
hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their homes, after
falling victims to crooked mortgage salesmen? The most common
response is that millions of people who otherwise could never
have afforded a home are now enjoying the American Dream.
Perhaps the greatest political riddle of the US is why so many
Americans vote against their economic and social interests?
If it were otherwise, then surely John Edwards, the telegenic
Democratic candidate for President would lead the polls since he
has dedicated his campaign to lifting tens of millions out of
poverty. Instead it is Hillary Clinton, whose economic policies
might as well have been drafted by the editorial board of the
Wall Street Journal, who looks a shoo-in for the Democratic
So what's the matter with America?
The answer may be contained in the writings of the Russian
emigrée and radical libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand. Two
decades after her death, she remains the darling of
right-thinking Americans and sales of her novels, paens of
praise to unbridled capitalism, are even outselling The Da Vinci
More copies of her book Atlas Shrugged are sold now than when
she was the literary pied piper of Wall Street. In his early
thirties, no less a figure than Alan Greenspan, who married one
of her closest friends and went on to become the chairman of the
Federal Reserve fawned over her. On Saturday nights he made his
way to Rand's deliberately darkened apartment in Manhattan to
sit in rapt admiration as passages of her novels were read aloud
to her conservative salon.
"Ayn," Mr Greenspan would say according to those who were also
present, "upon reading this, one tends to feel exhilarated!"
Mr Greenspan was already making lots of money as an economics
consultant, advising the Wall Street moguls and other captains
of industry whom Ms Rand idealised in her books.
At the time Mr Greenspan embraced the Rand dogma, he favoured
removing all safety nets from the US economy and bringing back
the Gold Standard. When Atlas Shrugged was negatively reviewed
as an apology for totalitarianism in the New York Times, Mr
Greenspan wrote a letter to the paper, which in retrospect looks
like an application for the job that would eventually make him
one of the most powerful figures in the world.
To the editor:
Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice
is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and
rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who
persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they
Over the years as Mr Greenspan became the World's pre-eminent
central banker he slipped from Rand's circle of influence. And
while never quite dumping her theory of Objectivism – in fact he
has fond memories of her salon in his new book – he turned his
back on her cold-hearted worldview for the rest of his powerful
Some argue that it was Rand herself rather than her
philosophical ideas that held the public gaze. Biographies
penned by spurned lovers and collections of her letters reveal a
difficult personality, alternatively passionate and cold. A
woman who kept lists of sworn enemies. She enjoyed kinky sex
with swinging couples and enforced a cult of loyalty among her
Rand was born in 1905 in Russia and her comfortable life was
turned upside down when the Bolsheviks attacked her father's
pharmacy, declaring his business to be state property. She had
fled the Soviet Union by1926 and soon arrived in Hollywood.
There she looked though the studio gates to see the director
Cecil B. DeMille on the set filming a silent movie, King of
She talked her way onto the set, and got a job as an extra,
later becoming a junior screenwriter. There she also met and
married the writer Frank O' Connor.
For a few years she wrote screenplays as well as novels that
failed to sell. It was only in 1943 that her career took off
when word-of-mouth campaign got The Fountainhead noticed and put
her on the road to success.
Rand's most influential book, Atlas Shrugged begins in a
recession. To save the economy her hero, John Galt, calls for a
strike by intellectuals against government interference.
Factories, farms and shops close. Riots break out as food
becomes scarce. Rand herself said she "set out to show how
desperately the world needs prime movers and how viciously it
treats them" and to portray "what happens to a world without
The book was published into a welter of criticism. The New York
Times critic denounced it as "written out of hate" and called it
"a triumph of English as a second language". Both conservatives
and liberal critics disparaged it, with the right condemning its
promotion of a godless ethic and the left condemning its message
of "greed is good". Rand cried every day as bad reviews poured
But now she is back in fashion of a sort. Her theories have made
inroads into academia. Objectivism is taught at more than 30
universities, with fellowships at several leading philosophy
departments. The Ayn Rand Institute has a war chest of over $7m
to promote her ideas and more than a million high school pupils
are being given free copies of her novels to read.
Now a movie, starring Angelina Jolie in the lead role, is being
released next year.
As Forbe's magazine – aka The Capitalist's Tool – breathlessly
reported: "Sales on Amazon in the first nine months of this year
are already almost double the total for 2006." With the 50th
anniversary of its publication today, Atlas Shrugged was ranked
124th on Amazon's sales charts while The Da Vinci Code
languished at 2,587.
The book made Rand the toast of every Rotary Club in the land.
Legions of readers, including Hillary Clinton, members of the
Supreme Court and of course Mr Greenspan count Rand among their
formative influences. And the 140,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged,
which are sold every year, are a small fraction of the 6 million
books sold since the book was first published.
Rand's credo is summed up by the title of a collection of her
essays, The Virtue of Selfishness, which have circulated in an
almost samizdat fashion among enthusiasts of capitalism red in
tooth and claw.
It attracted the devotion of America's top corporate executives,
who would only speak of its impact behind closed doors. A staple
read of undergraduate business schools, the book provided
comfort to each generation of entrepreneurs by telling them that
there is no conflict between private ambition and public
One of the characters in Atlas Shrugged, summarises her
philosophy of Objectivism with the following oath: "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
Her novels continue to inspire visceral feelings of worship and
disgust among readers. Reviewing the newly published memoir of
her acolyte Greenspan, the conservative writer Andrew Ferguson
complains in The Weekly Standard that "her creepy philosophy of
Objectivism, placing the self at the centre of the moral
universe, still is embraced by tens of thousands of pimply
teenage boys in the dreamy moments between fits of social
insecurity and furious bouts of masturbation."
One way or another Rand's ode to American individualism has made
her one of the towering figures of US political thought in the
late 20th century.
By rejecting altruism and embracing selfishness she rejected the
Judaeo-Christian underpinning of the religious right. The only
moral obligation a person had was to his or her own happiness.
That meant capitalism should be given a free rein with an
unregulated market economy.
She pushed America's cult of individualism into uncharted waters
where ruthless self-interest and disdain for poorer members of
society were the guiding principles.
Her admirers partly credit her revived appeal to an absence of
ideas coming from the US left: "Today's left doesn't have
anything positive to offer to young people," says Yaron Brook,
director of the Ayn Rand Institute. "When they were socialists,
there was at least something they were fighting for, and they
believed in a right and a wrong. Today's leftist agenda is
negative and nihilistic – focused on stopping industrialisation,
capitalism and even Western civilisation. But young people want
positive values. That's why religion is so strong today, because
many view it as the only thing that promises a brighter future.
"Ayn Rand is the only voice that offers a secular absolutist
morality with a positive vision and agenda, for individuals and
for society as a whole."
The coming presidential election will reveal the extent to which
ordinary poor Americans will proudly vote themselves out of
jobs, off the land and ensure that their children can never
afford to go to university or afford health care. It happened in
the last two presidential elections, and the Ayn Rand Institute
is banking that it will happen again.
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