Reading through this Jon Chait review of two Ayn Rand biographies only confirms the wisdom of my choice to ignore most of Rand’s work, with the obligatory one-time slog through Atlas Shrugged well in the rear view mirror of early college experimentation.
Her appeal is obvious, if not personally attractive. She offers a passable moral justification for extreme disparities in wealth, shrouding unrelenting rapaciousness in benevolent garb. It’s not only that she helps rich people salve whatever nagging guilt remains at the plight of the destitute. She takes what had been viewed as, at best, a necessary if regrettable evil and treats it as an unmitigated good.
“What she did–through long discussions and lots of arguments into the night–was to make me think why capitalism is not only efficient and practical, but also moral,” attested [Allan] Greenspan.
But it gets better. Rand’s Objectivism also argues that charity, or redistribution of wealth even in small doses, is itself an evil that distorts the proper order of things. Thus, Rand’s work has become the ethos of the greedy – and she the high priestess of an unflinching selfishness that is almost childlike in its simplistic view of society. There is little talk of how to pay for all the things we need for an ordered society without taxes (in Atlas Shrugged, she solves these problems with a series of fantastic deus ex machina), and yet each Randian wants to reap the benefits of that same ordered society – just not pay for them. (See, ie, Jane Galt herself).
Though admittedly pop in its psychological rigor, these childhood narratives from Chait’s piece seem instructive:
Around the age of five, Alissa Rosenbaum’s [aka Ayn Rand] mother instructed her to put away some of her toys for a year. She offered up her favorite possessions, thinking of the joy that she would feel when she got them back after a long wait. When the year had passed, she asked her mother for the toys, only to be told she had given them away to an orphanage. Heller remarks that “this may have been Rand’s first encounter with injustice masquerading as what she would later acidly call ‘altruism.’ ” (The anti-government activist Grover Norquist has told a similar story from childhood, in which his father would steal bites of his ice cream cone, labelling each bite “sales tax” or “income tax.” The psychological link between a certain form of childhood deprivation and extreme libertarianism awaits serious study.)
But successful she was, and why not: her philosophy was not only useful, but also personally gratifying, to the most powerful elements in society. Not a bad way to go about making a name for yourself.
If you happen to be wealthy, she’s telling you everything you want to hear: you shouldn’t feel guilty (you alone are responsible for progress in society – in fact, the lesser-off are cruelly leaching off of you), you shouldn’t share your righteously amassed fortune (the act itself is immoral and leads to more harm than good) and you are innately superior to the hoi polloi (how else would you have acquired the wealth in the first place?).
Obviously, her praise for the remorseless capitalist is a natural fit for the GOP:
She wrote of one of the protagonists of her stories that “he does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people”; and she meant this as praise.
In her defense, and to her detriment, she applied this standard with some consistency, as she rejected Christianity for its opposite message of compassion and communal outlook. It was her stance on Christianity that led many GOP politicians to reject her despite their shared economic view. Now if she had only professed her love for Jesus while contradicting his most basic teachings, she could have had a brilliant career.
Despite this hindrance, there was a cult-like quality to the following she did amass. But, again, this should not surprise. The story of the individual as hero, whose objective superiority is conclusively proven by his/her wealth, had a romantic flare that captivated her audience. There is an inherent human craving to be part of an “in” group of the saved, staring out at the “out” group of the damned. Objectivism served this purpose by establishing a certain demarcation that was easily attainable for (or already attained by) a certain segment of society.
And that’s when it got fucking bizarre:
Rand’s most important acolyte was Nathan Blumenthal, who first met her as a student infatuated with The Fountainhead. Blumenthal was born in Canada in 1930. In 1949 he wrote to Rand, and began to visit her extensively, and fell under her spell. He eventually changed his name to Nathaniel Branden, signifying in the ancient manner of all converts that he had repudiated his old self and was reborn in the image of Rand, from whom he adapted his new surname. She designated Branden as her intellectual heir.
She allowed him to run the Nathaniel Branden Institute, a small society dedicated to promoting Objectivism through lectures, therapy sessions, and social activities. The courses, he later wrote, began with the premises that “Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived” and “Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.” Rand also presided over a more select circle of followers in meetings every Saturday night, invitations to which were highly coveted among the Objectivist faithful. These meetings themselves were frequently ruthless cult-like exercises, with Rand singling out members one at a time for various personality failings, subjecting them to therapy by herself or Branden, or expelling them from the charmed circle altogether.
So strong was the organization’s hold on its members that even those completely excommunicated often maintained their faith. In 1967, for example, the journalist Edith Efron was, in Heller’s account, “tried in absentia and purged, for gossiping, or lying, or refusing to lie, or flirting; surviving witnesses couldn’t agree on exactly what she did.” Upon her expulsion, Efron wrote to Rand that “I fully and profoundly agree with the moral judgment you have made of me, and with the action you have taken to end social relations.” One of the Institute’s therapists counseled Efron’s eighteen-year-old son, also an Objectivist, to cut all ties with his mother, and made him feel unwelcome in the group when he refused to do so. (Efron’s brother, another Objectivist, did temporarily disown her.)
Sex and romance loomed unusually large in Rand’s worldview. Objectivism taught that intellectual parity is the sole legitimate basis for romantic or sexual attraction. Coincidentally enough, this doctrine cleared the way for Rand–a woman possessed of looks that could be charitably described as unusual, along with abysmal personal hygiene and grooming habits–to seduce young men in her orbit. Rand not only persuaded Branden, who was twenty-five years her junior, to undertake a long-term sexual relationship with her, she also persuaded both her husband and Branden’s wife to consent to this arrangement. (They had no rational basis on which to object, she argued.) But she prudently instructed them to keep the affair secret from the other members of the Objectivist inner circle.
At some point, inevitably, the arrangement began to go very badly. Branden’s wife began to break down–Rand diagnosed her with “emotionalism,” never imagining that her sexual adventures might have contributed to the young woman’s distraught state. Branden himself found the affair ever more burdensome and grew emotionally and sexually withdrawn from Rand. At one point Branden suggested to Rand that a second affair with another woman closer to his age might revive his lust. Alas, Rand–whose intellectual adjudications once again eerily tracked her self-interest–determined that doing so would “destroy his mind.” He would have to remain with her. Eventually Branden confessed to Rand that he could no longer muster any sexual attraction for her, and later that he actually had undertaken an affair with another woman despite Rand’s denying him permission. After raging at Branden, Rand excommunicated him fully. The two agreed not to divulge their affair. Branden told his followers only that he had “betrayed the principles of Objectivism” in an “unforgiveable” manner and renounced his role within the organization.
Rand’s inner circle turned quickly and viciously on their former superior. Alan Greenspan, a cherished Rand confidant, signed a letter eschewing any future contact with Branden or his wife. Objectivist students were forced to sign loyalty oaths, which included the promise never to contact Branden, or to buy his forthcoming book or any future books that he might write. Rand’s loyalists expelled those who refused these orders, and also expelled anyone who complained about the tactics used against dissidents. Some of the expelled students, desperate to retain their lifeline to their guru, used pseudonyms to re-enroll in the courses or re-subscribe to her newsletter. But many just drifted away, and over time the Rand cult dwindled to a hardened few.
What a fitting theorist for the leading (and even dimmer) lights of the GOP to turn to: a psychologically damaged individual presiding over a swirling gaggle of self-serving corruption, self-destructive greed, faux salvation, self-delusion, sexual deviancy, repressed sexuality, supply side worship, defense of the wealthy and all under a rigid hierarchy.