“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”- Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
Hidden in the Business section of the September 15th issue of the New York Times is an article, “The Literature of Capitalism,” about a book, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
Harriet Rubin’s angle seems to be that Atlas Shrugged, approaching its 50th anniversary, continues to be one of the most influential works of literature in America, particularly among moguls, CEOs, and tycoons. In the post-Enron era, CEOs look to Rand’s magnum opus for confirmation of their oppressed status. A USA Today article from a few years ago on the resurgent interest in Atlas Shrugged among CEOs and execs included the following:
“Business is an available scapegoat,” says Frank Bond, founder of Holiday Health Spas, now Bally’s, and a developer and manager of real estate, an industry that he says is overtaxed and “regulated to death.”
“If you want to attack a group of people and still be politically correct, executives are about your last available target, says Bond, who has read the book twice.”
‘Mogul Lit’ must be a new subgenre. It would include such narrative stunners as Who Moved My Cheese?, What Color is my Parachute? (Interrogative titles are good), and the Suze Orman oeuvre. Comparatively, Ayn Rand is a master storyteller, but compared to a storyteller?
…not so much.
Look at what Hank says to Dagny after they sleep together for the first time:
“What I feel for you is contempt. But it’s nothing, compared to the contempt I feel for myself. I don’t love you. I’ve never loved anyone. I wanted you from the first moment I saw you. I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose. I spent two years damning myself, because I thought you were above a desire of this kind…”
Actually, this may be exactly how yuppie businessmen talk to their paramours. The article reveals, with testimony upon testimony- including from one-time disciple Alan Greenspan, that the successful businessmen of America draw inspiration from her worldview. John A. Allison, chief executive of one of the largest banks in the United States reveals,
“I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s that ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has had a significant effect on their business decisions, even if they don’t agree with all of Ayn Rand’s ideas.”
Summarizing the books enduring appeal for the ambitious, he adds,
“It offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete.”
What do these “complete” principles look like?
“When I die, I hope to go to heaven – whatever the hell that is – and I want to be able to afford the price of admission”
“Virtue is the price of admission.”
“That’s what I mean, James. So I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of them all – that I was a man who made money.” (94) – Francisco and James Taggart.
In the same USA Today article, Nicolas Boillot, president of ad agency Hart-Boillot dissents, “Perfect capitalism is as attractive and impossible as perfect communism. The greedy and lazy will ruin either system for the rest.” And Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, CEO of the Leadership Institute at Yale University, said executives who take refuge in the capitalist utopia of Atlas Shrugged are “reading themselves into a trance of defensive self-delusion.”
Atlas Shrugged and its slender older sister, The Fountainhead are two of the most influential, most widely read books in America, even though they and the theory of Objectivism that informs them, are critically reviled and professionally repudiated by both writers and philosophers. Whenever I see someone with either one of these books, I want to smack it out of their hands. Atlas Shrugged is Objectivism’s Battlefield Earth; both are read with astonishing allegorical generosity and fervent religious literalism. Both are sloppy, adolescent genre writing elevated among its proselytizing devotees, but while Scientology appeals to celebrities, Objectivism has its fascist nerds turned CEOs.
“Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other.”
What puzzles me is the outsider’s tone adopted by those arguably in control of society. This pose has been struck by the Neo-Con and Libertarian wings of the Right since the Reagan Revolution to great success until now. And Objectivism’s callous attitude towards the persons upon whose backs the great build their pyramids is contiguous with their politics. More likely though, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Libertarian/Neo-Con/Evangelical political conglomerate under George W. Bush, callow, rich people are in search of a new demagoguery. Ayn Rand may be in for a popular resurgence as an intellectual guiding light for the re-organizing Right.