Ayn Rand’s appeal (see part one) is not merely that she supplies a patina of ideological justification for exploitation (also known as bullshit). That’s not the reason for her mysterious endurance. It is because she satisfies a deep psychological need of successful people who want to think of themselves as misunderstood outsiders. Her great conceit is to link the stubborn individualist nobly struggling against mass timidity and ignorance, with capitalism. But as Marx saw, and is becoming more and more apparent, there is no link. Capitalism is not about individualism. It’s about conformity.
In Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, Rand writes of “the exceptional men, the innovators, the intellectual giants” “It is members of this exceptional minority,” she claims, “who lift the whole of a free society to the level of their own achievements, while rising further and ever further.”
Randian heroes are geniuses whose creations are at first not understood by the ignorant masses, and who suffer hardship but ultimately emerge victorious and vindicated.
Howard Roark, the architect hero of the novel The Fountainhead, declares: “The great creators – the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors – stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced.”
Roark, thought to be based on the maverick architect Frank Lloyd Wright, believes in pure art and despises convention. He refuses to water down his creative impulses to satisfy approving committees and eventually blows up a building he designed, but that was compromised in its construction by other architects.
This is Gary Cooper as Howard Roark in the 1949 film of The Fountainhead:
At the same time, Rand felt she had discovered a “logical foundation” for capitalism. This foundation was all about individualism and the struggle against what she decried as “the herd instinct”. She penned a Manifesto of Individualism as a refutation of Marxism.
But the “logical foundation” was profoundly illogical and built on fantasy. Great creators ahead of their time will be shunned not only by the general public, but by business as well. Especially by business. Because their denounced inventions cannot be sold. Ayn Rand’s “innovators” make terrible capitalists.
A cursory look round the built environment in modern capitalist countries demonstrates that individual creative visions have not won out. Buildings are ugly and crassly utilitarian, frequently designed by computer. Rand’s Howard Roark would not prosper today, yet capitalism has undeniably triumphed over “collectivism”.
Capitalism, the accumulation of profit, is nothing to do with individualism, and not giving a fig what anyone else thinks does not make you a capitalist. As Marx said in The Communist Manifesto: “In bourgeois society, capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.”
Capitalism, as Marx understood, is about perceiving and manipulating the needs and desires of consumers in order to get an immediate financial return, not nobly standing alone against the caprices of public opinion. “The entrepreneur,” says Marx, “accedes to the most depraved fancies of his neighbour, plays the role of pander between him and his needs, awakens unhealthy appetites in him and watches for every weakness in order, later, to claim the remuneration for this labour of love.”
The key word here is “pander”. The herd instinct is alive and well and living in advertising agencies the world over. The contemporary Marxist thinker Mark Fisher says the most powerful desires are precisely cravings for the strange and the unexpected. But these are needs that, whatever Rand’s belief in the lonely outsider, cannot be satisfied by a market economy. “These can only be supplied by artists and media professionals who are prepared give people something different from that which already satisfies them;” says Fisher, “by those, that is to say, prepared to take a certain kind of risk.”
And risk is something that, despite the propaganda, capitalism does not nurture. What Fisher has noticed is that letting capitalism rip, Ayn Rand’s deepest desire, does not lead to innovation, but conservatism and stagnation. We live in a society dominated by fear and cynicism, he argues. “The emotions do not inspire bold thinking or entrepreneurial leaps, they breed conformity and the cult of the minimal variation, the turning out of products which very closely resemble those that are already successful.”
Of course it is not clear exactly what kind of society does enable innovation to happen, to encourage a genuine creativity which may at first baffle or outrage. But it is obvious that capitalism does not do this. “Since it is now clear that a certain amount of stability is necessary for cultural vibrancy,” writes Fisher, “the question to be asked is: how can this stability be provided, and by what agencies?”
In a sense, the Randian titans at the crest of the economy are creative. “Asset-backed” securities that sell shares, not of parts of flesh and blood companies, but of the interest payments people make on debt, are creative. Credit default swaps, traded promises to pay losses in the event of loan defaults that people know now cannot be met, are creative. Private equity “leveraged” buy-outs of companies that load firms with debt and force mass redundancies, are creative. But they are also immensely destructive. Innovations like Alan Turing’s work to create the first computer (done in the public sector, it should be said) have proved useful to billions of people. Financial innovations, the dominant innovations of the last thirty years, have benefited their architects and harvested nightmares for everyone else.
The irony of the renewed popularity of Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, is that what has transpired in the last five years, is the exact opposite of the scenario it sketches.
“The absurdity of this reaction lies in the fact that it totally misreads the situation:” writes the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek. “most of the bail-out money to is going to precisely those Randian deregulated ‘titans’ who failed in their ‘creative’ schemes and thereby brought about the downward spiral. It is not the great creative geniuses who are now helping out lazy ordinary people, it is rather the ordinary taxpayers who are helping out the failed ‘creative geniuses.’”
But what accounts for the absurdity, for Ayn Rand’s baffling appeal in spite of the fact that history has proved her spectacularly wrong about everything? It is, I submit, that the alternative is too painful to face. That if you don’t believe in Ayn Rand’s reassuring illusions, you will have to accept the reality of the world as it is. That you aren’t a genius and you are being continually exploited. And Karl Marx was, for want of a better word, right.
The sane response to the threat of Atlas shrugging, which is presented regularly as corporations or hedge funds threaten to relocate if they are taxed properly, is: “Shrug away, preferably on another planet because this one has had enough of you”.