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Capitalism’s Leni Riefenstahl

By Max Dunbar.


Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, Jennifer Burns, Oxford University Press 2009
It’s a good general (though not universal) law that politically motivated fiction does not inspire. Looking Backward, by the American socialist Edward Bellamy, is a utopian novel set in the year 2000. Late nineteenth-century man Julian West falls asleep and wakes up to find himself in an earthly paradise. Working hours are radically reduced, people retire at forty-five, redistribution is fair and successful. ‘Humanity has burst the chrysalis,’ one character declares. ‘The heavens are before it.’

A useful device for the polemical author is to write about your own time from the viewpoint of a distant historian or alien anthropologist. Jennifer Burns relates Bellamy’s most famous metaphor: ‘Victorian society as a carriage pulled by toiling masses, on top of which decadent capitalists live a life of luxury and ease.’

The woman who would become Ayn Rand fled Communist Russia in 1926 and arrived in Hollywood barely into her twenties. An intelligent and creative film student, she knew she had no future in Stalin’s slave empire. At best she would find work as a Soviet propagandist, churning out Bellamy-style socialist realism. At worst, her independence of mind would earn swift passage to the gulag. America was the escape fantasy, and from childhood she had developed a fierce love of market capitalism. Alisa Rosenbaum’s Hollywood was a place where ‘People, for whom 24 hours is not enough time in a day, stream in a constant wave over its boulevards, smooth as marble… the sun strikes the blazing windows of enormous, snow white studios. Every night an electric glow rises over the city.’

At first California lived up to even this ideal. Soon, however, Rand grew disillusioned. Her first novel, a thriller set in her homeland, was panned for its harsh depiction of the Soviet state. ‘It is not a valuable document concerning the Russian experiment,’ wrote one reviewer; the Nation thought Rand’s book a cartoonish dystopia where ‘petty officials in Soviet Russia ride to the opera in foreign limousines while the worker goes wheatless and meatless.’

It wasn’t just leftwing fellow travellers; later, Stalin became a valuable wartime ally and Western powers ignored his ‘excesses’. (Think of the trouble Orwell had in publishing Animal Farm.) The wider political landscape was also going bad. Roosevelt was planning democratic socialist policies in the shape of his popular New Deal. America was falling from grace. Everywhere Rand saw the Communism she thought she’d escaped.

Over the years, Rand’s growing ideological convictions eclipsed her creative work. Rand’s last novel, Atlas Shrugged, is set in a nightmare collective state where Roosevelt-style policies have decimated industry. Rand’s superman-hero, the businessman and inventor John Galt, encourages all talented workers to join him in a mountain hideout where Galt runs a self-contained heaven of free trade. The idea is to withdraw all competent labour, forcing the commissars to beg Galt’s crew back to work at any price. Galt’s central speech is sixty pages long. As Burns points out, the novel is Looking Backward from the point of view of the decadent capitalists.

Although the book was a ferocious bestseller, it divided conservative critics. Many of course saw in Atlas Shrugged a vindication of the free market. Others weren’t so sure. Conservatives tend to believe (against all evidence) that natural charitable instincts and human goodwill can help the downtrodden far better than government programmes. Fellow libertarian Rose Wilder Lane related to Rand a memory of how her rural community coped with a typhoid epidemic when she was a child. ‘People ‘helped each other out’ that was all. It was just what people did, of course. So far as there was any idea in it at all, it was that when you were sick, if you ever were, the others would take care of you.’

Rand was disgusted. What Atlas Shrugged stood against, Burns writes, was not ‘the coercion involved in government programs like Social Security’ but the ‘underlying moral principles they reflected.’ Her atheism didn’t help. The mainstream conservative position was – and remains – one market under God. Faith blunted the spectacle of inequality because the elite could believe that the poor (at least the deserving poor) would too find happiness in the kingdom of heaven. Without that, Rand’s vision seemed cold and abrasive: the machine city, glittering and terrible. Was a truly free market possible or even desirable? These were troubling questions.

And yet Rand thrived among the general public. A recurring theme in Goddess of the Market is the intensity of the fan letters. ‘Your novels have had a profound influence on my life. It was like being reborn…’ ‘You gave me the answers, and more important, a moral sanction for existing.’ ‘About a month ago I noticed how much I was talking about your books to my teachers and classmates. As a result of my enthusiasm I have now lost two friends. I am beginning to realise how unimportant these people are.’

If the above sound like letters from disciples, that’s because they are; rejected by the establishment, intolerant of debate, Rand’s Objectivism became a fully-fledged cult, with an inner circle, show trails, a philosophy that went beyond politics and economics to dictate art, emotion, sexuality. A ‘star of his creative writing class’ who got into Objectivism soon degenerated into a hack propagandist, ‘churning out derivative, Rand-style Romantic stories’. Confronted by his tutor, the student imagined himself a Galtian hero, oppressed by the university’s liberal elite.

She has never been quite the thing, yet Rand lives on, a grinning ghost in the corridors of power. Sales of her books, always at high plateau, spiked during the 2008 crash. To her supporters, the bank bailouts vindicated Rand. ‘We’re heading towards socialism,’ declared Yaron Brook, head of the Ayn Rand Institute, ‘we’re heading towards more regulation. Atlas Shrugged is coming true.’

Cult devotees are famously resistant to the lessons of experience. It evidently didn’t occur to Brook that, like Soviet Communism, Rand’s doctrinaire capitalism had already been put into practice, and found wanting.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry, and reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 16th, 2010.