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

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 worse?

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 nomination.

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 Code.

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 should,

Alan Greenspan

New York

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 career.

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 followers.

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 Kings.

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 them".

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 in.

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 benefit.

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 mine."

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Murray celebrates reaching the final
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Life and Style
tech
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Sport
Harry Kane celebrates scoring the opening goal for Spurs
footballLive: All the latest transfer news as deadline day looms
Arts and Entertainment
Master of ceremony: Jeremy Paxman
tvReview: Victory for Jeremy Paxman in this absorbing, revealing tale
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - London, £60k

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - Central London, £60,000...

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Recruitment Genius: Service Agent / QA Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an est...

Recruitment Genius: C# / XAML Developer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity for a talented...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness