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.

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