SUMMARY: On this episode of UNFTR we unfuck the theory of “objectivism,” a movement inspired by novelist Ayn Rand in the 1950s and talk about how it still influences our politics today. We’ll uncover how this little Russian chain smoking gnome garnered a massive American following from her crappy novels and inspired generations of politicians who see themselves as the embodiment of John Galt, the protagonist of her most famous novel Atlas Shrugged. Who IS John Galt? Answer: Who gives a shit?
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The two most surprising things about Ayn Rand’s death of heart failure in 1982 is, one, that she had a heart and, two, that we’re still fucking talking about her. In the event you’re not familiar with Ayn Rand - and bless your heart if you’re not - she was a mid-Twentieth Century novelist most famous for writing the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
The protagonists of her novels were fiercely independent, self-righteous assholes whose perseverance and ingenuity rose above feckless bureaucrats and supposedly demonstrated the strength of American character. In her prime, this tiny little chain smoking gnome had more than her allotted 15 minutes of fame by inspiring a generation of young people yearning to break the establishment bonds.
A bunch of mediocre white dudes would punch above their weight for decades with tattered copies of Atlas Shrugged sticking out of their back pockets decrying the establishment and following Rand as a cult-like head of a movement she termed “objectivism”. Instead of being relegated to the dustbin of history, Ayn Rand and her merry band of loser sycophants refuse to shut the fuck up. So why should we give a shit? Why dedicate an entire episode to this arrogant little shit?
Let’s find out as we unfuck objectivism.
Who is John Galt?
The short answer to this question should be, “who cares?” Unfortunately, this is the question that won’t die and neither will the philosophy that ultimately answers this insipid query. John Galt is the hero of Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, the last of her novels that gives the world the gift of objectivist theory. The answer to this question and the whole of Rand’s philosophy is revealed through an interminable speech given by Galt that still inspires some today.
Evidence of Rand’s developing doctrine can be found earlier in Howard Roark, the protagonist in her 1943 novel The Fountainhead:
“He had not liked the things taught to him in college. He had been taught a great deal about social responsibility, about a life of service and self-sacrifice. Everybody had said it was beautiful and inspiring. Only he had not felt inspired. He had felt nothing at all.”
Sounds like a peach. If Roark had been subjected to modern psychiatric analysis, he might be considered somewhat of a sociopath.
To be honest, the thought of discussing objectivism bores me. But the dogma has unfortunately outlived the dog and objectivism continues to encourage enthusiasts who aspire to find their own inner-Roark or Galt. Most of the reviewers of her day shared this dim view of her work and for a while sales of The Fountainhead languished.
By then Rand, who was a Russian expat, had already established herself as a vocal opponent of FDR. Her ideas were formed during the Depression, when she grew to loathe the president and what she deemed to be his socialist, anti-capitalist policies. It’s sort of like how modern day Cuban-Americans despise all things socialist because of their history with Castro, which led many of them to vote for Trump in the recent election. Over time the book would find its audience and so would Rand.
Over the next several decades Rand’s cult-like popularity would grow and by the time she published Atlas Shrugged in 1957, she was a prominent national figure.
Despite her popularity, reviewers once again savaged Rand, but with more vitriol this time than even she anticipated. Nevertheless, sales were strong and Atlas Shrugged would be one of the bestselling books of 1957. In fact, it would become one of the bestselling American books of all time. Anne Heller’s biography of Rand points out that at the turn of the Century readers in a Modern Library poll placed all four of Ayn Rand’s books in the top 100 novels of the 20th century, “with The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged occupying the number one and two spots, respectively.”
Throughout her most prolific years, objectivism was still more of a cultural phenomenon than a political one. But “the 1970s,” notes Heller, “found Ayn Rand’s ideas gliding quietly—almost anonymously—into the conservative mainstream.” This was especially true among “a new group of young right-wing libertarians who were disgusted with the economic policies of the Republican Party and determined to found a party of their own.” But Rand would reject most of the political outcroppings of her ideology and grow increasingly protective and paranoid throughout the remainder of her life.
Despite her aversion to the masses, Ayn Rand thrived in the spotlight. Therefore, she would likely be pleased but somewhat bemused by her renewed influence over some of the leading politicians in America today. I say bemused because of the inherent irony in a scenario where politicians are engaged in meaningless dialogue about a theory conceived by a woman who viewed most politicians with absolute contempt. Objectivism as a political ideology is impossibly rigid and absolute in a field that exists on the premise of compromise. But its popularity speaks to what Americans believe to be their mirror image: self-sufficient, uncompromising and stoic.
Yet Rand followers seem incapable of separating the woman and her philosophies from the fictional characters she created. These characters were dropped into a world that fought against their scripted determination—a world where detractors ultimately succumbed to and broke against the protagonist’s awesome powers of individualism. But to appreciate her novels requires the suspension of disbelief about the actual world we live in and realization that Rand herself wasn’t as much of an individualist as she was an elitist.
Objectivism is the Scientology of political theory. Fantasy based upon fiction; the promulgation of which relies on the public’s inability to understand the destructive potential of unregulated markets and unfettered capitalism, as we discussed in our last episode.
Who is John Galt? I say, fuck John Galt. We need to start asking the question “Who are we?” America is stuck in the largest identity crisis we have faced since the Civil War. The unmitigated assault on the middle class and working poor in this nation, at some point must come to an end. Despite what objectivism preaches a properly functioning society requires a level playing field. And a level playing field requires a properly regulated and functioning system. It does not imply the redistribution of wealth; rather it attempts to establish equitable access to it.
The most notable modern politicians who admit to Rand as their north star, people like former House Speaker Paul Ryan, former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, resident senate douchebag Ted Cruz, and father son libertarian stalwarts Ron and Rand Paul, all bow down to the wee Russian shitgibbon. Alan Greenspan even laid a 6 foot high floral wreath in the form of a dollar sign at her fucking funeral, because it was the Randism logo. Even Herr Trump tried to profess his love of Rand in a fumbling explanation of her work despite the well-known fact that Trump doesn’t read.
The libertarians like the Paul family are easier to understand because their philosophy runs parallel to Rand’s individualistic beliefs. But that’s also the problem with both of them. The best description of Libertarianism I have ever heard was from Chris Hedges who called it sort of a pre-industrial philosophy that works great in theory when there’s 3 million people in a huge territory like the US and incentives to forge westward and legally murder indigenous people in the spirit of fronteirism.
It’s a little less practical when there are 350 million of us burning through resources and destroying the planet. 350 million people with their own idea of what’s right and lawful within a complicated and interdependent economic and social system - and most of them armed to the teeth - would amount to a year-round purge like society.
It’s more the modern right wing politicians that I have a problem with, particularly because they never grapple with the other side of Ayn Rand, the devout atheist. She saw all religions as silly, indulgent and dangerous. So it’s even more curious how the right wing christian fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party prays at the altar of Rand.
In the end, Rand would distance herself from nearly everyone she had ever cared for and indeed those who had cared for her. Hers was an impossible personal standard, and the men in her life would prove a constant source of disappointment, each one failing to live up to it. Even her beloved husband, Frank O’Connor, once an inspiration for Rand’s most adored characters, would eventually break down both physically and emotionally under the weight of such expectations.
The only men who would never fail her lived on the pages of her novels.
Ironically, she would finish her time on Earth as a recipient of Social Security, a program she regarded as the epitome of the collectivist society she denounced. But Rand was no hypocrite—she had dutifully paid into it, and therefore reluctantly took back what was rightfully hers. No, Ayn Rand was simply wrong and would die very much alone having alienated virtually everyone around her who failed to live up to her unreachable demands; a lesson lost on the legions of followers who continue to devour her words to this day.
So to answer the original question as to why I would dedicate an entire show to Ayn Rand. The fact is even those who haven’t heard of Ayn Rand or read any of her novels but who support the idea of rugged individualism, all government is evil, and healthcare-for-all is socialism, are all influenced by the concepts of this tiny little Russian fame seeking ashtray who took government support and wrote shitty novels in the 50s. She promoted a lack of faith in institutions to do good. The distrust of social programs or even society in general. That we need each other to thrive. Now more than ever during the time of COVID we should all realize the value of social constructs and unity.
And yet we’re falling apart because half of this fucking country has fallen for the myth of objectivism whether they know to call it that or not. The concept carries powerful imagery of individual pursuit but that shit only works in individual sports.
Running a nation is a team sport. It’s not okay to run off and steal someone’s land, buttfuck their goats and piss on their boots but Ayn Rand would say that’s perfectly logical if that’s what’s in your heart. We live in a society. And it can be great if we can just get over ourselves and realize that our actions have an impact on others around us.
Can government go too far? Of course. We should always be mindful of our individual liberties, which are too often taken for granted or, if you’re an ethnic minority or marginalized citizen, perhaps never even granted to you at all. The point is there’s a balance. But if you’re unhappy with the way things are, the answers you seek aren’t in the pages of Atlas Shrugged. They’re in the Bill of Rights and maybe Bernie Sanders website.
Here endeth the lesson.