Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Atlas Insolvent

Ayn Rand was an atheist, but her ghost refuses to vanish. Another book about this mediocre romance novelist has been released, making one pine for publishing's final breath, which might be the only way to curb further Randian retrospectives.

How much more do we need to know about this woman? What did she accomplish, apart from inspiring geeky white men to find virtue in selfishness? To identify with comic opera characters posing as philosophers? To pretend that capitalism is individualistic and benign?

Despite cries from reactionaries that the culture is stacked against them, that they are political prisoners in their cherished land, American culture is, in reality, overly kind to right wingers, no matter how bizarrely they behave. So long as reactionaries wave the flag and speak of patriots weeping in the clouds, they will have platforms to push their manias, hatred, and self-pity. Not only is there a robust market for these clowns, those who run the Liberal Media share many rightist conceits, especially when the system needs reinforcement.

Given this, Ayn Rand's zombie presence makes perfect sense. Indeed, her lit cred, thoroughly middlebrow and thus utterly American, lends her capitalist fantasies some theoretical weight. Rand fancied herself as high-minded, an intellectual counterbalance to Karl Marx. In truth, Rand was closer to Walt Disney, minus the Mouse King's showbiz flair. Each used cartoons to convey their message. Both were dedicated anti-communists, hostile to organized labor, friendly to the post-war Red Scare. Only Rand felt that the U.S. government wasn't going deep enough in uprooting commies, primarily those in Hollywood, hypnotizing Middle America with phony smiles and pretty songs while undermining free enterprise and its besieged supporters.

The latest Rand revival comes courtesy of Anne Heller, whose "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" is receiving positive reviews. I have not nor intend to read Heller's book. Nothing personal, but I've read and watched too much about Rand already, including her Objectivist cult, personal romances and internecine battles. Unless there's fresh evidence exposing cannibalism, S&M parties, or a secret love for Stalin, I'll find other ways to waste my time.

I did find Heller's comments on NPR about Rand rather interesting. Like most biographers (me included), Heller tries to predict how her subject would view contemporary figures and events. Since Rand hated FDR's New Deal, equating it with fascism (as did, for a time, the American Communist Party), Heller assumes that "Rand would have seen Obama's stimulus plan, bank bailout program and health care initiative as 'a gigantic power grab . . . She would have been horrified.'"

Perhaps, though compared to FDR's grand scheme, Obama's "power grab" is pretty toothless. In fact, I can't think of a weaker dictator than Obama. Yet, Rand's acolytes and other rightist observers insist that we're suffering under a despotism unmatched in American history. This is what happens when the focus is on personalities rather than systemic functions.

In the real world, Obama, like FDR before him, is attempting to save what is left of American state capitalism. That's his function, which is why he enjoyed such elite support. Obama's finding the task a bit tougher than he let on during the campaign, and he may not succeed. The signs so far are not good. But the idea that John McCain would be radically different is laughable, yet soothing to those prone to political hallucinations.

Rand experienced her share of swirling visions, spilled across countless pages of her books. She loved writing long-winded speeches for her fantasy icons, telling the world how useless it was compared to a few self-centered men. In Rand's universe, history is achieved individually, unconnected to major power centers or collective labor. John Galt and Howard Roark just "happen," despite all mechanisms devoted to their demise. They thrive independently through the iron force of their will, and in the end, collectivized society is rhetorically exposed and trashed by their superior intellects.

It's a charming fairy tale, perfectly suited to American illusions about individual power in a imperial state. Of course, no man can rise through the U.S. financial/political structure without assistance and intervention, just as no major industrialist can make his fortune apart from the state apparatus. Societies are controlled by those who own them. This naturally requires collective actions and overlapping agendas. Either Rand was unaware of this reality or simply ignored it for narrative purposes. She created a capitalist Oz, where generations of Dorothys skip merrily down gold-brick roads, seeking to build (without help) their Emerald Cities. No gray commie Kansas for Ayn.

Heller also noted that Rand considered the dollar sign "a better symbol than the cross, because it didn't require the sacrifice of anybody." I trust that Heller doesn't share this ahistorical view. Not only have the cross and dollar enjoyed a lucrative, long-running alliance, the dollar requires massive sacrifice across the planet. Poverty, starvation, environmental damage and genocidal violence are some of the dollar's greatest hits. Use any calculator you like to tally the body count under state socialism, and it'll explode when computing the ongoing ravages of global capitalism.

All this aside, I confess a peculiar fondness for the film version of "The Fountainhead." Patricia Neal's Dominique Francon is priceless, destroying art and personal love in a world that cannot appreciate her superior tastes. Gary Cooper's Howard Roark is a cartoonish stiff, hardly the type who'd turn architecture upside down (stealing from Frank Lloyd Wright in the process). There's a hidden lunacy to Roark that Cooper didn't explore; he was stuck mouthing Rand's wooden dialogue, limiting Roark's capitalistic vigor. But when it came to the hubba-hubba, Roark was an erect dollar sign. I think it's clear why Rand embraced that pecuniary symbol.