Rand's Rugged Individualist Myth

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Quarry in The Quarry

This is a continuation of our last post "The Galt Gestalt". We admit, one post is probably enough, Ayn Rand has been memorialized quite enough, thank-you very much. Companies like the demolition contractor at the World Trade Towers site proudly name themselves "John Galt this" and "Fountainhead" that. They also name themselves after Howard Roark, and at least one company, an architectural design firm in Minneapolis, named an imaginary "Howard Roark" as a senior partner of the firm.

Thousands of books and hundreds of institutes all over the world celebrate Rand's ideas -- the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, the Ayn Rand Institute, Ayn Rand Society, RebirthofReason.com, Liberty Institute, AtlasShrugged.com, The Atlas Society, The Objectivist Center, Objectivsm 101, Objectivism Reference Center, ObjectivistAcademiccenter.org, AynRandInstitute.ca, and so on.

With all that, who needs more Ayn Rand stuff? Well, the recent outpouring of Randism might benefit from more "balance". The gushing accolades over "Atlas Shrugged" at FOX News and cable news channels -- by announcers who Americanize Rand's first name to "Ann", instead of "Ayn" rhymes with "all mine", or as Rand would say, "swine", might benefit from a more adult reading of her book.

In our post "The Galt Gestalt" we talked about modern day Ayn Rand acolytes -- those who maybe didn't have the opportunity to write books with her like Alan Greenspan, but who still forward her ideas and writing. We admit, we at Acronym Required did read her books -- in junior high school -- as the fiction they are. So we're always surprised that full grown adults actually say that Rand's half a century old books foresaw America's current economic state.

In the "Galt Gestalt", we reviewed the movie "The Fountainhead", with its fallible characters Howard Roark and Dominique, set among quarries and "modern" 1940's buildings -- all Roark's "creations". We challenged Rand's portrayal of Roark as a "creator" rather than a destroyer or terrorist, and questioned how such daft writing by could be misinterpreted for 2009 economic wisdom. We observed that today's coterie of Rand admirers pick and choose the parts of her philosophy they like and disregard the bits that don't fit their political agenda -- like her complete intolerance of mixing religion with politics. Indeed, she warned Reagan on mixing politics with religion:

"What we are seeing is the medievalism of the Puritans all over again, but without their excuse of ignorance....The New Right is not the voice of Americanism. It is the voice of thought control attempting to take over in this country and pervert and undo the actual American revolution....."

You don't hear too much talk of that these days, do you?

Was Roark a "Creator"? Or a Terrorist?

Some executives say that "The Fountainhead" is their very favorite work, but maybe they never read it, or maybe they never got to the end. Because incongruously, in "The Fountainhead", Howard Roark blows up buildings with explosives, then defends his crimes by telling a jury some fantastic gobbledygook about great "creators" who stood up to all the men. Each individual scientist or inventor, he intones

"lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement..."

How can a novel where the main character dynamites buildings be seen as a blueprint for America, a nation that reviles people who even associate with those who associated with those who threatened to blow up buildings? There's some irony to the fact that former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, who is actually a respected professor and Chicago community service leader, is labeled a "terrorist" by the same people who hold fictional dynamite wielder Howard Roark as a "hero".

Rand-ites Who Transcend Rand's Scorn

Perhaps these people who adulate Rand, the creator of the hero terrorist are just fantastic hypocrites. It's true, everyone, including us, capably cherry-picks their evidence. So just as Rand's most fervent admirers cherry-pick her ideas, she cherry-picked her evidence, her ideals, and her followers. Today's Randites are consistent then in their love, because Rand consistently scorned those who most fervently embraced her ideas. Do they know that Rand dismissed libertarians as "a random collection of emotional hippies-of-the-right who seek to play at politics without philosophy"? It's a dysfunctional relationship, for sure, but they loved and love her just as Howard Roark pined for Dominique in the quarry in the "The Fountainhead" and made statutes in her image while she married other men.

Why the enduring adoration? Why are sales of "Atlas Shrugged" still booming, aside from the fact that it's impressively thick but vapidly light read -- a delirious combination of Harlequin romance and "For Dummies" -- perfect airplane reading? "Thick book you have there..."

Americans and The Myth of the Rugged Enterprising Individual

What is this persevering and hypocritical adulation of Rand? Is it the refusal to let go of the myth of the rugged individual? Historically, the US had some very hardy Americans, Teddy Roosevelt, for instance. Read accounts of his Amazon exploration and shudder at his rugged manliness. But the US and its corporate economy certainly hasn't been a wunderkind of noble individualists recently.

Way back in 1984, Roger Rosenblatt wrote about this strange phenomenon, asking in Time magazine's ("The Rugged Individual Rides Again"): "Why the pretense--why the evident pleasure--in seeing the country as a collection of loners?"

Now, twenty-five years later, the myth may be less intact, but politicians still pimp it. It has served the GOP well since Ronald Reagan rode in with his "Morning in America" theme. Perhaps it made sense for Reagan then, 30 or so years ago, because Reagan came up in Hollywood at the same time as Ayn Rand. He seemed to be acting out his fantasy part as the rugged individualist, with his ranch, the far-away (albeit perhaps diseased) look in his eye, and his incessant portrayal of individuals with mythical powers -- "Tear down this wall!" (- another myth).

Two decades later GW Bush didn't ride horses around a ranch like Reagan, but he did purchase that dried out piece of land in Texas, where he would gamely pull on gloves -- Ironclad Icon Series Extreme DutyTM gloves no doubt -- over soft citified hands so he could hack at brush for rolling cameras. The American rugged male image is very particular, you see, and can't be properly projected from the decks of a Kennebunkport yacht.

Rugged Individual Jumps the Shark

If the whole American rugged individualism was seen as "hypocritical" by the mainstream magazine Time, over two decades ago in 1984, it's even more far-fetched played out by GW Bush. And when Bobby Jindal took a stab at the iconic myth the other day the whole idea jumped the shark.

Talking about how he went down to the docks after Hurricane Katrina and saved some people threatened by bureaucracy Jindal deadpanned:

"Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and go start rescuing people. There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens."

It took mere hours, if not minutes, for people to uncloak Jindal's lies. Perhaps for Americans "enterprising spirit" has been exploited so much they just tend to be skeptical and cynical.

Interestingly, while everyone attacked the part of Jindal's story about the Katrina survivors when they found out that Jindal wasn't on the scene at all, the larger myths that his tale served stayed preposterously intact. First, despite his claim, there is no bureaucracy in the US that impedes "enterprising spirit". There is bureaucracy without a doubt. But the federal government largely enables and serves interests of business and corporations, foremost, property rights and laws. Occasionally, like with the Clean Air regulations, the federal government attempts to protect individuals. Obviously, as Jindal's talk unraveled into lies, we recognized just how fantastic the notion that he's the rugged leader leading all the rugged individuals.

Rugged Individual or a Cog in the Machine

What's interesting about Rand's perseverance as an American male fantasy is that we're so far from the Cold War era in which Rand became a political fixture. Nevertheless the rugged individual myth is one that the American people still cling to. This myth still matters because it not only nourishes the GOP, it feeds GDP.

Every day docile citizens drive off to jobs in their all-terrain SUVs, which perhaps keeps all these workers thinking about how "rugged" they are. Politicians and businesses and economists push the conceit since its certainly an easier populist sell than all the proceeding political-economic models -- monarchy, colonialism, feudalism, slavery, etc. But the myth is outdated.

A global economy needs global leaders, and individuals who work together as "teams", as annoying as that concept is. Today, the enemy is certainly not "the collective", although that might have been a believable enemy for someone who immigrated from the Soviet Union half a century ago. Nor is the enemy "the government", which has secured property laws, patent law, corporate law, free trade, privatization, and an entire infrastructure that serves capitalism and private enterprise. There is no salient enemy. Except perhaps terrorists who explode and burn buildings -- like Roark.

Of course that is not what we hear from media because there would be no television news if not for enemies and wars, and if the market did not first go up, then come down, and if there were not Democrats who opposed Republicans and Republicans who opposed Democrats. How could we go to all our boring jobs day after day if we did not have the network news anchors to break things up, with their histrionics, their drama, and their enemies? This eases the boredom and it helps us feel whole and human, even as so much of what humans do is totally dehumanizing. But lets separate entertainment from information and policy. We are not rugged individuals.

Rand & Marx

I previously described how Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal, like many Rand fans, thought the fiction of "Atlas Shrugged" was "eerily similar" to today's events.

But if anyone believes Rand predicted economic events of today more than half a century ago, you should read more carefully to see how many predictions she made that were just plain wrong. Adjust your attitude slightly and Ayn Rand is no more than a cheap novelist who coincidentally, seemed to get a lot of her ideas from Karl Marx.

On economic ideas, her books advocate capitalism, but her ideas were bounded by her experience, that is, Bolshevik history and the Cold War. Some people see Lenin in her work but it's Marx, whose philosophy Rand opposed mightily, who she seems most often quote. Both Karl Marx and Rand ruminated on the higher purpose that humans sought through fighting nature with labor. For instance, compare Marx's words about the purpose of man, and compare those of Rands's Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead".

  • Karl Marx said: "He [man] opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces. in order to appropriate Nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants."
  • Howard Roark said: "The creator's concern is the conquest of nature".

Sixty years ago when Rand wrote her epic stories, humans were still ensconced in what we would dub today as "a war on nature". Indeed many still farmed and fished, though far less than their ancestors. But now in the 21st century humans have decimated so many ecosystems, how can we perpetuate the belief that we humans don't have the upper hand? In fact, our domination is so complete that the North and South poles are collapsing back in on us. Paradoxically, nature still presents challenges, but it's global warming, which is really a fight against ourselves. Our 21st century reality is vastly different than what Rand and Marx knew. Do we benefit as a society from compelling individuals to prove their worth in big highway cruisers?

In addition to their "man against nature" framework, Marx and Rand shared other constructs. Marx had his class struggle as do Rand's followers. Today the internet swirls with talk about "Going Galt", the folly that professional workers should walk off the job if the tax rate increases. Marx and Rand also both used architects to illustrate their vision of the ideal laborer, loner builders who worked for themselves, strictly for their own purposes, for the sake of work.

  • Karl Marx, writing on how bees build intricate hives noted, "...what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own..."
  • Howard Roark said: "Throughout the centuries, there were men who took first steps down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision...His truth was his only motive. His work was his only goal. His creation...gave form to his truth. I am an architect.

Marx bemoaned the fetishization of labor, the degradation of man's work to capital. Similarly, Rand's architect worked motivated by his vision, his creation, his truth. Neither were motivated by pay, never mind taxes. If there is a class struggle, its not against the government, which is printing money to save large corporations as we speak. Most Americans work for these corporations, and even if they're a self-employed electrician, their income is completely entwined with the banks. There are few "creations" to speak of unless the banks making financial instruments counts, and as we've learned, putting rugged individualist cowboys into the world of finance can do real harm.

Ayn Rand and CEOs -- She Completes Them & How Swiftly they Swoon

Rand endures partly because she's not part of the curriculum. It's a not so secret society for those who might well have shunned economics. Economics departments don't include Rand in their curricula, yet hundreds of people outside of academia acknowledge how much Ayn Rand influences them. Apparently it doesn't matter to her fans that "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead" are cheap potboilers full of hypocritical ideas antithetical to the modern economy.

In a 2007 article, the New York Times interviewed John A. Allison, CEO of BB&T, one of the largest banks in the US, who said of "Atlas Shrugged".

"I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.'s that 'Atlas Shrugged' has had a significant effect on their business decisions...It offers something other books don't: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete."

And there I was thinking all that math I learned in economics and business classes was so important, when all I needed to read was Rand's overly thick Harlequin romance?

Then in January, 2009, the Times reported that Allison's company BB&T profit fell 26% in the 4th quarter of 2008, and so the bank accepted $3.1 billion in government money". Poof? Just like that? Enterprising spirit of America gone? Rand out the window? To hell with "principles"? Mr. Allison can you comment? Should we shelve Rand next to Marx, now that it's 2009 not 1945?

Worshipping the individual and the market may be what business leaders say they like to hear, but when push comes to shove, they discard that line of thinking as soon as something more self-serving appears.

Rand's ideas don't make for successful individuals any more than they make successful businesses. A few years ago Americans strongly believed in their rugged individualism, as they flipped houses and extracted equity and took out big mortgages from aggrandizing lenders. Now they're feeling a little chastised, mad even. Americans are now in 2009 caught up in the throes of a financial behemoth of their collective making, generated by private banking and enterprises they don't understand. But ironically, what better time to encourage them to feel like rugged individuals again?

Rugged Individual - In Size 3X Stretch Pants?

But, although "rugged individualism" is evidently music to emasculated workers' ears, it's hard to buy. The USA is, after all, a country where 30% of the people are obese. Rugged doesn't usually come in size 3X stretchy pants. As well, Rand preached "reason" not religion, but 50% of the people believe in the Creator, not the "creator", and will tell you that humans roamed the earth with dinosaurs 6000 years ago. In 2009, the fact that the GOP tries to lead by encouraging this pathetic a level Randian thinking from its citizens doesn't bode well for the nation of "knowledge workers".

But the GOP may be unable to come up with anything else. The party seems superglued to the rugged individual image and in it's service, they've forwarded the most unlikely series of messengers -- Joe the Plumber, Bobby Jindal, Michael Steele, Sarah Palin. Nice try, attempting to be both the party for "one-armed midgets", and the party of rugged individualists a la Reagan? Seriously Republicans and America in general, the individualists, the midgets, and everyone else deserves a more up to date and congruous image.

Of course in the frightening series of public relations debacles by the GOP and their media, Rand actually plays a tiny role. The rugged pioneering individualist myth is a strained fictional construct. But unfortunately, Rand fans and some in the GOP do have one winning strategy, which is to promote the facile idea that far, far less government is better (except military and police). It's a winning strategy because the US (and every other state) will never have no regulation. Government regulation is what ensures "free markets". Therefore Ayn Rand fans have a permanent platform in their cries for less government.

Like the unlikely longevity of the myth of the rugged individualist, now it's painfully obvious that deregulation is not the answer. But it's child's play for Randians to argue that George W. Bush was no Ayn Rand, and we need still less regulation. When we examine the notion however, it's clear that this too is part and parcel of old plot lines from outdated fiction. Although mid-century may be faddish and fine for furniture, if orange plastic chairs and aqua blue polyester are your thing, by any measure, it doesn't work for economic policy.

2 Comments

I appreciate the article. What it points to I think without exactly saying so, is that the political and economic thinking and arguments that characterized the world of 50 to 100 years ago don't cut it when trying to solve the problems of a world inhabited by 6-billion people and growing whose lives and livelihood are intricately connected as collectively we eat up the Planet's resources at accelerating non-replacement rates in the process of simply living our daily lives, and irrespective of our various religions, political and economic beliefs.

I much adored Rand's works as a young man back in the 1960s. They inspired me to think in ways I hadn't thought before. I think perhaps that was their great value. But now, both her and Marx's thought seem far out of context, disconnected from the realities of today.

I would not denigrate their efforts so much. I tend to respect where they both were coming from. They wrote from within a different time influenced by the horrors and upheavals of the environments they were born into. But what had relevance for their time seems anemic at best for putting our current circumstances in perspective and for engendering broad-based, constructive human action that will elevate us out of our mutual human predicament.

I would be foolish to suggest I've got answers for today's problems. But whatever the answers, I think we miss the boat placing our bets on those who dominated 19th and 20th century thought. My contribution here doesn't offer much except to say I think the author points to something useful in the dialog.

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