Ayn Rand’s selfishness-meets-the-free-market doctrines may be odious, but she must be taken seriously, argues Scott McLemee, if only for her influence.
[T]he Rand market has never been anything but robust in the years since her death in 1982. Every year, her melodramatic novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1958) have sold at least 100,000 copies each. Rand’s other fiction remains in print; so do her ventures into philosophical speculation and political commentary. From time to time, an opinion poll in the United States will show that she is among the most influential writers and thinkers of the 20th century. Intellectual historians do not recognise this, but then her influence is on the lower levels of the culture, where they seldom venture.
All of this might be construed as an American peculiarity, like miniature golf or the bacon cheeseburger. But that is too narrow a view: Rand’s perspective is not nationalistic, and her philosophy has a properly cosmic dimension. To put her in perspective it is helpful to consult, of all things, The Communist Manifesto. When Marx and Engels describe the world-churning dynamism of unfettered capitalism – its capacity to unmake and remake the world in its own image – they write with a verve and vividness that make recent paeans to globalisation seem timid. It is fitting that they might have some prophetic insight into the author of The Virtue of Selfishness…
But … Marx and Engels overestimate just how much reality the human psyche can bear – and they certainly underestimate Ayn Rand. Her fiction is a sustained effort to create for capitalism a grand mythology that is too solid ever to melt into air. Her approach to doing so was sui generis and even, in its way, avant garde – most conspicuously in Atlas Shrugged, her final novel, in which didacticism and tempestuousness combine in a truly epic work of propaganda.
See also: a Brooklynite’s insane Randian diatribe; what Howard Roark might have brought to Williamsburg; Atlas Shrugged, updated for the current financial crisis; and Americans’ efforts to weather the recession by seeking financial advice from the Bible.