The Reactionary Ayn Rand

It’s interesting to think of Ayn Rand in the socio-political context: her work is reactionary to the progressive movements of the 1920s and 1930s, much like the immense rise of right wing think tanks was and is a reaction to the liberatory movements of the civil rights movement and the progressive movements of the “1960s” that have continued and grown. Rand was largely pre-identity politics, so her focus is more strictly economic.

Some of her early works were written in the ‘30s, and The Fountainhead, the first of her two main novels, was planned and partly written in the mid and late ‘30s, and published in the early ‘40s. Its working title was Second-Hand Lives. About 1944, ‘45, she started journaling about Atlas Shrugged (according to her associate Leonard Peikoff). It carried the title, The Strike, apparently until 1956, before its 1957 publication.

Much of her style is a sort of mix or modeling of Hemingway (and thus some Stein) mixed with Victor Hugo – much exposition of ideas and substantial amounts of what is called romanticism, or idealism, and thus something of a precursor to Heinlein. A good bit of the theme is Huckleberry Finnish – in Rand’s case, a sort of dogged and noble youth spirit manifest in a few select idealized adults ranged against an implacably corrupt society. Her novels are often very appealing to youth, for much the same reason Huck Finn appeals to youth. Huck takes his stand, as do Rand’s figures, refusing to be guilt-tripped or incriminated in various “adult” abominations.

The difference: the conniving, morally questionable Huck took his admirable stand against slavery, for his runaway friend. Rand’s irreproachable characters take their principled stands against adult corruptions of various sorts too, but also ultimately on behalf of the anti-democratic rule of wealth – entirely reminiscent of the first Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Jay: “Those who own the country, ought to govern it.”

So Rand’s false either-or choice is this: choose life or death; righteousness or immorality: an ideal benevolent dictatorship of wealth or an inevitably fatally corrupt democracy. She attacks an indefensibly corrupt elite on behalf of a nonexistent elite whose closest manifestation in reality is another version of an indefensibly corrupt elite. Totalitarian ostensibly benevolent corporate elite rule versus totalitarian malign governmental elite rule. The choice is as false as could be, of course, but Rand presents the former as freedom and goodness, and the latter as slavery and rot by way of psychological comparisons that often resonate strongly with youth sick of being governed by often highly imperfect, and in fact highly unprincipled, school and family and religious structures, and who also may see big corporate money as a key to freedom.

Rand is symptomatic and emblematic of the current diseased socio-political structure.

Her prose has its scratch your head moments, often, but even some of the worst of these moments are remarkably similar to the opening two pages of Jonathan Franzen’s lauded opening, and novel, The Corrections. The sentences do not to a large extent hold up upon close inspection but have a sort of aura of power about them, due to a certain technique, and the cumulative power of the prose, if not much of the rest of the work(s), is often mistakenly, I think, underestimated.

(My comments here about Franzen’s prose refer to the opening couple of pages only, of The Corrections. They are sort of an impressive, I suppose, disaster—and are in their own way peculiarly much inferior to most of the rest of the prose in the novel (if not much of the story) which is often quite well done.)

See Joe Emersberger’s thorough analysis of Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand’s Deranged Elitism For Everyone.

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