Few literary works sell better from decade to decade after the death of an author. Ayn Rand´s novel Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, is one of them. The author herself considered this book about the disappearance of major industrialists to be her masterpiece.
Because of her pithy protagonists and philosophy, Rand, who was born in Russia in 1905, immigrated to the US in 1926, and died there in 1982, is an icon for people in the tech scene.
Her convictions of free enterprise, unregulated markets and ethos of rational egoism interwoven in her novels had also inspired Wall Street bankers. Particular enthusiasm had been shown by the Republican politician and long-time chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, who later became a close friend of Rand.
Postmortem, Ayn Rand, formerly Alice O’Connor, formerly Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum, conquered Silicon Valley. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak claimed in an interview for Bloomberg in August 2011 that Atlas Shrugged was one of Steve Jobs´ guides in life.
The Greek Titan Atlas carrying the firmament on his shoulders that adorns a cover of the many editions of Rand´s magnum opus is the blueprint for the logos of the Burning Man and the Seasteading Institute.
Burning Man is an annual event held in the Nevada desert especially popular with people from Silicon Valley. The Seasteading Institute, co-founded by Peter Thiel in 2008, follows the mission to build “startup communities that float on the ocean with any measure of political autonomy.” Both projects are excesses of libertarianism.
In 2012, Uber founder Travis Kalanick told The Washington Post that Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead was one of his favorite books. For a while, the cover of the book about an uncompromising architect served as the picture of Kalanick’s Twitter profile.
For years, a white poster with the red inscription “Move fast and break things” was displayed in the Facebook headquarters. The mantra echoes a dialogue from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead:
” “Do you mean to tell me that you’re thinking seriously of building that way, when and if you are an architect?”
“My dear fellow, who will let you?”
“That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?” “
Some co-founders of today’s Silicon Valley megacorporations were inspired by Ayn Rand’s mix of concepts: the cult of genius, intransigence, ruthless egoism and laissez-faire capitalism. They used these ideas like recipes. Based on Rand´s easy-to-understand, catchy theoretical building blocks, they put together their philosophy. Rand’s woodcut figures, speaking and acting in a black-and-white scheme, became their role models.
According to Ayn Rand, ethics is the recommendation to radically follow one’s own convictions. All others and everything else are merely means. In The Fountainhead she let the architect Howard Roak muse: “The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself. His moral law is never to place his prime goal within the persons of others. His moral obligation is to do what he wishes.”
Rand’s “virtue of egoism” is well received in the startup scene, as is her list of other “virtues”, including rationality, productivity and pride. “Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work — pride is the result”, Rand wrote in her 1961 essay The Objectivist Ethics.
Rand´s ideal person is a homo superior, similar to the Nietzschean Übermensch, who has overcome the banal human or is on the way in that direction. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, atheist Rand rejects the Christian ideas of charity, altruism and self-sacrifice. For her, there are just two kinds of human beings: “From the beginning of history, the two antagonists have stood face to face: the creator and the second-hander. When the first creator invented the wheel, the first second-hander responded. He created altruism.” Altruism is for the weak. These find no mercy with Rand. Her sympathies lay with the solitary and the gifted, men and women who only believe in themselves like Howard Roark and John Galt.
Rand contrasts the intelligent entrepreneurial types with the less creative, more helpful and compromising characters as antagonists or even obstacles. For her, the latter are parasites who live at the expense of the winners. “And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways — by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary“, Howard Roak reflects in The Fountainhead.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand further elaborates her basic conviction that American society depends on heroic Atlas-like figures and would fail without them. Those who want to create something and rigorously carry out their plan like real life magnates such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, or Cornelius Vanderbilt, deserve to get rich and successful. In the Randian universe, the law of the strongest applies. The weaker should get out of their way — just like governments and regulators.
“I am opposed to all forms of control. I am for an absolute laissez faire, free, unregulated economy. I am for the separation of the state and economics, just as we had separation of state and church, (…). If you separate the government from economics, if you do not regulate production and trade, you will have peaceful cooperation, and harmony and justice among men,” Rand stated in a TV interview with Mike Wallace in 1959.
In both her novels and essays, Rand advocates a two-tier society, a pro-capitalist and pro-libertarian stance. Her concept of man, ideologies and disdain for the state not only appealled to tech managers and startup entrepreneurs around the year 2010. Contemporary tech leaders also seek wealth and influence and want to shape their companies and the world according to their own ideas, in short: doing it the Ayn Rand way. The Randian mindset seems to justify not a few tech manager´s lofty goals, their contempt for moral and legal norms, for employees and users (not competitors).
If the novelist-philosopher were still alive and writing, she would glorify these managers, as she had glorified the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries´ industrial magnates. And the admiration would be mutual.
In today’s US tech industry, not many women hold top management positions. However, the leading men here allow themselves to be mentally led by Ayn Rand.
Based on an excerpt from: Schmalz, Gisela (2020): Mein fremder Wille – Wie wir uns freiwillig unterwerfen und die Tech-Elite kassiert. (“My Alienated Will – Why we choose to surrender while the tech elite cashes in”) Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag.
Recommended citation / Empfohlene Zitierweise: Schmalz, Gisela: “The Lure of Ayn Rand” (2023). Gisela Schmalz: https://www.giselaschmalz.com/the-lure-of-ayn-rand/