Rand, who wrote the two absolute best-sellers of our century, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), was (deservedly) ignored and ridiculed as a philosopher: her fascination with male figures displaying absolute, unswayable determination of their Will, seems to offer the best imaginable confirmation of Sylvia Plath's famous line, "...every woman adores a Fascist." However, although it is easy to dismiss the very mention of Rand in a "serious" theoretical article as an obscene extravaganza — artistically, she is of course, worthless — the properly subversive dimension of her ideological procedure is not to be underestimated: Rand fits into the line of over-conformist authors who undermine the ruling ideological edifice by their very excessive identification with it.
Her over-orthodoxy was directed at capitalism itself, as the title of one of her books Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal tells us; according to her, the truly heretic thing today is to embrace the basic premise of capitalism without its communitarian, collectivist, welfare, etc., sugarcoating. So what Pascal and Racine were to Jansenism, what Kleist was to German nationalist militarism, what Brecht was to Communism, Rand is to American capitalism. It was perhaps her Russian origins and upbringing which enabled her to formulate directly the fantasmatic kernel of American capitalist ideology.
The elementary ideological axis of her work consists in the opposition between the prime movers, "men of mind," and second handers, "mass men." The Kantian opposition between ethical autonomy and heteronomy is here brought to extreme: the "mass man" is searching for recognition outside himself, his self-confidence and assurance depend on how he is perceived by others, while the prime mover is fully reconciled with himself, relying on his creativity, selfish in the sense that his satisfaction does not depend on getting recognition from others or on sacrificing himself, his innermost drives, for the benefit of others.
The prime mover is innocent, delivered from the fear of others, and for that reason without hatred even for his worst enemies (Roark, the "prime mover" in The Fountainhead, doesn't actively hate Toohey, his great opponent, he simply doesn't care about him.) Here is the famous dialogue between the two:
— Mr. Roark, we're alone here. Why don't you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.
— But I don't think of you.
On the basis of this opposition, Rand elaborates her radically atheist, life-assertive, "selfish" ethics: the "prime mover" is capable of the love for others, this love is even crucial for him since it does not express his contempt for himself, his self-denial, but on the contrary, the highest self-assertion-love for others is the highest form of the properly understood "selfishness," i.e. of my capacity to realize through my relationship with others my own innermost drives. On the basis of this opposition, Atlas Shrugged constructs a purely fantasmatic scenario: John Galt, the novel's mysterious hero, assembles all prime movers and organizes their strike — they withdraw from the collectivist oppression of the bureaucratized public life. As a result of their withdrawal, what social life loses is impetus, social services; from stores to railroads, no longer function, global disintegration sets in, and the desperate society calls the prime movers back — they accept it, but under their own terms...
What we have here is the fantasy of a man finding the answer to the eternal question "What moves the world?" — the prime movers — and then being able to "stop the motor of the world" by organizing the prime movers' retreat. John Galt succeeds in suspending the very circuit of the universe, the "run of things," causing its symbolic death and the subsequent rebirth of the New World.
The ideological gain of this operation resides in the reversal of roles with regard to our everyday experience of strike: it is not workers but the capitalists who go on strike, thus proving that they are the truly productive members of society who do not need others to survive.1 The hideout to which the prime movers retreat, a secret place in the midst of the Colorado mountains accessible only via a dangerous narrow passage, is a kind of negative version of Shangri-la, a "utopia of greed": a small town in which unbridled market relations reign, in which the very word "help" is prohibited, in which every service has to be reimbursed by true (gold-covered) money, in which there is no need for pity and self-sacrifice for others.
1. Rand's ideological limitation is here clearly perceptible: in spite of the new impetus that the myth of the "prime movers" got from the digital industry (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates), individual capitalists are today, in our era of multinationals, definitely not its "prime movers." In other words, what Rand "represses" is the fact that the rule of the crowd is the inherent outcome of the dynamic of capitalism itself.
Photograph of John Currin's The Bra Shop, Oil on Canvas, 1997, Courtesy, Andrea Rosen Gallery.
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