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Feb 5, 2007 4:12 am


Ayn Rand and the Capitalist Class



[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

Although I rejected Rand’s right-wing economics
and political philosophy by the time I was fifteen, certain elements
of the novels, which had more to do with psychology than with
social ideology, stayed with me for many years.
The
Fountainhead had planted in me the idea that bombing a
building could be a morally legitimate form of protest.
Atlas Shrugged portrayed the social revolutionary as a hero.

– 60s revolutionary Jane Alpert, Growing Up Underground

Last year for Ayn Rand’s birthday I wrote about the “left” and “right” strands in Ayn Rand’s thought. This year I want to write about how it may have come about that the right-wing strand, and in particular the pro-business aspect of that strand, eventually dominated the left-wing one.

Let me start with a suggestion that Charles Johnson made last May. Charles’ post was devoted primarily to considering why Rand might have chosen the term “capitalism,” rather than, say, “socialism” (à la Benjamin Tucker) for her radical anticonservative, antimercantilist free-market position.

Now that question I don’t find terribly mysterious. Even apart from the kneejerk reaction to “socialism” that Rand was understandably left with as a result of her Soviet upbringing, “capitalism” was simply the standard term for a pure free market in the libertarian wing of the Old Right, where Rand found her first intellectual allies; witness Carl Snyder’s Capitalism the Creator or Ludwig von Mises’ Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. Rand’s chief mentor, Isabel Paterson, likewise used the term in God of the Machine. Tucker’s Liberty had long since closed its doors in 1908, by which time Tucker had already largely abandoned the term “socialism” as a label for his own view. I doubt that it even occurred to Rand that there might be any term other than “capitalism” for the system she favoured.

But terminological issues aside, the more substantive question remains as to why Rand was led to hail big business as America’s persecuted minority, and to denounce the best aspects of the New Left. And Charles’ suggestion is relevant to that question:

[Rand’s] aesthetic and affectional imagination were engaged on behalf of actually existing capitalists, as she understood them, in the known reality of the mixed economy: that is, her view of the grand bourgeoisie – big industrialists, business-owners, money-men, the top tier of entrepreneurial inventors, and ultimately the wealthy broadly – as the heroic prime movers in business, and thus as the “world’s motor”, driving the production of the material means of survival and human flourishing. ... Though she’d no doubt fume at the description, one way of putting it is that she made her choices ... on the basis of class solidarity.

And Charles of course considers such solidarity a mistake, given that in fact “the archetypical boss is a busybodying mediocrity, a cunning predator, or a petulant grafter, and ... their role in the workplace is a drag on the productive labor on the shop floor rather than the animating force behind it as Rand claims.”

I think there’s something importantly right about Charles’ diagnosis – but more nevertheless needs to be said. Because in Rand’s fiction the overwhelming majority of capitalist bosses are precisely “busybodying mediocrities, cunning predators, or petulant grafters.”

Consider the architectural firm of Francon & Heyer, later Francon & Keating, in The Fountainhead. The head of the company, Guy Francon, is a gladhanding fraud who takes credit for work actually done by his draftsmen, and who cares more about the colour of his employees’ neckties than about the quality of their work. And most of the businesses portrayed in the novel are similar. There are exceptions, most notably the case of the self-made millionaire Roger Enright; but most of the admirable characters are working-class.

Atlas Shrugged of course has heroic capitalists at its center; and as we’ll see, I think something does begin to change with Atlas. But even here, for every heroic entrepreneur like Dagny Taggart or Hank Rearden, there’s a slimy rent-seeking plutocrat like James Taggart or Orren Boyle. Indeed James Taggart is, let it be remembered, Dagny’s boss, who takes credit for all her achievements while blaming her for all his mistakes. (And interestingly, the labour organiser Fred Kinnan, though technically a villain, is presented far more sympathetically than are the businessmen and bureaucrats with whom he colludes.) Perhaps it is mainly because Rand’s heroic characters are generally more vividly memorable than her villains that Atlas is remembered as a book that glamorises capitalists generally.

It’s certainly true, though, that in Atlas Rand’s “aesthetic and affectional imagination” favours the heroic capitalists. Indeed, Atlas is torn between two different readings of the “strike” that forms its central plot device. On one reading, it’s the exact reverse of the standard Marxist ideal: it’s a strike by industrious capitalists against parasitic labourers. On another reading, it’s a strike by the industrious of all economic classes against parasites of all economic classes, in the style of the French industriels.

Now the second, more left-wing reading is clearly the “official” one, both because the novel draws its heroes and villains from capital and labour alike (and even the über-hero John Galt is a proletarian of sorts) and because in her nonfiction works Rand always insisted that the greatest conflicts between producers and parasites occur not between but within economic classes. But the novel is nonetheless heavily and unmistakably flavoured with the first, more right-wing reading. Why so? Is it just because Rand the creative novelist couldn’t resist the attraction of what she would have called the “gimmick” of reversing the conventional picture of a strike? Surely it’s more than that.

What of class solidarity as an explanation? It seems to have something going for it: while Rand lived a proletarian life during her early years in the U.S., she had come from a bourgeois family (albeit more petit than grand) who had been expropriated by a proletarian revolution – so it might seem only to be expected that she would identify with capital rather than with labour. But this doesn’t do a very good job of explaining why the strong identification with the capitalist class emerges relatively late in her career, first with Atlas and then with her nonfiction essays.

Of the three main sympathetic characters in her first novel, We the Living, Kira is a bourgeois, Leo an aristocrat, and Andrei a proletarian. (We are shown plenty of unsympathetic characters from all three classes as well.) While Leo and Andrei are presented as flawed in comparison with Kira, there’s no suggestion that their flaws owe anything specifically to their class; Rand seems to have deliberately decided to present the best of all three classes. (Similar class diversity actually shows up in Atlas too, with Francisco d’Anconia the aristocrat, Dagny the bourgeois heiress, Hank Rearden the self-made bourgeois ex-proletarian, and John Galt the – in some sense – still-proletarian.) Likewise in her early play Ideal the heroine is betrayed by, inter alia, a businessman, an aristocrat, and a proletarian – and is also finally rescued by a proletarian.

There’s not much picking-sides-in-the-class-war in The Fountainhead either. As part of her journalism job, the heroine Dominique Francon spends a few weeks living in the slums and reports on her experiences. Here’s what she tells an audience of wealthy landlords:

The house you own on East Twelfth street, Mrs. Palmer ... has a sewer that gets clogged every other day and runs over, all through the courtyard. It looks blue and purple in the sun, like a rainbow. ... The block you control for the Claridge estate, Mr. Brooks, has the most attractive stalactites growing on all the ceilings.

And here’s what she tells an audience of radical social workers:

The family on the first floor do not bother to pay their rent, and the children cannot go to school for lack of clothes. The father has a charge account at a corner speak-easy. ... In the fourth floor front, the father of the family has not done a whole day’s work in his life, and does not intend to. There are nine children, supported by the local parish. There is a tenth one on its way ....

When her supervisor complains, she replies, “They’re true, though, both sides of it, aren’t they?” Again, Rand seems to be studiously avoiding taking class sides, in order to reinforce her moral that the important divide is between creators and second-handers, not between rich and poor. (And of course Dominique is rich and Howard Roark poor ....)

If there’s any “class” with whom Rand appears to identify in her early works, it’s neither capitalists nor labourers but, well, criminals. Bjorn Faulkner, the hero of Night of January 16th, is a wealthy businessman ... and a con man. Danny Renahan, the hero of her unfinished story The Little Street, is a proletarian ... and a murderer. Kira’s Viking is a military conqueror who “walked through life, breaking barriers and reaping victories” (purely defensive ones? I doubt it). The short story “Good Copy” is a sympathetic portrayal of a kidnapper. In another short story, “The Simplest Thing in the World,” the protagonist, a novelist, imagines his literary hero smashing through a window, leaping onto a neighbouring roof garden, and encountering the heroine:

She sees him for the first time – and this is the miracle: for once in her life, he is what she had wanted him to be, he looks as she had wanted him to look. But he has just committed a murder. I suppose it will have to be some kind of justifiable murder ... No! No! No! It’s not a justifiable murder at all. We don’t even know what it is – and she doesn’t know. But here is the dream, the impossible, the ideal – against the laws of the whole world. Her own truth – against all mankind.

Despite her early fascination with Nietzsche, this glamorisation of criminals needn’t be taken literally. As Rand later explained in the introduction to Night of January 16th: “I do not think ... that a swindler is a heroic character .... But for the purpose of dramatizing the conflict of independence versus conformity, a criminal – a social outcast – can be an eloquent symbol .... of the rebel as such.” (See also Rand’s discussion in The Romantic Manifesto of the common literary phenomenon of writers smuggling the forbidden “fire of self-assertiveness” into their works in the form of the “fascinating villain or colorful rogue, who steals the story.”) But this is all rather ironic in light of her later, more conservative period – what might be called her “respectable turn” – when one of her many charges against modern literature was its sympathetic portrayal of criminals.

In any case, my point is that Rand’s identification with the capitalist class seems to emerge fairly late in her career – not really before Atlas. So it must be explained by something other than, say, her own personal bourgeois background. Could it be her association with Old Right libertarians? Probably to some extent, since many of those thinkers did occasionally veer in the direction Kevin Carson calls “vulgar libertarianism,” that is, exaggerating the extent to which the case for free markets constitutes a case for the prevailing economic order. But – despite her insightful critique of the neofascist system of government-business partnership (on which see Chris Sciabarra) – she often tended to go beyond her Old Right colleagues in her rhetorical veneration of the capitalist class – speaking of big business as a “persecuted minority,” calling the military-industrial complex “a myth or worse” (despite having analysed its dynamic herself), and so on. Paterson, her chief Old Right influence, had a much more jaundiced view of big business, and thought of herself as a “working stiff.” So how Rand’s “aesthetic and affectional imagination” come in her later works, more than in her earlier, to identify itself with the capitalist rather than the working class, despite all she knew to the contrary?

Probably the causes were many. But there’s one cause I haven’t seen anyone mention, and I think it’s important – namely Samuel Merwin’s and Henry K. Webster’s 1901 novel Calumet K – which according to Barbara Branden’s biography was given to Rand by Cecil B. DeMille. While Rand did not say much about this book or its influence on her, she did note that it was her “favorite novel” – an accolade not bestowed lightly.

If ever a work glamourising the managerial class and denigrating workers and the labour movement (although, like Atlas, it has businessmen villains too) were tailor-made to appeal to Rand’s “aesthetic and affectional imagination,” it’s Calumet K. With its cool, rational, single-minded protagonist, its “portrait of an efficacious man,” it’s almost like a virus specifically designed to infect her mental and emotional software. It was not through her class membership but through her artistic sense of life that she was won over.

If she had the book from DeMille she must have been familiar with it as early as the 20s or 30s – and one can see its influence in The Fountainhead – but I suspect it achieved its biggest influence when she was preparing to write Atlas Shrugged. How could her favourite novel, a novel about the world of business and industry, fail to come to mind as she was beginning her own magnum opus set in the same milieu? And might this not be when the heroic creator and the heroic capitalist began to become fused in her subconscious?

Yup, it’s all Cecil B. DeMille’s fault. It came from RKO ....


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