Ayn Rand Didn’t Mean a Technocracy
It is a matter of record that many of the most powerful entrepreneurs and VCs of Silicon Valley espouse a distinctly libertarian point of view tinged with shades of Ayn Rand, or at least a half-assed reading of her works. And this confluence should not be overlooked, if for no other reason than, at least for the moment, what feels like our inexorable march toward a technocracy is being led by a very small group of very young men.
I have opined to friends and colleagues that the last people who should ever read Ayn Rand’s novels, let alone be required to read them, are teenage boys. No creature that horny and that neophyte in basic literacy should ever be exposed to her particular brand of social philosophy until it is mature enough to realize that, for instance, her masterwork Atlas Shrugged is essentially an unforgivably verbose, adult comic book. Like The Justice League meets The Story of O, part of the narrative of this undeservedly influential novel is one in which the heroine lives out her rape fantasies with a series of increasingly powerful wizards.
Each of the wizards — all brilliant and good-looking men — are flattering caricatures of 20th century Robber Barons, as if Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie were all dashing, philosophical, and scientific rather than cunning, ruthless, and lucky. The subplot of Dagney Taggart’s sexual metamorphosis portrays her as a figure who must earn the right through her journey toward ideological enlightenment to finally deserve to be ravished by the man with the biggest machine. In this sense, Taggart’s sexual “awakening” parallels the overarching implication in the novel that society itself must earn the right for John Galt to return messianic with his intrinsic technology. All of the action is of course interspersed with endless and repetitive monologues that might be boiled down to three words — communism is bad.
So, no, we should not assign this novel to adolescent boys, most especially if those boys reveal themselves to be prodigies in a technological field and are, therefore, more apt to imagine themselves possessing the power to “turn off the machine of the world.” Such comparisons to Galt were made after the blackout of certain websites in protest of SOPA/PIPA. And although the world did, and certainly could, carry on without Wikipedia, it is worth noting that its founder Jimmy Wales considers himself an Objectivist, which is the social philosophy of Rand and her inner circle of thinkers and sex partners. Of course, it’s hard to imagine many enterprises that would inspire one of the author’s smoky sneers more that Wikipedia might. Free? For the greater good? Managed by a collective? As I say, Rand leaves almost no English word unused in her excoriation of such ideas. But this is typical of most people who claim to adhere to a particular philosophy; from traditional religion to vegetarianism, they tend to cherry pick the bits they like and leave out the bits they don’t like or don’t understand.
Visualize the present lifestyles many of Silicon Valley’s boy geniuses, and the parallels with Atlas Shrugged require little imagination. These contemporary wizards have science and technology, they have extraordinary wealth, and they have private planes they land in their very own magic valley where they construct work spaces, social clubs, and even transportation systems that allow them to exist entirely separate from the population around them. And like John Galt and those chosen to live in his secret valley, the consistently articulated message from these real-life wizards is that society needs them, and we would be self-destructive to restrain their “genius” no matter where it may lead. Of course, the fictional Galt had invented a machine that would produce an endless supply of energy while many a real-world Internet entrepreneur has invented a means to waste an endless amount of time; but that’s just life’s way of producing an endless amount of irony.
Needless to say, I am no Ayn Rand fan; I think she was mad as a hatter, desperately in need of an editor, and doesn’t really deserve the philosophical pedestal on which she has been placed. But one value often overlooked by both her fans and her haters, in industry or in politics, and one she often wrote about quite beautifully, was the notion that a person’s work is irrevocably his own. Be it a technological device, an architectural design, a new formulation for steel, a novel, or a symphony, a person’s work was his or her property; and any other person or entity which sought to profit from or restrain the creator’s right to exploit that work was what she called a “looter.” And nothing was lower in her view.
While many interpreters of Rand associate her with social Darwinism, I think she makes clear that she doesn’t revile the average citizen but rather reviles the theft of human capacity and theft of genius. Thus, her characters are caricatures of genius breaking restraints on their abilities, but if you pay attention to the passage in Atlas Shrugged once Dagney arrives in the secret valley, you’ll notice that even the ubermensch who have formed their own society still honor the boundaries of one another’s individual sovereignty. They so utterly reject the idea of the collective, that they will not do even the slightest deed as a favor; all interactions and transactions are a form of trade. And a less jaded reading of this is that all individuals, not just the John Galts of the world, own the sovereignty and dignity produced by their labor. And that is not a wholly inhuman idea, which is why I’m not surprised it is so often missed by boys who probably didn’t read very carefully.
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