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What I learned at the Ayn Rand conference

In San Francisco, devotees of the US philosopher and author assembled to revere her doctrine of selfishness. But if we expand the notion of “the self”, could Rand’s ideas yet be harnessed for progressive ends?

If you’d walked past the W San Francisco in the autumn of 2018, you might have seen an unusual sight. Along with several other Marriott-owned hotels across the US, the high-end establishment in San Francisco’s South of Market district was the site of a persistent picket line – the result of a tense contract negotiation between Marriott and the labour union UNITE HERE. Even in the dead of night, striking workers and their supporters maintained the picket, drumming and chanting while carrying signs that stated “One job should be enough”.

It took two months of almost constant strikes, but the union’s campaign succeeded. On 3 December 2018, Marriott management conceded to a host of worker demands, including pay rises, increased pension contributions, and better protection against sexual harassment. Through collective action, workers were able to secure substantive gains they likely wouldn’t have been able to achieve alone.

On 25 January 2020, the W San Francisco hosted a different kind of crowd. That Saturday, the Ayn Rand Institute was holding an all-day conference on Objectivism, a school of thought developed by the eponymous US philosopher and author, which hails individual rationality and free-market capitalism. No union signs could be seen here; instead, about a hundred lanyard-wearing attendees milled around a conference room on the fourth floor. On a side table, stacks of Rand books, including The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, were being given away for free (her books have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide). In this quiet conference room, disturbed by neither drumming nor chanting, the focus was the individual, rather than the collective. The programme included talks entitled “The Virtue of Selfishness” and “How to be the Hero of Your Own Life”.

I attended primarily as a sceptic. The theme of the conference was Silicon Valley, and as I’d recently written a decidedly anti-capitalist book about the tech industry (Abolish Silicon Valley), I found the prospect of a pro-capitalist perspective dubious, but intriguing. I was perplexed by the conference website’s suggestion that Silicon Valley lacked rigorous intellectual underpinnings; I had naively imagined that the region was already a Randian paradise. In a city marked by extreme inequality – one renowned for having the world’s highest density of billionaires amid vast homelessness – it was jarring to see such a brazen celebration of capitalist ideals. Why, I wondered, would anyone feel the need to defend so-called “wealth creators”? Weren’t their wealth hoards defence enough?

My motives weren’t entirely cynical, however. I first read Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead as a teenager, and immediately fell in love with it. The rugged individualism, the assurance that hard work and intelligence would eventually pay off – I ate it up. Even as I outgrew my adolescent worldview and moved further left on the political spectrum, there was some part of Rand’s philosophy that lodged deep within me, and that sat uncomfortably with my newfound egalitarian politics. I wanted to understand, for my own sake, how the two could be reconciled.

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Rand, who died in 1982 aged 77, first developed Objectivism through her fiction, particularly The Fountainhead (of which UK Chancellor Sajid Javid is a devotee) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), then later expounded the concept in her non-fiction writing. Those with a passing familiarity with Rand’s work are likely to associate it with libertarianism, though some Objectivists reject the comparison. As institute chairman Yaron Brook explained during the conference, Objectivism is more than simply a political framework: it’s a moral philosophy, one which extends far beyond the realm of the political. In addition, Brook added, the modern libertarian movement had a “weird” reputation, especially owing to its fixation on liberalising age-of-consent laws.

Yet an outside observer would find it difficult to distinguish Objectivist policy prescriptions from the typical libertarian worldview. For Brook, the state should be limited to the function of guaranteeing individual rights – in particular, property rights – meaning that the provision of essential services, such as healthcare and education, is left to the market. And the freer the markets, the better: business-curtailing regulations like California’s Assembly Bill 5, which would classify gig economy workers as employees, rather than contractors, were deplored as destructive and misguided. The idea of a wealth tax, such as that proposed by Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, was decried as an attack on individual freedom, akin to confiscation or state-sanctioned robbery.

On cultural matters, the conference leaned closer to conservatism, though with strong anti-religious undertones (Rand was a noted atheist). The environmentalist movement, as symbolised by activist Greta Thunberg’s urge to reduce fossil fuel consumption, was met with derisive laughter; for Brook, the environment was something to adapt to human needs, not the other way around. Speakers mocked the turn toward “political correctness” among university students, with their emphasis on “triggers” and “microaggressions” and “privilege”, and their glorification of feeling over reason. The philanthropic trend among billionaires was derided as an attempt to conform to societal expectations; apparently, braver billionaires would simply keep their money and do with it as they wished.

Of course, since Rand died 38 years ago, none of the modern-day social commentary can be attributed to her original framework. Despite my disagreements with many of the assertions expressed at the conference, I found a certain appeal to the key tenets of Objectivism. Randians often describe her philosophy as a “moral revolution”, with the goal of redefining selfishness as a virtue rather than vice, and there is indeed something compelling about this ambition. Here, Rand means selfishness in the sense of self-esteem or self-actualisation, rather than callousness. In her view, a truly selfish individual is one who works to achieve their values, as opposed to self-sacrificing based on what they think others value; personal integrity rather than capitulation.

As a set of self-help aphorisms, it’s not unreasonable – if you default to being a pushover, maybe you do need a reminder to be more assertive. In my case, having discovered Rand at an emotionally stunted and vulnerable time of my life, I found her writing to be exhilarating, affirming, maybe even life-changing. The trajectory of Fountainhead protagonist Howard Roark helped carry me through the shivery waters of a lonely adolescence, giving me hope that I, too, would eventually be validated. Rand’s belief in the power of individual reason, in the triumph of will over circumstances, was exactly what I wanted to hear, and so I found her ideas liberating.

But there’s a dark side to this kind of liberation. What might be innocuous as an individual mantra can become dangerous when extrapolated into broader political beliefs – especially if the believers ever attain power. For me personally, my confidence in my intelligence quickly evolved into a sense of moral superiority over anyone I believed to be less intelligent. To my newly Rand-infused mind, it seemed righteous that people would be sorted into their proper station in life, in some automatic meritocratic triage for apportioning wealth to the most deserving. I assumed that I would be among the rewarded. At the time, the possibility of not getting my just deserts seemed like the greatest possible injustice that I could imagine. 

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I learned, eventually, that there are greater injustices, and that you can’t measure a person’s worth solely by their performance in standardised tests. That transformation didn’t come easily, not least because it required a critical examination of beliefs that had become central to my identity. But once I began to see the world differently, I couldn’t go back. I could no longer assume that it was just my hard work and talents that had enabled my status. As much as I wanted to believe in the almighty power of my own mind, it was impossible to deny the importance of structural factors in determining upward mobility. I saw that some had gilded ladders, while others faced unending obstacles, and I could find little joy in trying to win a rigged game.

A staunch Randian would probably diagnose me with an incorrigible case of altruism: in the Objectivist lexicon, a truly dirty word, right up there with “sacrifice”. From the Randian perspective, altruism stems from a perverse concern with the well-being of others, whereas a moral person should only be concerned with the heroic self. And yet, it’s not clear to me that there is a good way to divorce the self from others. Aren’t we all inextricably bound together on this shared planet? Aren’t all our fates ultimately entwined? We learn from others; we depend on others; we were brought here by others, and will be superseded by others. Surely we have responsibilities to others, too.

Certainly, none of the conference speakers advocated a total abdication of responsibility to others; it was more a selective narrowing of which others we could care for without the act devolving into a contemptible sacrifice. There was no shame in caring for those you loved, speakers suggested, as long it was a win-win. Romantic partners were frequently mentioned as an approved source of joy – one memorable slide featured a picture of a heterosexual couple embracing at a kitchen island – and one speaker clarified that because he valued his children, he viewed caring for them as an investment, rather than sacrifice. On the other hand, a different speaker justified his decision to leave home rather than care for his ailing mother, because he resented the idea of sacrificing his own happiness for hers.

On the one hand, this is merely a semantic distinction: it’s an investment if you like it, and a sacrifice you don’t. On the other hand, this speaks to an unresolved tension at the heart of Rand’s philosophy – one that could lead to unexpected conclusions. As multiple speakers were keen to emphasise, Objectivism doesn’t tell you what to do; it doesn’t specify what your values should be. All it says is that you should pursue the things you personally value while minimising anything that resembles the oft-dreaded altruism.

And yet, without reflection on the content of those values, the notion of pursuing values is an empty exhortation. What values, exactly? Rand’s philosophy suggests that values are attained through reason. But reason alone cannot give us values; it cannot give us morals. Morality, that dark ocean into which reason cannot wade, is the realm of feeling, and only afterward do we develop plausible rationalisations for our beliefs. No matter how rational we believe ourselves to be, there is always some base axiom that cannot be justified through reason alone, some flicker of irrationality that trails like a shadow.

I wanted to ask about this, but I wasn’t sure how to frame the question. It seemed to me that there was a vast chasm between the core tenets of Objectivist thought – which all sounded appealing in the abstract – and the conclusions opined onstage. Why was “selfishness” only a virtue for a narrow definition of “self” aligned with traditional family structures? Why was it good to care for your spouse or children, but wrong to care for your aging parents? Why, in sum, was Rand’s apparently “revolutionary” rethinking of morality seemingly so conservative when it came to the question of what morality could entail?

After all, no value system emerges from the vacuum of a fully rational, all-knowing mind. Our values – our morals – are shaped first by our material needs, then further by the institutions and norms of the society in which we find ourselves. As a result, we’re all subject to a variety of competing moral forces, from the remnants of organised religion to the requirements of modern-day capitalism. Rand’s philosophy purports to be revolutionary, but in this atomised age, with communality under attack from a vicious winner-takes-all capitalism, the ideal of self-interested consumers bounded by the strictures of the nuclear family doesn’t sound revolutionary at all. Instead, it sounds suspiciously like the status quo.

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I left the conference feeling somewhat dissatisfied. I was left with so many questions, none of which I could figure out how to ask. My disappointment must have been written all over my face; as I was leaving, a hotel employee asked me, grinning, what I thought of the conference. I said that I found it interesting. He looked like he was trying not to laugh.

It suddenly occurred to me how odd the entire conference must have seemed to the workers. Key to the Objectivist worldview is the elevation of mind over matter – the emphasis on the power of individual reason to shape the world. That would be a reasonable philosophy in a world that was already an egalitarian utopia; in our current heavily striated world, where wealth is distributed more by luck and bias than by any coherent definition of “merit”, it feels absurd. However reasonable in theory, in practice, such a worldview merely ignores the structural inequalities that stymie some individuals as the cost of liberating others.“Only you can control your destiny,” exhorted Tal Tsfany, the institute’s chief executive, to a rapt audience of seated lanyard-wearers, while workers in the back of the room silently refilled coffee pots on a sunny Saturday afternoon. “No one’s getting exploited,” proclaimed Brook of the purportedly win-win transaction of an audience member buying a latte from Starbucks, somehow neglecting to mention the workers who barely have control over their own hours, not to mention company profits.

In such a polarised world, the relevant audience for such a philosophy is bound to be polarised too. Objectivism makes perfect sense for the lanyard class: it’s a self-help manual and secular absolution all in one. It encourages adherents to work hard and achieve more while simultaneously absolving them of any guilt they might feel as a result of their comfortable position in an unequal world. As such, it’s the ideal philosophy for those who experience capitalism in terms of its liberating aspects – the time they can save, or the things they can buy – more than they do its disciplinary side.

Objectivism is a philosophy for the ruling class, and for those who see a plausible path towards achieving that status. And the reality of the ruling class is that, by definition, not everyone can be part of it. Despite Objectivism’s pretensions of universal applicability, a philosophy predicated on emboldening a small number of superior individuals cannot conceivably apply to everyone. It is not a philosophy that speaks to the realities of low-wage work in the modern world, nor to the threadbare avenues of upward social mobility in a world dominated by inherited privilege. Perhaps it was never meant to.

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Yet just because Objectivism fails to grapple with the conditions of our time, that doesn’t mean it has no use. For those who value individual rights, Rand’s philosophy is helpful precisely to the extent that it reveals how poorly our social systems are set up to grant these rights to the majority of people. By defining an impossible ideal of freedom, it unexpectedly exposes the societal impediments that prevent so many people from realising any such freedom in the first place.

It also, perhaps inadvertently, illuminates a path for progress. The most compelling aspects of the Randian worldview stem from its acknowledgment of the importance of the self. Individuals are encouraged to act in accordance with self-interest, rather than guilting themselves into sacrificing for others – and then guilting themselves further for not sacrificing enough. This isn’t an unreasonable principle; but given a narrow conception of self, it can lead to destructive, isolating ends.

What if we turned that impulse towards different ends? What if we began with a more collective notion of “the self”, beyond just our immediate families, to include our communities and the systems that sustained the things we value? Seen from that perspective, seemingly “altruistic” activities such as voting for higher taxes, volunteering for causes, or refusing to cross a picket line no longer look like sacrifices. They look, instead, like investments – investments in the kind of world you want to live in. And as much as Ayn Rand has to say on the topics of reason or selfishness, she can’t tell you what that world should look like. That part is all up to you.

Wendy Liu is a former startup founder and software engineer. Her forthcoming book, Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism, will be published in April