One group advocates philosophical hedonism, communal life, and free love. Another struggles for scientific immortality. Another believes in a cosmic mind called "Zon"; yet another wants freedom from the state so badly it's trying to float a brand new country on the Caribbean Sea. Still others, the "moderates" (Bill Maher and Howard Stern among them) call themselves the Libertarian Party -- the second most popular opposition political party in the U.S.
What all these groups have in common is that a strong core of their members, both historically and today, were highly influenced by the Russian-American pop novelist, Ayn Rand.
Although Rand is widely regarded as a second-rate writer of both literature and philosophy, her books -- most noted among them 1943's The Fountainhead and 1957's Atlas Shrugged -- continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies each year.
Rand died in 1982 of lung cancer (she had a philosophical commitment to cigarettes), but her ideas live on thanks primarily to the Objectivist movement started in New York City in the mid-'60s. It uses postage-paid bind-in cards that are annoyingly placed in the middle of every one of Rand's paperbacks to attract a steady stream of intellectual, socially-awkward youths. Between the movement's genesis and today, a strange series of schisms, offshoots, and bastardized mutations has produced a nifty list of sub-subcultures with a wide range of agendas.
With the announced plans by Turner Network Television to adapt Atlas Shrugged into a miniseries, a 1998 Oscar nomination for the authorized bio-pic Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, and Jeff Walker's recent book, The Ayn Rand Cult, Rand's legacy beckons us like a sideshow barker to examine the aftermath of her totalistic vision and the fans who consider her to be the greatest philosopher of all time.
Touring the Sideshows
The Libertarian Party. A modern incarnation of classical liberalism, this political party is further to the right than the Republicans, seeking the outright separation of State and commerce, and further to the left than the Democrats, advocating the legalization of all types of "victimless" activities such as drug trafficking, gun ownership, gambling, and prostitution. The Libertarian Party was a direct outgrowth of Rand's philosophies, though, ironically, she ended up repudiating them, feeling they were too pragmatic and unwilling to adopt her morality as the sole justification for laissez-faire capitalism.
Extropians. Believing in the unending progress of technological civilization through science, the Extropians are the driving force behind the cryonics industry, which freezes people's bodies (or just their heads) for reanimation in a future era, when experts will be able to revive them, fix their bodies, and/or "upload" the contents of their brains into cyborg bodies. According to Extropianism, in this future era, aging will be cured and people will live "indefinitely." Listed among the seven "Extropian Principles" (Version 3.0) -- a short list of moral virtues -- are "Rational Thinking" and "Perpetual Progress," two perennial Randian themes. Both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are listed on their Web site as essential reading for Extropians. They are very strongly libertarian in their politics. Also, their literature often advertises the work of self-esteem guru Nathaniel Branden, who was Rand's lover and founder of the Objectivist movement.
Neo-Tech/Zonpower. This Scientology-like Internet cult is a true stowaway of Objectivism. It even openly bills itself as a type of Objectivism, and repeatedly praises the work of Ayn Rand and the wondrous "innovations" of her philosophy; at the same time, Neo-Tech positions itself as an enemy of the official Objectivist power structure, an alternative to the "intellectualistic" deceptions of high-ranking Objectivists like Rand's heir, Leonard Peikoff. Neo-Tech promises, through the utilization of its "technology," to deliver limitless power, wealth, and love, by tapping into a cosmic force known as "Zon." They believe, in much the same way as the Extropians, that humanity is poised for an evolutionary "jump" into the form of "God-Man," a state involving the gifts of immortality and infinite happiness.
Epicureans. One of the newer offshoots of Objectivism, this group centers around an openly hedonist ethic. Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher whose views were uncannily similar to Rand's, the difference being that he truly stressed the primacy of pleasure, whereas Rand tacked it on as an afterthought (she was actually quite Victorian in her ethical views). Epicureanism seems to have two strains -- a "subjectivist" and an "objectivist" version. The former attracts lifestyle contrarians and taboo-challengers, while the latter attracts more tradition-minded intellectuals who indulge the occasional whim (something pure Objectivists would never tolerate). Whereas the "subjectivist" Epicureans are more sensualist and existentialist, the "objectivist" Epicureans tend to worship the New Agey psychological views of Nathaniel Branden. The two camps are friendly to one another and both were inspired by Rand's writings on egoism, rationality, and pleasure, even if she was likely inspired by Epicurus' writings on the same.
New Utopia. A floating country to be located on the surface of the Caribbean Sea and ruled by His Serene Highness Prince Lazarus Long, New Utopia is meant to be a constitutional monarchy. It will sport a state-of-the-art hospital whose primary research will be anti-aging and longevity treatments. The founders expect New Utopia to be "the most perfect city/state ever conceived, blending the philosophies of both Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein." The Web site claims that they are fashioning their country after the utopia portrayed in Atlas Shrugged. The Securities and Exchange Commission recently backed down on a restraining order against New Utopia for soliciting investment funds on the Internet, after realizing their methods were not fraudulent, as was first suspected.
A Persistent Legacy
Ayn Rand left no children, no genetic legacy. But she seems to have fully compensated for this by birthing so many different manifestations of her social thought. As Jeff Walker writes in The Ayn Rand Cult: "The complex interaction between a not-very-literary writer and millions of Americans occurred because she purported to have resolved the conflict between self and society in a culture steeped in contrary beliefs about individualism, about money, and about power."
And if biographical accounts of her life are true, her own role as cult-leader, both while alive and dead, sprang from the same paradox -- namely that while she found so many readers for her books and was so loved by the masses, it was those lowly masses she most detested. Those whom she considered her peers -- other intellectuals -- never gave her the recognition she thought she deserved. Her revenge was to corral those worshipful masses and attempt to transform them (and thus society at large, including its intellectuals) into a force for the implementation of her worldview.
Jeff Diehl wishes nothing but the best for all individualist lemmings.