- “A New Concept of Egoism”:The Late Modernism of Ayn Rand
“It stood on the edge of the Boston Post Road, two small structures of glass and concrete forming a semicircle among the trees: the cylinder of the office and the long, low oval of the diner, with gasoline pumps as the colonnade of a forecourt between them.”1 The narrator goes on to describe this modernist petrol station in terms that recall the rapture of Marinetti recounting the car crash that launched Futurism, or of Le Corbusier encountering the titanic reawakening of Parisian traffic that led him to develop his Voisin Plan, a new approach to urban planning formulated specifically in order to facilitate the free movement of automobiles. “It looked like a cluster of bubbles hanging low over the ground, not quite touching it, to be swept aside in an instant on a wind of speed; it looked gay, with the hard, bracing gaiety of efficiency, like a powerful airplane engine” (F, 156).
But this building is designed by neither Mies van der Rohe nor Arne Jacobsen. It is the creation of Howard Roark, hero of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead (1943), and it is worth underlining how strange this ought to seem. A declared romantic who favored Victor Hugo over the sort of innovators who never used capitals, never used commas, and wrote poems that neither rhymed nor scanned, Rand must appear an unlikely champion of modernism in architecture. Indeed, Rand’s philosophy presents a perfect example of that mistrust of grand narrative now recognized to be central to the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” postmodernism. In place of “all the variants of modern collectivism (communist, fascist, Nazi, etc.), which preserve the religious-altruist ethics in full and merely substitute ‘society’ for God as the beneficiary of man’s self-immolation,” Rand proposes a new [End Page 977] social order geared to the individual: “a free, productive, rational system that rewards the best in every man, and which is, [as Frederic Jameson rather feared it might be] obviously, laissez-faire capitalism.”2
In fact, Rand’s philosophy has had a role equal to or greater than that of Milton Friedman or F. A. Hayek in shaping a contemporary neoliberal consensus, having had an avowed impact upon theorists such as George Gilder, whose Wealth and Poverty (1981) has been called the Bible of the Reagan administration, and Charles Murray, who launched an early, influential attack on the welfare state in Losing Ground (1984). Rand’s philosophy is regularly cited as an inspiration by a new breed of industrialists based in California’s Silicon Valley, where the IT and business models that powered the neoliberal experiment were first developed. Influential public figures on the American right such as Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santelli, and Paul Ryan have recently endorsed Rand’s work. And as is now well known, Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve between 1987 and 2006, and perhaps the primary architect of our highly deregulated and globalized financial order, is her protégé.3
And yet there is clearly no discrepancy between Roark’s modernist practice and his “postmodernist” philosophy. The fact is that Rand presents readers with a total philosophy for living in a period supposedly wary of the great modernist passion for system building. “Weary from Communism, fascism, and two world wars, intellectuals were above all uninterested in ideology,” writes Jennifer Burns in her biography of Rand: “Rand’s Objectivism, a completely integrated rational, atheistic philosophical system delivered via a thousand-page novel, was simply not what most established intellectuals were looking for in 1957.”4 No doubt one could argue that Rand is a transitional figure in the great twentieth-century paradigm shift. Equally disregarding the extravagant claims made for her work by her acolytes and the blanket dismissal of ideological opponents, one might conceivably characterize Rand as a right-wing counterpart to Aldous Huxley, as a resolutely middlebrow writer who chose to apply ideas and techniques pioneered by modernists without being of that movement, a writer who like Huxley (or Robert Graves) eventually came to enjoy untimely success with the rise of a later generation in the...