It’s hard to overstate the influence of this Russian-born novelist, philosopher and capitalist cheerleader. To be sure, Ayn Rand’s most famous acolyte was Alan Greenspan, and he basically led the capitalist universe from his post as head of the Federal Reserve for almost 20 years. From that seat, he presided over the deregulation, obfuscation, and eventual collapse of the American (and subsequently Global) financial system.
It’s probably not worth getting into any of this here, since this ground has been so well tread recently, but let’s just bear in mind that this most famous of capitalist philosophers since Adam Smith was a primary influence on the brand of neoliberal thinking that precipitated the crisis which has led to so many working people the world over losing their jobs/houses/cars/hope and to so many wealthy people making even more dough.
Is it possible to separate Ayn (rhymes with ‘mine’) Rand from politics? It would seem that the answer is no. As a novelist, Rand’s key works (We the Living, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) are so explicitly political that it’s impossible to read them as anything other than lessons. Objectivism, the name she gave to her philosophy of self-interest, is the basic point of each of her books. Indeed, there is a full-blown philosophical manifesto wearing the clothing of an uninterrupted 70-page speech from a main character which appears toward the end of her most important novel. How else to read the plotting that surrounds it if not as a lengthy set-up and denouement to a political statement?
And so, Rand occupies a curious place in literary history. Her novels have been passionately praised by readers – they routinely appear near the very top of reader-chosen lists of best books of the 20th century – and have been phenomenally successful money-makers. There is, without a doubt, a gnawing appetite for such entertainments, for such ideas, for such a vision of social relations.
But for those of us to whom this is an odious, pernicious, and ugly way of understanding the world – hers is a philosophy that refuses charity because it is not a self-interested act, that rejects welfare or any state support for the poor or infirm because it is deemed as interference to individual liberty, that believes the wealthy are fundamentally superior to the poor since they have actualized their self interest more successfully than the failed masses, that people as diverse as Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr were fools for thinking about helping others ahead of themselves – well, it’s tough to wrap our heads around this widespread veneration of her beliefs.
But maybe that’s why we aren’t running things.
This film, a 75-minute edited collection of photographs and stock footage detailing Rand’s life and accomplishments, has no interest in engaging with any of these questions. It’s narrated by the humorless Rand herself, stitched together from three television interviews she gave in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and so it is one-sided by default. The sheer volume of photographs and other material is impressive, and the visual record of her life is quite compelling.
In fact, a more fascinating 20th-century life it would be difficult to find – she witnessed the Russian Revolution and Civil War, the early purges, the terror of life in a paranoid state, and all of this before heading to America as a destitute labourer who managed to fall in with Cecil B. DeMille by pure luck, become a film writer, eventually a novelist, and by the mid-‘40s, a wealthy and famous self-made woman in a pre-feminist era – and yet Rand’s narration of these amazing events is so cold and distant that one finds it difficult to engage. Turns out Objectivism isn’t the most powerful narrative engine.
Made with the support of the Ayn Rand Estate, this film is likely the definitive documentary about what Rand thought about herself. But unfortunately, it isn’t the definitive documentary about what she thought, and what that thought has done for, and to, us. That this film will be very popular among her legions of fans seems assured, but for non-believers there isn’t much here to inspire.
The DVD includes a few featurettes (one on Greenspan) and a collectible booklet which heaps on the praise but also doesn’t offer much critical assessment.