By: Christopher Hitchens
Issue: August 2001
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Why so many high-tech executives have declared allegiance to Randian objectivism.
Is it so true, as we are often assured, that we're lucky to live in an age that needs no heroes? Survivors of megalo-supermen like Napoleon might understandably have agreed. What a blessing to live in a society that doesn't encourage the rise of a charismatic and ruthless leader, whether it be Moses or Milosevic. How much more fortunate to be able to cultivate one's own garden and pay intermittent attention to the doings of prophets and politicians. Except that ... isn't there something banal about it? In celebrating movie icons and star athletes, aren't we missing the element of risk and dash and sheer esprit? Underneath the placid surface of bourgeois aspiration, ought not there lurk a pulse that pounds at the thought of the epic? My conclusion is that this pulse can never quite be stilled.
As my first exhibit, I introduce a recent headline from the website of the Ayn Rand Institute in Marina del Rey, Calif. It read: "PG&E; Shrugged." You don't have to be a connoisseur of the work of the late Rand to spot the coded reference. In one of her two classic novels, Atlas Shrugged, a masterful businessman named John Galt organizes his fellow capitalists to go on strike, thus paralyzing the whining, welfare-oriented mob that has come to think of the rewards of brave entrepreneurship as an entitlement or dole.
You might ask, What does that Homeric story -- many, many times the length of the Odyssey or the Iliad -- have to do with a badly run utility company that seeks protection from its creditors by filing for Chapter 11? Well, it evidently has something to do with the irrepressible following still enjoyed by Rand among the freebooters and swashbucklers of California's high-tech economy. We find Randianism rampant among Larry Ellison of Oracle, T.J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor, Eric Greenberg (formerly) of Scient and Viant, and Kevin O'Connor of DoubleClick, whose son's middle name is Rand. Then there are the Rand brands -- named for outfits or characters in her fiction -- such as Rearden Steel, started by WebTV's Steve Perlman, and Galt Technologies (now part of Quicken.com), which was co-founded by Robert Frasca before he moved on to Lycos and Internet Venture Works. Rand Interactive speaks for itself. True Randians call themselves "objectivists," after the pitiless and materialistic philosophy evolved by their guru, which promulgated thoughts and actions by which man must abide to live a proper life. The basic principles of objectivism are objective reality (facts are facts), reason (man's sole means of obtaining knowledge), self-interest (happiness as the highest moral pursuit), and laissez-faire capitalism. In short, you owe it to yourself to be happy. Later this fall, business publisher Texere releases Ayn Rand and Business, a primer that may come in handy for current acolytes who neglected to take an objectivist immersion course. For example, Greenberg told the San Francisco Business Times in March that a main interest and goal was philanthropy. That may be a commonly admired virtue; Rand, however, had cold contempt for all ideas of charity and compassion and meant every word she wrote in her book The Virtue of Selfishness. But there it was on Greenberg's "favorites" list: "Most influential book: Atlas Shrugged."
Perhaps Ayn (rhymes with "mine") Rand's appeal has something to do with the infrastructure, the climate, the educated workforce, and -- let's admit it -- the suffocatingly liberal politics of the Bay Area. It may also have to do with an ineradicable part of the human personality. "I did it all by myself" is one of the first cries of a proud and delighted child. "I'm different -- you wouldn't understand" is one of the mutterings of the subsequent brooding adolescent. "Alone I did it" and "King of the world!" are the slogans of driven men who think that they actually launched the ICBM or raised the Titanic without assistance from anyone except the rabble who did the dull and heavy lifting. (Do these examples seem sufficiently masculine? It's a fact that fewer Randians are female, just as it is a fact that la Rand herself was an unabashed seeker and admirer of the alpha-type chap.)
I called Nathaniel Branden, who for many years was Rand's true-life alpha male and is now a psychologist living in Los Angeles, about why he thought tech execs were smitten with his former mistress. He describes himself with some hesitation as a "neo-objectivist," and regards the Ayn Rand Institute as "very orthodox and pure, but very narrow and unrepresentative." He was both surprised and amused to find that the ideas of Atlas Shrugged, which was published in 1957, have been enjoying a renaissance in Silicon Valley. "Small and new businesses in general have been more sympathetic to her ideas than big ones, so I suppose that fits," he said. "It's a matter of those who are fighting their way up or fighting their way in." He then offered, "Rand did portray a totally different means of thinking about business and businessmen. She was ahead of her time in representing brainpower and intelligence as actual capital assets. These days it's common to think of a capitalist's real wealth as something that is located between his ears.
Nobody would be swifter to agree than John McCaskey, one of the starters-up of E.piphany, who is now pursuing his doctorate in the history of science at Stanford. (His business card describes him as "fellow and founder" of the San Mateo, Calif., company.) At age 41, McCaskey has been in the computer industry for more than 25 years, having begun his own electronics business at the age of 15. While studying engineering at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, he was exposed to Rand's works and kept up his interest through a series of jobs at large and small companies. In March 1997 he joined the founding team of E.piphany in a position he refers to as "product definer," charged with "visualizing" the product. Since the product -- customer information software -- is now used by Amazon, American Express, and Schwab, he must have done some good visualizing.
How, I asked him, has objectivism helped in all this? "Objectivism is a consistent philosophy -- consistent about attitudes and problems and people and crises," he answered. "Specifically, as an individual, you get inspiration from the belief that what you are doing is right. There's no greater happiness than that. A lot of businesspeople carry around with them a great heavy anchor of self-doubt. Not me. What I am doing is a moral enterprise. And self-confidence provides power and strength."
But in sunny California, I objected, you might feel good about yourself and your work anyway. And since Silicon Valley was mainly producing innovative and clean and useful stuff, where would the self-esteem problem arise? How would it work, for example, if you were an objectivist toiling for some grimy coal company in West Virginia? Wouldn't either you or the job have to change?
He said he learned objectivism in Cleveland, home of the smokestack, and by the way, Howard Roark, the protagonist of Rand's The Fountainhead who represents individualism and innovation, toiled in a quarry. "Rand said that �man is a being of self-made soul,'" McCaskey continued. "The same is true of a company. It acquires core values, or it does not. If I'm against a business rival who talks all the time about 'serving the community,' I will beat him. A business that recognizes that its goal is to make money always has a competitive advantage." Does E.piphany have core values? "Sure." What are they? McCaskey promised to send them to me and was as good as his word. Here are some highlights: "Make each customer an E.piphany evangelist. Only agree to what we can deliver and always deliver what we agree to � Always inspire ourselves, our co-workers and our teams to a higher state of performance, speed, quality, completeness, and ultimately, competitiveness � Out-think the competition. Constantly drive creative ideas. And work to bring the best ideas and practices to E.piphany."
Most of this is motivational tautology, of the sort preached by Horatio Alger or sung as the company hymn in Japan. And, as McCaskey insisted on pointing out, there is no pabulum about "giving back" to society. "There's no question of �giving back' or �paying back' anything. It wasn't taken!" He further insisted that another phrase -- "It is what it is" -- can be heard in E.piphany circles, exemplifying the underlying "objectivist metaphysics" of facing facts and believing in rationality. "It works," he said.
A few years ago, I wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times about how American literature has treated American business, and it is indeed true that the businessperson is usually depicted in our national letters either as a grasping monopolist or as a mediocre, cultureless drone. Novels that exalt the chamber of commerce are few, and those that celebrate engineers or architects are even fewer, so perhaps it isn't very surprising that microchip merchants should seize on the fictional doings of John Galt and Howard Roark. However, Branden was mildly distressed to hear of the "PG&E; Shrugged" headline ("a most foolish comment") and astonished to hear of Greenberg's interest in philanthropy, given his age of 37. "Some libertarian business types, when they have amassed great wealth, become involved in charity as they reach the end of their careers." But then, the young generation is so often a disappointment to the pioneers. And, as he added mournfully, "people adapt her teachings in the same way as they adapt their religious beliefs in such a way as to suit their own local needs." Since one of Rand's most unswerving principles was an utter hostility toward all forms of spirituality and superstition, this counts as a tough criticism.
The clich� about Randians, as Branden reminded me, is that they are moody youngsters going through a rebellious phase. (The political analyst and attorney Ann Coulter once referred to her Libertarian Party fans as "Trekkies who live in their parents' basements.") That this assessment is neither fair nor true is proved by the continuing loyalty of veterans like Alan Greenspan. Still, as Paulina Borsook, author of Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, put it to me recently, "there is that amazing overlap with the humorless, lonely kid who likes to play Dungeons and Dragons." To some people, an attachment to Rand is proof of nerdishness. But to others, looking out across the Valley with a steely and creative gaze, the same attachment is the vivid disproof of any such thing, the icy or molten particle of superman within them, even on a day when the Nasdaq dips.
It used to be said by Marxists that capitalism was a system of contradictions. One way of illustrating this deceptively simple point is to take Branden's deceptively simple observation about the appeal of Rand to the rising or small-business man as meaning it's against the successful or established one. The biggest news in the battle between free enterprise and regulation in recent memory has been the Microsoft antitrust lawsuit. Not only did many Randians see the trial as an arraignment of entrepreneurship, but they also saw the philanthropy of Bill Gates as a masochistic concession. The Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism, a pro-Rand and pro-Gates organization, set up a website to defend Microsoft from the state's "assault on success." Jonathan Hoenig, author of Greed Is Good, sent copies of Atlas Shrugged to Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson and to anyone he could think of in the Justice Department antitrust division. (Perhaps now that Jackson has been removed from the case by the federal appeals court, he'll have more time to read it.) Meanwhile, that devoted Randian Larry Ellison testified against Gates to the Senate Judiciary Committee, excoriating monopoly and restraint of trade. So perhaps the objectivist philosophy is not so much a phase in the adolescence of the human being as it is a stage in the evolution of a company, from feisty and new to well-off and self-satisfied. Atlas held up the sky on behalf of the Titans; Rand would have savored the irony of John Galt as the friend of the little guy.
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