When I first started looking into the teachings of NXIVM, a self-help group whose leaders are now indicted on sex trafficking, forced labour, conspiracy and racketeering charges, it was tough to navigate around all the built-in secrecy. Students of the courses had to sign non-disclosure agreements, and critics who shared that information risked becoming targets of aggressive, never-ending lawsuits. Needless to say, it wasn’t ideal conditions for learning what attracted tens of thousands of people to pay small fortunes just to access one man’s “executive success” philosophy.
On some level I was trying to put myself in the shoes of women like Sarah Edmondson, Allison Mack, and Nicki Clyne, who devoted at least a decade their lives to the NXIVM cause. I wanted to know if, given the right pitch, mentor, or (god forbid) an unpredicted life curveball, I could have ended up boarding a plane to Albany, New York, only to find myself held down and filmed while a doctor branded Keith Raniere’s initials on my crotch.
I had heard the course work was a mishmash of recycled concepts from Scientology’s Dianetics, fables from Paradise Lost, and the ideological underpinnings of Ayn Rand’s novels. Though it seemed extremely unlikely that Rand’s 1,000-plus page love letter to unfettered capitalism would present a path to self-discovery, I reluctantly downloaded the Atlas Shrugged audiobook in hopes of understanding what made this group tick.
As Raniere’s arrest made it easier for former students to speak freely, I realized Rand’s philosophy was copied and pasted throughout the NXIVM curriculum, barely adapted for seminar room discussion. Emphasis was on creating “value” in the world, and contributing to “civilization” via success in the free market. But the real kicker was discovering that Rand herself had a literal cult following that in many ways mirrored Raniere’s.
Rand’s philosophy might sound familiar to anyone who has recently sat through an entire Jordan Peterson video on individual responsibility or changing the world “properly.” She argued that there is only one objective reality, and that humans can uncover it using logic and reason. This is called Objectivism. Rand’s inner circle of followers so adored her ideas, thought she was so persuasive and right, they used their own reasoning to arrive at these principles described in a 1993 essay in Skeptic:
- Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.
- Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.
- Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth.
- Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and/or her work, the measure of one’s virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding her and/or it.
- No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns.
- No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue.
- Since Ayn Rand has designated Nathaniel Branden as her “intellectual heir,” and has repeatedly proclaimed him to be an ideal exponent of her philosophy, he is to be accorded only marginally less reverence than Ayn Rand herself.
- But it is best not to say most of these things explicitly (excepting, perhaps, the first two items). One must always maintain that one arrives at one’s beliefs solely by reason.
I wish I was making this up, but Rand believed her own hype, and the details of how she took advantage of her power are even more absurd. According to expert Steven Hassan’s research, Rand’s “collective” had all the trappings of a destructive personality cult. They glorified the leader, claimed she was never wrong, equated supporting Objectivism with moral rightness, and allowed the Russian author to go about having affairs and destroying careers based on her own personal whims.
NXIVM shared a worship of “reason” and its leader’s claims of superior intelligence. This was at times a shield against cult accusations, because how could a group that valued “critical thinking” be manipulating minds? Raniere attempted to patent “Rational Inquiry” (self help, but science!) and endlessly cited Rand as one of his favourite authors. His courses were designed to encourage people to pursue self-interest above all else, a central point for both Rand and the man who famously couldn’t name a feminist he admired.
I bring up Peterson because he very much echoes this “rational” and “orderly” way of thinking that presents as intellectual but mostly tells viewers to focus on themselves. In one of his most popular videos (in which he misspells millennials) Peterson says it is wrong to look for perpetrators and victims in the outside world, especially if you haven’t already dealt with your inner demons. He pits social justice against Truth (that’s a capital T), and strongly suggests viewers “orient” themselves via manly man writers like Nietzsche so that they can resist the orthodoxy of the university.
When asked for his opinion on Ayn Rand, Peterson has said she is not a “great mind” (virtually none of the greats in his mind are women, a fact he happily points out), but he commends her focus on the individual. For Peterson, Rand should have placed even more emphasis on the struggle within.
Raniere saw himself as the hero in Shrugged, and on many occasions referred to the women he pursued sexually as “Dagny Taggart”—the book’s heroine. You can see this all the way back in a letter to his ex-girlfriend Toni Natalie, who alleged abuse and fled in 1999. “Now you have run away and hid and are too scared to come back,” he wrote. “Would Dagny do this?”
The alleged cult leader also taught that no one should give away their work for free—everyone should be paid for what they do, especially if it’s adding “value” to the world. (Except, of course, when he requested his followers stay up all night transcribing new teaching modules or doing other menial labour for him—then he expected tasks to be done out of loyalty and love). From a place of extreme power and privilege, Raniere’s self-interests became a preposterous caricature of grift, taking hundreds of millions from followers while securing 24/7 access to “fuck toy” slaves.
Christopher Hitchens once said of Ayn Rand, “I don’t think there’s a need to have essays advocating selfishness among humans… some things require no further enforcement.” One could almost write off figures like Rand, Raniere and Peterson until you realize their followings are on a moral crusade they believe is backed by reason itself.
In the case of Raniere, anyone who stood in the way of his projects was deemed “suppressive” and could expect to be intimidated into submission, ejected and silenced, or in some cases vengefully attacked. (If you’ve ever had Peterson fanboys in your Twitter mentions, this may also sound familiar).
Peterson claims he does not subscribe to any ideology. He says you have to tear yourself down intellectually before you can rebuild. This is also something that cults do, and as we’ve learned with NXIVM and Rand, just because it’s in the name of “reason” or “objectivity” doesn’t save anyone from fanatical groupthink.
When these ideas have a moment, it’s framed as a resistance to addressing social issues like systemic racism and mass inequality. We hear Peterson and Raniere argue you need to work on yourself, make yourself rich and successful first, before you can look to solve any other problem in this world. But we know that capitalism unchecked has no morality, no ethics, and cannot be trusted to solve the global crises we face. It doesn’t matter what kind of intellect or ethics the players claim to have.
Revisiting the cult of Ayn Rand has taught me a lot of things. A love of reason or philosophy or problem solving does not preclude anyone from creating a destructive ideological cult. And only thinking about yourself—not looking out in the world for perpetrators of massive power abuse—well that’s the mindset that allowed Raniere to avoid the attention of America’s justice system for more than a decade.
Sarah Berman is a senior editor at VICE Canada working on a book about the NXIVM sex trafficking trial with Penguin Canada. Follow her on Twitter.
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