Ayn Rand Crosses Over to Britain

Ayn Rand's me-first philosophy of Objectivism has already infiltrated mainstream conservatism in the US, but as a recent lecture I attended shows, the hardcore capitalists are spreading their gospel on the other side of the Atlantic too.

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Nov 1 2013, 2:00pm

Lars Christensen, CEO of Saxo Bank, speaking in front of a group of Objectivists.

On Tuesday, I went to a talk held by the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) titled "Ayn Rand: More Relevant Now than Ever" in London's luxurious Goldsmiths' Hall, a grand old building near St Paul's Cathedral. The crowd was mostly white, male, and wearing sharp suits, as you'd expect at an event devoted to Rand—the novelist-philosopher who came up with "the morality of rational self-interest," a worldview that says you should pretty much do whatever benefits you and if that results in someone else getting screwed over, well, fuck them anyway. It was the second annual Ayn Rand lecture hosted by the Adam Smith Institute, a libertarian think tank. I was in a temple of the free market.

The speaker was the CEO of Saxo Bank, Lars Seier Christensen. As the head of an investment bank based in socialist Denmark, Christensen is particularly enraged by high taxation, social welfare, and banking regulations, which made him a perfect source of Randian rage. "The world is on the wrong track," he told us. "A malady that has long beset Europe is currently spreading to the US." Apparently we are experiencing a "socialist revival" to which "Ayn Rand is the only answer."

If you've never had a college roommate who got way too into her, Rand was an amphetamine-addicted writer of trashy potboilers who, despite being laughed at by many conservatives of her day gradually became one of the most influential philosophers of the right. Her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged has been ranked the second most influential book after the Bible. The 1,000-page, dull-as-dishwater book describes a world crippled by a socialist government where a group of heroic tycoons and inventors abandon society, which promptly collapses without them. The plot is really besides the point though—mostly, Atlas Shrugged is a vehicle for Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, which advances "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life." It also depicted rich people as superior beings and poor people as pathetic, hapless moochers. See why bank executives might be interested in something like that?

Rand’s New York apartment parties notoriously mixed sex with politics and she counted Alan Greenspan, who would become the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, in her inner circle up until the early 1960s. (He insists he was only there for the free market philosophy, but no one believes him.) The New York Times dubbed her the "novelist laureate" of the Reagan administration, and since her death her influence has only grown (Atlas Shrugged sales soared after the financial crash). Her biographer Jennifer Burns described her as "the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right."

The audience at Goldsmith's Hall. Photo by Dawn Foster

Christensen told his audience he first found Rand as an "insecure" 37-year-old businessman. He had been searching for a "moral argument for capitalism," and when a colleague gave him a copy of Atlas Shrugged he was saved. (Rand was very antireligion, but the way people talk about her books you'd think they were describing a conversion experience.)

Since reading the novel, Christensen runs Saxo Bank as he imagines Rand would have wanted and all senior employees are expected to have read the novel. It doesn't stop there—the bank has given out over 15,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged and counting as part of Christensen's strategy to convert "young people," "entrepreneurs," and "the new political movements" to the philosophy. They’re obviously trying new tactics: bizarrely, the Objectivists had apparently paid young actors to stand outside the hall with signs asking "Who is John Galt?"—a slogan from Atlas Shrugged referring to the leader of the rich people.

I was treated fantastically as a potential new convert. My ticket was free, as was a copy of Atlas Shrugged and limitless post-talk booze. (Free stuff, at an event dedicated to the Goddess of the Marke?) Grazing on canapés with a young Tory policy adviser and a man whose "money was in racehorses," I was told that tonight’s talk was "nothing" in comparison to last year’s, delivered by John Allison, former CEO of BB&T Corporation, a US bank. (He's now president and CEO of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.)

Apparently BB&T were applying objectivism before Saxo Bank had even heard of it and Allison , was "the real deal." And, I was asked, hadn’t I caught the LSE talk on Monday by Yaron Brook, President of the Ayn Rand Institute? I should join the email list so I didn’t miss out again, I was instructed.

One of the actresses paid to stand outside and hold a sign.

Everyone there was friendly. Desperately friendly. Randians can probably sense that since the 2008 financial crisis, the unquestioning belief in the superiority of capitalism as an organizing system has been questioned by many. Faced with the destruction wreaked by market chaos and state austerity, many of capitalism’s former champions have turned apologists, claiming it's a necessary evil. The ARI aims to reassert the moral supremacy of unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism.

The organization, headquartered in California, has 40 staffers dedicated to spreading the word (the chair of the board of directors is a former managing director of Goldman Sachs). The banking sector is naturally pretty sympathetic to its views, as is much of the Republican Party. Former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said Ayn Rand was the reason he got into public service, though many Objectivists despise government—Christensen said politicians are only needed in "an emotional, irrational world."

Events like the one at Goldsmiths' Hall indicate that Rand's acolytes are trying to get their philosophy to jump across the Atlantic. In 2010, Telegraph lead writer Alex Singleton urged UK Prime Minister David Cameron to read Ayn Rand and make his support for capitalism more explicit. Singleton quoted Rand: "The moral treason of the 'conservative' leaders lies in the fact that they are hiding behind… camouflage." In other words, he should have the guts of right-wing politicians in the US, who are unafraid to openly back deep cuts to programs that feed poor people.

Cameron's effort to shrink the British state in an unprecedented transfer of public institutions and services into private hands looks distinctly Randian. He and his allies wouldn’t be so bold as to credit Ayn, of course, but clearly, London’s objectivists are coming out of the woodwork, eager to wage a moral war on those who denounce the evils of capitalism. They are a strange army—a horde of pale men in patent leather shoes, pink-eyed political wonks and traders, investment bankers and IT nerds. It’s difficult to be terrified, but this could be the new breed of ubermensch.

Follow Niki on Twitter: @NikiSethSmith

More on Rand and capitalism:

I Signed Up for the Ayn Rand Fan Club Dating Site

Paul Ryan, All-American Teenager

Detroit's Bankruptcy Highlights the Cruelty of American Capitalism

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