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The spectrality of Ayn Rand

‘Ayn Rand’s fascination for male figures displaying absolute, unswayable determination of their Will, seems to offer the best imaginable confirmation of Sylvia Plath’s famous line, “Every woman adores a Fascist”.’

With this controversial sentence, Slavoj Zizek mounts his defence of what he calls the “actuality” of Ayn Rand. Zizek reads the above sentence as a “politically correct” dismissal of Rand – a dismissal that he then proceeds to argue against. For Zizek there is an ideological procedure in Rand’s work that is far more radical than she herself would have admitted. Rand, he argues, belongs to a line of authors who are “overconformist” and who, by nature of their very excessive identification with the ruling ideology (welfare capitalism), achieve a successful subversion of that ideology. How does this work? Zizek argues that Rand’s “over-orthodoxy was directed at capitalism itself”. Rand gives us capitalism in its pure, unmediated, basic form. According to her, “the truly heretical thing today is to embrace the basic premise of capitalism without its communitarian, collectivist, welfare, etc. sugar-coating”. In other words, Rand read contemporary capitalism as “decaffeinated”, not capitalist enough, as is illustrated by the title of one of her books, Capitalism: the unknown ideal.

Further proof that Rand in fact undermined contemporary capitalism in the name of a fundamental, pure capitalism, is, according to Zizek, to be located in her opposition between the “prime movers” and the “second handers” in her work. The prime mover is independent and autonomous, he makes no sacrifices and his satisfaction does not depend on the well-being of others. The prime mover rejects the Hegelian construction of personhood coming into itself only externally, through the recognition of others. Because the prime mover is not “contaminated” by others and otherness, he is presented in Rand as innocent and without hatred or fear. Roark does not hate Toohey, he simply does not think or care about him. Second handers are followers – they rely on others, are properly dependent for their happiness on others. The second handers are the contaminators, diluting and dirtying the pure ideal.

But Zizek turns the atheistic, selfish ethic of the prime mover, as advocated in Rand’s work, on its head, arguing that the prime mover is capable of love for others, that it is in fact the love for others that is properly Randian (or shall we say Roarkian?) in that it is the highest form of selfishness – turning the other into my love object through whom I satisfy my innermost drives. In Atlas Shrugged, the withdrawal of the prime movers from
“bureaucratised public life” has disastrous consequences, resulting in global disintegration. The society of mass men beg the prime movers to return, which they do, but on their own terms. Zizek reads the ideological procedure here as being located in a simple answer to the “eternal question”: What moves the world? Rand’s answer is: the prime movers, of course.

Zizek shows how Rand reverses our everyday evaluation of the strike as an activity of the workers. In Atlas Shrugged, it is the capitalists who go on strike and the society disintegrates. It is only their selfish love for others that saves it. The secret retreat where the capitalists go operates as close as possible to the capitalist ideal – everything occurs strictly in accordance with the law of the market – even the word ‘help’ is prohibited.

Zizek makes a helpful distinction between desire and drive that can help us to better understand why the prime mover’s love for others is simply self-love. Here he examines the relationship between Roark and Dominique, arguing that Roark is the one who is a “being of pure drive” whereas Dominique is ruled by “desire”. Thus, Roark needs the Other (Dominique) simply as the (temporary) source of the satisfaction of drive. He is in fact totally indifferent to her subjectivity – “[a]t the level of drive, […] one can dispose of the Other. Dominique, on the other hand is the one who is consumed by her desire, which, in Zizek’s appropriation of Lacan, is always desire of the Other. Whereas Roark is indifferent, Dominique is affected. And the only way for her to be free from this desire is to sacrifice/destroy everything she cares for. Hence Dominique’s attempts to ruin Roark – the true object of her desire. And Roark knows this very well, that is why he resists her advances – Dominique must achieve the shift from desire to drive if she wants to have him.

Dominique, on the other hand, wants to destroy Roark’s position of pure drive. The result is a self-destructive dialectic, played out at its most intense when Dominique furiously whips Roark in what Zizek describes as an act of self-despair on her part, “an awareness of his hold over her, of her inability to resist him”. This is paid for by the first sex scene between them as a brutal rape. Dominique’s tragic predicament lies in the fact that she knows that the only way for her and Roark to be “an ordinary couple” is for him to become worthless, in other words, to destroy the very thing that causes her to desire him – his excessive autonomous creativity.

There is no way out of this deadlock, beautifully expressed in Dominique’s words: “I want to be owned, not by a lover, but by an adversary who will destroy my victory over him.” Rand illustrates a fundamental conflict between the prime movers themselves; and the figure who causes this conflict is Dominique, the hysterical prime mover. The only resolution to the destructive dialectics between Roark and Dominique is for her to accept indifference – she must give up the very core of what makes life worth living for her, she must “accept the end of the world”.

What makes Zizek’s reading of Rand truly extraordinary is his claim that Roark and Dominique are in fact a lesbian couple. How is this claim possible? Recall that Dominique is portrayed as a feminine hysterical subject obsessed by her desire for the Other. The only way in which she can “have” the Other is for her to pass through the fantasmatic ordeal of an acceptance of indifference – the being that emerges is a “perfected” prime mover and this being is psychically feminine – Roark is a woman. As Zizek puts it: “What Rand was not aware of was that the upright, uncompromising masculine figures with a will of steel with whom she was so fascinated, are effectively figures of the feminine subject liberated from the deadlocks of hysteria.”

The lesson for ethics and subjectivity here is as critical as it is paradoxical: it is only once I assume a fundamental indifference for the Other’s desire, only once I suspend “the intersubjective game of mutual (mis)recognition”, only once my desire becomes and remains properly spectral, only haunting me on occasion from a distant place, that the pure subject emerges, unmediated in her Otherness, thus unaltered by my desire. In this way, I commit an ethical act.

Source: S Zizek ‘The actuality of Ayn Rand’ (2002) 3 (2) The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 215-27