Ayn Rand is “one of the most important intellectual voices in our culture,” wrote Gregory Salmieri, co-editor of the Blackwell Companion to Ayn Rand, in 2016. He identifies a “pronounced disconnect” in responses to Rand’s books and ideas.

Atlas Shrugged, her 1957 bestseller, is a case in point. Rand’s novel, which she believed her best, has generated significant critical and academic scorn since publication.

But her laissez faire, anti-government ode to individualism also resonated with millions of readers. It remains a favourite of politicians (including Tea Party types) and tech billionaires – including one with possible apartheid emerald mining connections.

Salmieri adds that Rand was fascinated by criminality. She was particularly captivated by William Hickman, responsible for this 1927 abduction in Los Angeles (described in James L Neibaur’s Butterfly in the Rain):

The kidnapper leaned back and disappeared into the darkness of his car. […] Perry Parker watched carefully as the car containing Marion came to a stop. The passenger door opened, and an object fell to the curb. […] Kneeling beside the bundle, he reached down and lifted it toward him, throwing his arms around his 100-pound daughter, and pulled her closely toward him. He noticed the package was suspiciously light.

Lisa Duggan explains why the bundle was underweight. Caution: this is disturbing.

Parker’s 12-year-old daughter, Marion, had not simply been dumped on the street. The kidnapper, Duggan writes, “had dismembered her body, drained it of blood, cut her internal organs out, and stuffed her torso with bath towels.”

In response, the police launched a manhunt. The reward was $100,000. Hickman, the prime suspect, was apprehended in Oregon. He was executed by the Californian state in 1928.

Rand wanted to write a novel – The Little Street – about Marion’s murder and Hickman’s trial. While that novel never eventuated, we know what Rand intended.

David Harriman, who edited Rand’s journals, notes that the book’s theme, which the novelist would return to obsessively, “was that humanity – warped by a corrupt philosophy – is destroying the best in man for the sake of enshrining mediocrity”.

Rand wanted to denounce, as Harriman puts it, “a world that seems to have no place for heroism”.

Significantly, the novel’s hero – Danny Renahan – was modelled on Hickman. This is how Rand described Renahan:

He is born with the spirit of Argon and the nature of a medieval feudal lord. Imperious. Impatient. Uncompromising. Untameable. Intolerant. Unadaptable. Passionate. Intensely proud. Superior to the mob and intensely, almost painfully conscious of it. Restless, High-strung. An extreme “extremist.” A clear, strong, brilliant mind. An egoist, in the best sense of the word.

Welcome to the world of Ayn Rand. Standard rules do not apply.

A real delight in opposing people

The Russian-born, naturalised American’s world is one where conventional understandings of morality and conduct are not flouted, but inverted.

This is a place where only the enlightened can appreciate, as Rand posits in a misanthropic journal entry, “that all humanity and each little citizen is an octopus that consciously or unconsciously sucks the best on earth and strangles life with its cold, sticky tentacles”.

What the world needs, in Rand’s estimation, is a hero like this:

He gets immense enjoyment from shocking people, amusing them with his cynicism, ridiculing before their eyes the most sacred, venerated, established ideas. He takes a real delight in opposing people, in fighting and terrifying them. He has no ambition to be a benefactor or a popular hero for mankind.

If this sounds like Rand had been reading Nietzsche, that is because she had.

Indeed, the first book Rand (born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum) – who fled Russia after the Bolsheviks seized power – purchased in the United States in 1926 was an English translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Later in life, Rand underplayed her ardour for Nietzsche. The “only philosophical debt” Rand, who considered herself a thinker of profound originality, would now acknowledge was “to Aristotle”.

Rand termed her philosophical approach Objectivism. Note the continued emphasis on heroism:

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

Rand’s fellow Objectivist travellers accept these statements. Leonard Peikoff, for one, agrees that “Objectivism is an integrated system of thought that defines the abstract principles by which a man must think and act if he is to live the life proper to man.”

Yet as the political scientist Cory Robin reminds us, although “Rand’s defenders claim she later abandoned her infatuation with Nietzsche, there is too much evidence of its persistence”.

Executioner or saint?

Rand’s two bestselling fictions, which double as philosophical statements of intent, are proof of this persistence.

Take her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. This 700-page-plus blockbuster – which has sold 6.5 million copies – focuses on an architect named Howard Roark.

Here’s a description of this archetypal Randian hero, an unreconstructed egoist whose understanding of sexual consent is highly troubling, and who Donald Trump admires:

He did not laugh as his eyes stopped in awareness of the earth around him. His face was like a law of nature – a thing one could not question, alter, or implore. It had high cheekbones over gaunt, hollow cheeks; gray eyes, cold and steady; a contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint.

This “law of nature” would rather dynamite the social housing project he designed than compromise with those he dismisses as “second-handers”.

This is Rand’s take on the Nietzschean Übermensch – a man who is willing to bring things down, should he not get his way. Roark nails his flag to the mast while on trial:

It is said that I have destroyed the home of the destitute. It is forgotten that but for me the destitute could not have had this particular home. Those who were concerned with the poor had to come to me, who have never been concerned, in order to help the poor. It is believed that the poverty of the future tenants gave them a right to my work. That their need constituted a claim on my life.

Watching the world burn

John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged, takes things even further.

A physicist and inventor, Galt, who is Rand in fictional disguise, is trying to burn the whole world down. He wants this because he is unhappy with how he has been treated by those he considers inferior. And that pretty much means everyone else.

A street sign in Chicago | Image credit: By Buster7 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Galt acknowledges this in an unbroken 60-page speech late in the novel:

Take a look around you, you savages who stutter that ideas are created by men’s means of production, that a machine is not the product of human thought, but a mystical power that produces human thinking. You have never discovered the industrial age – and you cling to the morality of the barbarian eras when a miserable form of human subsistence was produced by the muscular labor of slaves. […] When you clamour for public ownership of the means of production, you are clamouring for public ownership of the mind. I have taught my strikers that the answer you deserve is only: “Try and get it.”

Stentorian discoursing like this abounds in Rand’s near 1200-page brick of book. The “savages” are Galt’s fellow Americans. These “little atavists” have been deceived by collectivistic “mystics”.

Described as “looters” or “moochers”, these mystics are rapacious Christian and cultural Marxist “second-handers”, establishing a dictatorial “People’s State of America”.

The “material providers” are instead the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, which is basically a dystopian fable about government meddling in free market arrangements.

Marshalled by Galt, these chiselled individualists – “scientists, inventors, industrialists” – are opposed to “public ownership” and governmental overreach. (Like the Tea Party, they also abhor taxation.)

These wealthy and oversexed titans of industry feel hard done by. They understand themselves to be, as Galt emphasises, the real “victims” of society:

This is the age of the common man, they tell us – a title which any man may claim to the extent of such distinction as he has managed not to achieve. He will rise to a rank of nobility by means of the effort he has failed to make, he will be honored for such virtue as he has not displayed, and he will be paid for the goods which he did not produce. But we – we, who must atone for the guilt of ability – we will work to support him as he orders, with his pleasure as our only reward.

Hence Galt’s decision to order the strike. This is what he tells his lover, Dagny Taggart:

There is only one kind of men who have never been on strike in human history. Every other kind and class have stopped, when they so wished, and have presented demands to the world, claiming to be indispensable – except the men who have carried the world on their shoulders […] Well, their turn has come. Let the world discover who they are, what they do and what happens when they refuse to function.

Galt, who scans as a deranged accelerationist demagogue, leaves us in no doubt as to why he instructed his fellow individualists to withdraw their labour:

I have foreshortened the usual course of history and have let you discover the nature of the payment you had hoped to switch to the shoulders of others. […] Do not pretend that a malevolent reality defeated you – you were defeated by your own evasions. Do not pretend that you will perish for a noble ideal – you will perish as fodder for the haters of man.

Galt’s actions ensure the country he purportedly cherishes withers away “in a void of darkness and rock”. He will not rest until the road is clear. Then, and only then, Galt states, will the righteous deign to go “back to the world.”

John Galt: free market defender or bloodthirsty sociopath? That’s up to you to decide.

A gateway to the right

Critics came down hard on Atlas Shrugged. Leftists were affronted by Rand’s pro-capitalist line. Those on the opposite side of the spectrum were troubled by the novel’s explicit atheism.

And virtually everyone was critical of the novel’s vituperate tone and repetitive style.

This consensus continues to hold. Moreover, as the intellectual biographer Jennifer Burns foregrounds, Rand and Atlas Shrugged have “passed into the lexicon of American popular culture”, as signifiers “of ruthless selfishness, intellectual precocity, or both”.

Pop-cultural riffs and parodies about Rand and her work have appeared in many places – including Dirty Dancing, Mad Men, Bioshock, and most memorably, The Simpsons.

But we need to take this with a pinch of salt.

Burns, who was writing in 2009, suggests the fact that Rand has garnered the attention of cultural producers speaks “to her continued appeal. Twenty years after death she was selling more books than ever in her life, with Atlas Shrugged alone averaging sales of more than one hundred thousand copies per year.”

It seems unwise to dismiss a book that has sold over 10 million copies, and which has been praised by industry leaders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. (Rand is also popular in Hollywood: Angelina Jolie, Eva Mendes, and Brad Pitt are all fans.)

But how, given the critical opprobrium meted out to Atlas Shrugged, are we to account for the novel’s popularity?

Galt’s famous credo offers a clue.

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man,” Galt attests, “nor ask another man to live for mine.”

An eschewal of collectivist activity, this tenet chimes with readers of a libertarian persuasion, as well as with right-wing politicans and public figures.

We can look to the United States for confirmation. Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul: these are just some who self-define as Randians. As do Rex Tillerson, Mike Pompeo, and the aforementioned 45th president of the United States.

Love her or loathe her, it appears that Rand has, until now, stood the test of time. So has Atlas Shrugged. What this says about the political landscape, or the reading habits and ideological inclinations of the public, is up for debate.

Given Rand’s longevity and popularity, the answer may not – and this could shock complacent coastal liberals – necessarily be reassuring.

Alexander Howard is Senior Lecturer, Discipline of English, University of Sydney.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.