Towards the end of a long and storied career, the best idea of a future Anton LeVay, founder of the Church of Satan, author of the Satanic Bible, a man about whom all manner of tall tales once circulated, could produce when asked could be summed up in one word: Disneyland. That’s not a snide lefty’s dig, either, but his own words, or rather, the words of his amanuensis, Blanche Barton, spoken in LeVay’s presence to the journalist Lawrence Wright in 1991. “That’s been a real trial balloon for a lot of this,” Barton told Wright of the theme park’s relationship to LeVay’s idea of the future, “the incorporation of androids, a private enclave with a self-contained justice system, its own private police force. It’s a good example of capitalism at its peak.” For Wright, this little tidbit was the last straw on the camel-load of evidence that his time with LeVay had provided to the effect that this supposed vicar of Satan on Earth was, in fact, a rather sad, lonely, old man, about as exciting or dangerous as, well, Disneyland.
Wright didn’t draw much social significance from his portrait of LaVey, and for good reason. The best way to describe Satanism is a term Wright would not have had access to in 1991 – trolling. Indeed, these days Satanists have embraced the concept, and have landed in the news by exploiting “religious expression” loopholes to insist that public buildings that display things like Ten Commandments statues also put up big statues of Baphomet, which I for one find pretty amusing. Try though they might, no one has ever been able to pin any of the supposed crimes inspired by Satanism on actually organized Satanists (a tiny group, it’s worth noting, however far their imagery spreads), and the waves of panic over satanic murder or “ritual abuse” that swept the country periodically from the seventies to the nineties now appear rather quaint. Moreover, in a fashion those of us who have dealt with trolls will recognize, none of the varieties of Satanism are especially internally consistent or lay out a really precise idea of what they believe or what they’re doing. This inconsistency goes right down the most basic questions, such as: do Satanists actually believe in and/or worship Satan? Is the Church a real church or more of a performance art project/tax dodge for LaVey and his pals? Are they rejecting all morality or just Christian morality? The answers to these questions change depending on which one you talk to at which time, and given that most of them belong to some little grouplet – Satanists have a tendency towards splitting rivaled only by congregational Protestants and by Trotskyites – these answers are usually barbed asides at somebody in a rival cult. Satanists have produced thousands of pages of literature and much of it reads like a lot of troll manifestos, wandering turgidly between different lines and means of arguments, frequently patching in dubious primary source quotes, making asides and then not returning to the argument where it left off, leaving the reader the impression that there’s a meta-troll, the troll of having been gulled into reading this nonsense. When the ideas are as content-light as they are here, it makes sense to angle on the personal, as Wright did, in what, after all, was a profile of a person.
But those of you who know me or, at any rate, are sufficiently indulgent as to read my facebook statuses, know that I’ve taken it as a task to try to read the history of ideas in the leavings of the trolls, con men, enthusiasts, and off-brand pedants of the modern past. No matter how obscure, some sort of choice and selection is present in all of their expressions. Some of these choices can be used as tracks, visible signs of the changes in the societal and intellectual contexts of lived existence in a given time and place. To put it another way, LaVey picked Disneyland for a reason.
Moreover, spend enough time examining different kinds of discourse, and you’ll notice certain problems crop up over and over again. Social problems as we understand them – like managing the relationship between capital and labor – come up throughout the modern era. Political problems – like those attached to the governance of dissimilar bodies of people sharing a single polity – go back farther still. Existential problems – like what the deal is with being able to conceive the infinite but still be doomed to a very finite existence – are arguably older than any. A vast array of disparate groups of people have dealt with these questions. You can treat these problems and many others like tropes in literature, which can be arranged and rearranged to produce a vast and ever-changing array of potential meanings and messages depending on context. Looking at which of these questions are asked or answered, when and by whom, can tell us a lot about history. At least, this is the operating assumption behind much of my historical work, both professionally and here with these lectures. Here’s hoping there’s some merit to it!
The tropes we’re going to deal with here belong to the genre “individualism.” I’m almost entirely uninterested in the questions like what constitutes an individual, what the rights or responsibilities of an individual are, what the relationship between individuals or between individuals and society – however conceived – should be, blah blah blah. These questions are boring and almost always posed tendentiously. I suppose if tasked with taking a stand, I would wind up opposed to most individualists in that I do not believe that the individual person is an ontologically independent fact. Basically, I think individuals construct themselves out of culturally available material. Moreover, I think our idea of what the individual can be is a culturally constructed idea. To me, this is common sense, and doesn’t necessarily imply anything about the rights, duties, whatever of the individuals thereby constructed. And if it did that’s not a conversation I would find immediately interesting. What is interesting, to me at least, is the range of different constructions of individuality that one sees people – of all walks of life and levels of intellectual sophistication — construct. It gets more interesting still when these people get together and create organizations to propagate these ideas, given that the whole point supposedly is the priority of the individual.
It gets really interesting when these organizations could be described as “cults.” “Cult” is a loaded term. Not to get all buzzfeed on you all, but every nineties kid remembers cult panic, cult stories on the news, cult members on talk shows, cults as villains in tv serials, etc. And I think most of the people here get that this panic is over the top. So when I say “cult” I mean primarily “body perceived as a cult by others.” These are typically small, passionate, insular groups dedicated to a set of principles to one degree or another at odds with the mainstream of the culture in which they live.
Several groups that meet this description have proclaimed themselves dedicated to radical individualism, the proposition that the individual is or ought to be the focal point and justification of both morality and practical existence, and that deviations from this focus – towards the social, the metaphysical, the environmental, etc. – are necessary evils at best, the seed of man’s suffering at worst. Satanism –with few exceptions, but certainly including the original Church of Satan and most of its immediate offshoots – is one such movement. Objectivism – the philosophical system propounded by novelist Ayn Rand and her followers – is another. When I call them “cults,” I mean it in the comparatively value-neutral sense I laid out earlier; I may have my opinions on the tenets involved, but this is a birthday lecture, not a Huffington Post piece. It’s worth noting, though, that neither Rand nor LaVey brooked opposition lightly, and Rand in particular allowed a culture of conformity and ostracization to develop in her inner circle. Despite Rand’s intellectual pretenses, both her work and LaVey’s – and much of that of their followers – were much more in the vein of a preacher or a prophet than a scholar or philosopher. To borrow a phrase, they were not content to describe the world, but sought to change it. That said, neither were so controlling as to be able to prevent their groups from splitting, and the ideas of both spread farther than is typical for groups we call “cults.” We’ll have more than enough on the propagation and offshoots of both groups in a bit, though, so just hold your horses on the org-chart objections.
I am going to focus on these two groups in this lecture for a few reasons. While there are some anecdotal reasons – particularly why I chose Objectivism and Satanism and passed over, say, Discordianism – they’re not especially interesting, though I suppose you can pump me for them afterwards over drinks. We can say the anecdotes were the catalyst, but as I got thinking about them, the points of comparison came thick and fast, as did a few important and telling points of contrast. I’m not the first to put the two together. LaVey, after all, cites Ayn Rand as an influence, and parts of The Satanic Bible are, to put it politely, very direct paraphrases from Atlas Shrugged. But I think the confluence runs deeper than jokes about Satanists being little more than “horny Objectivists,” as a meme I’ve seen online goes. Instead, I think both constructed their idea of the individual, the centerpiece of their belief systems and, according to them, of the moral universe, in parallel and telling ways. This is what I want to interrogate.
It’s my belief that the way these cults of individualism constructed the individual subject was both an important indicator of and an influence on the way individualism has been constructed more broadly in our society since the late nineteen-sixties. Proving influence is tricky. Objectivist interventions have played a role in American right-wing politics; this, historians agree upon, and have written a good deal about in the last few years. Satanists have few such interventions – primarily restricted to defending themselves when accused of unlikely crimes as they periodically become subjects of moral panic. I believe that these interventions are important – and have a paper trail, useful for a historian – but that the real action in the story of radical individualism takes place at the demarcation of a small but important intellectual space.
Consider: the way individuality was understood during the years of the Cold War consensus – as having strong ties to a social order whose parameters are largely agreed upon, responsible to this order and with certain claims upon it – is different from how individuality is understood today. Many factors went into this change, some of which were basically ideological, and our two subjects – especially Objectivism – contributed to this. But I think only a small-to-middling portion of the force involved could be attributed to them, at most. I think the real historical significance of Objectivism, Satanism, and other midcentury cults of individualism is in carving out a space in the aftermath of that destruction for the construction, modification, and propagation of secular, notionally oppositional, individualisms. To put it bluntly, we’re looking at the right wing of the counterculture. Any historical purpose the counterculture can be said to have served, I hold that the ideas propagated by the individualism cults have worked to turn in a rightward direction. They have worked to direct energy away from projects of collective liberation and towards… damned near anything else.
Having just made the conservative counterculture point, it’s worth acknowledging two points of comparison between Objectivism and Satanism right off the bat: first, both bear the heavy stamp of a founder; second, both founders expressed disdain for hippies and did not see themselves as conservatives. Ironically for writers who inspired many a rock band, both Ayn Rand and Anton LaVey were notably restrained in their tastes in music (preferring sentimental orchestral music- think Lawrence Welk) and generally preferred their hedonism to be indoors and private. Rand was forever negotiating the terms of her alliance with other right-wingers, with mixed results. LaVey stayed out of politics but occasionally chuckled merrily about how his ideas were a better fit for conservatism than was Christianity. Either way, ideas can serve purposes beyond the stated intent of their holders, and I hew to a broader idea of conservatism – as being about the preservation and in some cases restoration of regimes of power, especially in the private sphere – than was common at the time.
As for their interactions with the counterculture, however much they might kvetch about dirty communistic hippies – and kvetch they did, especially the San Francisco-based LaVey– the counterculture, insofar as it stood for anything, stood for the transformation of society through the transformation of individual consciousness. Even at their most communistic – and here it’s worth noting we’re talking “communistic” as in “rural communes,” not as in “Marx and Lenin,” adherents of which never got anywhere with the counterculture – the point of any communal activity was that through them, the individual could become something better, something purer and more whole. Societal change would thereby result.
This is not too dissimilar to the understanding Objectivism and Satanism shared of the relationship between the individual, morality, and social change. Both embraced an individualism that isn’t just radical, but is also – purportedly at least – transgressive. Egoism as rebellion – against a bewilderingly wide variety of supposed oppressors from the government to religion to most of their readers’ families – lays at the center of the belief system of both groups. This is another facet they shared with the counterculture: the idea that what they were doing was a rebellion. Satan, of course, has long been symbolic of rebellion, having rebelled against God. Rand’s novels are less about the actualization of individuals and more about already-actualized individuals destroying a social order that is insufficiently deferential to them. Most observers agree that it is this rebellious posturing – however affected it may or may not be – that has attracted the youth following that both groups acquired. That the posture has held up as long as it has is an important part of the continuing story.
The forms that LaVey and especially Rand used to propagate their respective ideas were as important as their content. Both were first and foremost storytellers. Rand wrote essays – and given her cult following, they are doubtless some of the most-read essays in the land – but is primarily known for her novels. LaVey was a man made of stories, mostly specious ones. Journalists and erstwhile comrades of his have made great sport of knocking over his more spectacular claims, like that he had an affair with Marilyn Monroe or that he served San Francisco as “city organist,” a position that city – or, one suspects, any other city – never actually had. While there were substantial aesthetic differences in the stories they told – Rand’s sweeping epics of good and evil set against a high modernist backdrop of skyscrapers and rail lines versus LaVey’s stories of hypocrisy and vice set against the wistful seediness of depression/WWII-era America – but structurally, they had a lot in common. They were about special people who showed up enemies. The enemies might be crooked, dangerous, or otherwise flawed, but their real crime was imposing restrictions on the hero’s individual flourishing, and worse, justifying these restrictions by reference to a priority higher than the individual – a religion, society, etc.
The political and social messages in Rand’s stories were more explicit than LaVey’s. Indeed, they are more explicit than pretty much any writer not paid by a given political movement or regime typically is. By the time she wrote her magnus opus, Atlas Shrugged, she had decided that allegory was the only fit device for a serious writer. And so the characters all embody something, from broad character archetypes (“the bureaucrat,” “the good underling”) to rather specific mid-twentieth century political ideas. LaVey, for his part, employed allegory – typically a mixture of stuff cobbled together from old books about black magic and sordid visual puns – in the various rituals he detailed in his books. He was always vague as to whether these rituals actually accomplished something in and of themselves or were more along the lines of amusing pastimes, the latter being a time-honored use of occult practices for bored rich people. Either way, these allegorical narratives – with symbolism pointed enough to be grasped easily but generic enough to be adapted to a wide array of circumstances – were what propelled the growth of the movements in question more than their arguments.
This is a good opportunity to discuss what some adherents to either creed would insist is a major, indeed irreconcilable, difference. Objectivists are so named because they believe in a universe that not just contains objective fact, but that is made up of objective facts, where everything others would chalk up to opinion or value-judgment is also an objective fact. Thus, they live in a world where morality is as objective as arithmetic. Satanists… don’t. As per usual, LaVey avoided making a definitive proclamation on the subject, and he certainly understood his philosophy as stemming from certain facts of life, most of which are drawn from popular ideas of the ruthlessness of natural existence filtered through social Darwinism. But for LaVey and Satanism, the whole point of these basic facts is that they aren’t moral – and neither should you be.
Fundamental though this philosophical difference may be, it’s surprisingly irrelevant when you look at the results of the discourse in terms of constructing individualism. Either because it’s insufficiently rigorous or all too rigorous, the prevailing socially accepted morality, whatever it is, is wrong. It’s wrong because it limits those individuals of sufficient caliber to transcend, to live according either to the objective morality of Rand’s universe or the realistic amorality Satanism propounds and thereby reach the heights of human potential. Both wind up doing versions of the usual song and dance dating back from the early days of liberalism about how self-centeredness drives creation and innovation, blah blah etc. etc.
The basic philosophical dissimilarity between Objectivism and Satanism impinges on the lived existence of either belief system at one important point: the basis of negotiation with the actual, existing, inadequate world. Here, their differing ideas of the basis of individuality and morality come into play. Objectivism, based on the idea of an objective reality that defines all moral choices, demands the believer change the political and social structures of the world. Satanism, based on the idea that morality is altogether a hobble on the strong, suggests that the believer elide the political, the social, and indeed the legal. These facets present one set of problems for the everyday believer: how to live according to a difficult code. They present an altogether different problem to the leaders of such groups (and, being small and eventually decentralized, “believer” tends to shade into “leader”): how to lead such a group and get along in the world. For all of the apocalyptic imagery in Rand’s novels and for all of LaVey’s villainous posturing, both wanted to operate freely in the existing world, and not lead a revolution or die in jail.
In the time honored tradition of moral entrepreneurs from Calvinism on, Objectivists and Satanists fudged a solution out of a combination of doctrine and circumstance. Circumstance came to the aid of Objectivism, in the form of the rising tide of the conservative political movement, primarily in the United States but to a limited extent elsewhere as well. Whatever disagreements orthodox Objectivism might have with some mainstream Republican tenets like the positive value of religion, they were quite capable of working together. This is how Rand has gotten herself in the history books – her ideas found their way into American conservatism and conservatism normalized her work and her followers. Objectivists – a few hardcores aside – never had to abscond from society, because they’ve found a real chance to change it. Satanism, for its part, faced the problem of keeping its followers within the bounds of civilized society. Here, LaVey essentially punted to aesthetics. Crime is grubby, LaVey preached. Alluding to doing terrible things is fun for shocking squares – there’s LaVey as grandfather of the trolls again – but in general, Satanists should seek the sort of dignified existence that’s only workable on the right side of social order. There, Satanists could compete ruthlessly and win exultantly thereby furthering themselves and, at least by example, the benefits of living free of moralism.
And so we see that Satanism and Objectivism both had flexible, sustainable means for solving the theologico-political problem that organized society presents to the radical individualist. This development is an example of a dynamic I think we can see in a lot of discourses. The limits of a given discourse – its blind spots and logical gaps – can be both liabilities and assets. They’re liabilities to the extent that they run the risk of leaving gaps through which energy and adherents can escape. They’re assets to the extent that they can form circuits, or corrals, or whatever sort of metaphor you like for containing and channeling the force generated by pushing the discourse’s limits. The answers that Objectivism and Satanism provided to their followers as to why they should bother following society’s laws are open to debate. What if you disagree with LaVey’s aesthetics and think murdering strangers is, in fact, aesthetically pleasing? What if you think conservatism or libertarianism are insufficiently pure in their dedication to the truth? Both systems have had adherents argue these things, but the answers provided were sufficiently convincing and flexible so as to keep adherents in – and to generate lively debate as to where exactly the lines should be drawn in any event, useful intellectual fertilizer for the growth of any movement.
Like many movements before them, both Objectivism and Satanism owe much of their shape to schism. Both began their organizational existences as the brainchildren of their founders. At the beginning of their respective existences, both had a sort of concentric circle model of organization. Around the person of the founder there was a tightly bound inner circle of long-time devotees and friends of the founder, close both in terms of their relationships and in geographical terms; Ayn Rand’s “Collective” based in New York, Anton LaVey’s church in San Francisco. Around this inner circle was the larger outer circle of readers, admirers, and inner-circle-wannabes, which included those interested in the group who lived outside of the geographical center. Both inner circles split open into schisms made more hostile than they might be due to the intense personal relationships involved. The contrasts here are worth noting. The major schism in Objectivism occurred in 1968 when Ayn Rand booted Nathaniel Branden – her declared intellectual heir, a major Objectivist writer and speaker, and also her secret lover (both were married to other people at the time) – out of Objectivism and declared him a “non-person” when it was revealed he was carrying on an affair with a younger woman, also not his wife. Branden, abandoned by most of his friends save for some younger Objectivists he brought into the fold, upped sticks for sunny California to begin a psychology practice. Satanism began breaking apart in a gradual process in the early 1970s when LaVey began selling memberships to the Church. LaVey insisted that the Church was always a money-making scheme, and what were you going to do? Tell the Vicar of the Devil he was being corrupt? This is more or less exactly what Michael Aquino, one of LaVey’s first and most important followers, told the old man when he broke off from the Church of Satan to found the Temple of Set in 1975.
Rand and LaVey had two distinct things to say about their respective friends-turned-nemeses (frenemeses, if you will): first, that they were small-timers, only worth anything due to the reflected light of the founders themselves, of no account otherwise; second, that by turning against them, their heretics now stood against everything that they preached. Perhaps, within the inner circle, both of these were subjectively true. From the perspective of critical historical understanding, both assertions, as applied both to Branden and to Aquino, are false. I argue that both, in fact, are important elaborators and propagators of the radical individualist discourse which they and their erstwhile mentors helped create.
Google Michael Aquino and most of what you get on the first page of results are conspiracy sites: being both a prominent Satanist and a career officer in Army intelligence will do that. When read through the lens of someone with a certain familiarity with the history of military intelligence, his work shows him as a near-perfect type of a long-term mid-level intelligence officer: clever but not brilliant, with a distinctly instrumental frame of mind, a bit of a showboat, given to assigning big scary terminology to banal things. Interestingly, given that Satanism is in most respects less ideological than Objectivism, the schism Aquino triggered was more about ideas than was Branden’s quarrel with Rand. Aquino’s account of the break is muddled, as break-up stories often are, but there were two basic issues. Most pressingly, LaVey’s plan to sell positions in the Church of Satan irked Aquino and other Satanists. LaVey’s defense – that Satanism was always a scam, all belief systems are scams, the point is to benefit from them – triggered the second objection: Aquino and his followers believed there were actual supernatural beings that they were worshipping. It gets into he-said-he-said when Aquino insists that LaVey, too, once believed that Satan – or, at any rate, a supernatural force at odds with the Christian God – was real and the proper object of worship, too, but abandoned it in favor of crass materialism. Of course, disagreements at to the nature and intent of these beings – which tended to turn into very pedantic arguments with inaccurate glosses of historical paganism and Gnosticism used to bolster assorted weak positions – led to further splintering of these “theistic” Satanists. In an echo of the way in which the profound philosophical differences between Objectivism and Satanism did not produce profound differences in their respective discursive practices, across the gap of the existence or non-existence of supernatural forces, LaVeyan Satanists and theistic Satanists exist in dialogue and construct radical individualism in similar ways. Aquino’s break allowed for a broader array of aesthetic and ethical options within Satanist discourse, while leaving its basic shape unchanged.
Nathaniel Branden – who died only recently – played a much larger role, both in shaping radical individualism and exporting it beyond the small, cult-like confines of movements like Objectivism. The year after his split with Rand he published The Psychology of Self-Esteem, the first book in what came to be called the self-esteem movement in psychology. He may have been a non-person in orthodox Objectivist circles – he might still be, for all I know, even in death – but he quickly became a mover and shaker in the world of pop psychology and the burgeoning self-help market. At the beginning of his career, his psychological work still strongly reflected Rand’s influence. He almost entirely refutes the idea of the unconscious and holds that psychological complexes are the result of irrationality and irrationality largely the result of “social metaphysics.” That phrase, in fine Randian style, is a sort of portmanteau of lazy thinking, subjective thinking, and simple politeness, and is what allows irrational social ideas to plant complexes in the brain. It is these complexes which therapy – a combination of talk therapy and hypnosis, according to the book – should fix.
The seventies wore much of the rougher Randian qualities off Branden’s ideas and prose. His work began to emphasize self-esteem as a boon to the self, a way of treating the self well. There came to be less emphasis on fixing hurt selves and more on self-improvement. The ethos became much gentler than it ever was for Rand – Rand would never urge people with psychological issues to treat themselves gently, as Branden eventually came to do. All the same, like with Aquino’s break with the Church of Satan, the changes, seemingly so drastic, cover for fundamental similarities between orthodox Objectivism and Branden’s “West Coast” variant. Ironically, this can be evinced in large part by the interaction between Branden’s brainchild, the self-esteem movement, and one of Rand’s bogeymen, the state.
Branden, of course, was not the first or the most important movement Objectivist to influence state decision-making: that honor, of course, goes to former chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan. But it’s worth noting Branden didn’t make his mark by working his way into a technocratic executive office but through influence on the legislative process. To wit, in 1986 Democratic California state assemblyman John Vasconcellos – who represented several seats in his long career, all centered around what’s now called Silicon Valley – introduced a bill to that august body to create a State Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem. Not a joke! It passed. Branden was not on this task force, but Vasconcellos claimed that reading Branden’s work was the inspiration for his interest in self-esteem psychology, and many of Branden’s followers in that burgeoning field were represented.
Vasconcellos comes up for nearly as much abuse as Michael Aquino does if you google his name and the word “self-esteem,” largely from the sort of people who think that the practice of giving participation trophies in youth sports is ruining America and that it’s somehow Obama’s fault, but he knew what he was doing. The California State Assembly – and Vasconcello’s constituency in Silicon Valley – might be profligate with their money, and might be flighty, but when they are profligate on a flight of fancy, they usually expect results, or, anyway, an explanation from somebody. Vasconcellos and his team of self-esteem psychologists had, if not much data, at least the assertion that self-esteem training in schools and anywhere else the state had a captive audience, like courthouses and prisons, was a cheap form of social remediation. This typically took the form of things like classes in elementary schools where students would write complimentary letters to themselves, or, really farcically, state-issued award certificates and other tchotchkes for minor offenders showing up on time for court dates.
California has never lacked for serious social problems and 1986 was no exception, being six years away from the Rodney King riots and eight from the nativist explosion that led to Proposition 187. Meeting such massive, structural issues as systemic racialized poverty, exploitation, immigrant assimilation, etc. through any program of therapeutics – let alone through half-assed feel-good nonsense like the task force proposes – stops being ridiculous and becomes insulting if you think about it much at all. In a sense, through proposing the task force, Vasconcellos recapitulated the way in which all of the discourse here collapses in on itself. To put it another way: it’s impossible to treat self-esteem therapy like it’s a substitute for social policy, but it’s entirely possible to use thinking in terms of therapy as a substitute for thinking in terms of structure. The space where thinking even in terms of conventional welfare state politics – let alone more radical solutions – was nowhere to be seen, either effaced or escaped by a discursive space entirely inimical to them.
Radical individualist discourse – and even if state-funded, self-esteem psychology, especially when suggested as a social prophylactic, definitely is that – is as strong and flexible as it is in large part because of its sojourn with the counterculture and the cults. For one thing, without them, political individualism – libertarianism, more or less – would need to invent a culture out of whole cloth. The culture of the rest of conservatism – religious and militaristic, mostly – wouldn’t cut it. More importantly, though, are the cults’ influence on the forms of radical individualism. The prophetic voice employed by the founders of the cults created discursive worlds where critical thought directed away from the individualistic premises they promoted was impossible without leaving the circle – not for nothing was LaVey a circus barker and Rand a screenwriter before embarking on their final careers.
The schisms within these groups are as important – perhaps more important – than the groups themselves. What they provided was a blueprint for the replication of individualist worldviews. These worldviews stay within the basic paradigm of individualist discourse but can be modified to suit the user. Ironically, given how little they appreciated dissent, neither Rand nor LaVey would have been able to appreciate how devotedly their followers and those influenced by them adhere to their basic framework, even as differences – superficial but real enough to them — multiply. Aquino or Branden might appreciate it – Aquino is the only still alive. Perhaps I should shoot him an email. This modified replication process allows for a skein of individuality – largely aesthetic –to exist over what is actually a pretty conformist culture. It creates a network of nodes for the development of difference within the pattern of the larger discourse. Or, to be less jargon-y, discussions over WHICH individualist ideas and practices are best make people less likely to have the discussion over whether the whole individualist framework makes sense, in its own terms or anyone else’s. Anything sufficiently enthused over – we’ve seen the examples of schools of psychology or spirituality, but we could also talk about artistic modes, health notions, some political concepts, many more things – can form nodes in the network, items on the menu through which the individual can construct a worldview. Put into contact with each other, these worldviews contain enough difference to engage the holders without demanding contact outside of the paradigm in which they coexist. This outside has many things – including, but not limited to, most possibilities for action directed towards mass political liberation. And for the most part, those inside stay in.
The history of conservatism (and, to an extent, liberalism) is littered with efforts to turn a broad spectrum of the population – not all or most of it, but a critical mass – into supporters of a given system of order. Typically this is accomplished through a limited and often privatized distribution of a certain kind of property. Margaret Thatcher proposed to make property-holders out of those living in housing estates to give them “a stake in society.” Ideologues of the slave south called for tax breaks to allow more white southerners to own slaves, thereby inoculating them from abolitionism. Microlending today proposes both to lift third world masses out of poverty and tie them to finance capitalism. In a sense, what the schism-generating model of oppositional radical individualism did was to allow every egoist with a few spare opinions to become his own cult leader, even if the cult was just himself (gendered pronoun used advisedly). And of course, with the spread of information technology – and both Objectivists and Satanists were early enthusiasts of the internet, though by this point of the lecture I think we’ve gone beyond them – everyone has a platform to promote the cult of themselves. And, of course, to kibbitz on other people’s cults and argue and switch sides and in general do all of the things a public sphere is meant to do. Except in this instance the public sphere is made up of people either passively pretending or adamantly denying the possibility of the public as something other than a reticule of individuals.
This is why I didn’t write another history of Objectivism or a piece on the counterintuitively conservative politics of Satanism, beyond the fact that neither is really original, especially Rand-bashing. It’s because whatever effect their actual ideologies had, their stamp on the production of ideologies is, to my mind, much stronger and more interesting, if also harder to nail down. Even if neither belief system ever gains another adherent, their mode of discourse will live with us for the foreseeable future. What should one do about it? I don’t know. But if this lecture was useful at all, then one takeaway should be that understanding popular discourse involves kicking up a lot of strange rocks and taking a good long look at the things that live under them.