What did Ayn Rand do right

"Philosophy in ten quotes, the poor, poor word!"

A Stalinist musical in honor of capitalism: theater director Nicolas Stemann brings Ayn Rand, the literary figurehead of the right-wing libertarians, to the stage. How come?

Interview: David Eugster

WOZ: Nicolas Stemann, the novel “Atlas Shrugged” is over a thousand pages long. When asked about the exorbitant length, the writer Ayn Rand simply said: "Would you shorten the Bible?" Now you commit the iniquity and shorten the book for the stage. Why do you care?
Nicolas Stemann: It is less of an abbreviation than a heading: I use the novel as the basis for an economic musical that satirically deals with our circumstances. Lately, in the state interventions like environmental regulations, CO2Taxes or the corporate responsibility initiative are now being discussed more and more, “Atlas Shrugged” has become more topical: entrepreneurs are screaming, pretending to be victims and threatening to emigrate. This political reality is reflected in the novel.

But it is not easy to deal with this book in the theater. It is rather exhausting to read - although it is written in the style of a trivial novel that is supposed to hold you as a reader. A parallel to the Bible may be that the book serves up a big message in many simple stories.

What kind of message is that?
The novel is so tiring because everything is kept very black and white: The great entrepreneurs are all victims - and their antagonists are all hypocrites, cynics or fools. On stage you can show that their positions are not idiotic at all, but that they are attitudes like those of many a conservative defender of a free market economy.

What positions do you mean?
Ayn Rand describes these entrepreneurs who go on strike and withdraw from society because they see the laws as unreasonable for their entrepreneurial freedom. At the beginning of the novel there is basically an astonishingly business-friendly legal situation. For example, Ayn Rand presents the so-called «Equal Opportunities Act» as a totalitarian intervention. But this is nothing more than a law to avoid cartel formation and monopolies, which ensures that the steel manufacturer does not immediately take over all the ancillary industries, i.e. also own the mine and so throws all smaller competitors out of the market. Such a thing would not make sense from a market economy point of view either, since every antitrust authority would be required to intervene.

Ayn Rand's protagonists, however, feel degraded by something like that.
Exactly, they find it so terrible that they have to emigrate. But you can also rebalance that a little and strengthen the reality of the novel against its author, whose view is dominant, biased and also not particularly artistic. What is actually happening politically and economically? And is that perhaps a little different even in the reality of the novel than the author describes it? If you ask that, the book starts to get interesting.

Where can this suppressed reality of the novel be shown?
For example, in the way the main character, the railway owner Dagny Taggart, topples the union with strikebreakers because there is apparently no right to strike in the novel - which is again an incredibly lax legal situation. Another scene is about an expert opinion from a state institute that comes to the conclusion that the material from which a railway line is built does not hold up. As an entrepreneur, Dagny could respond to this by obtaining another expert opinion and examining the objections. Not so with Ayn Rand: Dagny rejects this report as fake news - because the institute can only be corrupt because it is state-owned. And how does Dagny establish her trust in the material? Because she sees it that way. Just because. And then you clearly get the problem of Rand's philosophy as a whole - philosophy in ten quotation marks, the poor, poor word!

Ayn Rand's objectivism didn't convince you?
Anyone who thinks she is a philosopher must have sunk into a business administration degree and nothing else has noticed. She has hardly read anything except Aristotle. You can't come in the 1950s and talk about perception, consciousness and knowledge and pretend that there had been no Immanuel Kant, no Sören Kierkegaard, no Martin Heidegger and no existentialists! Rand's basic philosophical thesis is simple: What I see with my mind is true. Point. That is very little. She then inflates it into a pseudo-philosophy and a pseudo-economic theory, and that leads to her moral belief, which is also at the center of "Atlas Shrugged": I will not do anything for someone else's sake. But that also means: I don't do anything for others anymore.

What makes this kind of thinking attractive?
I find the book interesting precisely because so many people took it so seriously, despite all the philosophical weaknesses, that it has concretely shaped our reality over the last few decades. It corresponds to people with a certain agenda: It is a propaganda font that is supposed to ward off socialist theories and realities and at the same time encourage the haves to be pitiless towards the claims of the haves. And that makes it attractive to people who benefit from being pitiless and not having to give anything away. I can imagine that the book gives entrepreneurs who are constantly confronted with the feeling of being more important than the general public a very good tailwind.

But the book is not only aimed at the super-rich, but also at «people of the spirit». The strikers in the novel also include composers and artists. Don't you feel picked up there?
(Laughs.) You can always find entries like this in this book - but I find it uncomfortable to take them. Rand promoted the idea, which also occurs with the economist Joseph Schumpeter, that the entrepreneurs are actually the real artists. The role of the artists at Rand is to enhance the entrepreneurs by withdrawing hand in hand with them into this Atlantis of geniuses, beyond this mediocre world that they could no longer endure. Otherwise there are no artists, except as parasitic idiots.

Many fringe enthusiasts talk about revival experiences in their youth. The psychologist Nathaniel Branden, who later belonged to Rand's inner circle, said that he read a book by her for the first time as a teenager - and threw it away after fifty pages because he immediately felt called to do something bigger that he no longer read thought necessary. What do teenagers find at Rand?
Omnipotence fantasies, probably. And certain things in "Atlas Shrugged" are understandable, they are in every second life guide: First take care of yourself before you take care of others, in a love relationship you should have a certain amount of egoism, you must not give up . You can build on that. But even when she talks about love, it's always a plaything for Rand - here, too, it's always about her ideology. At the same time, it is often unclear whether many cult books will be read at all. Rand represents a very rigid atheism, but the tea party movement still referred to “Atlas Shrugged” - they couldn't have read that exactly. The book seems to have more of a cultic function. A year ago I was in the USA and looked for traces of Ayn Rand - you can find the book in every train station bookstore, but also in very small microtexts, so that the Wall Street manager's chest pocket fits it, like a pocket Bible saves the bullet.

Slavoj Žižek once said that Ayn Rand took capitalism so seriously that it was almost embarrassing and destructive.
Yes, of course, you could read it as a satire on reality - also on today's realities. I think that was also one of the reasons why I was interested in it: that one thinks that from this kind of propaganda one learns truths about capitalism that it did not want to spread - that it makes the whole thing recognizable . In her defense against Stalinism, from which she fled, Ayn Rand herself wrote a kind of Stalinist propaganda show for capitalism, in an incredibly dogmatic, ideological and brutal aesthetic. And that's what I enjoy: Because that's totally crazy and can't be meant seriously - but it is.

Can you let that collapse by showing the absurdity?
That goes almost too fast, the book hardly offers any resistance. But you also have to take the text seriously as an opponent. One cannot express one's legitimate objections to the book on stage all the time. There is no experience like this. You need a formal framework that shows that something improper is at stake here. I like that as an idea: to stage a propaganda evening in Zurich of all places that tells the rich that they should be pitiless towards the poor and that this is morally imperative not only for them but also for the whole world. And that in the form of a show or a revue: as a musical. It has to do with New York, with the fifties, but the genre also makes it possible to leave this story uncommented for the time being.

Half a year ago you said about the “Republic” that you were interested in Ayn Rand's “dialectic of sensuality”. How did you mean that exactly?
When you, as a director, deal with the theatrical implementation, you get the energy of a book pretty directly. The ensemble is also very open at the beginning: You approach the text beyond your own prejudices, but also beyond the goals of the author. Maybe that's what I meant by the dialectic: that you confront yourself with an object that is so far away that you feel a certain shudder - but also a fascination. While reading, I came on the trip in phases, as when reading Karl May - I also found this form of the trivial exciting.

The novel also has elements of adventure novels and science fiction. In one scene, Dagny crashes her private jet and lands in Atlantis, the village of the billionaires who have fled - this abrupt counter-reality, doesn't it have something dreamlike about it?
Yes, you could also see it as a dream of Dagny, who increasingly comes on a trip in search of this fabulous engine. There is something psychedelic about the description of it. This is also one of the intrinsic realities of the book: Ayn Rand regularly swallowed stimulants and amphetamines. The book often seems like Dagny's intoxication, in which she can hide everything and classify everything but herself as hostile. Ayn Rand's characters also all have model-like coke psychologies and act like psychopaths who intoxicatedly put their ego in the center and are only disturbed and annoyed by everyone around.

At the same time, her Atlantis, this dream world of retreat, is almost disappointingly conservative: millionaires who work as bakers and farmers. What are all these cokers doing in Seldwyla?
Interestingly, it is not a capitalist economy that is shown here - it is based on the exploitation of the commodity labor. It's basically a subsistence economy: everyone lives from their own work. But, according to Marx, this is nothing other than: communism. So it must be stated that even the propagandist of capitalism obviously does not consider capitalism to be an ideal system and ultimately draws a communist ideal, a communism of the entrepreneurs. It is crazy that this aspect could get lost in the general reception.

At the end of the book it turns out that it wasn't all that peaceful and that Atlantis was completely upgraded.
Exactly, it is implied that the geniuses were ready to fly an air strike against the now state socialist government. And in the end it may come to that. These entrepreneurs accept that the rest of humanity will go to the dogs - these are people who are already doing well and who withdraw because they would like to have even more privileges. And because they find each other more important than you take them. You are preparing to fight the rest of the world. Rand says she rejects violence. Nevertheless, there is also this scene in which Dagny shoots a security guard. This could also be put into a larger context: There is obviously a danger from these people who have withdrawn in this end-time mood. This is all the more topical with the impending ecological catastrophe.

Which of Dagny's men do you still feature?
I'm particularly interested in the line between Francisco and Hank, Dagny's first lovers. There's that homoerotic undertone, like Tennessee Williams. The problem with this book is that the people who deal with it and tell it are always so addicted to this ideology - that's why the film is crap. These are all fringe disciples, which leads to uninteresting duplications. But one could well imagine a Netflix series retold in liberal Hollywood or New York that would take up such aspects as this close friendship between Hank and Francisco. In my imagined series, of course, the civil war between the rich and the poor would take place at the end. Hank would fall in the atomic apocalypse and die in the arms of Francisco, and that would bring about the longed-for union.

If you put this male relationship in the context of war: Isn't there also something male bond between the two Rand giants?
Clear. It also becomes politically interesting when you see how neoliberalism and right-wing populism or neo-fascism are shaking hands at the moment. All of the authoritarian regimes in Europe all have neoliberal agendas. The AfD has an ultra-liberal economic program, the SVP anyway. The libertarians are always flirting with nationalism, and you think they don't go together. But obviously the strong man, the authoritarian leader and the ultra-liberal market go very well together because the absence of economic rules - as we know from the reality of neoliberalism - always leads to the strong becoming even stronger.

Nicolas Stemann

Born in Hamburg, he played in various bands and first studied philosophy, then directing in Hamburg and Vienna. Since this season, the 51-year-old has been running the Zurich Schauspielhaus together with Benjamin von Blomberg. Its first premiere of the season was the children's play “Snow White Beauty Queen”.

His musical “The Strike” based on the novel “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand, with music by Thomas Kürstner and Sebastian Vogel, celebrates its premiere on Sunday, January 12, 2020 at 6 pm in the Schiffbauhalle. For further performances until February 24, 2020, see www.schauspielhaus.ch for game dates.

If you value the independent and critical journalism of WOZ, you are welcome to support us financially: