Who Is John Galt and Why Is He on Lululemon Bags?

Ayn Rand groupies, yoga enthusiasts, and the American genius for self-absorption.

Lululemon bag
Lululemon’s “Who is John Galt?” bag

Photograph by Meredith Rizzo.

If you’ve ever wandered into a Lululemon store or perused the website of this purveyor of ultra-hip “yoga-inspired” athletic apparel, you may have noticed that the company is not trying to sell merely a pair of buttocks-compressing pants but a worldview. Even in this age of lifestyle peddlers, when Abercrombie & Fitch lures mall rats with visions of Ivy League insouciance and Apple promises to turn even your clueless dad into a tech-savvy aesthete, Lululemon stands out. Why buy a plain old gym bag when for $128 you can have a Destined for Greatness Duffel? If you’re shopping online, the “lululemon manifesto” page offers a stylish collage of aphorisms, such as “Do one thing a day that scares you” and “Creativity is maximized when you’re living in the moment.” A section devoted to Lululemon “ambassadors”—most of whom seem to be yoga instructors who wear Lulu gear and recommend it to their clients—reads like a series of conversion testimonies by true believers who want “to share this life changing experience”—that would be yoga—“with others.”

Silly product names and a preachy website are one thing. But a couple of weeks ago, Lululemon moved beyond the usual semi-mystical yoga treacle. The company has begun printing on its signature reusable bags—those cute totes you see slung over shoulders at organic grocery stores and farmers markets across North America—the question “Who Is John Galt?” The cryptic tagline of objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand aligns with the company mission to “elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness,” according to the Lululemon blog entry announcing this unusual ad campaign. Customer reaction has been mixed, with some threatening boycotts. The average yoga enthusiast seems to have a vague idea that Rand is a darling of the right, Alan Greenspan’s fairy godmother, and a bad lady who would definitely throw your chakras out of balance.

On the face of it, Ayn Rand and yoga make strange bedfellows. But upon a closer look, Rand’s radical philosophy (at least in a diluted form) is not such a bad fit in the world of American yoga, circa 2011—in fact, both movements have enjoyed smashing commercial success for some of the same reasons.

We already knew that Ayn Rand was en vogue: Tea Party heroine, favorite villain of left-wing journalists who blame her for the financial crisis, the subject of a burgeoning field of Randian studies by scholars eager to plumb the strange appeal of this Russian émigré who devoted her life to turning traditional morality on its head. As a young girl, Rand fled from Bolshevik oppression to the United States and worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood before finding her calling as a dystopian novelist and critic of the socialist leviathan. In 1957 she published her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, an account of a totalitarian America in which the hero, John Galt, leads a merry band of industrialists, entrepreneurs, and other financial elites on strike in order to stop “the motor of the world” and show the ignorant masses and government drones just how dependent they are on the creativity and productivity of the 1 percent. The book articulated the core tenets of Rand’s philosophy, objectivism: namely, that man’s highest purpose is his own happiness, and that reason, rather than a divine power, governs the universe. Rand advocated a lifestyle of “rational egoism” and lauded free market capitalism as the only economic system that doesn’t impinge on individual rights.

Rand’s critics have called her a bad novelist and a mediocre philosopher—a “fifth-rate Nietzsche of the mini-malls,” as one writer put it in these pages. But mediocre philosophy sells: It makes the half-literate consumer feel smart. (See for example the success of Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time.) Rand was a success even in her lifetime and has never really gone out of style, her paperbacks a fixture in the back pockets of angst-ridden teenage boys everywhere. One of those teenagers was Dennis “Chip” Wilson, Lululemon’s founder, who read Atlas Shrugged when he was 18. (Rand is developing quite a legacy among the North American entrepreneurs of healthy living: Whole Foods founder John Mackey is another fan.)

Wilson has pasteurized Rand’s ideals to yield the ethos of mindful self-improvement that pervades Lululemon. “We are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make and how we spend our days through the choices we make. … We can choose to rise up and be great,” to “conquer the epidemic of mediocrity,” explains the Lululemon blog post on John Galt. The company notes elsewhere that it “encourages” every employee to participate in a “goal setting training program,” and it emblazons the potpourri of motivational quotes that make up the Lululemon “manifesto” on some editions of its trademark bag. This bag has become a yuppie status symbol, countercultural and cliché at the same time—a wink meant to declare one’s personal philosophy to those in the know, not unlike that copy of The Fountainhead that your high school boyfriend carried around.

Patchouli and oneness with the universe are passé. Yoga is now hyper-modern and individualist, a lifestyle devoted to realizing one’s own potential in the tightest, most space-age fabric possible. To reduce Rand’s philosophy to a mere endorsement of this sort of striving and self-improvement is to totally misunderstand her. But it’s not hard to see that if we take some of her pithy statements out of context, she transforms into a slightly edgier version of your local yoga instructor. The game of “Yoga Proverb or Objectivist Maxim?” is harder than you think:

1. “Happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.”

2. “Nothing can steal happiness, peace away from you: if anyone does make you angry, you are the loser; if someone can allow you to lose peace, you are the loser.”

3. “But why should you care what people will say? All you have to do is please yourself.”

Did you guess right? Quotes one and three come from Rand’s novels Anthem and The Fountainhead, respectively; the second quote is from Bikram Choudhury, guru of the Bikram Yoga empire.

The great appeal of yoga is that you are doing something selfish and virtuous at the same time. You are sweating and suffering and honing a “watchful mind,” but also taking a break from your daily burdens and acquiring fantastic-looking abs. And that’s the genius of Ayn Rand: She made egoism the ultimate good. What Christianity labels as the unfortunate consequence of original sin, Rand saw as man’s natural and best state. (Interestingly, while Ayn Rand’s atheism bothers conservative evangelicals, it seems to bother some of them less than does yoga, which they view as paganism parading as a health movement. John Galt, at least, would have shared their hatred of Obamacare.)

Yoga and Rand have both spawned subcultures of devotees not because Americans are either pantheistic mystics or objectivists but because they are individualists who belong to the church of self-improvement. Lululemon’s campaign is startling, but perhaps Chip Wilson is onto something, and Rand’s philosophy is only an exaggerated and especially tedious expression of Americans’ genius for self-absorption. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a yoga enthusiast who practices four times a week. But the only thing worse than a yoga teacher who makes you hold plank pose for three minutes straight is one who—like the famously humorless Rand herself—is all righteousness and no irony.