It's no secret that Bert Cooper is a fan of Ayn Rand. He recommends her books to Don Draper and Pete Campbell, and even hints that he knows her personally. Some take these references, along with the generally pro-business themes of Mad Men, as endorsement of Rand's views. If anything, however, Season 4 has challenged and deconstructed Rand's connection between capitalism and privacy.
Rand famously wrote in The Fountainhead that civilization is "the march toward a society of privacy." She noted that the "savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe." Thanks to capitalism, however, people can earn money and own private property, which affords freedom through seclusion. "Civilization," Rand concluded, "is the process of setting man free from men."
Despite the ubiquity of McMansions, however, we're hardly the "society of privacy" that Rand envisioned. Indeed, the more technologically advanced we become, the less privacy we seem to enjoy. Some of this loss is involuntary, as when big government conducts electronic surveillance against our will. But an alarming amount is voluntary, like when we allow big business to collect our personal information electronically.
The ultra-modern offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are a perfect metaphor for this open society we now inhabit. The ubiquitous windows and thin walls mean that conversations are never truly private even when they happen behind closed doors. The place resembles Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, a prison where those incarcerated are always visible but never know whether they're actually being observed.
As Slate reader Mary Anne Mayo notes, the commentary on privacy was particularly evident this season in "The Rejected." When Don fights with Allison in his office, Peggy peeps at them over the wall. Later, Don watches an elderly gentleman ask his wife if she bought "the pears." She replies that they'll "discuss it inside" -- i.e., in private. The juxtaposition of these scenes underscored the loss of privacy at SCDP.
The point was driven home by the tragicomic sight of Bert Cooper eating an apple in the lobby. There was the firm's patriarch, his stockinged-feet up on a couch, munching away at fruit. It was an amusingly intimate act -- something I imagine Bert doing in his inner sanctum at the old offices -- performed in a very public space. What made it also poignant, verging on pathetic, was how nobody seemed to notice.
Bert may not be dead, but he's already a ghost, which is rather fitting when you think about it. His whole world is gone, along with his comfortable private office and its promise of seclusion. The old man is hopelessly out of place in the transparent new world of SCDP. He seems as quaint and outdated as notions of privacy must to members of the Facebook generation, who routinely over-share their personal information online.
Such commentary is particularly appropriate given the subject matter of the show. The whole point of advertising is to reveal and exploit consumers' sometimes hidden preferences. The show alludes to this with Dr. Faye Miller's surveys and scenes of focus groups observed from behind mirrored glass. Web cookies and social-networking sites are just more technologically-sophisticated means to the same end.
More generally, it's an economic axiom that markets operate most efficiently when participants have perfect information. Some libertarians, like federal judge Richard Posner, actually question the value of privacy as a social good on this basis. One needn't agree with them to get the point that, contrary to what Rand believed, capitalism and privacy aren't always complementary. Far from it.
And that leads me to a morbid speculation about what's in store for Bert. His aforementioned specter was a brilliant metaphor for the death of privacy, but I'm skeptical the show will leave it at that. I believe Bert is actually going to die before the season is done. He'll become what the late Roger Sterling, Sr. was to the old firm, making Roger Jr. the new Bert Cooper of SCDP.
Let's hope for Roger's sake he's not similarly a fan of Ayn Rand.