June 6, 2019 | News | No Comments
In a dark corner of my house, where a built-in bookshelf curves out of sight and out of reach, near the ceiling, I keep a couple dozen books that I haven’t brought myself to get rid of but don’t want anyone to see. It’s a connoisseur’s collection of the writing of Ayn Rand and her disciples, assembled by teen-age me a long, long time ago. My first girlfriend, an older woman in her early twenties, introduced me to Rand. I had recently immigrated to the United States from Russia, come out, and dropped out of high school, and somehow Rand’s writing spoke to me, made the world appear simple and conquerable. My Rand phase was relatively brief, but, before it ended, I bluffed my way into my first job in publishing by talking Rand with my future boss, a trailblazing gay publisher who was similarly obsessed with her.
According to a new book, this is normal, sort of. In “Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed,” Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, notes that, although Rand’s brand of sexual liberation didn’t extend to homosexuality, her female heroines refuse to conform to feminine norms, and her male heroes are all in love with one another. I was certainly not the only queer teen-ager who was seduced by these books, which Duggan calls “conversion machines that run on lust.” The therapeutic value of Duggan’s book goes well beyond freeing me from shame for my teen-age lack of literary taste and political discernment; it also provides an explanation for our current cultural and political moment.
Part of American Studies Now, a series of slim volumes published by the University of California Press, Duggan’s book sums up Rand’s life and philosophy in under ninety pages—an affront to a novelist whose magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged,” came in at more than ten times that length. “How could a thousand-plus-page novel, featuring cartoonish characters moving through a melodramatic plot peppered with long didactic speeches, attract so many readers and so much attention?” Duggan asks. “Clearly, the fantasies animating the novel struck a deep chord.”
Rand’s novels promised to liberate the reader from everything that he had been taught was right and good. She invited her readers to rejoice in cruelty. Her heroes were superior beings certain of their superiority. They claimed their right to triumph by destroying those who were not as smart, creative, productive, ambitious, physically perfect, selfish, and ruthless as they were. Duggan calls the mood of the books “optimistic cruelty.” They are mean, and they have a happy ending—that is, the superior beings are happy in the end. The novels reverse morality. In them, there is no duty to God or one’s fellow-man, only to self. Sex is plentiful, free of consequence, and rough. Money and other good things come to those who take them. Rand’s plots legitimize the worst effects of capitalism, creating what Duggan calls “a moral economy of inequality to infuse her softly pornographic romance fiction with the political eros that would captivate a mass readership.”
Duggan traces Rand’s influence, both direct and indirect, on American politics and culture. Rand’s fiction was a vehicle for her philosophy, known as Objectivism, which consecrated an extreme form of laissez-faire capitalism and what she called “rational egoism,” or the moral and logical duty of following one’s own self-interest. Later in life, Rand promoted Objectivism through nonfiction books, articles, lectures, and courses offered through an institute that she established, called the Foundation for the New Intellectual. She was closely allied with Ludwig von Mises, an economist and historian who helped shape neoliberal thinking. When Rand was actively publishing fiction—from the nineteen-thirties until 1957, when “Atlas Shrugged” came out—hers was a marginal political perspective. Critics panned her novels, which gained their immense popularity gradually, by word of mouth. Mid-century American political culture was dominated by New Deal thinking, which prized everything that Rand despised: the welfare state, empathy, interdependence. By the nineteen-eighties, however, neoliberal thinking had come to dominate politics. The economist Alan Greenspan, for example, was a disciple of Rand’s who brought her philosophy to his role as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Gerald Ford and, from 1987 until 2006, as the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Duggan doesn’t blame Rand for neoliberalism, exactly, but she spotlights the Randian spirit of what she calls the “Neoliberal Theater of Cruelty.” This theatre would include players we don’t necessarily describe as neoliberal. Paul Ryan, the former House Speaker, is a Rand evangelist who gave out copies of “Atlas Shrugged” as Christmas presents to his staff and said that she “did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism.” When the Tea Party came out in force against the Affordable Care Act, in 2009, some of them carried signs reading “Who Is John Galt?,” a reference to “Atlas Shrugged.” Rand’s spirit is prominent in Silicon Valley, too: the billionaires Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Travis Kalanick, and others have credited Rand with inspiring them. The image of the American tech entrepreneur could have come from one of her novels. If she were alive today, she would probably adopt the word “disruption.”
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The collapse of the subprime mortgage market and the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 should have brought about the death of neoliberalism by making plain the human cost of deregulation and privatization; instead, writes Duggan, “zombie neoliberalism” is now stalking the land. And, of course, the spirit of Ayn Rand haunts the White House. Many of Donald Trump’s associates, including the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, have paid homage to her ideas, and the President himself has praised her novel “The Fountainhead.” (Trump apparently identifies with its architect hero, Howard Roark, who blows up a housing project he has designed for being insufficiently perfect.) Their version of Randism is stripped of all the elements that might account for my inability to throw out those books: the pretense of intellectualism, the militant atheism, and the explicit advocacy of sexual freedom. From all that Rand offered, these men have taken only the worst: the cruelty. They are not even optimistic. They are just plain mean.