I just finished reading Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns.
As I started to read it, I said I was concerned about its attempt to “balance”. Balance usually means the author won’t say what is obvious and true in order to placate someone, somewhere. After reading Goddess of the Market, I feel confirmed in this.
In particular, Burns doesn’t really talk about the American “right”. She sometimes touches on how awful they are, but only with the briefest of touches and the lightest of hands. So, she mentions “Birchers” without discussing the John Birch Society at all – specifically it’s brand of racism and sexism, co-founded by Fred C. Koch, the father of arch-conservative and profoundly racist, sexist assholes Charles and David Koch (names that should be familiar to anyone following current Republican politics). Likewise, the nativist, intensely racist America First organization is mentioned only as a libertarian organization.
Indeed, Burns barely touches on Rand’s intersection with conservative Republican thought. Burns, instead, focuses her attention on Rand’s association with libertarians. This has the effect of creating a straw man, since the libertarians aren’t in any positions of power and the Republicans definitely are. Even if you don’t have any ideological opposition to the Republicans, hiding Rand’s effect on Republican economic conservatives (such as Alan Greenspan or Timothy Geithner) is just a filthy lie.
Very late in the book, in literally one paragraph, Burns mentions that Ayn Rand supported the genocide of Native Americans because they had no personal property. Excuse me, Burns doesn’t use the word “genocide”, or equally true and direct words like “conquer” or “kill”, she uses the word “seize”. So Rand’s brutal racism towards the Native Americans is just a momentary aside.
Likewise, when discussing Rand’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act, Burns says that Rand only appeared racist to those who didn’t understand Rand’s philosophical objections. Because Rand opposed the infringement on a person’s ability to serve and hire people, that meant Rand wasn’t racist but pro-capitalist. Rand, personally, despised racism, or so Burns argues.
That argument is bullshit. Businesses had four fucking centuries to stop treating people of color like garbage. In four fucking centuries, they hadn’t done it. There was no government coercion, here. Businesses in the US, dominated by racist white people, had consistently chosen to fuck people of color. To ignore this painful fact and say that unfettered capitalism was some value higher than the real discrimination of people of color (up to and including their occasional murder) is profoundly racist.
It also ignores the fact that every white nationalist group out there uses some variant of Rand’s reasoning: that free enterprise is so sacred that the racism of entrepreneurs must be respected even if it is to the disadvantage of people of color. It is a tool of racism, it was in Rand’s time, and she should know it, and so should Burns. It is especially galling in this time, when conservatives (not the libertarians that Burns uses as a straw man) are actively seeking to deny economic rights to gay and queer people using the exact same arguments.
Also only lightly touched upon is Rand’s belief that women should surrender to a man’s masculine authority. The cult of masculinity, where a strong woman surrenders to a stronger man, is pretty much the bog standard belief of religious conservatives today. That Rand is party to this argument, and it’s extension into Republican politics (especially the Tea Party), is totally ignored. Again, to focus not on how Rand might actually have shaped the politically influential conservative movement – creating a way for strong women to subordinate themselves to masculine authority – but to draw parallels to the politically impotent libertarian movement.
Burns mentions but does not dwell on Rand’s relationship with Alan Greenspan, who is central to taking Rand out of the nutty halls of libertarians and into the White House and Federal Reserve. How Greenspan worked to get Rand into the corridors of power is barely touched upon. Instead, Burns focuses on Rand’s salacious relationship with Nathan Branden. Rather than discuss Greenspan’s rise to power in the Fed, Burns spends her time charting the development of various anarcho-capitalist and libertarian groups.
The book ends with a statement that Rand’s influence seems here to stay, and I absolutely agree, but not because of her longevity in the Libertarian Party or that she’s taken more seriously in academia than ever before – but because Rand-influenced bankers control the Federal fucking Reserve and have for thirty years! People who adore Rand very much have their hands on the levers of commerce in America, and are constant, staunch defenders of deregulation, not in spite of, but because of the Great Recession of ’08.
But, hey, yeah, let’s talk s’more about the Libertarian Party. Uh-huh.
Otherwise, the book is easy enough to read. I did it in under twenty-four hours, with considerable breaks to write the posts some of you have seen. It covers the basics of Rand’s life, and her development as a thinker. So, as research material, for my purposes, it didn’t fail. And I grasp that there are no particularly good options! So, what I was looking for was primarily a discussion of Rand’s life, and I got that. I am critical enough to make do with the weaknesses in Burns’s interpretation of Rand’s story, so I don’t feel robbed.
There were two main takeaways, for me. The first is that I have been correct in criticizing the left for not having any popular ideology. As Marx went out of fashion, the American left has replaced it with . . . nothing. While the left was letting go of deeply moving philosophers and artists, the right was embracing them. Not just Rand, but people like William F. Buckley, who could reach out to people and motivate them. The only person who comes close to fitting this bill is, I think, Gore Vidal, but he’s dead and couldn’t do it alone, anyway. It is past time for the left to sponsor artists and philosophers with the same vision as Ayn Rand to create an accessible, passionate work that demonstrate leftist values.
The second is that we need to take these dudes seriously, intellectually. While their ideology is almost childishly simple to deconstruct, it is nevertheless wildly popular with people who have money and want to create a morality where they are not only tolerated but exalted. They will continue to pour their resources into defense of the indefensible – such as Rand’s childish injunction that selfishness is a virtue, or her idiotic babble about reason – and we’ve got to take them seriously, nevertheless, in order to do battle with them. Already, as we see in the right’s score of the “lame-stream media”, they have considerable insulation from the traditional mechanisms of critique. We need to find new ways to get to them . . . maybe writing a satirical sequel to one of their best loved books is a good start.
But I’m not even a Gore Vidal. If he couldn’t do it alone, I know I can’t.