Ayn Rand’s Legacy of Unifying Social Cruelty

Lisa Duggan is a journalist, activist and professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. She has authored several books on gender and cultural politics. Her newest book, Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed, is part of a series she is co-editing with University of California Press called American Studies Now. She was president of the American Studies Association during 2014-15.

In this interview, Duggan discusses Mean Girl and the legacies of both Rand’s work and its connections to neoliberalism. In the book, Duggan goes beyond the more standard biographical accounts of Rand and gets to the bottom of her novels and how they set a disturbing tone for global capitalism. Further, Duggan explains the mischaracterizations of Rand in modern memory, and provides expert analysis of current affairs in helping readers to contextualize the actual historical Rand and her likely political endorsements as well as her most reactionary views.

The following transcript has been lightly edited.

Daniel Falcone: Could you tell readers first briefly about Ayn Rand, and how this book differs from others in regard to her? What do you argue in the book?

Lisa Duggan: Rand’s influence has shaped our political present, not primarily through her philosophical ideas of Objectivism, but through the feelings, fantasies, aspirations and desires she circulates in her two massively popular novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Drawing on deeply familiar cultural narratives derived from the fantasies of European empire, she outlines heroic characters and romance plots that appeal especially to white teenagers. Rand’s novels present “superior” characters and eroticize their contempt for and cruelty toward “inferior” others. She presents readers with her ideal capitalist: a haughty individualist with no need for the collectivism of government, unions or human solidarity.

The 2009 biographies of Rand by Jennifer Burns and Anne Heller provide solidly researched accounts of Rand’s life and work. These important independent critical studies add substantially to the large volume of work on Rand produced by her followers. In Mean Girl, I go beyond these personal and intellectual biographies to show how Rand’s values and ideals, conveyed primarily though fantasy and feeling, set the affective tone of the neoliberal phase of U.S. and global capitalism.

Since the 1980s, neoliberal policies have cut the social safety net, deregulated global corporations, and privatized public goods around the world — thereby increasing social, political and economic inequality to world historical levels. This [has] been done very much in the spirit of Rand. Indeed, many neoliberal thinkers and policy makers (from Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chair; to the Koch brothers’ Cato Institute circles; to Silicon Valley tech gurus) were enthralled by Rand’s novels while in high school.

Since the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the rise of Democratic insurgents and notable progressive women elected officials, a lot of journalists, scholars and activists are unpacking elite white feminism and discussing the political usages of the past. How does your study of Rand compare with policy attitudes of elite white feminism? Are there any parallels?

Rand was not in any real sense a feminist, if we define feminism as a kind of collectivism — advocacy for a group. She was a fierce advocate for women’s power and independence as individuals in the business arena, with one caveat: She believed every woman needed a male “hero” to “worship,” a man with more power and specifically with sexual power over her, in order to maintain her “femininity.” Moreover, these independent businesswomen must be gender-appropriate in class and race-specific ways — Rand loved glamour, sleek physiques and Aryan good looks. Think Ann Coulter.

She denigrated most feminists as ugly and obnoxious, from the woman “comrades” of the Bolshevik revolution (portrayed in her novel, We the Living), to 1970s women’s liberationists. She definitely advocated for women’s equality as individuals up to a point — but the limits were race (white), class (business) and sexuality.

Of course, there are some who believe this qualifies as feminism — I do not. It’s not elite white feminism, as repulsively wrong-headed as that formation is; it is elite white imperial girl power — limited and juvenile in its expression. For the full range of views on this, see Mimi Gladstein’s, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand.

Can you talk about how the book is put together? What parts of the book do you consider the most pressing?

Mean Girl begins with a thematic introduction, laying out the primary arguments of the book and describing Rand’s early and heavily shaping crush on a vicious child murderer, William Hickman, who became a model for her fictional “heroes.”

The chapters then follow her from her childhood in Russia and her experience during the Bolshevik revolution, through her life in Hollywood as a scriptwriter for Cecil B. DeMille, to her life in New York and the formation of her “collective” and the founding of Objectivism as a philosophical movement/cult. These chapters trace the development of the themes, characters and plots in her two major novels, and outline her lifelong commitment to anti-socialist and anti-solidarity politics.

I could say she was a capitalist ideologue, as many do, but she did not actually understand capitalism; she advocated a cartoon fantasy of economic “freedom.” The thread that runs through her life and work is rage — rage at the Bolsheviks who dispossessed her family, initially. Over the long 20th century, her rage morphed into opposition to the New Deal, to unions, to feminism and environmentalism, to all forms of human solidarity politics.

This rage, and not her advocacy of a fantasy version of capitalism, really defined her. The positive feeling and image that inspired so many, and still does, is that of creative aspiration against the odds — a narrative and set of representations with wide appeal. But in Rand’s hands, this aspiration is laced with anger and cruelty, and endowed with idealized and moralized selfishness and greed. Mean Girl is organized to show the chronological development of these formations of desire and contempt as they shift through the decades.

How do you set out to describe Rand politically, and what do you consider her relevancy and legacy in the present?

Donald Trump is a Rand villain who thinks he’s her hero; he thinks he’s Howard Roark. But she actually despised his kind of crony capitalism tied with government favors and corruption. She would have hated the way he looks — tubby and vulgar like one of her “losers.”

But Trump is not the only one who mistakenly envisages himself as a Rand hero; the government and business world is full of Rand fans who read Atlas Shrugged in high school. The blend of right-wing white nationalism, combined with hard, zombie neoliberalism that rules the Republican Party right now does not align with Rand’s purest economic and political vision. But the unifying social cruelty, the full deference to the wealthiest as the most deserving of tax breaks, the representation of the poor and of immigrants as unworthy and undeserving of any kind of assistance, the opposition to unions, to universal health care, to minimum wages — that is pure Rand.

Many advocates of these policies learned to legitimize them, learned to moralize them, as in “greed is good,” from reading Rand or just from existing in a Randian milieu (we can be pretty sure Trump has not actually read Rand!). She is the dour visage presiding over the cruelties of our contemporary moment.