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On Contact: Ayn Rand with Prof. Lisa Duggan

On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses the outsized influence of the writer, Ayn Rand, on America's business and financial elite with New York University professor and author, Lisa Duggan.

Duggan's new book is entitled 'Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed.'

YouTube channel: On Contact

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Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/rttv/sets/on-contact

CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the outsize influence of the writer, Ayn Rand, on America’s business and financial elite with NYU Professor and Author, Lisa Duggan.

LD: With Ayn Rand, the primary appeal is what she calls her “sense of life.”  And that is what Raymond Williams would have called the structure of feeling, which is the way the books cause fantasy, libido, they promote aspiration.  They sexualize and eroticize these figures of entrepreneurial achievement.  And she provides a kind of aspirational, eroticized plot and figure for identification with the successful individuals of capitalism. 

CH: Can I just quote you?  You say--there are few contemporary writers who have been, at once, as reviled and lionized as Ayn Rand.  Her two major novels, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” are canonical texts for many of the country’s most powerful figures in business and finance.  Her devotees include Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia, Peter Thiel from PayPal, the late Steve Jobs from Apple, John Mackey from Whole Foods, and Jeff Bezos from Amazon.  Her anti-statist pro free-market stances shaped the politics of what came to be known as libertarianism, or sometimes anarcho-capitalism, and neoliberalism.  Rand’s biographer, Jennifer Burns, calls Rand’s fiction the gateway drug to right-wing politics in the United States.  Rand articulates and champions, as Lisa Duggan writes in her book, “Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed,” “The cruelty and amorality of our age.”  Joining me in the studio to discuss the seismic impact of Ayn Rand on American society is Lisa Duggan.  So, you saved me from reading “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.”  I did…

LD: I performed us a public service.

CH: Yeah.  I did--I felt I had to read a few--a hundred pages to validate how--what a pedestrian writer and thinker she is.  But she has had this remarkable impact, and still today.  I mean, millions of copies sold.  Why?

LD: Well, it is sort of surprising.  If you encounter the novels and you see how large they are, a thousand pages, seven hundred pages.  And a lot of it is very tedious, long speeches and descriptions.  It’s very--and then it’s also hack, you know, writing.  It’s--there’s no literary quality to it.  There’s no particular intellectual depth to it.  So, how could it be that it--that these books are so wildly popular, not just with various elites?  So the--you particularly focused on the Silicon Valley tech billionaires.

CH: Right.  Where she’s very popular, I’m told.

LD: Extremely popular there.  But also, virtually, the entire Trump cabinet, if--they--in their bios, they mostly meant--they--most of them do mention her.  In celebrity culture, she’s very--she’s very popular in Hollywood.

CH: Right.  I believe Brad Pitt and…

LD: And Angelina Jolie at one point considered being in a film based on “Atlas Shrugged.”  So she has, not just the elites, though, she’s also word of mouth broadly popular, as you said, selling millions of copies in year--decade, after decade, after decade.  So the only thing that really makes her important to write about, talk about, think about is the effort to explain this popularity.  What does the popularity mean?  What are its implications?  How do we think about it?  And so it--I think for those of us who are broadly on the left, it’s--a similar kind of question is how do all these people vote for Donald Trump, right?  It’s like trying to figure out what the appeal is.  And I think with Ayn Rand, the primary appeal is what she calls her “sense of life.”  And that is what Raymond Williams would have called the structure of feeling, which is the way the books cause fantasy, libido.  They promote aspiration, they sexualize and eroticize these figures of entrepreneurial achievement.  And she provides a kind of aspirational, eroticized plot and figure for identification with the successful individuals of capitalism.

CH: Can I just quote you?  You say…

LD: Yeah.

CH: “Ayn Rand makes acquisitive capitalists sexy.”

LD: Yes.

CH: Well, that took work.

LD: Yeah.  And that’s really her--the primary function of her books.  People usually read them in high school.  At a moment of a kind of, you know, being stirred up adolescence where she’s writing about how the individual can break free and achieve on--individually and it--it’s a critique of being held back by the family, the state, the church.  And so adolescence often identify very strongly with that.

CH: Well, it’s this war on collectivism.

LD: Yeah.

CH: But what I know…

LD: All forms of human solidarity.

CH: I noticed when--the small part I read in “The Fountainhead,” she fuses institutionalism with collectivism, which is not the same.  Institutions are hierarchal structures having worked at the New York Times that are very good at promoting mediocrity as what--you’re at NYU.  I know you can’t say anything.  But that’s what institutions do.  But that’s not the same thing as the “Wobblies” or, you know, but it’s--just even the little part I read…

LD: Well, she had a kind of childish misunderstanding of how capitalism works.  So, she bought the PR that capitalism is about individual innovation rather than a class project, a collaborative, collective class project.  So, in neoliberalism’s PR is that it’s all about freedom, right?  Freedom from regulations, free markets, free minds.  But when--in fact the history of neoliberalism is not about deregulating, it’s about re-regulating.  It’s about altering markets and altering relationship to states in order to allow an upward redistribution of resources to let the rich get richer.  So, it’s not about deregulating and freedom.  It’s about re-regulation and wealth.

CH: That’s a good point.

LD: So, Ayn Rand is part of the PR front.  She’s--she herself was not a neoliberal.  Her formation was in the Bolshevik Revolution.  She died in 1982.

CH: She was born in--born in Russia, which you pointed out in the book.

LD: Yes.  Born in Russia, and her contacts with the Bolshevik Revolution, she died in 1982.  She wasn’t herself a neoliberal.  She was taken up by neoliberals and became an icon for neoliberals because in the way that the PR of neoliberalism says it’s about freedom, she added a patina of sexual freedom, sexiness, libido, aspiration, excitement.  It was like her novels are conversion machines that run on lust.  They…

CH: Well, there is--aren’t there--I haven’t gotten that far yet.

LD: It’s like soft pornography.

CH: They’re soft porn, right?

LD: Yeah.

CH: I mean, I read from your book, but, yeah.  It’s…

LD: Yeah, soft porn.  You know, Susan Brownmiller said when she--when she first read “The Fountainhead” and went to the New York Public Library to read it, the book just fell open at the sex scenes.

CH: Oh, yeah.  That’s in your book.  Yeah.  Right.

LD: Yeah.  Just fell open at the sex scenes because that’s what people went to--went to read.

CH: I want--I want to read a passage from your book.  You say, “We are in the midst of a major global, political, economic, social, and cultural transition,” what Gramsci called the interregnum.  “But we don’t yet know which way we’re headed.  The incoherence of the Trump administration is symptomatic of the confusion as politicians and business elites jockey with the Breitbart alt-right forces while conservative evangelical Christians pull strings.  The unifying threads are meanness and greed, and the spirit of the whole hodgepodge is Ayn Rand.”  Meanness and greed?

LD: Right.  Because though there were all these strands as the center falls apart all over the world, and there’s risings on the left, and noises and violence on the right, as we’re trying to figure out what’s going on, the world is filled with extreme meanness, and extreme inequalities, a tremendous amount of meanness.  And when you see the--like, the photos from the boarder of children in cages and families separated, or--the--it’s not just that audiences accept this.  There’s glee, right?  People feel glee.

CH: Which I think you argue is exactly what Ayn Rand…

LD: Ayn Rand.  So, it’s the glee that the people who don’t deserve it are being pushed back so that the people who are superior and deserving can rise to the top.  It kind of moralizes, aestheticizes, and eroticizes inequality and aspiration to superiority, and cruelty, and indifference towards the losers of the world, who also then are seen as being a kind of savage mob.  And that’s her vision of collectivism.

CH: But there’s a sadist--sadistic quality in the sense---sadist in the sense that you derive pleasure…

LD: Yes.  Glee is…

CH: Right.  You call--you say, “The libido-infused desire for heroic individual achievement with contempt for social inferiors and indifference to their plight.”  So, what she does as a writer is ridicule.  I mean, you already see it in the beginning of the book, ridicule, make fun of the underclass, in essence.

LD: Yes.  And she drew her images and her plots and characters from beginning with her childhood in Tsarist, Russia.  She identified with European civilization.  So, the book she read as a child were, like, the British Army Captain who subdues the Hindu mob.  So, there is a bit orientalist vision of the savage Hindu mob.  She eroticizes and makes into her hero the British Army Captain.  So, she…

CH: Well, let me just interrupt.

LD: Yeah.

CH: Because as you point out now, all of her, you know, sexy, acquisitive capitalists are very good-looking, and a very Arian kind of…

LD: They’re all Arian.  And she herself was Jewish so she uses anti-sematic tropes to indicate loserhood and failure, and left politics all the time.  So she uses, you know, anti-sematic physical descriptions to signal that someone is morally inferior and a loser.  And the winners are all these gorgeous, tall, thin, blonde Arian types.  So she starts with sort of European civilizational discourse which is heavily racialized, right?

CH: Right.  Right.

LD: And she moves it to Hollywood.  When she goes to Hollywood and becomes a screenwriter for Cecil B. DeMille, she then takes her European ideas and transfers them to American racial capitalism, and she starts to see the hierarchy of class, and blend it into the, sort of, aristocratic European Civilizational discourse.  And she comes up with plots about the superior individuals and the inferior mob, where she takes the explicit racial references out of it.  But they’re still--the descriptions are highly racial tropes, right?  The inferior, the physically inferior, a lot of eugenic language, right, about the way people--disabled people that’s morally inferior to people who are physically perfect…

CH: Yeah.  But this is just given expression by Donald Trump.

LD: Yes.  Totally.

CH: Completely.

LD: And he’s--you know, I mean, she, in fact, would not have admired Donald Trump because he’s a crony capitalist.  The--he makes use of the state.  She would have ridiculed his body to high heaven because she would not have approved of his physical condition.  She would have thought of him as a total loser.  But he sees himself, and he’s on tape describing himself as Howard Roark and identifying with Howard.

CH: Yeah.  Well, explain…

LD: He sees himself as an [INDISTINCT] hero.

CH: Explain who Howard Roark is.  I know who Howard Roark is because it begins the book.

LD: Howard Roark is the--Howard Roark is the architect, who’s the hero of “The Fountainhead.”  And Howard Roark is a creative individual who’s kept down by committees of mediocre architects and penny-pinching, crowd-chasing journalists who don’t recognizes genius.  When those forces interfere with the building he’s designed, which is a public housing project, the culmination of the novelist, he blows up the public housing project.  And the reader is supposed to applaud this.  And that scene is very interesting to think about in relation to the Ivo van Hove production of “The Fountainhead” at BAM last year.

CH: This was the movie.  They did a movie.

LD: No, it was a play.

CH: Oh, it was a play?

LD: At BAM, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

CH: Oh.  Didn’t they [INDISTINCT] once made a movie.

LD: There was a movie.  There is a movie, “The Fountainhead” with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.  And it did not do well because Ayn Rand was on set and made sure that all of the long speeches were included in the film.  The film did not do that well.

CH: When we come back.

LD: Yeah.

CH: When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about Ayn Rand with Lisa Duggan.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about Ayn Rand with--and The Culture of Greed with Lisa Duggan.  So you use this term “cruel optimism.”

LD: Uh-hmm.

CH: Explain that.

LD: Okay.  So I’m flipping it to optimistic cruelty.  The term cruel optimism comes from Lauren Berlant, a really wonderful book, about the way people survive the precarious existences that they lead under neoliberalism.  So as people are trying to get by and it’s difficult, and they don’t have any job security, and they don’t have any benefits, they still try to plan a good life, and try to believe in the future, and she calls that cruel optimism.

CH: Well, let me just interject.  I mean, that--of course, that magical thinking of which Oprah has made million--hundreds of millions of dollars on “believe in yourself, it’s all about you, if you’re a failure it’s your fault.”  You know, “You can be truly exceptional,” Tony Robbins, positive psychology.  It’s all--it’s fed to us culturally.

LD: Yes.  And Lauren Berlant, with some--with some empathy for people who tried to live with that, when it’s not panning out for them, talks about cruel optimism as the emotion that goes with trying to survive.  And I flipped it and--to call it optimistic cruelty because I’m writing about people who identify with the top.  So, I’m writing about how it is people come to identify with the aspirational entrepreneur successful one regardless of their own circumstances.  And that is a kind of optimistic cruelty, a belief in a future for yourself, damn everyone else.

CH: Well, that’s Trump.  I mean…

LD: Yes.

CH: There’s a lot--Trump, at one point, when he’s running, he says, you know, “it’s not about me, it’s about you.”  And I thought that might be the one honest thing he said because in--there are these people and this is, of course, where he paints himself as a Randian kind of hero figure in his mythological biography.

LD: View of himself.

CH: View of himself, but that taps into exactly that…

LD: Yes.  And he calls that out, right?  In other people to identify him as this successful businessman, which is not exactly what he is, but he calls on that same aspirational belief and individual achievement, and exceptional individualism, and paints that as the center of a kind of culture of success that everybody can be part of.  Well, that is--the cruel optimism aspect of that--I mean, the optimistic cruelty in that is that I will get by and everybody else, like all you immigrants, all you poor people, all you queer people, you should just go down in flames because I’m--I deserve to rise and I’ll do it on your back.  And that’s the kind of feeling, the effect of reading and identifying with Ayn Rand’s novels.  It produces that kind of “I’m a creative individual, you’re not.”

CH: But it’s worse than that, as you point out, because it’s about the absolving of guilt, the absolve--not just the absolving of compassion and empathy, but as you write--it’s, you know, that--it’s not only contempt for lesser--these are your words, “Contempt for lesser beings and cool indifference to their suffering, even to their existence,” you’re writing about the--he wrote, He is guiltless.”

LD: Yes.  Well, that’s the thing she admires.  She admires a lack of guilt, a kind of contemptuous, indifferent, and lack of guilt.  And that’s the quality that she sees as being characteristic of the superior person.  So any sign of compassion or guilt is weakness.  Of course, that is how Donald Trump sees the world.

CH: Yeah.  Completely.

LD: And her novels are filled with losers who have it coming, weak people who don’t deserve anything, and superior people who rise to the top.  And so as a teenager usually is reading this and identifying with some escape from, you know, the context that they’re living in, the separation that every adolescent aspires towards, identifies with that, and then all of these things, the civilizational themes, the capitalist propaganda, it all goes into that set of aspirations, and people come out the other end often converted to a kind of right-wing politics, but not all.  And one of the scary things is that people who have progressive politics can also identify with Ayn Rand.  And, for instance, I was saying before about Ivo van Hove’s play, Ivo van Hove is a gay social democrat from Belgium.  And this film lionizes Howard Roark.

CH: You mean the play.

LD: The play, I’m sorry.  It’s a play and it lionizes Howard Roark.  So, all of these Manhattan cultural figures are sitting in the audience, I went to several shows, and they’re clapping when he balls-up the public housing project, they’re identifying with him, and they’re not seeing.  They’re not seeing.  They’re seeing the theme of the creative individual breaking out of mediocrity, and they’re not seeing the racial tropes, the class cruelty, and all of the ways that morality is signaled by physical--morality is signaled by physical imperfection, all the things that are built there are such familiar cultural tropes that they just go without notice.

CH: But then it affects the left.  I mean, Lenin, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, was heartless.

LD: Yeah.

CH: I mean, it says why in Adam Ulam’s biography, “Bolsheviks,” he said, “The only people Lenin really like were hardcore capitalists.”  So is that--and he, of course, formed state capitalism.  So, these qualities are hardly--a very good point.  Hardly…

LD: Yes.  And in fact, it’s--the easy part is to say that the elites and the right identify with this.  We know they do.  And it’s good to know that the--that the affective contribution of Ayn Rand is a part of how that happens.  But the really scary thing is that these ideas and feelings extend far wider.

CH: Yes.  That’s right.

LD: And that Ayn Rand has a lot of gay LGBT fans, lots of them, because when you read that and you’re an adolescent and if you’re gay, lesbian, trans adolescent, you feel very indemned by the family, the state, and the church.  And the idea that you could break out of that and be kind of exceptional in some way is enormously appealing, and you might miss, like--because it’s such familiar, all the racial and class hierarchies are so deeply ingrained in the cultural unconscious that you can absorb them without even knowing it.

CH: Well, elite…

LD: And that’s the more dangerous effect.

CH: Elitism, whatever its political color, is, by its nature, cruel and…

LD: Infused with sex so it makes it--it gives it this charge of, like, excitement, like you see Paul Ryan talk about Ayn Rand it’s like he sees him--his self as the sort of sexy Ayn Rand and he gets that image, right?  From Ayn Rand, though he’s nothing but a government bureaucrat, which she reviled.  In his mind, it’s like he’s, you know, he’s got his hand--have you seen those photos of him bare chested with the hand weights?

CH: I’ve missed those, so.

LD: All right.  When someone pointed out to him that she was an atheist and that she was--thought abortion should be legal, he came back the next day and said his favorite writer was actually St. Thomas Aquinas.

CH: Let me ask about the economist.

LD: Yeah.

CH: Because you had until, let’s say, the ‘70s, certainly this kind of Keynesian, people running the IMF, the World Bank.  They were Keynesians.

LD: Uh-hmm.

CH: Then you get this switch--and you talk about Milton Friedman, but what’s so kind of shocking and disturbing is the influence Ayn Rand had on economists, who then construct neoliberalism, which makes no economic sense.

LD: No.  Because…

CH: As David Harvey has pointed out.

LD: And she doesn’t understand capitalism at all.

CH: Well, of course.

LD: Yeah.

CH: So talk about that.

LD: Well, I mean, I think the most illustrative example is Alan Greenspan, right?  So Alan Greenspan was in her inner, inner circle.  He was one of the…

CH: And let me just interject, it’s from your book, it became kind of cult-like.

LD: Yes.  It was the objectivists.  She actually called with--ironically, “the collective” although that wasn’t actually all that ironic, it really was a collective.  She had a group of people around her and then a bunch of followers out from that.  And in her inner circle was Alan Greenspan, who became, of course, the guru of the Federal Reserve.  And he took her ideas.  He--she--he credits her in his autobiography with teaching him about the world.

CH: Well, when he sworn in…

LD: Because he had been--

CH: But he’s sworn in by Reagan.  It’s in your book, she’s with him.

LD: Yeah.  She’s standing right next to him.  And he credited her because he--she called him The Undertaker because she said he had no affect and he was just all about the numbers, and he credited her with teaching him about the world.  And so he took her ideas about the world, which were very wrongheaded and cartoonish, and put it into his deregulation campaign.  I mean, it was ironic because she opposed central bankers on principle and he became the world’s premier central banker.  But his deregulation project, the one that eventually tanked the economy in 2008, was based on her ideas, right?  Her ideas about what was the proper relation between the state and the financial structure, and the, you know, and banking and industry.  So, he deregulated, according to her ideas, you know, with a set of cartoonish assumptions, that then after the crash, when he was being interviewed in congress and I made this the title of the last chapter of the book.  He admits I found a flaw in my thinking.  Well, there were a lot of flaws in his thinking in terms of under, you know, really under--he was considered the person who understood capitalism best, but he actually had some very cartoonish ideas about how--what deregulation was.

CH: Well--which we’re all paying for now.

LD: Yeah.  Exactly.

CH: And yet at the end of her life, I mean, certainly these were the only two major novels that she wrote.

LD: Yes.  She had others, but these are her majors.  Yeah.

CH: She had others but these are major, but then she thinks of herself as kind of a philosopher.

LD: Yes.

CH: She publishes the “Individualist Manifesto,” which is kind of her answer to the “Communist Manifesto.”

LD: Yeah.  “Individuals of the world, unite,” that was her slogan.

CH: Was it, really?

LD: “Individuals of the world, unite.”

CH: Wow.

LD: You know, you can’t make this stuff up.

CH: She was, you know, her relationship to empire, so you see domestically but--and I you alluded to it when you talked about her kind of hero as the British captain in India.

LD: Yes.

CH: But it was also about the justification of the extension of white supremacy and empire.

LD: Oh, absolutely.  She--there’s the…

CH: I mean, even--in your book…

LD: Absolutely.

CH: I’m just--from your book, she talks about how all of the Native Americans deserve to be slaughtered because, in her words, they had the land for 5,000 years and had never done anything with it.

LD: That’s an exchange between her and a Native American cadet at West Point where she’s--yeah, she justifies--although she’s supposedly this property supremacist, right?  I mean, what Nancy MacLean calls a property supremacist, and that’s if you own property, you absolutely own it and no government should be allowed to tell you what you can do with it.  But when it comes to Native American land, she completely justified the--just the stealing, the taking of that land, that’s not how property supremacy works.  Her justification for that was, well, they weren’t doing anything with it, and therefore they didn’t deserve to keep it.  So, yes, white supremacy was fundamental to her fiction.  In fact all her fans, almost all her fans, are white.  There are very few fans of color.  It’s pretty balanced by gender, but there are very few fans of color.  And I think that’s because the white supremacy, the racial tropes, the civilizational discourse, the racial capitalism, is so embedded in codes in those novels.

CH: Yeah.  Completely.

LD: And so people of color cannot not see it.

CH: Well--and they’re meant to be locked up.

LD: And, yes, they are.  And it takes a certain kind of self-acknowledged whiteness to go into the novel and not see.

CH: And as you pointed out, we have to stop there, it can come from the left after all.

LD: Yes.

CH: Thank you.

LD: Yeah.

CH: That was Lisa Duggan about her new book “Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and The Culture of Greed.”