Involving Orcs


Review of Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed, by Lisa Duggan

Oakland: University of California Press, 2019  


Our adversaries are irredeemably evil. They are animated by malice and greed. They want to enslave us, to make us mere instruments of their unworthy desires. We have nothing to discuss with them. The task of clear-eyed writers is not to engage sympathetically with their ideas, but to expose them for what they are so that the people can unite to defeat them. 

This is the narrative offered by Ayn Rand, whose mid-twentieth century work still commands a huge audience. She advocates, as the only politics decent people can embrace, an extreme and harsh libertarianism. Those who fail to perceive the moral necessity of unregulated capitalism are evil or stupid, probably both. All social insurance and regulation, from Social Security to the prohibition of pollution, is a step toward Stalinist tyranny.  

The blogger John Rogers famously observed

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs. 

Actually they both involve orcs—inherently demonic creatures, irretrievably evil. And so does Lisa Duggan’s new book Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed. Duggan capably shows how Rand’s story rationalizes plutocracy and cruelty.  In her depiction, Rand is an orc and so are her fans. 

Duggan is a careful and honest scholar, and everything she says about Rand is true. But she is selling a different version of the same Manichean narrative. Her portrait of the libertarian right is as one-sided as Rand’s portrait of the redistributive left. Duggan fails to grasp some of the deepest sources of Rand’s appeal to otherwise decent people—the value of individual creativity, the benefits of capitalism, and the possibility of state overreach—and so misses opportunities to find common ground with many who are drawn to Rand’s minimal-state dogma. Drawing people, particularly young people, away from that dogma is morally urgent, but it won’t happen unless Rand’s legitimate attractions are understood. 

Rand was born as Alisa Rosenbaum in Russia in 1905. When she was a child, the Red Guard nationalized her father’s pharmacy, and her once prosperous family became desperately poor. She escaped to America in 1926. Her novel The Fountainhead, published in 1943, made her famous. Atlas Shrugged followed in 1957. She wrote no more fiction after that, but focused on philosophical work until she died in 1982. The books continue to have a huge following.

Rand’s novels were savaged by critics, partly because of the woodenness of the characters and partly because of the sheer nastiness of the author’s condescending and elitist attitude toward most of the human race. Rand was permanently traumatized by her early experience in Russia. That trauma is reflected in her political vision: as soon as the state does anything more than protect property, she sees the commissars coming. 

The Russia she grew up in was falling apart, its institutions barely functioning after they were captured by the Bolsheviks. Her early novel We the Living begins with a harrowing description of a winter journey on a decaying railroad, likely based on her own experiences. Atlas Shrugged, the most politically important of her works, is a dire prediction that the United States will suffer the same fate unless the government stops monkeying with the economy. 

Here is its story. The novel’s protagonist, Dagny Taggart, is a railroad company heiress who keeps her company solvent in the face of irrational interference from rapacious officials. She notices that America’s leading industrialists have been mysteriously disappearing, and that the economy is increasingly dysfunctional. As the story develops, she gradually becomes aware that these developments are connected. The captains of industry have gone on strike in protest, leaving the country to be led by incompetents. By the end she has joined them. Her intellectual progress is accompanied by a sexual one, as she passes through the beds of three titans of capitalism, each more of an alpha male than his predecessor. The last of these is John Galt, who leads the strike and explains its moral basis. Under capitalism, Galt declares, 

The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment...The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him...(Atlas Shrugged, 957) 

Rand’s core idea is that the productive elite, who are the source of wealth, are being parasitized by government transfer programs that benefit the lazy and undeserving. Any redistribution is inherently evil: “it means the right of the incompetent to own their betters and to use them as productive cattle” (Atlas Shrugged, 973).  

The human race naturally falls into neat divisions, like the sections of an orange: producers and parasites. The principle for which Rand’s heroes stand is “that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce” (id., 380). Taxation for any purpose other than the protection of property is theft: “The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.”  

The producer/moocher dichotomy has a prominent place in contemporary American politics. Compare Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future”: 

...growing numbers have come to rely on government, not themselves, for growing shares of their income and assets...dependency drains individual character, which in turn weakens American society. The process suffocates individual initiative and transforms self-reliance into a vice...  

Mitt Romney similarly channeled Rand when he denounced 47 percent of Americans “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it—that that's an entitlement.” Such people cannot be convinced to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives." 

Rand helped bring America to a place where people like that have political power. Ryan said that her work is “the reason I got involved in public service,” and he gave his staff copies of Atlas Shrugged. A 1991 Library of Congress/Book of the Month Club survey found that more Americans cited Atlas Shrugged as the book that had most influenced their lives than any other book except the Bible. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh embrace her ideas. The BB&T banking corporation provided more than 60 colleges with funding for programs in the “moral foundations of capitalism” that require students to read Rand. Gary Johnson, who received 4.4 million votes as the 2016 Libertarian candidate for President, said that “I view big government in the same way that the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand did--that it really oppresses those that create, if you will, and tries to take away from those that produce and give to the non-producers.” From 2009 to 2014, Atlas Shrugged sold 2.25 million copies (although much of that is bulk purchases by foundations that give free copies to students). Donald Trump admires The Fountainhead: “It relates to business (and) beauty (and) life and inner emotions. That book relates to...everything.” In an interview before the 2016 elections, then-candidate Trump remarked that he identifies with Howard Roark, the novel’s architect hero. 

Duggan is a professor of American Studies, and her book’s admirable aim is to investigate “the role of feeling, fantasy, and desire in constructing and maintaining political economies” (xvii). Rand, she writes, is important because she “made acquisitive capitalists sexy” (xv). The sense of life in her novels “combines the libido-infused desire for heroic individual achievement with contempt for social inferiors and indifference to their plight” (xv). Duggan suggests that this be called “optimistic cruelty” (xvi). The books “fabricate history and romanticize violence and domination in ways that reflect, reshape, and reproduce narratives of European superiority and American virtue” (xvi). 

Duggan understands Rand’s fiction as a sort of neoliberal pornography. Such a genre could exist: perhaps there is a market for Fifty Shades of Green or Atlas Shagged. Libido and sadistic contempt both loom large in Rand’s picture of the world. 

I read Rand’s novels differently than Duggan does. The contempt drowns out the libido. There are sexual episodes, but there aren’t many of them, and they are brief and inexplicit. Even in the notorious rape scene in The Fountainhead, plenty of body parts are mentioned—arms, fists, throat, lips, tongue, blood—but not the genitals. The rape was depicted in two pages of a 694 page book.  If there is an eros, it is for individual economic achievement.  The sex is an afterthought. 

The pornography of rage, on the other hand, is hardcore. No reticence here. Her hero John Galt’s 56-page speech at the end of Atlas Shrugged declares that any redistribution of income benefits only “the weakling, the fool, the rotter, the liar, the failure, the coward, the fraud” (Atlas Shrugged, 961). In one nasty passage, the blind arrogance of those who won’t let the capitalists do their jobs produces a dreadful train accident. Hundreds of passengers are killed. The reader is surprised to learn that all the victims deserved to die. The gleeful enumeration includes “a professor of economics who advocated the abolition of private property, explaining that intelligence plays no part in industrial production, that man’s mind is conditioned by material tools, that anybody can run a factory or a railroad and it’s only a matter of seizing the machinery,” and “a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels” (Atlas Shrugged, 551). This literary style, combining didacticism and homicidal fury, is reminiscent of the writings of the Marquis de Sade: Justine lay bound, naked, spread-eagled on the floor.  The Baron stood over her.  Gleefully he brandished his whip.  And he lectured her for seventeen pages.

Rand’s political analysis was delusional, with more delusions than Duggan’s short book has room to enumerate.  Rand thought that the New Deal would lead to “a Totalitarian America, a world of slavery, of concentration camps and firing squads.” If Roosevelt were reelected in 1940, she thought there might never be another federal election. More than twenty years later, she believed that John F. Kennedy was a fascist. Her writing is the work of a profoundly damaged person. She managed to surround herself with a cultlike collection of followers, who helped her build a teaching institute with lectures and classes across the United States. When an affair with its young leader ended, she was so wounded that she broke up the organization. Although she always stridently proclaimed her superior rationality, she was an unreflective plaything of her own emotions, devoid of self-awareness, rigid and easily enraged.  Professional success did not make her happy. She simply became more dogmatic and defensive. She eventually drove away nearly everyone she had been close to. When she died, the only one at her bedside was a paid nurse. The books fascinatingly present the twisted perspective of a tormented creature. 

Rand’s attitude toward the weak was nicely summarized in 1957 by her disciple, Alan Greenspan, later Federal Reserve chairman: “Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.” (Paul Ryan has said that as a Christian he repudiates her atheism. It is this pitiless contempt for the weak, not atheism, that is Rand’s deepest inconsistency with Christianity.) 

Duggan is so repulsed by Rand that she sometimes exaggerates Rand’s awfulness. She perceives racist tendencies in Rand’s writing. Today that’s a mighty serious allegation. Her evidence? “Her physical descriptions attached Aryan good looks to intelligence and creativity. All of her characters were of European descent, though their worthiness varied according to physical differences” (43). In the bucolic Colorado valley to which the industrialists retreat in Atlas Shrugged, “there is no sign of an indigenous population. The purity and nobility of the western setting depends on the erasure of histories of the violence of empire, slavery, and settler colonialism that brought these Europeans to this setting” (61). Duggan acknowledges that Rand denounced racism as the “lowest most crudely primitive form of collectivism” (quoted 74), but notes that her libertarianism led her to oppose antidiscrimination laws. Duggan reports that she decided to produce this book about Rand “as a way to write about the sanctioned, even moralized greed of neoliberal racial capitalism” (91). Rand’s association of worthiness with physical attractiveness, and the aesthetic of attractiveness it reflected, are themselves pretty unattractive. They reflect Rand’s limitations as a writer. She incorporated traditional racial tropes, lifted right out of the Hollywood films she loved, because they were what was lying around the melodramatic armory. 

But while Duggan nicely brings out Rand’s awfulness, she misses some of the principal sources of Rand’s appeal. 

In the first place, the idiotic state bureaucrat is not merely a figment of Rand’s imagination. Rand was entitled to her bitterness. Escaping Communist Russia, she found that she could not get American intellectuals to believe her stories of what she had seen there, because they were so entranced with Stalinist claptrap. The leftists of Atlas Shrugged seem implausibly idiotic, but Rand was honestly reporting her personal experience. Some readers doubtless will have had similar experience with state bureaucrats. One biographer observes that the novel’s “failure of the transportation system, the collectivization of industries, and the resulting economic atavism all broadly reproduce the Russian transition period under Lenin.”

Duggan laments that Rand “was not aware of the injustices that motivated the Bolsheviks or the workers and peasants who supported them” (18), but never acknowledges that Lenin and Stalin turned out to be far worse—worse for the workers and peasants—than Czar Nicholas II. How to explain the continuing popularity of Rand’s flavor of grievance, particularly among billionaires? Some people take a childish pleasure in being told that they are beings of a superior order, but even that isn’t necessarily bundled with anger and disdain for other people’s needs.     

Few novelists appreciate the work of business as Rand does. Today’s business class tends to be more educated than earlier elites. They’ve spent their youth among academic intellectuals like Duggan, who tend to despise those who get rich by producing goods and services. Resentment is inevitable. It’s justified. You smug intellectuals sit at your reliable word processors, in your houses whose roofs don’t leak, surrounded by modern affluence, and sneer at the hardworking people who make it possible? The hell with you!  But Rand jumps the shark: “The American businessmen, as a class, have demonstrated the greatest productive genius and the most spectacular achievements ever recorded in the economic history of mankind. What reward did they receive from our culture and its intellectuals? The position of a hated, persecuted minority.” 

For the most part, Rand is a lousy writer, with implausible plotting and cardboard characters. When she describes the creations of free individuals, however, there are flashes of eloquence. That’s an aspect of her appeal that Duggan never seems to notice. It’s also in deep tension with Rand’s admiration for capitalism. Here’s an example. At one point in The Fountainhead, a young cyclist is surprised to discover the cluster of vacation homes that the book’s hero, Howard Roark, has designed. 

There were small houses on the ledges of the hill before him, flowing down to the bottom. He knew that the ledges had not been touched, that no artifice had altered the unplanned beauty of the graded steps. Yet some power had known how to build on these ledges in such a way that the houses became inevitable, and one could no longer imagine the hills as beautiful without them—as if the centuries and the series of chances that produced these ledges in the struggle of great blind forces had waited for their final expression, had been only a road to a goal—and the goal was these buildings, part of the hills, shaped by the hills, yet ruling them by giving them meaning. (Fountainhead, 503)

Roark was given the opportunity to construct this masterpiece by a group of investors who did not care that his work had been condemned by all the most influential critics. It turns out that they were swindlers who sold two hundred percent of the stock, expecting and hoping it would fail. They are shocked to learn that there is a market for the homes—that a previously unknown population of individuals see the value of Roark’s work. The crooks go to prison, but the project prospers. 

Duggan thinks that The Fountainhead is Rand’s “first ambitious attempt to provide a defense of individualism and capitalism” (45). It “elaborated central themes of American exceptionalism—up-by-the-bootstraps individualism and dynamic creativity enabled by capitalist freedom” (33). If the book offers any critique of capitalism, it is “a critique from the right,” because it sees “actually-existing capitalism as impure, as infested with Reds and on the collectivizing path to hell” (52). 

Rand herself was indeed a right-wing extremist when she produced The Fountainhead, but this is a misreading of the book. Its account of capitalism is very different from that of her later work. In its world, the market does not reward virtue. Mediocrities like Peter Keating prosper by flattering the powerful. Panderers like the newspaper publisher Gail Wynand become fabulously rich by appealing to consumers’ lowest instincts. Geniuses like the visionary architect Henry Cameron are neglected and die in poverty. Roark nearly meets the same fate. The meddlesome government bureaucrats of Atlas Shrugged are nowhere to be seen. But there is room for brilliance to be rewarded. Because control of capital is decentralized, individuals are free to take reckless risks. The world is unpredictable: even schemes that seemed doomed, that aimed at doom, sometimes succeed. Experimentation and discovery can happen. 

Duggan has a firmer grasp of Atlas Shrugged, which offers a far cruder picture. There, too, the best writing describes individual industrial achievement: the triumphant procession of a train roaring up and down mountains on super strong tracks made of a newly engineered metal. Rand’s anger here is overwhelmed by her infectious joy in the power of human ingenuity. 

It is, however, tightly associated with the notion that markets give everyone what they deserve. A character who clearly is speaking for Rand herself declares that “when men live by trade—with reason, not force, as their final arbiter—it is the best product that wins, the best performance, the man of best judgment and highest ability—and the degree of a man’s productiveness is the degree of his reward” (Atlas Shrugged, 381).

An obvious problem with this picture is the difficulty of assessing each person’s contribution in a complex economy. Is a wealthy professional who received a government subsidized education, or a retiree who subsists on Social Security, one of Romney’s 47 percent? It depends on whether they have taken more than they have contributed. That question is unanswerable. Certainly the market value of their receipts and product, which depend on the contingencies of supply and demand, cannot answer it. “Rand advocated a reverse Marxism,” Jonathan Chait observes. “In the Marxist analysis, workers produce all the value, and capitalists merely leech off their labor. Rand posited the opposite.” The fundamental flaw in Marx’s analysis is that it is impossible to quantify the contribution of labor to value in the way that he posited. Rand makes the same mistake. 

Rand’s vision also depends on an underdeveloped account of property. Before you can know who the moochers and looters are, you have to know what people are entitled to. Before you get mad about having your things taken, you need to know that they are really yours. Southern slaveholders fought the Civil War because they wanted to protect their property. It turned out that they were the looters and moochers. 

In her nonfiction writings, Rand claims that, from basic facts of human nature, she can infer the necessity of “a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism,” which “has never yet existed, not even in America.” The property rights that this entails are pretty strict. At one point in Atlas Shrugged, Hank Reardon, one of the novel’s heroes, “remembered the time when, aged fourteen, faint with hunger, he would not steal fruit from a sidewalk stand” (Atlas Shrugged, 356). The liberals Rand hates, such as the philosopher John Rawls, would ask why anyone would accept Rand’s absolutist conception of property rights. Why should we think that property rights are such that Reardon has an obligation to starve? Rand not only did not engage with Rawls, but proudly announced that she did not intend to read him. 

The idea of the free, self-determining individual who transforms the world is an intoxicating vision. Brian Doherty, the principal historian of libertarianism, thinks that this is the source of Rand’s appeal: “Fountainhead lovers don’t just want to hiss at [the book’s villain] Toohey—they want to be Roark. And despite cavils about his ‘unrealism’ or ‘inhumanity,’ a man of consummate skill, bursting creativity, and unyielding integrity is a man eminently worth being.” That may be the central theme that Duggan misses. 

The Fountainhead, with its tendentious prose, has surely helped many young people see that they should pursue their own deepest aspirations, and not care about impressing other people. I know fans of the book who do not associate it with any particular politics, and who are surprised when they’re told that Rand is an enthusiast for uncontrolled capitalism. That individualism is in deep tension with Rand’s hatred of redistribution. Even a Roark has material preconditions. We are told that he worked his way through college, something that was easier in 1943 than it is now.  Could he exhibit the same fierce independence if he were saddled with $100,000 in student loans? Might not state-funded financial aid help produce more Roarks than we could otherwise have? 

The independent individual, unconstrained by necessity, has long been a leading theme of the left. The goal, Marx wrote, is to make it “possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” And then we can talk about the conditions that make that possible, or fail to do so. In unregulated markets, the human spirit is sometimes crushed and thwarted. 

But markets sometimes do deliver. The largest gap in Duggan’s understanding is that she doesn’t see this at all.  She thinks that the rich are “exploitive parasites on the labor of the majority” (84). She has elsewhere claimed that the expansion of global capitalism has produced “the transfer of wealth and power from poor parts of the world to the West, especially to the United States during the 1990s.”  

In fact, after the collapse of Communism and the abandonment of socialism by such major powers as India and China, the proportion of the world population living in desperate poverty plunged. In 2013, 10.7 percent of the world’s population lived on less than US$1.90 a day, compared to 35 percent as recently as 1990. There are now sizable middle classes throughout Asia and Africa. Once more, part of Rand’s appeal is that she understands the virtues of capitalism, as many intellectuals do not. Duggan thinks that the project of expanding free markets was merely an effort to entrench oligarchy—here relying on recent work on the history of neoliberalism by Nancy Maclean, who (doubtless unbeknownst to Duggan, who is careful to get her facts right) simply makes stuff up

So Duggan cannot appreciate how the promise of free markets, in which transactions make both parties better off, is thwarted by the weak state that the Randians have sought. Large, sophisticated actors can mooch and loot in plenty of ways if the state does not intervene. They can parasitize sick people and drive up the cost of medical care, as the health care industry does. They can risk another bust on the scale of 2008, as the financial industry does. They can manipulate and deceive employees and consumers with exorbitant and deceptive home loan and credit card schemes, and contracts that nullify legal remedies. Such pests are likely to be hostile to regulation, and so they piously recite ideas of small government. All these tendencies have been massively magnified under Trump. 

The most important of these bandits is the fossil fuel industry, which has deployed libertarian rhetoric to make the Republican Party the only major political party in the world that denies climate change science. The battle against regulation produces a license to profit by hurting people and destroying their property. Hostility to government also has crippled public services that capitalism needs. In the name of freedom, roads and bridges deteriorate, funding for medical research disappears, science is starved. This is stupid even from the selfish standpoint of business, which depends on functioning infrastructure.  

If the hollowing out of the state allows economic behemoths to do whatever they like, then what libertarianism licenses, in the garb of liberty, is pollution, crass predation, and the creation of a new aristocracy. This is just a different kind of mooching and looting. It is a new road to serfdom. It reinforces the prejudices of those on the left who repudiate capitalism. The libertarians who embrace it, thinking that they are thereby promoting freedom, are useful idiots, like the idealistic leftists of the 1930s whose hatred of poverty and racism led them to embrace Stalin. John Galt is a sap. 

Duggan observes that the American right’s romance with Donald Trump “would seem on the surface to be a repudiation of Randianism. Trump is in most ways a Rand villain—a businessman who relies on cronyism and manipulation of government, who advocates interference in so-called ‘free markets,’ who bullies big companies to do his bidding, who doesn’t read” (89). But contemporary capitalism reflects the “Randian ethos of the heroic individual entrepreneur as alpha white male (and sometimes female) genius” (88). At a deeper level, she thinks, Trump’s narcissism, brutality, and greed are a perfect fit. 

Support for Trump is nonetheless a betrayal of free market ideology. He uses libertarian, antiregulatory rhetoric in order to help his friends, who want to be able to hurt people without being bothered by the cops. Duggan does not dwell on the betrayal, because she does not think anyone should be loyal to what’s betrayed. Duggan thinks that if you believe in free markets, you’re in the grip of Rand’s delusions, seduced by “the cruelty at the heart of neoliberalism” (90). 

There are a lot of orcs in American political discourse today. Samuel Fleischacker observes that “[t]he inhumanly cruel but clever profile once reserved for Jews is widely applied by people on the right to liberal intellectuals and journalists, and by people on the left to capitalists.” There is however something intrinsically contradictory in the idea of a demon: a being with free will that is nonetheless so pervasively corrupt that it is incapable of being anything other than malevolent. The notion is incoherent. Fleischacker concludes: “Not even God could make a demon.” On the other hand, when we designate others as demons, we license whatever mistreatment is necessary to defend ourselves against them, and so “become ourselves as close as human beings can to being demons.” 

Reading Rand is a temptation to this kind of thinking. Her combination of viciousness and smugness provokes anger and self-righteousness. At least, that was its effect on me. I had to dig deeper to figure out how anyone could admire such repellent trash. Defective understanding begets defective politics. Each side’s demonization of the other feeds the resentment that produces counter-demonization.

Duggan is right to warn the reader: “Reject Ayn Rand. After all, she rejects you” (90). But one can persuade the reader more effectively if one understands Rand’s appeal. You need to understand how decent people can be tempted by Rand in order to be able to dig them out of that hole. 


Posted on 11 December 2019

ANDREW KOPPELMAN is John Paul Stevens Professor of Law and Professor (by courtesy) of Political Science, Department of Philosophy Affiliated Faculty, Northwestern University.  Thanks to Sara Davis, Steve Lubet, Valerie Quinn, and Will Wilkinson for comments on an earlier draft.