By Satyajit Das, a risk consultant and author of Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives
Jennifer Burns (2010) “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right” Oxford University Press
One of the strange by-products of the publishing boom around the global financial crisis is the revival of the Ayn Rand’s reputation. The sales of her books, such as “The Fountainhead” and especially “Atlas Shrugged”, the 1957 novel that for libertarians is the marker for the rise and failure of collectivism, has risen sharply outperforming most living writers and most recent contributions.
The spike is neither unexpected nor surprising. The rise in fortune coincides directly with massive state intervention in the economy following market failures in the fallout from the financial crisis. As one recently formed group on the social networking site, Facebook, expressed it: “Read the news today? It’s like ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is happening in real life”. The writer just forgot to add the “Oh boy!” at the end of “Read the news today?” to complete the nostalgia.
For some, the future predicted and feared by Rand is coming true. Alan Greenspan’s downcast admission in Congress about the failure in his view of the world echoed similar admissions by the character, Robert Stadler, the gifted physicist in “Atlas Shrugged”, who had betrayed his faith cravenly in exchange for political favour. The fact that Alan Greenspan was once a member Rand’s circle merely added to the parallels.
Ayn Rand was a trenchant critic of the popular collectivism movements of the twentieth century. Her view was always resolutely pro-individual and anti-government. Rand helped shape the libertarian self image – the gifted individual restricted, brought down and in permanent conflict with power hungry bureaucrats, officials and the untalented ‘second handers’ who populate life.
Born Alisa Rosenbaum, Rand, a Russian Jew, had first hand experience of the Communist revolution and it effects on her native land. It shaped a philosophy that was fervently anti-communist and devoted to the rights and liberty of the individual.
An experienced scriptwriter, Rand shaped her two major novels less as literary works and more as vehicles for her polemic. In her time, the academic establishment found her views to be shallow and limited. Perhaps one reason was her strident criticism of everybody including people whose views were not dissimilar to her own, such as Hayek. She, it seemed, found it impossible to agree with anybody even if they agreed with her.
Her writing never rose to high standards. The stereotyped characters in her novels were poor caricatures. These weaknesses did not detract from a unique popular appeal.
In “Goddess of the Market”, Jennifer Burns identifies the source of her appeal. The very shallowness of her thinking that intellectuals dismissed was inherently attractive to a certain sensibility, especially adolescents. Her absolute values and intolerance are attractive to those who prefer a Manichean worldview. Rand’s popularity also derives from her correct insight that thriving societies are not possible without freedom, entrepreneurial abilities and innovation. This fact is most evident in China’s embrace of market economics to some degree.
Rand’s popularity is also in no small part driven by her greatest talent – creating mystique and self-promotion. Rand anticipated the cult of “celebrity thought leadership” (practised by Richard Gere, Madonna, Bono, Bob Geldorf and others) even before the terms existed.
Her power came from her greatest creation – Ayn Rand herself. Highly deliberate, Rand cultivated a distinctive image. She had a glare according to a magazine profile that “could wilt a cactus”. She wore a broach in the shape of a dollar sign.
As Ms Burns writes, her personal life completed the imagery. Her long-suffering husband had to wear a bell on his shoe to ensure that Rand could hear him approach. She informed both her husband and Mrs Branden of the arrangement whereby she met and had sex with her leading acolyte, Nathaniel Branden, twice a week.
Ms Burns identifies the internal contradictions of Rand. Within her inner circle (known ironically as “the collective”), the promoter of individual liberty could not tolerate dissent of any kind. Her stifling worldview encompassed everything from politics to interior design and dancing. Despite her following, Rand never succeeded in creating a lasting legacy or political movement. The collective fell apart when she fell out with Branden.
In “Goddess of the Market”, Jennifer Burns, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia, provides an insightful and, at times, entertaining perspective of Ayn Rand and her thinking. Ms. Burns has fashioned an interesting portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most fascinating and yet Quixotic figures. Rand’s influence lives on in her book and also in the watered down elements of her libertarian philosophy that has penetrated liberal political thinking