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Monday, December 27, 2010

Reading List: Goddess of the Market

Burns, Jennifer. Goddess of the Market. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-532487-7.
For somebody who built an entire philosophical system founded on reason, and insisted that even emotion was ultimately an expression of rational thought which could be arrived at from first principles, few modern writers have inspired such passion among their readers, disciples, enemies, critics, and participants in fields ranging from literature, politics, philosophy, religion, architecture, music, economics, and human relationships as Ayn Rand. Her two principal novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (April 2010), remain among the best selling fiction titles more than half a century after their publication, with in excess of ten million copies sold. More than half a million copies of Atlas Shrugged were sold in 2009 alone.

For all the commercial success of her works, which made this refugee from the Soviet Union, writing in a language she barely knew when she arrived in the United States, wealthy before her fortieth birthday, her work was generally greeted with derision among the literary establishment, reviewers in major newspapers, and academics. By the time Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, she saw herself primarily as the founder of an all-encompassing philosophical system she named Objectivism, and her fiction as a means to demonstrate the validity of her system and communicate it to a broad audience. Academic philosophers, for the most part, did not even reject her work but simply ignored it, deeming it unworthy of their consideration. And Rand did not advance her cause by refusing to enter into the give and take of philosophical debate but instead insist that her system was self-evidently correct and had to be accepted as a package deal with no modifications.

As a result, she did not so much attract followers as disciples, who looked to her words as containing the answer to all of their questions, and whose self-worth was measured by how close they became to, as it were, the fountainhead whence they sprang. Some of these people were extremely bright, and went on to distinguished careers in which they acknowledged Rand's influence on their thinking. Alan Greenspan was a member of Rand's inner circle in the 1960s, making the case for a return to the gold standard in her newsletter, before becoming the maestro of paper money decades later.

Although her philosophy claimed that contradiction was impossible, her life and work were full of contradictions. While arguing that everything of value sprang from the rational creativity of free minds, she created a rigid system of thought which she insisted her followers adopt without any debate or deviation, and banished them from her circle if they dared dissent. She claimed to have created a self-consistent philosophical and moral system which was self-evidently correct, and yet she refused to debate those championing other systems. Her novels portray the state and its minions in the most starkly negative light of perhaps any broadly read fiction, and yet she detested libertarians and anarchists, defended the state as necessary to maintain the rule of law, and exulted in the success of Apollo 11 (whose launch she was invited to observe).

The passion that Ayn Rand inspires has coloured most of the many investigations of her life and work published to date. Finally, in this volume, we have a more or less dispassionate examination of her career and œuvre, based on original documents in the collection of the Ayn Rand Institute and a variety of other archives. Based upon the author's Ph.D. dissertation (and with the wealth of footnotes and source citations customary in such writing), this book makes an effort to tell the story of Ayn Rand's life, work, and their impact upon politics, economics, philosophy, and culture to date, and her lasting legacy, without taking sides. The author is neither a Rand follower nor a confirmed opponent, and pretty much lets each reader decide where they come down based on the events described.

At the outset, the author writes, “For over half a century, Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right.” I initially found this very off-putting, and resigned myself to enduring another disdainful dismissal of Rand (to whose views the vast majority of the “right” over that half a century would have taken violent exception: Rand was vehemently atheist, opposing any mixing of religion and politics; a staunch supporter of abortion rights; opposed the Vietnam War and conscription; and although she rejected the legalisation of marijuana, cranked out most of her best known work while cranked on Benzedrine), as I read the book the idea began to grow on me. Indeed, many people in the libertarian and conservative worlds got their introduction to thought outside the collectivist and statist orthodoxy pervading academia and the legacy media by reading one of Ayn Rand's novels. This may have been the moment at which they first began to, as the hippies exhorted, “question authority”, and investigate other sources of information and ways of thinking and looking at the world. People who grew up with the Internet will find it almost impossible to imagine how difficult this was back in the 1960s, where even discovering the existence of a dissenting newsletter (amateurishly produced, irregularly issued, and with a tiny subscriber base) was entirely a hit or miss matter. But Ayn Rand planted the seed in the minds of millions of people, a seed which might sprout when they happened upon a like mind, or a like-minded publication.

The life of Ayn Rand is simultaneously a story of an immigrant living the American dream: success in Hollywood and Broadway and wealth beyond even her vivid imagination; the frustration of an author out of tune with the ideology of the times; the political education of one who disdained politics and politicians; the birth of one of the last “big systems” of philosophy in an age where big systems had become discredited; and a life filled with passion lived by a person obsessed with reason. The author does a thorough job of pulling this all together into a comprehensible narrative which, while thoroughly documented and eschewing enthusiasm in either direction, will keep you turning the pages. The author is an academic, and writes in the contemporary scholarly idiom: the term “right-wing” appears 15 times in the book, while “left-wing” is used not at all, even when describing officials and members of the Communist Party USA. Still, this does not detract from the value of this work: a serious, in-depth, and agenda-free examination of Ayn Rand's life, work, and influence on history, today, and tomorrow.

Posted at December 27, 2010 00:34