Review of "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right"

My sense of irony compelled me to read Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Anne C. Heller after having just finished Marx’s biography. Especially considering that both of these thinkers have an upsurge in their popular reference in discussions on the current state of the economy, I think it’s not just amusing but fitting. I’d read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead a few years ago and found myself impressed and underwhelmed. Impressed at the creation of true heroes without some sort of existential angst, the self-help aspects inserted amongst Rand’s prose and defining her characters as well as her ability to tightly plot a novel of ideas such that it wasn’t completely boring, but also critical due to it’s highfalutin style, one dimensional characters, and the dangerous potential for readers to deploy a mimetic adoption of a character’s qualities via worship of them without incorporating a properly developed critical, historical consciousness. Thus while I am empathetic to Whitaker Chamber’s review of Rand, I also see several positive aspects worthy of recuperation.

Heller’s biography of Rand starts by immediately peeling back the aura of mysticism around her philosophy. Attending to her early childhood, we learn Rand experienced similar dynamics as other Russian exiles, such as Vladimir Nabokov, that led them to rail against the system of social relations in Russia following the end of the civil war once they’d moved to America. The privations created by civil war and the repressive political environment it created, crop failure, brain drain, trade embargoes and experimentations in production processes led those who fled to holistically decry the new Soviet state. This position is completely understandable: When market forces aren’t abstracted into an invisible force and cited as the justification for the behavior of police agents upholding “property laws” but are instead decided by a centralized planning authority and it’s agents one comes to resent the government for causing shifts in relations that lowers one’s status. This aspect of Rand’s history in Russia is then expanded by examining her first forays into philosophy. By quoting her notebooks, we see an early Rand who was wrestling with Nietzsche’s celebration of the aristocratic – something that a highly cultured, intelligent, secular Jewess with upper class upbringing would have easily identified with. It’s also worth noting that during her time enrolled in university in Russia she was given an elementary education in Marxism, reading such works as The ABC of Communism and found the logic of Aristotle to be particularly attractive (in fact “A is A”, a logical presupposition popularized by Aristotle, would later be the name of a directory for Objectivist oriented projects). Also in Russia we see Rand, like so many other people across the globe following the second world war, absolutely enthralled by Hollywood cinema. She watches them and loving them so much considers going to Film School, but knowing that this would mean she would create Soviet propaganda, decides to escape to the USA via an educational visa and then breaks ties with her family.

Once Rand makes her way to L.A. after a brief stay with distant family relatives, she reads Nietzsche more and begins writing using many of the the themes founds in his writings, even attempting to adopt his aphoristic style. She gets film work by being in the right place at the write time and soon starts to see “pinks” and “reds” everywhere and decides that it is of the utmost importance that the United States doesn’t go down the collectivist path of Russia and so writes and donates her time to fight this. It is this activism that starts to expand her view, albeit slightly, in the realm of political economy and more so in the way of America in general. Rand, in contact with several prominent intellectuals, is shown to repeating a similar process throughout her professional life. At first a connection is made between points upon which Rand and this other person agrees, Rand then goes through an almost Socratic like process of finding out their “premises” and then berating the other person each time theirs differs from hers, even if in the end they are at a similar position, and then tries to show them how they should adopt her position wholesale. This is the case both with her friends, such as Isabel Paterson, her “false friends” (conservatives that used the rhetoric of altruism or pragmatism to justify their positions) such as F. A. Hayek, and the people whom she wanted intellectual recognition from such as Sidney Hook. Indeed to a large part the biography is a retelling of two major themes: how she personally kept pushing people away from here that were able to intellectually match her and keeping around orbit younger people that were more open to her influence and how she would get involved in an organization and due to one issue or another denounce it as insufficiently “reactionary”, a term she used with positive valuation as she saw those that would restrain capitalism, the ideal economic system, as evil people.

One of the biography’s more interesting revelations to me, which speaks to this very process of alienation, was the fact that Ayn Rand was addicted to benzedrine. While the amphetamine was prescribed to her, Heller shows how it was this drug that fueled her late night discussion sessions, gave her the energy to write sometimes for over 12 hours at a time, kept her thin, and assisted in her habituation to a two pack of cigarettes a day habit (which according to Rand wasn’t unhealthy as the doctors weren’t trustworthy as they used statistics to provide their evidence, a fact that Rand’s lungs must not have been aware of as she died of cancer). I find this especially interesting given this similarity between her and Sartre, who she despised and who also ruined his health with uppers while writing Critique of Dialectical Reason at the time as Rand was ruining hers writing Atlas Shrugged. This clearly had a role in intensifying Rand’s negative personal characteristics, but also assisted her when she held court amongst her disciples once she decided to turn her own though into a school as the universities weren’t giving it sufficient attention.

Once Rand has finished her fiction and she devotes her time solely to essays, she also focuses solely on maintaining the apparatuses that she helped build with Nathaniel Branden. Thankfully Heller devotes only a small part of the book to their affair, pointing those interested to the autobiographical exposes, and does most of her writing on how the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) formed into it’s very own cultural grouping of likeminded people that would socialize almost exclusively with other Objectivists and would study Rand’s works and Leonard Peikoff’s and Branden’s exegesis of them. Clearly placing these groups within the milieu of the 60’s and 70’s and showing their evolution following the dissolution of the NBI amidst the schism caused amongst her inner circle following Rand’s discovery that Nathan had been involved with someone else other than her for four years is where Heller truly shines.

As a historian of the American conservative movement, she is able to deftly chart some of the influence of the Objectivists and show their populist appeal despite “trad”, traditional, conservatives disdain for their atheistic appeal to human rights. She shows how the Volker Fund paid for economics professors to get teaching positions at universities expire their marginalization from the profession, a fact under reported in my conversations with others about Von Mises or Hayek, and how it was the Koch brothers who created the Cato Institute on principles charted by Rand. Rand’s role as inspirer for the creation of the Libertarian Party is acknowledged, as is the wealth of student activism and publications against various policies such as the draft, drug laws and taxes. Young Americans for Freedom and Students for Individual Liberty are cited as prominent outlets of Objectivists related activism and it is her reaction and attempts at “reigning in” those that were inspired by her that she loses them. The anarcho-capitalist versus minarchist state positions controversy are outlined here as well, though it would have been to the benefit of the book to go into more detail on this considering this is a debate that continues to have relevance amongst libertarians today.

At the end of her life Heller shows Rand largely discredited amongst her early followers as her personal character alienated them and her pronouncements on morality had moved from the daily interactions to commentary on the world-historical. Lacking the background to make such judgements, many made fun of or rightly decried her racist or genocidal positions that she deemed as moral (for instance her claim that the Native American’s received what they deserved as they had no private property). Indeed this was at a time when Libertarianism was gaining the intellectual recognition that Rand would have loved. Robert Nozick published Anarchy, State, and Utopia and won the National Book Award for it in 1975 while Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976. By the end of the biography we can clearly see why Rand continues to get cited in American politics today as a person of inspiration, but also why those who uncritically laud her should be someone to watch out for.