Ayn Rand: the Tea Party’s Miscast Matriarch
Gary Weiss, long time Wall Street reporter and author, has written a new book, due out this week from St. Martin’s Press, on the rising influence of Ayn Rand in modern politics. Titled Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, the book removes the propaganda mask that has been so adroitly affixed to Alan Greenspan’s page-boy coiffed goddess of laissez-faire capitalism and the Tea Party’s mother ship.
While lecturing others for most of her life on the meaning of morality, Rand had extramarital sex for more than a decade with a younger man who worked for her. His wife was among her inner circle of friends and Rand herself was married. A believer in acquiescence to selfish desires, Rand published a 1964 collection of essays with Nathaniel Branden titled The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. Adding particular poignancy to the title, Branden was the young subordinate with whom she was sleeping.
Rand, and her supporters, including Alan Greenspan, viewed altruism as evil: altruism is evil, selfishness is good. And tens of millions of dollars of corporate money is backing that philosophy today in America, no doubt to give obscenely paid CEOs a sip of Rand’s guilt-free narcissism while stoking the fires for more deregulation of a country just crawling back from the crippling effects of deregulation. This is the mindless irrationality of Rand’s brand of rationality.
According to Weiss, Ayn Rand built her Objectivist philosophy that permeates today’s Tea Party around individual self interest and eliminating government run social welfare programs, but she herself was on Medicare and Social Security.
Even after the attack at Pearl Harbor, Rand was against the U.S. entering World War II. She viewed government force as evil, but her own followers were regularly purged, shunned and vilified. She was an atheist, as are all true Objectivists, according to the grande dame of radical capitalism.
Alan Greenspan, the man who chaired the Federal Reserve Board for 18 years, guiding U.S. monetary policy under four presidents, was a member of Rand’s Collective in New York City, which Weiss likens to a cult: “For much of its existence the Collective was for all intents and purposes a cult. It had an unquestioned leader, it demanded absolute loyalty, it intruded into the personal lives of its members, it had its own rote expressions and catchphrases, it expelled transgressors for deviation from accepted norms, and expellees were ‘fair game’ for vicious personal attacks.”
More troubling about Greenspan, who during his term as Fed Chair, aided in the gutting of critical Wall Street regulations, including the repeal of the depression-era Glass-Steagall Act which barred the merger of insured deposit banks with investment banks and brokerage firms, was his blind loyalty to Rand’s cultish propaganda.
Weiss produces a gem from The New York Times Book Review from 1957. Greenspan was defending his idol after her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged, had been thrashed in multiple reviews. Greenspan dutifully makes his case in Randian-speak: “Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness,” he wrote. “Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.”
According to Weiss, Rand was not very joyous or fulfilled during her later years, but rather “a fussy and bitter old woman, shuffling around her neighborhood in a house coat.”
Were major reviewers in the 50s wrong about Rand’s seminal work, Atlas Shrugged, as they unmercifully trashed it? “When I read it years ago,” Weiss writes, “Atlas Shrugged left me cold. To me it had the intellectual level of a pulp science-fiction novel. It was absurdly long and it was boring.” I have to personally admit to finding it gratingly verbose and boring when I read it in college. Perhaps Rand’s brilliance and that of Greenspan elude the Objectivist-challenged among us. I decided to reach out to an expert on such matters.
I emailed Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English at Yale University. Professor Bloom did not mince words: “Ayn Rand was a writer of no value whatsoever, whether aesthetic or intellectual. The Tea Party deserves her, but the rest of us do not. It is not less than obscene that any educational institution that relies even in part on public funds should ask students to consider her work. We are threatened these days by vicious mindlessness and this is one of its manifestations.”
Professor Bloom may have been referring to the dust up last year when it was revealed that corporate money was contractually mandating the reading and teaching of Rand at publicly funded universities.
Gary H. Jones, an Associate Professor in the College of Business at Western Carolina University, addressed the topic in the July-August 2010 issue of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors: “Recent donations from the charitable arm of BB&T, one of the nation’s largest banks, have raised the issue of external influence…At the center of the concerns about these donations is the requirement that objectivist Ayn Rand’s novels be taught in special courses extolling capitalism and self-interest…the BB&T gifts raise questions of both substance and procedure. Faculty members at several universities did not even know of the gifts or that BB&T’s donations had curricular implications until after the agreements were signed. At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, for example, three years passed before faculty members learned that a million-dollar gift agreement establishing a new course contained language requiring both that Rand’s lengthy paean to laissez-faire capitalism, Atlas Shrugged, be assigned reading and that professors who teach that course ‘have a positive interest in and be well versed in Objectivism.’ ”
In that same article, Brian Leiter, director of the Center of Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago called the book “badly written and simpleminded.”
I asked Professor Jones for an update on the views he expressed in 2010. As it turns out, there is a growing “collective” of people who think Rand’s writing is unworthy of the halls of learning. Jones replied in an email: “For all the right reasons it is the faculty of educational institutions who are charged — by regional accrediting bodies — with having primary responsibility for university curriculum. Despite this, wealthy foundations, notably BB&T, offer money to schools of higher education with stipulations directly affecting curriculum, e.g., mandating or ‘encouraging’ the assignment of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Frequently, this has been done surreptitiously through the side door of private university foundations – foundations shielded from state sunshine laws and, too often, any faculty input concerning possible curricular ‘strings.’ A more abstract criticism of this unwelcome process is made by the use of Rand’s own free-market argument against her: That Atlas Shrugged should rise to the level of academic consideration, in economics, on its own merit—without subsidy. (Which it doesn’t.)”
The corporate gambit to infuse the deregulatory, small government mantra into the hearts and minds of young voters is far more Machiavellian than previously understood. And a spontaneous outpouring of interest in Ayn Rand’s books now seems more like a well-funded enterprise by deep and intertwined corporate pockets. Weiss provides his own thoughts on the likely corporate motive early in the book: “The only societal problem in the world of Atlas Shrugged is that government is mean to business and unfair to the wealthy.” (See Part II of this article tomorrow, which will explore in-depth the new radical right duo on campus: joint funding of economics programs by one of the brothers grim, the Charles G. Koch Foundation, and BB&T.)
Weiss frequently references the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), the organization that took over the marketing of Rand’s books and writings after her death in 1982. I visited their web site to see if this might be another astroturf group, creating the illusion of spontaneous outpourings of public zeal. I learned the following:
“ARI seeks to spearhead a cultural renaissance that will reverse the anti-reason, anti-individualism, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist trends in today’s culture. The major battleground in this fight for reason and capitalism is the educational institutions—high schools and, above all, the universities, where students learn the ideas that shape their lives…To date, more than 1.4 million copies of these Ayn Rand novels have been donated to 30,000 teachers in 40,000 classrooms across the United States and Canada.
“Based on a projected shelf life of five years per book, we estimate that more than 3 million young people have been introduced to Ayn Rand’s books and ideas as a result of our programs to date…partnerships have been established between ARI and the corporate community to advance Ayn Rand’s ideas in the universities. (Italics added.)
“Through ARI’s assistance, Ayn Rand’s ideas are taught and studied at more than 50 of America’s most influential institutions of higher education, including: Clemson University, Duke University, University of Virginia, University of Texas at Austin, University of Pittsburgh, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brown University, University of Kentucky, University of South Carolina, University of Florida, University of West Virginia and Wake Forest University.”
BB&T’s involvement with the Ayn Rand Institute and funding the mandate that her books be taught on campus was spearheaded by John A. Allison, the long serving former CEO and Chairman of the large Southern bank based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Weiss interviewed Allison at length for the book.
Allison’s first introduction to Rand was in his twenties at the University of North Carolina where he spotted Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal in a bookstore. (Weiss says the book has “all the charm and wit of an Army training manual.”) Noteworthy, that’s the book that carries three of Alan Greenspan’s essays. The essays were radical both then and now for advocating the repeal of anti-trust laws and almost all forms of regulation of business. Those strident Objectivist views may go a long way in explaining how Greenspan’s corporate cheerleaders protected his tenure through the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II presidencies and how his radical musings steered the world’s largest economy into a cliff.
In one essay, “The Assault on Integrity,” Greenspan provides a prescient preview of just how badly he understood Wall Street: “It is precisely the ‘greed’ of the businessman or, more appropriately, his profit-seeking, which is the unexcelled protector of the consumer.” The rest of us just can’t get it through our thick heads that “it is in the self-interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product.”
Wall Street traders are no doubt laughing all the way to their mansions in Greenwich and Cayman Islands accounts over that one. Curiously, after each Wall Street corruption scandal broke from the late 90s onward, after Citigroup was caught labeling its trade
against the European bond market, “Dr. Evil,” after Enron, and Worldcom and Rite-Aid – Greenspan refused to acknowledge the childlike naiveté of the Objectivist position.
Greenspan was himself so unconcerned with that reputational thing that he left 18 years of high profile government service to work for a notorious hedge fund, raising the question as to whether he ever really believed what he said.
In 2010, Weiss wrangled an invitation to a swanky fundraiser titled “Atlas Shrugged Revolution,” for the Ayn Rand Institute at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan. He was able to hear Yaron Brook, the head of the Ayn Rand Institute, gush about the peddling of free books to young minds. “Every English teacher in the United States gets an offer from us. If they will teach Ayn Rand’s books, we will deliver as many copies as they need for free. When we initially started this program we had a few thousand of the books sent out. Today we’re shipping three hundred and fifty-thousand copies of the books a year.” The audience roared with approval.
Weiss sized up the reaction of the crowd of wealthy donors like this: “It was as ambitious a program of mind-reprogramming as one could find outside of North Korea and science- fiction movies. Americans are said to be resistant to indoctrination and heavy-handed ideology. Yet here we had a gathering of apparently reasonable, intelligent Americans, applauding their hands raw about the prospect of young people being force fed the works of an ideologue far outside of the American mainstream.”
Shoveling over 300,000 books a year out the door costs a lot of money. I pulled up the Institute’s 990 IRS tax filings at www.Guidestar.org.
Here’s a partial breakdown of expenses for the Ayn Rand Institute, just for tax year 2009:
$l,849,400 to donate “over 321,000 free copies of Ayn Rand’s book to high school teachers and students. Held 3 essay contests on Ayn Rand’s novels which drew more than 20,000 entries. Provided support to Objectivist campus clubs, including providing speakers for 42 campus events.”
$1,152,588: “Objectivist academic center held classes for 140 enrolled students. Published 10 articles in scholarly books and journals.”
$346,833: Op-Eds published 486 times in print and web media. Letters to the editor published in over 100 print and web publications. Issued 78 press releases.”
You can understand why I am skeptical that the Ayn Rand craze is a naturally occurring phenomenon. But then, I have the benefit of recently living for five years in New Hampshire with the Objectivists of the Free State Project, a group whose stated goal is to infuse 20,000 hyperactive political operatives into the state and take over government, gut public education and all regulations on business. This outfit seemed grassroots too – until I traced the funding of their founder, Jason Sorens, to Koch foundation largesse.
To get a sense of the real Ayn Rand (her birth name was Alyssa Rosenbaum) Weiss hung out with and interviewed some of the members of Rand’s original Manhattan Collective. Weiss’ sources speak on the record about the woman. These interviews expose Rand as perhaps the most unlikely candidate for libertarian adoration. Rand despised libertarians. Rand elaborates on her views in her essay “What Can One Do” from her book “Philosophy: Who Needs It.”
“Above all, do not join the wrong ideological groups or movements, in order to ‘do something.’ By ‘ideological’ (in this context), I mean groups or movements proclaiming some vaguely generalized, undefined (and, usually, contradictory) political goals. (E.g., the Conservative Party, which subordinates reason to faith, and substitutes theocracy for capitalism; or the ‘libertarian’ hippies, who subordinate reason to whims, and substitute anarchism for capitalism.)”
According to Weiss, the bashing of libertarians continued after her death at the Ayn Rand Institute. In 1989, the Institute published a newsletter in which the editor, Peter Schwartz, denounced libertarians as a “movement that embraces the advocates of child-molesting, the proponents of unilateral U.S. disarmament, the LSD-taking and bomb-throwing members of the New Left, the communist guerrillas in Central America and the baby-killing followers of Yassir Arafat.”
Despite this history of condescending contempt for conservatives and libertarians, in 2009 there was an Objectivist collaboration with the Tea Party. The Ayn Rand Institute co-hosted an “Intellectual Ammunition Strategy Workshop,” a day before the 9/12 Tea Party extravaganza in Washington, D.C. in September 2009, bringing together 250 Tea Party leaders who attended free of charge. Weiss notes that the co-sponsor of the Rand Institute event was the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
That name rang a bell from the research I had previously done for a series of articles on the Koch brothers’ funding of front groups. A quick check at Media Matters Action Network showed that various Koch foundations had funneled over $665,000 into the Competitive Enterprise Institute over a number of years. A further check at Guidestar.org showed that the Claude R. Lambe Foundation, controlled by the Koch family, gave the Ayn Rand Institute $50,000 in total for tax years 2009 and 2010.
The widest gulf between Rand and her devoted Tea Partiers is on the issue of God. Weiss says: “She hated religion, especially Christianity. But faith in God was the essence of life to a great many in the Tea Party. Tea Party literature sometimes read like hymnals, with copious references to the Almighty and Jesus. In his vest-pocket-sized The Tea Party Manifesto, author and conservative commentator Joseph Farah invokes the Deity on almost every one of its tiny pages. ‘I know the heart and soul of the tea party movement,’ he says. ‘It is populated by people who think just like I do on these big issues. It is a movement of prayerful people, people who love God, people who go to church and synagogue.’ That would leave Objectivists out in the cold, unless you included the Church of Rand on that list.”
In the end, both Weiss and I seem to come to the same conclusion. Weiss ponders: “…perhaps it is simply that Objectivism has no practical purpose except to promote the economic interests of the people bankrolling it, the rationally self-interested people surrounding me at the St. Regis, regardless of its potential to bring ruin to everyone else…”
Possibly Weiss had in the back of his mind the Co-Chair of the Board of the Ayn Rand Institute: Arline Mann, Managing Director and Associate General Counsel of the Board of Goldman Sachs & Company.
Pam Martens worked on Wall Street for 21 years. She spent the last decade of her career advocating against Wall Street’s private justice system, which keeps its crimes shielded from public courtrooms. She maintains, along with Russ Martens, an ongoing archive dedicated to this financial era at www.WallStreetOnParade.com. She has no security position, long or short, in any company mentioned in this article. She is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org