Ayn Rand, Urban Cowboy

Aronowitz and Willis

Ayn Rand, Urban Cowboy

Aronowitz and Willis

Ayn Rand, Urban Cowboy
An email conversation about the news of the day.
April 6 1999 6:04 PM

Aronowitz and Willis

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You want "blunt dogmatism"? Try Milton Friedman or, indeed, Jeffrey Sachs, the architect of the return of Russia to barter and to barbarism. When in the wake of the dire need for the fledgling Soviet Union to rise from the ashes of the 1920s invasion of the 21 foreign armies, Lenin called on capitalists to invest in the country's revival under the slogan "enrich yourselves," he understood that self-aggrandizement could be a small piece in a larger effort to create a new society. Ayn Rand and her latter-day followers have tapped into the sense that statism is the road to serfdom, that even if state intervention may achieve some relief from the whirlwind produced by the capitalist marketplace, individuality is thereby wrecked. She writes of the bureaucratic and corporate suppression of originality and proposes "genius" as the remedy. We cheer Rand as we do John Wayne, Gary Cooper (who starred in The Fountainhead), and Clint Eastwood. Her characters were to cosmopolitanism what the Western hero was to government bureaucracies that attempted to shape the conquest of the frontier in images of the modern corporation rather than of the rugged individual. America has never recovered from the Western's values. Rand, not Travolta, is the quintessential urban cowboy; her return from the margins to a new place in the scholarly sun derives from her invocation of what is, perhaps, the dominant cultural ideal of Americanism. I don't believe it is incongruous at all.

Ellen Willis directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in the department of journalism at New York University. Her latest book, Don't Think--Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial, will be published this fall. Stanley Aronowitz is author of From the Ashes of the Old: American Labor and America's Future (click here to buy the book), and he teaches social and cultural theory at the City University of New York Graduate School. His forthcoming book is Knowledge Factories.