By Lisa Duggan
The government shut down has ended and the threat of default has passed. Ted Cruz and the House Republicans have been defeated. But they don’t seem to know that. According to recent press reports, Cruz is being greeted in parts of Texas as a hero for fighting the good fight. Despite widespread suffering during the shutdown and global fear and trembling over the threat of default, Tea Party Zombies walk the land. Denying the death of their scorched earth strategy, they declare victory and vow to fight on.
The current zombie phenomenon echoes the astonishing aftermath of the post 2008 financial crisis and recession. At the time, it seemed that neoliberal rhetoric and policies might be thoroughly discredited almost overnight. How could extensive deregulation and privatization be defended in the wake of a serious crash so clearly related to the failures of those policies? How could the social safety net be further shredded with so many people newly jobless and impoverished? Well, surprise! Neoliberal rhetoric bounced back on steroids, underwriting ferocious efforts to defeat new regulations of Wall Street, attack Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and especially to defeat President Obama’s mild mannered, market oriented health care reform bill (itself a thoroughly neoliberal piece of legislation, without even the public option supported by a majority of Americans).
These radicalized zombie versions of neoliberal capitalism have not triumphed, but they have lived on to fight another day, and then another, powerfully shaping debates on the political and cultural fronts in ways that can seem, well, puzzling. We’re way past Tom Frank’s plaintive 2004 question, “what’s the matter with Kansas?” To ask now “what’s the matter with congress?” is only barely to scratch the surface.
There are many paths of analysis useful for understanding how we have arrived here, with a thoroughly dysfunctional end-of-empire mode of government by manufactured crisis. After careful attention to Marx, Foucault and company, I would like to suggest that we all turn our attention momentarily to… the plot of Atlas Shrugged. Many of us read this cartoonish tome in high school, when its portrayal of sexy heroic rebels going on strike against mealy mouthed corrupt controlling weaklings had the capacity to thrill. But as recent biographies of Ayn Rand by Jennifer Burns and Ann Heller, along with journalist Gary Weiss’ Ayn Rand Nation have shown, the influence of this pulpy novel extends far beyond the kind of adolescent fandom that has energized the Twilight series. Surveys and sales figures reveal Atlas Shrugged as a broadly read and deeply influential text. In 2009, sales of the novel tripled over the year before, and GQ magazine called Rand the year’s most influential author. In 2010 a Zogby poll found 29% of respondents had read the novel, and half of those readers said it affected their political and ethical thinking. David Frum noted that the Tea Party was reinventing the GOP as “the party of Ayn Rand.”
Numerous journalists have outlined the influence of Rand’s writings on politicians from Rand Paul and Paul Ryan to Ron Johnson (who defeated beloved progressive Russ Feingold in the 2010 Wisconsin senate race) and Mike Lee of Utah, a collaborator with Ted Cruz in the recent shutdown/default strategy. But if we go a bit beyond tracing Rand’s “influence,” to tracking the feelings and fantasies drawn from her fiction, we may be able to further illuminate the energies propelling our current zombie infestation.
Recall: In Atlas Shrugged, the mighty producer class upon whom the welfare of all depends is drawn into a fierce war with the moochers, looters, corrupt bureaucrats and crazen corporate sellouts. All the latter are sucking on the tit of the creative titans, the job creators. Finally, the only way to win this war is for the producers to withdraw from the political and economic landscape controlled by the moocher hordes and their enablers. In a reversal of the labor theory of value and an appropriation of the workers’ strategy of the strike, the producers prove that all value is ultimately generated by the titans. As the world collapses, pushed along by producer sabotage and violence, chaos and widespread suffering ensue. The crucial point here is: how are readers to feel about this fantasy scenario? Does the collapse and the suffering and death tar them as immoral, and lead to reader shock and abhorrence? Well, no, of course. This is a Rand novel. Readers are meant to cheer the apocalypse, because it is deserved by the stupid and weak masses and those who pander to them. The destruction is thrilling, as are the sexy heroic titans who have caused it. Atlas shrugs, and we are left panting lustily at the spectacle of his (or her, Rand includes female titans) glittering muscularity, while the boulder smashes those who would hold him back.
Of course Rand didn’t invent any of this. She was an especially canny appropriator and combiner of social darwinism and Hollywood romance (she was herself a screen writer for a time). And the readers and politicians who take up her banner do so with massive inconsistencies—rejecting much of her version of atheist libertarianism, her support of abortion rights and opposition to drug laws, her contempt for marriage and positive portrayal of adultery, her penchant for sadomasochistic imagery. But it’s not really her ideas that are most in play in current political dramas, it’s the affect and images drawn from her fiction that suffuse the Tea Party zeitgeist. Were people hurt by the government shutdown? Might a default, or even serious threat of default on the debt of the U.S. government generate a global economic crisis? YES! For some on the radical right, the Bible is the source for imagining the worst and finding it good—the End Times and the Rapture are here! But for others, the relevant book is Atlas Shrugged. The titan heroes will stand sexy, heroic and tall as the world around them collapses, as it should if “Obamacare,” sign of the world historical disastrous dominance of collectivism, remains the law of the land.