Jennifer Burns: The Return of Market Fundamentalism

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jennifer Burns is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia and author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford, 2009).]

THE CRAZIES have come out of the conservative woodwork. Enraged and infuriated by the election of President Obama, bereft of any intellectual leadership or compelling figurehead, unable to stomach their declining powers in a multicultural America, conservatism has been reduced to a rump movement of alienated working class whites who can only mount bizarre “tea parties” to express their discontent....

WHEN THE markets tanked in 2008, conservatives were caught unprepared. For decades they’d been celebrating the powers of American capitalism and proposing the market as the solution to all social problems. Their vision of capitalism was narrow and teleological: it led always upwards, and it largely ignored the boom-and-bust cycle that has marked the American economy for centuries.

The confusion was, perhaps, best captured by a chastened Alan Greenspan, who appeared before Congress in October 2008 to confess the “flaw” in his ideology. It was a breathtaking moment: Not only was a powerful political figure admitting he had been wrong, but he was also invalidating the whole neoliberal worldview that his tenure as Federal Reserve chairman had come to symbolize.

But Obama’s election has reinvigorated the right’s faith in capitalism and its skepticism of government. The swift and loud conservative reaction to the stimulus has clouded the policy agenda and slowed the political momentum for change, and Obama’s presidency has become rich fodder for a right that has transitioned from religious fundamentalism to market fundamentalism....

WHEN IT first appeared, Atlas Shrugged was disliked by conservatives and liberals alike. Written in 1957, the novel is set in a decaying future America, where a socialist government has brought the country to ruin and the country’s top industrialists and executives—led by the heroic John Galt—have gone “on strike.” Panned by critics, Atlas Shrugged was criticized by conservatives for its atheism and its harsh view of humanity. None other than Whittaker Chambers, the patron saint of modern conservatives, called it “a remarkably silly book” and declared its underlying message to be: “To a gas chamber—go!”

But on today’s right, Rand’s many uses have obscured the controversial side of her philosophy. Rand redirects conservative rage away from the more obvious targets on Wall Street and focuses it instead on the federal government. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, outrage against bankers and their outsize compensation packages was widespread among those on both the right and the left. But now the bankers have been rebranded as “John Galts” who are being punished for their virtues.

Rand’s dark vision of government matches the way many conservatives see the Obama administration’s policies, and her binary worldview of good and evil dovetails with the conservative mindset. Modern political conservatism emerged among widespread fears of Communism, often understood as a global battle between the forces of Christianity and atheism. Today, Rand enables pundits like Beck and Limbaugh to continue this familiar pattern and channel their moral outrage into economic terms. Instead of saints and sinners, it’s the producers against the moochers and looters....

...[C]elebrity conservatives like Beck, Limbaugh, and Palin have reactivated a powerful strain in the American political DNA: conservative anti-statism. Though 2008’s presidential election signaled the momentary weakness of conservatism, it has also given the right a shot of adrenalin. At February’s CPAC convention, an annual gathering of conservative activists, the mood was jubilant and upbeat. Scott Brown’s surprise victory in January was blood in the water for conservatives, and they now foresee a string of similar victories in 2010. They may well be right, for the history of American conservatism has demonstrated repeatedly that conservatives thrive on defeat as much as success.

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