Optimistic Cruelty


Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism has the uncanny quality of illuminating for readers what we believe we already knew.  Her renderings of the affective quality of everyday life at the center of a declining US American empire, offered to us via her scalpel like readings of a range of contemporary texts, are sharp enough to hurt.  My responses as I was reading this book often took the form of “ouch.”  I was cut most deeply by her account of working class ambivalence, laid out in her reading of Lillian Rubin’s Worlds of Pain — a classic I first read in graduate school during the 1980s, that seemed uncomfortably to channel aspects of my relationship to my own working class parents, and that had an enormous impact on me at that time.
In Berlant’s hands, Rubin’s text provides a radically historical opening up of Judith Butler’s psychoanalytic framework for understanding popular consent to social injustice elaborated in The Psychic Life of Power and Precarious Life. In asking “[w]hat would happen if we saw subjectivization as happening historically, as training in affective sense perception and intuition?” Berlant leads us into the heart of the darkness in Rubin’s book, illuminating the complex contortions of children motivated to protect parents from knowledge of the disappointments, even futility, of their efforts at making a good life.(186-187)  The cruelty of the mandated optimism motivated by both love and horror is nakedly apparent in this reading.
But there are moments of cruelty and optimism in our current historical moment that are far less available for such engaged, though somber participation. I am interested in considering moments of what might be called “optimistic cruelty” among those motivated to join or remain among the 1%, by any means necessary. So of course I am interested in Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand has had an enormous influence on neoliberal policies and politics in the United States.  Most histories of those policies — by David Harvey, Naomi Klein and others — analyze the impact of intellectuals, ideologues and politicians from Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, to Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Augusto Pinochet. But a significant percentage of recruits to hard neoliberal power politics start by reading Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, often in high school. Though, as founder of Objectivism, she claimed to provide a purely rational philosophy expounding the moral basis of capitalism, her novels have been much more widely circulated than any of her non fiction screeds. And what those novels provide is fantasy — a libidinal fantasy life for the would be heroic entrepreneur who eschews empathy and collectivity on the path to pure creative achievement.
When Rand is taken up in US politics, her work is systematically distorted.  Her atheism is generally ignored beyond the hardcore libertarian margins (Paul Ryan, after requiring his interns to read Atlas Shrugged, later denounced Rand when questioned about her atheism). Even her central ideas were often set aside by acolytes including Alan Greenspan, who abandoned her profound rejection of central banks to pursue his role as the supreme central banker of our era.  But Rand’s impact on US political life is not best understood through attention to her role in the intellectual history of politics. What Rand’s fiction provides is a structure of feeling, a moralized and libidinal politics of joyful greediness in the face of scarcity and conflict.
Ayn Rand’s work produces identifications with a heroic entrepreneurial subject (of either gender) who responds to disappointment and set backs with an anti-empathic belief in the moral efficacy of strategies of accumulation that press on over the literal as well as figurative dead bodies of competitors and workers. During her own darkest period of unemployment, obscurity and isolation during her Hollywood days, she wrote extensively in her journals about her worship of an early twentieth century serial killer.
William Edward Hickman was a forger, armed robber, kidnapper and multiple murderer.  In 1927, at the age of 19, he appeared at a Los Angeles public school and lured 12 year old Marian Parker into accompanying him supposedly to visit her father, hospitalized after a car accident.  Over the next few days he sent her parents a series of taunting ransom notes.  Marion’s father collected the ransom money and delivered it to Hickman.  As he delivered the money, he could see his daughter in the passenger seat of Hickman’s car as he drove off, to dump her body at the end of the street.   He had sawed her body in half, drained it of blood, cut her internal organs out, and stuffed her torso with bath towels.  He had wired her eyes open to make her seem alive. Pieces of her body were found all over LA.
In her journal, where she began outlining the character of her future fictional heroes, Rand includes a long paragraph listing all the things she likes about Hickman: “The fact that he looks like a bad boy with a very winning grin, that he makes you like him the whole time you’re in his presence.”  She confesses her involuntary, irresistible sympathy for him, “which I cannot help feeling … in spite of everything.”  About the slogan he announced at trial, “I am like the state: what is good for me is right,” Rand writes,  “[E]ven if he wasn’t big enough to live by that attitude, he deserves credit for saying it so brilliantly.”[1]
In thinking about the forms of optimistic cruelty that mask pain and outraged narcissism in moments of defeat in the present, it may be instructive to consider the broad impact of Ayn Rand’s novels, with heroes at their center who bear some resemblances to William Hickman.  The glee that these novels elicit in so many readers who go on to promote greed as a social good might illuminate the forms of feeling that recruit, not simply consent, but active participation in expanding inequalities and escalations of violence integrated with an optimistic belief that such policies produce the best outcomes.
In our own political moment, the capacity of politicians and pundits on the right to tie a commitment to rationality (as per Paul Ryan’s reputation) with violent social practices is a core aspect of the ongoingness of suffering and loss in the everyday lives of most people. There is a constant, unstable effort to divide the “irrational” and therefore non-optimistic cruelties of, say, a mass shooting in a movie theater, from the more optimistic violence of regressive tax codes, shattered social safety nets, and imperial wars. This effort is easily lampoonable (Mitt Romney’s chatter about half the population as moochers, a very Randian conception), as is Ayn Rand’s prose. But the flip side of cruel optimism as a central affective experience of late capitalism is surely the shadow side of optimistic cruelty.  Or perhaps even more pointedly, given the very long history of such rationalized mayhem on behalf of imperial states and transnational elites, we might consider this structure of feeling the Optimism of Empire for the neoliberal era.


Top image courtesy of Flickr user Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.


  • [1] Ayn Rand’s interest in William Hickman has been widely reported. See for instance Michael Prescott, “Romancing the Stone Cold Killer: Ayn Rand and William Hickman” posted at http://michaelprescott.freeservers.com/romancing-the-stone-cold.html, accessed Oct. 2, 2012; David Harriman, ed. Journals of Ayn Rand.(New York: Dutton, 1997); Chris Matthew Sciabarra, “ A Renaissance in Rand Scholarship,” Reason Papers 23: 132–159, and Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 24–25.

Lisa Duggan