Blogging the Bookshelf

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“Atlas Shrugged”, Ayn Rand

August 2nd, 2010 · 5 Comments · Over-Rated, Politics

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Synopsis:

In a dystopian alternative reality in which the US Government imposes ever greater burdens on America’s industrialists, one man, John Galt, leads the “men of the mind” to withdraw their productive capacity from society. And then talk about it for 1200 pages. Crypto-fascist.

My Take:

Oh dear, Where to begin?

Atlas Shrugged is much more than a book. It’s an unavoidable monolith on the politico-literary landscape. Still a monumental best seller, Atlas Shrugged is frequently cited by pluralities of Americans as the most influential book in their lives. An early influence on the current US Secretary of State and a life-long influence on the previous Chair of the US Federal Reserve, Atlas Shrugged has probably done more to shape the attitudes of US politicians and policy makers than any other novel.

Frankly, the mind boggles.

At the highest level, there’s nothing wrong with the premise. As Tyler Cowen correctly points out a moral defence of both capitalism, and selfishness as its essential cornerstone is important. Further, making the point through the intriguing ploy of having the productive class go ‘on strike’ because of the diminution of incentive caused by extreme Government intervention is a handy thought experiment.

“John Galt is Prometheus who changed his mind. After centuries of being torn by vultures in payment for having brought to men the fire of the gods, he broke his chains and he withdrew his fire—until the day when men withdraw their vultures.”

However, it’s in the execution that things go badly astray.

It’s been said many times before, but the quality of both the writing and the story-telling in ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is utterly terrible. A book of this length has no excuses for shallow characterisation, but the characters in “Atlas Shrugged” are unvaryingly caricatures sketched solely according to the dictates of Rand’s warped world view. As a result, the characters are unbelievable at every turn. At turns they alternatively exploit or abandon those they care about with no emotional reflection or angst. The ‘good’ characters are capable only of good. The ‘bad’ capable only of bad. In short, Rand’s characters simply do not act like real people.

What “Atlas Shrugged” neglects in characterisation, it more than makes up for in mind-numbingly repetitive political exposition. Rand never makes a point once. She never allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. Instead, she repeatedly outlines her political theory in turgid detail. She’s waiting with a sledge-hammer of political meaning at every turn of the story. It’s genuinely painful. In one infamous section, in the middle of the narrative, the leader of the strike, delivers a radio broadcast outlining his political philosophy that runs to over 100 pages. It’s Castroesq. For perspective, if Orwell could skewer Communism in 250 pages and Hayek could have a decent crack at Socialism in 320 pages, why does Rand need 1200 pages to tell us what’s wrong with Social Democracy?

It’s worth reiterating how painfully bad “Atlas Shrugged” is as a piece of writing to make it clear that this book isn’t a best seller because of the power of its story telling. This ain’t “The Da Vinci Code”.

This leaves the books political message as the source of its appeal. The more philosophically minded will summarise Rand’s thesis better than I, but Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism seems to be able to be boiled down to selfishness guided by rational thought. According to Rand, the only morally ‘good’ action that an individual can undertake is the one based on a rational evaluation of the individual’s self interest.  Ultimately, if all are free to act in their own self interest, Rand assumes that utility within a society will be naturally maximised.

At this level, there’s nothing inherently offensive to my mind in Rand’s philosophy. The problem is the absolutism with which she approaches the application of this philosophy. To Rand’s mind, a corollary of rational selfishness as the fount of all moral good is that any form of subversion of this principle is treated as an expression of evil. It’s not just misguided, it’s actively malevolent. Most famously, this led Rand to conclude that altruism, that is an action motivated by a desire to help others, is inherently evil.

One of many fables that are littered through the text to reinforce Rand’s message lionises a character whose hatred for an altruistic government outweighed his love for his wife:

It was said that Nat Taggart had staked his life on his railroad many times; but once, he staked more than his life. Desperate for funds, with the construction of his line suspended, he threw down three flights of stairs a distinguished gentleman who offered him a loan from the government. Then he pledged his wife as security for a loan from a millionaire who hated him and admired her beauty. He repaid the loan on time and did not have to surrender his pledge. The deal had been made with his wife’s consent. She was a great beauty from the noblest family of a southern state, and she had been disinherited by her family because she eloped with Nat Taggart when he was only a ragged young adventurer.

In sections like this, “Atlas Shrugged” feels like an extended exercise in reductio ad absurdum, but it’s clear that Rand is deadly serious.

[As a side note, one wonders how many bankers who took money as part of the US Government bail-out had a copy of Atlas Shrugged on the bookshelf.]

Similarly, Rand repeatedly makes it clear that there’s no room in her philosophy for supporting family members. At one point, two millionaires discuss the demands being put upon one by the Government and his family:

“Why are you willing to carry them?”

“Because they’re a bunch of miserable children who struggle to remain alive, desperately and very badly, while I—I don’t even notice the burden”

The use of this kind of language of contempt to describe the non-productive in “Atlas Shrugged” is pervasive. They are variously “parasites”, “leeches”, “moochers”, “feckless” etc. Rand doesn’t address how the elderly, the sick, the disabled and other inherently non-productive members of our society ought to be treated in “Atlas Shrugged”, but it’s clear how she would view them as a matter of principle. The extent to which this absolutist and extremist view is contrary to fundamental human nature is easy to see.

But it’s not Rand’s outright rejection of altruism that is the source of the popularity of “Atlas Shrugged”. Instead, it’s a more central application of selfish rationality – that of the primacy of what Rand describes as “the role of man’s mind in existence”. Rand’s central message in this regard is that man answers to nothing but the dictates of his rational mind. Rand’s ultimate hero is the man who backs his intellectual judgement against that of the world and in spite of the slings and arrows of disapproval of the society in which he lives.

It’s easy to see the appeal of this message and at a basic level it’s admirable. The problem, once again, is the extremes to which Rand takes the principle. While it’s admirable at a first principles level for someone to back their judgement, Rand’s elevation of this as the fundamental basis of all morality has extremely troubling implications. It’s easy to admire a subject matter expert taking a principled stand against the prevailing common wisdom. It’s less admirable when that person is Mohammad Atta or Ted Kaczynski.

Even worse, it’s clear that Rand understood the implications of her theory of rational selfishness when taken to its logical conclusion. An excellent examination of Rand’s thought processes at Slate provides a chilling insight to the extent to which she truly believed in the moral superiority of absolute subjective rationality:

“Her diaries from that time, while she worked as a receptionist and an extra, lay out the Nietzschean mentality that underpins all her later writings. The newspapers were filled for months with stories about serial killer called William Hickman, who kidnapped a 12-year-old girl called Marion Parker from her junior high school, raped her, and dismembered her body, which he sent mockingly to the police in pieces. Rand wrote great stretches of praise for him, saying he represented “the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. … Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.” She called him “a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy,” shimmering with “immense, explicit egotism.” Rand had only one regret: “A strong man can eventually trample society under its feet. That boy [Hickman] was not strong enough.”

In this respect, Jennifer Burns, the author of “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right” touches on something important when she notes that Rand has always appealed to the ‘accomplished yet alienated overachiever’. At its core, “Atlas Shrugged” is a book for those who think they are better/smarter/more deserving than those around them and can’t understand why they aren’t afforded what they believe to be their due. “Atlas Shrugged” is a salve for the alienation of the accomplished overachiever because its central message is that “Nobody matters but you”. Everyone who feels unappreciated is able to sit back while reading “Atlas Shrugged” and tell themselves ‘They don’t know how much they need me’.

That’s why this book sells hundreds of thousands of copies – it strokes the infantile desire in all of us to be told that we’re better than everyone else. It’s also why it is truly dangerous.

Ultimately, I think Andrew Norton sums Rand up well:

Jerome Tuccille’s book title “It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand nicely captures her effect. Rand’s novels engage teenagers and early 20-somethings in a way that more theoretical books cannot, but often lead them to more mainstream libertarian or classical liberal ideas.

I wouldn’t judge a Libertarian or Conservative for a youthful flirtation with Ayn Rand. She has a certain undergraduate appeal to the intellectual arrogance in all of us. But I’d have serious questions about someone’s judgement if they were still thought her views had much relevance after a few years in the real world.

Excerpts:

*********************

“Mr. Rearden,” said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, “if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?” “I . . . don’t know. What . . . could he do? What would you tell him?” “To shrug.”

***************

“I am trying to raise money for Friends of Global Progress.” Rearden had never been able to keep track of the many organizations to which Philip belonged, nor to get a clear idea of their activities. He had heard Philip talking vaguely about this one for the last six months. It seemed to be devoted to some sort of free lectures on psychology, folk music and co-operative farming. Rearden felt contempt for groups of that kind and saw no reason for a closer inquiry into their nature.

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  • Thanks for an excellent review, though I’d never have ploughed through it. I’ve always avoided Rand for the reasons you outline. Not interested in people with adolescent fantasies for a philosophy.

    Like Robert Solow says “Sometimes I think it is only my weakness of character that keeps me from making obvious errors”.

  • Tim

    I love the Solow quote Nick.

    I guess I felt some kind of intellectual obligation to at least work my way through to the end given it’s influence. I didn’t feel like I was rewarded for the effort though.

  • David

    With regards to one point you made on the issue of Nat Taggart using his wife as security for a loan. The excerpt says:

    “The deal had been made with his wife’s consent.”

    How would that imply his “hatred for an altruistic government outweighed his love for his wife, since his wife consented.”

    To me it means his wife understood what the railroad meant to him and that she willing to do this for him out of love for him – he was her top value and was willing to do as much. Of course, in reality this is not likely to happen – but this book is a dramatization of reality.

  • David

    Inverted comma should have ended after “….for his wife”

  • Whoa, what, you’re back? And with this?