While on my recent road trip, I took the opportunity in my spare time to re-read Atlas Shrugged. It’s been quite a while—over thirty years, in fact—since I first picked up Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, and was struck by how accurately the dystopian society she described over half a century ago has materialized today.
For those of you who have not yet read Atlas Shrugged, or are unfamiliar with the principles of Objectivism which the novel was written to articulate, I can tell you that, looking about on the internet, it appears many others have noticed the same thing.
First published in 1957, Atlas remains one of the most enduringly popular works of 20th century fiction. From an initial first-edition print run of 100,000 copies, Rand’s fourth and final novel not only continues to sell well, but unlike Lord of the Rings (the most obvious comparison), sales have continued to steadily increase. Amazon.com lists Atlas as its #15 work in overall sales, and #1 rated in “Fiction and Literature” category. To date, over seven million copies have been sold; this figure does not include the 400,000 copies donated annually by the Ayn Rand Institute to high schools across America. This level of ongoing popularity, achieved in the teeth of overwhelmingly critical mainstream media reaction, does beg the question, why? Today I’ll attempt a tentative answer.
I had also better warn anyone new to the work that discussing it isn’t really possible without dropping a few spoilers, so I’m going to assume everyone who reads beyond this paragraph is familiar with the work; consider yourselves warned. It’s relevant here, because Atlas has been developing an ever-increasing following among Libertarian groups as well as the conservative blogosphere.
I hasten to point out that Objectivism and Libertarianism are two very distinct ideas. The former concerns itself first and foremost with epistemology, that is, what is knowledge and how do human beings come to acquire it; it owes principally to Aristotle’s Metaphysics and—according to Rand herself—to no other philosopher, of the modern age or antiquity (though it is known she read Nietzsche in depth during her undergraduate studies in Petrograd, and debate still rages as to the degree to which she was influenced by him). The latter, conversely, is a political philosophy which deals with the rôle of the state in an ideal society.
I don’t intend a lengthy description of Objectivist epistemology here; not that I’m the best person to attempt to explain it in any case; Googling it will shower you with enough references for a rather brain-racking evening or two. For the really keen, Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is the definitive work (that should keep Izen busy for a couple of weeks at least!). I’ll simply state here that Objectivism holds that reality exists (is objectively real), and that existence is independent of man; that is, a thing which is, or has the property of identity, would be, even if man was unaware of it. Man’s consciousness is the process of mind apprehending that reality, while creative or productive work is the process of shaping that reality by means of reason and logic. Art, viewed by Rand as a recreation of reality through the lens of the artist’s value system, is given high prominence in Atlas, with the characters of composer Richard Halley and actress Kay Ludlow representing the projection of Objectivism’s highest values in artistic form.
According to Objectivism, our wishes and dreams, however fervently held, are not sufficient to create reality. This is a theme that recurs constantly throughout Atlas, as Rand shows character after character believing it otherwise, as they have been conditioned to do, and ultimately being disabused. Hank Rearden’s parasitic family, the most obvious example, having been trained (by Rearden himself, unconsciously) to expect a life of luxury at his expense as their birthright, before being ultimately informed that their gravy train has reached the end of the line, are a microcosm of the dysfunctional welfare society that Rand saw growing in America, even in 1957, before it had risen to become a significant element of American society.
They do complement one another reasonably neatly, though. Objectivism has implications for the establishment of a moral code, and from there, politics, economics and the organisation of society, and those implications sufficiently parallel the principles of Libertarianism that, for example, many in the Tea Party movement in the United States have adopted Ayn Rand as a kind of patron saint. Libertarianism, in its turn, lacks within itself a coherent metaphysical basis as to why the state should not intrude into the lives of citizens any further than is necessary for the preservation of life, public safety and property rights. Objectivism provides this.
For what it’s worth (and again, I don’t propose a lengthy explanation here), Objectivism’s logical consequences in the economic and political spheres run rather closer to anarcho-capitalism than they do to Libertarianism. The odd-bedfellows relationship becomes more pronounced when the basis for Objectivism (which is formally atheist) is juxtaposed with the motivations of Bible-belt Christians who comprise much of the Tea Party’s membership. As a matter of fact, Ron Paul (who knew Ayn Rand) remarked in this interview that she personally didn’t care for most Libertarians she’d met. Following some disagreements in the 1970s, she held a particularly damning view of the Libertarian movement in the United States of that time, regarding them as muddle-headed plagiarists of her ideas; the more do I laugh when certain posters on other blogs proclaim that they, and others of that era, are the “true” Libertarians. Well, the prophet hath spoken—more fool them 😆
In a memorable television interview in 1959 with CBS’s Mike Wallace, Rand succinctly encapsulates the principles of her philosophy. The dynamic between the two is a fascinating one. Both are Russian Jews, though of differing backgrounds, that render the tone of the interview extremely loaded, almost explosive: Wallace, despite his apple-pie looks and all-American broadcast voice, was born Myron Wallechinsky in Brookline, Massachusetts, the son of an emigré grocer; Rand, simultaneously taciturn and enigmatic, and whose often barely-intelligible, Russian-accented English makes her sound like an extra in a bad spy movie, was born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum in czarist Saint Petersburg, and fled the nascent Soviet Union in 1925, leaving behind her family, and becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1931. Time and again, during a debate in which the interviewer appears struggling to conceal his hostility towards the subject, Wallace attempts to over-simplify Rand’s arguments into easily-dispatched straw men, or throw “banana peel” questions in her path; but Rand remains implacable. If you are new to Rand’s philosophy, it is well worth half an hour of your time to watch (part one of the interview below; parts two and three here).
(Parenthetically, isn’t it rather startling these days to watch a television interview in which the participants are smoking? The Libertarian in me cheers; though I’m glad I wasn’t forced to sit in the studio with them. In fact, one of the minor criticisms I have of Atlas—and I have a couple of major ones; more anon—is the prominent symbolic status of cigarettes; all of the main heroes of the novel are heavy smokers. Oh well, I guess you could say the same about Lord of the Rings).
Ayn Rand was never reticent about exploring the political ideology that sprang from her philosophy; indeed, the climax of the novel, “This is John Galt Speaking”, a 65-page oration by the eponymous hero of the story, is a condensation of the principles of Objectivism, together with its plan of action to rescue society from ossified statism. In the years following the book’s publication, Rand, in articles, essays and interviews, expanded and clarified her reasoning:
The goal of the “liberals”—as it emerges from the record of the past decades—was to smuggle this country into welfare statism by means of single, concrete, specific measures, enlarging the power of the government a step at a time, never permitting these steps to be summed up into principles, never permitting their direction to be identified or the basic issue to be named. Thus statism was to come, not by vote or by violence, but by slow rot—by a long process of evasion and epistemological corruption, leading to a fait accompli. (The goal of the “conservatives” was only to retard that process.)
Criticism of Rand’s work can be found across the internet, and it’s quite striking (and probably no coincidence) how closely many of her most well-known and hostile critics resemble some of the villains of the book. For instance, there’s Gore Vidal, who in a 1961 review published in Esquire, sneered at Atlas Shrugged thus:
This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the “freedom is slavery” sort. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her “philosophy,” but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts… Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous…
The same Gore Vidal who, by 1957 at the time of its publication had himself experienced only relatively minor literary success, bears an uncanny resemblance to the novel’s character, failed author Balph Eubank, who desired the government to legislate a limit on sales of any new publication to three thousand copies, in order to give more “worthy” but less-read authors (i.e., himself) a chance. Or, to take another example, Marxist author and Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers’ airy dismissal of Atlas, printed in the National Review soon after its 1957 release, draws comparison (in intent, if not position) with the treasonous Wesley Mouch, who in the novel intrigues his way to becoming economic dictator of the nation. Whittaker, seemingly incapable of viewing Atlas within anything other than a Marxist framework, derides Objectivism as merely another form of materialism, a degraded parody of Marxism itself, before falsely claiming Rand is calling for a dictatorship of a technocratic elite.
Lesser-known critics of Atlas go further, to the far side of hysteria in fact; long on smears, short on arguments. For a classic example of a book review in which the reviewer all but admits he has not even read the work, check out this appropriately-named scribe, who seems desperate to warn you that you shouldn’t read it, either. Apparently, because it’s “boring”.
A common criticism of Objectivism, with its emphasis on self and the view of man as a heroic creature whose aim should revolve around his own happiness, is that it is “Nietzsche for dummies”, with John Galt’s character being the ultimate representation of the übermensch; many of you may be familiar with this rather cheap shot, attributed to Kung Fu Monkey;
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
The only response to which I can possibly make is, that as a bookish fourteen-year-old, I had already read both titles, the former (LOTR) several times; and of the two, it is the latter which (along with Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled—not novels) had the most formative influence upon my youth. As it turned out, I actually didn’t get around to reading Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra until quite a few years later, so any comparison of mine between the two would probably tell you more about me, and the differing ages at which I first read them, than it would tell you about them.
Which, it should strongly hint to you, that—from a personal point of view at least—I don’t accept Objectivism unquestioningly. Perhaps it’s my inability to escape completely my own upbringing and intellectual roots, which lie squarely in the Christian tradition. One of the closest approaches to a valid criticism in the attacks on Rand I have cited above came from Vidal who, writing of Objectivism’s morality based on self-interest observed, she has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ. At first glance, this charge appears substantial, and damning. Compare the peroration in John Galt’s explication of her philosophy,
You will win when you are ready to pronounce the oath I have taken at the start of my battle—and for those who wish to know the day of my return, I shall now repeat it to the hearing of the world:
“I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine”
with the words of the Prince of Peace:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
The solution to the paradox is contained in the CBS television interview above. Rand is hardly the first philosopher to point out that pure altruism is a mirage. Notwithstanding her lifelong atheism, Christ himself, Rand would have argued (and somewhere probably did), hoped to gain something for himself by His passion, death and resurrection: the fulfillment of His father’s plan for the salvation of man, His victory over Lucifer, over temptation and death, and the satisfaction these would have brought. Whether in the sphere of society, of friendship, of sexual relationships, of economics, of politics, no-one ever does anything to benefit another, without at least some hope of eventual gain for himself; all so-called altruistic acts are underwritten by motives that give the lie to that description.
Show me an “altruist” and I’ll show you a motive. The missionary who spends a lifetime tending the sick and starving in Africa harbours a hope to gain thereby an eternity in Paradise; the billionaire who places the bulk of his fortune into a foundation named after himself is feeding his ego. Each is, in the final analysis, a trade; Rand is simply saying, let’s be honest about this. So, apart from the rather distasteful augmentative tactic of surrounding himself with unwilling allies, Vidal is, in fact, being somewhat disingenuous; a man of his undoubted intelligence would (or at least should) have had a better understanding of Rand’s philosophy than that.
From the simple viewpoint of literary fiction, there are a number of other problems with Atlas which continue to hold it back from a wider audience than it currently enjoys. Character development is limited—understandable, given that the author’s motive is the articulation of a philosophy, as opposed to the telling of a story; but it leads to some rather annoying clashing of gears in the novel’s machinery. You could say that Atlas Shrugged doesn’t have characters, so much as it has archetypes; I would say that Eddie Willers, the honest mediocrity, who appears to exist in the novel as a sort of intermediary between the reader and the heroic figures who form the lead parts (much like Sam Gamgee in LOTR), is the only character the author allows to become even remotely human. Did Ayn Rand fear that if she showed us Hank Rearden picking his nose, or revealed that Dagny Taggart did in fact use a bathroom, or floridly express her disgust at her simpering brother, the reader would view them as less than through the lens of perfection she tries to interpose between us and them?
The only genuine character flaw Rand allowed any of her heroes—namely, Hank Rearden’s sexual repression, of which he cures himself in the course of the narrative—is there precisely to explicate Rand’s theory of sex as an expression of shared values; however, the implausibility of each of Dagny’s lovers in turn gracefully accepting her embrace of a new “source of values”, may have some parallels in Rand’s own life (married to actor Frank O’Connor for many years, she maintained a string of younger lovers) but jars with this reader, at any rate, as sailing very close to the exact same altruism she denied in all other aspects of living.
And then there’s the dialogue. To narrate a few lines of speech, only to spend the next page or so discussing the deeper meaning of the glances that pass between the speakers, may be justified in the context of clarifying a particular plot point; but to repeat the technique as endlessly as it is in Atlas, has a rather soporific effect on all but the most enduring reader (which I’m not). When applied to conversations between Dagny and her lovers, it even tends to trivialize the words spoken—like a sort of brainy Mills and Boon novel.
Regardless of whether you buy into the metaphysics or epistemology of Objectivism, the higher-level question remains: to what extent was Ayn Rand a seer? The list of those in the United States alone who believe she was, runs to leaders of business, government, and at least one Justice of the Supreme Court. Meantime, Atlas’s critics, either afraid or unable to engage directly with Rand’s philosophy, are reduced to smears and name-calling.
As the articles I referenced at the top attest, it’s plain to see the creeping collectivism and erosion of free-market capitalism she described, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis; in Western government becoming a collision point for Marxist social engineers and crony capitalists; the Eurozone bailouts; in the explosion of a permanent welfare class, or the introduction of spurious “carbon taxes” that do not reduce the output of CO2, but do ratchet up the intrusion of the state into every aspect of private activity.
Nor is it hard to pick out each of the villains; James Taggart, ostensibly running a giant enterprise, but in reality an influence-peddling incompetent; Wesley Mouch, the faithless lobbyist-turned-economic dictator; Floyd Ferris, the post-normal government scientist who hides reality to suit the purposes of the state, and whose skill in science runs no further than fabricating the instruments of oppression; or Mr Thompson, the glad-handing head of state who, faced with economic catastrophe, proves ineffective in any capacity beyond that of a figurehead.
I would say that not only did Ayn Rand foresee the economic decline of the early twenty-first century with stunning clarity, but—and more importantly—she was right for the right reasons; central planning, together with the decline in the acceptance of personal responsibility, the virus-like expansion of an all-encompassing state into every aspect of private life, a state which has declared victory over the individual citizen, and which punishes success and rewards failure. And all of this has occurred, and was made possible, because we, the citizenry, were not motivated to stop it; or—worse—that we have been brainwashed into not wanting to. We have given the state, by default, what Rand named the sanction of the victim.
What would occur if that sanction was withdrawn? The plotline of Atlas is an exploration of a possible answer. Is it a necessary answer? I suspect that, given the level of conditioning we have all undergone to mentally accept, on some level, the authority of the state, I have serious doubts that a sufficient number of heroic figures, led by a Galt-like visionary, would simultaneously arise, as Rand imagined them to do, and challenge the status quo. Having some years ago retreated into my own personal “Galt’s Gulch”, I eagerly await the day when I am proven wrong.