03 December, 2017

I read Atlas Shrugged (and now you don’t have to)

I read Atlas Shrugged because it has had a significant influence on political thought in the 60 years since its publication, and I wanted to have an informed opinion on it. I’ll declare that I have little time or respect for the politics of those who cite Ayn Rand as an influence but for all I knew, it might just have been a good story that was hijacked or misinterpreted.

It’s not.

First, the good parts:
In its own way, Atlas Shrugged is an early feminist novel. The lead character is a woman who runs a highly successful national company, yet the fact she is a woman in such a position is hardly ever mentioned. Furthermore, she’s not ashamed of her sexuality or of using it to get what she wants. This was challenging stuff in the 1950s.

Also, the fact that Rand exalts the creators and producers above the mere paper-pushers is refreshing. It’s unfortunate that it quickly crosses the line between admiration and fetish.

The important thing to know about Atlas Shrugged is that it is not fiction, it’s fantasy. There is an important distinction. Regular fiction still takes place in the world as we know it, where the laws of physics, economics and human nature still apply. Atlas Shrugged does not take place in this world.

In order for her premise to make sense, Rand has created a world populated only by geniuses and idiots. Yet somehow, the idiots have managed to enslave the geniuses. Meanwhile, the geniuses all magically turn out to be of the same worldview and can easily find each other to have sex together. Importantly though, they can only enjoy the sex if they know for certain that their partner is doing it only for their own pleasure. Rand had a weird sub/dom thing going on.

And it is boring as batshit.

The book could be one third as long and still say everything it wants to say. The other 600 pages are padded out with interminable soliloquies that bash the reader over the head with Rand’s philosophy, and that’s not even counting the notorious Galt speech. It’s been suggested that this is how Rand chose to tell the story. I can only believe this if people are saying she made a conscious decision to write badly.

It could be considered innovative to present a socio-economic manifesto in the form of a novel – for that is essentially what Atlas Shrugged is – but the problem is that the author gets to write the counter argument as well. Rand is either in love with her characters or despises them, and it shows in the dialogue she gives them. She stops just barely short of labelling them “good guy” and “bad guy.” While some of the lead characters make it to a second dimension, the antagonists’ dialogue makes even a 60s-era Batman villain sound deep by comparison.

Take this line for example:
Scientists know better than to believe in reason.
To put such a statement in the mouth of a character who is supposed to be one of the nation’s top scientists, without any hint of irony or satire proves either,
a)    this novel takes place in some Bizarro World where ‘science’ and ‘reason’ mean whatever the author wants them to mean, or
b)    Rand doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
Take your pick.

I have tried not to psychoanalyse the author, partly because many others already have, and partly because it’s tangential to the quality of the book. Still, it’s unavoidable in discussing the book as a whole. It’s clear that Rand does not believe her version of social Darwinism to be amoral. The piece of good left in her, Darth Vader-like, is that she recognises morality as a real thing which is to be aspired to and admired. So she attempts to flip the definition of morality – charity is evil; selfishness is a virtue; wealth is a measure of virtue.

She also addresses the problem mentioned earlier about fantasy versus fiction, stating on the about-the-author page:
I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don’t exist. That this book has been written – and published – is my proof that they do.
Seriously? Tolkien could have used to same logic to argue that hobbits are real.
If this is the standard of proof considered acceptable by her acolytes, it explains a lot.

At best, Atlas Shrugged is simply the longest and most boring straw man argument in history. At worst, it may have caused the global financial crisis of the late 00s.

Don’t believe me? Consider this: Alan Greenspan was chairman of the US Federal Reserve for nearly 20 years and he exerted a huge influence on financial systems in the late 20th century. He was also a Rand groupie who read the first drafts of Atlas Shrugged, and a champion of the laissez faire capitalism the book promotes. When asked what went wrong, he had to admit that he had never considered that people would behave so irrationally – which brings us back to the laws of human nature. I would like to ask if he has ever met people. Better still, I would like to put to him the question that John Galt puts to the country in his radio speech:
“You have destroyed all that which you held to be evil and achieved all that which you held to be good. Why then do you shrink in horror from the sight of the world around you?” 


While fetishising industry and commerce, the speech also contains a passage that inadvertently contradicts Rand and her fans’ love affair with the rugged individual:
“When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product…”
In other words, you didn’t build that.

I am not going to give Atlas Shrugged a one-star review, not because it deserves better but because every 1-star and 5-star review will understandably be assumed to have a political motive. The only way anyone could possibly regard this book as good writing is to be predisposed to Rand’s philosophy. Even if I were sympathetic to her worldview, I would be embarrassed that this is the best argument ever put for it. Having approached the book with an open mind, I can objectively advise that whatever commentaries you may have read tell you as much as you need to know.

Whatever damage has been done by those whose confirmation bias led them to believe that Atlas Shrugged has any basis in reality, Rand is correct in this one exchange on page 327:
“But, good God! The feeblest imbecile should be able to see the glaring contradictions in every one of your statements.”  “Let us put it this way, Dr. Stadler: the man who doesn’t see that, deserves to believe all my statements.”
Indeed they do!


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