Atlas Deconstructed

Last update on Nov. 11, 2014.

After hearing about Atlas Shrugged for over a decade, I finally read it, out of a simple and selfish motive. I wanted to get a fresh copy of the book, black out all the political speeches, and auction the marked-up copy through EBay. Surely someone out there would appreciate the joke enough to bid $20 for Atlas Snipped…or at least contribute to my net.reputation by spreading the news of the auction.

A few hundred pages later, I realized the flaw in my plan. If I crossed out every political speech (by a hero, villian, or narrator) from the book, I would be left with little more than some out-of-context sex scenes (which, by 2005 standards, are not exactly racy). If I deleted the parts of every political speech that failed to advance the plot, I would probably be able to shrink the book by at least half, but I’d have to reread the book with some care in order to figure out exactly where to cut.

I don’t have enough patience with this book to go through that kind of trouble, but I did notice a certain tension between Atlas Shrugged, a book with explicit arguments for certain philosophical ideals, and Atlas Shrugged, a story that makes implicit statements of what is right and wrong. Details, with some spoilers, are below the fold.

In the world of the novel, every great “man of the mind” is an Objectivist, or at least holds Objectivist values without being conscious of the philosophical system that unites them. Things are not so neat in the real world. The AK-47 assault rifle, for example, is a brilliant work of engineering, but its designer, a two-time Hero of Socialist Labor, is not an Objectivist role model in any other respect.

The emotional impact of the novel depends on its catastrophic plot, but the plot depends on characters being Objectivist if and only if they are brilliant and courageous. If the world of Atlas Shrugged were well-stocked with gifted engineers and managers who were willing to negotiate with the collectivist state, then the strikers of Galt’s Gulch would be as politically irrelevant as the Amish. If all the world’s “men of the mind” united behind some other political program, they could shut down the economy in the name of that program, rather than capitalism. (Cf. “The Roads Must Roll”.)

If laissez-faire capitalism is truly superior to every other economic system, then it should be able to demonstrate its superiority even when the competing economic systems are granted their share of talented contributors. Atlas Shrugged does not provide such a demonstration. If the strike plot-line is read as an argument, it’s an argument for class unity, but not an argument for unity on behalf of anything in particular.

Ayn Rand, speaking as a philosopher through John Galt, presents rationality as the distinguishing mark of the human species, and laissez-faire capitalism as the only economic system that respects human beings as rational actors. But Ayn Rand, portraying the world as a novelist, portrays the vast majority of humanity as anything but rational: they whine for largesse from people wealthier than themselves, they submit to guilt-trips from people poorer than themselves, they don’t care to work to improve themselves or their surroundings, and in general they spit on the free market even while enjoying its benefits.

By ending her novel just before her heroes leave Galt’s Gulch and set out to rebuild the world, Rand avoids laying out the implications of this cynical view of humanity. Many people outside Galt’s Gulch would willing to accept laissez-faire capitalism for the short term, as an alternative to starvation, but in the long run, they would look for every opportunity to bring back the bad old days of collectivism. Furthermore, some people—for example, televangelists—can amass large fortunes within a capitalist economy without developing any particular loyalty to that economic system, and might contribute some of their fortunes to undermine capitalism.

Rand is not interested in showing us how her heroes would grow their wealth while protecting their interests in this post-apocalyptic world. Instead, she invites her readers to imagine the rebuilding process as an uncomplicated triumph, the millenium following the Rapture. Even if her characters could resolve this dilemma in a way consistent with the novel’s view of human nature, a sequel that portrayed this resolution would show “men of the mind” interacting with people who might not share their values, rather than separating from them.

Finally, Rand stumbles against a politically inconvenient fact about capitalism as it is practiced today: Almost every “man of the mind,” no matter how brilliant and productive, is an employee, not an owner, of the company that takes advantage of his talents. The shareholders of their companies are probably not much smarter or harder-working than the average mortal (compare the average Lucent stockholder with the inventors of Unix), but the shareholders are ultimately in charge.

Contrast this banal fact of corporate law with one of the main plot lines of Atlas Shrugged: Francisco D’Anconia’s campaign to destroy D’Anconia Copper. According to the Objectivist party line, the other shareholders in D’Anconia Copper got what they deserved, because any rational shareholder would have sold the stock before the campaign of destruction began. But this excuse rings hollow. If someone hires me to fix his car, and I deliberately destroy it, no character flaw of my employer can justify my sabotage. I was free to refuse the repair job or to fix the car to the best of my ability, but not to accept the job and then ruin the property I was entrusted with. By the same token, D’Anconia was free to resign his position and sell his holdings in D’Anconia Copper, or to manage the company in good faith. Instead, he violated his fiduciary duty as a corporate manager. This character is a capitalist role model?

The essays within Atlas Shrugged use logical argument to advocate a certain philosophy, comprising rationality, empiricism, and individual property rights. The story uses its portrayal of heroes and villains to advocate a much simpler point of view, one not always consistent with the philosophy: People who are like the heroes of this novel deserve everything they have and then some. Everyone else deserves to die. Which, if any, of these moral codes is correct? If you have been inspired by this novel, and are moved to convince everyone else that they should become Objectivists, then perhaps you should check your premises.


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