Atlas Shrugged: The Hidden Context of the Book and Film
By David Brin, Ph.D.
Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. -- Mark Twain
For the Record
First a couple of honest disclaimers:
It may seem that I am aiming most of my critical attention, lately, at "right-wing authors." (Recently, I dissected Frank Miller's travesty "300," showing how it tells outright historical lies in service of a deeply anti-American theme.) But I do notice foibles of the left, as well. For example, I promise soon to offer up that long-awaited piece about James Cameron's beautiful but misguided film, AVATAR.1
As one of the few sci fi authors who delivered a keynote speech at a political party convention -- indeed it was the Libertarian Party -- I may seem somewhat of a "heretic" to the Rand-followers who now dominate the LP. But no one can deny my ongoing campaign to get folks to read Adam Smith, the founding sage of both libertarianism and liberalism.2
Like Smith, I believe in fair and open and vigorously creative competition -- the greatest innovative force in the universe and the process that made us. Encouraging vibrant, positive-sum rivalry -- in markets, democracy, science, etc. -- is one reason to promote universal transparency (see The Transparent Society ), so that all participants may base their individual decisions on full knowledge. That positive aim -- also preached by Friedrich Hayek -- should be the goal of any sane libertarian movement, instead of fetishistically hating all government, all the time, which is like a poor workman blaming the tools. Anyway, a movement based on hopeful joy beats one anchored in rancorous scapegoating, any day.
(Adam Smith favored feeding and educating all children, for the pragmatic reason that this maximizes the number of skilled, adult competitors, a root motive of liberalism and a role for government that is wholly justifiable in libertarian terms.)
For my full, cantankerously different take on the plusses and minuses of contemporary libertarianism -- and other oversimplifying dogmas -- have a look at this essay: Models, Maps and Visions of Tomorrow.
Only now, with due diligence done, let's get back to ATLAS SHRUGGED: THE MOTION PICTURE.
Rand's Books... and the Movie
Despite my low esteem of Ayn Rand's simplistic dogma, I do rate THE FOUNTAINHEAD as by far her best book. In its smaller and more personal scope, that novel offered a pretty effective (if melodramatic) portrayal of uncompromising genius having to overcome the boneheaded doorkeepers of art and architecture -- two realms that are always beset by bullies and villainy. In that tale, the hero's adversaries came across as multi-dimensional and even somewhat plausible, if also a bit cartoonish. Indeed, the 1950s Gary Cooper movie was pretty good.
Alas, in contrast, ATLAS SHRUGGED takes on civilization as a whole -- all of its institutions and enlightenment processes, top to bottom -- calling every last one of them corrupt, devoid of hope, intelligence or honor. Moreover it proclaims that the vast majority of our fellow citizens are braying, silly sheep.
(Consider this irony; a movement propounding that all people can and should think for themselves also teaches its adherents to openly despise their neighbors as thinking beings. A party that proclaims fealty to market forces also holds that the number of deciders and allocators can and should be very small. In other words, you can have Hayek or Rand. Not both.)
But pause a moment. How does the book hold up, strictly from the perspective of writing and art? Well... I won't mince words. ATLAS SHRUGGED royally sucks as a novel, with cardboard characters, rivers of contrived coincidence and dialogue made of macaroni. (Can you dig a 70 page SPEECH?) Of course, none of those things matter if your taste runs to an endless smorgasbord of indignant resentment. (A scientifically-verified drug high!) In which case the speechifying is mother's milk.
Heck, the left produces plenty of polemics just as turgidly tendentious. In fact, the previous paragraph pretty much described Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
Am I letting politics bias my judgment of Rand's literary qualities? The intellectual maven of conservatism, William F. Buckley, a founding light of modern libertarianism and also a noted novelist, called Atlas Shrugged "One thousand pages of ideological fabulism; I had to flog myself to read it."
Given such source material -- and universal boos from both critics and the viewing public -- was I surprised to find that the movie version of ATLAS SHRUGGED bites, at the level of basic film 101 storytelling? For example, it is only in the last five minutes that the director deigns to clarify a core villain. As for the "heroes"... well, their famously emotionless "I don't give a crap" mien may work for campus geeks. But not in cinema, where passion propels.
(A deeply ironic and smirk-worthy "oops" appeared on the cover of the DVD version, blurbing ATLAS SHRUGGED as a saga of "courage and self-sacrifice" -- which would be the ultimate Randian sin!)
[image from Death and Taxes blog]
A High Point
One sequence of this film does stand out. I'm a sucker for lyrical cinematography, especially when it involves beautiful scenery, or else a love-ode to fine technology. And there's about ten minutes in ATLAS SHRUGGED when we get both, as the male and female leads ride their new super-train along shimmering rails made of miraculous metal, speeding across gorgeous Rockies and over a gasp-worthy bridge.
The emotional payoff -- two innovators triumphing over troglodyte naysayers by delivering an awesome product -- portrayed Rand's polemical point in its best conceivable light. I am all for that aspect of the libertarian dream. Indeed, it is the core theme that makes THE FOUNTAINHEAD sympathetic and persuasive. So, for ten minutes, we actually liked the characters and rooted for them. Significantly, it is the portion when nobody speaks.
Alas, though. The film then resumed a level of simplistic lapel-grabbing that many of us recall from our Rand-obsessed college friends -- underachievers who kept grumbling from their sheltered, coddled lives, utterly convinced that they'd do much better in a world of dog-eat-dog. (Using my sf'nal powers, I have checked-out all the nearby parallel worlds where that happened; in those realms, every Randian I know was quickly turned into a slave or dog food. Sorry fellows.)
Ah well. Let's set aside the pathetic storytelling, crappy direction and limp drama to appraise the film on its own, intended merits. On what it tried to be. A work of polemical persuasion.
[image from Atlas Shrugs blog]
The Core Polemical Purpose
ATLAS SHRUGGED is, after all, an indictment of modernist, enlightenment, Smithian-liberal civilization. To Rand, this "great experiment" has all been one big mistake, doomed to expire from its own internal contradictions.
I use that Marxian expression deliberately. For, in significant dialectical ways, Ayn Rand was deeply influenced by Karl Marx -- virtually an acolyte, in fact. She kept essentially intact Marx's scenario of bourgeois decadence, guild protection, capital formation, conspiratorial competition-suppression, class-narrowing business cycles and teleologically inevitable divergence between the worker and owner castes.3
The chief difference is that Rand -- a Russian emigre -- stops short at the penultimate phase of Karl's projection -- the moment of pinnacle capitalist consolidation -- freezes it and calls it good. Tearing out and throwing away all hints of the next and final stage prophesied by Marx.
That's it, actually. Rand, in a nutshell. You might grasp the stunning parallels at once... if anyone my age or younger had ever bothered to actually read and understand both Rand and Marx well enough to draw obvious conclusions. Alas, our grandparents were far, far better-read than we hyper-opinionated moderns. (See what happens -- in an ingenious interpretation -- when Rand and Marx recombine.)
Hence, Ayn Rand shows us society making one dismal choice after another -- an endless chain of socialist or bourgeois-oligarchic or meddlesome-statist outrages against individual initiative. Endearingly, Ayn Rand despised all three of those centers of villainy equally, portraying them uniting to pass laws that punish or seize companies who "compete too well."
Indeed, if I ever witnessed our nation enacting the kind of insane bills that are reported in this film (piled one-after-another, every five minutes), heck, I'd be looking for John Galt myself!
Yes, I'm enough of a libertarian to know that foolish things do happen! Witness Europe, mired in nanny-state entitlements, eight week vacations and a "right to retire" as young as 55. Self-defeating regulations prevent companies from firing workers, with the consequence that they seldom hire new ones. As for the movie's heroine, Ayn Rand chose a railroad heiress for good reasons. The old Interstate Commerce Commission (dissolved by the Democrats in the late 1970s, but still a horror when she wrote) was the classic exemplar of a government bureaucracy "captured" by lordly oligarchs and used as a tool to squelch competition.
In other words, the endless litany of "leveling" crimes against creative enterprise that roll across the page/screen in ATLAS SHRUGGED aren't entirely without real-world analogues. Her fictional betrayals of creative enterprise are based on a genuine complaint... that Randites regularly exaggerate more than 100-fold, alas, into caricatures and absurd over-generalizations.
To see this danger expressed far better -- and more succinctly -- than Rand ever managed, read the terrific Kurt Vonnegut story: Harrison Bergeron. Other expressions of legitimate libertarian worry can be seen in the fiction of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. They have a point.
Okay, the core concern is a valid one and somebody in society should keep warning us! Though ideally, someone with common sense and proportion, alas.
I mean, gee whiz. Ayn Rand railed against the ICC... and it was eliminated. Canceled, rubbed out, utterly erased -- along with the grotesque Civil Aeronautics Board -- by the very same democratic processes that she and her followers despised. Competition among railroads was restored and it was done by a mix of pressure from a savvy public and resolution by genuinely reform-minded politicians. If Ayn Rand were writing the book today, a railroad would not have been her chosen archetype.
I wonder: did anyone making the film ever ponder this? Did any Randians notice at all?
[image from IGN movies blog]
A Remarkable Chain of Ironies
I guess I sound pretty harsh. Only now, let me do one of my famous contrary swerves and openly avow something that Ayn Rand gets right. Despite gross exaggeration, she pretty much nails the basic problem!
Almost every time the book or film depict some betrayal of human competitive ingenuity, it happens like this:
A conspiracy of "old money" oligarchs gathers in conniving secrecy, exerts undue political influence and misuses government power for their own, in-group self-aggrandizement. Except for a few, pathetic union stewards, the ruination of market forces is stage managed from the top. The squelching of entrepreneurial enterprise and the corruption of trade is always executed by villainous old-guard capitalists. Moguls who don't want any rivalry from rambunctious newcomers.
Now think about that. Socialists do come under derision from Rand, but mostly as ninnie, do-gooder tools of the scrooge-oligarchs! In fact, this is where her followers get things right. Anyone who considers the long, lamentable epic of human history will recognize this as the ancient pattern, pervasive across 99% of cultures -- with the most prevalent sub-version being feudalism.
What Randians never explain is how getting rid of constitutional-enlightenment government will prevent this ancient curse from recurring. (Were the oligarchs stymied in ancient China, Babylon or Rome, where liberal constitutions were absent?) Indeed, enlightenment governments are the only force that ever kept the feudal sickness partially in check. Exactly as prescribed by Adam Smith.
(Name another society that ever made more libertarians, hmm?)
In other words, by her very own premise, the answer isn't for creative people to "go on strike." It is to fix the tool (government) by yanking it out of the hands of conspiratorial criminals who have improperly seized it. You do that with transparency, with light (as Hayek prescribed). Not by blaming the tool and throwing it away.
[image from The Atlantic wire]
You Are Getting Very Sleeeeepy...
Oh, but more ironies abound! Here you have a polemic about individualism, that portrays one accomplished CEO after another "gone missing"... dropping out of sight after each one listens to a solitary pitchman from a utopian community, who croons "Come. Follow me and joiiiin usssss."
Um, let's see. When have we heard that before? Drop everything. All your past loyalties and the companies you've built. Stop fighting for your family or country. Listen to this incantation and follow our charismatic leader to the special society he has built, just for the exclusive elect, like you.
Good lord, does she have to make the hypnotism-cult thing quite so explicit? So very much like Jim Jones and David Koresh? Did you know that Rand-followers who recite her catechisms light up exactly the same parts of the brain as other true-believers pronouncing passages from the Bible or Koran or Hindu Sutras? And these are not the corners of cortex used by scientists while performing analytical or "objective" reasoning.
But you don't need any of that to conclude we're dealing with a cult. Just follow the recruitment process used by John Galt. Who surreptitiously sabotages successful companies in order to drive their owners into his arms! Who then deliberately vandalizes and cripples the nation's ability to feed itself or engage in commerce that he doesn't control, in order to wreck any possible competition with his elite enclave. Oh, criminy.
Yes, I'll admit that Ayn Rand at least portrays technology as good. That gives her points over the dismal Tea Partiers, or Fox News, or the equally dismal (though less-numerous) science haters of a ditzy-fringe far left. Alas though, she treats technology like something magical. Lone inventors weave a spell and suddenly there's a new metal or new motor. The vast intricacy of collaboration, development, supplier networks, and infrastructure is both a topic to Rand and an excuse for incantatory over-simplification.
But it is science that truly gets short shrift. Ayn Rand's lack of any reference to scientific research that might support or falsify her assertions about human nature should send alarm bells clanging. Her ignorance of Darwin or human biology, for example, is almost identical to Marx, but much less excusable, given when she lived.
Nowhere, either in Atlas Shrugged or subsequent libertarian cant, is there acknowledgment of the immense stimulative role of U.S. government-financed R&D, especially in fields of pure science that would never have attracted investments from anyone looking to a "return horizon." Indeed, I have long yearned for a second national debt clock to be set up, this one showing what the public debt would be now, if only the taxpayer had received normal levels of royalties from rockets, satellites, communications, fiber optics, computers, pharmaceuticals, and the internet. Well? Wouldn't that be fair and businesslike? Tellingly, while many scientists have a fiercely competitive libertarian streak, almost none who are in the top ranks ever hold any truck with Ayn Rand.
The analog to Rand is not the scientist Darwin, but the rhetorician Plato. Sure, she claims to prefer Aristotle. But in both verbal process and incantatory reasoning style, she is Plato's truest heir.
[image from Politico]
Ayn Rand on Privacy
All right, veering briefly aside from Atlas Shrugged, let's see what Rand says about privacy, a topic I happen to know a lot about: "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men."
Of course, there is a level at which Rand is simply stating the obvious. That autonomy and long lives arose as our technology and civilized complexity improved. When food surpluses were meager, only a tiny aristocracy could be subsidized and unchained from the land. But a mixture of science and continental peace mixed with our ability to trade goods and services till even science fiction authors can now pretend we are producers of a primary product, worthy of being fed by farmers.
As for the quote itself: as usual, Ayn Rand mixes some core truths of the Enlightenment with mystical teleology. The rise of the individual -- never steady or even -- has been a core theme of the West, ever since the Renaissance, and especially the Enlightenment. But this progression isn't fated, ordained or even natural.
Rand looks at a couple of hundred years and one quarter of the planet, and assumes the trend is unstoppable. But Huxley and Orwell -- backed up by Malthus and Darwin -- showed us what's "natural." The diamond-shaped social structure that we take for granted can all-too easily slump back into the oligarch-dominated pyramid.
Only Enlightenment methods ever offered an alternative hope. Rand followers take it for granted. Indeed, they assume that we can dismantle the processes and structures that Adam Smith prescribed, that made the Enlightenment work in the first place.
They bear a burden of proof that we would not just slump back into the condition that prevailed, for thousands of years, before Smith and his colleagues came along. In America, that slump is already well underway.
[image from zap2it]
The Posterity Problem
I saved the best for last, hoping that at least a few libertarians -- those most-favored with our greatest human trait, curiosity -- have hung with us to this point.
(Are any of you still present?)
Elsewhere, I've revealed the biggest and most telling red flag about Ayn Rand -- one that I've not seen mentioned elsewhere. It is that none of her uber role-model characters, at any level or in any way, ever indulge in the most basic human project --
-- bearing and raising and loving and teaching children.
Out of 1000 pages, just one of them glances briefly at a mother -- a baker, an enlightened and awakened proletarian who is not a member of the elite caste. She gives a short riff about preferring Randite education methods in Galt's Gulch over public schools. That is it for procreation. As for the New Lords -- several dozen of them, all dynamic Rand-heroes of the future -- not even one of them bothers to pass his or her genes forward in time. Nor do any of them take responsibility for, or even mention, this essential investment in time. And this from the "life-centered" philosophy.
There is a reason that Rand consistently avoided any mention of procreation among her new-lord caste -- because writing-in even one member of a next-generation would shine searing light upon the biggest flaw of her hypnotic spell, revealing that her "fresh" tale is actually the oldest one in the human saga.
Let me explain. It is glaringly simple.
We all know this about aristocracy -- that it seldom breeds true. In the past, royal or aristocratic houses would grow fat, lazy and decadent. England's Plantagenets managed to stay virile for 400 years but most lines devolved much quicker. Oligarchs had to make inheritance-of-privilege state policy. They gave top priority to quashing open markets, science, democracy or equal justice - because any of these liberal processes might engender new competitors to rise, afresh, from below, exposing the spoiled grandkids to dangerous rivals.
Yet, even so, there was some churn! A violent form of social mobility. Inevitably those decadent houses got toppled by new, fresh blood. By vibrant competitors who grew lean and tough in exile. Who trained and gathered their forces in the woods, then swooped in to storm the castle. And thereupon established a new lordly line.
Deep below her superficial adherence to Marxist teleology lies this ancient cycle, far older than the enlightenment, or even writing. It is the very essence of what Ayn Rand stands for. Her characters are the brash, virile, sturdy, innovative barbarians, born free and ready to seize destiny in their own two hands, ripping fortune out of the clutches of pathetic old-fart lords who are spent and bereft of cleverness or might. It's the oldest story, writ-new and draped with modernist garments. Even in her portrayals of sex, the closest parallel is a godlike Viking who kicks down the door and takes what he desires. Because he is the grandest thing in all directions. And because he can.
It is an ancient mythos that resonates deeply in our bones and especially within pasty-skinned, pencil-necked nerds, who picture themselves as Achilles, as John Wayne, as Ender Wiggin, as Harry Potter or some other demigod. An old, old formula that was mined by A. E. Van Vogt and L. Ron Hubbard and Orson Scott Card and so many others.
But therein lies a problem! It's the romantic Phase One of this old cycle that Rand admires -- the rise of a self-made buccaneer who seizes lordship from decadent, inbred fools.
Phase Two -- what happens next -- she never talks about. She averts her eyes and the reader's attention.
Why do none of Rand's characters ever have kids? Because theose kids'll inherit the olympian status wrested by Howard Roark or by Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Sons and daughters of demigods, they will assume privileges and power that they never earned through fair competition. They will take lordship for granted as a right of blood, and use it to squelch new competitors from rising to face them on a level playing field. Until their own decadent line has to be toppled, amid war and waste and pain.
It's what happened in 99% of human societies. Ayn Rand faces a steep burden of proof that "this time it'll be different." A burden she never picks up. Rather, she shrugs it off.
If there are offspring, then the reader might become consciously aware of this inevitable outcome. and realize: "Hey, I've seen this before. It's the same old boring-human pattern, and nothing new, after all."
[image from the Stranger]
The Problem Is People...
Oh, but maybe I am reading too much into this aversion toward kids. After all, as the recent film reminds us, Ayn Rand was pretty much an equal opportunity hater of people, in general. (As evidenced by her passionately-admiring defense of the horrific murderer William Edward Hickman.)
Just look at how brothers are portrayed in ATLAS SHRUGGED. Always treacherous, small-minded, parasitical and craven. Clearly, Rand is no Nazi, no believer in the paramountcy of blood. Sons, daughters, brothers and sisters? Neighbors? Strangers? Spouses? Co-workers? Civilization? Bah, who needs em. Who needs anybody?
Well? I said she ignores Darwin and this is consistent! Reproductive success? Fie and feh! Her übermensch demigods are less like "lords" -- obsessed with establishing an inherited clan of privilege -- than they are pirates -- superior in boldness and in mind, going wherever they like, taking what they deserve by the very essence of what they are.
And hey, doesn't everybody love a pirate?
Yohoho. That's the life for me.
1 Someone pointed out a more powerful example of de-regulatory goodwill on the part of the US government, which was, till around 1990, the principal owner, developer and subsidizer of the Internet. Picture the moment when a few dozen government guys -- and advisor/consultant outsiders -- sat down and decided to BACK OFF... to simply give the Internet to the world, instead of clutching-close this potential source of vast power. It was one of the greatest episodes of voluntary de-regulation in the history of the world. (I was living in France, using the French "minitel" alternative to the Internet, so I know how that might have gone.)
And yes, re-coalescence of top-down control over the Internet remains constantly a danger, from malignant efforts like SOPA. But the key lesson of the Internet -- plus the dissolving of the ICC & CAB and Barack Obama's recent commercialization of the US space launch system -- is that freedom-oriented policies can be negotiated within the institutions of a vast and overwhelmingly successful continental democracy. (And generally, the ones most willing to negotiate are democrats.) The demonization of those institutions, first by Rand and now by Culture War, portraying them as inherently incapable of reason or pro-freedom redesign, is illogical and a churlish example of flat-out ingratitude.
Worse, from a Randian perspective, it is refusal to pay legitimate debts. return to where you left off
2 Hold the presses! I just thought of another major deviance that Rand took, separating her from Marx in a quirky ironic way... beyond her belief in Nietzschian ubermenscen and her denial of Marx's final teleological phase. There's also her approach to the Labor Theory of Value (LTV). Oh, she bought into LTV, hook, line and sinker! But in ways the Master would find utterly heretical.
Now, here I am going to give Ayn Rand some cred, because clearly, she recognized what Marx did not, that LTV is complete crap when it comes to all labor hours being equally valuable. That's baloney and one of Marx's most glaring mistakes. Only then, like many converted heretics, she plunged to the opposite extreme, while staying on the same axis! Positing that some peoples' time and labor must be deemed almost infinitely more valuable, not just in a market scarcity sense but in pure, platonic essence. It is a third major departure from Marx...
...but let's not get carried away. Because her scenario is still entirely based on LTV! Think about it. The great crime of the dire-enemies who are called "looters" is to steal labor value from the good guys in order to maintain society's capital base -- precisely the same situation described by Marx! Only in her story, the theft is not from proletariat workers but from geniuses, necessitating their own revolution to reclaim that value! Sure, she turned 180 degrees the cast of characters who are the heroes. But the underlying principle and scenario -- LTV theft from the productive caste, followed by revolution against the thieves and their recovery of stolen capital -- is utterly the same. That is utterly pure Karl Marx.
It is the master's tale... with an M. Night Shamalayan twist! Oh, my. (return to where you left off)
3 Yes I gave short shrift to one aspect of Atlas Shrugged that Rand probably considered paramount, that is the book's keynote role as a philosophical and psychological polemic. She blames wrong action on wrong thinking, attributing to all of Galt's enemies an addiction to "death-loving" drives. All those who disagree with Galt (and Rand) are, in effect, dismissed as psychopaths who are fixated on achieving death. Note how this makes them inherently evil and unworthy of negotiation, by virtue of their core platonic essence. (There's Plato again!) There's nothing human about such people.
What's fascinating is where this take us in regards Ayn Rand the Marxist. I describe how her chief departure from her mentor is where she excises what comes next. After portraying Marx's ultimate capitalist consolidation and finalization of capital formation with great fidelity, she omits entirely his final step -- revolution of the skilled proletariat. But how? Now vastly outnumbering the owners, with no middle class left to sap dissent, and with both state and church neutered, what's to stop them?
Well, replace the old church with a new one! Rand posits that the New Lords will not only be brilliant inventors and terrific managers, but also vastly enlightening priests. They will correct wrong thinking and replace it with right-thinking. With a philosophy that encourages life (even though there are no kids.) At which point the prols will not rebel, because their faith is now pure. Yes, it is a Randian faith -- in themselves and in a system that challenges them to 'strive for life!' Nevertheless, it truly is awesome to see that her rejection of her mentor, Karl Marx, consists entirely of thwarting his final stage by enthralling the masses with a stunningly-persuasive incantation... or opiate... of uniform thought. A catechism of pure, unchanging and permanent Truth.
Wow. (return to where you left off)