After months and months of a start-stop relationship with Ayn Rand’s 1,000-page novel Atlas Shrugged, I no longer have to say that I’m reading it. Nay, I have trudged slowly and surely towards its climax and can now state that I have finished it. Though pedantic at times, the story was a good medium for Rand to present her libertarian socio-political ideal of Objectivism to the world despite the significant time and mental faculties required to digest a book as heavy, both in weight and verse, as Atlas Shrugged.
Atlas was published in 1957 to mostly negative reviews. The political right lambasted it for its “godlessness” and the political left attacked it for its apparent celebration of greed. It is claimed that Ayn Rand cried everyday reading the reviews… perhaps because the pinnacle of her life’s work was being treated so poorly, perhaps because she felt it had been largely misunderstood. It’s too bad she couldn’t live to see its popularity soar in recent years. Amidst the charged partisan atmosphere of modern American politics, the book is experiencing a resurgence. Even if wrongly so, a growing number of people identifying themselves as libertarians, like the Tea Partiers and more traditional Republicans, are contributing to an increase in sales, seemingly drawn in by its pro-business, anti-government message, while the more secular political left is attracted to the book’s renunciation of religion and glorification of reason. Funny how that works out, eh?
Atlas Shrugged is the fictional story of business tycoons in a dystopian America slowly being suffocated by a government who claims to be working for “the public good” and John Galt whose goal it is to “stop the motor of the world” by withdrawing the “men of the mind,” those responsible for growth and prosperity. Expansive in scope and long on inner-dialogue, the concepts put forth by Ayn Rand in this book are noble and worth discussion even if their strict application in the real world is unsound.
The most basic premise of the book is that socialism and communism rob the thinking man of incentive, that those who can and do produce are subject to slavery at the hands of those who cannot, the “moochers” who maintain power only by the consent of their victims. The author posits that the removal of all artificial controls on business is the only rational way to spur a healthy and strong economy, one capable of bringing man to a world of true freedom. To do otherwise would be to have a worldview and economy based on the false morality of the zero, a negative morality based on the negation of man’s nature, which can lead only to an unavoidable and ultimately catastrophic collapse of society.
“Damnation is the start of your morality, destruction is its purpose, means and end. Your code begins by damning man as evil, then demands that he practice a good which it defines as impossible for him to practice. It demands, as his first proof of virtue, that he accept his own depravity without proof. It demands that he start, not with a standard of value, but with a standard of evil, which is himself, by means of which he is then to define the good: the good is that which he is not.”
The book is a good read if you can manage to tease the deeper core concepts out and can recognize and accept its inapplicability to the world you and I live in. Atlas Shrugged promotes reason, rationality, intelligence, education and work as the means to and foundation of a coming golden age in humanity’s long history. Derived from this is an emphasis on the sanctity of individual property rights… that which is the product of my mind belongs to me and none other may claim it—not my neighbor nor my government. This isn’t to say that Rand’s Objectivism is strictly selfish as it does permit charity, viewing such as a transaction from which both parties gain, an investment.
“Suffering as such in not a value; only a man’s fight against suffering is. If you choose to help a man who suffers, do it only on the ground of his virtues, of his fight to recover, on his rational record, or of the fact that he suffers unjustly; then your action is still a trade, and his virtue is the payment for your help.”
This idea could probably be expanded into a justification for taxation so long there is a measurable benefit to those who are taxed and such taxation is fair and equitable, but that argument would require a much longer discussion on economics and, thusly, is for another post. I’d like to be more learned on that subject before putting my ideas on the record.
The aspect of this philosophy that resonated with me the most was the emphasis on reason and rationality. It encourages us to accept the reality of the world and to avoid the traps of a metaphysical world. Who’s to say what is right or wrong? How can anyone know what the correct course of action should be? How do you know you’re even alive? These are all questions that do nothing but obfuscate an issue and ensnare the mind with unanswerable questions. Weak and dead is the man who can make no decisions, the eternal fence-sitter unable to accept reality and, to steal a quote from John Galt’s thesis towards the end of the book, unable to recognize that “A is A.” Strong and alive is the man who accepts reality as his senses interpret it, exposes the mystics of spirit or muscle for the charlatans they are and denounces anyone who claims “A is not A.”
“Live and act within the limit of your knowledge and keep expanding it to the limit of your life. Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority. Accept the fact […] that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error.”
Ayn Rand celebrated the absolute of reason. She advocated the supremacy of man’s mind and was an unabashed atheist… both of which were shown very clearly in Atlas. Objectivism was as much an attack on socialism as it was on religion, the latter of which cannot exist in a reasonable mind.
“Thinking is man’s only basic virtue from which all others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think—not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know.”
A third concept presented in the book is the immorality of the force of arms as a means of gain. It is wrong to force anyone to do anything at the point of a gun. Whether that gun is physical or spiritual is irrelevant. Both immorally threaten you with some sort of pain or torture versus appealing to the reason of your mind. This idea rang clear in the middle of John Galt’s speech just as the two previous and was encapsulated in this quote:
“So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? No man may start—the use of physical force against others.”
This is to say that violence is justified, even a moral imperative, in the case that someone else initiates the use of physical force against you. For instance, should a man attempt to fleece you of your wallet at the point of a gun, it is justifiable to fleece that man of his life as he has taken your life ransom to acquire the unearned, a moral sin of the greatest order. Certainly a debatable topic, but I agree with the premise. If a burglar broke into your home in the middle of the night, is he in the right to take your possessions simply because he has a gun? If an individual planted a bomb in an airliner killing the 150 people aboard in the name of some political idea, would you retaliate by throwing him in jail or by executing him? Make no mistake; both scenarios involve one person placing your natural rights under threat, both are attacks on your life because production and property are the products of life. People like that, people willing to destroy life in the name of a perceived greater cause, should be dispatched swiftly and without remorse just as they made clear they would do to you. The reality of exacting that justice is a sticky situation especially on the world scale, but again, that’s for another discussion.
Unfortunately Atlas is based on a rationale and morality that rarely exists in our modern world. The preconditions for the success of Mrs. Rand’s philosophy require honorable and noble men intent on fair and equitable business transactions, men who produce, who turn some raw material into something of a greater value. America’s corporate class is instead composed of sharks and gamblers who make their billions in the artificial world of financial markets, who do not fit the mold that characters such as Dagny Taggart, Francisco d’Anconia, or Hank Rearden were cast from.
Man is generally ignoble, capable of violating contracts as necessary to increase his position in the world. He is sneaky, blindingly self-interested and backhanded, all traits that are brought to light most viciously in the business world. The CEOs and corporations of the world, in a quest for ever increasing profits for themselves and stockholders, buy politicians, “cook the books,” game the system and run the systemic risk of financial markets through the roof all anticipating that they’ll be able to sell their holdings at the perfect moment right before the whole charade collapses. Their riches are built on a monetary system that necessarily siphons wealth from the bottom to the top, encourages bad accounting and threatens the world with economic collapse if we don’t accept their methods and bail them out when it does. This is part of the reason Objectivism and the laissez-faire capitalism it promotes has failed. Indeed, we’ve seen it before in 1929 and are getting glimpses of it again now.
The basic ideal that Ayn Rand gets across in Atlas Shrugged is that the human mind is the most precious and moral thing we humans have. Repression of that mind in any manner, whether it’s from within or without, whether with a gun or with threats to your “soul,” is the gravest sin possible and should not be tolerated by anyone. Repression of this sort is only possible with the consent of the victim; it is only by the voluntary submission of our own minds that the looters, moochers or mystics have any power over us. If we wish to be free, we have to disarm those who would use guilt and morality at the point of a gun by withdraw our minds from their reach. This is a solid principle, one freethinkers and individuals the world over can and should internalize, but it comes at the price of effort. Be sure that those who wish power over you are currently plotting their next move. Disarm them with the power reason, with the power of your mind.
TL;DR: It’s a good book full of moral ideals, but not exactly the most casual reading you can find. I will probably re-read it in the future… at least John Galt’s inspirational treatise.