Review: Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged

Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to check this out having seen some documentary material on the author which highlighted the fact that she is the post-mortem darling of many of today’s big names amongst the movers-and-shakers of entrepreneurship. Atlas Shrugged, a huge semi-futuristic novel, is said to be the exemplar of her political attitudes, the work she herself put forward as most illustrative of it.

To my alarm, the work turned out to be stunning in its naivety and my respect for her followers plummeted as a consequence. There’s always the assumption that those who make it big must be in on something you’re not and doubtless they are, but whatever it may be it’s not political nous.

I enjoyed the book – quite a lot, actually, up to around half way through. It portrays a futuristic, (but barely so), world of industrialists making America great while the rest of the world has succumbed to the malaise – essentially – of Communism. We see the world through the eyes of the novel’s female protagonist, Dagny Taggart, the (effective) manager of a major network of railroads (nominally in the control of her incompetent brother).

We see her in her battle to save the railroad from the attacks of other powers determined to take its profit for themselves and, in the process, merely despoiling it, to their own detriment as well as to the detriment of its owners. Taggart is only one of several major industrialists who face this attack. Indeed, all the industrialists face it. Her quest – and theirs – is to save their companies primarily and yes, in doing so, to save the nation, and thus the world, from going to hell.

For the first half of the book we have Rand the storyteller, and a rattling good yarn it is too. There are mysterious disappearances, individuals who are behaving strangely, inventors who abandon world-changing creations half way through their creation who have to be sought out to continue the work for the sake of profit and humanity. The politics is there, but it’s not too intrusive and, with the suspension of disbelief, it works on a Lord of the Rings level where we know Hobbits and Orcs don’t really exist, but we’re willing to set that aside for the sake of the story and our involvement in it.

However, that complicity between the reader and Rand is severely challenged in the second half of the book, when the politics ceases to be the mortar that binds the bricks of the story together but becomes, instead, the story in itself. What Rand presents us with here is a didactic, often hectoring political rant and, as rants go, it’s pure nonsense.

Here’s how it works.

The disbelief we’ve been asked to suspend up to now – and have done so willingly for the sake of the rattle of the yarn – is that the industrialists are the world’s Übermenschen, Nietzsche’s ‘supermen’. They exist in a sea of incompetent lesser mortals who can’t look after themselves, let alone anyone else. These, in turn, divide into the compliant incompetents who acknowledge the superior status of the industrialists and work with them to their own and everyone else’s advantage and the jealous, bitter ones who want to take it all away and have it for themselves. However, in their incompetence, they can only destroy what has already been built up. These latter incompetents find their way into government as they have done previously all around the world, hence the fall of just about everywhere but the USA. They attack the industrialists through taxation and by taking legal control of their industries.

It must be underlined – the nobility of the Übermenschen is in no way philanthropic. Indeed, it is the very opposite. This is a politics that sneers at philanthropy. It is Adam Smith distilled and transformed into a force of nature, a mystical truth. (However, even Adam Smith in later revisions of Wealth of Nations acknowledged the pernicious force entrepreneurs could become in society if vested with too much power politically, noting the need to temper their excesses). From the industrialists’ quest of profit arises, as surely as day must follow night, all that is good, all that is noble, all that is wonderful, all that is prosperous, not only for the industrialists but also for all who aid them in their quest for money and utilise their products. It’s a zero-tax, zero-government world run by corporations that is Rand’s heaven, and we see its saints, the Übermenschen, shoulder to shoulder united in healthy competition with one another where necessary, in cooperation when not, bringing to the world the fruits of their genius.

Unrestrained Capitalism takes care of everything, the Übermenschen let there be light, create everything, and find it to be good.

As a believer in Capitalism myself, I find some truth in this… but only up to a point. Rand’s world is black-and-white, good-and-evil, on-or-off, this-or-that. The story is posited upon two worlds – unrestrained Capitalism in the hands of a competent nobility, or out-and-out Communism in the hands of ridiculous fools. In this I see a lot of Margaret Thatcher – a sincere woman to my mind, but driven by the idea that giving victory in the singularly British class struggle to the movers-and-shakers in industry would guarantee prosperity for all instead of doing what was really needed; getting those on both sides of the divide and banging their heads together). No surprise our sympathies go with the Capitalists while the story remains that – just a story. But now, half way through the work, she stops us dead and does the equivalent of Tolkein interrupting Lord of the Rings with “Look, reader! Look out of your window now! See the Orcs marching!” What worked well as an unbelievable premise held in suspension for the sake of the novel now turns into a political tract where the story is submerged beneath a weight of messianic, at times vaguely hysterical, rhetoric as Rand tries to give us the underlying reality of her fictional vision, and fails abysmally. This ain’t the real world.

Of particular note in this respect is the almost book-length tract one of the characters delivers as a speech. High on pathos, low on logos, repetitious and theoretical, this speech – we must believe – holds the nation in awe for its hours-long duration as a radio broadcast, and even its opponents listen in speechless wonder… or so we assume given that the story presents us with it being listened to in a room filled with them and, for all those hours, none interjects or thinks to switch off the radio for sheer boredom.

The work further suffers throughout from an underlying sexism. Taggart, from whose perspective the story is largely told, is the only female amongst the Übermenschen. Certainly she is on a level with them in terms of ability and achievement, but as a woman she remains isolated. Throughout the novel, all other Übermenschen are male, even in passing mentions, save for a few isolated references to a very few women in the ‘hidden society’ the Übermenschen set up for themselves to escape the collapsing world, Rand presumably realising at that point that a few women around the place rather than Taggart alone amidst dozens of men may have led to some questions in people’s minds.

Moreover, though on a level with them, she seems to define herself in their terms and to be in awe of them. Three male characters, successively, come to the fore as ‘hinge-characters’ upon whom much of the narrative depends and thus in their importance to the story and its wider world. When they emerge, Taggart promptly falls in love with each one successively, hops into bed with them and takes on a pointedly submissive sexual role, each of the men clearly expecting nothing other than that from her. One can’t help feeling that Rand is revealing much of herself here, treating industrialist billionaires as an adolescent might the singers of boy bands, dreaming of being dominated by them. Certainly Taggart loses some of her edge in those sexual encounters.

In contrast to this, one of those I have deemed the ‘faithful incompetents’, those without the nous to move and shake the world but who have the sense to follow those who do, is a childhood friend of Taggart’s, now her employee. Unsurprisingly, we assume, he is attracted to her, but we do not even begin to believe his interest can ever be fulfilled, nor that he would dream of it happening. He is, after all, more akin to a pet Labrador dog, devoted as is his duty, patted on the head as is the duty of Taggart as his owner, but have sex with him? With a Labrador? Oh, my darlings, Ms. Rand is not writing that sort of a book and clearly in her eyes, the delineation between the Übermenschen and the hoi-polloi so marked, for Taggart to sleep with him would indeed be akin to bestiality. They’re not us, my dear, they’re an entirely different species. Perhaps likening them to dogs is too generous. When the world implodes, only the Übermenschen are saved. There is no thought given to even the faithful followers, they are insignificant. Even dogs would get a better send-off than these people are granted in Atlas Shrugged. Perhaps insects, then.

The ethos of Atlas Shrugged, then, is naive in the extreme. That alone would not make it shocking. What makes it shocking is the number of the ‘great and the good’ of the Corporate Aristocracy take its ‘politics’ seriously. With them doing that, Atlas Shrugged ceases to be naive, and becomes poisonous.

A largely pointless work that becomes both important and repugnant in the face of the self-serving gullibility of some in the modern world.

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