Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand

Book cover

(Warning: long and scattershot review ahead.)

I was sorely tempted to give this book one star. In many ways, I despised reading it. Aside from the fact that it is 1168 pages long, made my wrists hurt, and made me feel like a tool whenever I read it on the subway, it also espouses the most abhorrent philosophy of life that I have ever seen seriously proposed. Its characters are almost uniformly repellent, both those who are meant to be villains and those who are meant to be heroes.

And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to give one star to a book that made me think so much. Having read it, I’m put in mind of the Sun Tzu adage: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” I read this book compulsively, like a wily Chinese general studying the troop movements of an opposing commander.

I’ll start by giving Ayn Rand a break. To be fair, I think that in this book she is fighting a war that today largely seems like a thing of the past, and thus seems somewhat ridiculous. “Atlas Shrugged” was published in 1957, just days after the USSR launched Sputnik. In those days, Soviet-style communism had not yet been revealed to be a completely bankrupt ideology. More left-wing intellectuals openly sympathized with Marxist ideas, and there was a real fear (if not a real likelihood) that communism would take root in America. The villains in Atlas Shrugged, who are dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist central planner types, seem to a modern reader like ridiculous straw men set up against Rand’s virtuously greedy heroes.

All of that notwithstanding, I don’t even think that Ayn Rand does a particularly good job of taking down hard-core communism. I think that Eastern bloc dissident writers such as Havel have done that in a far superior way, because they allow the reader to see the fundamental humanity of those who perpetuated the inhuman system–the deepest tragedy of totalitarianism. Rand’s central planners, on the other hand, are shown to be nothing but rotten to the core. One of the main feelings I got from AS is that Rand doesn’t ask too much of her readers, and having villains (or heroes for that matter) with any depth seems to have been out of the question for her.

As for her heroes, I think they are unlikeable not only because they act like assholes to everyone, but also because they lack what Keats termed “negative capability”: “…when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Keats called this a trait of genius (particularly Shakespeare), and I’m sure Rand would dismiss it as garbage. You can guess whose side I come down on–I think negative capability is a fundamental aspect of humanity and Rand’s uber-rationalist heroes are fanatically opposed to it. (I am really interested in the idea of negative capability, and if it sounds interesting to you, think about it in the context of Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy.)

While reading this book, I kept thinking about Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”. I loved that book and for a while I puzzled over the question of how I could have such different reactions to two novels that are both essentially defenses of libertarianism. (Interestingly the two are also close to contemporaries; TMIAHM was published in ‘66.) I think the difference is that (despite the more sci-fi physical setting) Heinlein’s world is a much more realistic depiction of human nature. In particular, survival on Luna requires the ability to get along with others, due to the close quarters and the harsh environment. In that sense it is consistent with what we know of actual libertarian societies in history, such as the Wild West. Finally, I’ll say that Heinlein’s Professor’s philosophical musings seem much more insightful to me than those of Rand’s characters–ideas about the state always and only being instantiated through individuals, for example.

Another interesting exercise for a reader looking back from the present is to think about the activities that the heroes of AS are involved in. The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, is a railroad tycoon, which to me is laughable because of the enormous amount of government involvement required to build American railroad infrastructure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m not an expert on railroad history or economics, but I’m pretty sure that most railroads were only viable because the government imbued them with the power of eminent domain, and I know that the Golden Spike creating the first transcontinental railroad joined two federally-chartered railroad companies. So the fantasy of a railroad tycoon who stands for laissez-faire capitalism would be a pretty good joke–if it were coming from anyone but Rand. Then consider Francisco d’Anconia (copper mining), Hank Rearden (steel manufacturing), Ken Danagger (coal mining), and all the other minor heroic magnates–all have made their fortunes in industries that we now understand succeed largely on the basis of privatizing benefits while socializing massive costs in terms of environmental devastation. I don’t think people were widely aware of that at the time (although Pigou had described Pigovian taxes as early as 1920, Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” didn’t appear until ‘68). So the so-called “defenders of the free market” are really those who have benefited from the most prominent market failures.

In a similar vein, it’s hard for me to imagine how Rand would write this book today. “Industry” seems to have an apple-pie impeccability about it, but no one (in America) gets rich off of industry these days. In the ‘80s she might have done the Gordon Gekko thing, but that already lacks the glory of Industry. Maybe today she would find a kindred spirit in Steve Schwarzman, who compared Obama’s plan to tax private equity earnings as income rather than capital gains to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Ironically, the most convincing recent expression that comes to mind of a Rand-esque paean to industry that I can think of came from union leader Frank Sobotka on “The Wire”: ““We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.”

About midway through this book I was surprised to find that the settlement of Atlantis, supposedly the inner sanctum of eu-greed and capitalism, looked so deeply communitarian. It almost made me laugh, actually. It is the portrait of a small, tight-knit community, largely held together by the mutual respect and frequent association of its members. The members routinely break the spirit of the “no giving anything” rule by asking others to pay them nominal fees–because they are actually happy to give to each other. This, more than almost anything else, puts the lie to Rand’s claim that only self-interest is a virtue–she can’t even depict a paradise without bringing in some “traditional” virtues.

I should also mention that Rand’s writing is terrible, filled with direct characterization and endless preachy speeches. This is the only way that she can write the book, because there is no way of showing characters acting according to her philosophy and having anyone understand them to be good, without explicitly stating it over and over. (Thus the 1168 pages.) On a related note, this book has the least-sexy sex scenes I have ever read. Blech.

I think that in general it is futile to argue the merits of Rand’s philosophy directly, because ultimately the disagreement will simply come down to a difference in values. I will, however, offer up the following as criticism: there are no children to speak of in this book, and in particular there are no nurturing parent-child relationships. Perhaps needless to say, there are no retarded people. The reason for all of these is that there is no way these groups can be incorporated within Rand’s world-view in a healthy and nurturing way. Given Rand’s veneration of the rational mind above all else, these groups are worthless–in a world that requires “trading value for value”, they would starve (the retarded) or be put into indentured servitude (children). Despite her sense of having-it-all-figured-out, Rand couldn’t bring herself to admit (publicly?) that the logical consequence of her philosophy was eugenics. (Thank you to Stanley Hauerwas for making me think about the role of the retarded when evaluating any moral system.)

I feel like I have a lot more to say about this book, but I also need to get this damn review up and get on with my life.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars