“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders – what would you tell him to do?”
“I…don’t know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?”
Regardless of how much you may revere the writings of Ayn Rand, it cannot be denied she made one definite mistake with Atlas Shrugged. To be fair, it’s a mistake so commonly made that it would be irrelevant anywhere else, but with Rand it takes on a unique significance. The purpose of citing Atlas, as we see above, was to serve as a metaphor for the rich and powerful whose strength, hard work and moral clarity are what support our society as we know it, and how state interference in their businesses and profits causes the world to “shrug”. However, in the original Greek myth, Atlas didn’t hold up the world. This is a misnomer that has somehow been accepted as his defining trait. In the myth, Atlas was the titan who held up the heavens. Now, if we instead apply this as a metaphor to Rand’s work, it suddenly takes on a new meaning, not terribly unlike that of another literary giant, Chicken Little. Instead of a tribute to “those who produce the most”, it becomes a tale about a bunch of gullible sycophants running around in a panic because the sky is falling.
Atlas Shrugged is a shockingly bad book. It’s long-winded and boring, and remarkably spiteful, fuelled throughout by hate. Many of Rand’s detractors will attack her abilities as a writer, which is not a sentiment I share. She was a great writer, and for the first 300 pages or so of Atlas Shrugged I was genuinely enjoying it. However, it very quickly became apparent that Rand’s characterisation of the industrialists and the “producers” resembles that of a 14-year-old girl describing her favourite pop-stars, and as for those who want to help the poor or show any regard for altruism whatsoever…well, let me tell you. I’m a geek, I’ve read a lot of comic-books in my time, and even in the most juvenile, two-dimensional of comics I’ve never encountered such a nasty, pantomime depiction of villains. It’s flat and it’s boring, and it renders the novel almost unreadable.
And then there are the speeches. Mother of god, there are speeches. There is virtually no dialog in Atlas Shrugged. Whenever anyone speaks they do so in long, drawn out lectures. Pontificating is order of the day, and it’s hard to see what the point is when everyone is just repeating the same speech over and over again. Rand was of course simply using each of these characters as a mouthpiece for her own objectivist viewpoint, and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that. However, it’s quite shocking to see how many people have been taken in by it.
I have posted here previously on Rand – when I had just read the book – to ask why people were suddenly more interested in a novel that promotes self-interest and laissez-faire economics at a time when unregulated greed has sent the world into the worst recession in over 50 years. Having spent some time looking into objectivism and Rand’s theories, I can say with some confidence that the people declaring Atlas Shrugged to be prophetical are talking through their colletive arse. A commenter on my previous Rand post claimed; “In America’s case, it is undoubtedly the Federal Reserve’s manipulation of the market that causes the roller coaster ride America is going through.” Similar sentiments are expressed here. There can be no doubt that the Fed’s actions were a causal factor, but to say this was the sole cause in destabilising the markets while ignoring the greed of under-regulated banks and underwriters strikes me as wilful ignorance. And what of the recessions of other countries, such as Britain or here in Ireland, where interest rates were cut in response to the recession? Ireland is an interesting example. Our recession is for the most part separate from that of the rest of the world, almost entirely a result of our own actions. And the only thing we have to blame it on is greed – greedy bankers and greedy developers – and of course a government who thought regulation meant acting as the banks’ cheerleaders.
The reason Ayn is being declared a visionary is, it is said, the Bush/Obama sponsored bailouts mirror the actions of the government bodies in Atlas Shrugged. This is simply incorrect. What’s happening now is that tax-money is being use to prop up the great and powerful captains of industry, the very same people who got us into this mess. It’s certainly what’s happening here with Nama. This is the exact opposite of what Rand was talking about.
And you know what? Rand supporters know this to be true. Check out this interview with Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Institute, conducted before Randists succeeded in rewriting history. It is interesting, is it not, to hear him talking about public relations and positioning objectivism to benefit from the recession? Actually, the whole interview is worth reading for its “black is white” non-wood for the trees seeing. The inability of Ranists to see what’s right in front of them is quite alarming. For instance, they pride themselves on being the champions of innovation. There’s a scene in Atlas Shrugged where the hero is on retreat, having been unable to tolerate the “moochers” any longer. She finds roads and other services that are barely fit for use, and when she asks why nobody has them fix she gets an indignant “they’ve always been like that” in response. Now, keeping this scene in mind, let’s look at this article (the author of which seems to be under the impression that the sun switches off whenever a solar panel needs cleaning). Does the assertion that oil has served us fine until now and we’ve got plenty of oil and candles left sound familiar? This is just one such incident. What has struck the most during my examination of objectivism is that are many, many examples where supporters of Rand sound terribly like those she was attacking, and nowhere is this more apparent than when they’re talking about environmentalism. Here’s a situation where scientists are almost universally convinced that global warming is a reality, and the only debate left is how much time we have left to do something about it. Yet Randists are happy to reject entirely any scientific evidence that dares suggest burning fossil fuels might be problematic. After all, we’ve always done that. Alex Epstein (the one Randist who returned my emails, and who immediately dismissed my argument as “econ reporting 101” the moment I pointed out I disagreed with objectivism) has repeatedly accused environmentalists of “increasing hysteria”. Well, have a look-see here. Does this article sound just the teensiest bit hysterical to anyone?
I’ve been deliberately using the word “Randist” here, as I really don’t want to sound like I’m attacking objectivism in general. It’s not a theory I agree with, but any branch of conservatism that embraces science and rejects religious dogma is ok with me. The trouble with Randism is that, when you think about it, it actually does neither of these things. We’ve seen already seen how easily Randists reject science. As for religion, well, they may be atheists, but it has been said (by G K Chesterton, I believe, but remember it from Stephen Fry on Room 101) that the trouble with atheists is not that they don’t believe in God but that they’ll believe in anything. That’s what has happened to Randists. They claim to be the voice of reason, but there goal is the absolute and undiluted implementation of Rand’s dogma. They’ve fallen for Rand’s ploy of stating that anyone who disagrees with her is not merely mistaken but evil, and as such they are driven by the same kind of conviction we see in Christian fundamentalists and Islamic extremists. If fact, there is one religion (if we can call it that) that Randism has more in common with than any other. Atlas Shrugged is economic Dianetics. Randists are secular scientologists, peddling perceived problems and easy answers.
You might be wondering why I’m getting so worked up about this. They’re just fools who managed to be taken in by naked and at times contradictory propaganda. They would have been equally convinced by Mein Kampf if they lived in 1930’s Germany. If anyone today is really that gullible they are at best ignored. But here’s the thing; they’re winning. They’re framing public discourse on how we should handle the recession, and if this continues surely policy will follow. Well I say no more. Towards the end of the book John Galt (the Randist’s messiah) declares: “We have no demands to present to you, no terms of bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us.” Bullshit, of course, as proven by the bailouts. Still, it’s a profound moment, because we see the opposite is true. These people have nothing to offer us. We tried their idea of doing nothing during the last global economic crisis and it didn’t work then either. To all those threatening to “go Galt”, I say this: Fuck off and do it. Put your money where your mouth is. See how indispensable you are. See how badly we do without you. If you did it five years ago we might not be in this mess.
The great Stephan Colbert has more on this, so I’ll end with him.