Monday, January 24, 2011

Atlas Shrugged - A Book Review

After many weeks, I've finally finished the Audiobook version of Ayn Rand's classic novel, Atlas Shrugged. And it's a good thing that I did decide to tackle this project by audio, because it's one whale of a book! Eight segments of eight hours apiece! Jeez, Ayn Rand was one wordy-assed bitch! Christopher Hitchens, at a conference I attended in Madison, WI, back in 2008, described Ayn Rand's books as "unreadable." Now I know why.

I could easily attack her book on that particular point. I mean, five pages describing the look in Hank Reardon's eyes is ridiculous. Fifteen pages of a monologue given by (of all people) a tramp, taken in by Dagne Taggert, on the evils of the 20th Century Motor company for adopting Marx's ideal of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," was outright ludicrous. Any of us would have tossed the bum back out into the cold again for refusing to shut the fuck up! Over a hundred pages of a three-hour radio broadcast given by John Galt on the evils of regulating the producers of the goods people depend upon is weighty beyond endurance. Oh, there's some good quotables in various places of Rand's book, to be sure. But any of us would have been able to say in five words what she said in five paragraphs!

That having been said, we don't even need to attack her polemic on its sheer unnecessary bulk alone. Her points can be attacked on their own merit, or rather, the lack thereof. The primary thrust of her argument is that the producers have earned their wealth by means of providing that which the people most need in a national economy: Goods, services, the means to get them from point A to point B, and the millions of jobs these things create. Those who are too incompetent to be able to produce such things are depicted as "looters." They are people who cannot work for hire or make their own way in the world, so they turn to the government to prey upon those with the strength to earn their own living, sucking upon their lifeblood like swarms of bloodthirsty insects, on the seemingly moral principle that those of strength have a duty to those in need. The symbol of this condition is the Greek myth of Atlas: The wealth and strength of the producer is, like Atlas, holding the weight of the entire world upon his shoulders. But the world keeps making Atas' burden bigger and bigger, heavier and heavier, demanding more and more of his mighty shoulders. Finally, nearly crushed by the burden of the demanding masses, sweat pouring from his body and blood streaming down his chest, he decides to shrug off his burden, and let the world collapse! In Rand's novel, this means that, instead of the workers of a union going on strike, the producers and business owners form their own union and go on strike! One by one the business owners disappear, leaving the world to its own fate. Having turned the tables around on the entire world, the striking producers watch as the entire nation, indeed the entire world, lost and confused without the strength of those businessmen who deserved to succeed in the first place, sinks into destruction, drowning in a pool of chaos and incompetence. Then, they emerge out of hiding to establish a new order, with the first tenet of the new constitution being: "Congress shall make no law impeding the freedom of trade."

It's a passionate argument, and it reminds us of the importance of realizing that economics is a two-way street, relying on producers and consumers both. But upon closer scrutiny, it utterly fails. First off, in Rand's world, there are no corporations, only sole proprietorships. Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, and the empires of McDonald's, Coka Cola, Exxon, and Verizon had yet to fully emerge. Only some faint hints of what was to come existed, such as Ford, Firestone, and TWA. Those who own the businesses in Rand's novel do so because their own natural competence makes them worthy of it, almost as if they are born to their destiny -- destined for greatness just like Superman, or any other ultra-human hero. Even Rand herself admitted that the primary criticism she received regarding this was that such men don't exist. She argued back that her husband was such a man. Touching, but her husband was hardly a titan in business, and in reality, we find that the true titans of business are more lucky than good. Howard Hughes was a complete crackpot. Donald Trump was/is narcissist whose agent is ten times more competent than he is. Ted Turner is an incompetent nincompoop who built a cable network on debt and sheer luck. And littered in their shadow are a hundred thousand people with the intelligence of Rand's heroes: people like Fancisco D'Anconia, Henry Reardon, or Calvin Atwood, whose businesses were crushed by the winds of strange fortune, while less competent people reaped the success of being in the right place at the right time.

And her ultimate hero, the woman Dagne Taggert, who basically runs Taggert Transcontinental Railways, commands the respect of the entire company, while her incompetent brother, James Taggert, while technically in charge of the company, blunders his way through life riding his sister's skirt-tail. This is utterly surreal! In Rand's world, the glass ceiling for women in the workplace simply does not exist, and this is a gargantuan oversight on her part, especially in America of the 1950's! Rand makes this error largely because she was an anomaly during her lifetime, having a circle of loyal followers who made her into a cult of personality while she was alive. It simply never crossed her mind that a woman might have a very hard time being similar to her in that way! She'd been on a pedestal for so long that she'd forgotten what it looked like from down below. In real life, Dagne's incompetent brother would have taken all the credit, garnered all the respect, basked in all the glory and paid her next to nothing! Rand's was a fool's paradise.

Her depiction of academia and politics is equally as colored. While rightly criticizing the post-modernist view that there are no absolutes, it seems that everyone who criticizes industry, from college professors to politicians, are nothing but incompetent buffoons, incapable of putting a coherent argument together, or think their way out of a wet paper bag. Rand does not acknowledge the existence of the mistaken genius (whose existence is confirmed all around us every day!). The exaggeratedness of this contrast between protagonist and antagonist in Rand's work really does strain her credulity well past the breaking point. The opponents of industry are so unbelievably daft, that they attempt to make the rebel industrialist, John Galt, into a dictator just to save the economy. And when he refuses, they actually attempt to force him into becoming a dictator by subjecting him to torture! Even then, the imbeciles who engage in this cracked scheme end up failing when the electrical torture device they are using breaks down, and they are unable to fix it. John Galt, laughing on his torture bed, instructs them how to fix the machine they are too stupid to repair!

Yet Rand did have some remarkable insights. At the time she wrote her novel, the welfare state had yet to emerge in the way we know it today. There were welfare programs, yes, but people weren't dependent upon them. The New Deal was still new. Whole populations of inner-city slums weren't living on food stamps and welfare checks the way they do today. People regarded welfare as dishonorable, even filthy, and many would rather have starved than accept it. Today, people accept their welfare checks without batting an eyelash, and many deliberately have more babies out of wedlock just to garner themselves more funds. Rand herself died in 1982, and she must have laughed in her elder years, saying to whomever would listen to her, "I told you so!"

But we cannot forgive the utter callousness of her writing simply because she pointed out the tendency towards dependency within human nature. In Rand's world, those who suffer and die do so because their own incompetency brought their fate down upon their own heads. Unless the victim is an industrialist who suffers at the hand of well-meaning Marxism, there simply are no innocent victims. A train disaster on the Taggert line kills nearly two dozen civilians and several railroad workers, because an overbearing politician forces a stalled train into a petroleum-fumed tunnel using a coal-burning locomotive, suffocating the entire compliment of crew and passengers before the fumes ignite and destroy the tunnel. Rand then goes on to list the entire train's manifest (for seven goddamned pages!), noting how each and every one of them was an anti-industrialist with views bent on helping government looters stifle deserving businessmen of their just due. In sort, they all died, which was tragic, but it's not so bad, they all had it coming, because they were damned liberals.

What arrogance! What hubris! What utter myopia! Did Rand really think she could get away with such an unrealistic piece of fictional shit as that?! On the entire train, there was not one, single person with similar views to hers who died as an innocent?!

Nor does the surreal or unjust end there. As the industrialists vanish, and the world descends into economic chaos, New York loses electrical power, the transcontinental railroads are severed at the Mississippi, people die by the thousands, and those who survive return to horse-drawn covered wagon trains just to escape. And all these poor bastards who die in the collapse? Are they all guilty? According to Rand, yes! They were all complicit in the efforts to pick the pockets of those who had rightfully earned the money. For this, they were all rightly sentenced to die, hanged by a noose of their own making.

It's hard to overstate just how evil such a depiction can be. Not since the story of Noah's flood has their been written such a royal depiction of utter injustice, and people been so blind as to its obvious moral implications. But Rand is so blind to the moral implications of her own work that one of her heroes is one Ragnar Daniskiold, a pirate who attacks any ships loaded with cargo gotten by the government!

Yet the impact of Rand's work is undeniable. It played an important role in the development of the Chicago school of economics, whose mantra of free trade, while not without some merit, has the same level of callousness as Rand herself. The modern ultra-conservative tea-party movement, and its heartless rhetoric, can trace its roots back to her, and the evil that flowed from her typewriter.

Finally, decades later, an insane college-dropout named Jared Loughner would take something similar to her harsh execution of fictional characters and decide to execute people in real life, bringing home how tragic Rand's viewpoint is, when made tangible. (Loughner repeatedly stated how paper money, rather than gold or silver, was illegal and unjust - something Rand explicitly wrote about in her book.)

So why on earth, with the glaring deficiencies of Rand's writings, do people continue to buy into the viewpoint itself? How can people not see how the deserving Francisco D'Anconias of the world, and the even more deserving Dagne Taggerts of the world, go without, while the Jim Taggerts prosper, and still conclude that Rand was right? How can people still believe that all the rich are all deserving, while all the poor are broke entirely due to their own actions?

Who the hell knows? Or, as Rand would say, "Who is John Galt?"

Eric

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