Friday 24 February 2012

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

A HPANWO book review:

I was drawn to read the book Atlas Shrugged by a mysterious and irresistible urge that I can’t articulate or explain rationally; these kinds of things happen to me from time to time, as those who know me well will attest. I’d first heard the name of the author, Ayn Rand, many years ago, on a curious website claiming to be authored by the Illuminati, one that I now can’t find. I thought it was a strange name and wondered who he, or she, was. The website preached Atheo-Materialism, eugenics and social Darwinism; many of its proposals horrified me. I took heart from the fact that this website is not by the real Illuminati, as if the real Illuminati would use the Internet; but I cannot take heart from the fact that the real Illuminati are even worse than their imaginary equivalents on this site!

I soon found out afterwards that Ayn Rand was a philosopher who had been born in Russia in 1905 but became a naturalized American citizen as a young woman. Her name at birth was Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum, but like many expatriate Russians, like the actors Richard Marner and Yul Brynner, she changed her name. She founded the philosophical school of Objectivism; the ethical tenet of which is that Man has no moral duty to anything other than his own happiness, prosperity and well-being. According to this notion Altruism, giving of yourself for others, is a crime against yourself; modesty is a delusion and that anybody who tries to persuade you to abandon your own rational self-interest for anything else is a violator. Rand pulls no punches and regards her philosophical opponents as evil and objects of hatred, “monsters” she says. Here are two interviews with her, one in 1959: and this one twenty years later, three years before her death in 1982: . Incidentally one of her most prominent fans was Allan Greenspan and he attended her funeral.

Rand’s radical new ideas were mostly absorbed by the public through her polemic novels, two in particular: The Fountainhead in 1943 and Atlas Shrugged in 1957. These two books changed many people’s lives and she quickly built up a veritable army of admirers making her one of the world’s greatest “pop philosophers”. Atlas Shrugged is parodied in my favourite novel of all time Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy. One of the antagonists is a veritable prediction of Ann Coulter, a woman called Atlanta Hope who writes a novel called Telemachus Sneezed. I thought I should look at the serious side too, so I bought the real McCoy. One thing that struck me immediately was its size. In Illuminatus! we hear about Telemachus Sneezed in the story because a character reads it during a plane flight. You’d probably have to fly round the world a dozen times to get through Atlas Shrugged! It’s over 645,000 words; this makes it almost double the length of my own novel Evan’s Land, see: . It was in a single volume, a huge doorstep of a book; over a thousand pages of small-type text; nevertheless I picked it up and began. The title comes from the Greek myth of Atlas. He is the Titan whose job it is to hold the world up on his shoulders and the book’s cover had a photo of a statue of Atlas, see at the top of the article. By the act of shrugging, it meant that he dropped his load and the world fell down to Hades or wherever. The story is set in a dystopian world in which corrupt global Socialism is taking hold of everything and all nations on Earth are being converted into “People’s States”. The USA is one of the last bastions of freedom left on the planet and the government is clamping down on free enterprise and private industry wherever they can. The two main protagonists are a woman called Dagny Taggart and man called Hank Reardon. The two are both industrialists; Dagny is co-director of a railway company and Hank runs a steelworks. Both are hard-working visionaries; Dagny has dreams of creating grand railways and Hank has invented a new super-strong alloy which he unoriginally and immodestly christens “Reardon Metal”. The socialistic state bureaucrats of the story, who are jointly known as “the looters”, try to appropriate the metal and nationalize Reardon’s mills under new collectivist laws, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, as they say; and Hank’s main task in the story is to stop them. His attitude personifies Rand’s idea of the virtue of selfishness. In one memorable scene Hank’s brother says to him: “Henry, you must be more careful what you say to people. You’ll make them think that all you’re interested in is making lots of money for yourself.” Hank replies simply: “But that is all I’m interested in.” Hank and Dagny meet one day and a romance develops between them. There is a lot of love interest in this story and virtually all the major male protagonists fall in love with Dagny, often causing friction that reflects the author’s own personal life. Rand herself was married to a man she loved, but also had a very intense relationship with one of her young students. The backdrop to this tale is the constant decline of the world's infratructure around them, economically, socially and morally. In one scene Hank and Dagny go off on a driving holiday and come across a whole town full of starving unemployed workers surrounding a derelict factory. They explore the factory and make a discovery that is one of the most interesting in the book, but I’ll come to that in a moment. This degeneration of society has two main causes: firstly, the increasing ruthlessness of the government in its agenda to nationalize everything and strip all people of their intellectual rights and private property; and secondly, that all the greatest industrialists are mysteriously disappearing. This is the enduring enigma of the novel and the only clue is a name that becomes a catchphrase: John Galt. Everywhere Dagny and Hank go they come across people who ask almost out of some strange habit: “Who is John Galt?”

What made me glad I read the book was that it has an unexpected element of conspiratorial-awareness that I hadn’t expected; nothing in Rand’s interviews or other writings indicates it (Although I’ve yet to read The Fountainhead). In the abandoned and ruined factory Hank and Dagny discover a strange broken machine that turns out to be a Free Energy device, similar to the ones invented by Nikola Tesla, see: . This machine is seized by the “looters” and secreted away in a hidden chamber in Dagny’s main railway station. It is kept from the people for the very reason Tesla’s was in real life: to preserve the power of the Elite and keep the masses from technology that could liberate them from control. Dagny sets off to track down the inventor of the machine; the only clue she has to go on is a strange cigarette end with a dollar sign as its logo. She eventually manages to catch one of the vanishing industrialists mid-sodding off and chases him by roads, rail and eventually in the air. He takes off in a light aircraft and she pursues him in another. The aircraft flies off to a remote corner of the Rocky Mountains and as it descends into a valley it dematerializes. As Dagny follows she sees only uninhabited mountainside and is perplexed, but then it turns out that the scenery is just a holographic projection, another science-fictional aspect to the novel. Beneath it is secret idyllic commune based on Objectivist principles and run by a tall, handsome man with a Greek god-like appearance, and it is revealed that he is John Galt. It turns out he is the inventor of the Free Energy device and the community is powered by a working model. The machine is kept inside a small building with a lock on the door activated by a human voice when he or she utters the words: “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine”. The lock is obviously very sophisticated because it can tell whether you really mean it and understand the words when you speak them! It is only when Dagny learns to do so that she can open the door to the building and see the miraculous machine inside. In this wonderful place she finds all the great industrialists, scientists, artists, musicians and all the other “movers and shakers” of the world who have disappeared; and they explain to her that they’re all on strike, and they call her a “scab” for not joining in too. The chapter in which Dagny finds John Galt and his paradisiacal haven is entitled Atlantis, and we can draw a lot of connotations from that.

Dagny returns to the outside world to find Hank still locked in a battle to save his life’s work from the looters; unfortunately during her stay in “Galt’s Gulch” she went off Hank and fell in love with John Galt. There’s a sex scene in which Dagny and Galt make love in the railway tunnel leading to the underground Taggart station; of course it’s all very poetic and metaphorical, this was the 1950’s after all and Rand was no DH Lawrence! Then the love triangle becomes a square when another of the heroes, Fransico D’Anconia, announces that he is in love with Dagny too. The square almost unbelievably expands into a pentagon when it is revealed that Dagny’s secretary, Eddie Willers, also has a secret crush on her! But he wisely keeps his feelings to himself. Unfortunately the authorities soon after find out who John Galt is and realize what he’s done, and they kidnap him. They realize that they need the “movers and shakers” after all and beg him to call off the strike. He refuses and so they torture him with electric shocks. The novel ends with something of an anticlimax, I think, when John Galt is busted out of custody by the other strikers and they all fly off back to Galt’s Gulch to wait for the total collapse of civilization before coming out of the shadows to build the world anew. In the final scene of the novel the lights of the cities go out as the strikers’ aircraft fly off into the mountains.

The novel was published amidst a storm of controversy; it quickly became a book you either loved or hated. The critics panned it; the socialist Gore Vidal called it: “Nearly perfect in its immorality” and it was likewise described as “a homage to greed” and “written out of hate”. Those with political Leftist sympathies were the bulk of the book’s adversaries; some obviously just disliked its economic theory, glorifying capitalism and laissez-faire deregulation. However some even denounced it as fascistic, playing on the Nazi Aryan imagery of the heroes and that the looters were intended to be seen as Jewish. Once again we get this paranoid nonsense about antiSemtism, see: Rand herself is from a secular Jewish family, so no doubt she’s been labeled a self-hater! However Rand was inspired by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who opposed conventional morality, “slave morality” as he called it, and wanted to replace it with “aristocratic morality”. Despite my general disdain for “Duh Cwitics”, see: and for Leftist politicians, I do find elements of the book disturbing. Rand thinks that her economic model would create a paradise on Earth, but total and sudden deregulation of the economy could result in chaos and the destruction of the lives of those less well off. I don’t share Rand’s worship of fixated self-interest and I don’t consider it unethical or “self-sacrificing” to care what happens to other people. How many people remember that a mild form of her Objectivist economy has been already tried out here in Britain under Margaret Thatcher, and for many people in this country it was a disaster. Immediate and complete deregulation of all industry would not turn the world into a global Galt’s Gulch; it would set the corporatocracy loose to plunder and pillage like Vikings on Viagra! This is not to say that Rand’s economic ideas are totally distasteful and useless. They might work very well in the future after a social and spiritual revolution that ends the Illuminati control and occupation of this world; I’m just saying that they are not the method for achieving it. However my own ideas on post-Illuminati society do echo Rand’s model up to a point, even though I’d never heard of Rand when I came up with them. In some ways her notions resemble EF Schumacher and even David Icke in their theoretical structure. To find out more go to the HPANWO Index in the Links column and see the articles in the section called The post-Illuminati World.

Ayn Rand is a very poetic and romantic writer who fills her prose with emotion, but this emotional content is fairly raw, primitive and polarized. The primary feeling the characters have for each other is hate. The heroes' hate for the looters and the looters’ hate for them. The only other emotion is love, but a very obsessive and infatuated form of love; rather adolescent and immature. Maybe this reveals something about the author’s own psychology and her very turbulent personal life. A film has been made starring Helen Mirren in the title role on this very subject, The Passion of Ayn Rand, see: I’m not trying to sound smug here. Ayn Rand is only human and there have been times in my life when I’ve also acted way below my age in matters of the heart. A few years ago I was totally smitten by a girl at work called Vicky; I sent her Valentine cards and everything. Unfortunately Vicky didn’t feel the same way about me, but she was very nice about the whole thing, see: I look back now and feel a bit embarrassed about the things I did and said during that period of my life, but maybe that just makes me no different to anybody else, least of all Ayn Rand. One of the things that disturbs me the most about Rand’s ideas, although this aspect is not explored in the book, is her attitude to disabled people, especially the mentally handicapped. As you’ll see if you listen to her interviews she sometimes comes out with statements that frighteningly smack of eugenics, but she always quickly qualifies and dampens them down when challenged. Supposing whoever was behind that fake Illuminati website has taken her at her word; what if others do in the future? In the 1979 interview that I post above she says she objects to “kneeling buses”. I assume she means the kind of bus that makes up the majority of the ones we see on the roads of our cities today; the buses that can lower themselves down on their suspension so that their doorway touches the ground to let wheelchairs on board. Why does she object to them? What’s wrong with them? How do they involve any self-sacrifice on the part of able-bodied people? How are we “lowering ourselves”? Rand sometimes comes out with some deeply stupid and crazy notions, ones that could be dangerous.

Ayn Rand has inspired many modern political movements. At many Tea Party rallies you’ll see people carrying placards with the classic words from the book: “Who is John Galt?”; and Ron Paul, one of the few politicians I’d trust to tell me the time of day, has spoken publically about his respect for Rand. There is an idea going round these various movements that Atlas Shrugged is a prophetic novel like George Orwell's 1984; in the current world of bailouts and austerity measures it’s an understandable conclusion to reach. I disagree with that though. The novel is definitely allegorical but to understand the allegory we need to look into the past not the future. Although the book is set in a dystopian America, the way the government imposes socialism and collectivism on the population is what happened in Rand’s native Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 and it’s very likely that this experience greatly stimulated her philosophical work. She lived though this period and attended university in the new Soviet Union. Thank goodness she managed to get out of the country before Stalin came to power otherwise Atlas Shrugged would never have been written because its author would have been dead!

In the end though my feelings for the book are mixed and I don’t regret reading it at all. Despite the negativity of the critics the book has developed a minor cult following over the years and decades since its publication and I admire anything that incites the population to “defy the critics”. One of the aspects I enjoyed about the book was that despite its virulent anti-socialist theme it also strongly opposes snobbery. Dagny, Hank and the other major characters, despite the fact they are rich industrial Elitists, have a lot of humanity in their hearts. They are very down-to-Earth and have many working-class friends. In fact it is one of Dagny’s friends, a man who runs a cigarette stall on the Taggart Transcontinental station, who first gives her a clue to the whereabouts of John Galt when he shows her the strange fag-end with the dollar sign on it. There’s a quite moving scene where Dagny opens her new railway line and the staff all come out in support of her. (Ayn Rand went on a train-driving course herself as research for this scene).

All in all, this is a book that can only do good because whether you love it or hate it, I promise it will stimulate your mind and get you thinking. What’s more I’ve just bought a copy of The Fountainhead which I want to read next and I’ll review that too if I think it’s necessary. We may be approaching a period in history when some of Ayn Rand’s philosophy could be useful, even essential. The only mistake made is that so many people, including Rand herself, think it can be applied to today’s world; it can’t. Rand’s philosophy is way ahead of its time. The ideas themselves are not yet ripe for picking, and the world is not yet ready for them to be applied with safety or justice.

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