05.22.17 | Ayn Rand / Atlas Shrugged

Let's wrap up the first full year of Member Mondays with a subject guaranteed to start a food fight i.e. capitalism in America. First, though, there is little question about how it powered our post-WWII economy. No, that's not the discussion.

The subject is the role of capitalism in today's reality of resource constraints, global interdependence, deepening income disparity, regulatory capture, and a distorted monetary system. Consider these words written in 1957:   

"You may know society is doomed when you see that, in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing; when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors; when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don't protect you against them, but protect them from you; (and) when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice." (Atlas Shrugged, 1957).

Indeed, the red-meat discussion catalyst is the book we discussed in our book club a decade ago. Below is the intro prepared for that session. You decide whether Atlas has been shgrued or has been doing the shgruing:  

"Our next book discussion will be Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. This was a somewhat difficult choice for two reasons.

First is its prodigious length -- the 35th anniversary paperback edition is 1,074 small-type pages. The number of characters appearing in the book lends itself to an explanatory spider-web diagram similar to what one sees as a supplement to War and Peace. I recall needing most of a high school summer to conquer it.

Then I had a revelation of sorts, a way to cut through most of the heavy lifting while still retaining, maybe even enhancing, its usefulness as a discussion subject. More on that later.

Second is the intense opposing passion the book has evoked. On the one hand, it attracted a tremendous following soon after its 1957 publication -- a 1991 joint survey by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, in fact, placed Atlas Shrugged second only to the Bible as the most influential book among American readers. I recall a self-proclaimed previously "messed up" girl in my high school confiding to me that the book's powerful message completely changed her life.

On the other hand, others have reacted so strongly to the dogma of its underlying philosophy -- Objectivism, often (if not entirely accurately) described as unabashed greed-is-good unfettered capitalism --  that Ayn Rand had been regarded by many as the devil incarnate. Even conservative luminaries had been known to run for cover. William F. Buckley Jr., in the preface to one of his books, stated that in every page Ayn Rand seems to be whispering "to the gas chamber."

Come to think of it, perhaps this dueling passion makes this the ideal discussion book.

The shortcut referred to earlier calls for cutting out the first 927 pages of the novel with a set-up micro-encapsulation here, leading right up to John Galt's radio speech, a powerful distillation of the underlying philosophy without the foreplay.

The protagonist appears in the first two-thirds of the novel primarily in the form of a rhetorical question, "Who is John Galt?" The nation (time unspecified) is in a downward economic spiral. Businesses are closing; men are out of work. Other countries have become socialist states and are destitute.

Colorado (it so happens) is the last great industrial center on earth. This relative strength is the result of one man's innovative method of extracting oil from shale. Exploitation of this resource, however, requires enhanced train service. The availability of such train service requires a combination technological improvements, new inventions, and clear-eyed planning. All this is available, in theory.

In theory, were it not for the meddlers. The world (and thus the novel) is populated by two types: the Doers (Thinkers); and the Others. The Doers are often distinguished by talent and genius of almost mythical proportion. However, what really sets them apart is their absolute, unequivocal, unapologetic devotion to the power of reason and rationality in both thought and deed.

The Others are the remainder, the Ur-takers, in whatever form. They operate from faith and emotionalism, not rationality. This weakness manifests itself in such ways as brute control, regulation, compromise, sacrifice, love, and, for God's sake (itself a weakness), anything devoted to serving the needs of others. These are represented as nothing less than the would-be leeching emasculation of those who would truly contribute -- the Doers. Contribution arises only from the human application of the rational mind.

The novel plays out the theme. The Others do their thing (hey, fish gotta swim) and the Doers protest this oppression of their intellect and creativity. They go on strike. They simply disappear in the face of this enforced moral code of self-sacrifice. They make the sign of the dollar. This is Objectivism in action.

That takes us to page 927.

Mr. Thompson (an Other) is the Head of State. He is set to address the nation by radio about the continued deterioration of the economy. Virtually the entire panicked country is awaiting the address. It is the appointed hour of 8:00 p.m. The (commandeered) voice begins:

"Ladies and gentlemen . . . Mr. Thompson will not speak to you tonight. His time is up. I have taken it over. You were to hear a report on the world crisis. That is what you are going to hear. . . . (John Galt continues this 57-page radio address . . . leading up to the thundering essence) . . .  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."

Atlas Shrugged begs two (at least) questions that would make for fascinating discussion. It so happens that both matters have been brilliantly addressed recently in two separate articles in The Economist magazine (Holiday, Double Issue, 1/5/07). Perhaps you could read these two articles in exchange for forgoing those 927 pages.

The first, Happiness and Economics (pp. 33-35), hits on the precise question that has bothered me for a long time i.e. how valid is the "invisible hand" in truly addressing man's underlying quest for happiness (if, indeed, that is the quest). Perhaps it is a function of where one finds oneself on the Maslow hierarchy, but I have long felt that Adam Smith's dictum somewhat lacking.

This questioning started way back in the college years while attending a reception and a fellow guest -- someone you'd call an acquisition-oriented rich-boy Yuppie (before that term had been coined) -- told me he had had more fun at that one ethnic wedding than during the rest of his entire life put together. Hmmm.

So, then, what is it that animates, truly motivates, the Atlas Shrugged characters? Were it the thrill of achievement and creativity for their own sake, then why the strike? Were it for the recognition, as measured by the sign of the dollar, then one wonders about the next step. The characters seem pretty dour and one wonders whether entitlement-riches would have made that much of a difference. One squints and sees Ayn Rand's idea of a wonderful life as being married to a Mr. Potter.

The second article, "A Survey of the Brain" (pull-out, after p.78), is a remarkable synopsis of the workings of the human brain. Particularly insightful is the organic interplay between cognition and emotion. The question raised is whether the Objectivist ideal ignores the very fundamental nature of man when it beholds the world proper as the Starship Enterprise commandeered by a Mr. Spock.

Full disclosure here. Atlas Shrugged made a tremendous impression on me when I'd first read it. The notion of a tooth-and-claw existence was quite appealing, as both an individual and as a member of a growing society. Maybe it's a function of moving down the food chain in this Darwinian world, but I would never, back then, have even raised the questions posed above. In fact, had my former incarnation known that some day I would be writing this, I would have disowned my future self.

Yet viewpoints (and the questions) change. Has the Atlas Shrugged ideal morphed into a kind of happiness-by-snobbery existence? Possessions no longer seem terribly meaningful in any absolute terms (what is it that we truly require?) but only in relative terms. The pleasure of that new flat-screen television immediately dissipates once it becomes just another lousy carton from Costco that everyone else is lugging home.

An acquisition arms-race ensues. The "Doers" experience a hamster-wheel existence. Any real sense of community suffers. The middle class becomes hollowed out. We continue the march toward greater isolation

Or am I being too pessimistic here?

Perhaps life quality will again be measured primarily in terms of our experiences. A CC membership will be held in more esteem than an SUV. A reverse-snobbery will take hold -- we'll call it peasant-chic.

That wouldn't be anything new.  Sebastien Chamfort wrote in late 17th century of a nameless French gentleman: "A fanatical social climber, observing that all around the Palace of Versailles it stank of urine, told his tenants and servants to come and make water around his chateau."

Who is John Galt?

Steve SmithComment