Atlas Shrugged: a brief review w/spoilers

[cross-posted from And Still I Persist]


“Mr. Rearden,” said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, “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 the 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?”

“To shrug.”

I first read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand back in high school, most likely during my junior year (1969-70), so it was close to 40 years ago. Reading it was de rigeur among the nerdy, intellectual group I was a part of at Grossmont High, and it inspired a few of our members who worked in the GHS administrative office as student aides to create a mythical student, “John Gault” (misspelling deliberate), who would pop up from time to time on the daily “Do Not Admit” list of students who were truant or had unexcused absences. In retrospect, I’m sure that many of the GHS teachers saw that name on the list and rolled their eyes, but we thought it was clever.

I honestly don’t know if I ever re-read it before now — it’s not a book one picks up lightly — but if I did, I’m sure it was no later than my undergraduate years at college. So it’s been at least 30 years (and perhaps longer) since I last read it. Given its resurgent popularity, I decided a few weeks ago it was time to read it again. However, having seen the paperback edition — with its minuscule print — at a bookstore at LAX, I opted to order the hardbound edition via Amazon. And then I dug in and read the whole thing.

I’m glad I did.

The Novel Itself

Atlas Shrugged is, for all intents, an alternate history SF novel set in the United States in the latter part of the 20th Century — probably the late 60s or early 70s, roughly 10-15 years after Rand wrote it, though no time frame is ever given. It is a dystopic novel; the United States has clearly entered into another major economic slump, most likely another depression from the description of vacant and crumbling buildings in urban centers as well as glimpses of rather primitive living conditions in rural areas. Socialism/communism appears to be gaining ground throughout the world  — there are references to “the People’s Republic of Mexico”, “the People’s Republic of Turkey”, “the People’s State of Norway”, “the People’s State of England”, “the People’s State of Germany”, and so on. Even in the United States, there is a clear trend towards socialism/fascism, with the government directly or indirectly seeking to control manufacturing and business, though largely through industry councils, the press, public opinion, occasional legislation, and high-ranking Federal officials.

In this setting, Rand introduces a series of hyper-competent characters: Dagny Taggart, the woman who really should be running Taggart Transcontinental (a major US railroad firm) rather than her sniveling brother James; Hank Rearden, the founder and owner of a series of mining and refining companies and inventor of “Rearden Metal”, a new alloy much lighter and stronger than steel; Francisco d’Anconia, brilliant polymath and the heir to a centuries-old global mining conglomerate; Ellis Wyatt, founder and owner of oil production enterprises in Colorado (and of a new process to extra oil from oil shale at competitive prices); Richard Halley, a brilliant composer; and several others. They are a bit reminiscent of similar characters found in Robert Heinlein novels, except they are less flawed and tend to lack the ability to laugh at themselves.

The fundamental conflict in the novel is between these characters and the rest of society, including their competitors and the US government. These major characters want to do what they are really good at, in their respective areas of business, for the sake of making a profit; the government (and society) wants them not to “unfairly compete” and to “give back” to society, and slowly brings increasing pressure to bear, via industry councils, legislation, and Federal mandates. In some respects, you can think of Atlas Shrugged as an 1100-page economic/industrial version of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic short story, “Harrison Bergeron“.

The novel, as a novel, has flaws. It is very long (1168 pages in the current hardbound edition), given the relatively small scope of the novel itself, and frankly could have been cut by about 40%. It is polemic and didactic, overly so; for example, it contains many long monologues by the major characters, including the famous radio address by the near-mythic John Galt near the end of the novel that goes on for sixty (60) pages and that would take well over 2 hours to deliver. The characters often feel more like chess pieces, archetypes, rather than real human beings. For that matter, Rand tends to divide the human race (as portrayed in her novel)  largely into three groups: the small number of hypercompetent individuals, a much larger group of those jealous of — and seeking to exploit or live off of — their abilities, and the masses caught in the middle. The novel is suffused with Rand’s “rational self-interest” philosophy, Objectivism, which is itself a bit controversial (to say the least); the novel also reflects her origins as a emigrant from the Soviet Union and her ongoing dismay with the seduction of the American Left by socialist and even Communist sympathies from the 1930s into the 1950s. Finally, in light of the feminist sensibilities elsewhere in the novel, Rand has some, well, interesting ideas about sex and love, or at least her characters do.

For all its flaws, though, Atlas Shrugged remains a brilliant work of intellect and a remarkably compelling story, even if you don’t agree with its premises and conclusions. There are many polemic and didactic novels written over the past 50 years that have vanished with little or no trace; the fact that Rand’s work still sells and is selling now stronger than ever speaks to the nerves that she did not just touch but attacked at length with sharp, pointed instruments.

Interesting Contemporary Parallels

For a work written half a century ago, Atlas Shrugged remains surprisingly timely. In an eerie echo of today, many (if not most) critical economic and political decisions are made not by the President or Congress, but by a host of civilian advisors who spend as much time  jockeying amongst themselves for position and influence as they do trying to solve the country’s problems. In the novel itself, the focus on trains, mining, steel, and manufacturing, especially within the United States, all seem very quaint and archaic in our digital/silicon/networked/globalized civilization, but every few pages, Rand will have a passage that is not only relevant but often prescient.

For example, consider this passage regarding one major (unsympathetic) character who ends up as a powerful government bureaucrat (all page numbers are taken from the 2005 hardbound edition; all bolded emphasis is mine; comments are in brackets):

“My purpose,” said Orren Boyle, “is the preservation of a free economy. It’s generally conceded that free economy is now on trial. Unless it proves its social value and assumes its social responsibilities, the people won’t stand for it. If it doesn’t develop a public spirit, it’s done for, make no mistake about that.

Orren Boyle has appeared from nowhere, five years ago, and had since made the cover of every national news magazine. He had started with a hundred thousand dollars of his own and a two-hundred-million-dollar loan from the government. Now he headed an enormous concern which had swallowed many other companies. This proved, he liked to say, that individual ability still had a chance to succeed in the world.

The only justification of public property,” said Orren Boyle, “is public service.” (p. 45)

Likewise, in response to the major technological breakthrough of Rearden Metal and its successful use by Dagny Taggart to create a 100 mph train railway (the “John Galt Line”) from the East Coast to Colorado, resulting in a growing number of East Coast manufacturing firms relocating to Colorado, the following happens:

The Union of Locomotive Engineers was demanding that the maximum speed of all trains on the John Galt Line be reduced to sixty miles per hour. The Union of Railway Conductors and Breakmen was demanding that the length of all freight trains on the John Galt Line be reduced to sixty cards.

The states of Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona were demanding that the number of trains run in Colorado not exceed the number of trains run in each of those neighboring states.

A group headed by Orren Boyle was demanding the passage of a Preservation of Livelihood Law, which would limit the production of Rearden Metal to an amount equal to the output of any other steel mill of equal plant capacity.

A group headed by Mr. Mowen was demanding the passage of a Fair Share Law to give every customer who wanted it an equal supply of Rearden Metal.

A group headed by Bertram Scudder was demanding the passage of a Public Stability Law, forbidding Eastern business firms to move out of their states.

Wesley Mouch, Top Co-Ordinator of the [Federal] Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources [think: Tim Geithner at Treasury], was issuing a great many statements, the content and purpose of which could not be defined, except that the wordsemergency powers” and “unbalanced economy” kept appearing in the text every few lines. (p. 299)

Substitute modern shibboleths such as “environmental impact” and “greedy CEOs”, and you can see the same mindset at work today. Or, if you want to talk about the Community Redevelopment Act and the resulting subprime crisis, here’s an interesting variant — a group of speculators gain title to a defunct auto factory and then sue a financial firm because it won’t loan them development money because they’re a poor credit risk:

“…It was an economic emergency law which said that people were forbidden to discriminate for any reason whatever against any person in any matter involving his livelihood. It was used to protect day laborers and such, but it applied to me and my partners as well, didn’t it? So we went to court, and we testified about all the bad breaks we’d all had in the past, and I quoted Mulligan [the bank president] saying that I couldn’t even own a vegetable pushcart, and proved that all the members of the Amalgamated Service corporation [the speculators] had no prestige, no credit, no way to make a living — and, therefore, the purchase of the motor factory was our only chance of livelihood — and, therefore, Midas Mulligan had no right to discriminate against us–and, therefore, we were entitled to demand a loan from him under the law. …[they lose in court] … But we appealed to a higher court…and the higher court reversed the verdict and ordered Mulligan to give us the loan on our terms.” (pp. 317-318, emphasis mine)

Or this, two nameless characters overheard talking about Wesley Mouch, the Geithner-analog:

“But laws shouldn’t be passed that way, so quickly.”

“They’re not laws, they’re directives.”

“Then it’s illegal.”

It’s not illegal, because the Legislature [i.e., Congress] passed a law last month giving him the power to issue directives.”

“I don’t think directives should be sprung on people that way, out of the blue, like a punch on the nose.”

“Well, there’s no time to palaver when it’s a national emergency.” (p. 333, emphasis mine)

Or, speaking of small domestic oil producers in the wake of the vanishing of the largest domestic oil producer and the restrictions on other industries (including railroads):

Not until their fortunes had vanished and their pumps had stopped, did the little fellows realize that no business in the country could afford to buy oil at the price it would now take them to produce it. Then the boys in Washington granted subsidies to the oil operators, but not all of the oil operators had friends in Washington, and there followed a situation which no one cared to examine too closely or discuss. (p. 350)

Or:

Empty trains clattered through the four states that were tied, as neighbors, to the throat of Colorado. They carried a few carloads of sheep, some corn, some melons and an occasional farmer with an overdressed family, who had friends in Washington. Jim [Taggart] had obtained a subsidy from Washington for every train that was run, not as a profit-making carrier, but as a service of “public equity.” (p. 351)

Or (with thoughts of TARP):

Nobody professed to understand the question of the frozen railroad bonds; perhaps, because everybody understood it too well. At first, there had been signs of a panic among the bondholders and of a dangerous indignation among the public. Then, Wesley Mouch has issued another directive, which ruled that people could get their bonds “defrozen” upon a plea of “essential need”: the government would purchase the bonds, if it found the proof of the need satisfactory. There were three questions that no one answered or asked: “What constituted proof?” “What constituted need?” “Essential — to whom?”

… One was supposed to describe, not to explain, to catalogue facts, not to evalute them: Mr. Smith had been defrozen, Mr. Jones had not; that was all. And when Mr. Jones committed suicide, people said, “Well, I don’t know, if he’d really needed his money, the government would have given it to him, but some men are just greedy.”

One was not supposed to speak about the men who, having been refused, sold their bonds for one-third value to other men who possessed needs which, miraculously, made thirty-three frozen cents melt into a whole dollar [think: toxic assets and PPIP]; or about a new profession practiced by bright young boys just out of college, who called themselves “defreezers” and offered their services “to help you draft your application in the proper modern terms.” The boys had friends in Washington.  (p. 352)

Or, thinking of the Detroit bailouts:

Six weeks ago, Train Number 193 had been sent with a load of steel, not to Faulkton, Nebraska, where the Spencer Machine Tool Company, the best machine tool concern still in existence, had been idle for two weeks, waiting for the shipment — but to Sand Creek, Illinois, where Confederated Machines had been wallowing in debt for over a year, producing unreliable goods at unpredictable times. The steel had been allocated by a directive which explained that the Spencer Machine Tool Company was a rich concern, able to wait, while Confederate Machines was bankrupt and could not be allowed to collapse, being the sole source of livelihood of the community of Sand Creek, Illlinois. The Spencer Machine Tool Company had closed a month ago. Confederated Machines had closed two weeks later.

The people of Sand Creek, Illinois, had been placed on national relief, but no food could be found for them in the empty granaries of the nation at the frantic call of the moment — so the seed grain of the farmers of Nebraska had been seized by order of the Unification Board — and Train Number 194 had carried the unplanted harvest and the future of the people of Nebraska to be consume by the people of Illinois. “In this enlightened age,” Eugene Lawson had said in a radio broadcast, “we have come, at last, to realize that each of of us is his brother’s keeper.” (p. 911)

And so on. I could find and put up scores of such passages, perhaps a few hundred, without much effort. The overarching theme is one echoed today: that government, in addressing what is seen as economic inequalities, ends up punishing success and rewarding failure, all in the name of fairness and compassion. The novel offers what I’m sure Rand felt was the best (if not only) rational response to such a society; some of that is addressed in the spoilers below, but you need to read the novel itself to get the full scope of Rand’s thoughts.

To be honest, I think that Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress does a much better job of conveying many of the same libertarian sympathies found in Atlas Shrugged and is a better-written and more entertaining novel, to boot. (It’s also a lot shorter and more readable.) What’s more, Rand’s portrayal of a socialist USA goes to an extreme that I fully believe impossible, but as the passages quoted earlier show, many examples strike all too close to home.

Still, whatever its flaws, anachronisms, and idiosyncrasies, Atlas Shrugged remains as relevant today as it was 50 years ago and perhaps more so than in recent years. If your inclinations are towards the liberal/progressive side of the political spectrum, you will likely hate the novel and will not get through it; you of conservative or libertarian bent will likely enjoy it, though you may have trouble getting through the last 400 pages (which should have been about 40 pages instead).

But whatever your views, Atlas Shrugged is a novel that will continue to sell, and sell steadily, for decades to come. And with the economic future of the United States as reflected in the graphic below, I suspect it will continue to enjoy its current position on the Amazon bestseller lists.

An ugly, ugly graph.
An ugly, ugly graph.

SPOILERS AHEAD (if you can have spoilers for a 50+ year old novel)

Rand’s original title for this novel was The Strike, and that sums up the core of its plot: what if the brilliant, talented people in society — those who actually invent, create, lead and produce —  got fed up with government’s and society’s efforts to control, mandate, and take what they were accomplishing, and so closed down their respective plants and enterprises and simply vanished? (Hence the growing catchphrase, “Going John Galt“.) You can get a taste of that right now with the brain drain on Wall Street: people are leaving because of government controls on what they can earn, because of government officials deciding how much income is “fair” for “Wall Street fat cats” (that language could come straight out of Atlas Shrugged). For example:

In the eyes of his contemporaries, [Midas Mulligan, a very successful financier] was a man who had committed the one unforgivable sin: he was proud of his wealth. (p. 316)

There are several brilliant/successful individuals who have already disappeared when the novel opens, and more vanish as the novel progresses. What’s more, regular competent individuals start leaving the workforce as well, rather than work for increasingly dysfucntional businesses. The result is a deepening of the financial and infrastructure crisis in America: energy and food shortages, disruption of transportation, climbing unemployment, declining consumer spending.

As it turns out, this core group of dropouts have constructed a small utopia of sorts, hidden away in the Rockies, where they spend time between their anonymous forays into the disintegrating nation around them. The common oath they all must swear to be admitted there is: “I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask any other man to live for mine.” The community is run on a strict cash-only basis, with gold as the only currency, and everyone there hires themselves out for ‘menial’ jobs as well as pursuing their areas of expertise.

Back in the real world, the US Government reacts to the ongoing collapse by seizing more and more control over private industry, culminating with “Directive 10-289″, which freezes production levels, wages, prices, and all R&D and new product development, while at the same time requiring that all intellectual property (copyright, patent, trade secrets) be turned over to the US Government both in the name of equity and to help get out of the current economic crisis. It also forbids anyone from leaving or changing jobs without authorization from a Federal board. This merely accelerates the rate of people dropping out of the workforce, as well as the dysfunctionality and disintegration of most enterprises, leading to a near-total collapse of the United States as a functioning civilization.

It is in this context that John Galt (using new technology) jams the radio waves and broadcasts his long speech nationwide. After that happens, the civilian leaders in charge become more frantic, but their various attempts to remedy problems just make things worse. However, they manage to capture John Galt (who spends much of his time out in the collapsing US) and do their best to boost consumer confidence by staging photo-ops of Galt with the top government civilian advisors and making media claims that they have come up with “the John Galt Plan” to save the US economy. Galt, however, refuses to play along; they beg him to take control, but then reject all of his suggestions and refuse to change their fundamental approach to government and the economy. They finally resort to threats and even torture, but Galt maintains his postion. In the end, Galt is rescued and taken back to the refuge even as the lights in New York City go out and the last transportation link between the eastern and western US is severed. The novel ends with the utopia group making their plans on how to re-enter civilization and pick up the pieces. One member of that group, a retired judge, is adding an amendment to the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade.”

If you don’t want to read the whole novel, you can always buy the Cliff’s Notes for it. But then you’ll miss all the great parallels, such as those cited above.

Definitely a thumbs-up.  ..bruce w..

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One thought on “Atlas Shrugged: a brief review w/spoilers

  1. I think of Atlas Shrugged and smile every time I see another one of those soy bean product commercial. There are a lot of them these days.

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