About two months ago, after Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan for Vice President, I decided that I had to read Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, which Ryan, along with other Republican luminaries like Grover Norquist and Ron Paul, like to cite for its brilliant insights about what was wrong with America. I needed two copies from two different libraries--I've been moving around a lot this summer--and the 1100-plus pages were intimidating, but I did it. It has left me sadder and wiser. Atlas Shrugged is by no stretch of the imagination a great book. When it came out in 1957 Rand, an apostate Russian Jew who had lived through the early stages of the Russian Revolution and emigrated to the United States, had made her reputation with The Fountainhead, whose hero, Howard Roark, was a brilliant architect seemingly modeled on Frank Lloyd Wright. (No, in case you are wondering, but I saw the movie.) Atlas Shrugged drew wretched reviews from most of the press and it was not, by the standards of the time, an enormous best seller, peaking at no. 4 on the New York Times list and spending about four months on the list altogether--this in an era when a blockbuster like Advise and Consent or Anatomy of a Murder could sit atop the list for a year. Rand was out of sync with her times, as she well knew, and she became a cult figure, like all extreme right wingers in those distant days. Although I have seen claims that the book still sells 500,000 copies a year, it's a safe bet that most of them go unread--but there's no question that not only Ryan, but Mitt Romney as well, have imbibed its philosophy, and my job this week is to try to explain it.
Atlas Shrugged combines an extreme and almost bizarre political philosophy with the atmosphere of a bad adventure story for young adults. It is in many ways a work of science fiction. While it seems to be set in contemporary America--that is, in the mid-1950s--the text does not include a single reference to real people, living or dead, or to real events that might allow the reader to situate him or herself. The only salient political fact it records is that the United States is an island of moribund capitalism in a largely Communist world of "Peoples' States." That world does seem to be at peace--war plays no part in the plot, although domestic lawlessness becomes a major theme of it. It is not even clear that the US Constitution remains in effect, since Rand refers to a "Legislature," not Congress, and while the book includes a laughable chief executive named Thompson, he is not identified as the President. The country is governed by decrees issued in Washington, and they shamelessly violate certain aspects of the Constitution, for instance by favoring some states over others. I don't think there are any references to elections, either, and certainly no election plays any part in the plot. Railroads play a key role in the story--the heroine, Dagny Taggart, and her brother James are the scions of a leading one--giving the yarn a nineteenth century flavor. The plot revolves almost entirely around five major characters.
Dagny Taggart is the first--a brilliant, visionary railroad executive who constructs a key railroad line out of Colorado. To do so, she uses Rearden Metal, a brilliant new invention made by Hank Rearden, an alloy mixing copper and steel capable of revolutionizing economic life. Francisco D'Anconia, a Chilean, is the heir of the world's richest copper mines. Another key character is a pirate--really, a seagoing pirate--named Ragnar Danneskjold. Last, but hardly least,is the mysterious John Galt, whose name has become a byword at the beginning of the book even though no one has any idea who he is. All these people are supermen and women, as we shall see, but Galt really takes the prize. While Rearden has invented a miraculous metal that he can produce as cheaply as steel, Galt, it turns out, has invented--but hidden from the world--a perpetual motion machine. All five of them seem to be in their thirties. In an Arthurian touch, D'Anconia, Danneskjold and Galt were the three most brilliant pupils of a particular professor of philosophy named Hugh Akston.
About 45 years ago, I took a course on French Communist and Fascist novels of the early twentieth century from Frederic Jameson, then a brilliant Harvard assistant professor, as I was to become myself ten years later. Atlas Shrugged is in a very real sense a Fascist novel, because although none of its heroes have the slightest interest in politics, the author is obsessed with the idea that they are supermen destined, in their own way, to rule the world. Meanwhile, however, the book is also permeated with a strong flavor of adolescence. Of the five heroic figures, only one, Rearden, is married--most unhappily--and none of them has any children. They are a heroic gang, and Dagny, significantly, has affairs with three of them in the course of her life. Rand tries to give these sexual encounters the cosmic significance that the union of human gods deserves, but her own severe limitations as a writer, combined with the rigid conventions of writing about sex that prevailed in the 1950s, make these scenes fall very flat. Neither pregnancy nor birth control plays any role in the plot at all. Rand's own life had something in common with these plot elements: she surrounded herself with acolytes, some of whom she seduced, but periodically purged them from her circle when they no longer lived up to her high standards.
It is now time to turn to the plot. Seen mainly through the eyes of Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, the American economy is collapsing because of attempts by most of its leadership--and the entire political leadership as well--to run it on altruistic principles. The United States is not socialist, but decrees go out freezing the market shares of every corporation, forcing holders of patents (like Rearden) to surrender their exclusive rights to make their products, and favoring cronies. While this is happening, leading economic figures--a banker named Midas Mulligan, an oil man named Ellis Wyatt--begin disappearing, often wrecking their enterprises as they do so. Eventually, Dagny Taggart discovers that the mysterious John Galt has lured them all into a valley in the Southwest by convincing them that they are, literally, too good to function in a corrupt world of "looters" that refuses to recognize their value even though it needs them to function at all. Galt has a plan: nothing less than to bring about the collapse of the American economy and society, so as to force its remnants to accept the leadership and the values of him and his friends. Using a trick of light, he has managed to make the valley invisible from the air--child's play, obviously, for a man who could invent a perpetual motion machine. Meanwhile, he and the other worthies--including both a distinguished physician driven away by socialized medicine and a composer who could not bear to share his beautiful music with an unworthy world--are living a simple life in which gold is the only medium of exchange. Dagny, though sorely tempted to remain, decides to return to the world as it is to try to save her railroad. Of couse, she can't--she finds only even worse destruction, including in the end the destruction of the magnificent bridge her grandfather had built across the Mississippi.
In the midst of this chaos, the chief executive decides to address the nation. It is at this point that Galt cuts into the airwaves and speaks for more than two hours, telling the world the unpleasant truths that it does not want to hear. You are dying, he says, because you believe in altruism, in the need of men to work for one another rather than for themselves. The intellect--by which he means the ability to make things other men need--is for him the only source of true value, but in today's world great intellects only serve the needs of "the Looters" who now run the show. There are two enemies of reason: faith, and collectivism of all kinds. There is no higher power, Galt insists, and no one owes anything to anyone but himself--except as a result of contracts freely entered into. No one, he insists, should feel the slightest guilt over achievement, wealth, or superiority to others, all of which are nothing less than his just deserts. "I am the first man," proclaims Galt, "who would not do penance for my virtues or let them be used as the tools of my destruction. I am the first man who would not suffer martyrdom at the hands of those who wished me to perish for the privilege of keeping them alive. I am the first man who told them that I did not need them, and until they learned to deal with me as traders, giving value for value, they would have to exist without me, as I would exist without them; then I would let them learn whose is the need and whose the ability--and if human survival is the standard, whose terms would set the way to survive." Beneath the libertarian philosophy here, it seems to me, is a childish tantrum, a scream that I and I alone know what the world needs, and you shall all die if you do not give me exactly what I want. Galt lives out this fantasy.
Nor is this all, for at one point, Galt proposes a theory of labor-management relations dear to the hearts of many American businessmen. "When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made the factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it; for the work of the inventor who waved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think and whom you spend your time denouncing. . .How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the produce of your muscles? The standard of living of [a medieval blacksmith] is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden." How many of the American industrialists and financiers who have moved literally millions of industrial jobs offshore over the last forty years have at some level been animated by feelings like those, I wonder? Surely they have had no trouble concluding that they have every right to build Apple products, for instance, in China rather than in the United States, where wages would have been much higher.
The last frantic 200 pages or so of the book revolve around the Looters' attempts to force Dagny, Rearden, and eventually Galt to do their bidding to restore public confidence. Galt is captured because he returns to New York City out of love for Dagny, who leads the authorities to him. Then he is tortured with electric shocks in an attempt to force him to give in, but stoically refuses. (The scene has obvious echoes of 1984, but Galt, unlike Winston Smith, can resist anything.) Again and again Rand drives home the lesson that her supermen can take anything that ordinary mortals have to hand out and come back for more, and the climax occurs when Dagny, Rearden, D'Anconia and Dannerskjold together free Galt from a couple of hundred guards, relying on a few pistols and their force of personality. Then our heroes decamp again to the remote valley to wait for the final collapse of the United States as we have known it, and on the last page, Galt announces that the time for their return has come.
After finishing Atlas Shrugged I understood how the talk show host Mark Stein, who sometimes subs for Limbaugh, could have explained to his listeners that the American economy would not recover until the Koch brothers were allowed to make and keep every penny that they possibly could. Rand couldn't have said it better herself. But more importantly, I understood not only why Paul Ryan had the effrontery to tell the AARP that Obamacare had to be repealed and Medicare drastically reformed, but also why he smirked at them when they booed him. They were merely confirming their status as unworthy looters accustomed to living off their betters. Ryan has said that Rand inspired him to enter public service, which can only mean that his idea of public service is to remove all obstacles to getting rich. And having seen Mitt Romney talk about the 47% of our society who see themselves as victims for whom the government has a duty to provide everything they need, I have to think that in his heart of hearts, this is the way he sees the world, too.
Rand, for the record, had no clue about the workings of a modern economy. What never occurs to Galt, evidently, is that without wages higher than those of a blacksmith, her supermen will find no market for their products. One of the things that made the New Deal great was the recognition that redistribution of income was an economic necessity, rather than a moral right. Germany, more than any other society I know of, still realizes this today and prospers as a result. But as Jonathan Chait noted in an excellent piece on Rand a few years ago, Rand is far more interested in her view of morality than economics. Rich people are morally superior--an idea that naturally appeals to them. Of course, today's superrich--with the obvious exceptions of Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs--differ in one major respect from Rand's heroes: instead of new metals and perpetual motion machines, they make credit default swaps and hedges. But since Rand is convinced that income correlates perfectly with moral worth, as long as it's "earned" rather than "looted" from others by taxes, her acolytes have no trouble coping with that difference.
NPR recently did a story about Rand's influence on Capitol Hill. I quote:
"Every time you submit to a regulation, it diminishes your liberty," says Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa, speaking just off the House floor a few weeks ago. King says he loves Rand.
Freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican, has read Rand's novels six or eight times each.
"It's almost frightening how accurate a prediction of the future the book was," Mulvaney says.
In Atlas Shrugged, which Rand considered her masterpiece, the wealthy corporate producers are the engines of the American economy, but they are constantly stymied by invasive legislation and terrible government regulations.
The painting of Ayn Rand by Nicholas Gaetano that was used for a U.S. postage stamp.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The painting of Ayn Rand by Nicholas Gaetano that was used for a U.S. postage stamp.
That's exactly what Florida Republican Rep. Allen West sees happening in America today — and, he says, it's very dangerous.
"If you start to demonize a certain segment of your society that are the producers, eventually they'll stop," he says.
That's just what they did in Atlas Shrugged. Rand's wealthy heroes go into hiding, leaving behind the welfare class — Rand calls them "the moochers" — and the government, or "the looters."
Put in today's language: "Job creators in America basically are on strike."
This idea that Boehner put forth in a recent speech before the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., could have come straight from Atlas Shrugged.
Businesses, Boehner said, need to be set free. Instead, "they've been antagonized by a government that favors bureaucrats over market-based solutions. They've been demoralized by a government that causes despair, when what we really need is to provide reassurance and inspire hope in our economy."
Boehner uses the language of slavery when he says, "We need to liberate our economy from the shackles of Washington."
In my opinion such fanaticism has an ironic source. I am quite convinced that since earliest childhood, each of us has known in our heart that we depend in thousands of ways upon our fellow men and women. Because they are so often undependable, this can be frightening at any age. In adolescence, when so many of us discover that we have feelings that our parents would not accept, it's easy to decide, in reaction, that only our feelings count. Rand appeals both to our fear and resentment of dependence on others--by claiming that the great masses depend upon a few supermen who should rule the world--and to the adolescent belief that no one else matters. I have often said that few historical forces are more powerful than a bad conscience, and even Mitt Romney must have trouble explaining to himself exactly why his life is worth hundreds of millions of dollars while others' lives accumulate almost nothing. On that fateful day in Florida, he shared his thoughts on that matter with some of his fellow rich. As for politicians like Boehner and Ryan, they owe almost everything to the superrich who fund their campaigns. They certainly can't claim to be acting like Randian supermen themselves, but at least they can enable them. And if doing so wrecks the American economy and reduces millions of us to poverty, well, we deserve it.
"Every epoch is immediate to God," wrote the founder of modern history, Leopold von Ranke, a century ago. To an irreligious person like myself, that means that all of human history reflects one part or another of human nature--and selfishness and feelings of entitlement are surely just as much a part of human nature as feelings of solidarity, common purpose, and a common fate. What we might have learned from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that no society based completely either on solidarity or on selfishness can survive. Yet in this crisis as in the last one--chronicled so brilliantly by Orwell--more and more people take refuge in empty, reassuring certainties, and the educational system is not doing much to help.
Mitt Romney and the anonymous spectator at his fund-raiser last spring performed an enormous service by bringing his remarks about the 47% to light. The Obama campaign and its surrogates are already screening devastating ads based upon it, and I'm sure there will be more. One of the most depressing aspects of the last decade or so is the extent to which Randian ideas have filled an intellectual vacuum. Educated Americans in particular have lost any real sense of who our fellow citizens are and how they live--and how our economic health depends, in the long run, upon theirs. Now we may start paying attention to the plight of families living on $25-50,000 per year--the families whom the federal tax code, as I pointed out last week, now frequently exempts from income taxes, but who are contributing a great deal to society through other taxes while struggling to make ends meet. It is beginning to look as if the right-wing tide has peaked. Some day, Ayn Rand will return to the obscurity which she so richly deserves.