Atlas Shrugged: the world’s most boring cult novel

Finn Lees of Leeds rs21 revisits Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged 60 years after its publication, arguing that it is not the tool of bourgeois propaganda that many think it is.

‘Read Atlas Shrugged’ banner at a 2008 Ron Paul rally. Photo credit: fixermark, Flickr

On 10 October 1957 Random House published Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a book now regarded by many as the ultimate expression of capitalist greed, as well as perhaps the worst novel ever written.

Rand had begun her literary career just over 20 years earlier with We The Living, a comparatively good, semi-autobiographical work about a bourgeois liberal who falls in love with a communist in 1920s Petrograd. Her follow-up efforts Anthem (a dystopian novella set in a society where people have forgotten how to speak in the first person) and The Fountainhead (which is mostly about architecture) showcased a sharp decline in her ability as a storyteller as she oriented her approach away from character driven plot, choosing instead to populate her worlds with two-dimensional entities whose sole purpose was to illustrate trite moral lessons.

By the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged her deterioration as an author was complete. The twelve-hundred page book consists primarily in characters giving lengthy declamations of Rand’s philosophy. At one point, often cited by fans of the novel as one of its highlights, Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastián D’Anconia interrupts a dinner party to deliver a three-thousand word speech about the virtue of wealth accumulation, to which every one of the partygoers listens in silence. Later on, a physicist goes on national radio to deliver a 60-page (approximately thirty-thousand word) speech about the meta-ethical failings of altruism. This speech is so well-received by working class Americans that the speaker is promptly offered the role of ‘Economic Dictator’ by a floundering government. Sensing that the speech would not be quite so popular with actual Americans, Random House requested that it be cut, to which Rand is alleged to have replied, “would you cut the Bible?”

The plot of Atlas Shrugged, which exists purely to hold together Rand’s many monologues, concerns an America in which the industrialists go on strike or, as Rand describes it, a world crashing down after the Titan holding it decided to shrug.

This strike is motivated primarily by increasing government intervention into the economy, and so the book is widely read as a critique of socialism. However the government policies Rand’s protagonists object to have nothing in common with anything I have ever heard advocated by anyone claiming to be a socialist. For most of the novel it seems that the government’s primary objective is to limit the production of large corporations, not because those corporations are behaving as monopolies, or because they are producing under particularly exploitative conditions, but because the government believes that production is bad for the economy.

After almost one-thousand pages, the government finally adopts at least one socialistic policy when it resolves to nationalise the steel industry. Even then it does so in perhaps the least socialist manner possible: by infiltrating steel mills with government agents, who then start riots threatening the safety of the mill owners in order that the state can argue for nationalisation as a means to provide better protection to the aforementioned owners.

The fact that Rand did not represent socialism in Atlas Shrugged could perhaps be chalked up to her overall failings as an author; however, given the abundance of nominally socialist, state-capitalist and social-democratic governments at the time Rand was writing, it should not have been hard for her to base her novel’s antagonists on real ‘socialist’ movements, if that were her intention, and so the absence of socialism from Atlas Shrugged is striking, and indicative of a key difference between her and mainstream anti-socialists.

Neoliberalism, represented since 1947 by the Mont Pelerin society, has typically sought to defend capitalism on two grounds. Firstly, that it is the most efficient economic system and is therefore conducive to the overall well-being of those who live under it. Secondly, that it is necessary to protect the negative liberty (freedom from interference) of individuals from the arbitrary exercise of power that is allegedly an integral part of socialism.

Rand agreed with neoliberals on both of these points, but relegated them to a fairly minor role within her philosophical system, which was centred, as she put it, around ‘the concept of man as a heroic being’. In Atlas Shrugged, it seems that Rand conceptualised the main threat to liberal values not as socialism, or any other ideology, but as the set of individuals who fail to realise their potential as heroic beings, epitomised by the completely inept and ideologically directionless government.

Rand’s denunciations of ordinary, non-heroic people are littered throughout the text. In a highly disturbing passage she claims that the victims of a train accident deserved to die, one for being a ‘snivelling little neurotic’, another for loving her children more than she loved the rich, and another for being a housewife who believed in her right to vote. When commenting on real-world affairs Rand typically only advocated death for non-whites, giving unconditional support to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine on the grounds that Palestinians are “savages who don’t want to use their minds”, and to the genocide of native Americans on the grounds that they lived “practically like… animal[s]”. Her disdain for white Westerners who failed to live up to her standards of heroic existence is nonetheless significant, and her discussions of them in Atlas Shrugged appear to be representative of her general perspective on the matter.

Rand’s hatred of non-heroes has posed problems for the promotion of her school of thought in two major ways. Firstly, and most obviously, very few people are comfortable accepting an ideology that advocates death for large numbers of individuals based on their failure to meet arbitrary moral and aesthetic criteria.

More importantly, however, is what prevents Rand’s philosophy from ever being embraced by the economic ruling class. To be a hero, according to Rand, requires that one is entirely self-made, and entirely self-reliant, and it is therefore never permissible to acquire wealth as a result of state intervention in the economy. In fact, many of the most hated villains in Atlas Shrugged are wealthy business owners who are willing to collaborate with state regulators. Because of this, there is only a very small section of the bourgeoisie that is able to identify with Rand’s message. The Mont Pelerin school of neoliberalism does not tend to suffer this same problem. Despite the fact that some neoliberal theories suggest that the economy would theoretically work best with no government intervention at all, the fact that neoliberalism conceives the ultimate threat to human happiness and freedom as being socialism means that neoliberals are able to perfectly consistently defend non-laissez-faire policies when these are necessary to consolidate the capitalist system, as they almost always are. Neoliberals therefore have a long tradition of supporting authoritarian, interventionist systems, from Ludwig von Mises writing in favour Mussolini in the 1920s, to Friedman and Hayek’s well documented support for the state-led construction of markets by Thatcher, Reagan and Pinochet. Rand, on the other hand, was content to oscillate between bare-faced support for mass-murder and advocacy of an unachievable pure interpretation of laissez-faire, never offering a convincing endorsement of any form of actually-existing capitalism.

In recent years it has become popular to depict Rand as the intellectual originator of contemporary capitalism, with many people keen to point out that former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, and Republican congressman Paul Ryan both claim to have been heavily influenced by Atlas Shrugged. Although Greenspan was a close friend of Rand’s, and gave her feedback on early drafts of Atlas Shrugged, none of his policies in office were distinctly Randian, and it seems likely that Ryan’s statements in favour of the novel were a misguided attempt to present himself to voters as a radical rather than a serious expression of his ideology. As far as I am aware, the claim that Rand’s thought has any significance in the development of capitalism cannot be supported by a single piece of evidence.

60 years on from its release Atlas Shrugged remains hugely popular, having sold over seven million copies, and its popularity shows no signs of abating. After all, it is a strange book for strange people (I should know; for several years when I was a teenager it was my favourite novel) and late capitalism has proven itself more than capable of producing strange people. Ultimately though, its strangeness is the only interesting thing about it. It is not the tool of bourgeois propaganda that many think it is, and socialists would be well advised not to worry about it.

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