Mar 152009
 

Atlas Shrugged is all over the blogs and the news recently, and with good reason. The authoritarians, statists, and socialists among us appear to clutch at every possible opportunity to ridicule the novel, and Rand herself, with the sort of viciousness that suggests they derive pleasure from being overtly nasty about a dead woman and her philosophy.

Their viciousness also suggests fear, or at the very least resentment, that Atlas Shrugged exposes the flaws in their ideology. Why else would they need to insult its author, misrepresent its message, and claim that it is poorly written? (Because, let’s face it – it’s not poorly written. Have these people ever cast a judgmental eye over, for example, Dan Brown? Jesus.)

The Guardian leapt upon the stick-pins-in-the-effigy-of-Rand bandwagon yesterday:

Of all the scary things you can get a graph to show, surely the most terrifying is a surge in sales of Ayn Rand novels.

Could this be because Rand’s wordy masterwork foretells the collapse of capitalism? That is indeed what happens in the book: machines break, production dwindles, society collapses into riot. And the novel knows exactly where to point the finger: it’s all the fault of big government, which is choking the free market under layers of anti-business law. Rand’s novel is also clear as to who can save us. Its hero, John Galt, is handsome and virile, a brilliant inventor, and the leader of a revolutionary vanguard composed of all the world’s great talents in industry and science, finance and the arts; eventually he will be joined by the beautiful Dagny Taggart, her body “slender”, her daddy’s railroad the biggest the world has ever known. Soon, more and more of these “superior minds” abandon the “second-handers” – also known as “mediocrities”, “parasites” and “mindless hordes” – to join Galt in his mountain hideaway. When Galt and Dagny at long last get together, the sign of the almighty dollar is traced upon the earth.

Ha! That crazy Rand and her anti-government paranoia. We all know that big-government regulation is what saves us from the collapse of society – I mean, if there had been more regulation, we wouldn’t be in this banking crisis right now… And good grief, her characters? Handsome, beautiful, brilliant? Physical beauty is an accident of birth, and brilliance and success are the products of society, of course. Or one’s daddy. How dare such people withdraw their productive genius from the very society, however composed of mediocrities, to which it is owed?

(I begin to believe that Jenny Turner has not, in fact, read the novel.)

Crazy and, it seems, the recipient of her just desserts:

Atlas Shrugged was Rand’s fourth and final novel. After it, she devoted herself to what her fans consider her “philosophy”, and to building the movement she called objectivism, which was, briefly, a presence in 50s American culture before imploding in feuds. Rand was, at her height, quite a figure – bob-haired, Russian-accented, dressed in a cape with a dollar-sign brooch, smoking a cigarette in a long holder – “When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind – and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression,” she wrote in Atlas Shrugged.

Since Rand’s death in 1982 – from lung cancer – her heirs have carried the movement forward, with a growing presence in academia…

You see, not only was her ‘philosophy’ not a real philosophy (thus the derisive quotation marks around it), she was also one of those icky smokers. Ugh.

According to Noam Chomsky, Rand was “one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history”. But this is surely an overstatement, given that during Rand’s lifetime, personal muddle and inherent ridiculousness limited her capacity to do harm. Slavoj Zizek gets closer to it when he writes that, though artistically “worthless”, her work has a lastingly “subversive dimension”. By taking “capitalist ideology” to extreme conclusions, Rand shows up its “fantasmatic kernel” – the babyish fantasies of power without consequence that, one could argue, caused the banks to sink themselves in the sub-prime mess in the first place.

The question, then, isn’t so much why Rand now? It’s more whether Randianism can have a long-term future, now that capitalism no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself.

Aha, yes – I thought we’d get around to this. Unbridled free markets of the sort Rand advocated have failed; capitalism has made a fool of itself; her ideas are inherently ridiculous.

Would somebody mind please explaining to me why, after the disasters that were Soviet Russia and Maoist China, and the on-going jokes that are Cuba and Venezuela, people refuse to admit that the unfree, centrally planned market is ‘inherently ridiculous’ and ‘no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself’? Why do criticisms of failure apply to free markets at the merest hint of an economic downturn, but not to bizarre socialist experiments that result in actual, devastating economic collapse?

Here’s the odd thing: the Guardian published an article about Atlas Shrugged last Tuesday as well. A very different article indeed, entitled ‘Greed is good: a guide to radical individualism‘:

Rand and her books were the embodiment of right-wing libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism, which advocated the complete deregulation of business and finance and opposed any form of state welfare. She described her philosophy as “objectivism” or “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”.

At its heart is a mystery story: about why so many of the world’s most brilliant brains are disappearing and about who invented a new kind of motor. It tells the tale of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive, and Hank Rearden, a steel magnate, and their struggles as society collapses at the hands of an oppressive government and its parasitical bureaucrats. In the book, the best minds in terms of business, science and the arts are, in effect, on strike – the book was originally called The Strike. It espoused the essential Rand philosophy of “rational self-interest”.

Throughout her writing life, she promoted the idea expressed in the book: “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice – there is no other.”

That is a vastly more realistic summary. Anybody have phone numbers for Jenny Turner and Duncan Campbell? Perhaps we should introduce them to one another.

Maybe the discrepancy is more to do with the section of the paper in which they are writing. Campbell’s article is filed under News->World News->United States, while Turner’s appears in Culture->Books->The week in books. And as we all know, Rand’s novel as a piece of literature is ‘artistically worthless’. Why, even ‘very distinguished old butch dykes‘ who teach literature in the universities don’t acknowledge it! And so, because literature students, those paragons of intellect and utility, have not read it, it must be a fad.

Rand never pretended that her beliefs were easy ones to swallow; much of the novel revolves around the difficulty the two main characters, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, have accepting it. They fight until they last possible second to succeed in a world which punishes them for their success, which demands the products of their success whilst at the same time requiring their self-sacrifice and destruction.

And to many people, I think, that is what the world seems to want these days. People rabbit on about social responsibility, reducing inequality, and eradicating poverty without ever acknowledging that the productivity and profit-motive they condemn are the very things which make global prosperity possible. And that’s not even taking into account those occasional types who seem to loathe the idea of prosperity! The human race has spent the last three thousand years fighting its way out of the filth and misery into which it was born to reach a state of being in which literally anything is possible. We had the minds to do it three thousand years ago; what we didn’t have, until the last couple of centuries, was the leisure to think. And people condemn thinking as bad, and progress as evil, because it leaves others behind. Sacrifice is preferable to gain; a low quality of life for all is preferable to a shitty quality of life for some.

And because ambition cannot be stopped – because the Dagny Taggarts and Hank Reardens of the world have not yet learned to withdraw their sanction – it must be stifled, through regulation and legislation, and everyone must be made to believe that freedom and movement and reckless, momentous change are frightening.

Left-leaning friends of mine have often asked how, as a Christian, I can approve of selfishness and dislike the concept of sacrifice. Did not Christ sacrifice himself? Did he not say that, if you have two coats, you should give one to the man who has none?

I could embark here upon an exegesis of how I interpret Christian philosophy, but I’m not going to, because it’s not necessary. Even Christ, whose understanding of economics was pretty meagre, never demanded sacrifice without the promise of reward. The right acts and charity he advocated are, in one way, their own reward, because performing them makes us feel good. But he also promised the reward of paradise which, if you believe in such a thing, is a pretty good incentive, no?

What these socialist murderers of their own posterity desire is for us all to sacrifice without reward, metaphorically to throw ourselves in front of a bus because it might save a stranger, to produce without incentive and achieve without reward, to see the good of our fellow man as better than and separate from our own good, to give without enjoyment and receive without gratitude, and to continue doing so until we reach the only possible state of equality that exists: death.

And in a way, Atlas Shrugged is the most depressing book ever written, because we will all keep fighting – none of us can withdraw sanction – and there is no Galt’s Gulch. And so we struggle on and watch as human achievement collapses around our ears, and on every side the blame is entirely our own.

‘If the things I said are true, who is the guiltiest man in this room tonight?’
‘I suppose–James Taggart?’
‘No, Mr Rearden, it is not James Taggart. But you must define the guilt and choose the man for yourself.’

  15 Responses to “Sacrifice and reward”

  1. […] Read the original here: Sacrifice and reward […]

  2. […] Excerpt from:  Sacrifice and reward […]

  3. Great post.

    I sent the author of the Greed is Good article in the Guardian a thank you email, for being objective.

  4. I’m really gonna have to read this book now, after Dk has been mentioning it too. So that’s one more to their sales figures! Heh.

  5. Another great post – your posts are becoming addictive.
    I bought all the Rand books I could find in the 60’s when I was first introduced to her writing. Objectivism sounds good to me.

  6. I found Howard Roark so annoying that I didn’t read any more of Rand.
    Reading about books I haven’t read is more annoying though. So on our weekly trip to the library next week I shall reserve it. I won’t be teaching it though.

  7. Atlas Shrugged, still Waterstones-fresh, is burning a hole in my bag. I’ll start tonight.

  8. Bella, you crease me up.

  9. I have nothing but contempt for statists, agree with much of what you say, and admire your clarity of thought and expression, but I must take issue with you about us having been born into “filth and misery”. Our biggest blunder was to become dependent on agriculture. Farming leads inexorably to division of labour, rigid classification of society, the invention of money; and farming alone enables rapid population growth, which in turn locks people into dependence on that ghastly way of life.

    Before money, the only currency was respect. Human beings lived in groups of thirty or forty, and their lives were not uniformly nasty or brutish, though they did tend to be short. The average time spent on work, in the Paleolithic, has been guesstimated by various people (based on calorific requirements) at no more than four hours a day. The rest of the time was free: to play, think, tell stories, make music, dance, whatever they wanted to do. Fossil and archaeological records suggest that their health was superb.

    It is very difficult, these days, to imagine the extreme joys and terrors of life in the grandeur of a pristine environment swarming with game, the rivers potable, the air pure, or to imagine the social cocoon in which these people were compelled, by their environment, to live. The Stone Age tribes who remain today are pathetic vestiges of what once was: one mustn’t judge the past by the present. As for the shortness of ancient life, that was made up for by its intensity, and who can say it’s a bad thing to pop off before you get Alzheimer’s?

    Perhaps the most terrible curse in the Bible is this: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground” (Gen. 3.19). I’m not saying that everything was perfect before agriculture, but do I suggest it was a hell of a sight worse after it, and its effects and consequences should not be overlooked.

    Otherwise, though, great stuff!

  10. […] Do go and read the whole of this, please, from Bella Gerens. Topical and insightful. […]

  11. […] the explosion of interest in the Ayn Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged, which is staunchly defended in a piece by Bella Gerens which has been doing the rounds . Being one of those damned collectivists, […]

  12. […] After being urged a number of months ago by several bloggers to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged I am finally, having the week off, getting around to […]

  13. @ wh00ps – Do! It sounds as if DK is really enjoying it…

  14. @ Dennis – actually, I was thinking all of that while I wrote the post, but I couldn’t be arsed at the time to divert my train of thought. Agriculture and sedentary communities are also cited by feminists as a cause of patriarchy, but I shan’t go into that either. Thanks for adding this, written with your customary erudition and graceful turns of phrase!

    and who can say it’s a bad thing to pop off before you get Alzheimer’s?

    I believe the great poets R. Daltrey and P. Townsend addressed that very question…

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