Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


Atlas Whatever

Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged is a classic tale of good versus evil.

The heroes are easily recognized by their strong profiles, high cheekbones and tendency to speech rather than speak. Heroes always know the precise angle to present their bodies so that the setting sun can highlight their virtues and their flat hips while the bright red glow of morality from the furnaces blazes in their Rearden Metal brooches and their steely blue eyes.

The villains, or looters, meanwhile (you can almost hear the boos from the cheap seats), are made of blancmange and have names like Tinky and Kip and Balph (Balph!) and Cuffy and Orren and Chick. The blancmanges don’t have profiles, they have pendulous jowls and sagging, tired features and, when they are not starting organizations with phony names like Friends of Global Progress, they stoop and they slouch and they deny everything that’s obvious and honest and true.

The blancmanges don’t have conversations either. They blubber nonsense about everything being self-evident and how it’s not their fault – it’s nobody’s fault. They have no independent thoughts of their own and they regurgitate half-digested ideas scavenged from the waste bucket of philosophy and they speak in unfinished sentences (the heroes always finish their sentences).

“It wasn’t real, was it?” said Mr Thompson.

“We seemed to have heard it,” said Tinky Holloway.

“We couldn’t help it,” said Chick Morrison.

“Who permitted it to hap-” he began in a rising voice but stopped ;

“We don’t have to believe it, do we?” cried James Taggart.

The overall effect is like a child’s pantomime where all the children boooo when the unshaven villain, in the stripey jumper and with a bag of swag over his shoulder, twirls his moustache as the lights grow dim and a badly played organ heralds his entrance on its lowest register.

There is no dialog in this book. In place of normal conversation, the heroes take it in turns to practice their oratory while the blancmanges barf out platitudes that can only have been retrieved from someone’s maiden aunt’s sick bucket after she’d had a little too much tincture of laudanum.

“Let me give you a tip on a clue to men’s characters: the man who damns money has obtained it dishonestly; the man who respects it has earned it.”

The glare of steel being poured from a furnace shot to the sky beyond the window. A red glow went sweeping slowly over the office, over the empty desk, over Rearden’s face, as if in salute and farewell.

When the heroes and looters actually do speak with each other it’s like some absurd Monty Python skit wherein the leprous townspeople, armed only with a bowl of radishes and a pound of liver, try to do battle with the Noble Paladins in Shining Armour mounted on Noble, Snorting Stallions only to be cut down one by snivelling one by the Paladins’ Virtuous Steel Blades. Terry Gilliam could not have drawn it better.

“All you want is production without men who are able to produce.”
“That…that’s just theory. That’s just a theoretical extreme.”

Even the adulterous sex is virtuous with the moral flame of righteousness reflecting in her chaste dampness and his thrusts like the pistons that power the engines of prosperity.

She lay back, conscious of nothing but the pleasure it gave her. Yet her mind kept racing. Broken bits of thought flew past her attention, like the telegraph poles by the track. Physical pleasure? – she thought. This is a train made of steel…running on rails of Rearden Metal…moved by the energy of burning oil and electric generators…it’s a physical sensation of physical movement…but is that the cause and the meaning of what I now feel?…Do they call it a low animal joy-this feeling that I would not care if the rail did break to bits under us now-it won’t-but I wouldn’t care, because I have experienced this? A low, physical, material, degrading pleasure of the body?

Oh, wait…maybe that really was about a train. It’s hard to know with these people – they live their whole lives in metaphor so it’s impossible to tell when reality begins…or if it ever does.

Perhaps passages like that help to explain why Ayn Rand is every budding libertarian’s favourite philosopher. Perhaps they got their first hard-on while imagining that Ayn was Dagny and Dagny was Ayn and that, when they closed their eyes, Ayn stood before them naked saying “I want you <insert name here>. I’m more of an animal than you think…[snip 100 pages]… If I’m asked to name my proudest attainment, I will say: I have slept with <insert your name here>.”

The only possible reason that the book is so popular among that kind of conservative is that, around age 19, they became confused between Ayn Rand’s prescription for a new Utopian Republic and Dagny’s high breasts and animal depravity. Now and forever, when they think of steel production, they become aroused by thoughts of themselves as Hank Rearden driving his train into Dagny Taggart’s tunnel.

I can’t count the number of times, on Usenet and on mailing lists, when a comment about cooperation causes a shotgun response, Earnestness set to Stun, with a one-line directive to “now go read Atlas Shrugged”. Just today, in the comments after an article about Ron Paul in the Times, someone grumbled about the fate of the dollar, sighed “Where is John Galt?” and resolved to buy gold presumably until the Industrial Philosopher Kings return.

I wonder how many of Ron Paul’s supporters have on their desk a framed, signed picture dedicated with “To Marcus. May you care about no-one but your self. With Love and Virtue, Ayn xxx” and a Heroines of Objectivism calendar on the back of their bathroom door? I’ll bet Greenspan had one.

I really wanted to like this book as I enjoyed The Fountainhead thoroughly. I had intended to write a mini review when I was about three hundred pages into it, while it was still just a fun ride on a moralistic steam train through Objectiville, but events conspired against me and I missed my stop. The book started to judder about a third of the way in and finally came off the rails on page 606 as Ayn, furiously shovelling coal and with whistle blowing, described, to the rhythm of a rickety train on an out-of-control track, why everyone who disagrees with her deserves to die…

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence…

The man in Roomette 7, Car No. 2, was a journalist who wrote that it is proper and moral to use compulsion “for a good cause”…

The woman in Roomette, Car No. 3, was an elderly schoolteacher who had spent her life turning class after class of helpless children into miserable cowards,by teaching them that the will of the majority is the only standard of good and evil…

[…skipping cars 4 through 15 until…]

The man in Bedroom A, Car No.16 was a humanitarian who had said “The men of ability? I do not care what or if they are made to suffer”….

…and we are still only half way through our journey. Having now fallen into a ditch, the book ploughed on through some heavy mud until the surreal interlude where the publishers accidentally printed 60 pages of someone’s 10th grade homework on the subject “Why we must fear communism” (it turns out that From each according to his ability to each according to his needs was a terrible idea) and finally comes to rest, with a final mournful sigh, about 900 pages after the ending became obvious.

Still, there is a lot to like about Objectivism. Like many philosophies, it tries to scale a simple idea from a Personal Guide to a Virtuous Life up through an ethical system for interacting with one’s family, friends and business partners to a political recipe for Utopia.

At the first level , her moral philosophy is spot on. Colour me Objectivist when it comes to “What is the Good?” and of how to structure one’s hopes and dreams and, most importantly, actions to achieve The Good. It all gets a little shaky when ask our friends and family to earn the love we give them and then it totally falls apart when we imagine that we could structure our society around the idea that captains of industry and politicians are paragons of virtue (in the Ayn Rand sense).

In Ayn’s topsy-turvy world, successful businessmen would be successful precisely because they play by the rules and have a strict code of honour. Thy would channel their enlightened greed into production, commerce and other activities that benefit society accidentally but with supreme efficiency. Not once would they clear cut rain forests or dump plastics in the ocean or pollute rivers or poison thousands of Indians or any of the things that real businessmen do.

This is ultimately where the book, and the philosophy, gets it dead wrong. Sure we can all think of politicians and industrialists enlightened by self-interest but the liars and swearers are fools, for there are liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men and hang up them and the James Taggarts and Wesley Mouches and Orren Boyles outnumber the Hank Reardens a thousand-fold. I am a dyed-in-the-wool elitist but even I would not trust the elite to decide who is or is not elite.

Perhaps, in 1957, when she wrote it, fear of communism and fascism and other collectivist disasters was very real and she saw herself as writing a cautionary tale against the submission of the needs of the individual to the needs of society. But that does not explain why she seems unable to distinguish between, say, the enforced starvation of one group for the benefit of another (usually more privileged) group and a government program to build schools. It also does not explain why so many modern day Objectivists equate income tax with slavery.

In Ayn Rand’s fairy tale, the collectivist Utopian dream of the looters ends in dystopia and apocalypse. It’s hard to imagine the Objectivist dream ending differently.