Way back in 2011, I read Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged – all 1,074 pages of it – with a promise that I’d eventually get around to doing a chapter-by-chapter review, like my review of Lee Strobel’s The Case for a Creator. I got sidetracked by other projects for a while, but now it’s about time to fulfill that promise.
If you haven’t read Atlas cover-to-cover yourself (and who could blame you?), here’s the plot in a nutshell: In a twenty-minutes-into-the-future United States of America, the world is becoming steadily more communist, and the economy is disintegrating as a result. The small minority of people who still believe in capitalism, mostly captains of industry, declare that they’re no longer willing to support the ungrateful masses with their labor and go on strike, withholding their productive talents from a world that won’t pay them what they deserve.
You’d think the book might end with everyone else realizing how wrong they’d been and pleading with the capitalists to come back and save them, but no. In the end, civilization collapses, millions of people starve to death, and the fortunate few live in comfort in a remote mountain retreat, isolated from the chaos and anarchy all around. In Rand’s eyes, this counts as a happy ending.
Atlas Shrugged is unapologetically a novel of and for the 1%, and like it or not, that makes it a novel of and for our time. It argues that tooth-and-claw capitalism, unfettered by rules or regulations, isn’t just the best but the only way to run a society, and taxes, laws and social programs are all intolerable trespasses on the sacred right of a few individuals to get as rich as they possibly can. Rand’s worldview is Manichaean, utterly black-and-white: you’re either a heroically selfish capitalist (she regarded selfishness as the highest of all virtues), or you’re one of the looters. And she isn’t shy about saying that people who don’t believe in capitalism as she defines it aren’t just lazy, but worthless: moochers, parasites, literally unworthy of life, whose deaths we’re meant to cheer.
Despite this bloodcurdlingly callous moral view, Randian makers-and-takers rhetoric is more popular than ever among self-identified conservatives. During the last two presidential campaigns, Tea Partiers angrily threatened to “go Galt” and deny us all their productive brilliance. Paul Ryan said that he required his congressional staffers to read Rand, and Mitt Romney’s comment about how 47% of the population are lazy freeloaders could have come straight from Atlas, although if he’d been a character in the book, saying that would have made him a hero and not a villain. And last but certainly not least, Glenn Beck has announced grand plans to build his own Randian capitalist utopia, a real-life Galt’s Gulch where freedom will ring, all yours for just $2 billion.
Then again, this is probably to be expected. You can always be feted by telling the wealthy and powerful what they want to hear, and Rand tells them that being richer than everyone else is proof that they’re better than everyone else. Wealth and success are tangible proofs of moral superiority. In fact, she goes even further than that: she argues that the wealthy are exalted superhumans, like the god-kings of old, and that all the lesser specimens of humanity are abjectly dependent on them. In an era of soaring inequality, corporate bailouts and swelling street protests, when the wealthy may be feeling just a little besieged and defensive, it’s perhaps no surprise that they might cling even harder to self-justifying rhetoric like Rand’s to fend off criticism.
Since I want to finish this review eventually, it will have to be a whistle-stop tour. I’m not going to comment on every page of the book – I’ll summarize where possible, and I’ll probably skip the tedious monologues – but there will be plenty of points of interest along the way. If you’ve got your own copy of the book, feel free to follow along at home. And now, if you’re ready, let’s dive in…
Other posts in this series: