Way back in 2016 I slogged through Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, in order, it was hoped, to secure a fat scholarship from the Ayn Rand Institute, an institute which, curiously, exists.
I didn’t wind up winning any of their scholarship tiers, regrettably still a moocher. However, after scudding through every single chapter of the novel, I found myself in a strange sort of nirvana. Not because I’d been enlightened in any way by Rand’s objectivist ideology, god no. No, it was because I had acquired, in what can be summed in one word as an ‘ordeal’, unbridled license to upbraid her strawmanning, onanistic, fantasyland-anarcho-capitalist brick of a fucking woodland’s worth of paper.
All right, look, I’ll start off charitably. The writing — I mean the line-by-line stuff, not the narrative — is not half bad. The descriptive language often evokes the appreciation of the industrial milieu — its mechanistic patterns, its discernible rhythms, rather poetic for a novel about (purported) rationalism, but entirely fitting for its 1957 publication when the idea of the American Dream remained in vogue, more so perhaps for a Russian e?migre? like Rand. Of course, this is the very point where the novel crumbles. The American Dream never really had roots in reality, save maybe for white middle class dudes, but even for that slice of the populace the Dream has been fleeting for a while now. We arrive now at Atlas Shrugged’s central conceit: that greed is the ultimate social good.
It’s actually somewhat difficult to treat this book on its face due to how ridiculously removed from reality it is. Hank Rearden (along with Dagny Taggart, who, like Rand eventually does, I’ve chosen to sideline) occupies most of the narrative as idealistic everyman — idealistic because he is the American Dream made manifest, working his way as a young man from common labourer to industrial titan. This is a myth of the highest order, back in the 1950s to a degree, and in the present day undoubtedly. But let’s not dwell on Rearden’s commoner’s past — he’s got his prominence as the mind behind Rearden Metal, not as a wage slave. “You have been called greedy,” Francisco d’Anconia says to Rearden, one capitalist to another, “for the magnificence of your power to create wealth. […] You, who’ve created abundance where there had been nothing but wastelands and helpless, starving men before you, have been called a robber.” But that’s not the truth, is it? Wastelands? Wealth comes from somewhere, Francis. Rearden’s wealth, the wealth of all the Good Guy Capitalists in the novel, come from their labour force, the earth itself … it doesn’t magically appear due to an individual’s outstanding effort.
‘Looter’ is a word used repeatedly throughout the book to describe its antagonists. It’s also indicative of many, many things about the novel’s, and Rand’s, overall message. The overt one that Rand has no issue beating over your head as many times as it takes to put your sorry semi-socialist ass in a coma is that anyone, anyone who remotely steps out of line of her anarcho-capitalist dreamscape is the devil, true evil, a weasel, incapable of providing for themselves, mooching off the backs of industrialists and other such productive peoples, and so on, basically an economic Manicheanism.
So you think that money is the root of all evil? Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. […] Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?
Christ, there is just so much wrong in here. What you’re reading is a bludgeon with the message, whittled into its side all caps, ‘Trickle down economics works’. Money, of course, figures importantly, not because it is an invaluable tool of exchange (it’s an abstract concept, essentially a government-sanctioned IOU — for all Rand’s haranguing of governmental interference, it’s odd that she can’t see that money is in fact impossible without a system of government, not a network of producing men), but because it’s a veritable dick-measuring contest for these dudes who, if they can quantify their material holdings, can never, ever have enough.
‘Enough’ is another consideration, for as the world has revolved and evolved, we’ve come to discover oddly enough that our resources are finite. We live in what could be called a closed system, however globalised it might be — things run out, things can be expended (applying not only to ‘money’ but to things like oil, gas, the environment — the expenditure of which Rand, shrugging, could give a shit about if it means getting up the ladder). Wealth’s gotta come from somewhere, yeah? Oh, you’re not a Rearden, a d’Anconia, a John Galt? Have you, like, tried trying harder? If you don’t try harder, you’re probably just a moocher. Forget generational wealth, wealth disparity, the ballooning cost of (yet increasing necessity of) university education — head starts the size of a planet mean nothing if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps (a phrase which, originally, meant attempting the physically impossible)!
Because, really, why am I complaining about a novel written in the 1950s? It is just bad. I mean, Rand’s editor should’ve cut it by half just for the sake of simple concision for a start, but does that warrant this article? Probably, because we know it still has some popularity, and we know who praises it: in the US, at least, several prominent officials of the Republican Party (of course it comes back to American politics, in a UK student magazine!) explicitly adore this book and Rand’s philosophy: Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz (hey, this guy’s up for reelection in my state of Texas!), Donald Trump to name a few. And certainly you can see Rand’s objectivist philosophy at play in their policies, from the recent tax cuts for the wealthy, to eyeing welfare cuts when their ‘it’ll pay for itself’ tax cuts bombed, to demonising universal healthcare, even to abandoning basic respectful discourse in favour of blindly vilifying anyone disagreeing with them a hair’s breadth to the left. Perhaps Atlas Shrugged’s one redeeming social value is that it offers insight into Trumpian politicians.
If a friend or anyone you love expresses admiration for Rand, her philosophy, or her novels, a concerned eyebrow should be raised with such speed and ferocity that it in fact leaves a dent in your ceiling. Because they aren’t just saying they found a neat-o way of looking at the world — what they’ve done is discovered a method of rationalising their self-serving assholery. If they get theirs and you don’t, well…sorry to say, it’s theirs now, so get bent.