A friend of mine once picked up Atlas Shrugged. I was curious what they would think about it. When they finished their review was: “It tasted like Fox News going down and worse coming back up.” I sort of think that should be on the jacket.
My father loved Ayn Rand. He never held a job longer than a month and was a lazy drunken, chain smoker who believed society was keeping him down through oppressive taxes (which he didn’t even qualify for) and regulation (clearly the reason his plan to become a photographer fell through.) He complained about the moocher class while he lived completely off his wealthy parents. What we see in the mirror, what others see in us and what the reality is are three very separate concepts.
Ayn Rand is a superstar in the modern Republican Party. She’s their Jefferson or Karl Marx. This in and of itself is bizarre. One of the biggest influences on the party of the religious right is an atheist. I find that amusing to no end.
Rand’s appeal on the other hand is something that I’ve never found confusing or mysterious. Like all of the truly dangerous philosophies devised, it’s a slice of truth. Not the whole truth, like such a thing could be encompassed in a language so limited as one invented by humans, but a good chunk of it. And it calls to a base part of our species. Like GoDaddy commercials. We are all selfish creatures. We all have the tendency to see our own suffering before another’s. We all have that part of ourselves from when we were children that tells us that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the world simply must revolve around us. The difference between my philosophy and her’s is a big one though: I don’t think that’s all we can be or even all we are now.
The woman now known as Ayn Rand was born as Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1905. A bad time to be Russian (sadly, there aren’t a lot of good eras to be born in Russia.) During the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks stole her father’s business and left her family destitute and starving through much of her time growing up. It’s difficult to imagine the kind of hardship she went through. It’s also easy to see how in the face of Lenin’s vision one could go so far to the opposite end of the spectrum. Her philosophy was shaped by that sense of helplessness. She never wanted to be the victim again. Never dependent on the whims of others. I think that’s something we can all relate to in our own lives. She saw what happens when you try to deprive people of their individuality for the cause of the “common good.” Extremism begets extremism.
Later in life, she would claim that she and she alone invented Objectivism with no major influences. So, she probably should never have mentioned that she read and loved the works of Neitzsche. Nietzsche’s concepts of the slave-master mentality, the Ubermensch, the will to power, all have clear connections to Rand’s Objectivism movement. She talks often in her writing about original thought. It’s very important for her to believe that every great accomplishment in the world, especially her own, was of that person’s intellect, will, drive and strength alone. The whole “We Built That” theme from the last Republican convention feels like an extension of this idea, both in its ideology and its irony. On one hand, the will of the individual and the flash of genius that inspires it are vitally and intrinsically important to human society. On the other hand, it is a society. You can’t have a society without collective activities. She was a writer. Did she print them by hand and bind them and put them up on shelves and sell them to herself? Without anyone to read her works, what were her accomplishments? What did she invent? Or build? Did she make her own clothes and houses and cars and constant supply of cigarettes? Were her ideas really first thought of by her? If it doesn’t matter what other people think and external validation is only for the weak, why publish anything? Why throw your pearls to the swine?
She considered the greatest vista in the world to be the New York skyline. The crowning achievement of man’s glory. Was each building a tribute to a single person? How can one of the world’s largest cities (a collective of millions of people) be a triumph to the individual more than the group? Every invention is based on the science that came before. Every building is one more floor on top of one laid under it. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
She was a champion of the industrial revolution and opposed any attempt to limit it. This is odd because the industrial revolution was also a move from the individual to the collective. She saw the great industrialists of the age. Men like Henry Ford or Howard Hughes that became shining examples of free range capitalism. She saw less the millions of factory workers who made that possible. The couples that created the families into which all future innovators inevitably must be born. Their mentors and friends and teachers. The people who grew their food and clothed them. To throw another sabot into the machinery, the industrial age she so loved is gone. How many innovators run their own companies? Gates and Jobs are/were the closest things we have to the classic industrialist mentality. Most innovators sell their ideas cheap to the guys who make that happen, who hire people to flesh it out, who hire the people to build it, who hire the people to clean it and maintain it. I’m not sure how her belief in laissez-faire capitalism holds up against the onslaught of small-minded, deep pocketed investors that replaced her heroes. Today’s John Galts don’t need skill. They need connections.
In the Fountainhead, she writes “To say ‘I love you’ one must know first how to say the ‘I’.” She’s basically right. The most stable interpersonal relationships are borne of an in-depth knowledge of self. Chris Rock had a great routine about how couples have to be into the same basic things. You rarely see the husband go off to church while the wife stays home to do coke or vice versa, and both parties are fine with the other. To be able to respect others, we have to respect ourselves and know ourselves, but her pitfall is that after thinking about “I”, she goes back to thinking about “I” and never seems to get to the “You” phase of the plan.
“Every form of happiness is private. Our greatest moments are personal, self-motivated, not to be touched.” Again, from the Fountainhead and again both truth and incomplete. The accomplishments I cherish most are ones I undertook of my own free will. I did them for my reasons. However, as personal as they were, they often involved other people. People I loved and people who contributed to those experiences to make them better. If you aren’t happy privately, you aren’t happy, but not every form of happiness is private.
In many ways, Atlas Shrugged feels like her most honest and raw expression. John Galt and his plight is a parable of herself and her own. “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 the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. 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?” First, love of money is the root of all evil, not the money itself. Money didn’t do anything. Just like uranium deposits had little violent intent before we found them. Money is no simple tool of exchange. It is a weapon. It is a status symbol. It is speech. It is personhood. It is the difference between health and disease, safety and danger, life and death. Money has also changed over time. It can reproduce all by itself now. You can make money from money and sell it for more money. Then give that money value through confidence and insure it with faith. Through money you can now change the value of a real, solid product simply by saying there’s a lot of it or not enough of it with no reliance on the truth.
“Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason.” See apparently never saw an ad for Enzyte.
For me, the best line and the most telling: “If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?” “I . . . don’t know. What . . . could he do? What would you tell him?” ” To Shrug.”
So we get to the crux of Going Galt. The idea being tossed about and threatened by executives, investors and pundits all across the land anytime someone talks about a change to the way things are run. If we don’t placate the rich, like Galt, they will abandon us. They will take their superior Ubermensch selves and leave us broken and destitute. Where they will go they cannot agree. How they will survive without the service industry remains to be seen. Picturing the Koch brothers adorned in animal pelts, out picking berries by the river while the womenfolk stay behind in the stick huts with the younglings teaching them to carve spearheads in their laborless utopia, fun though it may be, seems far-fetched. O’Reilly once promised that if his taxes went up to their 1990’s level, he would be forced to retire because he would have no reason to create his spectacle week in, week out, with no miscommunication. If they raise my taxes, I don’t get to quit my job. I’ll probably have to work harder in fact. It showcases a disparity between his life and the lives of most of his viewers. Also, he sounds like a child threatening to run away. The level of ego it takes to threaten society to remove yourself unless you get what you want is astonishing. Once you have eight homes all stuffed full of fashionable luxuries, what more do you need? What could sate your appetite? They equate money with freedom and say they need more money so they can be more free. What does that say they want for us? If a million isn’t enough freedom, if a billion isn’t enough freedom, and they want us to live on thousands, does that not make their intentions clear?
So, what would I say to Atlas? If the weight of your own self-satisfied martyrdom was killing you, why didn’t you have the humility to ask for help? We could have built some scaffolding around the planet or invented the laws of physics and made the whole process automated. Sheesh, some people are just show-offs.