Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957.

What happens to Planet Earth, when the Super Saiyajin’s leave it to its destroyers?

That’s pretty much the plot of this epic by Ayn Rand. For being a novel of 1,100 pages, it only covers a couple years, and skips about most of the time in between. Most of the pages are taken up by philosophical digressions by its key characters, who are all kinds of variations on the theme of “greatness”. John Galt, one of the novel’s many heroes, speaks for about fifty pages straight.

But the words express a philosophy (as well as a method) that cannot be found from any other writer. Ayn Rand is such an antipode to proletariat writing that to read her really changes one’s perspective–on selfishness, altruism, and economics.

The text is about the producers of America, going to form their own colony during a dystopian nightmare of governmental regulations. Here Rand is similar to Sinclair Lewis in his novel “It Can’t Happen Here.” Both are about individualists during a dystopian America, who refuse to go along with the idiotic masses, and instead stick to their own logical and moral systems despite the irrationality plaguing the nation. The American dystopias are similar in both of these novels, because they both rely on the philosophy that great men must serve “the people,” and that the industrialists and businessmen must give their businesses to “the people,” as in modern communism.

Both Lewis and Rand write warnings to the United States about the infection of altruistic thought, of regulating the economy through the state. To these Americanists, the United States was plagued with notions of regulation by the state from Lewis’ 1930s to Rands 1960s. With the Reagan and Bush era, de-regulation became the norm, and now we are, apparently, living in an individualist economy based on merit.

Yet Rand’s warning, unlike Lewis’, is far more concerned with the philosophy of the nation and its intellectuals, not the political realm itself. In Atlas Shrugged, the real war is not between the industrialists and the politicians, but between one professor of Reason, and another professor who has “forsaken his reason,” and who believes that mankind cannot live by their own logic because they are too stupid–he is the cynic.

The Cynic has no hope in the individual ability of man, so he concludes that the great men must support the weak. All men are then entitled to Freedom, but to the Cynic, freedom means: freedom to sleep safely, freedom to eat, freedom to a job. But the blindspot for Rand, of course, is that if everyone has the right to food and a job, while doing no labor, from whom will they get their food, their jobs?

The victims, to Rand, become the producers, who by regulations from the state, must produce for people who do nothing, who do not think, and who justify their “looting” of other people’s achievements by the fact that they need food, a job, a place to sleep. To Rand, need justifies nothing. Everybody needs food and a job, but only those who are able–who have the merit–can get it, those who cannot, must either rely on charity or goodwill, but must never, under any circumstances, demand that those who produce be obligated to give them hand-outs.

Darwinian social theory is never mentioned throughout the text, but as a survival of the fittest through capitalism, it’s hard to imagine why she sees herself as modern and the “needs”-based distribution as primitive.

Ayn Rand has had philosophical meaning in the lives of many industrialists and businessmen, including Ron Paul. Hollywood is in the process of making a movie out of this text (which should be a canonical text), produced by people influenced by Ayn Rand, and starring Angelina Jolie, probably the most famous adherent to Randian philosophy.

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