“I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don’t exist. That this book was been written – and published – is my proof that they do.”
So I finally read this piece – after hearing so much about it, and felt it required a lengthier analysis, obviously more political in focus so understandable if this isn’t some’s bread and butter, but I need a way to process the 1000+ pages I just read so here goes.
Its probably best to start with a bit of background and context. Ayn Rand was a highly influential but controversial writer and philosopher whose views are best summarized as being in extreme defence of the FREE part of free-market capitalism. Less often mentioned though is Rand was a strong atheist and claimed rationalism was the only thought of value.
While Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction, its self-confessed and very much a thesis on Rand’s views, essentially being a cautionary tale of what would happen to the US and the world if her view of economics is not followed.
Rand’s influence continues to be huge, despite the intervening times the nature of many of her arguments and points are still made frequently in modern rhetoric. While I don’t necessarily think many people today directly reference Rand, it feels like I’ve seen most of her arguments already in some form in modern rhetoric.
What is Rand’s Philosophy?
I think this is best summed up by one of the key lines of John Galt, basically Rand’s superlative ideal man, who when forced by evil communistic government types to make a comment to the world while held at gunpoint says “stay the hell out of our way.”
Basically Rand’s economic belief is the virtue of selfishness – that the most ethical thing to do is allow men (always men of course more on that later) the freedom to pursue their work to the best of their abilities. Interference is inherently immoral because the most moral action is to perform your work selfishly to the best of your abilities.
Tending to people’s needs is unethical because needs to not denote earning – providing on the basis of needs is a effectively a death-spiral where economies collapse under a lack of achievement.
John Galt / Ayn Rand argue this creates progress in society as once the best men reach the peak of the pyramid they invent and advance with creations that benefit those ‘lower’ in the pyramid.
Does Rand back this up?
Rand engages in a form of argumentation which is she obviously didn’t invent and is woefully common in all circles – a form of ‘straw-hominem’ where all the characters who disagree with Rand’s views are ugly and decrepit, being fat is the most common technique Rand goes for – but sometimes also prematurely aged or dead-eyed. The MCs in Atlas Shrugged are effectively hewn from stone, slim but powerful and always with great posture (except for the times that the weight of the evil government’s policies get to them). The inferior types whine their arguments and often use vague assumptive language and are always portrayed as having ulterior motives. The MCs speak ‘plainly’ and simply and in heroic philosophic terms they always “destroy their opponents.”
Now you might thing this is a bit harsh – doesn’t most fiction tend towards hot heroes and ugly antagonists? But most fiction isn’t specifically written as a political thesis, and doesn’t genuinely contain political dialectics in every single ***** scene. Almost every moment of Atlas Shrugged has some form of political commentary, usually in the form of disgraceful weak arguments from inferior people about why unfettered capitalism is wrong with the superior MCs riffing on Rand’s basic premise that selfishness is virtue.
The frustrating thing is that these exchanges don’t actually contain rational arguments!! Despite Rand’s insistence that rationality is king, this book is filled with the sorts of debate points you find on any Reddit forum. When inferior whiners bring up actually good points (what about all the workers within your company), they are just hand waved away with various statements like “I am not entitled to the sweat of my brow.”
Rand’s claim to rationality is severely undermined by the use of this sort of rhetoric – although in fairness perhaps this is just the fictional fluff before the main event:
Ultimately the problem rests on Rand’s ultimate thesis – that not only is selfishness justifiable, it is in fact moral. That ‘need’ does not justify the ‘looting’ of others wealth. (as an aside one reason I saw that Rand argues unfairly is that she twists all taxation etc into being justified for the sake and “needs of the public good” in fact doesn’t even say ‘tax’ for 99% of the book despite claiming to be on the side of speaking plainly. What I’m saying is that rational arguments aren’t presented, scape-goat terms and implied motivations are debunked, this is the inherent problem with Straw-manning an argument, imagine if I criticized Rand’s work by saying she was arguing for ‘lawlessness’ for the rich, rather than discussing her actual philopsophy’)
ALRIGHT so what is Rand’s thesis – apologies if I mangle this, John Galt the ‘God’ of this story does a 3 hour speech explaining everything and I’m going to try and pull the key philosophical arguments from it:
“A being of volitional consciousness has not automatic course of behaviour needs a code of values to guide his actions” I Mean psychologically incorrect but in terms of a point that people are going to need a value system at some point yes
“Where there are no alternatives, no values are possible. There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence” Ok kinda intense but basically saying to live is better than not
“Man has no automatic code of survival…man must obtain his knowledge and choose his actions by a process of thinking.” This part is very long but basically saying, and I agree, people have to learn how to live in whatever context they exist in
“your own life is its purpose…. of preserving, fulfilling and enjoying the irreplaceable value which is your life.” yep look after yourself
“Since life requires a specific course of action, any other course will destroy it. A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting of the motive and standard of death”
uuuuuhhh so this is when things start to get a bit unusual, basically Rand is conflating two ideas – yes if you should be selfishness enough to survive – does this mean that all selfishness is just? (no) does this mean any selflessness is death? (also no)
Rand tries to use this philosophy to justify rampart business success as simply being an extension of natural survival – and also uses an interesting equivalence to try and support this:
“There are two sides to every issues: one side is right and other is wrong: but the middle is always evil… the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth” What Rand is trying to do here is say that if you accept that basic survival is morally right you must accept it to all extremes, don’t be a delusional knave in the middle’
There is probably a lot to say about such arguments but its telling to me that there are barely any children featured in Atlas Shrugged, and John Galt’s argument exists as if people zap into creation as rational adults with a ‘right to survive’ inbuilt. I will say that there are many further analogies but this is the crux of Rand’s point – its moral to survive, your work is your survival so any extreme of achievement is your survival and just, any interference is attacking your survival and unjust. It would have been interesting to see what Rand actually thought was the appropriate way to manage children who need the support of adults to survive but then how this contradiction worked in her argument (look I already know it would have been as soon as the little **** were old enough to get to work they were on their own, their parents could choose to support them but support on the basis of need is theft/death.)
Of course Rand’s arguments are highly individualistic – however also justified by claiming that allowing ultra-capitalists the freedom they also drag society along with them, through their inventions and increase in industry. Here is what John Galt / Ayn Rand say about that!
“In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort hat his job requires of him”
“The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment.”
Hang on didn’t Rand say that’s what it’s all about anyway??
“The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all their brains.”
“Such is the pattern of ‘exploitation’ for which you have damned the strong.”
Ok, I’m going to level with you, the effect of typing out those quotes without suffering an ethical aneurism has almost ended me, and by Rand’s standards that means it immoral to continue.
So Rand’s argument is basically work = survival, including ultra-success because ethics means rigid black/white thinking and extremism. But also the success of the ultra-rich actually benefits the plebes more anyway. But don’t those arguments kind of contradict, at least in the sense why is the pyramid argument needed as an individualist except to convince others to go along with the philosophy almost like Rand’s ultra-rich capitalists need people to go along with the plan (but of course NEED doesn’t justify interference right?) In fact the story supports this – even Rand’s ultra achievers need society to function.
As evidenced by the quote starting this piece, it seems obvious to me that Rand’s perspective can only function with the irrational belief that the ultra-successful are perfect men, in Atlas Shrugged there are no Harvey Weinstein’s, no petroleum companies spreading misinformation about climate change, and was well before cigarette’s were discovered to be deadly – it would be very interesting to see what Rand’s take of these scenarios would be (or horrifying).
Really the key problem with Rand’s political stance is that it effectively relies on ignoring too many factors. What about businesses that are harmful to the environment, to other people, the rise of ‘bullshit jobs.’
Funnily enough the most sound rebuttal of Rand’s stance comes from her own story. While the plot of Atlas Shrugged is supposed to describe the titanic effect of a weary Atlas tired of holding up the world, the reality is that the Ultra-successful MCs of the book are active terrorists, John Galt recruits successful people to remove them from society for the purpose of hastening its demise, Fransisco actively destroys his own company (of course its to own the libs, but wait don’t all the plebes benefit from his awesomeness what about them) Ragnar the reverse Robin Hood actively and violently pirates the globe “robbing the poor to give to the rich.”
So Rand tries to depict a world that falls over without the help of the Real Men(tm) but instead show us a world that falls over because the Real Men actively undermine it because they are butthurt about taxes.
I’ve tried to focus on the more rational aspects of this thesis, but there are no doubt straight out offensive parts worthy of criticism – while uncommon, Rand makes racist and ableist slurs and I have no doubt that Atlas Shrugged as a work of mainstream fiction is the prettied up version of Rand’s thoughts. Like many Rand claims to be ‘rational’ and even titled her own philosophy ‘Objectivism’ but simply labelling things does not make them so A is not A just because you called it so, it seems to me that underlying every justification for capitalism is a horrific denigration of others and the real reasoning for support is the lack of caring what becomes of the vulnerable in pursuit of wealth.
There’s probably more to be said about Atlas Shrugged – however I feel this post has reached its natural limit – has anyone else read this book? Any thoughts – any disagreements?