Atlas is Clueless
by Gwydion M. Williams
There’s a persistent Science Fiction dream in which most of the world dies and a small group of Superior People are going to rebuild the world with all the riff-raff conveniently dead. John Wyndham played about with this idea several times, most notably in Day of the Triffids. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged fits this theme, but there’s a much stronger political slant than normal. A community of ‘superior people’ driven out of a corporatist USA. “One of them is a professor of economics who couldn’t get a job outside, because he taught that you can’t consume more than you have produced – one is a professor of history who couldn’t get a job because he taught that the inhabitants of slums were not the men who made this country“.[A]
That sort of view is typical of 1950s resentment among the WASP elite that had lost status in a system they’d built themselves. What makes it singular is that ‘Ayn Rand’ was actually a Russian Jew, born in 1905 into a family that was doing nicely up until the Russian Revolution. In 1925, she was granted a visa to visit American relatives and never went back. She found a niche in Hollywood and discarded her birth-name of Alisa Rosenbaum. Distanced herself from her origins as far as she can, saying in the novel’s postscript:
“I was born in Europe, but I came to America because this was the country based on my moral premises and the only country where one could be fully free to write.” [B] Which is one of her many falsehoods: before the 1960s, there were plenty of books banned in the USA that were legal in Britain, and even more that were legal in France. She also does not explain exactly what she did – that she was a Hollywood script reader and for a time the head of the costume department at RKO Studios.[C] She fails to say which part of Europe she comes from, seeming to lump it all together. Having read most of her major works, I get the suspicion that she knew nothing at all about West European culture. Both the USA’s politics and its economics are extensions of European forms, but she never mentions this and quite possibly did not know. She’s supposed to have had a history degree, but never shows much knowledge of real history.
The WASP elite in the USA have kept their dominance in industry, but in the 20th century have lacked creativity outside of engineering and business skills. Thinking about the wider world is no longer something they do well. As far back as the 1950s, they needed to outsource their bigotry, depend on the odd stray from the very social forces that had undermined them. Ayn Rand certainly plays up to the WASP stereotypes in Atlas Shrugs. The chief character is a lady called Dagny Taggart, heir to a 19th century rail magnate:
“Nathaniel Taggart was a penniless adventurer who had come from somewhere in New England and built a railroad across a continent, in the days of the steel rails…. He never sought any loans, bonds, subsidies, land grants or legislative favours from the government…
“If anyone admired him, it was as one admires a successful bandit. Yet no penny of his wealth had been obtained by force or fraud…
“It was said that in the wilderness of the Middle West, he murdered a state legislator who attempted to revoke a charter granted to him, to revoke it when his rail was laid halfway across the state; some legislators had planned to make a fortune on Taggart stock – by selling it short. Nat Taggart was indicted for the murder, but the charge could never be proved. He had no trouble with legislators from then on…
“He pledged his wife as security for a loan from a millionaire who hated him and admired her beauty. He repaid the loan on time and did not have to surrender the pledge. The deal had been made with his wife’s consent. She was a great beauty from the noblest family of a southern state, and she had been disinherited by her family because she eloped with Nat Taggart when he was only a ragged young adventurer.” [D]
We’re supposed to admire this creep. Now I fully support the right of adults to do what they want with their own bodies, including prostitution. That doesn’t mean I need to regard all choices as admirable. In this case, I’d say ‘Greater self-love hath no man, than he who layeth down his wife for his greed.’ It also seems a long way from the ‘family values’ the US conservatives are supposed to uphold.
Of course those same ‘conservatives’ show a covert admiration for the ‘successful bandit’, which is one of several reasons why their conservatism doesn’t work. And as I’ve said before, the New Right conned the authentic conservatives. Let them think that rampant market forces would restore ‘family values’, while probably knowing quite well that the opposite would apply. It’s no good believing certain values to be important and then failing to act on that belief. It is useless to declare a belief in standards and then admire the successful cheat.
I also don’t believe that a businessman could openly murder a leading politician and stay in business, even in the late 19th century USA. They were a rough corrupt lot but there were limits. Such a man would get frozen out and denied the personal contacts essential for large-scale operations. The railway magnates and other ‘robber barons’ could and did murder people who stood in their way, but only those the elite did not care much about.
Incidentally, she avoids the term ‘robber baron’. Ayn Rand does not allow people she disagrees with to have any good points. A supporter of state regulation says merely that “The day of the barons of industry is done”.
Another interesting case is a pirate called Ragnar Danneskjold, a Norwegian based more on WASP prejudices than real history:
“Ragnar Danneskjold has the purest gold hair and the most frightening face on earth, a face with no sign of any feeling…
“They say he hides in one of those Norwegian fjord where neither God nor man will ever find him. That’s where the Vikings used to hide in the Middle Ages…
“He comes from one of their best families, The family lost its money generations ago, but the name is of the noblest. The ruins of their castle are still in existence.” [P]
Vikings were Dark Ages rather than Middle Ages, assuming you don’t lump the entire period as Middle Ages, and she does use the term ‘Dark Ages’ later on. Vikings were brutal plunderers who did a lot to keep the Dark Ages dark. They applied to other Europeans, the same methods that Europe later applied to the rest of the world, including an extensive slave trade. Of course the Vikings were equal-opportunity slave traders, selling anyone to anyone else, though English and Celts were the main victims. No doubt some of the women were sold to North Africa and Moorish Spain – which might have been less bad for a slave woman than any part of Christendom
Vikings didn’t hide in Norwegian fjords, they lived along them, or some of them did. Scandinavia was a mass of small kingdoms and local kings showed no concern if foreigners were raided. Once they were organised as decent-sized kingdoms with international connections they had reason to care and punish offenders, so individual raiding stopped. Some Scandinavian monarchs also became conquerors, notably King Canute of England, Denmark, and Norway. This second wave of Vikings lost out to first an English resurgence and then the Norman Conquest. Normans were an upgraded version of Viking, even more brutal and a lot more effective.
A modern pirate could not operate without friendly ports, which no longer exist outside of places like Somalia. If you think anything in Norwegian fjords could be hidden from other Norwegians, you don’t understand much. But then Ayn Rand also seems to have her hero blockading all of the worlds oceans with just one ship!
Actual Scandinavian culture is the very reverse of “no sign of any feeling”. Those people said a great deal about how they felt, though some were stoical in the face of suffering and death, as is normal in a warrior culture. There’s a nice example in Njal’s Saga, maybe the best of the Icelandic sagas. A group of warriors go round to the house of a very dangerous warrior called Gunnar, a man they feel impelled to kill as part of an escalating pattern of blood feuds. But is he there? One of them takes a look, so naturally Gunnar runs him through with his halberd (a weapon combining spear and axe). The others ask ‘is Gunnar home’ and he replies ‘I’m not sure but his halberd certainly is’, before falling down dead. I can well believe they were that tough, some people manage it. But it’s also good that it’s mostly been transmuted into social-democracy and into adventurousness of a non-murderous sort, a lot of famous explorers including Roald Amundsen and Thor Heyerdahl.
If you read the Icelandic Sagas, you learn what you need a state for. The sagas are believed to be more historic novels than actual histories, but written by people not that far from the actual events. When justice is personal it favours the strong against the weak, and some of the characters do get away with murder. Worse, it leads to interminable feuds between strong rivals, mostly ruinous to both sides.
There is no substance to the woman’s ideas, but that may help in the USA, where people like their ideas simple and pre-packaged. She has remained amazingly popular – one edition of Atlas Shrugged as 43rd in Amazon Books’ charts for US best sellers, while a hardback edition is 148th. Having been an inspiration to Alan Greenspan has failed to dent her reputation – it could always be said that Greenspan created the mess by not deregulating enough. And Ayn Rand can sound impressive with her self-confident originality, e.g.
“The dollar sign? It stands on the vest of every fat, piglike figure in every cartoon, for the purpose of denoting a crook, a grafter, a scoundrel… Incidentally, do you know where that sign comes from? It stands of the initials of the United States…
“Do you know that the United States is the only country in history that has ever used its own monogram as a symbol of depravity…. We chose to wear the sign of the dollar on our foreheads, proudly, as our badge of nobility…”
Astonishing if it were true, which it is not. The dollar or thaler began in Old Europe, and dollars are mentioned as a unit of account in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. As ‘Mexican Dollars’, they were already known in British North America. The dollar sign is well documented from North America before the USA created their own dollar in 1786. [E]
Similar loud-mouthed ignorance is shown in a rant about the virtues of money, a piece that gets admired and posted up a lot on the internet:
“To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money – and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man’s mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being – the self-made man – the American industrialist.
“If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose – because it contains all the others – the fact that they were the people who created the phrase ‘to make money’. No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity – to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted of obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created. The words ‘to make money’ hold the essence of human morality.” [F]
The Oxford English Dictionary dates the phrase ‘to make money’ back to at least 1457, well before any Briton set foot in North America. [G] The United States was a hiving-off of part of British society. Science was invented in Italy and Germany, but was soon taken up by the rest of Western Europe. Freedom of religion was first definitely established in the Dutch Republic. The USA was established with slavery legal in most states and widespread in the South. If the North abolished it, the South spread plantation slavery half-way across the continent,
The USA was never intended to be a ‘country of money’. The formula ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ grew out of an earlier formulation, ‘life, liberty and property’. But property is something very different from money. Mostly it was landed property, no longer free-floating and undefined as money would be. To miss the difference between property and money is to miss the essential values of 18th century minds.
Money as gold is viewed as more solid than paper money or credit money – private companies have occasionally issued ‘script’, but few people trust paper money that isn’t backed by a strong state. But if someone found a way to turn lead into gold, gold would become no more valuable than lead. Whereas someone who found a way to cultivate land that had previously been wilderness would have added to the general wealth. And in North America, it was government that led the way.
Ayn Rand tries to rewrite history. In her eyes, the government should be very limited:
“The proper functions of a government fall into three broad categories, all of them involving the issues of physical force and the protection of men’s rights: the police, to protect men from criminals—the armed services, to protect men from foreign invaders—the law courts, to settle disputes among men according to objective laws…
“A private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government official may do nothing except that which is legally permitted…
“Today, when a concerted effort is made to obliterate this point, it cannot be repeated too often that the Constitution is a limitation on the government, not on private individuals—that it does not prescribe the conduct of private individuals, only the conduct of the government—that it is not a charter for government power, but a charter of the citizens’ protection against the government.” [H]
That’s not what the Founders actually wanted or laid down. The Preamble says:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Trying to ‘promote the general welfare’ is just what Ayn Rand condemns, so why doesn’t she denounce the US Constitution? It also includes the idea of regulating commerce, and gives open-ended power to the elected representatives to take care of the matter:
“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
“To borrow money on the credit of the United States;
“To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
“To establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
“To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
“To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;
“To establish Post Offices and Post Roads…” [Q]
The widespread notion that taxation is robbery does not face up to the clear specification by the Founding Fathers that taxes are normal and under political control. An honest Libertarian might say that this was one of the errors, along with allowing slavery. But there seem to be very few honest Libertarian in the USA, where fetishisation of the constitution is part of the core culture. No doubt they’d say that the Founding Fathers never envisaged such a large state machine or such high levels of tax. True enough. They certainly didn’t envisage anything like what actually happened. But the principle of taxation is there without any ambiguity.
There is also no substance to Ayn Rand’s claim that the Constitution “is not a charter for government power, but a charter of the citizens’ protection against the government” – a notion popular enough for it to be printed on a t-shirt offered for sale by her followers. The constitution defines a Federal Government, and specifies some things it must take care of. Curbs on individual freedom might be unlimited without the ‘Bill of Rights’, the set of ten amendments insisted on before the Constitution could be ratified. The debate about firearms in the US hinges on whether the Second Amendment lets the government limit the rights of citizens to own guns. My own view is that it does do just that and that it is a stupid rule that should be changed, not worked round on the pretence that it does not say what it plainly does say. But no one seems to doubt that the government could do that if it were not prohibited. Likewise Congress was prohibited from establishing a state religion and prohibited from interfering with the religion of private citizens, which again implies that they would otherwise have had that right. [R] And military conscription has always been counted as constitutional, though Ayn Rand does condemn conscription, unlike many other libertarians.
Ayn Rand’s basic idea is that industrialists are the creators of wealth and should not be interfered with. She assumes dogmatically that this is the only way that wealth is created, and she hated the New Deal. She chose to ignore the massive increase in wealth that happened after 1945, in the era of ‘Tax and Spend’ and the Mixed Economy. It was much better system of wealth creation than the less regulated capitalism that had existed before. She viewed it as something similar to the Soviet system from which she’d fled, as indeed it was. But the planned economy built by Stalin was also the best period Russia ever had for economic growth.
Ayn Rand isn’t one to look hard at ‘off-message facts’ – nor off-message people either. The woman’s malice is shown in an incident in the middle of the book. On a coast-to-coast express, the train drivers let themselves be pushed into going into a long tunnel with a coal-burning engine, despite knowing that “the tunnel was hardly safe nowadays even for Diesel engines”.[J] This is another improbability: fear of death is one of the deepest feelings there is, though sometimes overridden by concern for the lives of others, as with Casey Jones staying on his train to save his passengers. To undertake actions likely to kill oneself and a whole trainload of passengers is among the least likely actions for a normal person, even if they had a gun pointed at them. But Ayn Rand, rating herself superior, assumes that normal people might do almost any stupid thing. They go into the tunnel, and of course they all die.
She then explains why all of them deserve it. “It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.” [K] She then goes through and proves to contrary, to her own satisfaction. Some of her points are criticisms of genuine intellectual errors, though hardly errors that merit the death penalty. But some of those Ayn Rand sees as fit for extermination are much more ordinary – just people who claim to have normal rights to a normal life:
“The man in Seat 5, Car No. 7, was a worker who believed that he had a ‘right’ to a job, whether his employer wanted him or not.
“The woman in Roomette 6, Car No. 8, was a lecturer who believed that, as a consumer, she had a ‘right’ to transportation, whether the railroad people wished to provide it or not…
“The man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was a snivelling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels.
“The woman in Roomette 8, Car No. 11, was a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.” [K]
So it’s a kind of judgement, the sort of thing that a religious person would call ‘the wrath of God’, though not many apply it with quite Ayn Rand’s lack of sympathy. Which brings me on to the interesting question of what, if anything, her philosophy was hinged on. She is often assumed to be an atheist, but her followers deny this. I’d see her as stopping short of a hard atheist statement such as ‘the known universe works fine without any sign of God’. She is always hazy, though she certainly spits malice at actually existing religion:
“For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed it belongs to your neighbours – between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sale of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it…
“Both sides agreed that no rational morality is possible, that there is no right or wrong in reason – that in reason there’s no reason to be moral.” [L]
Again, factually incorrect. Numerous creeds claimed to have a ‘rational morality’, a claim you need to examine and pick holes in before dismissing it. I’ve not come across Ayn Rand ever taking on a specific thinker’s ideas in their own words and then showing those ideas to be wrong. I’d suppose that such coherent thinking is beyond her, she’s mostly a muddlehead with an inability to accept that she might be wrong.
As for the supposed clash between ‘those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed it belongs to your neighbours’ – every single society that got beyond tribalism had a religion that preached both, in its own fashion. Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism differ markedly on what you should or should not eat, permitted uses of violence, permitted and desirable choices in sex, marriage or celibacy, the fate of the soul after death etc. But all insist that you must care for other humans, not just respect their rights but also help them when in need. There is even a duty help those who seem not to merit it. Older religions mostly did not take this view, and those older religions perished.
Ayn Rand follows Nietzsche in seeing this as pernicious weakness. Both evade the interesting fact that societies full of such ‘weakness’ have proved stronger in the long run than those that just exalted the rights of the strong. This tends to be explained as due to God’s approval or disapproval: I prefer a more materialist explanation, that a community of moderately strong characters who cooperate will outfight a community of superior warriors who can’t agree with each other. I beliee that a doctrine of ‘love God and love your neighbour’ produces communities that work much better than the alternatives, without any need to suppose that God actually exists or does anything to help.
Leninist Communism was a departure from a long-established norm, in that it insisted just on human duties to other humans and officially rejected God. It went so far as to be suspicious of those who agreed with Leninism on most points but wanted to keep their personal faith. This worked quite well so long as people trusted the political leadership: when the virtue of the secular rulers began to be doubted, the system became unstable. Still, the various Asian Leninisms are still going strong, and Cuba is no longer alone in Latin America. That game is still not played out, and religions no longer have the authority they had before the Leninist era. Or they don’t except in places where Western influence successfully rolled back socialism, as happened in the Islamic world.
Ayn Rand sees the matter differently: “The infamous times you call the Dark ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest of martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival…
“Which is the monument to the triumph of the human spirit over matter; the germ-eaten hovels on the shorelines of the Ganges or the Atlantic skyline of New York” [M[
My own view is that Hindu religious architecture can be impressive, and that New York is a city fit for mice. They New York skyline displays impressive engineering skills, but also a total absence of grace or beauty. Of all the styles of architecture imported from Old Europe, they had to choose the really dull one, an empty Modernism whose central influence was Germany’s Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus style. This choice gave them an urban environment with a lot of consumerism and a dirty depressed society. Weirdly, almost every other American city has chosen to be a pint-sized copy of New York, even though most of them voice distaste for New York values.
As for the ‘Dark Ages’, they are sometimes blamed on Christianity, but Late Paganism had several centuries of stagnation before Christianity took over. Did thinking flourish among Europe’s barbarians, where no one much minded what you believed? The ‘Dark Ages’ were dark in Europe because the economy and the state both fell apart, creating a much poorer and less educated society. In Hindu India or China, there were few limits on what you could believe, but nothing like modern science emerged. Christianity may have had its advantages – particularly its notion that manual labour was dignified and quite compatible with being educated and clever.
Most 17th century scientists were Christians – Newton was, Robert Boyle was, Galileo was. So too were Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon, early definers of the philosophy of science. Only in the 18th century did the two part company, with a majority of major scientists becoming skeptics or deists. Even this was not universal – Faraday was a member of a minor Puritan creed, Eddington was a devout Quaker, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) was a sincere Anglican.
Another point – scientists and creative artists in the 20th century have much more often been on the left than on the right. Einstein was a moderate socialists and a pacifist. There is no sign that things will be any different for the 21st century. That’s the split among high achievers – those who depend on controlling others tend to be on the right, business people and the military. Those who depend largely on their own minds for their achievements are more often found on the left.
And what about God? Though most scientists are not believers in particular creeds, quite a lot are to some degree religious. Interestingly, physicists and mathematician tend towards some sort of deism, because they see a beautiful pattern. Biologists are more likely to be atheists, because they see mess and avoidable suffering.
And Ayn Rand? I feel inclined to classify Ayn Rand as ‘auto-theistic’ – someone who implicitly claims for themselves the attributes traditionally given to God. This is also where I’d place Nietzsche, though Nietzsche is vastly cleverer and had real insights.
I’ve not yet dealt with the most important topic, the question of industrial organisation. It is the one matter where Ayn Rand has some sort of logic, though a limited one. In her vision, people go from inventors to rich industrialists, unless wicked state interference stops them. Reality is very different, with inventors sometimes being swindled and sometimes failing commercially because their ideas are too advanced. But it’s a big enough topic to merit an article in itself. This I plan for the next issue.
[A] Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. Signet Books 1992, page 663.
[B] Ibid, page 1075
[D] Atlas Shrugged, pages 62-3
[F] Atlas Shrugged, page 387
[G] This is included in the OED entry for ‘Money’.
[J] Atlas Shrugged, page 547.
[K] Atlas Shrugged, page 560-61
[L] Atlas Shrugged, page 930
[M] Atlas Shrugged, page 966-7
[N] Atlas Shrugged, page 407
[P] Atlas Shrugged, page 145-6. The man’s name is actually given with an accent, but I’ve found that computers using ASCII make a complete mess of accents, so I avoid them. She may also have used the wrong accent, the Swedish form for a Norwegian name. This at least is claimed in his entry in the Wikipedia.
[Q] Article One, Section 8
[R] There is also the 9th Amendment, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” What this means is anyone’s guess: it certainly has not stopped Congress from moving into new areas.