The Prometheans: Atlas Shrugged

As a basic step of self-esteem, learn to treat as the mark of a cannibal any man’s demand for your help. To demand it is to claim that your life is his property—and loathsome as such claim might be, there’s something still more loathsome: your agreement. Do you ask if it’s ever proper to help another man? No—if he claims it as his right or as a moral duty that you owe him. Yes—if such is your own desire based on your own selfish pleasure in the value of his person and his struggle.

While there are good points to Heinlein’s work – things about it that make it obvious to a sympathetic reader why it is he became so immensely popular, and things in it which can encourage a reader to become sympathetic – there’s nothing of the sort to the other book that jointly won the first Prometheus Hall of Fame award. Atlas Shrugged is a bad book on every conceivable level – bad on the level of craft, bad on the level of morality, and bad in terms of its influence and effects.

The basic plot is a simple one. An inventor named John Galt invents what amounts to a perpetual motion machine. The company he works for are impressed, and decide that since they would have a monopoly on a machine which would basically create a post-scarcity society, they might give some of the money they earn from it to charity, rather than keep it all for themselves.

Galt is horrified at the idea that anyone other than himself could possibly see any benefit from his machine, so he sabotages it and goes into hiding, spending years going around the USA persuading every competent inventor or manager to join him in a secret hideaway for rich people who think they’re the Nietzschean superman, and sabotaging all the major industries, so everything slowly decays and falls into corruption.

At the climax of the book Galt takes over all the radio stations and broadcasts a speech, lasting seventy pages, in which he berates everyone who isn’t him for their not being as clever as he is, and says that he is destroying civilisation because people who do physical work think they deserve a decent day’s pay in return for it, and because people believe that it’s morally incumbent on those who have money and power to help those who are suffering. He causes a massive civil war, and in the last few pages of the book, cuts off New York’s power and its transport systems, leaving people trapped there with no escape to die, panicking. Once enough people have died and the country’s collapse is complete, he intends to become ruler of the rubble along with his friends.

Oh, and he’s the hero of the book.

Rand’s book is, simply put, an attempt at arguing that supervillains are the real heroes. Her argument is that all progress happens because of men who are cleverer and simply better than everyone else, that they have no responsibilities whatsoever to the sheeple scurrying around them, that scale of achievement in itself is the ultimate good, and that anyone who tries to stop a genius from doing anything he wants to by imposing any kind of regulations is committing a sin against humanity and indeed against existence. Towards the end of the book, one of the characters rewrites the US constitution to include “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade”.

In other words, and to use an example from a piece of SF that my readers will mostly be familiar with, when the Doctor asks if he has the right to destroy the Daleks, Rand would argue that not only does he not have that right, but that by even asking the question he is making himself a leech and an impediment to progress. On the other hand, Davros’ speech about the virus would be exactly the kind of forward-thinking genius that makes humanity so great, and everyone should worship him (and women should have humiliating rapey sex with him because he’s so great and important).

This is not a distortion of the book’s meaning, and nor is it an oversimplification. It’s a book that takes the simple moral black-and-white-with-no-grey-areas view of superhero comics and simply reverses it. Greed is good. Power is good. People who try to restrain powerful greedy geniuses are the most evil people in the world. It’s a claim (I typed “an argument” at first, but it presents no argument, merely stating its conclusions as axioms) that health and safety regulations, taxation to provide public goods, and any other attempts to limit the harm that can be done by people who fit the comic-book (if not necessarily the real) definition of psychopathy are the greatest imaginable evils.

It’s not a book that has any literary depth to analyse, nor is it a book that admits of a nuanced reading – Rand explicitly argues against the very concept of nuance – it’s just a bald statement: clever people deserve to be worshipped by the stupid masses, who they are morally obliged to use and dispose of at their own whim.

And the “clever people” part of that is the secret to the book’s popularity – at least in the US (it’s never really made any impact anywhere else in the world, and only really came to the rest of the world’s notice as the Internet made the idiosyncracies of local cultures more readily available. Most people in Britain, for example, have still never heard of it). It says that if you think you’re cleverer than everyone else around you but you don’t make as much money as a plumber or a welder, it’s not because the plumber or welder has a more useful skill than you, it’s because you’re being held down by evil looters. On the other hand if you, as a computer programmer or an advertising copywriter or a politician, are making more money than them, that’s because you are a supergenius who really deserves even more, because the looters are still holding you back.

Of course, to anyone who feels even the slightest resentment about their position in life (and who has no basic empathy or understanding of social structures), this is a perfect excuse for every failure and justification for every success. It’s even better than blaming black or Jewish people for those purposes, because you can draw the lines however you want. Obviously you are one of the productive people, and obviously whoever you dislike is one of the looters. I’m OK, you’re a leech who should be killed for the improvement of humanity.

And so this book has become massively successful, and has permeated the culture in ways that are often so all-pervading it’s hard to realise just how much it’s harmed the world. Alan Greenspan, who was in charge of US monetary policy for decades (and who was pretty much single-handedly responsible for neoliberalism being a thing) was a devotee of Rand, as is Paul Ryan, the current Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Nathaniel Branden, who largely invented the concept of self-esteem as it’s applied in self-help books and feelgood memes, was a devotee (and lover) of Rand trying to popularise her ideas. As a result, her ideas have become so mainstream, even though when looked at directly they’re evil, that they often become an unacknowledged frame for discussion.

The odd thing is, though, that Heinlein, the Libertarians’ other favourite SF author, anticipated and parodied Atlas Shrugged seventeen years earlier. His short story The Roads Must Roll involves a technician who has convinced himself that he and his colleagues should be the ones to run the world, because society can’t function without them and therefore they’re the most important people in the world. He gathers a cadre of like-minded technically-skilled people around him, and then sabotages the workings of the transport system while broadcasting to the world about how the sheeple need to be ruled by the technicians who are the real workers.

The difference is, Heinlein’s “Galt” is the villain, and loses at the end, because all the sensible characters realise what a stupid and evil plan it is.

Heinlein was parodying Mafia-run US trade unions, but the plot is the same, and Heinlein even manages to sum up Atlas Shrugged‘s appeal:

The author…disclaimed the “outworn and futile” ideas of democracy and human equality, and substituted a system in which human beings were evaluated “functionally” – that is to say, by the role each filled in the economic sequence. The underlying thesis was that it was right and proper for a man to exercise over his fellows whatever power was inherent in his function, and that any other form of social organization was silly, visionary, and contrary to the “natural order.”

The complete interdependence of modern economic life seems to have escaped him entirely…

Functionalism was particularly popular among little people everywhere who could persuade themselves that their particular jobs were the indispensable ones, and that, therefore, under the “natural order” they would be top dog. With so many different functions actually indispensable such self-persuasion was easy.

If only the people who worship Heinlein had bothered to actually read him, maybe a lot of unpleasantness could have been avoided…

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21 Responses to The Prometheans: Atlas Shrugged

  1. davidgerard says:

    On the other hand, Jimmy Wales was a self-labeled Objectivist and founded Wikipedia based on that and the writings of Friedrich Hayek. (Really.) And Wikipedia’s not terrible! Mostly!

    (And Jimmy’s a lot more nuanced these days, because if there’s one thing Wikipedia editing does, it’s to bludgeon you in the face with the fact that the world is a very big place and people have all sorts of opinions …)

    • David Lewis says:

      Actually, Wikipedia is mostly terrible, but not because right wing loons started it. More because, having no filter, it has no anchor to land on objective fact and reasoned argument. When they put the anchors in (in this case, expert editors), it somehow became worse. It has its uses, but I think we’re better off without it.

      • davidgerard says:

        > It has its uses, but I think we’re better off without it.
        Unless you’re adopting a remarkably narrow and idiosyncratic version of “we”, I think you’re pretty obviously dead wrong there.

      • plok says:

        Oh, Wikipedia! I use it all the time, and wouldn’t miss it if it were gone. Was a little surprised to find, the last time Jimmy asked for money, that I was completely unwilling to pay even a penny for it. I didn’t actually see that coming, because as I said I use it all the time! So maybe I expected that I’d pay something to keep it in existence? But as it turns out: not.

  2. gavinburrows says:

    I’ve never bothered reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’ myself. And these days I’m not sure you need to. It’s just the internet with a semblance of narrative, right? But one thing which always amuses me whenever I read precise of it such as this. It’s advocating a smart people’s strike, something which as far as I know has never happened in history, isn’t likely to happen and I’m not sure ever could happen in any meaningful sense. And yet us little people, whose contributions are supposed to be so peripheral, whenever any of us go on strike they do their nut.

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  4. plok says:

    Gavin, it’s not a recommendation, but: Galt’s big speech is a wonder to behold. The third movie in the Atlas Shrugged trilogy that ran out of gas would have been so hilarious that I almost wish they really had made it…

    But then again: just not worth it really. Any of it.

  5. andrewrilstone says:

    I sometimes want to say to like Stephen Fry, or people who don’t get Bob Dylan : lots of people, incliding some really clever people, including some people you quite like and even admire — are really really big fans of God and the Bible, or, as it may be, the songs of Bob Dylan. So mustn’t there be something to the Bible, or Bob Dylan that you aren’t getting, to explain why all those good people are into it? (Like, I assume that there must be something in Cricket and Jazz that I’m somehow miasing. And dogs. Half of the nicest people I know are into dogs. ) So I guess my question is “can Atlas Shrugged” possibly really be as bad as all that? Is there nothing in it that might make you say “well I wouldn’t want to live there, but I can see why the natives like it?” No, waddaycall, “redemptive reading”?

    I read the first couple of essay in The Virtue of Selfiishness and they were shit.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I can see *exactly* why its fans like it — it’s because it tells you that selfishness is good, that caring for others is bad, that love and empathy are for losers, and that the highest possible morality is to hurt others for your own pleasure. Being told that is something a lot of people understandably like. It tells them that their belief in their own greatness is, in itself, proof of that greatness, that anyone with any less than them *or* any more than them is a leech and a looter and entirely dependent on great people like themselves. It’s permission to feel good about your own faults, and to believe them virtues.

      Its appeal is, fundamentally, the same appeal as Trump’s, but with an overlay of Dawkins-ish intellectual snobbery and “if I don’t understand it there must be nothing to understand because no-one’s cleverer than me” rather than “those experts with their book-learning think they’re so clever”.

      There are plenty of things I don’t get the appeal of — sports, or hip-hop music, or romance novels — this isn’t one of those, this is something where I see exactly what the appeal is. And I wish I didn’t, because the part of me that it appeals to is a part I find deeply shameful, and that I try to destroy, not feed.

    • plok says:

      Thinking of Trumpism and the “appeal” of Atlas Shrugged…for me it was very ordinary, I felt picked-on as a child and I had no real defence, no one had ever told me that being proud of one’s intelligence was a valid defence, and in fact it seemed to me that “intelligence” was where most of my social grief came from. Probably none of that was really true, or very little of it anyway, and I couldn’t be completely sure that I was a smart kid anyhow, so…in any case, reading something like Atlas Shrugged (or Ender’s Game!) at an impressionable age gave an excuse for being (so I thought) misunderstood, and a sort of (to paraphrase Adrian Veidt) “Norman Vincent Peale” embrace of “being smart” as something you could CHOOSE. Of course in that choosing are a host of other, concealed choices: political and ideological affinities, alignments. To valorize “rationality” is to retreat from complexity, specificity, etc. etc., is a great “fuck you” to all that you don’t understand and fear you never will. To see it in action, it’s probably only necessary to go to a university and listen in on a political discussion among students? Always a “rigourous” undergraduate with top grades arguing for “conservative values” at the ripe old age of twenty-one, doing his best to sound like John Cleese talking to Terry Jones. To his credit, Heinlein never makes you choose that way, his characters are all supermen with super-intellects by nature — even his cab drivers are whizzes at calculus, though they may be college dropouts! — so “choosing rationality” is never precisely the option on his table, but I think it’d be wrong to say a love of science fiction doesn’t prepare one for the Intelligence Excuse when somebody eventually comes along and offers it to you. How many times did anyone ever feel like Sherlock Holmes represented them, until Moffat and Gatniss recast Holmes as SF and called him a “high-functioning sociopath”? Or until Hugh Laurie turned his big soulful eyes on you in House, encouraging you to think of him as somehow a romantic leading man? Pardon me, the coffee hasn’t yet kicked in…

      But of course the Excuse need not be, specifically, about Intelligence. Not that effete ivory-tower stuff! It can be about Common Sense, or Being A Winner, too. Really it could be about anything, so long as the preconditions of diffidence are there to be capitalized on. I lost my taste for this confidence-booster about a third of the way through Atlas Shrugged, I started out wanting to be able to claim I had read this monumental tome as a sort of evidence of specialness and belonging to an elite tribe, but it got more ludicrous the further I went along. SF prepares one for certain kinds of indoctrination, perhaps, but it’s also a literature of irony, and even Ayn Rand, with all the speed in the world at her disposal, couldn’t prevent the evident moral of the story from becoming “put the captains of industry on an ice floe and let them drift away, we’ll all be better off.”

      And so much less complaining!

  6. Gilly says:

    “broadcasts a speech, lasting seventy pages”

    Wait, seriously? I knew enough about the book to know that it ended on a long speech, but I can’t understand how anyone could think that seventy pages of speech is a good idea for anything, except maybe a filibuster. And honestly? I can dismiss the “message” of the book as a combination of ignorance and entitlement, but this just stumps me on a fundamental level.

    I enjoy reading china mieville and h.p. lovecraft, so the idea that “brevity is the soul of wit” is something I am more flexible on than normal, but I can’t see anyone actually coming to the decision that a novel needs a 70 page speech. I can’t understand the editors and publishers that presumably read the draft deciding that a 70 page speech was something to give the thumbs up to. And I can’t see how any one could look at a novel with a 70 page speech, and decide that it is worthy of an award.

    In fact, I can’t think of any equivalent elsewhere in literature to the Atlas Shrugged 70 page speech, or at least nothing that someone would look at and decide that it was worthy of a sincere award.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yep. A seventy-page monologue. The length varies slightly depending on edition and printing (it’s “only” about fifty in the PDF copy I have) but it was seventy pages in the original edition.

      And it’s seventy pages of this sort of thing:

      “We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers, but have only now understood it. We have no demands to present to you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.”


      “But to think is an act of choice. The key to what you so recklessly call ‘human nature,’ the open secret you live with, yet dread to name, is the fact that man is a being of volitional consciousness. Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct. The function of your stomach, lungs or heart is automatic; the function of your mind is not. In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to think or to evade that effort. But you are not free to escape from your nature, from the fact that reason is your means of survival—so that for you, who are a human being, the question ‘to be or not to be’ is the question ‘to think or not to think.'”

      “A being of volitional consciousness has no automatic course of behavior. He needs a code of values to guide his actions. ‘Value’ is that which one acts to gain and keep, ‘virtue’ is the action by which one gains and keeps it. ‘Value’ presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? ‘Value’ presupposes a standard, a purpose and the necessity of action in the face of an alternative. Where there are no alternatives, no values are possible.”

      “There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.”

      For seventy pages.

      But then to be fair the vast bulk of the book consists of that sort of thing anyway, just presented as dialogue rather than monologue. To pick a page at random:

      “But I can’t find any answer. I can’t condemn you for what you’re doing, yet it’s horror that I feel—admiration and horror, at the same time. You, the heir of the d’Anconias, who could have surpassed all his ancestors of the miraculous hand that produced, you’re turning your matchless ability to the job of destruction. And I—I’m playing with cobblestones and shingling a roof, while a transcontinental railroad system is collapsing in the hands of congenital ward heelers. Yet you and I were the kind who determine the fate of the world. If this is what we let it come to, then it must have been our own guilt. But I can’t see the nature of our error.”

      “Yes, Dagny, it was our own guilt.”

      “Because we didn’t work hard enough?”

      “Because we worked too hard—and charged too little.”

      “What do you mean?”

      “We never demanded the one payment that the world owed us—and we let our best reward go to the worst of men. The error was made centuries ago, it was made by Sebastian d’Anconia, by Nat Taggart, by every man who fed the world and received no thanks in return. You don’t know what is right any longer? Dagny, this is not a battle over material goods. It’s a moral crisis, the greatest the world has ever faced and the last. Our age is the climax of centuries of evil. We must put an end to it, once and for all, or perish—we, the men of the mind. It was our own guilt. We produced the wealth of the world—but we let our enemies write its moral code.”

      “But we never accepted their code. We lived by our own standards.”

      “Yes—and paid ransoms for it! Ransoms in matter and in spirit—in money, which our enemies received, but did not deserve, and in honor, which we deserved, but did not receive. That was our guilt—that we were willing to pay. We kept mankind alive, yet we allowed men to despise us and to worship our destroyers. We allowed them to worship incompetence and brutality, the recipients and the dispensers of the unearned. By accepting punishment, not for any sins, but for our virtues, we betrayed our code and made theirs possible. Dagny, theirs is the morality of kidnappers. They use your love of virtue as a hostage. They know that you’ll bear anything in order to work and produce, because you know that achievement is man’s highest moral purpose, that he can’t exist without it, and your love of virtue is your love of life. They count on you to assume any burden. They count on you to feel that no effort is too great in the service of your love.
      Dagny, your enemies are destroying you by means of your own power. Your generosity and your endurance are their only tools. Your unrequited rectitude is the only hold they have upon you. They know it. You don’t. The day when you’ll discover it is the only thing they dread. You must learn to understand them. You won’t be free of them, until you do. But when you do, you’ll reach such a stage of rightful anger that you’ll blast every rail of Taggart Transcontinental, rather than let it serve them!”

      This is, literally, what the entire book is like from beginning to end. When I said it was bad on the level of craft, I really, really meant it. I’m not usually one to let bad prose style or too much expository dialogue put me off a book, but even I have limits. And there’s over a thousand pages of this.

      • plok says:

        This is why I wish they’d made the movies: the last one would’ve just been the speech, for three hours.

        The greatest thing about that is that if you’re the kind of person who wants to make Atlas Shrugged into a trilogy at all, then you would not countenance cutting the speech! For you that would be like making V For Vendetta and leaving out Valerie’s note! So it would be the entirety of the last movie, couldn’t be otherwise.

        And that would really have been something to see!

        I mean: to have been aware of from a distance.

    • davidgerard says:

      “broadcasts a speech, lasting seventy pages” Wait, seriously?

      Now, you might think that was the sort of thing you’d expect from someone speeding off their nut, but you would be … entirely correct in this.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        Why Rand couldn’t have been one of the *good* SF writers who was on massive amounts of speed, I don’t know. Philip K Dick never wrote anything that bloated — he knew that if you take more than a week or so to write a book it takes longer before you get the money for more speed.

        (Apparently Dick didn’t write a book *not* on speed for the first twenty years of his career. He was known to wait until he was so close to running out of money he was reduced to eating dogfood, spend the last of his money on speed, and write a novel in a weekend to get more money.)

  7. plok says:

    Important to note, too, that the speech isn’t broken-up or leavened in any significant way. You’d expect some “he said” stuff in there. “They looked at him,” or something. ANYTHING.

    But, nope. You’re just lucky you get paragraph breaks, ungrateful takers!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Only looters want other characters’ reactions. Other characters are just leeches who drain the life-force from the only true humans — main characters. And real Aristotelean men can talk for three hours straight without a pause for breath or a sip of water. A is A, plok! A is A!

      • Gilly says:

        I can’t help but wonder if this is Rand’s actual position on the matter.

        I’ve had a think about how 70 pages dedicated to a speech could actually work, and the only thing I can think of is having a the speech be a normal length one and have the 70 pages being of different people across society reacting to the same speech.

        Only… I don’t think Rand is interested enough in other people to consider attempting this. I’m reminded by what you said of Wheels Within Wheels, and how its crime is being science fiction whilst being stuck in the past. I’m not sure Atlas Shrugged can even rise to that. Even being stuck in the past requires you to have a look at the world around you enough to want to retreat from the present. And Atlas Shrugged is simply too busy admiring itself in a mirror.

  8. plok says:

    #maincharacters #realcharacters

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