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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