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SOLO-International Op-Ed: Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged--Back to the Top of the Pops!
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Sun, 2009-03-15 21:50
A specter is haunting the world.
The specter of capitalism.
On October 10, 1957, Atlas Shrugged was published by Random House.
Thirteen years in the writing, including two years on the novel's key philosophical exposition, Galt's Speech, Atlas instantly alienated all elements of the establishment. It still does. Yet according to an oft-quoted 1994 US Library of Congress poll, more respondents were influenced by it than by any other book apart from the Bible. Fifty years after its publication, the New York Times wrote it up as “one of the most influential business books ever written.” Now, as its grim prescience is vindicated in a statism-induced crisis of unprecedented magnitude, it is poised to become the most influential business (or philosophy) book ever written. Incredibly, it now sits at number 24 on Amazon.com overall, and number 1 on the fiction list! The book that was reviewed, variously, as "execrable claptrap," "not in any literary sense a serious novel," "written out of hate," "grotesque eccentricity," "crack-brained ratiocination," "a pitiful exercise in something akin to paranoia," "longer than life and twice as preposterous," etc., has easily eclipsed the reviewers who denounced it so apoplectically. The book that unashamedly touts muscular individualism, freedom and laissez-faire capitalism is being sought out as never before as people thumb their nose at the politicians' Big Lie that the free market is responsible for the current crisis.
An analysis of the reasons it was so hated yields also the reasons it is still so loved. Atlas, far more explicitly than Ayn Rand's previous best-seller, The Fountainhead, challenges, in Rand's own words, "the cultural tradition of two thousand five hundred years." It demolishes the sacrificial ethic that permeates the belief systems of that entire period. It repudiates the proposition that man's highest purpose and duty is to sacrifice himself—be it to God, the state, society or his neighbour. It roundly condemns the equation of ethics with suffering. "The purpose of morality," says one of its heroes in a startlingly direct and outrageous formulation, "is to teach you not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live."
Thus did Ayn Rand enrage religious conservatives and secular "liberals" alike. In the latter category, Gore Vidal could write that Atlas was "perfect in its immorality"; in the former, Whittaker Chambers could lambast it for its "materialism" (this, of a book glorifying the human spirit) and insist that from every page one could hear the command, "To a gas chamber—go!" (this, of a book whose climactic speech contains the following: "So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? No man may start—the use of physical force against others ... Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins"). Ayn Rand demonstrated to all comers on the political spectrum that their fondly-held and fiercely-fought disagreements with each other were, at root, illusory—a home truth that those who heard it would rather not have. That is why the book was and is so hated.
Against their stale self-abasement and conformism, Rand urged man to rise, to achieve his proper estate: "an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads." That is why the book is so loved—by any human being who has not let his "fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all."
The title Atlas Shrugged is, of course, an allusion to the mythical hero who carried the world on his shoulders. It portrays real-life Atlases— inventors, thinkers, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, labourers—shrugging off their burdens and going on strike. Their burdens—the "looters" and "moochers" who expect their "needs" to be met through the efforts of the Atlases—are left to their own devices (prayers, snarls and demands for the unearned) as one by one the strikers repair to a safe haven, a hidden libertarian society, "Galt's Gulch," where they deal with each other rationally and voluntarily, awaiting the inevitable collapse of the collectivist cannibalism they have left behind. Small wonder Atlas is resonating so loudly in the era of Bailout Bolshevism!
The reviews quoted above, and many more like them, nearly did Atlas in. On the strength of dismal initial sales, Random House became convinced that they had a commercial failure on their hands. But some critics got it right. John Chamberlain divined that Atlas was "directed towards the creation of an entirely new mental and moral force in the world." Ruth Alexander, in the New York Mirror, proclaimed that "Ayn Rand is destined to rank in history as the outstanding novelist and most profound philosopher of the twentieth century." And then the sense of life of millions of Americans took over. As Barbara Branden writes in The Passion of Ayn Rand: "As always in Ayn's professional career, it was predominantly word of mouth that caused the sagging sales of her novel to pick up—then to soar—then to skyrocket through printing after printing and edition after edition and year after year."
In an age of weasel-words, the appeal of Atlas Shrugged is its unambiguity. Conventional pseudo-defenders of capitalism speak in muffled voices and genuflect to the morality of sacrifice for the common good. Who among them would dare to point out the obvious truth that if benefit to others be the criterion of virtue, Bill Gates, acting in his self-interest, is infinitely more virtuous than the selfless Mother Teresa? As has been demonstrated comprehensively by free market economists, the "collective" benefits of self-interested action are real—but they are a consequence, not a primary (a point usually lost on said economists). The present crisis, contrary to the claims of Barack Chavez-Obama and the unreconstructed socialists in Washington and academia, is caused not by self-interest but by government restrictions on it.
Self-interested action is good because it is the expression of rational judgement. Rational judgement is good because it is by this means that human beings live (even those who don't exercise it are dependent on those who do). And life is morality's only defensible standard of value, the only possible criterion by which we can meaningfully designate anything as "good." By that standard, happiness—one's own, individual happiness—becomes one's highest moral purpose. In that discovery and all that flows therefrom, including the imperative of political freedom, lies the moral revolution of Atlas Shrugged. To paraphrase Gore Vidal, the book is perfect in its morality.
How Ayn Rand would savour the delicious irony that the renewed pandering of powerlusters to parasites has sent her magnum opus back to the top of the pops!
How the politicians must be trembling at the command that is heard from every page: "Producers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains; you have a world to win!"
Lindsay Perigo: firstname.lastname@example.org
SOLO (Sense of Life Objectivists): SOLOPassion.com
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The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand