Ayn Rand was a highly controversial writer and philosopher of the 20th century. She wrote two blockbusters which got negative reviews initially, but which have sold steadily since then, mostly through word of mouth. The two blockbusters were The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Both are novels of ideas. The central idea of both novels is that a man’s life belongs to him and him alone, and that the purpose of that life is the living of the life itself, in the conscious, intense joy and dignity of purposely living a life that is one’s own and no-one else’s.
Rand shocked, and continues to shock, her public with the idea that selfishness is a virtue. She described what this means in her novels: your life belongs to you; not to the state, nor any group, not even your family; recognizing this is a key step towards realizing your potential.
Atlas Shrugged is about the producers and the looters of society. In Rand’s ideal society (an ideal capitalist economy), the producers would be left free to produce and by so doing, would lift everyone’s boat. The bad guys in Rand’s vision were the looters, those who either did not produce or (worse) decided that they would seize power and enslave the producers, force the producers to produce for them.
In Rand’s two famous novels, the producers are highly intelligent, creative, active people: artists, entrepreneurs, industrialists, inventors. Rand freely admits that her heroes and heroines are idealized characters. They are also mostly rich and well-bred.
Atlas Shrugged focuses on this concept of producers and looters: the looters try to enslave the producers, and the producers fight back by going on strike (Rand’s original title for the novel was “The Strike”). The events are seen through the eyes of two main characters, producers, who see going on strike as selling out, as giving up, as failing, and who resist. Their resistance to both the looters and the strikers allows Rand to highlight the issues involved: emotional, economic, political, and personal. The producers are people of great honesty and integrity, and these very qualities blind them for much of the novel to what is going on; to the actual intentions and values of the looters. The truth is so horrifying (to them) that at first they refuse to see it, to believe it, or accept it.
There is one scene where one of the characters, Dagney Taggart, finally understands the looters’ complete moral bankruptcy and sickening intentions:
There, she thought, was the ultimate goal of all that loose academic prattle which businessmen had ignored for years, the goal of all the slipshod definitions, the sloppy generalities, the soupy abstractions, all claiming that obedience to objective reality is the same as obedience to the State, that there is no difference between a law of nature and a bureaucrat’s directive… all of it, for years, that the day might come when Nat Taggart, the realist, would be asked to consider the will of Cuffy Meigs as a fact of nature, irrevocable and absolute like steel, rails and gravitation, to accept the Meigs made world as an objective, unchangeable reality – then to continue producing abundance in that world. … the savages who, seeing a farmer gather a harvest, can consider it only as a mystic phenomenon unbound by law of causality and created by the farmers’ omnipotent whim, who then proceed to seize the farmer, to chain him, to deprive him of tools, of seed, of water, of soil, to push him out on a barren rock and to command: “Now grow a harvest and feed us!” (50th anniversary edition, paperback, p 839).
I was reminded of this, and of her idea of “looters”, while watching this John Pilger documentary about Indonesia and globalization. About 36 minutes into the documentary, there is an interview with an Indonesian worker whose children suffer from some blood disorder. Inflation threatens his ability to buy the medecines his children need to survive. Although the documentary focuses on his economic situation, on the “unfairness” of this symbolic man’s plight (earning so little per day while others get millions “unearned”, is Pilger’s implication), I was strongly reminded of the image in Atlas Shrugged.
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