I read Atlas Shrugged sitting by my son’s bedside while he recovered from pneumonia in a Viennese hospital. His treatment cost us nothing, by which I mean nothing, as we not only benefited from European Union healthcare reciprocity, but also because I was not a taxpayer at the time and so made no financial contribution to social medicine whatsoever. I imagine this makes me what Rand would call a “looter.” It certainly made reading Atlas Shrugged all the more delicious; indeed, I could hear her bones rattling in her Westchester grave as I turned each page. Note to the Ghost of Ayn Rand: for all the looters like me, the Austrian capitalist economy has done pretty well over the years.
I enjoyed some of the book. I liked Dagny Taggart rather a lot and thought that she, rather than Galt or Rearden, was the real hero of the story. Dagny was at her best when she struggled against the economic implosion caused, not by looters like me, but sociopaths like Galt. Her dogged determination to keep going was admirable; her eventual acquiescence rather sad. The scene where she rides her new train is quite exhilarating as such things go. She is also a rather sexy minx, which might explain some of the appeal to a male reader, although I shall deny it vociferously if accused of such shallowtude.
The build-up to the John Galt reveal is also pretty good. In large part I kept turning those pages in that Vienna hospital because I wanted to know “who [was] John Galt”? I also found myself attracted to Rand’s celebration of human reason as an epistemologically good thing. These are about all the positives I can muster. Mostly, particularly the latter third when the polemic really begins, Atlas Shrugged is junk. Here’s why:
First, the philosophy. Randians clutch Atlas Shrugged at their tea parties as if she invented libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism. She didn’t and others have done it better (see Hobbes and Locke). Any sensible reader will also note that the vehicle through which “Objectivism” is taught — namely the plot of Atlas Shrugged — is so clunky that the philosophy cannot be said to have been sufficiently or honestly tested. I mean, it is easy to hate the looters and see John Galt as the Messiah when the bad guys are painted with such cartoonish brushes. The Objectivist heroes are all three-dimensional; idiots like James Taggart and Wesley Mouch are 2D straw men that can be blown away at only the hint of a breeze.
Second, the ethics and politics. Rand overreaches spectacularly. As a critique of Soviet communism, the ethics on display in Atlas Shrugged would make better sense. Faced with the oppressions of the Soviet state, who could blame people like Hank Rearden for downing their tools? Indeed, one feels as if Rand is dealing with her own demons as a Russian-American, rather than facing any American/western reality. Given that the setting is a fictional, but still democratic America, the strike seems on one level juvenile, on another close to treasonous. (I wonder how modern, hyper-patriotic Randians stir that one in their teapot. The strikers destroy America.)
Third, the writing. I’ll just mention the 50-page John Galt speech — a veritable dot matrix printer in prose — and leave it at that.
Over at M*, Geoff is engaged in a brave attempt to square Rand with the gospel. It’s certainly true that most any book will contain gospel themes (wait for my upcoming The Hungry Caterpillar and the Plan of Salvation), but Atlas Shrugged would seem an unlikely candidate. For one, its celebration of sexual deviance (adultery, barely consensual sex — activities which seem to have attracted Ms. Rand in her own personal life) would seem to disqualify it from a place on religious conservatives’ bookshelves. But let’s not be distracted by sex. When the ultra-atheistic Rand states that “concern and compassion” for the “the feeble, the flawed, the suffering, the guilty” is “mawkish,” one wonders how on earth this can find a friend in the philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for hard work and industry and certainly find much to be irritated with by the sprawling social welfare programme in my country (this is where I remind our dear readers that I am a member of the British Conservative Party, loathe New Labour, and look forward to a David Cameron premiership), but Atlas Shrugged is a really poor book, as both fiction and philosophy. Conservatives can do better.