All that you need to know about Atlas Shrugged


I have not read Ayn Rand’s major work that supposedly lays out her philosophy of objectivism and that has attracted devoted followers like Speaker of the House of representatives Paul Ryan, former chair of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, and a host of other libertarian-minded people.

The problem was that the first work of Rand’s that came into my hands was The Fountainhead that I found at a used book store and reading it turned out to be a real chore. It was so long (720 pages) and dreary that I simply could not bring myself to plough through another, even longer, book (running to about 1,200 pages) by her. It is not that I am averse to long books since I have read and enjoyed both War and Peace and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, who was no slouch himself at cranking out huge volumes of words.

But whereas Tolstoy wrote with grace and subtlety, built believable portraits of characters, and dealt with complex human relationships and issues, Rand is an author whose prose style can only be described as deadly, with characters who are always on message, two-dimensional and predictable, and never miss a chance to make speeches that relentlessly advance her philosophy, such as it is. So while I have frequently thought about reading this book just to try and understand its appeal, I just could not muster up the enthusiasm.

And yet, she seems to attract many readers, especially when they are young. Adam Lee has made reading the book even less necessary by providing a detailed précis of the ten main ideas that each of the three parts of the novel seems to make. In his review of the first part, Lee lays out the basic premise of the book.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, it depicts a world where corporate CEOs and one-percenters are the selfless heroes upon which our society depends, and basically everyone else — journalists, legislators, government employees, the poor — are the villains trying to drag the rich down out of spite, when we should be kissing their rings in gratitude that they allow us to exist.

Rand’s protagonists are Dagny Taggart, heir to a transcontinental railroad empire, and Hank Rearden, the head of a steel company who’s invented a revolutionary new alloy which he’s modestly named Rearden Metal. Together, they battle against evil government bureaucrats and parasitic socialists to hold civilization together, while all the while powerful industrialists are mysteriously disappearing, leaving behind only the cryptic phrase “Who is John Galt?”

(You can also read his deconstruction of part two.)

In the third part of the book, these ‘heroes’ decide to withdraw to a remote area in Colorado called Galt’s Gulch and live a totally self-contained existence just for themselves, depriving the world of their genius and irreplaceable skills as punishment for the way they were not truly appreciated, thus leading to misery, decay, and chaos in the world they left behind. Maybe the reason why the book appeals to the adolescent mind is that this is a version of a common childish fantasy where a child, angered by some event in their life where they were treated badly or not appreciated, thinks about running away or dying, and imagines that then the people who treated them badly will realize their error and will be sorry.

Lee says that the final third of the book contains a single speech by the hero John Galt that goes on for an incredible 34,000 words and shows us the heart of Rand’s dark and inhumane philosophy. He summarizes ten things about Rand’s views elaborated under the following headings:

  1. Good doctors put profit above saving lives.
  2. Laws should be made up by one person without any voting or debate.
  3. When capitalists gather in large enough numbers, consumer goods materialize all around them.
  4. True capitalism looks a lot like true communism.
  5. Women and children aren’t necessary.
  6. Time stops when a true capitalist is speaking.
  7. Humanitarians secretly want people to starve.
  8. The key to utopia is abandoning your oldest and most faithful friends.
  9. It’s okay to kill people who can’t make up their minds.
  10. The death of millions is a happy ending.

For those who maybe want to get Rand’s message more quickly than by reading her book, there were the three films that were made by devoted followers of Rand. They all failed miserably at the box office with gross revenues steadily dropping from $4.6 million to $3.3 million to a pitiful $860,000 for the final installment. The films were also panned by critics, with Rotten Tomatoes giving them ratings that steadily declined from 10% to 4%, to an astounding 0%.

One good thing that came out of the novel have been the jokes at its expense, such as this one by John Rogers who memorably wrote that, “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

The first of the films also produced funny parodies such as this one.

Comments

  1. says

    Dagny Taggart, heir to a transcontinental railroad empire

    I always loved that Dagny got her money the traditional way: inherited it. Like a proper oligarch, she was able to learn how to be competent at a job that she inherited without earning. Such a paragon!

  2. Randall Lee says

    None of the movies do any where close to justice to the work of Rand. Although there are a couple of things I disagree with her on, she stands as a giant in her Aristotlean approach to philosophy. Most critics of Rand are mostly unaware of the fact that the bulk of her work stands on the shoulders of Aristotle. By rejecting Rand they inadvertently reject the long recognized principles of Aristotle.

    .
    Critics such as Adam Lee are only consistent in one thing; and that is misrepresenting Rand’s philosophy. I think this mostly results from their inability or failure to initially read and properly understand her work, although it might be the result of their own preconceptions which they are too small minded to set aside. Mano, I find it sad that you would rely on his review and assessment as justification of your avoidance in honestly embracing the principles Rand introduces.
    .
    When speaking of reviews and the failure of the movie to accurately reflect Rand’s philosophy, maybe you would take the time to listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3pqMDIqwIo
    .
    But ultimately I would hope that you would enrich your life by honestly exploring Rand again at this juncture in your life. The mark of a truly intelligent person is the ability to explore new ideas from the perspective of a clean slate. Could you set aside your preconceptions and accomplish that? I know it will be worth your while.
    .

  3. doublereed says

    Adam Lee’s more detailed look at Atlas Shrugged, where he goes into much more detail about things is over at his blog. It is very informative, and talks about the consequences of Randian ideas in the real world.

    The comments section also has short scripts called the Cobra Commander Dialogues (Cobra Commander is the evil villain of GI Joe). Cobra Commander tries to understand the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, and is constantly confused about how they aren’t the villains. They are absolutely hilarious.

  4. Sam N says

    @Randall Lee

    You know what would be a lot more effective at convincing anyone who reads this blog that you have anything worthwhile to say? Instead of vaguely dismissing criticism of Atlas Shrugged, take specific issue with one item (starting with one is a good idea because who wants to ready 50 pages?) and deconstructing why it’s false. No one wants to listen to over two fucking hours of someone else explaining something tangentially relevant. If you can’t concisely deconstruct a single item of criticism, or at the very least link to a concise (like < 1 page) defense, then I must assume you have nothing to add.

  5. Siobhan says

    But ultimately I would hope that you would enrich your life by honestly exploring Rand again at this juncture in your life. The mark of a truly intelligent person is the ability to explore new ideas from the perspective of a clean slate. Could you set aside your preconceptions and accomplish that? I know it will be worth your while.

    Could swap out Rand with Harris and get the same mindless fanboy effect.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    Randall Lee: The mark of a truly intelligent person is the ability to explore new ideas from the perspective of a clean slate.

    That sounds deep, but it just doesn’t hold up to examination.
    There can be only one mark of a “truly intelligent person”?
    Who gets to decide what “true intelligence” is anyway?
    Starting with a clean slate is not always a good strategy. It sounds a lot like ignoring established evidence. That’s only a good thing if the available evidence is bad, or misinterpreted.

  7. Sam N says

    As for my recollection of Atlas Shrugged from when I read it 18 or so years ago. Every day I hope today’s Rand worshipping CEOs will attempt a John Galt and completely leave our society. It would be a very nice demonstration of exactly what they were actually worth to effectively running businesses, as productivity would scarcely change. Yes, please, all of you, GTFO and go to Galt’s Gulch or whatever.

  8. says

    Most critics of Rand are mostly unaware of the fact that the bulk of her work stands on the shoulders of Aristotle. By rejecting Rand they inadvertently reject the long recognized principles of Aristotle.

    o_0

  9. chigau (違う) says

    Could swap out Rand with Harris and get the same mindless fanboy effect.

    or Jesus

  10. jws1 says

    I like what Brian Leiter, then dept. chair of philosophy at Texas-Austin, said: “Ayn Rand is Nietzsche for stupid people.”

  11. Vivec says

    Also, Aristotle was good at logic, but he also thought people get angry because their blood is too warm and that everything was made out of the classical elements.

    In pretty much anything metaphysical, Aristotle was as much of a loon as your average randroid or William Craig Kalaam apologist (which, ironically, also was derived from Aristotle.))

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    Tabby Lavalamp @ # 13 – Be careful in how you scoff – Jordan Owen may have quoted Aristotle once!

  13. Vivec says

    And for the record, I’ve read Atlas Shrugged. I liked parts of it. If you got rid of the weird moralizing and “wanting to treat mexico fairly is dumb and evil” parts, you might have a decent story.

    Thankfully, that’s already happened, and it’s called Bioshock. There’s no reason to bother with Rand’s purple-prose tripe when that game gets the basic plot across in a way that’s both more realistic (Wow, a bunch of rich fucks with no rules led to bad things happening, whodathunkit?) and more entertaining.

  14. doublereed says

    @13 Tabby Lavalamp

    omg thank you. I figured due the length of the screed that it was someone in the intellectual realm of Stephen Molyneux, but I don’t know all the crazy youtube crackpots out there. You’ve done a great service this day.

  15. says

    The only Ayn Rand book I ever read was “Anthem,” a weak justification for selfishness (or “egoism” as she calls it) against an oppressive society that does not exist. And I’m not talking about the one in the novel, I mean the one she believed actually existed IRL.

    The only thing of value in the book is one section in the foreward. (I’m only linking to the text to avoid posting large amounts of her tripe here.) It’s the one thing the far right in the US wilfully ignore, an admonition about collectivism. Funny how those who rant most loudly against it are the ones trying to make it happen.

  16. says

    they inadvertently reject the long recognized principles of Aristotle.

    Aristotle’s principles are widely recognized as being of tremendous historical significance, but philosophy has moved past them – and for good reason.

    Unless you’re trying to say that Aristotle’s principles of the four humors is correct or that his explanation of causality is true? Both are not simply valuable principles we can ignore at our risk – they are flat out wrong and are refuted constantly by modern science. It’s a good thing we rejected those principles, in spite of the fact that they were long assumed to be true on the basis that Aristotle was indeed a smart motherfucker.

    Rand was a tediously bad writer, and more than a bit of what today we’d call a “troll” Rather than admit her opinions* were goofy she followed her amour propre into some very strange places.

    I will say this much about Rand: she was a better writer than L. Ron Hubbard and she had the kindness to stop writing upon her death. Other than that, it’s hard to assess which of the two did more damage.

    (* She has a lot of opinions, but hardly much of a philosophy)

  17. laurentweppe says

    I always loved that Dagny got her money the traditional way: inherited it. Like a proper oligarch, she was able to learn how to be competent at a job that she inherited without earning.

    There’s an handful of passages where it seems that Rand, -realizing how ridiculous the premise was- points that other oligarchs, including Dagny own brother, are, you know, inept parasites themselves, but somehow, Rand and her apostles never realized that her Own-Fucking-Tale’s implications should have led them away from fetichizing material wealth and greed.

    ***

    Most critics of Rand are mostly unaware of the fact that the bulk of her work stands on the shoulders of Aristotle.

    I know that Rand was an Aristotle fangirl.
    And given that Alexander the not-so-great’s whore #14 is my third most despised pseudo-intellectual, I don’t feel bad expressing contempt to Rand’s own brand of self-serving mental masturbation

    ***

    Could swap out Rand with Harris and get the same mindless fanboy effect.

    or Jesus

    There are plenty of sane, reasonable, well meaning Christian around the world.
    I’ve yet to met one Randologist who qualifies for these terms.

  18. enkidu says

    Rand stands on the shoulders of Aristotle in the same way that a flea stands on the shoulders of a cat. Both are parasitic and detrimental to the host.

  19. laurentweppe says

    Rand stands on the shoulders of Aristotle in the same way that a flea stands on the shoulders of a cat. Both are parasitic and detrimental to the host.

    And both host are evil: nice metaphor you’ve got here

  20. mnb0 says

    The only good thing that came out of Ayn Rand is some music of Rush – if you neglect the lyrics.

  21. lorn says

    Regularly there are breathless reports about how Atlas Shrugged is breaking records for sales:

    https://ari.aynrand.org/media-center/press-releases/2012/02/14/atlas-shrugged-still-flying-off-shelves

    What they don’t tell you is that there is a very simple reason why it sells so well; the sales and distribution of the book are heavily subsidized. The biggest reason so many people are exposed to it in high school is that it is often the cheapest book available to cash-strapped school districts. Right-wing think-tanks and conservative economic policy groups spend millions printing up paperback editions that will be sold at a deeply discounted price compared to other novels. A paperback edition can be printed for a few dollars in large orders. Sales to educational institutions are commonly discounted 70%, sometimes more. Way back when busing meant riding a dinosaur one of my high school teachers ,in a very poor district, got 200 copies for the cost of shipping by simply asking. For a small expenditure of money they can groom millions of young, vulnerable minds.

  22. Dunc says

    HOLY CRAP! Randall Lee linked to a video by Jordan Owen! THE Jordan Owen of The Sarkeesian Effect “fame”!

    This Jordan Owen – http://www.wehuntedthemammoth.com/?s=jordan+owen

    Holy crap holy crap holy crap! He actually takes Jordan Owen SERIOUSLY and expects us to as well!!!

    Hehe. I missed that – I just saw the length of the video and thought “yeah, right…” I guess we can put that down as one more datapoint for my hypothesis that Randall is actually just winding us up.

  23. MMark says

    I’m flabbergasted – a retired scholar is telling people that “all you need to know” about a book is someone’s biased review of it??

    I’m not a libertarian or a devotee of Rand, but I’ve read the book and Adam Lee doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In order for him to characterize the book in this fashion – “a world where corporate CEOs and one-percenters are the selfless heroes upon which our society depends, and basically everyone else — journalists, legislators, government employees, the poor — are the villains trying to drag the rich down out of spite” – he had to willfully misinterpret what Rand wrote. It bears no relation to the words on the page. I mean, if you don’t like Rand or her philosophy, fine…but why do you need to lie about it??

    This remark tells me Marcus hasn’t read the book either: “I always loved that Dagny got her money the traditional way: inherited it. Like a proper oligarch, she was able to learn how to be competent at a job that she inherited without earning. Such a paragon!” This is a complete inversion of what actually happens in the book. Dagny works her way up through the ranks and her brother – the head of the company – relies on his inherited position. The ignorance in this post and thread is stunning.

  24. doublereed says

    @28 MMark

    Adam Lee is by no means mischaracterizing the book. In his more detailed review, he talks about specific passages of the book throughout and their implications and consequences to the real world.

    And frankly, the characterization of “a world where corporate CEOs and one-percenters are the selfless heroes upon which our society depends, and basically everyone else — journalists, legislators, government employees, the poor — are the villains trying to drag the rich down out of spite” is quite apt and accurate to the book. How would you describe it?

  25. lpetrich says

    Seems to me a major market failure here. Because one might expect the movies to have gotten a lot of funding from the sorts of people that think of themselves as real-life John Galts and Dagny Taggarts and Hank Reardens and Francisco d’Anconias.

  26. NitricAcid says

    I wonder if Dagny Taggarts was the inspiration of the name Daenerys Targaryen.

  27. Holms says

    By rejecting Rand they inadvertently reject the long recognized principles of Aristotle.

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

  28. MMark says

    @doublereed: You’re insanely wrong. For starters, many if not most of the “corporate CEOs and one-percenters” in the book are villians! Dagny’s brother, for example, is the CEO of the railroad and is her nemesis throughout. The same goes for the CEO of a steel company competing with Reardon (I think that’s the right name). The people who “quit the world” are from all walks of life – lawyers, artists, politicians, the poor, you name it. The distinction Rand makes throughout the book is between those who produce and those who mooch. If you want something for noting you’re a moocher and if you just want to be left alone to make your own way in the world you’re a producer. It is impossible to miss this theme, she’s not a good novelist and she beats the reader about the head and shoulders with this theme for what feels like 2000 pages.

    Also, the villains in the book don’t do what they do “out of spite” – they do it out of a desire for power. They want to control the means of production and the people who produce, probably because they can’t or won’t produce to the same level. There is a long story told in the middle of the book about a car company whose employees vote to become essentially a communist entity. When I read this book I thought it boiled down to a long anti-communist allegory that wanted to be kind of the economics-based counterpart to 1984. I think we’re probably well beyond that now, I don’t see anyone seriously arguing that communism is either viable or moral (China’s still trying to hold on).

    The bottom line is there is plenty to criticize about Rand’s book, there’s no need to make stuff up out of wholecloth. That’s counterproductive.

  29. MMark says

    @doublereed: I took some time to go through Adam Lee’s detailed review, which you linked (and thank you for that). I’m afraid the rest of his review is as off base as the passage we’ve quoted. The giveaway is this – he finds nothing of redeeming value in the book. To paraphrase an old political joke, he thinks every word in the book sucks to include “and” and “the”.

    Here’s as far as I got: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2013/05/atlas-shrugged-rearden-family-values/

    I remember the passage he reviews in this section and he gets every important point exactly wrong. He doesn’t understand the character conflict that Rand is trying to create – again, she hammers this theme over and over and over – and doesn’t put this passage in the context of the latter realization that Reardon makes which leads to his decision to divorce his wife.

    Lee does not attempt to understand, to give a charitable reading to the text, or to permit the possibility that there are other rational interpretations. He obviously spent a lot of time on it, but it’s wasted.

  30. doublereed says

    But the heroes are all 1%ers. He doesn’t say the villains aren’t 1%ers.

    He actually gives Rand a lot of credit for setting up several scenes in fun ways. To say he finds nothing redeemable is too far.

    I suggest you read the cobra commander dialogues that I linked earlier, if only because they’re hilarious.

  31. Sam N says

    If Randall Lee is still following this thread, note how MMark is adding to the conversation through specific examples, note how much more interesting his posts are as compared to yours that some would easily interpret as trolling. (Seriously, posting a 2+ hour video an expecting us to read it).

    MMark, you’ve convinced me, a lot of criticism directed to her novel probably are facile and have counterpoints. It doesn’t change that the book is terribly written and horribly unrealistic, though. The Rearden metal is such a good example, a metal that has more functionality and is cheaper than steel with *NO* orders. Absurdity, even in a crony capitalism society. There are going to be some businesses ordering small amounts. I recall the Fountainhead more clearly, her description of a social worker who secretly want people to be dependent on her, it may accurately describe a tiny minority, but does anyone (Randal Lee, maybe?) think that’s how the typical social worker truly feels? Her view of how the world actually is and works is terribly warped. And her books so cartoonish that it would require masochism on my part to revisit them in detail.

  32. MMark says

    “But the heroes are all 1%ers.” Irrelevant. Each of the heroes earned their way to the top. None of the villains did, they got their through graft or other means. In this book that’s the only distinction that matters.

    “It doesn’t change that the book is terribly written and horribly unrealistic, though.” Sam, I couldn’t agree more.

  33. doublereed says

    “But the heroes are all 1%ers.” Irrelevant.

    The heroes are 1%ers and corporate CEOs. That’s how Adam Lee describes them. That is accurate. That is the point.

    Each of the heroes earned their way to the top. None of the villains did, they got their through graft or other means. In this book that’s the only distinction that matters.

    This is not true. This is a simple double standard. The heroes rely on outright violence and threats to obtain achievements through the book in both their personal and professional life. It’s just that their violence and threats are justified, because they’re threatening government officials. Not only that, but it says several times that they bribe various government officials as a cost of doing business.

    And their achievements are often comically absurd in their suggestion, like having a railroad company not go through any public land or have any government assistance or investment.

  34. starskeptic says

    “…two-dimensional and predictable…”
    Where did the characters pick up that extra dimension?

  35. MMark says

    This is not true. This is a simple double standard. The heroes rely on outright violence and threats to obtain achievements through the book in both their personal and professional life. It’s just that their violence and threats are justified, because they’re threatening government officials. Not only that, but it says several times that they bribe various government officials as a cost of doing business.

    You have the “heroes” and the “villains” in this book exactly reversed. Only one of the heroes in the book uses violence at all, and he is portrayed as a Robin Hood figure, stealing from oppressive governments to give back to the people. He also, if I’m not mistaken, never kills anyone, he just sinks ships and steals goods or destroys them.

    The people in the book who use threats and violence to achieve their aim are the villains – the moochers – the government officials who want power. They threaten Reardon for his steel formula and ultimately blackmail him for it. They try to blackmail Dagny to get her on board with their policy proposals. They kidnap Galt and almost kill him if I’m not mistaken. They create that strange sonic weapon and use it to demonstrate their power, threatening scientists to go along with their plans.

    It would appear that almost literally everything you know about it is wrong. I’d suggest you to take another look.

  36. doublereed says

    What? He even describes himself as a Reverse Robin Hood, not a Robin Hood. Where he takes the needy and destroys it. Like he’s deliberately sinking ships that carry food and necessary supplies so that people will starve. How does he sink ships without killing anyone? What?

    Chapter 3 talks about Nate Taggart who murders a state legislator to build his railroad. He also batters someone who offers him a loan. Also violent jealousy in the heroes’ romantic lives is scary.

    Again, you seem to have this hard time thinking that I’m saying the bad guys are good and the good guys are bad. I’m just saying the good guys are bad. I’m not saying anything about the bad guys. You keep going on about the bad guys, when I’m not even bringing them up.

    Maybe you should take another look at the book…?

  37. MMark says

    doublereed – ‘I was wrong’ is an acceptable out for you. You don’t have to keep doubling down.

    The pirate does indeed describe himself as a reverse Robin Hood, but not in the way you intend it. Here is what he says:

    “Robin Hood. …He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Well, I’m the man who robs the poor and gives to the rich – or, to be exact, the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich…What I actually am, Mr. Rearden, is a policeman. It is a policeman’s duty to protect men from criminals – criminals being those who seize wealth by force. … But when robbery becomes the purpose of the law…then it is an outlaw who has to become a policeman.”

    Once again, the distinction in the book is between those who produce and those who loot – whether they are rich and poor are incidental.

    Now, let’s go back to your original statement:

    “The heroes rely on outright violence and threats to obtain achievements through the book in both their personal and professional life.

    Citing Nate Taggart in defense of this sentence is outrageous, as he’s not even alive during the events of this book. And citing the sexual proclivities of the main characters is equally spurious. Both of them do engage in those acts of their own free will. There is no coercion.

    My point in bringing up the bad guys is that you’re inverting their activities. Everything you’re describing – the violence, the threats – is done by the bad guys in the book. And as I’ve shown, only one – peripheral at that – character described as a hero is guilty of any violence or threats whatsoever.

  38. doublereed says

    ??? But he’s committing violence as a Reverse Robin Hood, and you described him as a Robin Hood? So… please don’t describe things in the book that are blatantly false? So the pirate is not only violently attacking things, but also killing the people who need those supplies. That’s not violence?

    I never disagreed that the book has the makers-and-takers ideology of Rand. Yes, that is obviously the ideology there. That doesn’t negate their violence of the makers. That’s my whole point. The heroes commit all these acts of violence and it becomes “justified” because it’s against the evil takers. The fact that the bad guys do horrible things too is completely irrelevant. And Nate Taggart is considered Dagny’s role model, someone to be envious of. That’s the way Rand presents Taggart.

    FFS, the whole plan of the heroes is to destroy the world, with several deliberate acts of sabotage. They set fire to oil wells, collapse copper mines, sink ships, defraud investors etc. etc. The implication is that the destruction of the world is happening either way, but the “heroes” actively encourage it to happen. They don’t just sit on the sidelines.

    I said “personal and professional life.” Of course I’m talking about the sexual violence there. What did you think I meant?

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