Why Atlas Shrugged, the libertarian's bible, is back in the bestseller lists
“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders – what would you tell him to do?”
One of the latest hits on YouTube is a nine-minute compilation of clips from King Vidor’s 1949 film of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. It is titled “Howard Roark makes a case against Barack Obama”. Roark, somewhat bizarrely played by Gary Cooper, is the hero of Rand’s novel: an individualist architect who serves as a metaphor for the battle against the evils of welfarism and its parent, socialism. Roark will not submit himself to serve others, but nor does he expect others to serve him. His welfare, his progress, the creation of his wealth and reputation are matters for him alone. His moral view is that it is better for society that things are ordered in that way, for it makes every man his own master.
He is a visionary architect. He designs buildings that he believes in. They are only to be built not just if they find clients, but if those clients agree that the integrity of the design (and therefore the integrity of Roark) must be sacrosanct. When Roark’s design for a public housing project is chosen, but built with modifications of which he does not approve, he blows the building up. He is put on trial after a hate campaign against him by a newspaper that crusades against individualism. After an electrifying courtroom speech defending his principles and his ideology, he is acquitted.
His reputation is made and his individualism respected. Those who have sought to add him to the list of men enslaved by self-sacrifice, that they might themselves wield power, are roundly vanquished. In Rand’s world, intervention by the state is a fundamental evil. The coercion into self-sacrifice is an abomination. There is to be a ruthless selfishness balanced by a strict morality: and the philosophy in which this morality is to be rooted is one of rationalism and not of any theology. “It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.” As Roark puts it at his trial: “I have come here to say that I do not recognise anyone’s right to one minute of my life…It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.” The story can be seen as one of almost laughable extremes, but it has become regarded in the last 60 years as a parable of the American way. When a new president is tearing up that way and imposing what some of his critics have called “socialism”, it is easy to see how the conservative element in America has seized on Roark as a beacon for these disturbed times.
That, though, is not the limit of Rand’s influence on the current debate. Her novel Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, was in one 1991 survey voted the second most influential book in America, second only to the Bible. Rand would have seen an element of challenge in this. Her militant atheism was unconcealed. Faith was not merely a rank superstition, it also claimed the authority of a higher being over man. Rand could not accept that any man, or any entity, had power over the individual. This has handicapped some on the Right in America from embracing the rest of what, to them, would normally be a highly compatible philosophy: she showed them the cloven hoof and her adherents today in the institute that bears her name continue relentlessly to do the same. The victory of ideas is not won by appeasement.
Her gods are living and they are men like Roark and the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt. These are men who lead by example and in whom the milk of Judaeo-Christian human kindness is replaced by a stiff cocktail of realism, integrity, individuality and self-help. The world is told to accept such people on their own terms – terms that strive not to force one man’s will upon others, but to make others see that the will of the individual, exercised morally, is to be respected and fostered. In the first seven weeks of this year, sales of Atlas Shrugged trebled in America. They have even risen in the UK, where until Penguin published an edition of the novel a couple of years ago (along with copies of other of Rand’s works, including The Fountainhead) they were harder to obtain than Mein Kampf – such, presumably, was deemed to be their ideological offensiveness to the British people. Last year, 51 years after its first publication, the novel sold a record 200,000 copies in the US. Sales have been further boosted by the recession.
The American hardback edition of the book has the same turquoise dust-wrapper that will be familiar to viewers of the cult TV series Mad Men. The senior partner of the advertising agency in the series, Bert Cooper, gives copies of the book to favoured underlings whose minds he wishes to see travel in the right direction, a subtle advertisement that will not have done sales any harm
either. On the blurb of the hardback it reads: “This is a story of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world: and did.” Atlas Shrugged takes the pro-individualist ideology expounded in The Fountainhead one stage further. Roark’s appears to be a personal, or local, struggle against forces that seek to control him which are prevalent within his milieu. In Atlas Shrugged, they have infected an entire nation and apparently much of the world.
Who is John Galt? He is a man who by his wit and ingenuity discovers the secret of perpetual motion. In doing so, he becomes successful, and – his just reward – rich: the Christ-like symbol by which he comes to be recognised is not the cross, it is the dollar sign. Inevitably, as successful enterprises do, he puts less successful ones out of business. This goes down exceptionally badly with the slow-witted rivals, who demand that Congress pass a “fair shares law”, to award them a slice of the profits made by Galt’s genius, that they might keep body and soul together without having to strive for any innovatory coup themselves. Think of the whining of the car giants of Detroit at the fact that Americans would rather buy reliable, well-made German cars than the tinny rustbuckets turned out by them, and their demands for huge taxpayer-funded bailouts, and you begin to see why this book and its arguments have once more turned on lights all over America.
Galt withdraws from society and takes his genius, and his wealth-creation, with him. He sets up a base in the Rockies: not a collective, not a commune – expressly not those things – but a society where every man or woman exists on his or her own terms, spurred on by the profit motive, outside the reach of a confiscatory or controlling state. Inevitably, without the services of the truly innovative and capable, America starts to fall apart. Rand demonstrates that it is not merely capitalism, but the self-interest upon which capitalism must be based, that leads to a dynamic, progressive and truly free society. Rand was the daughter of a St Petersburg pharmacist who witnessed the confiscation of her parents’ property after the 1917 revolution and herself came to America in 1926. Her visceral hatred of collectivism stems from that, but was matured over a lifetime not merely of watching the development of the inevitable evils of communism around the world, but of witnessing the blindness of Americans whom she felt had an unduly casual attitude to the real nature of capitalism and of the threats towards it. In her novel, it is not merely America that is giving up on capitalism. Other nations are relying on America for handouts as they slump into the status of “People’s States”. Rand started to scheme the novel at the time of the Marshall Plan, which she thought put the whole of non-Sovietised Europe on the road to socialism, too.
How well written are Rand’s novels? Indeed, how far are they novels? Are they simply vehicles for what her detractors would dismiss as propaganda, and her supporters as philosophy? When one considers some of the aperçus of Atlas Shrugged, they owe nothing to subtlety and much to the crusading vigour of the ideologue. “The political system we will build is contained in a single moral premise: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force.” Or this: “No rights can exist without the right to translate one’s rights into reality – to think, to work and to keep the results – which means: the right of property.” Or this: “There is a morality of reason, a morality proper to man, and Man’s Life is its standard of value.” Or this: “A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.” Or this: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
Eventually, we get to the root of Rand’s philosophy – objectivism, something for which she was ridiculed when she first expounded it (and accused of being a Nazi for espousing, which missed the point, both about her hatred of state intervention and the fact that she was Jewish): “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
The vilification she endured from the time of Atlas Shrugged, when she made the self-conscious leap from being a novelist to being a philosopher, was perhaps made worse by the fact that she placed so much emphasis on money. For her, the sign of the dollar was the sign of freedom, of which individuality and capitalism were essential component parts. When she died in 1982 the only floral tribute permitted at her funeral was a wreath in the shape of a dollar sign. “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns – or dollars. Take your choice – there is no other.” I cannot source the quotation, but she is also reputed to have said at one point: “The difference between a welfare state and a totalitarian state is a matter of time.” There are many conservatives in America today who feel similarly, and who are affected by one of Roark’s aphorisms in The Fountainhead: “The evil of the world is made possible by nothing but the sanction you give it.”
Once Atlas Shrugged went to the top of Amazon’s fiction bestseller list in February this year the liberals became worried. Rand’s espousal of capitalism, and more to the point her delineation of the consequences of not espousing it, are deliberately extreme. She was not seeking to make a point with intellectuals: she had all but written them off. She was seeking to make her point with middle America and she wrote accordingly. Her novels were savaged by highbrow critics when they were published. The film of The Fountainhead – for which she also wrote the screenplay – has always been regarded as, at best, a curiosity, at worst as preposterous. Those who have never read a word she wrote – or have tried to read them, but have never progressed far beyond the opening chapters of any of the four novels (the other two being We The Living and Anthem) – glibly trot out the assertion that her prose is “turgid”. It is anything but. In its Hollywood-style accessibility it may be vulgar, but it is fluent and her narratives have exceptional pace. Even at the focal point of Atlas Shrugged – the speech by John Galt over hijacked airwaves where he sets out his terms, and those of his confederates, for returning to America and participating in normal life once more, and which lasts for over three and a half hours in the unabridged audiobook of the title – she has a knack of maintaining that insistent tone that keeps the reader’s attention for a surprisingly long time. Of course, it is structurally absurd: but by that stage in the book only the dedicated are still reading, and the words have taken on the aura of a religious text.
Rand knew what she was trying to do: she chose a popular form, storytelling, to transmit her ideas because she sought the maximum number of converts. Judging by the persistence of her influence, it worked. She identified a raw nerve in the American body: that which prizes freedom and “the American dream” above all else, and which fears the state as the only engine that could ever compromise that. In the period of uncertainty after the Second World War, the era of McCarthyism and the Cold War, she had a strong audience. At a time when America and her dream have been shaken and challenged as never since the 1930s, hers is a ready-made prescription that can be made to seem a prophecy. But does it only apply to America?