Rereading “Atlas Shrugged”

A couple of days ago, I finished re-reading Altas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. This was my fourth time reading the novel: the first was in the summer of 1968, the second in the late 1970s, and the third in 2010, when I wrote a lengthy review of my impressions. In the review, I noted that what struck me most in reading the book multiple times over the span of more than four decades, was how prescient it was in predicting the social and political trends that played out over the period. After the first reading, I concluded:

[T]he world of Atlas Shrugged … seemed very remote from that of 1968—we were going to the Moon, and my expectations for the future were more along the lines of 2001 than Rand’s dingy and decaying world. Also, it was 1968, for Heaven’s sake, and I perceived the upheavals of the time (with a degree of naïveté and wrongheadedness I find breathtaking at this remove) as a sovereign antidote to the concentration of power and oppression of the individual, which would set things aright long before productive people began to heed Galt’s call to shed the burden of supporting their sworn enemies.

And then, a decade later:

My next traverse through Atlas Shrugged was a little before 1980. The seventies had taken a lot of the gloss off the bright and shiny 1968 vision of the future, and having run a small business for the latter part of that sorry decade, the encroachment of ever-rising taxes, regulation, and outright obstruction by governments at all levels was very much on my mind, which, along with the monetary and financial crises created by those policies plus a rising swamp of mysticism, pseudoscience, and the ascendant anti-human pagan cult of environmentalism, made it entirely plausible to me that the U.S. might tip over into the kind of accelerating decline described in the middle part of the novel. This second reading of the book left me with a very different impression than the first. This time I could see, from my own personal experience and in the daily news, precisely the kind of events foreseen in the story. It was no longer a cautionary tale but instead a kind of hitch-hiker’s guide to the road to serfdom.

Fast forward to the third time in 2010, when the “financial crisis” and its aftermath motivated me to pick up that weighty tome for a third time.

What was different, and strikingly so, from the last read three decades ago, was how astonishingly prescient this book, published in 1957, was about events unfolding in the world today. As I noted above, in 1968 I viewed it as a dystopia set in an unspecified future. By 1980, many of the trends described in the book were clearly in place, but few of their ultimate dire consequences had become evident. In 2010, however, the novel is almost like reading a paraphrase of the history of the last quarter century. “Temporary crises”, “states of emergency”, “pragmatic responses”, calls to “sacrifice for the common good” and to “share the wealth” which seemed implausible then are the topics of speeches by present day politicians and news headlines. Further, the infiltration of academia and the news media by collectivists, their undermining the language and (in the guise of “postmodernism”) the foundations of rational thought and objective reality, which were entirely beneath the radar (at least to me) as late as 1980, are laid out here as clear as daylight, with the simultaneously pompous and vaporous prattling of soi-disant intellectuals which doubtless made the educated laugh when the book first appeared now having become commonplace in the classrooms of top tier universities and journals of what purport to be the humanities and social sciences. What once seemed a fantastic nightmare painted on a grand romantic canvas is in the process of becoming a shiveringly accurate prophecy.

So, where [were] we [in 2010]? Well (if you’ll allow me to use the word) objectively, I found the splice between our real-life past and present to be around the start of chapter 5 of part II, “Account Overdrawn”. This is about 500 pages into the hardback edition of 1168 pages, or around 40%.

And now, in 2022, where are we in the narrative? It’s hard to identify a precise point because things are progressing (or, if you prefer, devolving) along multiple tracks at different rates, but my rough guess would be we’re somewhere around 70% to the final collapse. Compared to 2010, we have seen major infrastructure collapses and infrastructure projects turned into laughable boondoggles to the extent few take them seriously any more. The overt and explicit rejection of objective reality which seemed so over the top when I first read Atlas Shrugged has now been reached and surpassed in academia, media, popular culture, and the administrative state, to the extent that a man who calls himself a woman has now become a swimming champion and anybody who dares question or mock such absurdity is cancelled. The descent to bankruptcy has accelerated to vertiginous proportions with deficit spending and money printing reaching levels unthinkable in 2010 when we were just learning to talk in trillions, and its inevitable consequence: depreciation of fiat currencies and a general rise in price levels is “unexpectedly” ramping up. There is a general demoralisation among the population, with few believing any political movement can affect the course dictated in the imperial capital, where unelected “aristocrats of pull” rule just as they do in the latter chapters of Atlas Shrugged, indulging in schemes and self-dealing just as bare-faced and absurd.

Indeed, there are many additional symptoms of impending collapse which even the imaginative Ayn Rand did not foresee. She did not envision the political class as bent on importing millions of new dependents by throwing open the borders and declining to enforce enacted immigration law. The politicians and fixers of Atlas Shrugged did not stoop to stirring up racial hatred among the population or actively discriminating against the majority ethnic group. Nowhere in the novel is there tearing down of statues, rewriting history books, and renaming anything deemed “problematic” by the intellectual fads of the moment. While the looters of Rand’s novel are eventually shown to admire a world in which industry is destroyed and the (survivors among the) population reduced to subsistence serfdom, they never dared make this their official policy or attempt to enact it into law under the guise of a ”green new deal” based upon transparently bogus science.

What of the creators “going Galt” and dropping out? Well, in my corner of the world, I don’t see the imagination, ferment, and ambition that characterised the technology business throughout the first two personal computing revolutions through which I lived. The emergence of corporate technology titans has diverted many who would have built products and started companies into seeking jobs within these large organisations or selling products to them and cashing out. Peter Thiel attributes the enormous progress in computing and communication in the last several decades to the fact that while doing things with atoms was highly regulated, there were few constraints on doing things with bits. The politicians and their regulator running dogs are closing in on the world of information, raising the stakes for developing potentially disruptive technologies beyond those affordable by independent innovators.

Are there countervailing trends as are seen in the conclusion of the novel where the creators are ready to return and rebuild after the collapse? Perhaps—I expect that as the financial situation spins out of control over the next several years we will see a push (already underway in some countries) to move toward central bank digital currencies which, combined with a Chinese-style social credit system, could create a tyranny that would be almost impossible to resist. But as people lose confidence in their money and the (increasingly perceived as illegitimate) governments that issue it, they may not be receptive to a “new and improved” version of the same thing from the crooks and clowns responsible for the wreckage. If they, instead, opt out by adopting non-government cryptocurrencies, secure end-to-end communications technologies, and other tools which exist already, perhaps today’s governments and technology titans will become as irrelevant as they are discovered to be in the conclusion of Atlas Shrugged.

Every time I’ve read the book, I’ve discovered little details I’d not previously noticed. This time it was the “fishwife” in Galt’s Gulf, who had “dark, dishevelled hair and large eyes", and of whom John Galt says, “She’s a writer. The kind of writer who wouldn’t be published outside. She believed that when one deals with words, one deals with the mind.” In this half page cameo, Ayn Rand wrote herself into Galt’s Gulch!

This time I read the Kindle edition, which is much more manageable than the 1168 page hardcover I juggled the last time. The Kindle transfer is flawless, and in the entire book I noted only one typographical error, in chapter 4, where “how do you think he’ got to where” appears where I believe the apostrophe is extraneous (or perhaps “he’d” was intended). Objectivists are famously perfectionist, but wouldn’t you know that when they tripped up it would be the humble apostrophe that did it?

11 Likes

I too re-read Atlas Shrugged recently, and as you eloquently point out, Rand’s book is almost eerily prescient. I wonder if this was owing to her having experienced the Russian revolution as a young woman?

A few years ago Part I of the movie came to my town in mid-Southern flyover country. I was the only person in the theater when I went to watch it! I took this as a sign that very few of my countryman have read the book, or are aware of our decline, or even care. It’s discouraging.

4 Likes

Interesting contrast. What I found odd about her 1957 novel is that it seemed absurdly anachronistic. I was out of college when I read it and the word “steampunk” was entering the vernacular and seemed apt. Her obsession with railroads and bridge-making metal was a very 19th century thing.

Her “decaying world” as you put it must have decayed from something and it clearly was not any world on the horizon in 1957.

2 Likes

I first read Atlas in 1976, as a college freshman. I was introduced to Rand and Hayek and Heinlein and Mises during that year, by hanging around the political tables in the Student Union building and debating (but mostly listening). I have not read the book linearly since then but have read from it, opening the novel at random places, probably every year since then.

In those years, I found Rand’s descriptions of the looters to be quaint and perhaps anachronistic. They bore little resemblance to the leftists who debated socialism and capitalism at the tables. Those leftists wouldn’t seize factories and sell off the machines to various starving People’s States for no apparent reason whatsoever.

But, I think I misunderstood the Wesley Mouches and Mr. Thompsons and ersatz businessmen like Mr. Mowen and Orren Boyle that Rand wrote about. I kept comparing them to the leftists who were loudly advocating for socialism. Gradually, I realized that the antagonists who were destroying the world weren’t actually true ideologues. Instead they were shallow, virtue-signaling, corrupt incompetents.

In other words, they were the Bidens and the Clintons. Now it makes sense.

6 Likes

Although Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, the novel is largely a work of the 1940s. It was originally sketched out in 1943 and Rand began the first draft in 1946. By mid-1950, the first 18 chapters were done, in which the entire scenario for the world in which it is set is presented.

Rand described her fiction as in the romantic tradition, with characters representing archetypes and ideals. The three industrialist protagonists, Francisco d’Anconia, Hank Rearden, and Dagny Taggart, represent the three major sectors of the economy as she saw it: primary production (mining), heavy industry (steel making), and transportation (railroads). In the 1940s, the U.S. economy was very much a matter of steel and railroads, with construction of the Interstate Highway System not starting until 1956 and only going to high gear in the 1960s. Prior to then, long-distance trucking was not a serious competitor to railroads except on a few corridors served by highways like the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes.

The inventor and innovator are represented by John Galt (the atmospheric motor) and Hank Rearden (Rearden metal), but these are seen as occurring within large, established industries, not as external disruptors. This, again, is consistent with the 1940s and 1950s when many believed industrial research laboratories had made the individual inventor irrelevant.

In addition, Ayn Rand spent the first twenty years of her life and received all of her education in Russia and the early Soviet Union, which were obsessed with industrialising along the American model and were later in the Stalin period to idolise and try to emulate “Fordism”, making steel, railroads, and electricity their top priorities.

While the world of Atlas Shrugged is not a realistic extrapolation of the U.S. in 1957, it is not inconsistent with the 1940s world view of a Soviet emigré Hollywood screenwriter’s view of industry and the economy.

5 Likes

But then, the common model, repeated over and over again in communist revolutions, is that the intellectuals and academics who are often the avant-garde of the revolution and imagined themselves near the top of the pyramid in the shining new age, are quickly swept aside and replaced by the likes of Cuffy Meigs and TInky Holloway in Atlas Shrugged. In the 1960s I heard a talk at my school by an emigré from Cuba who had been a professor and supporter of Castro and described how, within months of the fall of Batista, what he described as “goon squads” took over the universities with the goal of transforming them into centres of indoctrination for the regime, discarding its original supporters as having served their purpose.

It has been said of her writing, “Ayn Rand’s heroes are fake, but her villains are real”. Part of the insight in the story is that the villains are not scheming evil geniuses but rather incompetents who place misguided theories above evidence from the real world and their innumerable subordinates whose first priority is to never take responsibility for any decision or action.

5 Likes

Atlas Shrugged has been the object of a media blackout for decades before the term “cancel culture” was coined, and yet people continue to buy it and read it. It has sold more than nine million copies since publication, and at this moment is #16 in Amazon’s Best Sellers in Classic American Literature and #11 in Best Sellers in Political Fiction—not bad for a book published 65 years ago which has barely received a good review in any mainstream publication over that time.

The first movie in the trilogy, despite production values more like a TV miniseries than a Hollywood movie, basically broke even, with box office and home video sales around US$ 11.3 million vs. production costs estimated at 10 million.

Ayn Rand’s work has long been a grass-roots if not underground phenomenon, ignored or disdained by the intellectuals and ruling classes. But the message continues to get through.

5 Likes

I’m ashamed to say I never did read it, although in my experience when people (usually academics) talk about «taking it as read” they have no idea what’s actually in the book. So because of your piece I have ordered i5 on Kindle.

But May I recommend Brave New World—especially in light of this controversy in Florida about teaching sex to toddlers. I thought right away of Huxley’s scene where Matron chivvies the little kids reluctant to engage in the mandatory ‘sex playtime”.

6 Likes

I concur! I believe that Brave New World, along Orwell’s 1984, should be required reading for High School students. Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death is an interesting comparison of the two, in which he claims that Brave New World more accurately describes our current situation:

4 Likes

When I was at high school, some years ago now, those two books were indeed required reading. As was “Animal Farm” and “Lord of the Flies”. Yet here we are today – sleepwalking our way into disaster.

Thousands of years ago, the Ancient Greeks created the story of Cassandra to remind us that people can be told exactly where things are going to go wrong, and they (We!) will ignore the warning.

But I don’t want to sound pessimistic. The next century is going to be rough, but the human race will survive and prosper – in the long term.

4 Likes

The problem may be that too many of those who read them took them as instruction manuals instead of cautionary tales.


(from “8 predictions for the world in 2030” by the World Economic Forum)

5 Likes

I cannot believe I didn’t read this is a teenager. I would have loved it so intensely.
And why didn’t I? This is a complicated (and probably uninteresting) memory: at the startup Christian school I went to for…a little over 2 years, Ayn Rand was kinda a bête noir. These were scholarly, academic Christians, lotsa Bonhoeffer and his ilk. And me, I wanted to be “an intellectual”. I remember arguing with the headmistress about Rand, or rather about the idea of “the individual”. (Since I hadn’t read her, it couldnta been anything very specific. Yet I was advocating for her! Why didn’t I read her then? So far I’ve read nothing that wouldn’t resonate with fifteen year old me even more that It does with me now.
But why did these people, Frank Shaffer’s crowd, hate Rand so much? What did she mean to the literati of the 60s?

1 Like

I can understand that: Rand was explicitly an atheist (although not anywhere as spiteful and virulent as the “new atheists” of recent decades) and opposed to altruism, which many Christians endorse. You get the sense from her writing, however, that she considered the secular state far more of an enemy than religion, although in Galt’s speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged he denounced both self-sacrifice to a “mystic God” (religion) and “the people” (state).

She pushed all of their buttons. Rand had a talent, probably not equaled until Tom Wolfe came on the scene, of distilling the absurdity and pretentiousness of “public intellectuals” and holding them up to hilarious scorn. She detested and mocked everything they exalted: modern art, literature, music, and architecture. She wrote books with heroes and villains, and they sold in the millions, while the books that made the front page of the New York Review were remaindered in their first printing of 5000. An emigré from the Soviet Union, she was a stalwart anti-Communist in the Red Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s, and had written an anti-Soviet novel, We the Living.

The denunciation and excommunication of Ayn Rand and her supporters (who, at the time, included Alan Greenspan) by National Review, including the notorious review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers in the 1957-12-28 issue, “Big Sister Is Watching You”, foretold the intellectual collapse of that magazine and its assimilation into the Imperial Ministry of Truth more than half a century later. “Defeat with dignity” appeared to be, even then, preferable to intransigent opposition to evil.

7 Likes

Wow, I can’t believe it, this reminds me of the “stakeholder capitalism” we keep hearing about now—also “benefit corporations” business corps founded for prettty much the purpose of losing money!
But in a way this is encouraging, that we’ve been here before and we got out of it. So maybe we will get back to what I learned in law school: a business Corp has one purpose only: to make money for its shareholders.

You’re right, I’m remembering more now, my uninformed argument had to do with altruism v. Individualism.

Anyway I can hardly put this book down.

5 Likes

You know that something is a really bad idea when they have to keep renaming it every few years because the last name has fallen into disrepute and become a term of derision. Now they’re calling it “ESG investing”, although that one may be scrolling off the screen since in recent weeks the ESGurus have decided that weapon manufacturers fall within their acceptable purview of investments.

6 Likes

Ayn Rand, like many legal immigrants to the U.S.A, understood the fundamentals of capitalism better than most Americans. The fact that she came from entrepreneurial parents, in St. Petersburg (aka Petrograd, aka Leningrad) within earshot of the 1917 October Revolution gave her unique insight into the real life effects of Socialism, life in the Union of Unions, the Soviet Union was not quite as the New York Times reported (some things never change). When young Rand saw the signs of this same system in the U.S.A. in the 40s and 50s, her response in her life works is a compelling narrative for the restoration of founding principals of the U.S.A., with a feminist twist.

Consider also reading WE THE LIVING, which is likely to have been the closest to an autobiography that she had written.

That book shows what it is like growing up in socialist Russia, and it translates well to today’s New York City, Chicago, or San Francisco (but not most of the producing areas of the U.S.A which is why there is still hope we can turn it around)!

5 Likes

…”From the apprehensive present , from a future packed
With unknown dangers, monstrous,terrible and new,
Let us turn for comfort to this simple fact:
We have been in trouble before, and we came through! “

—Edna St Vincent Millay, from “Thanksgiving 1950”.

2 Likes

All the before times did not include Ruinous Dept. It’s the ruinous dept that will undo us. Wish it weren’t so .

3 Likes

Survival bias?

1 Like

“When a man thinks he’s good, thats when he’s rotten. Pride is the worst of all sins, no matter what he’s done.

“But if a man knows that what he has done is good?

“”Then he ought to aplogize for it.

“To wnom?

“To those who haven’t done it.”

—from “Atlas Shrugged”

Now —doesnt that oerfectly sum up Leftism, their hatred for “America First” and MAGA?
And see, I’m totes chuffed by this! We have been here before, and we got OUT of it!!

4 Likes