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?