The appeal of an apocalypse is easy to see. In dramatic terms, there's nothing worse than the end of the world and, provided the story assumes at least a few survivors, it provides the writer with a more or less blank slate for social satire, adventure, horror or the romance of Starting Civilization Over and presumably Better, according to the writer's idea of what "better" means. And of course, the reader can live the adventure vicariously, assuming himself (I suspect the genre is more popular with men than with women, and with young men especially — how better for a teenaged boy to prove his mettle than to survive and prosper when all around him has been destroyed? How easy it is to imagine oneself a hero without the bothersome constraints of a complex and intellectually demanding society?) to be one of the few survivors, one of the brave, the smart, the strong.
It takes no great insight into human psychology to presume that adolescent power-fantasy lies at the heart of a great part of such stories. Nevertheless, most that I have read at least pay lip-service to the idea that the destruction of civilization, along with billions of human lives, is in fact a tragedy, no matter that the survivors have a great time — feeling "more alive" than ever, as in John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids.
Published in 1957 and set at some vague point in the relatively near future, Atlas Shrugged depicts a world falling apart, with the United States as the last country to still hold a vestige of capitalism. But it is a country under seige by corrupt businessmen and union leaders, self-serving government officials and ordinary scum and cowards. Rand pulls no punches in including the vast majority of the human race as being moral and intellectual cowards at best, and active promoters of death and destruction at worst.
Railroad heiress Dagny Taggart is one of the few competent "men" (from the perspective of the early 21st century there is something really archaic in Rand's use of man and men to refer to human beings in general, but since it is her usage, I will follow it here) in a world seething with corruption and malice.
As the novel opens, the economy is in serious decline (Fifth Avenue is teeming with "bums" and, "...not more than every fourth one of the stores was out of business, its windows dark and empty.") and a vague fear stalks the hearts of the few good men remaining. Indeed, within eight years, and despite her heroic efforts to save it again literally impossible odds, Dagny's once vast transcontinental railroad is a single, broken line keeping east and west in touch, the cities are going dark and starvation is spreading across the continent, leaping the oceans like a contagion from the "People's States" (clearly representing Rand's vision of the Soviet Union) that have settled on the rest of world like vampires.
The entire world has been bled dry by "moochers and looters", every government run by self-dealing thugs who promise "the people" everything with one hand while more or less systematically destroying their respective economies with the other.
It is a nightmarish, Catch-22 kind of world, in which successful businessmen are forced to divert their profits to keep open incompetent and even criminal factory's, in which collective "sharing" drives men to sink to the lowest common denominator to avoid being singled out (and forced to work harder) for their success. It is a world of absolute moral and philosophical relativism, in which the dominant ethic is that "no one" can say what is right or wrong (except the increasingly totalitarian State) and in which no one ever accepts responsibility for anything.
And in truth, despite a pulpish quality to the prose and characters devoid of any shades of grey, Rand paints a compelling portrait of a society undergoing a complete collapse — think today's Zimbabwe on a world-wide scale. Her elegiac paens to the vigorous industrialism which built New York's sky-scrapers is affecting and disturbing. Even her brief acknowledgment of the inevitable deaths of hard-working farmers towards the novel's end are moving, despite the fact they (and billions like them around the world) are merely what would now be called "collateral damage".
You see, it isn't just the corrupt and the dissolute, the criminals and the weak-minded followers, who are destroying the world. In the world according the Rand, the end is inevitable, but the Good Guys are giving it quite a push to speed the process along.
In the world according to Rand, the destruction of civilization and the death of billions of men, women and children is not a tragedy. In fact, it is a Good Thing, a necessary cleansing, kind of like's God's need to rid the world of everyone but Noah during the time of the Biblical Flood.
Atlas Shrugged's narrative tension is derived from Dagny's refusal to accept the inevitable. She, and a few other hold-outs, like her one-time lover, the steel magnate and inventor Hank Reardon, are fighting the good fight, or so they believe. Shrugging off crippling taxation and regulations, they struggle on against hopeless odds, consciously determined to save a world the reader soon enough knows is beyond saving.
For the Good Guys — the free thinkers, the industrialists, the few good artists, a few honest workmen (but especially the industrialists) — are all mysteriously vanishing. In the office one day, simply vanished — quite and disappeared — the next. For much of the novel, Dagny is convinced there is a man she calls "the Destroyer" who is ridding the world of the competent and the honest and the able.
And even when she learns the truth, that the Destroyer is one of the Good Guys — indeed, the Greatest of the Good Guys, still she refuses to accept the inevitable, despite having fallen in love with him.
For the Good Guys have gone on strike. The fruit of their labour, of their minds being stolen from them, they have given up the world, they say, left it to its own devices.
Except that they are also doing their best to actively destroy it, of course. The pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld somehow manages to sink just about every trans-oceanic vessel going to or coming from the United States, and Dagny's first lover, Francisco d'Anconia, heir to the world's copper supply, systematically destroys nearly all the copper mines in the world.
The Good Guys know the end is coming and they have no intention of allowing the world to die a natural death.
And so it goes. Civilization — and billions of people — perish. This is Rand's idea of a happy ending, a slaughter so vast it makes the Holocaust seem like a stubbed toe along history long march to the bottom. The novel ends with the a scene that comes as close as Rand can manage to humour — Dagny is planning to rebuild her railroad and Hand Rearden jokes that she, "...will probably try to take the shirt off my back with the freight rates she's going to charge, but — I'll be able to meet them."
They could not see the world beyond the mountains, there was only a void of darkness and rock, but the darkness was hiding the ruins of a continent: the roofless homes, the rusting tractors, the lightless streets, the abandoned rail. But far in the distance, on the edge of the arth, a small flame was waving in the wind, the defiantly stubborn flame of Wyatt's Torch, twisting, being torn and regaining its hold, not to be uprooted or extinguished. It seemed to be calling and waiting for the words John Galt was now to pronounce.
"The road is cleared," said Galt. "We are going back to the world."
He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.
Were this not an influential book, I wouldn't bother with it. The world is full of theoreticians and philosophers whose ideas for Utopia would (or would seem to) work just fine were it not for the unfortunate complication of people.
The early Soviets were convinced they could create a "new man", if only society's walls were built anew and so sorry about the 20 million people who were collateral damage of the great dream; the Chinese Great Leap Forward would make farmers of philosophers and neo-cons everywhere really seem to believe that wealth will "trickle down" if only business is "unshackled" from "excessive" regulation and taxation (somehow, they forget that it is easier in the short run to make money by buying companies rather than building them, by lending money in ponzi-schemes based on the fantasy of infinite housing-price increases rather than cautious appraisal of risk).
And Rand? Well Rand seems to believe that most of the human race is garbage in need of disposal. Once that job has been done, then comes the millenium!
As I said, I wouldn't be talking about this book were it not taken seriously. Not just by the tin-hat brigade or or survivalists jealously guarding their ten-year supplies of canned good in remote parts of North America, but by people like Alan Greespan and Clarence Thomas, along with Libertarian and neo-conservative think-tanks.
Like many philosophies, Rand's objectivism has a seductive simplicity at its base. Appealing to the common desire (particularly among the young) to be, and the feeling that one is, special, Objectivism posits first, that what we see is what is — "A equals A" or "existence exists".
As someone who spent far too many drunken nights arguing with people who thrilled to the impossibility of proving that even other people exist, Rand's impatient sweeping away of just about all metaphysics holds a definite appeal to me. If the coffee-table on which I bark my shin hurts my shin, I am quite happy to grant it reality and go one to other things.
That she further goes on to dismiss feeling as a legitimate form of knowing the world also appeals to a materialist like myself. Though I cannot prove it to a logical certainty (and don't have any interest in trying), I believe in an objective reality — or at least, act as if I do and believe that so do most people, most of the time. (There's that table and there's that shin again.)
All of which is pretty basic stuff and not really objectionable, except on rigorously philosophical grounds. Where Rand gets strange, and from once springs her novel's monstrous conceit, is the utter extreme to which she takes her major concept, that of rational egoism or rational self-interest.
In the world according to Rand, "...it is both irrational and immoral to act against one's self-interest." Charity and altruism are questionable qualities at best; "enforced" (as by taxation, for instance), they are inevitably "evil".
Rational self-interest means that it is moral for a productive man to keep all that he has created, only dealing with others in voluntary mutual trade. In the world according to Rand, taxation and government — any form of collectivism, with the notable exception of the military, to protect the nation against foreign aggression (to her credit, Rand explicitly denies that any form of first strike can be moral, though her novel's heroes certainly contradict that claim as they hurry along the cleansing apocalypse to rid the world of the "moochers" and the "looters"), and the police and the courts, to protect men's property rights. Property rights being the basis of all other liberties.
To Ayn Rand, any other form of collective action seems to be a form of theft, of extortion. If a man has an idea for a factory, and the money to build it, he can "trade" with individual men for their labour, but let there be no doubt that trade is a one-time thing. His idea is what created the value of the factory, and what Marx would call the "labour-value" is worth no more and no less than what the market will bear. That market being, of course, entirely free of labour unions or anything else which might serve to alter the value-balance.
At first glance, the idea even seems to make a fair amount of sense. In theory, I'd say it does make a fair amount of sense.
But like the totalitarians she so detested, Rand's theory very quickly leads to power-imbalances that would quickly see the entire world reduced to a rich-poor ratio that would make the slums of Mexico City seem a marvel of social and economic equality. The man who "builds" one factory and makes a successful go of it, will soon build another, and another. Before long he will will offer his competitors offers they "can't refuse" and find himself with a monopoly in his field and a strangle-hold on his labour-force.
Yes, someone else might come along and build a better factory, but nine times out of ten, the first man will buy it before it becomes a serious competitor. In the real world, Rand's vision would soon become a nightmare.
In the real world, the vicious competition for jobs at ever-decreasing wages would breed crime and despair, and the factory-owner would find himself paying ever-higher taxes to keep his economic slaves in line or in prison. In the real world, he would retreat from the decaying streets of the city first to "gated communities" and then into armed compounds, while the market for his products grew ever-smaller.
In the real world, it wouldn't be long at all before another holocaust was necessary, to cleanse the world yet again of the losers in her social-Darwinian Utopia.
In the real world, human beings are so much more complex than Rand's simplistic models (like so many other simplistic models of human nature) would have us believe. For a start, and whether you like it or not, human beings are not purely homo economicus, we are not (not only) rational actors in the tales of our lives.
In real world, most of us consider purely rational actors to be psychopaths, or robots at best.
In the real world we all do things that don't "make sense". We gamble when the odds are against, because it's fun; we fall in love and lust for all sorts of reasons, not jus because we admire our mate; we spend time on the internet typing two or three thousand words about Ayn Rand, though probably only a half-dozen people will read it; he take walks along the lakeshore when we could be making money — just because it feels good; we get that quivering, jelly feeling in our bellies at the sight of a small child because our genetic heritage as built caring for children into our nature; we spend idle hours at cafes, or arenas, because we just like being around other people — I could go on and on.
All philosophers build simplified models of reality in order to explain that which is. Good philosophers change their models over time, seeking to make the model come ever closer to matching reality.
Bad philosophers stick rigidly to the model and, in all seriousness, propose genocide when reality fails to have the good sense to match the model.
Ayn Rand was a very bad philosopher indeed and her "masterpiece" is an evil book, by any truly objective standard.
(Chicken-shit and slothful self-justification: This was first draft and I don't think I'll want to write a second. Please ignore any but the grossest typos. But feel free to correct me if I've mis-interpreted any of Rand's philosophic premises; I've been cribbing from Wiki and paraphrasing from Atlas Shrugged's climactic, 60-page speech.)