The Historic Significance of Atlas Shrugged
October 12 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand's classic novel Atlas Shrugged, so in the coming days we can expect to see a flurry of articles about the novel — many of which will, unfortunately, offer highly inaccurate descriptions of the novel's meaning and significance.
A recent New York Times article about the influence of Atlas Shrugged among businessmen and Fortune 500 CEOs, for example, contained one confused businesswoman's opinion that "Rand's idea of 'the virtue of selfishness' is a harsh phrase for the Buddhist idea that you have to take care of yourself." It is hard to see how Buddhism — a philosophy of mystical asceticism — can be seen as equivalent to a philosophy of rational self-interest.
Some distorted views of Ayn Rand's masterwork will be motivated by spite. (In the Weekly Standard, for example, Andrew Ferguson dismisses the novel's readers as a bunch of neurotic adolescents — but he does so, ironically, by adopting exactly the kind of puerile derisiveness one would expect from such an insecure adolescent. Read it at risk to your sense of good taste and intellectual seriousness.) Most inaccuracies, however, are merely the result of the reporters' awkward unfamiliarity with Ayn Rand's ideas.
That's a shame, because Atlas Shrugged is a novel that everyone ought to discover and grapple with, because it succeeds at something too few artists and intellectuals have had the courage to do.
The purpose of art and philosophy is to show us truths about human nature, about the nature of the world and our place in it. Philosophy names these truths explicitly, in literal terms; literature dramatizes these truths in concrete terms, revealing its insights through the actions and statements of the characters created by the novelist. A philosophical novel, like Atlas Shrugged, is supposed to do both of these things.
But too often both the philosophers and the artists have failed us as seekers of truth. Rather than convey truths they have learned first-hand through observation of the world, they simply repeat or project their own prejudices and pre-conceived notions.
The most important event of the past two centuries, with which artists and intellectuals ought to have come to grips, is the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution — a social revolution that has radically transformed human life for the better. Free markets and industrialization have produced a previously unimagined wealth, which is enjoyed not only by captains of industry but by the common man, who is able to afford luxuries — large homes, automobiles, air travel, everything down to his caffe latte at the corner coffee shop — on a scale that could not even have been conceived in earlier centuries. Capitalism has also afforded the individual a degree of personal independence and unlimited opportunity that has fully liberated men from the stultifying tyranny of previous aristocratic and feudal systems.
Human nature is timeless and universal, but the evidence for human potential is not. That evidence is provided by actual human actions and their results. No one could have conceived of the achievements of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution before they happened — and these new events required a radical re-evaluation of conventional ideas. Yet the intellectuals failed to perform such a re-evaluation.
Regular readers of TIA Daily will be familiar with my own favorite example. In 1816, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a group of Britain's best young literary minds — including Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who later became Mary Shelley) — gathered together to explore their new school of literature, which they called "Gothic" because it took its inspiration from the mysticism of the Middle Ages. In that spirit, they challenged each other to write the best ghost story, and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein — a story which portrays the quest for scientific knowledge as a kind of dangerous madness.
Just as capitalism was propelling us forward into a technological future that would, among other advantages, double the average human lifespan, the intellectuals were looking backward to the Middle Ages and predicting that all of this new science and technology would bring disaster. (They're still doing it, except that now they conjure up the bogeyman of global warming in the place of Frankenstein's monster.)
A few decades later, a German intellectual named Karl Marx gave one of the most influential accounts of the new capitalist system — and he got everything wrong. An Industrial Revolution driven by scientific and technological advances springing from the minds of a few extraordinary individuals, he would describe as the anonymous, collective product of brute physical labor; an economic system of liberty, he would describe as a system of oppression; a system built on the right to property he would describe as a system based of expropriation — and then he would propose actual oppression and expropriation as the solution.
This has been the pattern of the artists and intellectuals in dealing with the most significant phenomenon of our age. While the world was transformed around them, they refused to grasp the real meaning of these events, choosing to ignore or denigrate the forces that were rapidly improving human life.
In this context, we can see the widest significance of Ayn Rand's literary and philosophical achievement. She was the first thinker and artist to fully grasp the meaning of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution and to give them expression both in literature and in philosophy.
The most radical aspect of Atlas Shrugged is that it is a sweeping, serious novel of ideas that is based in the business world, the last place mainstream intellectuals would have thought to regard as the inspiration for epic drama or profound new ideas. What makes Ayn Rand distinctive is that she found drama, heroism and profound philosophical meaning in the achievements of the entrepreneurs and industrialists who were reshaping the world.
Atlas Shrugged was written in an age of creeping global socialism. Extrapolating from the trends of the day, Ayn Rand projected a future in which most of the world's nations are collapsing into the poverty and oppression of socialist "people's states," while America itself is collapsing under the weight of increasing government takeover of the economy.
She saw the dramatic potential in asking a single question: what would happen if the innovative entrepreneurs and businessmen — after decades of being vilified and regulated — started to disappear? What if the men condemned as parasites who somehow grow rich by exploiting manual laborers — the whole Marxist view of the economy — what if those "exploiters" were no longer around? The disappearance of the world's productive geniuses provides the novel's central mystery, both factually and intellectually.
Factually, the story follows Dagny Taggart, a woman in the then-unconventional role of operating vice-president of a transcontinental railroad, as she struggles to keep her railroad running in the face of strangling government regulations, while trying to solve a series of mysteries: a promising young railroad worker refuses a promotion and takes up a menial job instead; a spectacularly talented heir to a multinational copper company abandons his work to become a flamboyant playboy; a genius who invented a revolutionary new motor abandons his creation in the ruins of a derelict factory.
The factual questions are: Where did all of these people go? Why did they give up their work? Is there someone or something that is causing them to disappear?
The philosophical questions raised by this plot are: What is the role of the entrepreneurs and innovators in a society? What motivates them, what are the conditions they need in order to work and what happens to the world when they disappear? The factual mystery is integrated with the novel's deepest philosophical question: What is the moral status of the businessman and industrialist? Capitalism had been transforming the world for the better for more than a century, yet until Ayn Rand no one had taken a serious, original, first-hand look at this question, and no one had had the courage to challenge the conventional answers.
Capitalism unleashed an extraordinary burst of scientific and technological innovation and of human creativity — yet this had largely gone unrecognized as a phenomenon with any moral or intellectual significance. Ayn Rand was the first to celebrate the accomplishments of the James Watts and Andrew Carnegies and Thomas Edisons and to recognize in their productive energies an example of moral heroism.
Literarily, she recognized the romanticism in the extraordinary feats of these business innovators. In Atlas Shrugged this is perhaps best capture in repeated references to the legend of Nat Taggart, the swashbuckling young adventurer who founded the railroad for which Dagny Taggart works — a character based, in part, on the real-life swashbuckling of Commodore Vanderbilt's early career.
Or consider this passage, from an early chapter of Atlas Shrugged, in which steel tycoon Hank Rearden reflects on the process by which he invented a revolutionary new metal alloy.
This is a view of the innovative entrepreneur as a kind of crusader, driven by a profound commitment to moral excellence.
More than a century earlier, one of the most honest and insightful observers of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, had recounted the extraordinary exertions and risk-taking of American merchant sea-captains and concluded that "the Americans put something heroic into their way of trading." But Tocqueville never really took this idea seriously or followed its consequences. Ayn Rand did.
When she followed the consequences of this idea, it led her to two crucial philosophical identifications that Atlas Shrugged introduced to the world.