I am now at the start of Part 3 of Atlas Shrugged. It has been fairly hard going. I am not going to indulge myself with a literary review. The fact that the writing is slightly turgid should not detract from the ideas being presented.
I am also going to resist presenting a critique of the Libertine political system that many like to base on the Rand ideas and her Objectivism. Sorry, did I say “Libertine”? I meant Libertarian, of course!
There is a far clearer picture formed if the book (and remember here that I have not yet read “Fountainhead”) and the idea is read in the context of the times in which it was written, and Rand’s own personal story.
Quoted from Wikipedia
Rand was twelve at the time of the Russian revolution of 1917, and her family life was disrupted by the rise of the Bolshevik party. Her father's pharmacy was confiscated by the Soviets, and the family fled to Crimea to recover financially. When Crimea fell to the Bolsheviks in 1921, Rand burned her diary, which contained vitriolic anti-Soviet writings.
And from - http://www.iep.utm.edu/r/rand.htm
In 1946, Rand began work on her most ambitious novel, Atlas Shrugged. At the time she was working part-time as a screenwriter for producer Hal Wallis. In 1951 she and her husband moved to New York City, where she began to work full-time on Atlas. Published by Random House in 1957, Atlas Shrugged is her most complete expression of her literary and philosophical vision. Dramatized in the form of a mystery story about a man who stopped the motor of the world, the plot and characters embody the political and ethical themes first developed in We the Living and The Fountainhead, and integrates them into a comprehensive philosophy including metaphysics, epistemology, economics, and the psychology of love and sex.
I am not at all surprised at Rand’s intense hatred of the Communist system. That that should lead to her campaign against the Socialist tendencies of the Democrat party and more left leaning of the Republicans even is clear.
What I did not appreciate, until I started reading her books, was Rand’s insistence upon a purity of thought which would do a nun proud. There is no question that Capitalism (with capital “C”) is the Rand religion. It is the moral system, the God and the sole reason for existence. The ideas of individual and wealth are all built together in a way that makes refutation difficult. Difficult but not impossible.
I pointed out some while back (in a treatise on propaganda) that what is often more important is what is left unsaid rather than the actual content. I am not trying here to accuse Rand of writing propaganda. She is not writing (directly) for a political cause. That political offshoot has come as a result rather than as Rand’s intent.
So, when I read the first two parts of Atlas Shrugged I was struck by two central ideas that were not fully developed.
First of these is the idea of credibility. Rand’s philosophy of individual ownership centres on “Rearden Metal”, a new “metal” in the galaxy of the Periodic Table. Oh, a new alloy? Well, I can live with that despite the fact that it goes direct from mine to furnace to use – but let’s suspend credibility on that point so as to not interrupt the flow. What makes this premise even “stranger” is that this new metal is readily accessible, but only from one source as it seems. As I say, somewhat strange all round.
It also connects directly with my primary objection to the foundation of Rand’s ideas, one of the fundamentals of the CAPITALIST religion that she propounds. In reading around on the ‘net it is also an objection that has been raised more often than most. “Rearden Metal” was discovered in part because the resource that provides steel was being misused, abused and was becoming scarce. It is the Rand fundamental that in these circumstances capitalism produces new alternative and replacement products. Leave out all of the other objections – it is a matter of faith that “Rearden Metal” exists and was not previously “discovered”. I am not going to take the iron ore / coal arguments any further either simply because it is apparent that others with far better brain and argument have already been there.
I want to tackle Rand on a related but different front.
The first part of Atlas Shrugged tells of the development of Colorado as a manufacturing powerhouse, and the importance of Taggart Intercontinental in fostering that development. Taggart’s contribution was the construction of (let us say) 450 miles of railway from point A outside Colorado to point B inside Colorado primarily to service the output from one copper mine and a shale oil field. OK, let’s not go there either because it will not serve any purpose. It is a matter of faith.
The “mistake” that Rand has made is very simple. A railway requires land. It stretches credulity just a little too far that one can draw a line on a map (as is described in the story) and then go out and start laying track along that line. Surely there would be geographical features (other than the one canyon requiring a bridge) that would need to be overcome. Oh there is mention of grand sweeping curves that trains can negotiate at a speed of 100 mph compared with the existing maximum of 60mph but that mention is more to promote the advances made through the discovery of “Rearden Metal” than any improvement in rail technology.
There is one feature that is never mentioned. Who owned the land before the rail went over it? How was the right to use that land obtained? Or do Taggart’s have some strange technology that creates land just where they want to put their railway?
One of the features of Rand’s writings, one which for the moment defeats me completely because it is such a fundamental flaw in the foundations of her ideas and writing, is that of existing ownerships and rights. The fact of private and individual ownership is the whole basis of her Capitalism. There is no limitation upon the accumulation of wealth. It is laissez faire in its absolute and purest sense.
The picture that Rand has painted over with her leading characters is one of total, global poverty. Exclude her occasional glimpses at the Soviet Republic of Europe, or Soviet Republic of South America. I am concentrating only on the US as she portrays it through the story. There is no recognition of any ownership by anyone other than the main characters, including the State, at the beginning of the story. There is description of the appropriation of private property, at some length, through the first two parts. But, it seems, this (mis)appropriation affects only the major players. No one else has anything that is capable of or worth State confiscation. There is no ownership of land, there is no ownership of income from private business, there are only the proles who comprise the disadvantaged masses created by the Socialists. The occasional mention of – as an example – a taxi driver does not make it clear whether he is working for his own account, for someone else’s business, or as a “State employee”. There is no interaction between the taxi hirer and the driver other than the mention of a $100 tip (I just read that bit... ) or the difficulty of getting anywhere in all of the traffic.
This leads on to the whole discussion – so popular over the last little while in the blogiverse – of private domain. As sure as eggs if I owned a farm somewheres along that arbitrary line on the map I would have something to say about the railway that passes through the middle of the house. Even if all the trains are on time.
But, as I said before, let’s not spoil a good story by getting too practical about it.
Finally, and while I talk of taxis, that is one of the better laughs in the story thus far.
Following a long discussion, some 18 pages, of privations, problems and causes of the oil and fuel shortage to set the scene for the shale oil business in Colorado one of the main characters (Dagny as I recall) walks out of the building and immediately hails a taxi that then drives off into the deserted streets... But hey, let’s not have the occasional wardrobe slip spoil a good yarn.
Let me be very clear. My politic has no room for communism despite my very brief contacts with the outside of the movement in my (somewhat naive) teen years. I was raised in a nation that has a proud history of socialism founded upon the responsibility of the State for the individual. Much of that State “cradle to grave” mentality has been removed during my lifetime. That was not unexpected. It is a series of events that I had expected in my youth; not in terms of the specific detail but rather in terms of the process becoming increasingly unsupportable. It might interest those who support Rand to know that Prime Minister Savage, leader of the first Labour Government, was a Socialist and devout Christian. He described the new “WelfareState” as “Christianity in Action”. For Rand herself – being an atheist – such a description would be as much an anathema as communism.
Can I put it this way. The success of a good story is a matter of credibility. One could look to Brave New World or 1984 as examples in the same category where that credibility has been achieved. Yes, both of those examples have “holes” of their own but they are not central to the theme. Regrettably, Rand’s attempt at the same has failed somewhat. The defects in her foundation do affect (my) appreciation of her theme.
I have not yet reached the end of Atlas Shrugged. I am pressing onward toward the end, and at the same time making the effort to understand the principles that Rand espouses. I am sure that I will have considerably less success in that understanding than the very many scholars who have analysed her writing in fine detail. I am doing my utmost to keep an open mind to the end.