Monday, March 16, 2009

John Galt who?

“Who is John Galt?” That's the question Ayn Rand opens the novel Atlas Shrugged with. Why do I pose it now? Well as of late I keep hearing people on the Conservative side saying Rand should provide a model for society, particularly this novel. Michelle Malkin recently cited the strike of the prime movers, or “Going Galt” as a way to stop the path of nationalization and socialization she sees sweeping the country. Stephen Colbert, in his usually hilarious irony, talked about the book, but used the description of the story as the one the Malkins of the world are hanging on to- The Government sets out to make sure the lazy can live off the fruits of the talented and these “Prime Movers” leave to start their own society where everything is pure unadulterated capitalism. Well Stephen and Michelle, now that we've discussed the Cliff's Notes summary of Atlas Shrugged, let's talk about it from the perspective of someone who actually read the book. I think both sides are going to be a little surprised by what they find.

Before I begin, let me state something quite bluntly: regardless of what fans of the book say, Rand's version of Capitalism is every bit as Utopian as Marx's Communism. I think there are some phenomenal ideas in this book, but as with any philosophy, it has to be filtered pragmatically through the real world for actual application. The thing is, the book is exceedingly Libertarian, and not Conservative, despite conservative efforts to claim John Galt. Indeed, looking at the recently departed administration, John Galt would be every bit as contemptuous of Bush era economics as he would the current lefty folks.

Take the characters of Orren Boyle and Wesley Mouch. Mr. Boyle is the head of a steel conglomerate which really makes an inferior product. However, he uses Washington lobbyists like Wesley Mouch to get contracts and help to keep his business going. Indeed, when one of the novel's heroes, Hank Rearden, creates a superior steel product, rather than actually try to compete with Rearden, Boyle uses lobbyists to try to alter the laws to give him control of the new alloy. Now, which side of American politics is using their lobbyists to protect corporate interest? To circumvent honest competition for contracts, and playing along with the no bid? Haliburton would be one of the “Looters” in Rand's novel, out to secure their financial futures at the expense of the country.

How about inheritance? How many people running the Republican Party today are self made millionaires? Obviously, the Bush family goes back a ways. John McCain took favors from his in-laws. This book is against all of that. Indeed, the Prime Mover Francisco D'Aconia gives up the money and business he inherits from his father, runs his father's business into the ground so he can rebuild it himself. So he knows HE was capable of even being a Prime Mover. No one gave him a baseball team. Or as the book says:

"Only the man who does not need it, is fit to inherit wealth—the man who
would make his own fortune no matter where he starts his money, it serves him; if not, it destroys him.” (page 314)

How about war? Obviously, based on my chosen profession I understand the necessity of war. Philosophically and ethically there are times you just have to go put metal into bad guys. The Prime Movers in this book are against war as being wasteful. In the same speech I quote above (and this book has a LOT of speeches, not just John Galt's 68 page broadcast) D'Aconia talks about money making war irrelevant because it provides a system of fair value exchange eliminating the need to capture resources... unless you are one of the Looters. Unless you are someone incapable of producing something of value to provide fair capital. In the book, John Galt's literal solution to oil shortages is to create alternative energy sources, specifically and engine which pulls static electricity from the air. Where was that thinking from either side of the aisle, except of course for the Green Freaks like Al Gore, since our first oil crunch nearly 40 years ago? Instead, we fought wars to keep the juice flowing. Galt would be ashamed.

Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand have a very different take on family values as well. The female lead in the book, Dagny Taggert, wants nothing to do with being a mom, has no consideration for the next generation, she wants only to run her business and be coupled with the best possible man. She pretty much shags her way through the cast of Prime Movers. And as she leaves each one of them for the better pure capitalist specimen, each of them look fondly on the next lover and say, “yep! I can't compete with that guy, he's way better than me!” What? Is that how family is America is supposed to be? I don't think that's what Conservatives are arguing for. I don't think ignoring the idea of future generations, or for that matter the book's illustrating the idea inheritance is bad sits in line with the Pro-Life crowd. Rand herself had no children, and at least one lover (allegedly) to go along with her husband of 50 years. Not exactly the ideal home environment the Conservative movement wants to promote.

How about educating the next generation? Actually, there is a little bit in the book on the subject:

From the first catch-phrases flung at a child to the last, it is like a
series of shocks to freeze his motor, to undercut the power of his
consciousness. "Don't ask so many questions, children should be seen and not
heard!"—"Who are you to think? It's so, because I say so!"—"Don't argue,
obey!"—"Don't try to understand, believe!"-—"Don't rebel, adjust!"—"Don't
stand out, belong!"—"Don't struggle, compromise!" (page 757)

Don't stand out? Obey? Believe and don't question? Isn't this a paragraph railing against conservative thought in education? For that matter, isn't this a little bit of a rail against religion?

No, because Ayn Rand's contempt for religion and the existence of God is blatant throughout the book. In this book, and in Rand's philosophy “Objectivism,” the highest thing in existence is the human mind. That's what drives the near deification of the Prime Movers in the book. Their creations, be it Galt's engine, or Readen's steel, or Dagny's bridge, or D'Aconia's mines are from the fruits of the mind of great people- therefore the ultimate expression. When Galt gives his 68 page speech he says:

"For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who
claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs
to your neighbors—between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice
for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is
self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say
that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.” (page 769)

“What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin?
What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider
perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of
knowledge—he acquired a mind and became a rational being.
It was the knowledge of good and evil—he became a moral being. He was
sentenced to earn his bread by his labor—he became a productive being. He was
sentenced to experience desire—he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment.
The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy—all
the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of
man's fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they
hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was—that
robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values,
without labor, without love—he was not man.
"Man's fall, according to your teachers, was that he gained the virtues
required to live. These virtues, by their standard, are his Sin.” (Page 780)

Are these the ideas Michelle Malkin wants to use in a modern conservative movement? Four Thousand years of Judeo-Christianity are completely flawed, and Religion has no proper place in either the mind of man nor his government? You can't claim Objectivism as Conservative without taking the whole shebang- you can't say you want to use Atlas Shrugged as a model without looking at the model as a whole. I don't think the majority of conservatives would sit well claiming the Atheist Ayn Rand as their new guru. Rand herself sets up the point of the book in one sentence which appears as an inscription in the new paradise the Prime Movers build in their hologram concealed valley in Colorado:

The door of the structure was a straight, smooth sheet of stainless steel,
softly lustrous and bluish in the sun. Above it, cut in the granite, as the
only feature of the building's rectangular austerity, there stood an

I don't think that syncs well with “Love they Neighbor as yourself.”

So, what is my take on the book? Well, I DO parse it out. I can do that, because I am saying there are aspects I enjoy and think are fine philosophy and not trying to claim it all unread. However, as I said it is quite Utopian. I agree with Objectivism that my motivation should be to take care of myself so no one else has to- but it ignores those who CANNOT take care of themselves. Unless we want to go all Spartan and start tossing imperfect babies into windswept crags (not particularly pro-life that- it's like abortion in the 5th trimester!) we have to make allowances for those who can't. It is up to us to make sure those systems are not abused by those who “won't” as opposed to used by those who “can't” but the systems need to be in place. Maybe that's my point with this whole blog. See, we already had someone who followed Ayn Rand making financial decisions for the country- Alan Greenspan. He was an avowed Objectivist, and in on Rand's inner circle while she was writing Atlas Shrugged. He made rules and reduced regulations based on the idea these companies would be doing the right thing. However, when asked by Congress what happened, he had to admit he was partially wrong about deregulation. Why?

"Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder's equity -- myself especially -- are in a state of shocked disbelief.” So then, Rep. Henry Waxman presses him on the issue.

“In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working,” Waxman said.

“Absolutely, precisely,” Greenspan replied. (New York Times)

See? Just like Marx felt the worker would always work for the good of the social commune, Greenspan thought the American Corporations and banks would act in their own best interests in such a way as to benefit the system. Instead, they tried to get rich quick, at others' expense. Not fair competition, not by EARNING your value (possible the most basic principle of Objectivism) but by abusing the system meant to allow them to work unfettered. Given the opportunity, they chose to be Rand's Looters rather than her Prime Movers. Economic utopia eludes mankind again. Rand claims greed is good, but ONLY if you have the ability to earn your wealth fairly, with your own gifts. Before anyone right or left claims this book as a guide, remember, it has been tried.

I think the most telling point is actually the end of the book (spoilers ahead!). It's the part which makes me most sure neither Malkin, the majority of Conservatives, or a whole lot of Liberals ever got that far. This perfect man, John Galt, who has never allowed anyone to live their life for his sake, has to be rescued from the Looters by the other Prime Movers. He is captured and tortured (which is also portrayed as bad, Mr. Cheney), and cannot in the end free himself. The others risk their lives and limbs to save him. In the end, the collective has to work to preserve the individual. Rand's Utopian personality doesn't make it whole to the end of the book- other people have to live their lives for his sake. As a young Libertarian I was devouring all 1200 pages of this book, loving every moment. Even at that naïve age, the ending left me with a sense of Rand deciding to negate the previous 1100 pages in the last 100. Galt can't save himself, he gets by with a little help from his friends.

Take another look from the Right before you hoist the Randian banner, and take another read Left before you dismiss her ideas that reason and rationality should drive everything. There's stuff to be gleaned, but I want to make sure everyone understands it before they hide behind their interpretation of it. Humans have done that with books before...

Before I end this ridiculously long tirade which is I think for no one but myself, I want to point out this cartoon:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dan ~ Once again, I loved your dissertation. I have owned this book for years but have never gotten around to reading it. Now I feel like I don't have to. :-)

Just joking!!!

And I will take this opportunity (again), to mention that Bush and his administration were NOT conservatives.

I appreciate the work you put into this article. Thank you.