Atlas Failed

So I finally got round to reading Atlas Shrugged, and now the blood has stopped flowing from my eyes I wanted to share a few impressions. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

To start with, the positives. I thought the plot was very good, indeed it could almost be the novelisation of the Road to Serfdom. It is also kind of ironic that action that kicks off the chain of events is orchestrated by a non-governmental, industry group (of which type Adam Smith famously warned about) to squash an upstart rival. The actions then taken by government officials interfering in the economy were also beautifully described, as were their consequences I thought the best parts of the book were the faster paced descriptions of the knock on effect of each moronic laws and it consequences.

I also rather liked the characters, which are often accused of being flat and stereotyped. This is true of the lesser villains (and indeed some of the hero’s, who are readily interchangeable), but the main characters did develop and have satisfying arcs. I liked how Jim Taggart and Hank Rearden mirror each other, at the start both are unhappy because they do not understand their true nature, which by the end they have accepted leading to their breakdown and blossoming, respectively. I do wonder also if Taggert had some kind of bipolar disorder? I also though Cheryl Brooks subplot was one of the books highlights, as she (and Eddie Willers) were pretty much the only ‘average’ characters, and I was hoping she would have a happier fate. I liked Dagny Tagget best for refusing to go along with Galt’s strike (more on that below)

Now for negatives!

The first was its length, it is simply too damn long. If every sentence over 5 words was cut by a third it would be more manageable. Alternatively as a trilogy it would work well. Now that is not to suggest I have a problem with long books, far from it. But a story has a natural length and if was stretched out too far in this case, mainly due to too many similes and metaphors in every sentence.

This leads into the second problem with the book, and that will take some explaining. The point of a novel is to tell a story. A polemic exists to make a point. Atlas Shrugged tries to combine the two, and doesn’t really pull this off. It is possible to make a pont through a story, and there are many successful examples 1984, Brave New World, V for Vendetta and so on. However the message shouldn’t distract from the story telling, and this is where Rand fails. The narrative comes screeching to a halt whenever one of the hero’s start pontificating. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that I found myself losing the will to live during Galt’s 60 page speech.

Despite what Mr Thompson though, this wasn’t a great piece of rhetoric it was rambling, repetitive and I find it hard to believe people would have sat through 3 hours of it. There was no narrative structure to it, swing from one subject to another then back to the first. D’Anconia’s speech on money has this problem too, repeating many of the same points. If it was 2-3 paragraphs long it would be great, and likewise Galt’s speech could have been reduced significantly ironically the ending of the novel felt rushed after the speech had taken up so much of the book (one of my pet peeve’s is when getting near to the end of the book and feeling that there is no way the plot can be wrapped up in the remaining pages in a satisfactory manner.)

So given the impact of the philosophy on the plot, did the book succeed as a philosophical treatise? Well it gets the point of Rand’s philosophy across, but I’m not sold on it. I respect the attempt made to prove that the statists don’t have a monopoly on morality, but don’t agree with her that the problem is altruism, coercion in the name of it is the problem (a specific examples the woman who made her child give away his best toy is not clearly in the wrong. However if the child did so voluntarily I don’t see that this is a problem. Likewise with the oath of the strikers and this was even contradicted in book when the inhabitants of the valley set off to rescue Galt (the ‘we don’t give’ bit is also contradicted when it is mentioned that the giant gold dollar sign was a gift!)

Then there is the whole ‘leaving millions to die in the collapse of civilisation’ stuff…. As the old saying goes. ‘All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing’ Yet this is exactly what happens here, and the throwaway comments about the victims of this plan (the guy who killed himself after the research centres are closed, the shop owner who gassed himself and his family, etc) Partly why I liked Dagny best is that she refused to go along with this until the strikers had won. SO nope, this novel alone hasn’t swayed me to the objectivist camp.

Other minor quibbles were the dialogue was clunky in places, and that certain revelations such as the identity of Eddie’s dinner buddy where too predictable.

So in the end, did I enjoy it? ‘somewhat’, my enjoyment was mainly hampered by pacing problems caused by the speeches, it was not in my opinion the life changing masterpiece it is made out to me. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein is a better libertarian sci-fi novel, and I would recommend that over Atlas Shrugged to a friend.

Oh, and the best way to make a pile of cash in Mulligan’s Valley? Start selling blow up dolls and mansize tissues!

  10 comments for “Atlas Failed

  1. Paul Marks
    Mar 30, 2012 at 8:25 am

    The industry group (none of them) would not have “achieved” anything had it not been for the IDEAS (the beliefs) that people had.

    It would have made no difference if the industry group (and so on) had not even existed.

    And Jim Taggart did not have “bipolar disorder”, this character (like so many in the book – and in the “real world”) has bad IDEAS – bad philosphical BELIEFS.

    People often say that they are not interested in philosophy – that does not mean they do not have beliefs, it means they refuse to examine their beliefs.

    The bribes of big business (although such corruption certainly exists – and is not all defensive) mean little, otherwise American business taxes would not now be the highest in the industrial world (and most companies DO have to pay) and Exxon Mobile would not being attacked by taxes and regulations (in spite of all the payments it makes to politicians and so on) and would not have been overtaken as the largest oil company by PetroChina.

    IDEAS are what matter – and Atlas Shrugged is about philosphical ideas.

    For it is philosophical ideas (beliefs) that lead to political ideas (beliefs) – even among people who claim to be totally cynical and have no beliefs.

    By the way – F.A. Hayek….

    His economics was O.K. (although, as Rand understood, not as good as that of Ludwig Von Mises) – but “The Road to Serfdom” is an example of philosophical “bad faith”.

    “The Road to Serfdom” talks about “rights” and it talks about human freedom.

    But Hayek did not believe in rights (and he did not believe in the altertative conception of natural law either) – true neither did Mises (who was a utilitarian), but Mises does not write about political philosophy (rather than economics) as much as Hayek does – there is far less “bad faith” in Mises.

    And, unlike Mises, Hayek did NOT believe in human freedom anyway.

    “How can you say that Paul…”

    Because it is true.

    F.A. Hayek did not believe in agency – in the reasoning “I” (he accepted the mocking of the “I” that comes from David Hume and on into the modern day).

    If one does not believe that human beings are “beings” (agents) – that they can CHOOSE to do one thing rather than another, then there is no moral responbility (there is not – “compatiblism” is nonsense, it is a claim that two incompatible things, determinism and moral responsibilty, are “compatible” because the elite just declare they are).

    Nor does Hayek keep his philosphical opinions to himself – there are right there (for example in the “Constitutional of Liberty”) and those philosophical position logically leads to human beings being of non moral importance (indeed not being “beings” i.e. free will agents – at all). Human freedom becomes an “illusion”, in this philosiphical point of view. Hayek was astonished at the political opinions of the modern “intellectuals” who shared his philosophical stand point – but actually it was HAYEK who was getting it wrong. The collectivist political position (having total contempt for the very idea of human freedom) is the logical conclusion of the philosophical opinions that Hayek himself accepted.

    Ayn Rand may be “boring” with her long speeches on philosophical questions – but, in the end, it is these philosophical matters that are the things of key importance.

    In the end one either accepts the position of the Aristotelians (like Rand) on these matters (a position shared by the Common Sense thinkers and others) or one does not.

    Either the human mind (the self, the reasoning “I”) exists – or it does not. Either humans can make choices (real choices) or we can not.

    If it is “not” – then it is pointless (utterly pointless) to talk about economics or politics.

    • Mar 30, 2012 at 10:39 am

      Re: the industry group. Well spotted. In fact the point of starting with the industry group and not the Gov is , as Diana Hseih points out in Explore Atlas Shrugged, to really emphasise that it’s the ideas that make the difference not the institution. See also Dan Conway’s acquiescence to the decision.

      Rand, then goes on to show a whole host of characters being recused, as they “get it” and set themselves free. The real hero of the book is the Objectivist idea system that the characters all eventually agree on.

      The point of showing Eddie and Cheryl – the common man and common woman – ending up dead is that these characters both left their examination of the ideas in the culture until it was too late. She was clearly of the opinion that this reflection on the ideas and culture is something everyone should do.

  2. Ken Ferguson
    Mar 30, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Excellent review, Andy.

    I recently read the book and must agree entirely that it is not a great work of art. It reminded me somewhat of the writings of the Marquis De Sade- a long philosophical treatise bizarrely punctuated with outrageous porn scenes.

    Having said that, the political point is well made and, considering when it was written, it can be seen as genuinely prophetic. However there is a worrying strain of elitism running through the argument and the notion of the heads of large corporations as supermen is strange. I’ve met some of these characters and they are as far removed from a Hank Reardon as you can imagine!!!

    I’m glad to have read it, in the same way that I’m glad to have read Finnegans Wake, and some of the language is profound but it is too severely flawed to be life changing, I’m afraid.

    And do you think Simon will ever speak to you again now you’ve suggested the inhabitants of Mulligans Gulch may be onanists?

  3. Mar 30, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Andy, thanks for providing the perfect antidote to my solidly Randian output.

    The point about the strikers leaving people to die is well made, but you forgot that Dagny’s fight actually perpetuated the broken idea system. This is the point of Hanks break thought moment when he realises they expect him to “think of something” to make their terrible economic policies and regulations work in practice. That’s my favourite moment in the whole book (and it s typical of Rand’s structured approach that the very worst moment follows it swiftly).

    Also, your admiration for Dagny’s fight is essentially accepting Dagny’s false premise that she is somehow responsible for holding up the system and trying to fix the problems caused by those in power. She is not responsible for that. As Galt says to the scientist who threatened to kill one child per family, his moral status does not depend on the actions of others.

    Also you’ve assumed that Dagny and the other bsiness leaders could have actually succeeded in mitigating the problems caused by central planners by thinking and working hard enough. If they could, why would the planners have a problem in the first place? You’ve accepted Dagny’s second false premise – her massive over confidence – and implicitly accepted that a small elite can run an economy, which we know all to well doesn’t work in real life.

  4. Mar 30, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Some interesting responses here, which I shall adress invidiuallly

    Paul- interesting, I had never heard that said of Hayek before, I will have to go re-read some of his work. I only mentioned him as I was thinking that the plot of AS mirrors what he described (summarised brilliantly in these cartoons:

    Simon- I don’t think Dagny thought that, but if left alone she could at least keep her firm going. It is too late on a Friday night to get too deep into metaethics but I think choosing to oppose evil is superior to letting it win, even if it is a lost cause.

    Ken- thanks for your kind words, and there is nothing wrong with a date with Rosie Palm!

  5. Mar 31, 2012 at 12:32 am

    It’s worth checking out Rothbard’s confidential memo on Hayek’s ‘Constitution of Liberty’

    starting page 61, with “F.A. Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty is, surprisingly and distressingly, an extremely bad, and, I would even say, evil book.”

    I read the book and liked it a lot at the time. He is one of our guys, but we need to be aware of the flaws in his work, or to be mild, the significant differences in his philosophical position. His best work in economics was when he was most under the influence of Mises (indeed, his Nobel Prize was awarded in 1974 for work he’d done some decades before). I must say, though, that ‘The Road to Serfdom’ was, for me, something of a gateway drug for the more intoxicating and habit-forming delights of Mises and Rothbard.

    • Mar 31, 2012 at 7:38 pm

      Funny how the comments have drift to Hayek rather than Rand!

      2 points I thought of since writing this post; firstly a part of the blame for the state of the world must rest with the parents of the looters- esp Starnes. If he’d done a better job raising his kids the tragedy of Starnesville could have been avoided.

      Secondly the gift economy of the underground in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Triology is the mirror opposite of Mulligan’s Valley, and both are too extreme.

      Oh and Richard, Rothbard is next on my reading list 🙂

      • Mar 31, 2012 at 10:43 pm

        I’ll be waiting in ambush come Thursday night!

      • Apr 1, 2012 at 8:55 am

        Well, the Starnes were communists – a political position with a formidable reputation – would you endorse parents attempting to bring up their children and forcing them into or away from a certain political outlook? You might worry about them joining a cult, but communism exceeds the level of popularity required to avoid that label.

        The cultures ideas on that (at least the ones I’ve adbsorbed) involve training the child to be critical and then letting them make up their own minds. Perhap’s Pappa Starnes thought he was being a good parent by allowing them to adopt communist ideas of their own volition.

        • Apr 1, 2012 at 9:49 am

          Good point, but at the very least he could have taken steps to prevent them ruining his legacy- say by selling it entirely and leaving them trust funds or floating it prior to his death so there were other shareholders who could counter hsi kids.

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