Monday, March 9, 2009

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (1957)

The first thing that I should clear up is that I actually think that "Atlas Shrugged" is a philosophical science-fiction novel. It's set in a future where capitalism has been supplanted by Rand's version of socialism, the economy of America is slowly dying, and all of the great minds of industry and commerce are vanishing.

I should like this novel, because I am interested in the type of novel this book attempts to be. I'm interested in science fiction, and I'm interested in philosophy. Both together usually work for me. But this novel fails in so many regards that I cannot enjoy it at all.

Firstly, since this is a SF challenge, and I am claiming it to be an SF novel, I should consider this aspect first. Simply put, "Atlas Shrugged" is not a good SF novel at all. Although there are some new technologies, such as Reardon Metal or the instrument used for Project X, much of the technology, and the thinking behind it, is firmly set in what would be available to use in 1957. As for the society depicted, you can only be interested in what is happening if you buy into Rand's philosophy, and I don't.

And that leads quite nicely to a discussion about the philosophy in the book. As a philosophical vehicle, Rand's novel fails. Yes, the book expresses her philosophy quite clearly (the numerous tirades by Rand's favoured characters ensures this), but Rand never manages to convince the reader that her philosophy is a tenable one. Rand's philosophy, from what I understand, is that big business and capitalism is good, governments and socialism are bad, everyone's simply greedy at heart, and this greed is good.

Disregarding the fact that Rand never manages to refute more than a strawman version of socialism, Rand still fails to answer some quite basic questions that would arise in the idealised situation that occurs at the end of the novel, where her philosophy triumphs. How does a society without any form of government system manage with crime or environmental problems, for example? What safeguards are put in place to protect consumers against monopolies raising the price of necessities? These are questions that naturally arise from this philosophy, and for Rand to not to answer them in twelve hundred pages is simply not good enough in this novel.

But a book review is not the place to debate Rand's philosophy; it is sufficient to say that if you do not buy into her philosophy, you really won't be enjoying this book. And I don't think too many people buy into Rand's simplistic philosophical and economic view, but I'm always open to alternative opinions.

As a general fiction novel, this book fails. Rand's characters are not characters at all, but vessels created merely to espouse her philosophical ideas for several pages (up to sixty pages for one speech, believe it or not), or to create strawmen which her favoured characters knock down with the ease of knocking down, well, er... strawmen. If the characters do not do either of these things, they advance the story forward in order to get to Rand's next speech about the virtue of capitalism or big business, or to a tragic situation which would only occur in the socialistic society Rand depicts, and would never have occured if capitalism had the reins on society. And since Rand only really has two types of characters in her novel, with only their gender and name to change between them, it's quite easy to find yourself skimming over Rand's rants.

The plot of the novel, about a woman trying to keep a railroad company afloat while the world slowly crashes, is serviceable when you don't think too hard about Rand's philosophies, and while Rand's writing style is also serviceable, is not enough to sustain the reader, either.

And twelve hundred pages was not necessary. You have been warned. 1/5.


Anonymous said...

Why are Rand's critics unable to actually read? She answered both your questions. Maybe you can find some Coles notes online somewhere.

Ardsgaine said...

Rand's philosophy, from what I understand, is that big business and capitalism is good, governments and socialism are bad, everyone's simply greedy at heart, and this greed is good.

I can see you tried really hard to understand what she was saying. Let me attempt one little bit of clarification to help you realize that there may be some things in the novel that you missed.

What Ayn Rand would say about the term 'greed' is that it is a package deal. That is, it combines into one concept two radically different ideas. The dictionary definition is: "An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth." The amount of wealth one deserves is easy enough to determine. It's whatever one is able to gain through voluntary exchange without the use of force or fraud. If greed simply meant the desire to acquire wealth through force or fraud, then it would be easy to agree that

What is excessive wealth though? If it's based on need, then does anyone need more than a sharp stick to dig roots and grubs out of the ground? At the time the Catholic Church made greed one of the seven deadly sins, most people were living in leaky, thatched cottages with dirt floors, sharing space and parasites with their livestock. Is it a bad thing to want more than what they had?

There was another sin identified by the Catholic Church which is exactly analogous to greed: lust. Just as greed does with the desire for material goods, lust packages the desire for sex with rapaciousness, as if the two are necessarily bound together. If you were paying attention while reading AS, then you might recall that Rand specicially ties these two together and identifies them both as a product of the mind/body dichotomy that exists in Western culture.

So no, Rand did not believe that greed was good. She believed that it was an illegitimate concept, one that would damn both Thomas Edison and John Dillinger as if their efforts to achieve material wealth were morally equivalent.

That's a good bit more subtle than your summary above, and I don't think you've done the book justice.

Rojse said...


Have looked through the CliffsNotes page for Atlas Shrugged. It has nothing in there that addresses my concerns about Rand's philosophies and the environment, how crime would be dealt with, and those are the two simplest questions that I chose to pose.

And insulting me when you disagree is not the way to win an argument. I can respect your views while I disagree with them.

Rojse said...


Thanks for a well-written response and your attempt to clear up some of my concerns with the novel. Your response is a lot more lucid than what the book manages to be, and your succinct response is appreciated after wading through the 1200-page monster that is Atlas Shrugged.

I do agree somewhat with Rand's support for the capitalists whom have earned their money fairly through the free market. However, with all philosophies that try to support a particular extreme, Rand goes too far, particularly with her ending. Yes, I agree that businesses making money is good for the wider community in some regards, but you need a government system in order to prevent businesses doing what might not be best for the social whole, to enforce laws that protect society, to protect the environment and so forth.

That said, if you don't agree with Rand's philosophies, like myself, you aren't going to rate the book highly, and I said as much in my review.

Ardsgaine said...

That said, if you don't agree with Rand's philosophies, like myself, you aren't going to rate the book highly, and I said as much in my review.

I suppose that's true. It probably depends also on how open you are to considering her point of view. I started with her non-fiction and wrestled with it for awhile before being won over. I was already convinced by the time I got around to reading AS. I was in the agnostic/conservative-Democrat camp prior to picking up Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. So it wasn't a huge step for me to become an atheist/laissez-faire liberal.

Just another clarification, if I may. I don't recall if this was made explicit in AS, but Rand believed very firmly in the value of government. She was not an advocate of anarchy. She believed that government has a legitimate and necessary function in the protection of individual rights. Here's a site with a few quotes from her on that subject, if you're interested.

What are you reading next for the SF challenge?

Rojse said...


If Rand did not advocate an anarchistic government, what about the ending for Atlas Shrugged, which has the demolition of the current government making way for big business being able to fix everything?

The next books that I have read are "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russel, and "Broken Angels" by Richard K. Morgan, both books of which I will post a review up in the next day or two.

Ardsgaine said...

The government collapses because it has become a means of violating individual rights instead of protecting them. In his speech, Galt says: "A country's political system is based on its code of morality. We will rebuild America's system on the moral premise which had been its foundation [...] the premise that man is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others, that man's life, his freedom, his happiness are his by inalienable right."

So Rand agreed with the American system of government, but thought that it had been subverted by degrees, allowing it to slide into socialism. The main thing missing was consitutional protection for the right to free trade. She said that we need a separation between state and the economy for the same reason that we need a separation between church and state. Just as the separation between church and state doesn't mean that churches have the right to perform human sacrifices, businesses would not be allowed to defraud, enslave, or kill people either.


I looked up those two books on Amazon. They look interesting. I haven't been a big SF reader in years, but my wife is a total SF geek. If it has spaceships or robots in it, she's there. If you give them a good review, I might pick them up for her.

Psyberspace-Superstar said...

In Ayn Rands philosophy there is "MORAL Capitalism"
not many people understand that concept,
especially the billionaires that abound these daze.
An essential component of this Morality
of the HIGHEST ideal is the;
"honestly negotiated contract"
most recently presented as
"WIN/WIN" By Steven Covey
although the epistemology lies in Rand's writing.
Another cornerstone of Rand's philosophy is
"the initiation of force is immoral."
You parrot the word Greed as in the "greed is good" line from the Oliver Stone movie "Wall street"
based on a statement supposedly deliver in a speech by Micheal Milken. I always had a problem with that speech because Ayn would have written it(she really did) so much better and used the Word "EGO".
EGO is a driving force of a Moral Capitalist.
Rand's writing on EGO is the epistemology of the little
"greed is good line".
A moral capitalist would not
initiate force or engage in a dishonestly negotiated contract
so therefore
would not be of a nature
to commit a crime
against others.
An environmental problem e.g. an exploding oil platform,
such as what BP experienced would involve gathering an ad-hoc committee of the smartest minds in the field to come together
to find a solution
which would be the singular clearly defined goal.
I doubt there would be a situation like there is now with the US Not drilling in the Gulf,
to it's detriment,
while many other countries continue to drill for oil there.
Ayn Rand does not call for NO Government,
or no tax.
There are shared concerns in a civilized society e.g. National Defense that people would contribute a head tax too.
Even charity would not be abolished as Ayn Rand wrote,
that it is perfectly natural to want to help out those worse off,
just that it was wrong to allow altruism to create a situation
where those you help
put reins on you.
The "straw-men" in the book as you, call them,
representative of different philosophical epistemology,
the immoral,if you will,
and So I disagree with you, as I find that
a very educational and entertaining method used to express that.
When you write "As a general fiction novel, this book fails"
I disagree with you again
I would guess,
so do,
the millions of people
that have kept this book selling
in print in different countries
languages all these years so it might also inspire the recently produced motion picture based upon it.
Yes it is a long book
clearly too much for you to comprehend
Ayn did explain,
that a philosophy that you can put in a nutshell
no doubt belongs there.
I did not go out
and find the exact Ayn Rand writings
to answer every one of the points you make
that prove
you found the novel
beyond your comprehension.
My altruism in writing this has tired me
is is for naught.
To quote the bible
"do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces."
Any Ayn Rand scholar can discern
from "YOUR RANT"
what the epistemological underpinnings of your philosophy is
why you find it hard to think for yourself,
as an individual,
against such an apparently relentless and tragically successful indoctrination
by the agents of immorality,
as that,
is at the core of Ayn Rands work.