Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Atlas Smugged

The main problem with Atlas Shrugged is that it's sloppy thinking soaked in bad writing. Most people are on board with the core philosophies as such. Productive capitalism is good; rational self-interest even better. These are not in dispute for the most part, even amongst the imaginary hobgoblins of Teh Left.

But AS is the worst sort of cartoon manifesto, chock-full of cardboard characters and turgid pronunciamentos. The parasite villains are single-minded, dogged in their pursuit of stealing from upstanding producers and throwing it to the wind to be wasted and unappreciated by fellow parasites. The noble producers have but one flaw, and it's that they care too much. Oh, boo-fucking-hoo.

By about the umpteenth interminable rendition of this theme, it occurred to me that, despite its pretense toward real-world dynamics, that it was every bit a sci-fi tract as, say, Anthem (an okay book which I retroactively appreciated all the more for its relative economy of prose and theme, and which also is, of course, the template for 2112).

In the world of Atlas Shrugged, nobody ever sent Pinkerton thugs to massacre wildcat strikers along with their families; nobody ever had to literally fight and die for decent working conditions, for a livable wage, for the basic right to not be paid in fucking company scrip and pushed around by company muscle. Rand completely ignores the reality of laissez-faire rapaciousness, of endless work weeks and child labor, to ponder a fantasy of copiously productive benevolence, hamstrung only by the whinging of thieves and moral cretins, and a taped-on love triangle.

I was fortunate enough to read The Muckrakers contemporaneously with AS, which helped to temper Rand's ponderous delusions of grandiloquent, morally righteous industrialists with the more grounded reality of heedless brutality, of incredibly dangerous jobs and places run by obscenely wealthy men. These were not the Henry Reardens of AS; many if not most were corrupt through and through, using pelf and gall as their retaining wall against justice, burning through fellow human beings like cord wood when they weren't collecting them like stamps.

There's nothing wrong with holding the ideals of Adam Smith and David Hume to a more exalted status than that of Marx; indeed, there's everything right about that. But Smith and Hume too often get confused and conflated, willingly so, by every downsizer who's fucked tens of thousands of people to pad his portfolio, by every hedge-fund grifter who's made a killing with bundled subprime mortgage derivatives, by every scumbag who's polluted every waterway within a 100-mile radius of his facility, and then, well, shrugs when the cancer rate turns into a hockey-stick graph.

And in the end, that makes Atlas Shrugged little more than a footstool-sized apologia for the nastiest strains of predatory capitalism, whether Rand intended for that or not. And the more Alan Greenspan tries to buy back shreds of karma, the more I assume that she -- and he -- knew exactly what they'd done all along, with their cultish little reading lab, somehow elevated to the ignoble status of enlightened cocktail-party chatter.

Providing pseudo-intellectual cover for well-dressed, pedigreed barbarism is perhaps the most dismal calling imaginable. To celebrate the anniversary of the publication of this damned thing is nothing but intellectual lepidoptery. It is the Rosetta Stone(d) of every shitbird in a three-piece suit trying to justify his behavior.


r@d@r said...

god love ya for this heywood, and if there is no god, well then i love ya.

Heywood J. said...

Thanks. You know how I feel about the G-word -- if there is one, then His priorities are whacked.

John O said...

I am at least a qualified AS fan. I appreciate the outright hatred of bureaucracy, which I share; I love the over-idealized elevation of the individual; I love the concept of talent.

But you're right about everything you said, and you missed one big thing: The damn book is absolutely, profoundly devoid of any sense of humor on any level in any character.

And THAT is why I mistrust the philosophy Ayn espoused.

Sure, in a perfect world with her heroes as possible, it's a solid conceptual framework. Sadly, No! We don't live in a perfect world.

And for God's sake, can't anyone have a laugh about anything?

Nice post, as usual. I will not refrain from defending Rand's ideal, but neither will I defend that ideal as remotely possible.

Heywood J. said...

I'm pretty much with you on all that, John. Incredibly dour and humorless throughout. Rand wore her choices on her sleeve -- bolshevism driving her and her family from the arms of tsarism, which is understandable, but as far as I ever read of her stuff, she never really revisited the whys of how the pendulum swung the way it did at that particular point in time.

Especially given the peculiarities of Russian history in general, she would have done a much greater service to herself and her claque of followers by exploring that vein with at least some thoroughness.

Instead, she churned out quasi-enlightened claptrap like AS, so unself-aware about how, like I said, cocktail-party chatter appended to one-dimensional characters could manage to achieve its nefarious cult status.

I am definitely a huge fan of Smith and Hume, and I loathe even the whiff of communism. But AS in retrospect is perhaps even more offensive (both as philosophy and as literature) than it was when I read it as a fairly impressionable high-school junior nearly 25 years ago. It is a remarkably corrupt intellectual thesis.

thedevilzone said...

I highly recommend this to provide the laughs.