The Wall Street Journal notes the golden anniversary of that great polemical novel, in Michelle Malkin's words, Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand's signature epic on objectivism and the moral compass of unfettered capitalism remains as topical and controversial than ever, and David Kelley explains the fascination:
Businessmen are favorite villains in popular media, routinely featured as polluters, crooks and murderers in network TV dramas and first-run movies, not to mention novels. Oil company CEOs are hauled before congressional committees whenever fuel prices rise, to be harangued and publicly shamed for the sin of high profits. Genuine cases of wrongdoing like Enron set off witch hunts that drag in prominent achievers like Frank Quattrone and Martha Stewart.
By contrast, the heroes in "Atlas Shrugged" are businessmen -- and women. Rand imbues them with heroic, larger-than-life stature in the Romantic mold, for their courage, integrity and ability to create wealth. They are not the exploiters but the exploited: victims of parasites and predators who want to wrap the producers in regulatory chains and expropriate their wealth.
Rand's perspective is a welcome relief to people who more often see themselves portrayed as the bad guys, and so it is no wonder it has such enthusiastic fans in the upper echelons of business as Ed Snider (Comcast Spectacor, Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers), Fred Smith (Federal Express), John Mackey (Whole Foods), John A. Allison (BB&T), and Kevin O'Connor (DoubleClick) -- not to mention thousands of others who pursue careers at every level in the private sector.
Yet the deeper reasons why the novel has proved so enduringly popular have to do with Rand's moral defense of business and capitalism. Rejecting the centuries-old, and still conventional, piety that production and trade are just "materialistic," she eloquently portrayed the spiritual heart of wealth creation through the lives of the characters now well known to many millions of readers.
I have to admit that I don't necessarily share the enthusiasm for AS as many on the Right do. While agreeing with Rand on the underlying philosophy of the novel, I struggled to maintain interest in the book while I read it through to completion. I found the conflicts in the book contrived, the characters two-dimensional at best, and the stark good/evil perspective simplistic. I was glad to have read it when I finished, and just as glad to leave it on the shelf afterwards.
It's good to have capitalist heroes, as Kelley writes in his review. Unfortunately, it's better to have engaging and real characters in novels, and while Rand had unquestioned brilliance and a singular perspective on tyrrany that only George Orwell and Aldous Huxley match in modern literature, Atlas Shrugged didn't provide many. Dagny Taggart may have come closest, but everyone else was an obvious straw man constructed for philosophical purposes instead of a representation of reality.
Kelley notes that even Rand saw the "producer's strike" at the end of the novel as a fantasy sequence. In one sense, it was even contradictory, since it involved organizing for the good of a group (the producers) and not of the individuals, a contradiction that few note. However, it has unfortunate echoes in history, of groups that run off to the mountains to bide their time and deliver the next revolution in human society. The Islamists do that now, and even Charles Manson tried something similar. The notion that all of human enterprise would crash to a halt awaiting the gurus of capitalism/hippieness/Mohammed is at once a staggeringly arrogant and completely unconstructive notion. Changing human behavior requires engagement, not taking one's ball and going home.
At least Rand tried serving the right notions in her less-than-engaging polemic. As Michelle says, we have had a drought of popular-culture defenses of capitalism and individualism. We need another Rand or perhaps someone even more talented, who can write a narrative that uses realistic situations and approachable characters to exemplify the virtues of economic liberty and the dangers of statist policies. We have plenty of examples from real life in the history of the past century, but few seem willing to mold them into the kind of literary icon that Atlas Shrugged truly is.
What did you think of Atlas Shrugged? The comments are open...