How to Keep Atlas from Shrugging
Originally published in TIA Daily.
I recently described the real-life parallels to events in Atlas Shrugged. But as Ayn Rand once said, part of the novel's purpose was to prevent it from becoming prophetic.
To understand how we can prevent the novel from becoming a full description of events in the current day, we have to understand one important respect in which Atlas is not shrugging, one fundamental difference between the world of the novel and the world as it is. Someone who commented on my earlier article hinted at this difference: he observed that in Atlas Shrugged, there is no political right, meaning that there is no political or ideological opposition to government control of the economy. More to the point, there is no possibility for such opposition.
This can be difficult to notice because Ayn Rand deliberately de-emphasized the issue. She quite pointedly avoids issues relating to political freedom—issues like representative government, separation of powers, and freedom of speech—in order to keep her focus on economic freedom. In effect, she did not want to imply that it would be acceptable to expropriate Hank Rearden, so long as the looters followed the right procedures for voting on it.
But Ayn Rand knew that evil ideas can only triumph when honest voices have been silenced, and the destruction of political freedom is subtly implied in early chapters. It can be seen primarily is what is not in the novel. For a book that is considered a "political" novel, there is virtually no actual politics in Atlas Shrugged—not in the sense of a debate over public policy with different political parties representing opposing positions. The only kind of "politics" we see in the novel are behind-the-scenes machinations at cocktail parties and in smoke-filled rooms, where the villains trade favors and double-cross one another. But there is no reference to political parties, and Ayn Rand never refers to Congress or the president—she refers only to "the Legislature" and "the Head of the State." These are subtle clues that let us know we are not in Kansas anymore, politically speaking—that the political institutions of the America in Atlas Shrugged have been transformed so as to be unrecognizable.
The only other big clue we are given early in the novel is at the end of Part 1, when the novel's political villains impose a set of controls that will smother the nation's last industrial boomtown. Our heroine, Dagny Taggart, overhears a conversation between two other train passengers: "But laws shouldn't be passed that way, so quickly." "They're not laws, they're directives." "Then it's illegal." "It's not illegal, because the Legislature passed a law last month giving him the power to issue directives."
Did I say this is one way in which the real world is not like Atlas Shrugged? Well, we're uncomfortably close. Congress has long ago "delegated" its "rule-making authority" to executive-branch regulatory agencies. It is under precisely such unaccountable authority that the EPA is preparing to regulate carbon dioxide emissions in the name of stopping global warming. In effect, the EPA is preparing to issue directives to control the entire energy industry, without having to put it up for a vote in Congress.
In early chapters, this erosion of political freedom is mostly implied. That was one minor detail that is off, by the way, in the movie version of Atlas Shrugged. It opens with a scene in which one of the industrialists, Ellis Wyatt, faces off against the bad guys on a cable news show. In the world of the novel, by contrast, the intransigent industrialists are the ones who are never allowed a hearing in the media.
The destruction of political freedom becomes more explicit in the novel as the country collapses into an economic dictatorship. In Part 3, we begin to hear about Chick Morrison and his "Morale Conditioners," whose duties include a combination of political censorship and propaganda. The exact mechanisms become fully explicit after Robert Stadler witnesses the demonstration of Project X, a weapon designed to impose a reign of terror on the whole country, and he considers making a stand against it. In a menacing exchange, Stadler's government minder tells him that the attempt will be futile: "Is there an independent newspaper left in the country? An uncontrolled radio station?" Shortly afterward, a broadcaster is removed from the air—he's one of the villains, who ends up on the losing end of a power struggle—on the grounds that his program is "not in the public interest at this time."
Here again, reality is uncomfortably close. When she wrote those words, Ayn Rand was well aware that the FCC holds the power to grant or revoke broadcast licenses based on whether the license-holders serve "the public interest." And if you think today's statists wouldn't dare to use that power, then you haven't been following what the left has to say about Fox News.
The way I think about the political environment in Atlas Shrugged is that some kind of political battle must have been fought and lost before the action begins. So when we start the novel, the statists already own the Washington establishment and the media. There are no dissenting voices.
That's what is different about the real world as opposed to the world in Atlas Shrugged. We have not yet lost that battle. We have Fox News and a whole alternative conservative media, and more important, we have the novel whose purpose is to prevent itself from becoming prophetic. The reaction to the Atlas Shrugged movie has offered a new demonstration of how potent and pervasive an advantage that is.
I have already described the cultural phenomenon surrounding the movie. That phenomenon seems to have run its course for now. The latest box office numbers show the film's ticket sales declining by about 50% week over week since the opening weekend. That's still better than I expected—the box office numbers for the third weekend were about what I had expected for the opening weekend—but the film won't last long in theaters at this rate. So now is a good time to reflect on what the publicity surrounding the film has already accomplished.
The new publicity for Atlas Shrugged produced yet another spike in sales for the novel, which undoubtedly represents many new people reading the novel. But the movie has also prompted many of the novel's old fans—not just Objectivists but also many conservatives and Tea Partiers—to re-read the novel. I'm re-reading Atlas Shrugged right now, and so is Jack Wakeland, who points out to me that a lot of us will be reading the novel all at the same time and doing so when the political environment so thoroughly vindicates the novel's realism. That will have a significant long-term impact.
And there is one other effect I've noticed: the Atlas Shrugged movie caused a surprising number of commentators and rank-and-file supporters on the right to come out publicly, all at the same time, as Ayn Rand fans. That includes at least three people who are very active in my local Tea Party group, whose interest in Ayn Rand I had no clue of before now. It also includes a surprising number of prominent commentators from all wings of the right, from religious conservatives like Cal Thomas to Fred Barnes of the neoconservative Weekly Standard. Only one prominent conservative that I know of, Michael Gerson, came out with an attack on Ayn Rand's philosophy, recycling the old sneer that it is "adolescent." (This itself is an adolescent argument: it attempts to use ridicule and peer pressure to make you give up your interest in Atlas Shrugged on the grounds that none of the cool kids like it.) But Gerson represents what is currently the least influential wing of the right, the old Bush-era "compassionate conservatives."
I have heard before of various intellectuals and political figures on the right being sympathetic to Ayn Rand. But there has never been an opportunity for all of them to come out and make their sympathies known at the same time. It has the effect of creating a "critical mass" of acceptance for Objectivist ideas. I can sum it up this way: the reaction to the Atlas Shrugged movie heralds the open acceptance of Ayn Rand as part of the mainstream of the right.
Put that in historical perspective. When Atlas Shrugged was first published, the most vicious attacks against it were launched by National Review, and William F. Buckley devoted his energies to purging Ayn Rand and the Objectivists from the right. I didn't realize, until I saw the reaction to this film, how fully Buckley failed.
The importance of this should not be underestimated. Half of the political battle is just getting a hearing. And Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged are now assured a sympathetic hearing among a broad and influential segment of the political debate.
Part of the theme of Ayn Rand's novel is that the creators and achievers, the Atlases who hold the world on their shoulders, have no defenders. But in the real world, they have her—and anyone who takes up Ayn Rand's moral crusade for individualism. Which is one reason to think that in the real world, Atlas will not have to shrug
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