Author Topic: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later  (Read 2434 times)

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BT

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'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« on: March 18, 2007, 12:50:15 AM »

Tue Mar 6, 3:00 AM ET
 


When Ayn Rand finished writing "Atlas Shrugged" 50 years ago this month, she set off an intellectual shock wave that is still felt today. It's credited for helping to halt the communist tide and ushering in the currents of capitalism. Many readers say it transformed their lives. A 1991 poll rated it the second-most influential book (after the Bible) for Americans.

At one level, "Atlas Shrugged" is a steamy soap opera fused into a page- turning political thriller. At nearly 1,200 pages, it has to be. But the epic account of capitalist heroes versus collectivist villains is merely the vehicle for Ms. Rand's philosophical ideal: "man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

In addition to founding her own philosophical system, objectivism, Rand is honored as the modern fountainhead of laissez-faire capitalism, and as an impassioned, uncompromising, and unapologetic proponent of reason, liberty, individualism, and rational self-interest.

There is much to commend, and much to condemn, in "Atlas Shrugged." Its object – to restore man to his rightful place in a free society – is wholesome. But its ethical basis – an inversion of the Christian values that predicate authentic capitalism – poisons its teachings.

Mixed lessons from Rand's heroesRand articulates like no other writer the evils of totalitarianism, interventionism, corporate welfarism, and the socialist mindset. "Atlas Shrugged" describes in wretched detail how collective "we" thinking and middle-of-the-road interventionism leads a nation down a road to serfdom. No one has written more persuasively about property rights, honest money (a gold-backed dollar), and the right of an individual to safeguard his wealth and property from the agents of coercion ("taxation is theft"). And long before Gordon Gekko, icon of the movie "Wall Street," she made greed seem good.

I applaud her effort to counter the negative image of big business as robber barons. Her entrepreneurs are high-minded, principled achievers who relish the competitive edge and have the creative genius to invent exciting new products, manage businesses efficiently, and produce great symphonies without cutting corners. Such actions are often highly risky and financially dangerous and are often met with derision at first. Rand rightly points out that these enterprising leaders are a major cause of economic progress. History is full of examples of "men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision." In the novel, protagonist Hank Reardon defends his philosophy before a court: "I refuse to apologize for my ability – I refuse to apologize for my success – I refuse to apologize for my money."

But there's a dark side to Rand's teachings. Her defense of greed and selfishness, her diatribes against religion and charitable sacrificing for others who are less fortunate, and her criticism of the Judeo- Christian virtues under the guise of rational Objectivism have tarnished her advocacy of unfettered capitalism. Still, Rand's extreme canard is a brilliant invention that serves as an essential counterpoint in the battle of ideas.

The Atlas characters are exceptionally memorable. They are the unabashed "immovable movers" of the world who think of nothing but their own business and making money. "... I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of them all – that I was a man who made money," says copper titan Francisco d'Anconia. But these men are regarded as ruthless, greedy, single-minded individualists. They are men (except for Dagny Taggart, who could be confused for a man) who always talk shop and give scant attention to their family. In fact, no children appear in Rand's magnum opus.

Her chief protagonist, John Galt, is an uncompromising superman. He is the proverbial Atlas who holds the world on his shoulders. He has invented a fantastic motor, yet is so frustrated with state authority that he withdraws his talents – hence the title, "Atlas Shrugged" – and spends the next dozen years working as a manual laborer for Taggart International.

Mr. Galt somehow succeeds in getting the world's top capitalists to go on strike and, in many cases, strike back at an increasingly oppressive collectivist government. Rand's plot violates a key tenet of business existence, which is to constantly work within the system to find ways to make money. Real-world entrepreneurs are compromisers and dealmakers, not true believers. They wouldn't give a hoot for Galt.

Rand, of course, knows this. And that's OK, because "Atlas Shrugged" is about philosophy, not business. In her world, there are two kinds of people: those who serve and satisfy themselves only and those who believe that they should strive to serve and satisfy others. She calls the latter "altruists."

Rand is truly revolutionary because she makes the first serious attempt to protest against altruism. She rejects the heart over the mind and faith beyond reason. Indeed, she denies the existence of any god or higher being, or any other authority over one's own mind. For her, the highest form of happiness is fulfilling one's own dreams, not someone else's – or the public's.

Galt crystallizes the Randian motto: "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine." No sacrifice, no altruism, no feelings, just pure egotistical selfishness, which Rand declares to be supreme logic and reason.

This philosophy transcends politics and economics into romance. The novel's sex scenes are narcissistic, mechanical, and violent. Are the lessons of her book any way to run a marriage, a family, a business, a charity, or a community?

To be sure, Rand makes a key point about altruism. A philosophy of sacrificing for others can lead to a political system that mandates sacrificing for others. That, Rand shows with frightening clarity, leads to a dysfunctional society of deadbeats and bleeding-heart do-gooders (Rand calls them "looters") who are corrupted by benefits and unearned income, and constantly tax the productive citizens to pay for their pet philanthropic missions. According to Rand, they are "anti-life."

But is the only alternative to embrace the opposite, Rand's philosophy of extreme self-centeredness? Must we accept her materialist metaphysics in which, as Whittaker Chambers wrote in 1957, "Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world"?

No, there is another choice. If society is to survive and prosper, citizens must find a balance between the two extremes of self-interest and public interest.

Adam Smith (news, bio, voting record), the founder of modern economics, may have found that Aristotelian mean in his "system of natural liberty." Mr. Smith and Rand agree on the universal benefits of a free, capitalistic society. But Smith rejects Rand's vision of selfish independence. He asserts two driving forces behind man's actions.

In "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," he identifies the first as "sympathy" or "benevolence" toward others in society. In his later work, "The Wealth of Nations," he focuses on the second – self-interest – which he defines as the right to pursue one's own business. Both, he argues, are essential to achieve "universal opulence."

Smith's self-interest never reaches the Randian selfishness that ignores the interest of others. In Smith's mind, an individual's goals cannot be fully achieved in business unless he appeals to the needs of others. This insight was beautifully stated two centuries later by free-market champion Ludwig von Mises. In his book, "The Anti-Capitalist Mentality," he writes: "Wealth can be acquired only by serving the consumers."

Golden rule anchors true capitalismSmith's theme echoes his Christian heritage, particularly the Golden rule, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Matt. 7:12). Perhaps a true capitalist spirit can best be summed up in the commandment, "Love thy neighbour as thyself" (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39). Smith and Mr. von Mises would undoubtedly agree with this creed, but the heroes of "Atlas Shrugged" – and their creator – would agree with only half.

Today's most successful libertarian CEOs, such as John Mackey of Whole Foods Markets and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, have adopted the authentic spirit of capitalism that is more in keeping with Smith than Rand.

Theirs is a "stakeholder" philosophy that works within the system to fulfill the needs of customers, employees, shareholders, the community, and themselves. Their balanced business model of self- interest and public interest shows how the marketplace can grow globally in harmony with the interests of workers, capitalists, and the community – and can even displace bad government.

The golden rule is the correct solution in business and life. But would we have recognized this Aristotelian mean without sampling Rand's anthem, or for that matter, the other extreme of Marxism-Leninism? As Benjamin Franklin said, "By the collision of different sentiments, sparks of truth are struck out, and political light is obtained."

John Galt – it's time to come home and go to work.

• Mark Skousen has taught economics at Columbia University and is the author of the new book, "The Big Three in Economics."


http://news.yahoo.com/s/csm/20070306/cm_csm/yskousen_1

Universe Prince

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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #1 on: March 19, 2007, 06:02:20 PM »

To be sure, Rand makes a key point about altruism. A philosophy of sacrificing for others can lead to a political system that mandates sacrificing for others. That, Rand shows with frightening clarity, leads to a dysfunctional society of deadbeats and bleeding-heart do-gooders (Rand calls them "looters") who are corrupted by benefits and unearned income, and constantly tax the productive citizens to pay for their pet philanthropic missions. According to Rand, they are "anti-life."

But is the only alternative to embrace the opposite, Rand's philosophy of extreme self-centeredness? Must we accept her materialist metaphysics in which, as Whittaker Chambers wrote in 1957, "Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world"?

No, there is another choice. If society is to survive and prosper, citizens must find a balance between the two extremes of self-interest and public interest.


The problem with Rand's rhetoric, imo, is that she spoke in absolute terms, placing altruism and self-interest at odds with one another. Rand seemed to have the opinion that people who were not pleased by her Objectivist characters were unworthy of doing business with those characters. She tended to villainize the intentions of people who did not completely agree with her philosophy.

That said, the solution between altruism and self-interest is not necessarily to try to balance the two. The solution, I think, is to attempt to make them both farsighted. Long term focused self-interest and long term focused altruism can work together for similar if not the same goals. Serving the customers by helping society can be good for business. Having a business and entrepreneur friendly environment can be good for society. Rand's philosophy, as I understand it, is not opposed to this, but the possibility for this in her philosophy gets lost in her language and attitude.

That isn't to say that I think Objectivism is the best way. I don't. There are other aspects of her philosophy with which I disagree. For one thing, it seems to be okay with authoritarianism so long as it's Objectivist authoritarianism. I don't like that. For another, while I can understand some of her complaints about religion, I think she goes to far to insist that to be Objectivist one must also be atheist.

Anyway, I suppose my point is that there is room in society for the altruist and the egoist and those of us who fall somewhere between. The trick is to focus not on the short term but on the long term.
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Lanya

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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #2 on: March 19, 2007, 06:46:58 PM »
"A 1991 poll rated it the second-most influential book (after the Bible) for Americans."

Whoa.  Bad news.
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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #3 on: March 19, 2007, 07:40:49 PM »
There is no reason to believe that is bad news. Don't confuse 'influential' for 'defining'. Just as most folks who consider the Bible influential are not fundamentalist Christians, most folks who consider Atlas Shrugged influential are not Objectivists.
Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.
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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #4 on: March 19, 2007, 09:59:10 PM »
Whoa.  Bad news.

Yeah, it is bad news that the Bible is ranked higher than Atlas Shrugged.

 ;D
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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #5 on: March 19, 2007, 11:14:16 PM »
Ha ha ha! Nice one, Amianthus.
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Re: 'Atlas Juggs' – Today
« Reply #6 on: March 19, 2007, 11:24:55 PM »
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_JS

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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #7 on: March 20, 2007, 12:58:07 PM »
Quote
When Ayn Rand finished writing "Atlas Shrugged" 50 years ago this month, she set off an intellectual shock wave that is still felt today.

She did?

Honestly, in the history of intellectual movements and those great minds who begin philosophical schools, Ayn Rand either doesn't register amongst them at all, or ranks near the very bottom with people who might have a few unique quotes that catch a few tepid minds, but otherwise are a tiny aftershock on the philosophical movements of the day. I'm not saying it to put anyone down, but this was clearly written by someone who already thinks highly of her. From an objective view (and from someone who knows a bit about "intellectual history," (which is its own subtopic of the field of History) she is more known as a novelist (her impact there is best left to American Lit folks).

Quote
At one level, "Atlas Shrugged" is a steamy soap opera fused into a page- turning political thriller. At nearly 1,200 pages, it has to be.

I'm not an American Literature (or even World Literature) critic, but from my own amateur point of view as someone who has read a few pieces of literature I'd have to say that "page-turning political thriller" would not be my personal critique. I find her writing to be dull and lifeless. Compare it to someone like Orwell or Huxley, where the characters are much more human and sympathetic. Rand's characters are cardboard and remind me of Padme and Anakin from Star Wars Episode II.

But again, that's just my humble opinion, and people's taste in literature is subjective.

Quote
But the epic account of capitalist heroes versus collectivist villains is merely the vehicle for Ms. Rand's philosophical ideal: "man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Meh. Already done by Nietzsche and with much better writing ability and style. Though he is another example of a pseudo-philosopher, he will probably be better remembered than Rand in the annals of History.

Quote
Its object – to restore man to his rightful place in a free society – is wholesome. But its ethical basis – an inversion of the Christian values that predicate authentic capitalism – poisons its teachings.

Both points are debatable and it is noteworthy that Rand, like Nietzsche, does not function without the notion that the system of morality based on Christianity has been "killed." Christianity tends towards a "collectivist" ethic, and certainly cannot function on the notion of pure unadulterated selfish individualism.

Quote
The Atlas characters are exceptionally memorable.

I wouldn't go that far.

Quote
Rand is truly revolutionary because she makes the first serious attempt to protest against altruism.

Bullshit. There were Greek philosophers who did so many millennia before anyone ever heard of Ayn Rand. Americans lack of knowledge of classical history compels them to make such stupid statements and it always amazes me. "There is nothing new under the sun."

Quote
Her chief protagonist, John Galt, is an uncompromising superman.

*yawn* Nietzsche...

Quote
Today's most successful libertarian CEOs, such as John Mackey of Whole Foods Markets and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, have adopted the authentic spirit of capitalism that is more in keeping with Smith than Rand.

One of the most succesful companies in the world is run by a French Communist who pays himself roughly the equivalent of $20,000 a year. Just thought I'd throw that out there ;)

Quote
A 1991 poll rated it the second-most influential book (after the Bible) for Americans.

Big deal. There was a poll that once rated it #1 and it barely beat out one of L. Ron Hubbard's books. I don't see that as a real meaningful poll.

The fact that many Americans have never read some of the greatest works of literature is probably a testament to our problems more than Ayn Rand's and Hubbard's greatness.


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Xavier_Onassis

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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #8 on: March 20, 2007, 03:53:34 PM »
Rand set off a "shock wave" in 1957?

It sure as Hell missed me. I didn't hear of her until a friend lent me a copy of "We the Living" in 1962. It was and still is her best book, because the characters are less cardboard cutouts like the feebs in Atlas Shrugged. Even their names were dorky:Robert RRRuark!  Dabney Taggart!

Ayn Rand, a Jewish woman  who abandoned both of her real names, was and is an exaggerated antithesis of Lenin. Sort of like HHH or the Undertaker is an antithesis of Hulk Hogan.

She had the talent to write a good novel. We the Living was better than Gone with the Wind, and the Fountainhead and the Night of January 16th were on a par with the usual 1950's drivel, but Atlas Shrugged was way too long, its characters cartoonish, and the plot contrived. It is the longest book that sucked I have ever actually completed.

 
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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #9 on: March 20, 2007, 05:59:34 PM »
Atlas Shrugged was way too long, its characters cartoonish, and the plot contrived.
 

All of which is true enough. But, like pointing out that technically Bob Dylan couldn't carry a tune, it rather misses the point.
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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #10 on: March 20, 2007, 07:16:39 PM »
Whatever else you want to say about Rand's writing, to suggest its influence was minimal is, I think, incorrect. Okay, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged didn't convert the nation into Objectivists, but they did introduce many people to questions and ideas they had not contemplated before. And Rand's ideas if not her books were influential in the rise of people like Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman. Not that Goldwater or Friedman were Objectivists, because of course they were not. But many people who supported them were folks who had first encountered free market and libertarian ideas in Rand's books. Rand's ideas also had influence on people like Murray Rothbard and Alan Greenspan, both of whom were at one time followers of Rand. Rand's influence may not be so great as Mark Skousen implies, but it is farther reaching than I think Rand's detractors here give it credit for being.
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Xavier_Onassis

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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #11 on: March 21, 2007, 06:18:52 PM »
All of which is true enough. But, like pointing out that technically Bob Dylan couldn't carry a tune, it rather misses the point.
 
 ======================================================================
No, it doesn't. music and novels are different genres and become famous for different reasons.


Bob Dylan would never NEVER have become famous had others, who could sing, sang his songs. At best, he would be a figure like Dave Van Ronk, aka the Pope of Greenwich Village, who was famous mostly among other musicians.

Rand is a novelist. She was capable of writing a decent novel, as We the Living shows, but Atlas Shrugged is just bad writing. Perhaps if some brave Rand soul made a film about it, or better, a SERIES of films about it (an objectivist soap opera, to be specific) then that might be influential.


But they won't. Rand is less and less well known with every passing year.
 

Hegel said that ideas progressed in a thesis-antithesis-synthesis progression.
Every idea creates its own reaction, as an opposite or near opposite.
The two merge and create a synthesis.

Rand is the Antithesis of Lenin.  Who is the synthesis? I would say Alan Greenspan is the best candidate.

Rule by royalty creates a reaction among a rising middle class. The bourgeois beaurocracy that it the antithesis of this merges with the royal rule and produces the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. That is how Lenin would have seen it.

Of course, this final struggle and its result did not produce the 'withering away of the state' and a utopian variety of anarchy as some of the Bolsheviks said. There are no final struggles nor are there final solutions.

Mankind will never live in a utopian anarchy. Jesus isn't going to rule for 1000 years or All eternity, either. It's all a never-ending cycle, which will repeat until the Earth gets hit by a huge comet or the Sun goes supernova and fries us all.




\
"Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."

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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #12 on: March 22, 2007, 09:49:46 AM »
Quote
Hegel said that ideas progressed in a thesis-antithesis-synthesis progression.

That isn't what Hegel said. It was Fichte who developed the dialectic in its infancy, but it was Marx who made it into something of a science, though at the same time critiquing its overall usefulness.

Hegel was a muppet (no, that's not a technical term). He tried to build a philosophical system to explain all of history, religion, and even art as an evolutionary progression of east to west and towards freedom (though notably freedom in his own terms). He makes the western states of the day into something spectacular and awe-inspiring, but it is notable that many of his students see through this (Feuerbach and Marx for example).

Quote
Rand is the Antithesis of Lenin.

No. Lenin was a man of action as well as thought. Rand was a C-rate author and overexaggerated her talents as a pop-philosopher. She made Hegel look superbly brilliant.

I'm not sure C-rate authors have antitheses. Perhaps Georg Lukács, who was an actual thinker of some merit. Of course that would require accepting the triad and I'm not sure Fichte was right.
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Xavier_Onassis

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Re: 'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
« Reply #13 on: March 22, 2007, 10:05:53 AM »
Rand is the Antithesis of Lenin.

No. Lenin was a man of action as well as thought. Rand was a C-rate author and overexaggerated her talents as a pop-philosopher. She made Hegel look superbly brilliant.
------------------------------------------------------------
Lenin was a man of action because he had very dedicated followers, and he came along at the precisely right time to implement his ideas. Which I don't think were much less half-baked than Rand's.

Rand had followers, but of the coffee-sipping, debating-club sort. Guys like Alan Greenspan or Ben Stein are not the sort to pick up a weapon and exhort the masses, nor would any respectable masses follow them.

I think Lenin was a far shrewder politician than Rand. I agree that she was more of a footnote to the history of ideas, but her ideas are the antithesis of Lenin's, however half or quarter baked they might have been.

Think of the concept of devolution, which maintains that Mankind is devolving into a lesser being, rather than a greater one. Its maximum expression was Devo, that band that wore plastic flowerpots on their noggins. Rand was sort of the Devo of the Russian anti-Bolshevik movement. Just without thre plastic flowerpot. Atlas Shrugged might  be described symbolically a plastic flowerpot, perhaps,
"Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."