F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American lives. In the case of Ayn Rand, there is a second act, she just sucks at writing it.
But now we’re near the end of the literary death march known as “Part Two: Either/Or” and things are finally starting to pick up again. The nation is firmly and totally under the control of corrupt executives and bureaucrats. Francisco has confirmed the existence of a conspiracy among the off-the-grid elites. And Rand’s morally abhorrent moral philosophy is beginning to come into sharper focus.
If we take a step back though, what becomes clear is that Rand’s morals are exactly what keeps Atlas from being more impressive. She has after all created a world of exhausted energy resources and excessive consumerism, where the heroes pursue technological advances that will create a more sustainable and renewable civilization, and the villains are vested big-money interests and the willfully ignorant politicians who enable them. Yet for some reason this book is about how the poor as a class should be treated as subhuman. What?
It’s also important to note that Ayn didn’t realize the depletion of natural resources was an actual looming danger, or that unchecked consumption poisons the earth as well as society. According to Ayn, the problems in the Randverse could have been solved long ago if Hank Rearden and Ellis Wyatt were left free to “Drill baby drill,” if only those yellow-bellied liberal pussies wouldn’t hold them back.
The irony, of course, is that the sustainability dangers are real in an objective way, verifiable by applied science and deductive reasoning. “Drill baby drill” might be a necessary stalling tactic to keep society running while renewable energy gains traction, but it is at best a stopgap measure. Rand’s Objectivist version has none of this foresight. Arthur C. Clarke she ain’t.
So in Objectivism (if not objective reality), threats of fossil fuel consumption and environmental corrosion are just false fronts for the liberals to enact an evil agenda that they won’t admit to anyone, least of all themselves. You can really see here just how influential the Rand worldview is on Republican ideology today.
This is why, now that we’re getting back to the thematically meaty part of the book, I’ve started replacing the protagonists’ talk of moochers and looters with vulture capitalists, moral vampires, and consumer zombies. The two sets of terms are vaguely synonymous but differ vitally in the details. Specifically, my descriptors cut across class and political boundaries whereas Rand’s place blame for society’s ills squarely on one side of the income and political spectra.
By making this change, I like to think I make the Randverse more widely relatable, not to mention recognizable as a relevant commentary on our world today. The American right circa 2012 thinks Ayn’s O.G. interpretation of Atlas is a relevant commentary on politics today, but their worldview simply doesn’t line up with the facts, the objective reality, in which we actually exist.
With this slight shift in the focus of moral blame I think the story actually gains potency as Ayn’s critiques get more extreme, rather than the original version in which the author’s awkward and bizarre proselytizing ruins the dramatic tension. Now, though the crisis is still rooted in moral degradation as Rand claims, the failings are not attributable to just one class or political party.
Part Two, as I mentioned above, is titled “Either/Or.” Either Objectivism, or nihilism. And, well… I choose Neither. Insofar as it encourages a perilous, willful denialism, a false consciousness about the objective state of the world that endangers that world, Objectivism can itself be nihilistic. It is not always and necessarily so, but neither is altruism or progressivism. There is no mutual exclusivity between the two sides of Ayn’s “either/or” proposition; no contradiction. And once you surgically remove Ayn’s insistence that there is, Atlas Shrugged gets waaaay way better.