Or, HOW AYN RAND MISINTERPRETED HER OWN GREATEST WORK.
In 1957, Ayn Rand meticulously constructed a fictional world with the express intent of proving her vision of radical conservatism to be THE objectively correct life philosophy. She called this philosophy Objectivism.In 2012, many of her world-building elements have proved prophetic, and her philosophy enormously influential. But the elements that have turned out to be the most eerily insightful are those to which Rand paid little or no attention. While her fans focus on the threat of government expansion — a theme explored in a parody so blunt and overwrought as to verge on camp — the discerning and open-minded reader might notice that Atlas Shrugged
*The necessity of new infrastructure, sustainable development, and clean energy, as championed by the protagonists.
*The dangers of fossil fuel exhaustion and natural resource depletion, as exemplified by the circumstances of the plot.
*The tragic co-opting of the state by powerful business interests who ignore the afore-mentioned dangers and oppose the afore-mentioned reforms, as embodied by the antagonists.You’ll also notice, discerning reader, that this set of implicit issues is a pretty accurate rundown of modern liberal priorities. And Rand’s explicit issues with the proper role of government and the nature of the economy outright define the modern Republican agenda.
So at least in this one way, 2012 America really is Ayn Rand’s world and we just live in it. But insofar as the heroes of the Objectiverse pursue progressive goals and the villains erect conservative barriers, the parallels are actually perpendiculars. And there are at least two features of Objectiverse politics that explain why.
First of all, the heroes of the Objectiverse are, by definition, uninvolved with and opposed to democratic political processes. They are anarcho-capitalists. So when a real-life politician like Paul Ryan says reading Ayn Rand is what made him decide to go into government, this directly contradicts and violates the morals of Rand’s story — unless of course the politician in question is actually on a covert mission to undermine democratic governance from the inside. Then such a statement would make sense. It would also make that politician Emperor Palpatine, but never mind.
Secondly, the Objectiverse has no discernible political parties. Elections play no significant role and the state is portrayed entirely as a Soviet-style monolithic politburo. Because, after all, if democracy as a form of government is illegitimate, then how much could the differences between political parties actually matter?
Answer, as provided by the real world: A whole lot.Because even though “The Party” in Atlas Shrugged preaches socialist economic intervention — even though that makes the liberal party in the real world seem like the obvious analogue — remember that the incident which incites America’s dystopian transformation is a corrupt conspiracy among some of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, not its elected officials. Remember that their plan is executed by intentionally creating quid-pro-quo revolving-door career opportunities between the public sector and the lobbying industry, which happened in the real world thanks to Republicans
And remember that the head of state in this dystopian regime is one Mr. Thompson, a generic political chameleon void of principle who looks so much like the stereotype of an upper-middle class businessman that voters can barely remember his face.
It looks like this.
And the ironies don’t end there, they just begin. Note that the heroes sink tons of money into R&D for new technologies that are cleaner and more sustainable, in defiance of the conventional wisdom that their investments make no economic sense. Note that the industrial behemoths of yesteryear only maintain their market superiority by lobbying successfully for enormous tax breaks and government subsidies.
Can you see how Atlas Shrugged is actually, if accidentally, a critique of modern Republicanism? Where Rand’s intended satire of liberalism is so over-the-top it quickly jumps the shark, the satire of modern conservatism that she could not have intended from her vantage point in the 1950s is subtle and insidious; a rewarding discovery that you have to make yourself.
Simply put, substantive critiques of modern liberalism are actually beyond the book’s reach because Rand only presents liberal arguments in straw-man form. She never touches them. Within the Objectiverse, modern liberalism isn’t wrong, it’s simply not an option.
The only ideology that Atlas Shrugged can truly expose as either meritorious or meritricious is its own, because that is the only ideology actually present in the book. And oh man is it presented, in rigorous detail, for hundreds of pages, just begging to be explored. And because this ideology has become central to modern conservatism, a dissection of it can be used to legitimately critique modern conservatism as well.
What does it mean that the world Rand created and the behavior of her characters both good and bad all validate the concerns of 21st century progressives more than they do the concerns of Rand herself, and by extension the concerns expressed by the Republicans who swear by her work today?There is a storytelling device known as ‘the unreliable narrator
‘ — think Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects
, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita
. In a story told by an unreliable narrator, the audience cannot trust that the story as its being relayed to them is actually the story as it should be truthfully understood. Atlas Shrugged
, formally speaking, employs a third-person omniscient narrator. And in Ayn Rand’s case you can bet she believed the ‘omniscient’ part to be literally true. So, formally, she didn’t write a book with an unreliable narrator. She just sure as hell produced one.