I like to play devil’s advocate. Among my liberal friends I prefer to make conservative points, to temper opinions with which I agree in broad strokes with conservative virtues they might otherwise dismiss. And among conservatives I try to demonstrate my appreciation for their virtues while suggesting reasons they should reconsider whatever dismissive attitudes they might have toward liberal ones.
I think this is a reflection of the philosophical values I outlined for myself last week, the emphasis on considering multiple angles before settling on an opinion or belief with certainty. And so despite the fact that just two days ago I mimicked Galt’s rhetoric to demolish his reasoning, I’m going to spend today investigating what I consider to be the central question of Atlas Shrugged:
What if John Galt is right?
The very first thing to point out here is that this is NOT the central question of the book as Ayn Rand sees it. You might’ve picked up on her version of the question. It was “Who is John Galt?” And the reason her inquiry is phrased that way is because as far as she’s concerned John Galt is clearly right. The book is built around validating his opinions from page one. So the “mystery” is, who is he, and what is he right about?
Well, one thing he is definitely not right about is his pathetically narrow-minded worldview — his bankrupt definition of value, and his vicious definition of virtue. No, he is basically forced to embrace this hilariously literal form of sociopathy to justify his goal, which is to see modern civilization crumble.
But it’s worth noting that his preferred form of protest is civil disobedience. So what he might be right about — or at least, what I think is worth contemplating he might be right about — is the answer to the following question pondered by liberals and conservatives alike: what if the current course of global civilization is unsustainable, and what if our only option for saving the human spirit is to radically and urgently restructure the way we live? What if, divorced from his nihilistic revelry in the idea, he is right to want to hit the reset button on society?
This question is probably more popular than most would care to admit. On top of all the religious groups who fetishize the idea that the apocalypse will occur in our lifetimes, secular pop culture is supersaturated with images of global devastation, and ultimately it’s the thorough intellectuals and hard scientists who are perhaps most acutely aware of and concerned about an actual, measurable, scientific apocalypse slowly creeping up on us as a direct result of our global development.
Politically, I have seen plenty of evidence that Ayn Rand’s reviled liberal populists agree with John Galt on this score, most recently on facebook of all places. Some decidedly progressive friends of mine posted the following Carl Sagan quote, which I have copied here from a blog that enriched it with links to real life news:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time– when we’re a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition.
Honestly ask yourself how much of this is substantively different from Ayn Rand’s fears about the future. Sure, Ayn would abhor Sagan’s invocation of the public interest, but if we grant that she considers her libertarian ideas to be in the public’s interest and is simply rhetorically neurotic, then the quote could very nearly have come out of John Galt’s mouth.
Another example. A young activist of my acquaintance posted this quote from Howard Zinn:
In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going.
These people-the employed, the somewhat privileged-are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.
That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that … the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us.
And once again we can see that aside from some categorical inversions about who to blame, the rich or the poor, the public or the private, Zinn’s position is formally the same as Galt’s: the Establishment is intrinsically evil, it is enabled by the complacent masses fooled into playing along, and it must be abandoned as a moral imperative.
When I saw that facebook post I found myself compelled to comment in favor of moderation and conservatism. I feel this is an unfairly cynical take on mainstream society, and that revolutionary idealism is separated from enduring despotism by one fragile thread that is more often than not cut in the act of revolting.
But I swear by epistemic humility, after all, so I must ask myself: what if I am simply promoting the immoral, complicit passivity of the bourgeoisie? Rand, loathe to use such a Marxist term for the middle class, desperate to portray her teleological history as fundamentally different, nonetheless clearly believes this. And it must be admitted that no matter how much one values ideological caution, part of that value is openness to new evidence — and sometimes the evidence demands change sooner rather than later, faster rather than slower, bigger rather than smaller.
So how do we know when to draw the line? How do we sense the tipping point when a complicated problem that can be tackled incrementally becomes a crisis necessitating radical action? And do you see how these questions are vital to transforming Atlas Shrugged from a morally grotesque piece of shit into a troubling but deeply important exploration of current events?
Let’s quickly review the elements of the book through which I’ve considered Rand’s relationship to 21st century reality. There are three major points of comparison and contrast:
1) Climate Change. If incorporated into the Atlas narrative, this is easily the most alarming scientific fact that supports Galt’s radicalism. But it’s problematic for Randians to even admit to, because the only way to realistically address it without, yes, blowing up society, is through collective action among nations, and agreements within communities, to sacrifice certain luxuries and economic efficiencies.
2) Elite Corruption. A universally acknowledged Very Serious Problem, but one that nobody can seem to agree on how to address. Conservatives blame governing elites. Liberals blame corporate elites. Both arguments have merit. But liberal priorities are superior, because the government corruption on which conservatives are focused is largely defined by the implicit sale of legislation to the donor class, which is made up of private sector elites.
3) Consumerism & Intellectual Atrophy. As with the elites, so with the masses: everyone can agree that people need to be better at being people. Everybody from Rand to Zinn finds excessive consumerism abhorrent, intellectual atrophy a cardinal sin, and their pervasiveness the largest cultural obstacle to solving the higher level issues.
These three issues together are basically the case for a Galt-like reboot of social order. And all three could only be truly solved in an enduring way if the entire population of earth had a — no pun intended — “come to Jesus” moment. That sort of moment is the ultimate fantasy of Atlas Shrugged, with Ayn Rand’s brain-with-a-penis, John Galt, as the Messiah. In real life, a universal moment of spiritual revelation like this is, uh… unlikely. To be diplomatic about it.
So as noted in the rundown, at the level of mainstream practical politics, this is why contemporary liberalism is indisputably superior to contemporary conservatism. While both sides are concerned with the issue of moral decay on the individual level (Issue #3), liberals see the true dynamics of Issue #2 more clearly, and beat conservatives on Issue #1 by acknowledging its reality and urgency at all.
This does not mean that conservatives don’t have vitally important points about the dangers of liberalism, points that we should keep in mind when trying to address all of these issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that aside from its merits as constructive criticism, modern conservative ideology has failed to develop any ideas of its own that properly prioritize our objective problems.
For all the obvious reasons this diagnosis of contemporary politics applies equally to Atlas Shrugged. And as I’ve said since this blog started, I believe Atlas as a drama can be improved, um, dramatically. So here is my prescription:
The tragedy of Atlas is that John Galt is a philosophical superhero turned megalomaniac supervillain, who desires to see civilization destroyed because he feels injustice too acutely, because he feels wounded, hurt, and betrayed by the world and wants to reclaim it for all those who are likewise in pain. He is that great trope of comics and adventure fantasy — Anakin Skywalker gone Vader; Hal Jordan fallen from Green Lantern to Parallax; Jean Grey turned to Dark Phoenix; Willow to Dark Willow.
And Galt’s certainty about the need to see society collapse is tragic in the classical, Greek sense too, because if we take away Ayn’s unwarranted epistemic certainty, it is clear that Galt cannot know for sure that collapse is necessary. His actions are justified through arrogance, hubris, presumption. He has abandoned faith in human nature, not restored it. He has sacrificed society, not saved it.
This is where the ambiguity comes in not only for Rand but for us the audience. If Galt can’t know for sure that what he does is necessary, neither can we know for sure that our acceptance of the system is… well, acceptable. To use another pop culture analogy, maybe Tyler Durden really did improve the world by blowing up the credit card companies. Maybe we are better off knocking our tower of Babel over before it falls on us first.
Do you guys see just how good this book could be?
In the end, though, this book is a fictional thought experiment. It allows us to explore transgressive ideas like that, but unless you move to the woods you can only be intellectually honest if you admit you are embracing our society, for all its flaws. Even if we accept that this may represent a dangerous complacency, it is easy to prove as the only morally sound choice.
In the case of climate change, for example, abstention from society will not save the individualistic, hermetic lifestyle. Short of engaging in terrorism, which is clearly morally unjustifiable even to the quasi-anarchist Ayn Rand*, engaging constructively with society is the only logical course of action. It is also the course of hope and hard work and humanity.
[*ED. NOTE: As my friend Max points out in the comments section, Rand actually does endorse terrorism. Certainly the Dread Pirate Ragbeard and Francisco, Galt’s two closest confidantes, employ terrorism on Galt’s behalf. Ayn hedges by focusing on the destruction of property and economic stability, but there’s no way their actions didn’t ruin the lives of millions of innocents and in Ragbeard’s case kill a number of people directly.]
So Rand makes the case that nothing short of civilizational collapse will cure our ills, and that there is no room for compromise in this appraisal. Thank God that none of her believers has acted on this, least of all herself! She was not only happy to join the aristocracy of pull, she collected her entitlement benefits from the U.S. government just like everyone else.
The most important takeaway from Randianism is that those who declare Ayn Rand’s intellectual positions correct yet seek to live in the middle, not living up to the revolutionary implications of their beliefs have accepted Rand’s premise and so must succeed or perish by its conclusions. Some do follow through in this way — the survivalists, those who live remotely and sustainably. Think of Joel Salatin, the self-sufficient survivalist organic farmer. But the middle-dwellers, the Paul Ryans who aspire to the aristocracy of pull, who dedicate their lives to tearing their livelihood down, it is they who evade the responsibility of choice and the reality of their value judgments. It is they who have no respect for truth.
And if that type of person is evil by his own definition and, per Rand, those who face their own evilness must either go mad or commit suicide? Well, the evidence is right in front of our eyes: the Republican Party as an institution has gone mad, and is in the midst of a grand political suicide. Objective reality wins again.