The curious revival of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged is so popular even Angus & Robertson stock it. And now after years of rumours, it’s finally become a movie. That’s odd because it’s longer than Tolstoy’s War and Peace and climaxes with a philosophical speech that runs for 70 pages. Most critics despise it — as Jason Steger told the ABC First Tuesday Book Club: "The writing is unbelievably repetitive, tedious, banal. The ideas in it are crass".

Somehow, the global financial crisis triggered a resurgence in sales of the novel. Nobody knows how many people are actually reading the book, but fans clearly think it’s relevant to the problems of today.

What’s weird about this is that Rand’s philosophy is a kind of inverted Marxism. Without an understanding of Marx, it’s impossible to understand what Rand is on about. In a world where even China’s communist party has converted to free market economics, it’s odd to read a book by a free market evangelist who takes Marx so seriously.

Marx argued that labour was the source of all value. "Capital is dead labour," he insisted. Dead labour "that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks." It is labour that creates the capitalist’s machines and once created, the machines drain work of its creativity, skill and purpose.

But for Rand, it is workers who feed off capital. Productivity increases when scientists, inventors and engineers develop new technologies. As her fictional her John Galt puts it: "The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time." Without the benefit of this technology, ordinary labourers would either starve or be forced to live like medieval peasants. As Galt says: "The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains."

Atlas Shrugged is about what happens when the creative minority go on strike.

Atlas Shrugged is usually filed under science fiction. And the odd thing about this is that Rand is fixated on diesel locomotives. Railroads are an essential feature of the novel. Despite the role technological progress has in her philosophy, she understood very little about what was happening with science and technology in late 1950s America. Her high-tech future is the kind of future a young person might have imagined while growing up in Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

Space ships, supersonic planes and atomic power. This is the kind of technology you expect to find in a science fiction novel from the 1950s. But for Rand, trains, blast furnaces and radio are high technology. The year before Atlas Shrugged was published President Eisenhower signed legislation authorising the construction of America’s interstate highway system, ending an era where railroads were engines of growth. But her characters live in a world that has fallen into decline before it could be transformed by interstate highways and cheap air travel.

So how did the film makers deal with Rand’s anachronistic technology? ÆtherCzar asked screen writer Brian O’Toole about the challenges of the film in a world where interstate highways and jet aircraft have overshadowed rail. He replied:

It makes sense that in the universe Ayn Rand created fuel prices would be so high that airlines, ship freighters and even buses and cars would become too expensive to operate and the first to collapse. People would naturally rely on railroads again.

But Rand never imagined trains as a regression to the past. When her heroine looks at a powerful new motor that runs pollution-free on almost no fuel she doesn’t see a solution to the problem of climate change or a technological answer to the threat of peak oil, she looks at the motor and sees a train that runs at two hundred miles an hour. But in today’ America, it’s big government progressives who are in love with high speed rail. Maybe rail-loving progressives will go to the movie to see the trains and emerge as libertarians … or maybe not.

This entry was posted in Films and TV, Libertarian Musings, Literature. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
21 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
10 years ago

A strange one that Ayn Rand. And I wonder what Malcolm Fraser was doing with her?

James
James
10 years ago

I have nothing to say, I just want to link http://galtse.cx.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Some thoughts from the other side of the fence.

Her world is very comforting:
1 As you note, all the technology is stuff grandpa grew up with;
2 It is a very black-and-white world, not a lot of moral ambiguity; and
3 The ‘crass’ political theory expresses, however crassly, what a lot of people feel about their relationship to government and ‘special interests’.

I think the very ‘raw’ public choice analysis doesn’t get enough attention, perhaps because it is so crude, but I think that this is a big driver in the book’s ongoing attraction.

Michael
Michael
10 years ago

If you want a good laugh read the comments below the trailer.

I see it this way. Anyone who understands, fully believes in, and tries to live their life according to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, will do everything possible, everything within their power to adapt the novel to cinematography, and they will do so by utilizing the best of their abilities. That includes the actors, the producers, the screenwriters, the director and all others involved in making the film.

Just be prepared for the onslaught of negative reviews, the shunning of the film by the motion picture industry, the Screen Actor’s Guild (unions in general) and every moocher, every anti-capitalist, every elitist and all those who eschew achievement and the concept of being rewarded for the fruits of one’s labor.

Francis Xavier Holden
10 years ago

My copies of Rand’s ouvre are filed alongside L Ron Hubbard’s.

paul walter
paul walter
10 years ago

Gee, it sounds terribly Nietzschean, doesn’t it?

aidan
aidan
10 years ago

The movie trailer is terrible. And those were the best bits.

Surely this is “Battlefield Earth” all over again?

Jim Moore
Jim Moore
10 years ago

Big long fast smooth trains going into and out of tunnels; love of machines. That explains her problems and batshit writings! She was driven crazy by sexual frustration as she could only ever reach orgasm with her vibrator.

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
10 years ago

I was also struck by how strongly the Marxist vibe in Rand was as well, not just the inversion of the exploitative factor, but the lionising of a minority from the Leninist strain. Rand shares deeply with the Bolsheviks the sense that the vast majority of people are stupid and plodding or at least docile. Where the Bolsheviks lionised a Vanguard – a small elite of intelligent men to lead these people for their own good (naturally the Bolsheviks were this vanguard) – Rand lionised a small elite of industrialists (who naturally the biggest fans understand to me themselves). In both cases it’s this elite that can create good in the world through their exclusive intelligence.

Its this faith in super human intelligence is what is so silly about both.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Don – have you checked out these guys yet: http://bhl.typepad.com/bleeding-heart-libertaria/

Maybe closer to ‘fusion’ than most :)

Victor Trumper
Victor Trumper
10 years ago

I would have thought the revival is due to the breath-taking hypocrisy which is all the rage now in the US.

jtfsoon
jtfsoon
10 years ago

Homer
Try not to be silly as Brad De Short.

It would be hypocrisy if she had protested against the cutting off of benefits or cheated in getting those benefits. It would be hypocrisy if she had gone to work for the departments administering those benefits.

But there is no reason why an advocate of limited government needs to put themselves at a net disadvantage relative to similarly situated taxpayers entitled to the same benefits under current laws. She paid her taxes like everyone else and is entitled legally to the same benefits so there is no reason she shouldn’t apply for them.

jtfsoon
jtfsoon
10 years ago

Brad De Short’s comments about Robert Bork are also pretty stupid. Bork is a Chicago school economist so he may have thoughts about the inefficiency of current tort law settings in the US. I doubt his arguments are solely moralistic as characterised by the increasingly shrill De Short. There is again no reason why making critical comments about a law obliges you to refrain from benefiting from it. If such a silly social norm evolved, governments could get away with every petty little tyranny because only ascetics would feel up to the task of commenting on policy.

W.G. Grace
10 years ago

Is de Short’s wife writing his blog yet?

Victor Trumper
Victor Trumper
10 years ago

Mr Soon,

You wrong about your forensic abilities and I will merely leave your other comments for others to ‘explore’.

A classic example of having your cake and eating it too

jtfsoon
jtfsoon
10 years ago

You wrong about your forensic abilities

Homer
Your prose stinks of you like a fart in a phone booth.

jtfsoon
jtfsoon
10 years ago

Homer
Was HECS a good and equitable reform or not? Do you support the proposition that beneficiaries of Whitlam’s experiment with free university education for all who advocated for the introduction of HECS should have to repay the cost of their degree?

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Via volokh.com