If you’re watching this, you’re likely already familiar with the 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. Maybe you love it. Maybe you’re confused by it. Maybe you want to do a protective binding spell on it so no one ever wastes an entire afternoon reading that 60-page speech defending capitalism jammed into Part 3 of an already dense, meandering novel.
In this video, I’ll dig into why this weird book by a Russian woman, Ayn Rand, is still read by so many people—including Alan Greenspan, Former Chair of the US Federal Reserve; and Rand Paul, US Senator from Kentucky. I’ll also look at why Rand’s ideas interest people, and why her ideas are dangerous. Once, I really enjoyed her work. Over the years, though, I’ve come to see the glaring issues with her way of thinking. I hope I can show others why Rand’s ideas are alluring, but also, to show the inhumanity of her philosophy.
The clips and photos you’ll see are from the film adaptation of the book, which like the novel itself, is a three-parter. I’m also dividing my own videos on Rand’s work into three parts. To really get a handle on who Rand was and why her philosophy, Objectivism, still intrigues people, we need to dig deep into her fiction, her writings, as well as the person she was. It’s easy to dismiss Rand as a crank who just loved capitalism too much, but I think the truth is more complex than that. My second video will look at the holes in Rand’s economic ideas, which are large enough to drive a truck through, and my third will look at how Rand’s life shaped her ideas.
An aside: I think the only way that the film version of this book could have worked was as a steam-punk anime. The main characters resemble the spirit of robber barons like Vanderbilt and Carnegie, and this world filled with trains and strange sci-fi inventions make me think of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Think of Howl’s Moving Castle, but John Galt is Howl and the Castle is Dagny’s railroad and his motor.
To start, Atlas Shrugged is a dense, three part, 1,000 page novel, heavy on philosophy and terrible economic theory. The novel exists in its own made-up reality. It’s a world where captains of industry are seen as brilliant heroes struggling against immense odds. It’s a world where trains are still the primary means of transport for products and people around the United States, not trucks or cars. There are no commercial planes in this book.
The main plot is that all of the people who do the “real work” in the world decide to go on strike… leaving all the economies of the world to crumble into the middle ages in the span of a few years. Because that’s a reasonable thing that can happen. The reason everyone is going on strike is because of communism, disguised in references to “People’s States” from Norway to Chile, and constant rants about how collectivism is destroying competition and draining people of the will to live.
Yes, this is actually the plot.
Why all these workers are going on strike is one of the central mysteries of the novel— along with the identity of John Galt, a man whose name has become slang in the novel. In short, Atlas Shrugged is a long-winded and bizarre explanation of what happens if you remove all the “important” people from a society.
However: who decides who is important? Since I’m making this video in 2020, our views on who is considered an “essential work” has changed. Because of COVID-19, we know who the essential workers are— the workers we absolutely cannot do without, for any length of time. I’ve got some news: it’s not the CEOs of corporations. I’ll get back to this point later.
Atlas Shrugged is not at all subtle. While The Fountainhead had “second handers,” those people who borrow ideas from others and pass them off as their own, Atlas Shrugged has “looters.” Looters are people with absolutely no redeemable qualities. Looters are basically cartoon villains who only want to take other people’s property, ideas, and work to use for themselves.
You can tell who the looters are because they have evil-sounding names. Orren Boyle, Bertram Scudder, and Wesley Mouch are the bad guys. Yes, his last name really is “mouch.” Meanwhile, the good guys have names like Ragnar Danneskjöld, Francisco d’Anconia, and Henry “Hank” Rearden. The Good Guys all leave behind the insane, bureaucratic government to go live in a capitalistic utopia bliss called Galt’s Gulch, where they’re free to earn as much money as they can, and never, ever deal with government regulations or income tax again. Paradise!
Aside from the 50-page screeds addressing the “virtue of selfishness,” there’s also romance and mystery. The only attractive woman on the planet is Dagny Taggart, who runs the railroad. Because she is the only woman on the planet with a brain or personality, obviously, every man wants to sleep with her. (In fairness, there’s also Kay Ludlow, one of the few women in Galt’s Gulch, but she’s an actress who’s barely mentioned.) As I said, there’s also the mystery of who is convincing all these men to go on strike, and our heroine Dagny spends the first two-thirds of the book trying to figure out why all the great men keep disappearing.
If this plot sounds absurd and wildly simplistic, that’s because it is. None of Rand’s characters or economic ideas have much basis in reality. As I said in my Fountainhead video, Rand designed a world to fit her philosophy, not a philosophy to fit the world. I’ll talk more about the economic issues with her work in the next video. So, let’s take a look at the people in her book.
Problem 1: Two-dimensional characters.
Rand’s characters in this book are amazingly unrealistic. At least in The Fountainhead, the characters occasionally sounded like people, with the exception of Dominique. In Atlas Shrugged, all the heroes devote themselves entirely to their work, ignoring family, friends, and hobbies in order to work more.
As someone who’s worked in fields where work can take over personal time— journalism and teaching— when I first read this book, I really liked this character trait. Finally, someone who was okay with me staying up late to finish that article or short story! But, as an adult, I now realize that you need occasional breaks to stay focused and energized, and having a support network of caring people is vital.
But for these characters, their work is everything. For Dagny Taggart, the only thing that matters is her railroad; for Francisco, it’s his copper mines; for Hank Rearden, his steel plants.
And these people are fanatical about their work to the point of myopia. For example, Dagny, who dates Francisco early in the book, never meets any of his college buddies. Um, ok. Not like keeping your lover and your school colleagues separate, and never once introducing them, isn’t a giant red flag or anything. Further, these two lovers can go years at a time without seeing each other— or even talking to each other. I mean, why? Telephones were totally a thing.
Why is it a problem that Rand’s characters aren’t believable? Well, aside from making the book difficult to get through, it also raises a basic question: what good is a philosophy if it doesn’t work for real people?
The pinnacle of this problem is the hero of Rand’s story, her ideal man: John Galt. Others have said it before, but I’ll say it again: John Galt is boring. After hearing all these great things about the guy, he doesn’t even show up until two-thirds of the way into the book. When he does, he doesn’t have much of a personality. If you took the obsessive architect, Howard Roark, from The Fountainhead and took away what little empathy he has or his willingness to communicate, you get Galt.
Rand’s writing issues are dreadfully apparent in Atlas Shrugged. Her characters are all black and white, either uniformly Good or Bad. There’s no overlap of the groups, and no one can ever grow or develop and join a different group. Everyone’s either a looter, a greedy mediocre jerk hell-bent on self-destruction; or a lackey, just a grunt worker who doesn’t get many lines; or conversely, a brilliant worker who keeps the world running and deserves to live in paradise.
When I first read this book, of course, I thought I was one of the brilliant ones. One of the chosen few who “gets it” and goes to live in paradise with John Galt. That’s what any fan of Ran thinks: We’re going to live in Galt’s Gulch! For sure all her fans get to live in the valley.
Well, I have bad news for you. John Galt isn’t going to ask you to come live in his valley. Why? It’s very simple: only the most brilliant, most successful, and most importantly, the most wealthy are important to Galt. Not the boring, common people who do boring things with paper and people and whatever.
Problem 2: The fate of everyday people.
Next, we need to look at the minor characters: Gwen Ives, Edwin “Eddie” Willers, Cherryl Brooks, and the Wet Nurse (Tony). While all three of these people play a minor role in the novel, the way they’re treated in the novel underscores a major problem with the book. Only the most exceptional and wealthy people deserve to go to Galt’s Gulch. Everyone else? Meh.
Any characters who strive for improvement or self-awareness end up dead or absolutely broken by despair. I’m not kidding. That’s an incredibly messed up lesson: Either you’re born a brilliant, worthy person, or you deserve to die.
To get to the heart of what’s wrong with Rand’s philosophy, we need to look not at how she treats her godlike, heroic main characters, but how she deals with her hardworking minor characters. What happened to them bothered me the first time I read the book; looking back, I’m horrified at how Rand treats them.
So, I’m going to talk about Gwen Ives, Edwin “Eddie” Willers, Cherryl Brooks, and the Wet Nurse (Tony).
Let’s start with Gwen Ives. She’s a secretary for the story’s hero, Hank Rearden, who owns the largest steel company in the US. She’s terrific at her job, and gets upset when bad things happen to her boss. When Rearden leaves, Gwen vanishes from the story along with a number of other workers at the mill, the superintendent, the chief metallurgist, and the chief engineer. But it’s not clear what exactly happens to Gwen. She’s just never mentioned again.
Worse is the fate of Edwin “Eddie” Willers. Also in an administrative position, he’s Dagny Taggart’s right hand man who helps her run the railroad. However, when she is about to join the strike, he does two things: First, he confesses his love for her because she’s the only woman worth a damn in his world; and two, he decides to try to stop the railroad from crumbling. Since he’s not a brilliant hero he fails. His last scene has him collapsing in tears on the railroad track in front of the Comet, once the main line of Taggart Railways.
What’s so jarring about this scene is that it’s the last scene in the novel, before we see the heroes of the story in Galt’s Gulch. I felt uncomfortable about this scene as a teen, and as an adult, I find it appalling. Why didn’t Dagny take him with her to Galt’s Gulch? Why do only the brilliant geniuses belong there, and not the regular people?
However, it’s Cherryl Brooks, later Cherryl Taggart, who has the saddest fate of all. We meet her when she’s a cashier in a dime store. It’s there she has the misfortune to meet James Taggart, Dagny’s lazy looter brother. Cherryl thinks that James is a brilliant genius, and mistakes him for the person who actually runs the railroad. Cherryl and James get married, and when Cherryl eventually finds out the truth about her lame-ass husband, she… commits suicide.
Wait, what? Why can’t she just get a divorce? Other characters in Atlas Shrugged get divorced. The fact that Cherryl pins so much of her identity on her husband is bizarre, especially when Rand clearly knew how to write strong female characters with actual personalities. Cherryl’s death is senseless, and especially awful as it comes just as the character develops self-awareness.
Finally, there’s the Wet Nurse, or Tony, the nickname given to the government bureaucrat sent to keep an eye on Hank Rearden’s steel mills. I read on a forum that perhaps a better word would’ve been “nanny,” as the words are similar in Russian, Rand’s native language. Anyway, the Wet Nurse is a fresh out of college, eager young thing. Although his job is ostensibly as a spy, over time, Tony comes to admire Rearden, so much so that when there’s a violent strike by planted government workers, Tony is fatally wounded trying to protect the blast furnaces. As he’s dying, Tony tells Rearden about his change of heart, namely, why he has come to admire Rearden so much.
Problem 3: The strike itself
In addition to these minor characters, there are plenty of other intelligent, hard-working men and women who are apparently unworthy of Galt’s Gulch. I mentioned how people went on strike in this book— and it’s not just the captains of industry. It’s also a lot of other people, from small business owners to employees in different companies. From Dan Conway of the Phoenix-Durango Railroad in the novel’s beginning, to the Taggart employee in the Minnesota Division who warns Dagny about the wheat shipment near the end of the book, there are tons of people labeled simply as “deserters.” For some reason, none of these people are invited to Galt’s Gulch.
That’s an interesting distinction Rand makes: between a striker and a deserter. Both groups are workers who leave their jobs, even after the government makes it illegal to quit. But there’s a huge difference. Strikers get to live in the capitalist bliss of Galt’s Gulch, while deserters roam the country in roving, violent groups who have to steal in order to survive.
I want you to think, really think, about the people Rand thinks are worthy of paradise: they are the owners of companies, the captains of industry. Now, aside from famous company owners, like Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, can you name any captains of industry? Who is in charge of BP Oil? Who runs Greyhound buses? What about the head of Ford Motor Company, or of Kellog’s, or Nestle? And who is more important to a company: the company owner, or the workers? Rand considered the owner the most important, that the company would literally crumble without a brilliant CEO. But in reality, how many companies are run by people like this? And if the CEOs took a month long vacation, would anyone notice? Are CEOs actually “essential?”
It’s especially hilarious now, during the COVID pandemic. Who are essential workers? Well, they’re doctors, nurses, grocery store employees, janitors, delivery men… basically, all health care professionals, people who assist with getting us food, and those who clean and disinfect public spaces. These are the people who society cannot live without.
On another level, as parents panic about homeschooling their children, we’ve realized the importance of parents and teachers. Without people to educate kids, there wouldn’t be much of a society.
Not according to Atlas Shrugged, though.
Rand puts priority on the railway executives, bankers, oil CEOs— the captains of industry— not the regular workers. It may only sound like a detail— but in her world, that distinction becomes a matter of life and death. CEOs deserve to live, while the CEOs employees deserve to die.
Worse than how Rand treats regular people in her book are how she treats those who disagree with her. At the end of the chapter “Moratorium on Brains,” a deadly train accident occurs— and Rand takes the time to justify why every single person on board deserved to die. All of them.
The arrogance and callousness is breathtaking. A lot of other writers have noticed this, so I won’t dwell on it. But it’s one of the main reasons why I found Rand’s ideas to be so dangerous. In her world, if you disagree, you’re literally asking to die.
Problem 4: racism.
A final issue I noticed with Rand is her underhanded racism. It started in The Fountainhead, which spends some time discussing Greek and Roman architecture. In fact, the only time a culture other than these is mentioned is in passing, as the interest of a socialite who likes “mysticism and Aztecs.” Ok…
Rand’s racism gets worse in Atlas Shrugged. The copper mine owner, Francisco, has ancestors who came from Spain and went to Argentina during the age of exploration. At one point, there’s a reference to “starving Indians.” I guess the indigenous people of the Americas were too busy domesticating the crops that are now 40 percent of all crops grown worldwide, but hey.
Then there’s the references to one of the story’s villains, Ivy Starnes, which also stands out as one of the few references to anything Asian: “The smell came from undusted corners and from incense burning in silver jars at the feet of contorted Oriental deities. Ivy Starnes sat on a pillow like a baggy Buddha.”
The next time Buddha is mentioned, it’s to describe a proposal to make soybeans a staple crop by the mother of one of the train accident victims and a recent convert to Buddhism. I have no idea what these facts have to do with her character, other than to generally categorize her as Foreign and therefore bad.
Anyone who’s read Rand’s novels will notice references to heroes and Greek statues when she describes people. It’s pretty telling that the only time non-Americans are referenced, it’s in a negative light.
The issues that I could overlook at 17, when I first read this book, now become huge issues to me 20 years later. I remember the reasons why I liked her work: The railing against incompetence and people who were terrible at their jobs. I get it. Who hasn’t had a manager who wants you to overlook the rules to do something questionable? Maybe a restaurant that ignores a sell-by date, maybe a corporation that asks employees for feedback but never takes the suggestions seriously?
I’ve worked in both fast food and the corporate world, and both of these things happen. I’ve seen incompetence ignored, managers who ignore employees’ complaints of dangerous situations, spoiled food served because managers refused to listen to employees.
It’s tempting to chalk all these problems up to one basic problem and lay blame there: capitalism. When I was a teenager, though, I didn’t understand that Rand was actually blaming communism and lefty ideals like regulations for these issues. As an adult, I now see completely how wrong she was.
In my next video, I’ll dive into Rand’s economic theories, and just how absurd they are.
We’re all going to Galt’s Gulch!
Some analysis of Rand:
Differences between the novels and the books:
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