Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Remembering Rand

In 1957 Ayn Rand published the metaphysical SF novel “Atlas Shrugged” which has been re-issued and is selling well; so Existentialist Man poses the question “Did Ayn Rand predict the current economic collapse in her work?”

“Since I am to speak on the Objectivist Ethics, I shall begin by quoting its best representative-John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged: "Through centuries of scourges and disasters, brought about by your code of morality, you have cried that your code had been broken, that the scourges were punishment for breaking it, that men were too weak and too selfish to spill all the blood it required” - The Opening of The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand

As a businessman and scientist I have always been interested in science and mystery fiction, as well as philosophy and reality. Pondering on the current economic collapse, I was intrigued what SF has to say about this situation. I always thought that the civilization / reality we have crafted around us would collapse [in golden age SF traditions] by an asteroid impact, an alien invasion of Triffids, a virus destroying plant life, Body Snatchers, a Mega-Volcano eruption, or a Nuclear Exchange, Martians or a man made virus escaping. It seems that Amy Rand’s 1957 novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was closer to the reality we see emerging since the economic crisis, as reported by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian -

Some products do comparatively well in times of recession: alcohol, chocolate, cinema tickets, cigarettes. But one surprise bestseller of the economic Armageddon is a decades-old science fiction novel about an imaginary economic Armageddon - popular now, its fans insist, because the collapse of civilisation it describes is on the verge of coming true.

Sales of Ayn Rand's 1957 book Atlas Shrugged - a hymn in praise of radical individualism, extreme self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism - are surging as the crisis deepens, according to TitleZ, a service that tracks sales trends on Amazon.

As of yesterday, the book's 30-day average rank on the website was 110, far above its average rank of 542 over the last two years. On 13 January it even briefly outperformed Barack Obama's wildly popular work The Audacity of Hope. Yesterday it was in 55th place, between The Reader and a book on cultivating very small gardens.

Atlas Shrugged tends to inspire either cult-like devotion or sarcastic mockery in readers, who are either thrilled or appalled by Rand's vision of a world in which the "men of the mind" - inventors, entrepreneurs and industrialists - withdraw their labour from a society intent on bleeding them dry with taxes and regulations.

Furious at being exploited by the government on behalf of the masses, who are described as "parasites" and "moochers", the striking capitalists retreat to a camp in the mountains of Colorado, protected by a special holographic shield.

Starved of their genius, society collapses and wars break out until eventually bureaucrats are forced to beg the rebels' leader, John Galt, to take over the economy. There is a reason, then, that Amazon categorises the book as fantasy. But Rand adherents see looming parallels in today's Washington.

The Obama administration's support for beleaguered homeowners and banks, they argue, smacks of tyrannical socialism, forcing the strong and successful to prop up the weak, feckless and incompetent. "The current economic strategy is right out of Atlas Shrugged," the commentator Stephen Moore wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal. "The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you."

Obama's frequently expressed view that the crisis demands that all Americans make sacrifices - and that those earning the most will need to "chip in a little more" - would have disgusted Rand, who believed that altruism was evil.
Read the full feature here

These are surreal times indeed and worrying so perhaps it’s time to listen to what Rand described in ‘Atlas Shrugged’

Atlas Shrugged sweeps the reader into its own world of larger-than-life characters—including the productive genius who becomes a worthless playboy and the great industrialist who doesn’t know that he is working for his own destruction. The story is a mystery about a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world—and did. Society disintegrates, food shortages spark riots, factories shutdown by the hundreds. Is this man a vicious destroyer—or the greatest of liberators? What is the motor of the world? What is required to restart it?

The answers emerge in the novel’s logical yet astounding climax. The answers are of profound significance not merely for the resolution of the story’s central conflict— but also for man’s life in reality, today.


  1. I was a big Rand fan in high school. But IMHO it does seem possible that we veered too close to the world she recommended with all the deregulation over the last 20 years and it is her heroes-bankers and such--who have brought us to the brink of apolcalypse. What do you think?

  2. What "deregulation" are you referring to? The banking and financial industries are the most heavily regulated out there. Combine the Federal Reserve's artificially low interest rates - in the name of "affordable housing" - with the implicit government backing of subprime mortgages by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - *also* in the name of "affordable housing" - with state/local regulations such as the Community Reinvestment Act, which forced banks to lend money to high risk people who were likely to default on their mortgages, and it's really quite clear how the housing bubble was created. It should come as no surprise that that bubble would burst once interest rates went up.

  3. Well in Britain the financial markets regulations were slackened, in line with the 'selfish' ethos of Rand's philiosphy so I do tend to agree with Patti. UK Banks became moved into the stockmarket and followed the US with the Ninja style mortgages, and everyone new tears would flow, and they are, big style.

    Human nature is not pretty


  4. Ali Karim,

    If your government is half regulated and half unregulated why is it the unregulated half that causes a collapse? It was the regulated part that took money from citizens at gunpoint and used it to insure bad loans and rampant speculation.

    As for human nature, when left alone, humans will soon take more responsibility for their own actions. And you should beware painting an ugly picture of human nature, for such is implicitly a self portrait too.

  5. Hi Michael, Interesting, but then again we live [as always]in interesting times.

    There is no simple answer to this, but your point "And you should beware painting an ugly picture of human nature, for such is implicitly a self portrait too." is very true if we are honest about ourselves, especially as we always acrry around with us the seeds of our own destruction