Atlas Shrugged is a hugely popular book among American conservatives and libertarians who see it as a symbol of resistance to government tyranny. This is surprisingly because it is a horrendous book containing cardboard characters, over necessarily long speeches, absurd plot lines and at least 500 pages more than it needs.
The greatest and most obvious flaw with the book is how terrible the characters are. They are all one dimensional cartoons that are either perfect in every way or horrible in every way. If a character agrees with Rand’s ideology, then they are smart, beautiful, strong, noble and rich. If a character disagrees with her ideology, Rand makes them fat, ugly, stupid, lazy and hysterical (most of the villains of the book speak in exclamation marks). Even when villains have sex, it is made clear that they are not attracted to each other and gain no pleasure from the action. Because if you’re not a fanatical libertarian, you are wrong in literally every way.
The descriptions of the heroes are so over the top absurd it’s almost funny. Hank recalls his first day working at the age of 14 in an iron mine and how he cursed himself for being tired and feeling pain, but kept going because “he decided that pain was not a valid reason for stopping.” He then ends up running a series of steel mills and then inventing an entirely new form of steel. I don’t know how Rand thought it was credible that the CEO of a major corporation could also spend years working in a lab on research or that those skills crossed over. As if that wasn’t ridiculous enough, he causally invents an entirely new way of building bridges one evening as if that was the kind of thing that happens all the time.
Francisco has to be the most ridiculous/funny. As a child he instantly becomes an expert in everything he does. He sits in a boat and automatically knows how to drive it. When he was 12 he snuck off and got a job working on the railroads, which was nothing because the year before he ran away and worked on a cargo steamer for the summer. Also while he was 12 he single handedly discovers differential equations. When he was 16 he went to college but also worked in a copper factory. By the time he was 20, he owned the factory. How? By speculating on the stock market, because it is so easy to see which stocks will go up and down. It is weird that none of the heroes have times in their life when they were fun loving children, in childhood they were merely miniature adults.
All of the heroes have this absurd element to them. They don’t stop to eat or rest a single time in the book and it is casually thrown in that they haven’t slept for two or three days as though that would have no effect on them. They have no hobbies or interested outside work. Even when they are bleeding they don’t feel any pain. In other words they are soulless robots, machines good for working and nothing else. Atlas Shrugged bears a strong resemblance to Fascist propaganda in its treatment of heroes. There is a strong emphasis on the cult of personality, of worshipping men of action in contrast to the masses who are too stupid and cowardly to achieve greatness. Democracy destroys accountability whereas dictatorship is the only system where anyone is responsible. All of the best firms in the book are named after their owner and collapse without them.
Atlas Shrugged is less of a novel and more of an excuse for Rand to promote her ideology. The characters are prone to burst out in long winded speeches at the drop of the hat. The climax of the book is a 60 page speech in which remarkably little is said. However, I noticed that Rand completely avoided debates. The moochers give speeches in isolation as do the heroes; at no point do their paths cross. At one point one of the capitalist heroes Dagny is being brought to give a speech. When she finds out that someone will be there to respond and debate her, she drops out of the car and runs away. At another point, the board of directors are considering some daft policy that will cause enormous damage. Yet Dagny, the hero stays silent and makes no attempt to criticise their error. The other board members even ask her for her opinion several times, yet she refuses to say anything. In the end Dagny runs out devastated that they made the wrong decision, having done nothing to prevent it.
The key element of the book is that all the richest and smartest people (for the two are the same) have gone on strike and run away. Yet despite having over 1,100 pages to do so, Rand never explains why that is the best course of action. At no point do the capitalists try to do what any normal person would do and criticise the policies that are destroying the country. No speeches are made, no campaigns are organised and as crazy laws are being introduced the capitalists ignore them and don’t try to oppose them. They merely watch the world crumbling around them yet do nothing to save it. In the real world, the threat by business leaders that anti-business laws will damage the economy is usually enough to stop any laws. Yet in Atlas Shrugged, the capitalists do nothing and then are surprised that they are losing. They make no effort to win people over, yet are surprised that no one supports them.
For a book that glorifies capitalism and profits, Rand says very little about how businesses are run. We know Dagny is heroic and brave and decisive, but it’s not clear what she does that is so decisive. It is as though she has an unexplained magical power that makes money appear. Strangely, for someone who thinks that making money is the most important thing in the world, the heroic capitalists never seem to actually do anything with the money. They never treat themselves or go on holiday or even take a day off. They rarely go home and their homes are Spartan in appearance. Work is its own reward and they would probably do it even if they made a fraction as much profit (which undermines Rand’s key point).
The book is a criticism of beliefs that no one holds, a denouncement of an ideology that no one believes in and condemnation of things that no one would ever say. In this fictional world, everyone (especially CEOs of major corporations) has inexplicably turned into a liberal who thinks greed is evil and we should share everything with each other. They make speeches that no one would ever make to defend laws that no one would ever pass. There is no criticism of socialism or the Soviet Union or taxes or unions or anything that actually exists. Instead Rand goes to battle against phantom ideologies that only exist in her head. The main laws are rules that forbid companies from competing with each other, that force steel mills to share their steel with everyone who asks for it and the climax is Directive 10-289 which freezes the economy. No one is allowed change job, no one can open a new business or close an existing one, and no one is allowed to invent anything new. Production must be the exact same as it was last year and prices, wages, dividends and even how much people spend must also be fixed and not allowed to change. Why anyone would pass this law is beyond me and it is not clear what it is supposed to be a criticism of.
The most detestable and horrific part of the book is the scene where the coal train goes through the tunnel. A politician is in a rush to get to a political rally so when the train breaks down (which is the government’s fault) and there is no replacement train (also the government’s fault) except for a coal burner. Everyone knows that if a coal burner goes through the tunnel everyone will die, but the trainmen are such cowardly government-lovers that they send it through to save their jobs. However, the disgusting part is how Rand claims that the 300 people who died were not innocent victims; in fact each and every one of them deserved it because they supported the government. There was a man who got a government loan, a school teacher brainwashed her students into supporting the government, a worker who thought he had a right to a job, a consumer who thought she had a right to transportation, a mother who carefully puts her two children to sleep but is married to a man with a government job, a woman who thought she had the right to vote. Rand says that each one of the 300 people on the train had one or more of these bad ideas and therefore deserved to die.
Considering the enormous length Rand goes to in criticising the government, when Rand finally reveals her utopia (eventually after 700 pages) it is ridiculous. Here, hidden away in the mountains the captains of industry are secretly living. Yet none of them are practicing their trade. Instead the aircraft manufacturer is now a hog farmer, the judge is a chicken farmer, the banker is a wheat and tobacco farmer and the orchestra composer has an orchard. The plumbers are former professor of economics and history, the lumberjack is a former car manufacturer and the fishmonger was a writer. What is ridiculous is that this is supposed to be heaven but it sounds like hell. Farming pays very little and just because you are a good banker doesn’t mean you are a good farmer (though Rand doesn’t seem to realise this). Even with high taxes, they would still earn far more money than in farming (I guess there’s more to life than profit after all). This is also an enormous waste of skills and talents (which is hypocritical because Rand complaint with the government is that it prevents business men from fully using their skills).
The utopia is called Galt’s Gulch and sounds like an advertisement for a creepy cult where everyone worships John Galt. Dagny, who runs a transcontinental train network, is delighted to be Galt’s servant. The currency is of course gold, which Galt claims is objective (it isn’t its price changes every day and is relative to other commodities). There are no laws in the utopia which doesn’t matter because there are literally zero disagreements between people. Everyone builds their own house and all the resources you need for life are suddenly available. There is even a shale oil rig beside people’s houses which causes no problems whatsoever. Everyone promises not to live for another person which would make marriage and raising children difficult. In fact there is only a slight mention of children in the whole book, otherwise no one is too old, no one is sick, no one needs the government (how convenient).
The way Rand treats love is bizarre and disturbing. Marriage and sex are just a transaction like any other. Hank neglects his wife and she is portrayed as the villain for wanting to spend time with him. Hank only buys Dagny jewellery because it makes him happy, he makes it clear that he doesn’t give a damn what she thinks. The sex scenes between the two heroes are borderline rape and described as an “act of hatred”. Dagny and Hank are in love, but when a better offer (John Galt is more anti-government and therefore better looking and therefore everyone understands Dagny for sleeping with him) comes along they break up in five seconds without the slightest difficulty. Rand goes to great lengths denouncing the idea of love; to her you can only love someone if you are getting something out of it.
There is an enormous amount of hypocrisy in the book. Rand condemns the government for doing the exact same thing that the heroes do. When a capitalist ignores safety warnings and drives the train into a tunnel, she is being heroic and decisive. When the government does the same thing, everyone dies. The government is condemned for cronyism and friends’ helping friends, yet that is exactly what Hank does repeatedly for Dagny. The heroes refuse to live for anyone but themselves yet they refuse to betray each other. Ragnar steals money in the name of self-interest and profit yet he gives it away to strangers instead of keeping it. Getting money for nothing is condemned yet the heroes of the novel, Dagny and Francisco both inherited their wealth and jobs.
Atlas Shrugged is a mammoth book in dire need of a good editor (it could have easily been cut in half or even by two thirds). The plot was dragged out far longer than necessary with needless sub plots and unnecessary characters. The prose is overblown, the dialogue is melodramatic (half the characters seem to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown) and plot simply sucks. It is bad to only read books that agree with your point of view, it is often good to hear the other side of the argument. However, Atlas Shrugged is not the book for that. It is a combination of all the worst aspects of libertarianism, so much so that I’d imagine most libertarians are embarrassed by it.
UPDATE: Somehow or other this has been posted on Galt’s Gulch Online a forum board to discuss the Atlas Shrugged movies. The comments are good if you want a laugh. Obviously the fans aren’t pleased with my take, the consensus being that I mustn’t of read the book because no one who read the book could disagree with it.
2nd UPDATE: A rebuttal has been written that contains a strange obsession with calling soccer socialism and Europe primative.