Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Reaction to Ayn Rand


Does the world need another amateurish review of Atlas Shrugged? Why try to write a review of a book that has already been examined from every possible political, literature, personal and critical perspective? Why write about a book that is of no interest to anyone who hasn’t already heard about it? Er, because I'm a blogger with nothing better to do just now. Not a good reason, I know, but it'll have to do.

Anyone who hangs around libertarian blogs hears references to John Galt, Ayn Rand, and the book. There comes a point where you think you might as well read it, rather than take your opinion of it from anyone who happens to comment on someone else’s blogpost.

Firstly, it is a very long and boring book. Very long indeed, and extremely dull much of the time. There is no real story, everything, every character, every conversation, every event, is driven by the need to make a particular statement, or to allow something to happen. As literature it is pretty much worthless. I don’t think it ever aspired to literature.*

It does, however, articulate its ideas very well. It is a refreshing, uplifting, dynamic read, reminding you constantly of how those with small minds and hearts drag down those who might contribute, albeit by chance, to the greater benefit of mankind.

The great problem of life is always other people. The leeches and moochers of Atlas Shrugged are a caricature, but they represent deeply influential currents of belief in most developed countries today. It is hard for many to understand that ‘sharing the wealth’, ‘sharing the jobs’, however good and just this sounds, requires that someone create the resources we are all going to share. If those who are capable of doing it don’t get the biggest share, or at least, if they are given no hope of getting a significant share, they simply won’t do it. And there is nothing to share out, fairly or otherwise. Wealth does not grow on trees and when the usual people stop its creation they look around desperately, wondering where it’s gone. The answer is that it was never there. They refused to let it exist, and they can’t make it themselves.

I say it is refreshing and uplifting even though it offers no solution to the problem. The book’s response to the situation is so fantastic as to be inconceivable. It wouldn’t work, even if it were put into practice. After all, in those countries where creators of wealth are not allowed to exist, they are still blamed for the resulting poverty. Even so improbable a strike as Ayn Rand describes would not change the minds of those who don’t want to see. In the current economic crisis, governments, with the help of the press, have successfully sold the myth that there isn’t any money because the banks have taken it all.

No, the book is refreshing and uplifting because it repeats, relentlessly and unapologetically, the message that some people create wealth, while others only consume it. The creators of wealth do not have to exist. In a sufficiently large and free society they will probably exist if they are allowed to. But it is a matter of chance.


*Years ago I read ‘We, the Living’. I read it as a novel, a literary novel, before I knew that Ayn Rand had any greater significance to some people than that of a writer who had lived the hell that was Stalinist Russia and could articulate the horror dramatically and poetically. I remember it as a novel that was good on its own terms, a story well told, regardless of the background which was, I now realize, the main reason for writing it.

I have also just read ‘The Anthem’, which has a political and philosophical message. The book is mostly that message, but it is told through a story, a genuine literary creation. It’s short, and worth reading for what it is.

10 comments:

Vincent said...

Amateurish reviews of Ayn Rand are always welcome to me, because she polarises opinion and I like to know which side of the divide the reviewer is on. I had a go at "We the Living" not so long ago. As literature it was very poor but my overriding impression was of a deeply unpleasant author with deeply unpleasant ideas. So much so that I could not think of a bookshelf where I would want to keep it. Give to a charity shop? I didn't want to inflict it on anyone else so I threw it in the bin outside, a dishonour I've never before inflicted on a book.

This doesn't stop me from understanding how her experiences shaped her personality & ideas; or from understanding that otherwise decent people might see some good in her.

CIngram said...

On 'We, the Living', I remember it, as I said, as a story well told. Perhaps I should reread it now that I know more about her background.

On 'Atlas Shrugged', my main impression is of a poor novel with a message that I kept responding to enthusiastically. It's just the way it struck me. The recognition and acceptance of personal responsibility always does, attempts to become better than one is, to rise above the deadening, deflating presence of the mediocre moaners who do nothing and then wallow in their own laziness.

I understand we are on different sides of the divide you mention, but don't quite define.

Sackerson said...

Do bankers create wealth? Do supermarkets?

What is the difference between wealth creation and wealth transference?

Sobers said...

Like you I had heard the name Ayn Rand, and of Atlas Shrugged for years, but it was only in late 2006 that I finally read it. And while I enjoyed it, again like you, it was more as a political/philosophical polemic rather than as a novel.

And then about a year later the current economic collapse started (the first rumblings in the UK were the run on the Northern Rock Bank in Aug 2007). Thereafter I kept hearing things in the media, quotes from politicians, interviews etc etc that gave me flashbacks to Atlas Shrugged. And this became increasingly common as the crisis continued. So much of the political discourse of today is a pure Randian dystopia - a miasma of people demanding 'the rich must pay', that things should be 'shared out more fairly', that people should be given resources based on their need, not what they deserve, that everything is the fault of 'the banks' etc etc. Its all there, even down to the constant wars overseas, and threats of 'terrorists' who are use to justify all manner of controls over the public.

Atlas Shrugged is not a blueprint for escape from such a dystopia - as you say the denouement is fantastical in the extreme. It was I guess meant to be a warning, as was Animal Farm or 1984. They were all written in the same era, when socialism in the USSR was still regarded as a legitimate alternative to Western capitalism, by authors who recognised socialism for what it was, and what it would produce, given time.

Unfortunately no-one listened to them.

CIngram said...

@Sackerson

You probably know the answer to that question better than I do, but I'll try to answer it according to my understanding.

Wealth creation presumably means the creation of resources, creating value where there was none, or less, before. Wealth transference is the movement of spending power from one person to another.

Banks do the latter, but by allowing people to invest who would not otherwise be able to, they provide the conditions for the creation of real wealth. I've always thought of the banking system as moving money around in time, to the great advantage of all of us. (That's not what they do it, of course, but very few of us go to work of a morning for the greater good of mankind.)

CIngram said...

@Sobers

Thanks for dropping by. With regard to that, it's very interesting to read the work of Orwell, the sequence of his novels as well as his autobiograohical works and his essays, and to watch an intelligent man forcing himself to accept that his ideals had led, and perhaps inevitably would lead, to something wholly opposed to what he had hoped. Most on the far left were not, and are not, able to recognise the failures of ideology even when they are under their very nose.

Brett Hetherington said...

Yes, you're absolutely right about Orwell there. It was more than just the slow orbit of a young man becoming a middle-aged man.

I'm not so aligned with you on this wealth-creator definition. A great deal of wealth is simply inherited and has not been created by the recipient any more than a baby bird benefits from its parent's finding enough food for it.

Historically, plenty of wealth was created not by the apparent creator but instead by the effort of others who typically have been poorly compensated for it.

I'm not sure Ayn Rand deeply considered this, despite her genuine intellect.

She also ignored the element of luck in people surviving and thriving.

CIngram said...

As I'm sure you know, Orwell experienced a brief period in Barcelona in 1936 (I think) when it looked as though communism could work. A short time later he witnessed the collapse of that society and his great disappointment was translated into his greatest works. He never stopped being of the left, but he understood the practical problems of socialism, which is why I, and others of the right, respect him and learn from him.

When I speak of wealth creators, I mean people who produce things where there were none before. Both banks and supermarkets are part of systems which result in the customer getting more for less. This seems good to me. Money is something different. Some people have a lot of it without having done anything to earn it or added any real value to the world, but it isn't somethibg that bothers me.

Brett Hetherington said...

Well, Orwell put it stronger than that. He thought not only could Socialism work but it that it was already working in Barcelona during that time, however brief.

The wealth creators you refer to might play a part in "producing things where there were none before" but that part is related to their risk-taking and possibly organisational ability after they have capitalised on often inherited wealth.

As William Blake outlined, the modern world is "underwritten by constant, speechless suffering and "culture" begins in the callused hands of exhausted children," [to quote Robert Hughes.]

These wealth creators behind the rise of China and India today continue to use up the best years of people's lives in mindless, devastating drudgery.

In Orwell's time he argued that Britain was only able to exist due to coal miners working themselves to early deaths in underground infernos. They were the true creators of that nation’s wealth.

It all reminds me of a line in a song by Nick Cave: "Out of sorrow, entire worlds have been built."

CIngram said...

But that was the thing about Orwell, he saw his version of socialism working, properly, among a small group of people who really believed in it and wanted it to work. But it didn't last, because of all the reasons that human societies are never freely egalitarian.

His description of the miners is almost unbelievable to someone who didn't directly experience that kind of life.* And he, and you, are quite right to point out that most of the wealth, the resources produced, the things made and delivered, are produced by the sweat of the brow of working people paid little more than a living wage. But if there is no one investing in and organising that production, for their own benefit, who knows they depend for their own livelihood, for their own wealth, on those workers and on the will of their costumers to buy, that wealth will never be created in the first place. The 20th Century, and much of human history, was an experiment in what happens when people are not allowed to use their own resources- money, strength, ingenuity, leadership- as they freely choos for their own benefit. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't wealthy. It was possibly more equal.

It seems that the inequality comes with the creation of wealth. Societies that are forced to be equal do not become wealthy. And the banking system allows money (which is in this sense no more than a promise to the future) to do a lot more than it could when it was all gold, and simply a medium of exchange. The wealth, the very real wealth, expressed in the very comfortable and cosseted lives that we live, that we in Spain are used to having and seeing around us, could not, in practice, have been achieved without the modern banking system.

And the wealth that we have created, and the way that we have created it, is now allowing the Chinese and others to live more comfortable lives, because we prefer to pay them to do things we don't want to do ourselves. Those Chinese who work in factories making Nike trainers and Apple computers may lead miserable lives by our standards, but they are the lucky ones, and getting luckier all the time. Now they have the choose of working very hard in controlled conditions for a living wage, whereas not long ago they were ordered to risk starvation slaving in the fields.

The world is not a perfect place, and there is enormous disequality, but more and more people are leading better lives.

*And in Britain the unions, in connivance with weak governments, kept the workers toiling down the mines for decades after they had ceased to be productive, for reasons of ideology and their own power. A whole generation of British miners 'worked themselves to early deaths in underground infernos' because Arthur Scargill and Harold Wilson didn't want them to have more comfortable jobs.