Delingpole on Friday: I HEART Ayn Rand!

Finally I’ve got round to reading Atlas Shrugged.

Why did I leave it so long? Well if you’d seen the size of the book you’d realise. My paperback edition has 1168 pages of close type – including one massive, indigestible chunk of stream-of-conscious monologue expounding the author’s Objectivist philosophy. Tolstoy went similarly awry at the end of the War & Peace. The difference between the two is that Tolstoy can write.

“A writer of great power…she writes brilliantly, beautifully, bitterly,” says a quote from The New York Times on my Penguin Modern Classics edition. Well I’ll give her the “great power” and “bitterly” – but not the other two. In terms of her handling of character and in the schematic nature of her plotlines, Ayn Rand is only a notch or two above Dan Brown.

Or maybe John Bunyan would be the fairer analogy. You know Bunyan’s good guys are good guys because they’re called things like Valiant-For-Truth. Ayn Rand does much the same with her cardboard cut outs: if they’re goodies they get chunky, rock hewn names like Howard Roark, Dagny Taggart, Henry Reardon; if they’re baddies, they get slithy wormtongue names like Orren Boyle, Wesley Mouch and Claude Slagenhope, with manners and a demeanour to match. They’re all slumping, listless, slippery, pot-bellied, indolent, morally cowardly. They all say creepy, artsy-fartsy-liberal things like: “plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature.” You hate them the moment you’re introduced to them. Then, when they open their mouths you hate them even more.

But I mean this as no criticism. Judging Ayn Rand on her characterisation and prose style is a bit like judging Jane Austen on her sex scenes. It’s completely missing the point, which with Ayn Rand is this: what you’re reading is not so much a novel as a moral fable in the manner of Pilgrim’s Progress.

Or, if you prefer – and I do – what’s she’s writing is hardcore porn for libertarians and classical liberals.

Rand isn’t much interested in the foreplay – all the fancy, filigree stuff which literary critics of taste know constitutes fine writing – which is the reason (though she tries her best) she does it so badly.

What matter to her are the money shots. And by money shots I mean those bits that most clearly expound her political philosophy that profit and free markets and hard work and self-interest and creative destruction and selfishness and ruthlessly entrepreneurial businessmen are good; and that welfarism and moral grandstanding and Big Government in all its manifestations are very, very bad.

Quite often she’s so obvious about it you wonder why she even bothered insulting the reader’s intelligence by dressing it up as dialogue. For example, I’ve just finished a (typically) lengthy passage with one of her slithy wormtongue characters Eugene Lawson.

Lawson is a failed bank manager and it’s pretty clear why he failed. Here he is on his lending policy:
“I did not sit on piles of money and demand collateral from poor people who needed loans. The heart was my collateral…”

Later on, he tells us: “My objective was social progress, universal prosperity, human brotherhood and love.”

He used to service the loans for workers at the local factory, but when asked if he remembers the names of any engineers who worked there he cannot think of one. “I don’t believe I ever inquired about their names,” he says. “I wasn’t concerned about the parasites of office and laboratory. I was concerned with the real workers – the men of calloused hands who keep a factory going. They were my friends.”

‘All right, all right, we get it,’ you want to tell the author in passages like these. She really does like to lay it on with a trowel.

But again, I say this not as a major criticism, more as a fairly objective statement of what it’s like to read Ayn Rand. You tolerate it, enjoy it even, because it’s part of her schtick. She wants to bludgeon you over the head with a sledgehammer because there are times, she has realised, when only a sledgehammer will do.

THIS WORLD IS SICK, she’s telling you.

HAVE YOU GOT THAT, YET?

WELL?? HAVE YOU???

I’m barely a quarter of the way through but so far I’m loving it and I fully understand why it has such an enormous number of fans.

What anyone on the ideological left would see in Atlas Shrugged, I’m really not sure. Probably they wouldn’t get any further than the prose style – and use that as an excuse to write off the rest. But for those of us of a right wing persuasion the book is manna from heaven.

“So it isn’t just me,” you think, as you read it. “Someone else feels the same way I do.”

The book is what happens to private enterprise when the state gets too big. In Rand’s dystopian fantasy this involves the productive sector of the economy – the steel magnates, the coal and iron ore producers, the auto and electrical manufacturers, and so on – going on strike, leaving all the parasites like journalists, novelists, modernist composers, the fake scientists at the State Science Institute and, of course, absolutely everyone who works in government to freeze and starve. As the world collapses you find yourself rejoicing in this Gotterdammerung: the sanctimonious hypocrites of the self-regarding, moral-grandstanding liberal-left have finally got their comeuppance.

One of the reasons Atlas Shrugged was and remains a classic, I think, is that its subject matter had so rarely been tackled before and has barely been touched since. Perhaps this is why novelists appear so prominently on Rand’s list of hate figures. They’re very good at showing us how the world is wrong and unfair; but what they almost never attempt to do is show why it’s unfair. And when they do show why it’s unfair, the line they tend to take – writers being generally on the left – is that it’s all down to man’s selfishness and greed, and the failure of society and government to take care of the little people.

For Rand, though, the opposite is true: selfishness and greed are the forces which drive our economy and which bring us the joy of productivity, the dignity of labour and the comfort of our pay packets; it’s society and government which are the problem, with their false value judgements and the constricting regulations and their confiscatory levies which transfer money and scarce resources from those who know how to use them best to those who deserve them least.

Rand was right when Atlas Shrugged was first published in 1957 and she has been proved even more right in the decades since. As the size of the state has grown – in the US the public sector now occupies a crucial 50 per cent of the economy – so the spirit of entrepreneurship has been stifled, while welfarism and crony corporatism have flourished. Businesses, finding it harder and harder to make an honest buck, are now giving up and surrendering to the corrupt system. Look at Solyndra. Look at the growth of renewables – an industry which simply would not exist without government regulation designed to favour rent-seeking parasites in the wind and solar industry over the guys in the coal and oil and gas industries who produce energy that actually works.

Sure there are many better crafted novels than Atlas Shrugged, just as there are many more subtle and nuanced writers than Ayn Rand. But few of them are going to stand the test of time because almost none of them have either the insight or the inclination to tell it like it is with such brutal clarity.

If Atlas Shrugged had been made compulsory reading in every school from the day it was published, we wouldn’t nearly be in the mess we’re in now.

28 comments on “Delingpole on Friday: I HEART Ayn Rand!

  1. Rocco
    August 16, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    It is a wonderful book (as is The Fountainhead which is a little shorter). Ludwig von Mises was very complementary about both it, and Rand herself: he called her “the bravest man in America”, if I remember correctly.
    But, I can’t help worrying that commenters below me probably won’t be as complementary, either to Miss Rand, or you Mr Delingpole. “Delingpole loves Ayn Rand! What a fascist! I always knew he hated the poor!” I’d love to be wrong, but I think you’d better brace yourself.

    • Rocco
      August 16, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

      Anyone interested in Rand’s economics might want to look up the article “Ayn Rand and Austrian economics: Two peas in a pod”, by Walter Block.

      • Rocco
        August 16, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

        *Complimentary*
        (“Ha Ha. You like Ayn Rand, and you misspelled a word! That proves we need big government!” – Just thought I’d get the ball rolling).

  2. John
    August 16, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

    It’s great until about half way through when it then becomes silly. However the key messages are absolutely spot on

  3. Michael Kingscott
    August 16, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    “it’s society and government which are the problem, with their false value judgements and the constricting regulations and their confiscatory levies which transfer money and scarce resources from those who know how to use them best to those who deserve them least.” – wish I could be so eloquent. Great post 🙂

  4. Fred
    August 16, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    Yes, she goes on too much (particularly John Galt’s famous speech) and it’s stiff going all the way through. But what a template to live by. “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Brings tears to my eyes to this day. And I first read it in the early 60s

    • Brian the Rhetaur
      August 17, 2013 at 8:30 am #

      Wow, Fred, you were ahead of me! I read both Fountainhead and Atlas in 1968, and they had a profound influence on my love of freedom. I know one man who claims to re-read Atlas every few years: does he have time to read anything else?

  5. Nicolai Hähnle
    August 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, but from what I remember, my biggest criticism would be that is is unrealistic in its characterization of humans, and lacking a consistent and workable alternative organization of society. I would also say that as a work targeted against the socialist left, it misses the point entirely.

    It is unrealistic in the sense that the good guys are like superheroes from one of these DC comics, if the DC comic writers cared about plots involving economics. The clearest example of this is John Galt, who is depicted as a lone genius who came up with a potentially revolutionary invention in a complete vacuum. This sort of character simply does not exist in the real world, or if she does, then it is a one-in-a-billion occurence. Certainly, internet libertarians do not belong to this group.

    It lacks a workable alternative organization of society because Ayn Rand clearly did not understand capitalism. Capitalists thrive by (a) using the pervasive infrastructure provided by society and (b) siphoning off the surplus produced by the labor of many others.

    Dagny Taggard was so successful with her railway company – did she run all the trains herself? Clearly not. There were competent people who did most of the work for her, but Ayn Rand conveniently forgets about them except (if I recall correctly) at one point when she uses them opportunistically to make some random point. But did Ayn Rand design her metaphorical Eden with them in mind? Clearly not. She fails to offer a workable alternative organization of society.

    Finally, Atlas Shrugged misses the point as a work targeted against the left, because the most important bad guys of the book are also bad guys from the point of view of the left. In fact, I recall people of the left have always been quite forceful in their condemnation of parasitic bankers, not just when it became convenient to condemn them after the financial crisis.

    There is obviously more to say on this topic, but this should be enough for now.

    • Michael Kingscott
      August 16, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

      “(b) siphoning off the surplus produced by the labor of many others.” – labor for which the others were paid, benefiting both sides. There are a few passages in the book where this so-called inequity is addressed. While I may not be an entrepreneur, I do work for one and a) help them in their vision and b) am financially rewarded for it; I don’t feel any surplus is being siphoned off me. Both sides get something my action, a point made several times in the book.

    • Michael Kingscott
      August 16, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

      “She fails to offer a workable alternative organization of society.” – Galt sets out the bare minimum of what the government should do (protect its people, their property rights, and itself) and that’s about it. I know I’d like a lot less state interference in my life (driving in the middle lane? That’s a £100 fine). Sadly, our ability to govern ourselves has waned over the last few decades, more than likely in conjunction with the State taking more of our responsibilities from us.

      • Nicolai Hähnle
        August 17, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

        Atlas Shrugged is a massive novel. You’d think that, among the hundreds of pages, Ayn Rand would have found some time to flesh out how her ideal society would work. Instead, we get Galt’s Gulch, a society of perhaps a few hundred recluses (or perhaps a few thousand, it doesn’t really change the point).

        Galt’s Gulch is comically unrealistic. Even in Ayn Rand’s days, an isolated community of this size would never have been able to achieve the living standards of society at large, and today it is even worse. Just consider high-tech motors or integrated circuits (microchips). Such a small community does not provide the economics of scale that are necessary for such high tech products.

        Second, and this is the bigger problem, there is no discussion at all of whether Galt’s Gulch could possibly scale to a larger society. A small community of hundreds or even thousands of people can be successfully organized around almost any ideology. There are plenty of successful communes operating in the world today in countries like France, Spain, and Israel. The challenge is always to scale it into a larger size, and Ayn Rand completely ignores this – probably because she was unable to develop a credible narrative of how her “Eden” could scale.

      • Rocco
        August 17, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

        Mr Hahnle, your criticism is misguided. Atlas Shrugged is not a utopian book, it is a dystopian book.
        Galt’s Gulch is merely a place where Galt etc, await the fall of what remains of society. It isn’t intended to be a blueprint for readers of the book, it is merely a refuge for the characters.

      • Nicolai Hähnle
        August 17, 2013 at 7:07 pm #

        Perhaps. I think that’s a bit of a weak defense, because (a) most likely, Ayn Rand intended it as a blueprint, and (b) certainly, many people read it as such.

      • Rocco
        August 17, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

        If it was intended as a blueprint, why would it play such a minor role in such a massive book, Mr Hahnle? Galt’s Gulch is merely a backdrop for dialogue. It wouldn’t be putting it too strongly to call it an afterthought.
        As to whether some readers thought it was a blueprint, what does that prove, my friend?

  6. David Lindsay
    August 16, 2013 at 6:53 pm #

    William F. Buckley Jr., after the death of Ayn Rand in 1982, wrote in the New York Daily News:

    “She was an eloquent and persuasive anti-statist, and if only she had left it at that, but no. She had to declare that God did not exist, that altruism was despicable, that only self-interest was good and noble.”

    In 2003, Buckley described his encounter with Atlas Shrugged: “I had to flog myself to read it.”

    In 1957, Buckley, as Editor of the National Review, published a review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers, entitled “Big Sister Is Watching You”:

    “Its story is preposterous. It reports the final stages of a final conflict (locale: chiefly the United States, some indefinite years hence) between the harried ranks of free enterprise and the “looters.” These are proponents of proscriptive taxes, government ownership, Labor, etc. etc. The mischief here is that the author, dodging into fiction, nevertheless counts on your reading it as political reality. “This,” she is saying in effect, “is how things really are. These are the real issues, the real sides. Only your blindness keeps you from seeing it, which, happily, I have come to rescue you from.””

    “The Children of Light are largely operatic caricatures. In so far as any of them suggests anything known to the business community, they resemble the occasional curmudgeon millionaire, tales about whose outrageously crude and shrewd eccentricities sometimes provide the lighter moments in Board rooms. Otherwise, the Children of Light are geniuses. One of them is named (the only smile you see will be your own): Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d’Anconia.”

    “In Atlas Shrugged, all this debased inhuman riffraff is lumped as “looters.” This is a fairly inspired epithet. It enables the author to skewer on one invective word everything and everybody that she fears and hates. This spares her the plaguey business of performing one service that her fiction might have performed, namely: that of examining in human depth how so feeble a lot came to exist at all, let alone be powerful enough to be worth hating and fearing. Instead, she bundles them into one undifferentiated damnation.”

    “Miss Rand acknowledges a grudging debt to one, and only one, earlier philosopher: Aristotle. I submit that she is indebted, and much more heavily, to Nietzsche. Just as her operatic businessmen are, in fact, Nietzschean supermen, so her ulcerous leftists are Nietzsche’s “last men,” both deformed in a way to sicken the fastidious recluse of Sils Maria. And much else comes, consciously or not, from the same source.”

    “One Big Brother is, of course, a socializing elite (as we know, several cut-rate brands are on the shelves). Miss Rand, as the enemy of any socializing force, calls in a Big Brother of her own contriving to do battle with the other. In the name of free enterprise, therefore, she plumps for a technocratic elite (I find no more inclusive word than technocratic to bracket the industrial-financial-engineering caste she seems to have in mind).”

    “In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked.”

    Hayek later confessed that he was defeated by Atlas Shrugged: “Although I tried seriously to read the book, I failed, because there was no romance in it. I tried even more diligently to read that fellow John Galt’s hundred-page declaration of independence, and I knew I’d be questioned on all that, but I just couldn’t get through it.”

    • Rocco
      August 16, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

      Oh, you mean Whittaker Chambers, the Soviet spy? In the big government advocating, pro-interventionist National Review? That Whittaker Chambers? He wrote that, did he?
      And, of course, “even Hayek”. The most radical of all free market fundamentalists, as everybody knows. If “even Hayek” couldn’t be doing with Ayn Rand, well, she must have been terrible.

      • David Lindsay
        August 16, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

        Neither the Objectivists nor the John Birch Society ever forgave Buckley for reading and writing them out of the American conservative movement. Which one are you?

        I don’t think that Hayek was conservative of anything, either. Or particularly influential, actually. But that is another story.

      • Rocco
        August 16, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

        I’m neither, Dave.
        Nor am I a conservative, as it happens. But thanks for taking an interest, mate.

  7. therealguyfaux
    August 17, 2013 at 2:15 am #

    A part of the book no-one seems to recall about Atlas Shrugged is the descriptions of Starnesville, a “company town” where the family who owned the corporation whose factory was located there decided to implement a socialistic sort of corporate and municipal governance, and paternalistic welfare-state of sorts, for their employees.

    Needless to say, it all ended in tears (pronounced both “TEERS” and “TAIRS”). But Rand worked out logically how all the high-flown unrealisable “good” intentions became subverted and never really stood a chance of success. That the whole enterprise bore more than a passing resemblance to Labour and post-war Britain is by no means unintentional.

    But the telling point for me about that part of the story is that one of the Starnes employees, who relates the sad tale about how the town became one large crab bucket, put his finger on the fact that the acquiescence of the townspeople in all this pie-in-the-sky was based on one large Abilene Paradox: “We all thought it was a good idea– or rather, we all thought we were supposed to think it was a good idea…” (words to that effect, anyway), based on emotional extortion and spitefully-used misplaced faith. Sound familiar? (*cough*”Guardian”-think*cough*)

    The rest of the book? Mezza mezza at best, and a hard slog through most of it, if we’re being honest.

  8. right_writes
    August 17, 2013 at 7:04 am #

    Human peeps are great at adapting, and though I haven’t read the whole of AS, I get the point, and it is a good one.

    An interesting thing is that Rand had a sister whom she loved dearly and who remained in Soviet Russia…

    So Ayn lived in LA and her sister was “allowed” to visit her one year… She came with her husband, and although she was happy to see her sister, she felt like a fish out of water away from Russia…

    After a couple of weeks her husband fell ill, and even though Ayn was a wealthy woman, who could easily get the best doctors and hospital services… Her sister and her husband went back to Russia tout suit. They had adapted to the bankrupt and frankly evil soviet system and couldn’t stand to be away from it, the pull was so strong that even blood could not deter them.

    They never met again.

  9. Larry Sheldon
    August 17, 2013 at 8:08 am #

    A Masochist’s lollipop some twit said of “Atlas Shrugged”,

    I could not disagree more.

    There are other books that you should read.

    The order I recommend is “Anthem”, “We, the Living”, “The Fountainhead”, “Atlas Shrugged”, and then “The Virtue of Selfishness”.

    I discovered her in the late 1950’s and I could clearly see hen where we were going,

  10. Larry Sheldon
    August 17, 2013 at 8:10 am #

    “1984”, “The Brave New World” and THX1138 were still in front of us then.

  11. Kit Carson
    August 17, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    Yes, Atlas Shrugged is great. But her earlier novel, Fountainhead, is her greatest work. Fountainhead is much shorter and she presents her analysis more clearly. The epic scene where Ellsworth Toohey explains himself and his intentions is one of the most significant pieces of writing of the modern world. Reading those few pages well change your life.

  12. MaskedRabbit
    August 18, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    I didn’t notice it was badly written, but then I’m not a journalist. I was gripped and that car factory hangs over the whole thing like a ghost. Welcome to the club James.

  13. coconutdog
    August 24, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    We the Living gives us an insight into her disdain for collectivism. Her first novel and more rudimentary than AS.

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