Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
Atlas Shrugged is a masterpiece.
I truly believe this, despite its overwhelmingly inequitable characterizations and unfortunate incompatibility with reality. Even more so, many critics overlook Rand’s profoundly powerful worldview because of the book’s proposed, fervent ideological stance towards capitalism. I use the word “proposed” because, as I will outline below, I believe her philosophy stands in stark contrast with many of things it attempts to support. Rand’s critics, therefore, seem unable to look past its sound and fury. They ignore the book’s bold perspectives on achievement, pride, responsibility, value and equity all because of real capitalism’s structural inequalities and exploitative nature.
Leftist thinkers should flock to this book. Her characters are Nietzschean, her belief in man is Kantian, her stance on feminism is Beauvoirian, and her fidelity to the Idea is Badiouian. Yet, thinkers like Zizek claim that Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is the closest thing we have to a “Capitalist Manifesto” (In Defense of Lost Causes, 458). I will argue that Rand is, in fact, more Zizekian that Zizek is himself.
Also, the values proposed in Atlas are actually in conflict with really-existing-capitalism – but that is an argument for another day. Instead, here, I will briefly outline how Rand’s book is actually, wildly post-capitalist.
In fact, Atlas Shrugged is a communist parable.
In three points, here’s how:
- The character of Francisco is a Zizekian leftist, par excellence.
- The narrative circulates around a mass strike against exploitation.
- The collective utopia created is literally an agrarian commune in the mountains.
Francisco as Zizekian Leftist
In Violence, Zizek addresses the structural contradictions of liberal actions, specifically charity. He writes, “Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation… developed countries “help” the undeveloped with aid, credits, and so on, and thereby avoid the key issue, namely their complicity in and co-responsibility for the miserable situation of the undeveloped” (22).
Zizek calls those who drive Priuses, give to charity and eat organic food the “exemplary figures of evil today” because their actions are doing nothing but postponing capitalism’s final crisis, and thus perpetuating the very system that causes global warming, poverty and food inequality (27).
Thus, a Zizekian, radical leftist would look past this “humanitarian mask” and work to bring the system itself down. We want to give to charity, yes. But the quickest way to end equality, however cold and un-humanist, is to never give, but remove. A Zizekian radical leftist thus drives a Hummer in order to use up all the gas as fast as possible, burns his money to disrupt capitalist exchange, and only eats Doritos and drinks Coke, to become a obese, unproductive body.
Zizek’s proposal is un-realistic and extreme – but it makes its point loud and clear: the problem is the system – bring it down fast.
In Atlas, there is literally a character that does this. Francisco d’Anconia had the potential to become the world’s most productive, wealthy man. Instead, he becomes a useless playboy. He spends all his time wasting his money on parties and bad investments. He squanders his copper mines and drives them into complete unproductivity. The world sees him as a harmless waste of life, because he is a product of their system. But within only 12 years, he has collapsed everything.
After a disastrous mining investment, he says, “Of course, ‘investment’ is a relative term. It depends on what you wish to accomplish. For instance, look at [my failed mining investment]. It cost me fifteen million dollars, but these fifteen million wiped out forty million belonging to Taggart Transcontinental, thirty-five million belonging to stockholders… and hundreds of millions which will be lost in secondary consequences. That’s not a bad return on an investment, is it” (124).
Francisco’s investment is thus the destruction of capital – his project is to speed the collapse of the capitalist system itself. He dedicates his life to bringing that system down from the inside, and does so only by using its own mechanisms.
He is thus a radical liberal, and a true embodiment of Zizek’s ideals.
My next point is thematic: Atlas Shrugged is about a strike.
A group of industrialists believe that they are being exploited, so they literally go on strike – physically and intellectually. The point of a strike is to curtail production until the system of exploitation is remedied. This is exactly John Galt’s plan. The great minds of the world simply stop producing anything. Their strike quickly collapses the current capitalist system, a system of exploitation, and a new, revolutionary order is allowed to begin.
Galt is the Marxist character of the book. His global strike is nothing short of a revolution. Marx writes about capitalism’s need to not just produce, but also to simultaneously reproduce the means of its own production. What this means is: capitalism can’t just make stuff, but it has to continually work to keep itself situated as necessary. It has to remain irreplaceable – ideologically, socially, psychologically, etc.
Galt’s strike aims to destroy the system’s very means of reproduction: minds. Galt, Francisco and Ragnar don’t just strike, however. Theirs is a strike/revolution. Galt steals all the men and women of great minds from the world, thus striking. Francisco, as discussed above, brings the system down from the inside. All the while, Ragnar violently revolts against the system, literally becoming a revolutionary. All three thus resist their own production. They consume counter-productively, and all the while, work to reproduce the very means of the revolution.
Marx writes that capitalism “reproduces and perpetuates the conditions under which the worker is exploited” (Capital, 723). And it is thus Galt’s goal to end this system of exploitation by not just striking and ending the system of production, but by actively reproducing the very means of revolution.
Agrarian Commune in the Mountains
This final point makes itself:
Galt establishes an agrarian commune in the mountains.
All the titans of industry, from banking magnates to oil barons, move to the mountains of Colorado and start farming. They grow all their own food, produce all their own electricity, and are completely self-sustainable. The judge becomes a dairy farmer. The banker grows wheat and tobacco. The composer tends an orchard. Every man and woman has a job and a place, each carries his or her own weight, and each uses his or her specific skills to enrich the entire mini-society. And on top of this – they all must farm.
This “Atlantis” is a post-capitalist utopia of classless exchange. Everything is in perfect harmony. All producers meet on equal terms. It’s incredible, but Rand has realized every communist’s wet dream. And she does so on Marx’s terms: the evolution of capitalistic exchange into communist society.
Galt’s endgame, then, is to extend this utopia outwards, and make the world into a commune. This vision, combined with his strike and revolution, aim to establish true communism in the world. A very bold move by Rand.
Atlas Shrugged is the story of a collective strike against exploitation and the subsequent formation of an agrarian commune, all by means of collapsing the capitalist system from within. If that sentence doesn’t sound like the possible plot of a lost Eisenstein film, then take another read. Potemkin Shrugged, indeed.
(March 3rd, update: The above essay is reading Atlas against Rand. In psychoanalysis there is a term – “return of the repressed,” which means: the thing you are trying to psychologically repress the most, by repressing it, will actually return in overabundance, and ultimately undermine everything you try to do. The thing you wished to be gone is now coloring everything and everything you touch. For Rand, this is communism. Thus, Atlas is a massive return of Rand’s repressed.) – thanks for this, Liz!