Sexy Capitalist Jesus: Atlas Shrugged Review

Incompetent corporate executives lobby Washington to score major bailouts for failing industries. An unholy tangle of bureaucracy meant to regulate the bailouts bogs down industrial decision-making, leading to increased catastrophic errors and criminal negligence, creating a need for more bailouts, slowly turning the entire country into a broken zombie economy until one day, the infrastructure of the modern age exhausts its energy and crumbles. Welcome to  Atlas Shrugged; I think my reasons for reading it at the dawn of 2009 are pretty obvious.

This review will have plot spoilers, but you’re probably never going to read it (the book is an unwieldy 1000+ pages), so who cares.  Pursue your rational self-interest by reading past the jump.

At heart, Atlas Shrugged is a parable about man’s spiritual death and rebirth, in which the philosophy that can revive your atrophied soul is Objectivism. Oh, the author of the book invented this philosophy? What a coincidence.

The collapse of modern life portrayed in the book is meant to illustrate the material consequences of humanity gone spiritually adrift.  If only man could untie the knots in his value system, he would stop working for his own self-destruction and could live in happiness, honestly pursuing his unconfused values. Failing to do so, he will consume himself and the world.  In this Objectivist parable, the role of messiah is played by John Galt, a sexy capitalist Jesus who sleeps with his best friend’s ex, invents a technology that would solve the world’s energy problems, and then tells the world to go fuck off until everybody who’s a weak-ass bitch dies so the awesome people won’t have to deal with their crap anymore.

Of course, messiah is something of a misnomer, because Rand is very anti-religion. Galt is really an Ubermensch, a Nietzschean superman who could save the world from disaster but won’t because anybody who can’t save himself doesn’t deserve to be saved.  Galt even accelerates the collapse of the world by hunting down the smartest and most productive members of society and convincing them to abandon the institutions they run, joining his strike against the exploitation of the strong by the weak instead.

While this core concept is compelling as hell, the book has a serious problem with two-dimensionality.  The reason Galt’s mission and philosophy are engaging is because they are so morally ambiguous, but Rand tries her hardest to stifle any questions about whether or not Galt is doing the right thing. Galt himself has the certainty of a fundamentalist. Even when he is being referred to as “the destroyer” by another protagonist, it is clear that there are levels of information this character does not know and when she learns them she will come to understand Galt’s way of thinking. Lo and behold, she does.

I repeatedly felt alienated from the story because of how forcefully the author insists that her philosophy is the only logically sound philosophy and any others are unreasonable corruptions of man’s spirit. The characters were often too flat and the portrait of how the world works, or fails to work, was too oversimplified for me to go all-in. The Wire, for example, does a much better job of showing how modern institutions interlock to form a society that suffocates innovation and reform. The Wire does this well precisely because the characters filling the institutional positions are so nuanced, although in Rand’s defense, its scope is one city and not the entire country or the world.

To my mind, the best comparison to Atlas Shrugged is Alan Moore’s Watchmen.  The protagonist at the beginning of each story begins to suspect a dark secret that would explain why the world is going to hell. Late in the plot, after much investigation, the sense of apocalypse is approaching its climax and the protagonist discovers the truth: the “villain” is in fact one of the protagonist’s allies, hidden in plain sight, and perpetrating his apocalyptic plan in the name of a virtuous principle (or so he argues).  But Alan Moore avoids any obvious resolution to the moral quandary he poses, to leave you thinking about his story. By contrast, Ayn Rand wants to leave you agreeing with her point, and ends up hurting herself.

Watchmen was published in the ’80s and took on eerie new relevance after 9/11;  so does Atlas Shrugged (1957) benefit from new context. Over the next week or so, I plan to write three posts using Atlas Shrugged as a jumping-off point:

1) Global warming.

2) Global economic crisis.

3) The sexual revolution of the ’60s.

Consider it a book club of one, since I’m pretty sure nobody else will ever bother reading a damn word of it. Of course, if you’ve read this far, you mightaswell follow through, right?

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