Book Club - Atlas Shrugged

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Book Club - Atlas Shrugged

Postby Bunyip » Thu Oct 11, 2007 3:16 am

You may safely assume that this thread will be spoileriffic. I thought this was a great book for stimulating discussion, especially since I blathered on and on here and didn't really begin to cover some of the ideas that were brought up while I was reading it. I'm hoping other people will chime in on this since I just kept going until I stopped being able to organise my thoughts.

Through the first 50 pages I was taken aback by how preposterous it all seemed. There's a few rigid, thrusting phallic heroes of decisive action, and millions of mealy-mouthed pathetic disgusting mortals clogging the way. Once suspension of disbelief kicks in and you accept the world, I actually found the story quite interesting and even compelling at points. There's a reasonably complex storyline going on, and I wanted to see how it would all turn out (though I already had some idea from various references to the book). The book is definitely too long, but there's no avoiding that since it's primarily a vehicle for the philosophy so the story keeps having to take a back seat so Rand can hammer away at another of her key ideas. Some of those bits were really tough to get through. The 68 page speech at the end was torture and did a great job making me hate John Galt and stop caring what happened to him. Just shut up! A few other things annoyed me about the story. There's a bunch of coincidences keeping it moving, mainly with the good guys happening to run across each other at various points. That's not very rational! Also when the train is buried under the mountain, she went to great pains to show that everyone on board deserved it, which is a completely weak copout. I think the best novels take responsibility for their actions. Lastly, the main characters are all pretty much the same dude. I suppose the idea is that they've all arrived at the optimum personality because of pure rational thought but wow, it gets pretty boring. Even Dagny is pretty much the same character except that she gets to be a big slut for the hero dudes. I may detect some wish-fulfilment on the part of the author there. Plus, I'm still not sure what the point of Eddie was. He's painted pretty sympathetically but the Prime Movers don't really appear to care what happens to him. Maybe he's just required as a sacrificial lamb for pathos. Again, that doesn't really seem to gel with the philosophy.

There's not much more to say if you approach the novel purely as literature, so what's left is all about the ideas presented through the story. The main one seems to be that you can build an entire set of values based purely on rational thought, not subject to emotion or "received wisdom". I'd be interested to know how detailed a moral system people have so far managed to build on these principles. Possibly someone's written it down somewhere. Such a list in itself might be viewed as received wisdom, but in theory you could put it out there and each rational person can challenge parts of the list until everyone accepts a particular view as the most rational. Rand seems to suggest that there's a purely objective solution to every question, and a purely rational person with the correct facts at their disposal will always arrive at it. Here's some of the problems I have with that idea.

Firstly, I think there's some unacknowledged values implied in the system. You build your values based on what rationally works toward your own happiness. However, happiness is itself an emotion which isn't necessarily rational. Dagny (Rand) may find joy in work and achievement, but that doesn't mean everyone will. That can be shrugged off as not being rational, which brings me to the second problem: who's defining what's rational? In the book, it's easy: if you agree with the author, you're right! In real life, the most deranged conspiracy theorist fully believes in their own rationality and only has their own insistence to back them up. What separates Rand's rational person from the lunatic is the kind of general consensus that Rand despises.

I don't think it's possible to separate our rational selves from our emotional selves in the way that the novel implies, or at least, it's not practical. If you expect everyone to behave in a purely rational manner and expect to be admired for doing the same, you might end up very lonely, and the fault might not necessarily be everyone else's. Rand's solution is to only associate with the other "rational" people, assuming that you'll easily be able to identify them. In the book they all find each other easily, because it's fantasy. In real life, inevitably someone dedicated to their own self-interest is going to make a decision that is good for them and not for you, and since your happiness is based on your own self-interest, why would you be happy about that? The society in the valley is based on never giving anything away except in fair trade, and I think that is a society doomed to failure. For a specific example, I spent a lot of time thinking about the idea of love in this novel. There's no such thing as
marriage in the objectivist world, as it's only rational to assume that there might be someone in the world that you will like better, so any exclusive commitment would be irrational. Dagny, in fact, keeps changing partners as soon as the next one comes along, and the old one is fine with the idea because they accept that the new dude is better. I don't think real people can do that. It's not even healthy. You can't deny the way you are feeling just because it's not rational. I think what you'd end up with is all the same emotional arguments you'd be having anyway, except everything would be framed as "You're being irrational" instead. I think realistic happiness in relationships requires you to be prepared to give without expectation of return, at least sometimes.

Interestingly enough, here's a snippet from Ayn Rand's wikipedia page:
Ayn Rand wiki page wrote:After several years, Rand's close relationship with the much younger Branden turned into a romantic affair, with the consent of their spouses. It lasted until Branden (having separated from Barbara) entered into an affair with the young actress Patrecia Scott, whom he later married. The Brandens hid the affair from Rand, and when she found out, she abruptly ended her relationship with both Brandens and with the NBI, which closed. She published a letter in The Objectivist repudiating Branden for dishonesty and "irrational behavior"[40], never disclosing their affair. Both Brandens remain personae non gratae to the mainline Objectivist movement, particularly the group that formed the Ayn Rand Institute.


Some more assumed values - it's assumed that rational self-interest will ensure that the industrialist's workers will get the conditions and pay they deserve, because it makes sense to do that if you want the best workers. As soon as you can get away with less than this though, what's to stop you? It's assumed that an industrialist will not lie or cheat because rational people don't do that, but I think some motives besides self-interest are being assumed here. Why would an objectivist ever have children? That's a prime example of giving with no expectation of return. I think the idea is mentioned once in the book and passed off as a different sort of exchange going on but it's never explained beyond that. It seems that any such exchange would be based on values that objectivism rejects. Why would an objectivist be an environmentalist, or indeed to care about the future at all? That would require compromising your own happiness for the sake of people in the future, who won't be giving anything back to you. Freeloaders! It's implied that making money produces things for the benefit of society in general. What would have happened to Colorado if all those industries had taken off? If Wyatt's new method for improving oil shale yields happened to involve shearing off the tops of the mountains and pouring toxic slag into the catchments, would there be any problem with that?

It seems to me that Rand's philosophy has a lot in common with some of the world views it's most in conflict with - she calls them mystics and muscle but we might as well call them religion and communism. Most religious systems would work great in theory if only everyone would embrace them. Communism would be great if people would stop being so self-interested. Objectivism is fantastic if everyone would stop being so irrational. Her reaction to the problem is the same as that of the Pilgrims - run away with the "true believers", start over and THIS time everything will be perfect! Also, for someone who is so against religion, especially manipulative religion, she sure paints a convincing picture of heaven and hell - in this lifetime, no less. It's good to know those irrational bastards will get what they deserve, though of course I have no emotional investment in the matter. Also, she's unable to accept any but the worst motives for her "destroyers" - deep down, they want everyone to fail. It's inconceivable to Rand that there's such a thing as a sincere believer, or someone who truly works for the good of others.

Here's what I see as the central paradox of the book. The consistent theme is that A is A, that what you perceive, is, and that it's foolish to base your actions on anything else. Yet the entire novel is a deliberate and admitted distortion of reality to present a heroic ideal (and its implied opposite). This complete fantasy is meant to inspire your hard-headed commitment to facts and judgement. Next time you see a social worker, you might see someone who appears to work for the benefit of others, but in fact they're a self-hating parasite who hopes to destroy the world and themselves with it. A is B!

A few other random thoughts. There's a wonderful point made by the benefit of hindsight, which is that people are going to make massive mistakes regardless of how rational they are. The dollar-sign cigarettes symbolise life and hope throughout the book; Ayn Rand suffered significantly from lung cancer later in life. Whoops! Also, The book really doesn't succeed as a dystopia for me, since I can't imagine any of it ever happening. By contrast, 1984 still scares the shit out of me. Similar totalitarian scenarios have already occurred and are occurring, and even objectivism shares some of the hallmarks of the belief systems that allow it to happen: strong identification with a group, demonisation of everyone outside the group and an inability to accept that they have anything to say worth listening to. There's lip service given to the idea of non-violence, in that they'll only use violence in self-defense, but it's not always held up: Nat Taggart is implied to have killed an official that got in the way; Dagny herself kills a man for the crime of indecision. You could say that anyone that does not actively support the "rational" viewpoint is an obstacle that affects your own self-interest and is therefore a candidate for violence in self-defense. Another one of the hallmarks of fundamentalism is the insistence that there's no moderates - you're either for or against, and you'd better pick a side (hellooo, modern politics). It's this kind of thinking that I personally blame for "all the wars in the world", rather than religion specifically. I'm in favour of more wishy-washiness.

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Postby Too-Much-Coffee Mistress » Thu Oct 11, 2007 9:57 am

I could not get through the mess, but I would like to add that Objectivism / egoism / whatever-ya-wanna-call-it depends heavily on what seems to be purposeful ignorance of real life in order to continue functioning without collapsing in on itself. In that way, it's not all too different from many religions.

Someone else on another forum put it perfectly: Objectivism is, more often than not, post-facto justification for being an asshole.
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Postby Eolh » Thu Oct 11, 2007 3:27 pm

Your critique of the book was almost completely in-line with my own, Buny. I thought the book failed completely at being decent fiction and as a coherent manifesto.

I think Objectivism has some good ideas, but that the whole thing is undercut by the basic flaw that it attempts to strip away the very things that make us human. It attempts to demonize altruism and unconditional cooperation.

That being said, and I've said this before, I think the book is worth reading, if only to get an understanding for one of the most popular post-Communist philosophies. I've heard many Libertarians tell me that they think Objectivists are awful Libertarians, but just as many hold the opposite view. There is no denying that Libertarians and Objectivists share a lot in common though, and that one can inform the other. The (I would argue) irrational belief in the infallibility of the free market being a key one.

As I've said before, I firmly believe the thing that makes mankind special is our seemingly inherent ability to work together to solve problems on a grand scale, as a collective, not just as a couple of individuals cooperating for mutual gain. This is an idea that is anathema to Objectivism.
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Postby Bag of Ass » Thu Oct 11, 2007 5:03 pm

I'll probably have something to say when I finish it; I'm currently about a third of the way through it. All I care to say now, though, is that Rearden Metal reminds me of Warcraft's thorium because it is superior to steel and is described as being a blue-green color.

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Postby dogmeat » Fri Oct 12, 2007 9:00 am

My copy is stuck in some Royal Mail sorting office somewhere no doubt. Lazy striking bastards.

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Postby Bag of Ass » Fri Oct 12, 2007 2:38 pm

Irony? Or exactly what you should've expected?

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Postby Smokin_Jayz » Mon Nov 05, 2007 4:54 pm

I've read Atlas Shrugged, as well as the Fountainhead and a section of Rand's book regarding "Selfishness".

My political background is strongly liberatarian and I come from an entrepreneurial family.

That being said, while I can somewhat agree with Rand's philosophy that if we are all to follow our selfish goals usually things tend to work for the better it seems that her ideology - similarly to other ideologies - only really works if everyone's on the same page.

If everyone acted in the manner of Dagny, Rearden, etc, then sure a society like that could function - hence their utopian objectivist playground. The difficulty, however, is that not everyone acts like that nor wants to. The only way to get everyone to act like that would be at the point of a gun, completely going against the objectivist philosophy.

As well, all of Rand's "Heroic" characters in both novels are people who "produce" things. While this may still have some semblance of reality today, I think that even during the time that she was writing she has taken a lot of other professions for granted that cannot operate under that system of philosophy. Just because something doesn't have a monetary value doesn't mean that it is not valueable.

And lastly, while all the main characters are confident in what they're doing and know the path they want to follow, it amazes me that Rand doesn't really ever speak about what people who haven't found their path should do. I have no idea where I want to go in the future, at least not so clear as Dagny, so then how should I operate? Her philosophy is based on objective personal goals, but if you have no clear vision, then how can you function in a society like that?

/rant over.

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Postby Bag of Ass » Mon Nov 05, 2007 5:05 pm

Disclaimer: I'm only about 2/3 of the way through Atlas Shrugged. Had to return it to the library and re-check it out this weekend. :)
Smokin_Jayz wrote:As well, all of Rand's "Heroic" characters in both novels are people who "produce" things. While this may still have some semblance of reality today, I think that even during the time that she was writing she has taken a lot of other professions for granted that cannot operate under that system of philosophy. Just because something doesn't have a monetary value doesn't mean that it is not valueable.

Which people are you classifying as the "heroic" characters? People like Dagny and Rearden, who are Galt's-Gulch-worthy but not yet in Galt's Gulch? Or all of the Galt's Gulch people? Because if it is all of them, then not all of them produce material or physical goods. The Dr. Akston (philosophy professor), or Halley (composer), for example. Also, Dagny does not actually produce anything, she provides a service (transportation of goods and people).

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Postby Smokin_Jayz » Mon Nov 05, 2007 5:28 pm

Bag of Ass wrote:Disclaimer: I'm only about 2/3 of the way through Atlas Shrugged. Had to return it to the library and re-check it out this weekend. :)
Smokin_Jayz wrote:As well, all of Rand's "Heroic" characters in both novels are people who "produce" things. While this may still have some semblance of reality today, I think that even during the time that she was writing she has taken a lot of other professions for granted that cannot operate under that system of philosophy. Just because something doesn't have a monetary value doesn't mean that it is not valueable.

Which people are you classifying as the "heroic" characters? People like Dagny and Rearden, who are Galt's-Gulch-worthy but not yet in Galt's Gulch? Or all of the Galt's Gulch people? Because if it is all of them, then not all of them produce material or physical goods. The Dr. Akston (philosophy professor), or Halley (composer), for example. Also, Dagny does not actually produce anything, she provides a service (transportation of goods and people).


I was talking about all of them. And I understand that Dagny produces a service. I was talking more in terms of producing goods/services in a general sense.

Mainly, I just feel that while the Professor of Philosophy, etc in the Gulch are producing a service for which they are paid, it's not really relevant to the real world. To me, it is just like Communism - great on paper.

In the Gulch, the PhD gives lectures for which he's paid. Yet, this is a small specific group of well eudcated people and people interested in philosophy. I don't see a vast number of other types of professors beyond people who have relevant experience to go along with it (engineers, etc). While these people might pay a lot to go see this Professor speak it only really works in small numbers because in a larger setting, the people like Cisco and Dagny are providing services that many would consider necessary while the Prof does not and therefore would be pushed out of business. In this world that's OK (and somewhat in the real world as well, I'm not arguing against whether that's a good thing or not), and once again you'd have a system concurrent to today in which people who hold control of resources would end up controlling a vast number of the people through economic means - and that's only assuming that they have no ambitions of power (a fairly common human trait over time).

The idea that somehow in this selfish cutthroat world we'll all end up working together and not trying to control each other's markets is ridiculous.

Any philosophy which bases it's success on that fact that all people should act or behave in a particular way is going to fail. People do not make rational and logical choices and therefore while I understand the premise of Objectivism I think it would not work simply because we live in a world mirrored more like the "real world" of the novel.

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Postby Bunyip » Tue Nov 06, 2007 10:43 pm

I agree with Jayz!

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Postby Smokin_Jayz » Wed Nov 07, 2007 5:52 pm

Huzzah!

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Re: Book Club - Atlas Shrugged

Postby Bag of Ass » Thu Nov 29, 2007 7:39 pm

Bunyip wrote:Some of those bits were really tough to get through. The 68 page speech at the end was torture and did a great job making me hate John Galt and stop caring what happened to him. Just shut up!

Oh my god, this chapter is agony...

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Postby dogmeat » Fri Nov 30, 2007 9:19 am

It seems Hollywood have hold of this too. Angelina Jolie as Dagny Taggart apparently. Worst casting EVER?

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Postby Bag of Ass » Fri Nov 30, 2007 4:02 pm

I read that when I was still in the first part of the book, so the whole time I've been imagining Angelina as Dagny and Brad Pitt (with the voice inflections he used as Joe Black) as John Galt. It actually makes sense.

I think it will be more entertaining as a movie, to be honest. It'll force them to cut out a lot of the philosophical soliloquies. They'll still manage to get Rand's message across, because it really only takes a few minutes to explain.

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Re: Book Club - Atlas Shrugged

Postby Bag of Ass » Mon Dec 03, 2007 11:54 pm

Finally finished the book. I agree with most of what has been said here already. Since the book is basically Rand's platform to tout her (verbose) philosophy, the storytelling takes a back seat. This unfortunately leads to a pretty unrealistic setting and circumstances. That may be useful for some fiction (science fiction and fantasy), but not when you are trying to convince readers that your philosophy with urgent, real-world application is the correct answer.

Regarding John Galt and his Speech of Doom. He kept blathering on and on about how everyone (the ones he had not recruited) was a looter/moocher and blight on humanity—humanity meaning a rational prime mover, not humanity as a species. He went on to say essentially that all of these people's motivation was death; death to themselves and everyone around them. I think it is a bit melodramatic to say that people who care about others (not just themselves) want to destroy the world. Maybe I just didn't get it.

Now to address something from Bunyip's post:
Bunyip wrote:Here's what I see as the central paradox of the book. The consistent theme is that A is A, that what you perceive, is, and that it's foolish to base your actions on anything else. Yet the entire novel is a deliberate and admitted distortion of reality to present a heroic ideal (and its implied opposite). This complete fantasy is meant to inspire your hard-headed commitment to facts and judgement. Next time you see a social worker, you might see someone who appears to work for the benefit of others, but in fact they're a self-hating parasite who hopes to destroy the world and themselves with it. A is B!

To play devil's advocate, maybe you're just not properly observing or interpreting what you see in that social worker. A is A, after all. It works the other way as well; consider the case of Jean Valjean, who is jailed for thievery. Generally we think that if a person is in jail they are bad people, so the superficial examination by Javert indicates that Valjean is a lawbreaker, hence evil. However, as it turns out he is a hero, and Javert just didn't look hard enough. A is just a more complicated A.

Addendum: I do have a question about the book. If Dagny and Rearden are so great, why did John and Francisco wait so long to recruit them? Why pick the talented switch operator so soon?

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Postby Smokin_Jayz » Fri Dec 14, 2007 10:34 pm

I think it had to do with the fact that you had to be convinced by your own accord that the current system was a failure and that you did not care about its demise.

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Postby Eolh » Sat Jan 26, 2008 6:49 pm

I don't listen to it, but apparently Brad Bird more-or-less confirmed on last week's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! that he is an Objectivist by saying he'd really like to do a musical version of Atlas Shrugged.

I'm not sure why that surprised, me give his movies always had some element that never sat right with me:
  • A tale of an extraordinary visitor from the stars that is attacked by a small-minded government not willing to appreciate greatness; (The Iron Giant)
  • A rollicking story of the elite being oppressed by the very people they swore to protect; (The Incredibles)
  • A heartwarming story about how the elite will find a way to shine, even if the society around them will actively suppress their right to be extraordinary. (Ratatouille)
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Postby Bag of Ass » Sat Jan 26, 2008 7:41 pm

I wonder if the island on Lost and the Dharma Initiative are based on Atlas Shrugged. They seemed to go around recruiting people (as shown in Juliet's story) to join a hidden, experimental, seemingly utopian society.


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