Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has finally made the journey from the bookshelf to the silver screen. Coming 54 years after publication date, Atlas Shrugged the movie would seem, particularly given the author’s history of employment by RKO and Universal studios, strangely late. A similarly delayed cinematic appearance of James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed, Kay Thompson’s Eloise in Paris, Max Shulman’s Rally Round the Flag, Boys!, or any other title from 1957’s nonfiction bestseller list would seem a non sequitur. But Atlas Shrugged, alone, reads more 2011 than 1957.
Not only has the first installment of Atlas Shrugged hit when millions of Americans scurry to prepare their taxes, but it does so in the wake of bailouts and partial state takeovers of industries. Atlas Shrugged the movie is not five decades late. It is, despite its modest weekend performance, perfectly timed.
Atlas Shrugged is a book about a strike by the creators, inventors, entrepreneurs, and other drivers of the economy. Society’s producers mysteriously drop out of society. That theme alone is worth the cash-register’s admission price.
The high-tax, closed-shop states of the Northeast and Rust Belt have been losing population relative to the rest of the country for decades. Like the Looters and Moochers of Atlas Shrugged, the ruling class in these states remains obtusely perplexed at their waning economic and political clout. Last December’s congressional reapportionment subtracted eleven seats from states in the Northeast and Midwest, and, save for Katrina-ravaged Louisiana, none anywhere else. The twelve states gaining seats are located either West of the Mississippi or South of the Mason-Dixon line. More striking than the geographic concentration is the common political attributes of the states gaining seats and of the states losing seats. All the states losing seats in Congress impose an income tax and, save Louisiana and Iowa, enforce a closed shop. The new seats will go overwhelmingly to right-to-work states without an income tax.
When the last Northeasterner won the presidency in 1960, his region’s formidable political power included 133 electoral votes. Next year, the northeast (New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) will send just 96 electors to the Electoral College. “Where did all the people go?” is a less important question than “Why did all the people go?” Jobs, and the people, dropped out for many of the same reasons they did in Atlas Shrugged. They may not have gone to Galt’s Gulch, but they undertook an exodus nonetheless.
“Profit” is a dirty word in Atlas Shrugged. When asked why she has decided to build the John Galt Line, railroad executrix Dagny Taggart bluntly explains that she did so to make a profit. A horrified onlooker interjects, “Oh, Miss Taggart, don’t say that!” Taggart’s interaction with failed banker Eugene Lawson provokes a similarly perverse outburst. “I am perfectly innocent, since I lost my money, since I lost all of my own money for a good cause,” a defensive Lawson informs Taggart. “My motives were pure. I wanted nothing for myself. I’ve never sought anything for myself. Miss Taggart, I can proudly say that in all of my life I have never made a profit!”
One thinks of the Chevy Volt, dubbed “the car from Atlas Shrugged Motors” by Patrick Michaels last month at Forbes.com. Despite its plans to produce 100,000 such cars, GM sold 326 Volts in December, 321 in January, and 281 in February. Even the inducement of a $7,500 tax credit can’t get consumers to buy this electric car. The Volt makes the Edsel an automotive success story in comparison. The company/governmental agency will lose millions over it. But social responsibility, not profit, motivated, so the consciences of GM executives are clean. Like Eugene Lawson, their motives are pure.
The chief villains in Rand’s magnum opus aren’t political figures but businessmen who game the corrupt system, i.e., Looters. The recent experience of the U.S. government indemnifying the failed capitalists of AIG, Bear Stearns, and General Motors most directly evokes Atlas Shrugged. In a world where success is punished through taxes and failure is incentivized through bailouts, it is no wonder that there are so many capitalists who have made good despite bad performance.
Ultimately, Atlas Shrugged is a novel, not life. Its robotic dialogue, misanthropy, and Manichean neatness remind readers that they’re nose-deep in a fantasy, and a dark one at that. Anyone opening up Atlas Shrugged is sure to glean insight into the world outside of it. But Atlas Shrugged is an imagined world, not our world. What flesh-and-bones woman, for instance, swoons for the man who tells her, “I love you…as I love my work, my mills, my Metal, my hours at a desk”? Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, its aim is not high literature but political persuasion. “Atlas Shrugged was a throwback to Socialist realism,” opines Rand biographer Jennifer Burns, “with its cardboard characters in the service of an overarching ideology.” The author’s proximity to the reader’s outlook gets mistaken for profundity. The book ultimately doesn’t transcend the political community that its cheerleaders called home.
Like other extraordinarily brilliant people, Ayn Rand exhibited deficiencies that seemed as extreme as her gifts. Socially retarded, she accepted votaries but not friends. As biographer Anne Heller observed, the dogmatic “Rand was Russian by both birth and temperament.” Her objectivism often displayed itself as a subjective rationalization of her personal likes (Hitchcock, bad; Charlie’s Angels, good) and wants (abortion, adultery, tobacco). Pumped up on an unbalanced diet of amphetamines, coffee, cigarettes, chocolate, and, worst of all, ego, Rand praised rationality on paper but rebelled against it in life. When your philosophy is selfishness, it’s hard to differentiate what’s selfish from what’s philosophy.
Atlas Shrugged is a warped vision from an unbalanced woman. Nonetheless, that the dystopian novel at all resembles the country in which we live suggests that the hour is later than we think.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008), Intellectual Morons (Crown Forum, 2004), and Why the Left Hates America (Prima Forum, 2002). He writes a Monday column for Human Events and blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.