We’ve all heard of disgruntled workers going on strike in order to demonstrate their dissatisfaction and force concessions from their employers, or even bring them down. But what happens when it is the employers, the company owners, the business leaders who decide that “enough is enough and we can’t stand no more”? Such is the premise of Ayn Rand’s seminal 1957 novel – Atlas Shrugged.
Fitting many genres, Atlas Shrugged is science-fiction (owing to its depiction of an alternate reality), a romance, a mystery, a thriller, and treatise of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. It can be best described as the literary world’s version of marmite (or durian to use a more local context). People either love it or loathe it, but one thing is for certain, once you read it, it will make you think.
The setting of Atlas Shrugged is a dystopian world where the global economy is rapidly collapsing. In the midst of the turmoil, Dagny Taggart – the operating vice-president of Taggart Transcontinental struggles to keep her family railway company running and in the black.
But Taggart is fighting a hard and lonely battle, with numerous obstacles in her way. Her incompetent brother, James – the nominal head of Taggart Transcontinental (although it is Dagny who does all the work) – subverts her every move. An interventionist government stifles private enterprises through nationalisation and statist policies such as seizing property and profits. And then there are the people who demand that enterprises, like Taggart Transcontinental, give up their wealth and resources, ostensibly in the name of “fairness” and equality”.
To compound things, three mysteries have sprung up. First, Dagny is perplexed over why her childhood friend and former lover, the brilliant Francisco d’Anconia seem to be purposely running his family’s multi-generational copper mining business into the ground. Then there are the curious cases of business leaders and entrepreneurs who have suddenly disappeared, leaving their companies to flounder and collapse. And throughout all these incidents, one question is constantly being asked – “Who is John Galt?”
As the book continues, the answers to all these questions are revealed, and they all lead back to the same thing. What is a body without a mind? Nothing. So, what will happen if the minds of the world – the inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs, business leaders – those who contribute the most to the generation of wealth, decide to just walk away? The effect, to paraphrase John Galt, would be to stop the engine of the world.
A Love Letter to Capitalism
An unapologetic, unabashed paean to free market, laissez-faire capitalism, and a polemic against welfarism and state intervention, Atlas Shrugged was very much influenced by Rand’s own experiences. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, where she and her family faced discrimination owing to their bourgeoisie background, Rand was an avowed opponent of socialism.
This is best reflected in the epithets she used in the novel – “Looters” and “Moochers”. Looters refer to government and government agents who, either through taxation, nationalisation or outright confiscation, take property from those who own or have earned it – namely business owners.
As for Moochers – the term is used to describe people, who demand that those with wealth give up their wealth or allow it to be redistributed to those who are “in need”. The upshot of this is that people who do not contribute to the creation and generation of wealth are leeching off those who do. The novel shows that this is an extremely untenable situation where the burdens of the world are placed on the shoulders of a few.
These few are, of course, the Atlases of the world – the ones who are actually making a difference, who are contributing to the creation of wealth. The title of the book comes from a conversation between the characters Francisco d’Anconia and Hank Rearden, where d’Anconia asks,
“”If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders-what would you tell him to do?”
And when Rearden replies, “”I . . . don’t know. What . . . could he do? What would you tell him?” d’Anconia’s answer is just – “To shrug.”
Aside from that aforementioned passage, Atlas Shrugged also contains many other thought-provoking lines, many of them said by d’Anconia and many of them railing against left-wing attitudes and beliefs.
For example, there is his rant to Rearden about those who demand for things without working for them – aka moochers or welfarists… “Did you want to see it (Rearden’s new railway line) used by whining rotters who never rouse themselves to any effort, who do not possess the ability of a filing clerk, but demand the income of a company president, who drift from failure to failure and expect you to pay their bills, who hold their wishing as an equivalent of your work and their need as a higher claim to reward than your effort…”
In another passage, he attacks the leftist notion that money is evil and thereby rich people are evil by saying, “So you think that money is the root of all evil? Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?”
Lessons for Today
Although it was written in the 1950s, some would say that Atlas Shrugged is still relevant today, perhaps even more so than ever. While some incidents in the book seem exaggerated (perhaps for dramatic effect), the basic tenets behind them can be seen in the world today.
For instance, while (most) governments do not blatantly seize property from businesses, they stifle them in the form of excessive regulations, fees and taxes. Moochers are of course still around, clothed this time in the garment of social justice, demanding that businesses hire and pay people for reasons of their gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, creed… everything under the sun except for their ability.
And so, this leads us to a question – will the Atlases of this world shrug? While not to the degree and extent of what happened in the novel, incidents of Atlas shrugging can be seen around us. When foreign investors pull out of a country because of too much bureaucracy, that is them shrugging. When local businesses focus more on overseas ventures rather than local ones because of restrictive regulations, that is them shrugging. And when young and talented people leave the country to seek greener pastures because they don’t see a future here… that is them shrugging.
And that is why Atlas Shrugged is our first PASSIONS Book Pick, one that we wholeheartedly recommend to all our readers.