Atlas Shrugged: Its Philosophy and Energy Implications (Part I: Overview)
Atlas Shrugged (Part I) had a strong debut weekend despite the effort of its philosophical critics, including some leading movie reviewers, to pan the effort and to discourage attendance (see the Appendix below where Walter Donway challenges Roger Ebert).
This movie and the classic 1957 book are important for today’s energy debate in a variety of ways, beginning with Enron and continuing with Obama energy policy. And how Rand undressed Richard Nixon with the energy crisis of her day(Part V–see schedule below)!
“Ah, Ha!”: Interpreting Enron/Ken Lay
For me personally, Ayn Rand’s philosophy was the key that unlocked the mystery of Ken Lay and the magical new energy company, Enron. I had once studied Objectivism but lost interest in Ayn Rand, finding it too dogmatic for my taste. (In retrospect, I ‘threw the baby out with the bath water’.) But some twenty years later, after I was laid off from Enron (where I had worked for 16 years) and was writing a why-behind-the-why book about the company’s rise and fall, I encountered a simple but profound essay, “Enron As a Postmodern Company.”
Roger Donway’s article gave me the insight to unravel what I called the Ken Lay Paradox, interpreting the once-revered Lay as a second-hander, a philosophical fraud. (See chapter 3 of my book, Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy, for a full explanation.)
And yet yesterday’s New York Times had an uninformed, cheeky piece by Maureen Dowd, Atlas Without Angelina. She makes fun of the fact that the movie was low budget, missing the stars. (I thought the Left rooted for the little guy, but Big Hollywood, I guess, is too politically correct.) But where Ms. Dowd goes off the rails is resorting to the capitalism-is-greed theme. She writes:
You’d think our fiscal meltdown would have shown the flaw in Rand’s philosophy. She thought we could derive morals from the markets. But we derived immorality from the markets.
But political capitalism (including that practiced by central planner Alan Greenspan) is not real capitalism. Has Dowd studied the philosophy behind the book and movie? Rand was rather clear on perverted capitalism–the James Taggart, Wesley Mouch, Ken Lay, James Rogers kind–versus the the Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, John Allison, Charles Koch real kind.
Rand herself was clear on this point. “In my new book, I glorify the real kind of productive, free-enterprise businessman in a way he has never been glorified before,” she wrote. “I present him as the most heroic type of human being…. But I make mincemeat out of the kind of businessman who calls himself a ‘middle-of-the-roader’ and talks about a ‘mixed economy’—the kind that runs to government for assistance, subsidies, legislation and regulation.” (1)
Enron and the more recent financial meltdown were all about the political side of the mixed economy enabling bad business behavior. I invite Ms. Dowd to consider what Adam Smith and Samuel Smiles, not only Ayn Rand, had to say about best business practices in a free economy. (2)
Objectivism and the Energy Debate
For today’s energy debate, there are a number of insights from Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, including:
- Energy in Atlas Shrugged. From John Galt’s motor to Ellis Wyatt’s oil to Ken Danagger’s coal, energy is at the center of business life in her most famous novel. To Rand, energy comes from the mind, not the ground. Energy is a torch of man’s greatness, hence such metaphors as the “electric breath of the city” (p. 673). But Atlas is also about the forces against energy: the altruism that sacrifices its creators, the taxes that drain its producers, and the edicts that hobble its profitable use. (Obama energy policy, anyone?)
- Energy Producers on Strike. Atlas can shrug with energy, and “Who is John Galt?” applies to energy producers (the creative, market-driven kind) who go on strike, so to speak, when government interferes with private property and capitalist exchange. Wellhead price controls in the 1970s, for example, cost the U.S. an estimated 900,000 barrels of domestic oil production per day (about 11%). (3) Capital that would have gone into exploration and production went elsewhere in the economy, and some resources just went on strike. And today, Atlas is shrugging with offshore production in response to the Interior Department’s guilty-until-proven-innocent offshore-permit policy. Ditto for Alaska and Arctic production.
- Postmodern Energy. The industrial windpower industry (and much but not all of the solar industry) is government dependent and a huge intellectual fraud. It is a postmodern industry akin to Enron as a postmodern company. It about perception and hope, raw emotions, not reason and reality.
- Open-ended Resources. ““Man does not live on a raft with one bottle of water,” Rand once said. “He lives on earth, which gives him infinite resources—and it is up to him to get them. His proper conduct and morality must be based on this fact.” (4) In this sense, Rand developed the philosophical basis for what Julian Simon would later codify as the ultimate resource, the ability of human ingenuity to anticipate, solve, and learn from problems.
This series at MasterResource on Rand, Objectivism, and Atlas Shrugged has five parts:
Part I: Overview
Part II: The Book (Atlas Shrugged)
Part III: The Philosophy (Objectivism)
Part IV: The Moral Responsibility of Businessmen (Political Capitalists)
Part V: The Energy Crisis (Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter)
(1) Letter from Ayn Rand to DeWitt Emery, in Michael Berlinger, ed., Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1995), pp. 441–42.
(2) See Robert Bradley, Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy (Salem, MA: Scrivener Press, 2009), Part I.
(3) Kalt, Joe. The Economics and Politics of Oil Price Deregulation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), chapter 5. Cited in Robert Bradley, Oil, Gas, and Government: The U.S. Experience (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), p. 530n205.
(4) Letter from Ayn Rand to Rose Wilder Lane, in Michael Berlinger, ed., Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1995), p. 354.
Appendix: WALTER DONWAY ON THE MOVIE CRITICS OF ATLAS SHRUGGED (April 16)
“Roger Ebert on the Atlas Shrugged Movie as an “‘Anticlimatic Non-Event’”
by Walter Donway on Saturday, April 16, 2011 at 10:18pm
I am not striking a rhetorical pose. I really don’t understand. The dean of movie reviewers, Roger Ebert, has posted his review of the movie, Atlas Shrugged Part 1. Its dateline is April 14, one day before the public premiere of the movie. What I don’t understand is how Mr. Ebert can hope to get away with stating things, in print, that are flat-out untrue–and obviously untrue to anyone who has seen the film–or, a thing far more dangerous, has read Atlas Shrugged, since the latter category includes millions and millions who have not only read the book but understood it. They are not an audience casual about what they see, or what they read, because they take ideas seriously. But I suppose (I truly don’t know) such casual forgetfulness is what Mr. Ebert counts on.
He says that the philosophy of Ayn Rand is “I’m on board, pull up the lifeline.” Did he miss that Ayn Rand, not only in Atlas Shrugged, but in her books on ethics, politics, and the philosophy of art–all now used in college classrooms to teach philosophy–explains lucidly and at length that the ethics of egoism, and the nature of laissez faire capitalism, at once sanction each individual in holding his own life as his highest value and taking responsibility for the achievement of his own values, his own dreams? And explains that to claim consistency in pursing her philosophy, each man’s obligation to his fellow men is to recognize their equal and inalienable right to their own “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? And her striking concept of the “pyramid of ability that operates when the world’s geniuses of production are free to achieve because the paramount relative value goes to the least productive, who enjoy all the creative and intellectual fruits of genius, which can be shared without limit unlike material products? I have taken a few lines to sketch this aspect of Objectivism because I now ask: Doesn’t Mr. Ebert realize that anyone familiar with Atlas Shrugged must conclude from his “I’m on board, pull up the lifeline” characterization of Objectivism that either he has not bothered to read Atlas Shrugged or does not have the conceptual capacity to understand even the essential point of a work?
Mr. Ebert says that he expects only people who read the novel will understand the movie–and that they will not like it. On the first point, I say: We shall see. Because the movie’s prime mover, John Aglialoro, has made a movie of an enormously complex philosophical novel that goes to the novel’s essentials. Ayn Rand said, repeatedly, that the goal of her fiction was to project the ideal man, the moral hero, and his struggle for the good against evil. In Atlas Shrugged, she sets out to portray the great producers–the innovators, the inventor-industrialists–as thrilling moral heroes achieving their dreams by reason, productivity, and integrity. That is the source of the unrepeatable enjoyment and inspiration of Atlas Shrugged, and the movie, Atlas Shrugged Part 1, which bring us the spectacle of men and women pursuing the clean, rational goal of pursuing the best work of the best minds—although they must fight bitter battles to do so.
As for the second point, that those who understand the movie will not like it, I am an expert. I read Atlas Shrugged in the summer between the end of high school and going off to Brown University, and I have studied the ideas of Ayn Rand, and lived by them, for almost 50 years. As I sat in the theater, protected by darkness, I experienced, after 50 years, the same emotions of hero worship for the best within us, the same excitement at a code of morality not compounded of duty and denial but principles for living and seeking happiness on Earth, the childish enjoyment at a work of art of endless ingenuity of plot, colorful characterizing in terms of essentials, and integration on a grand scale of ideas, actions, psychology, setting, and language.
Well, I have said a great deal about Ayn Rand, and even my connection with Objectivism, because there isn’t much to get hold of in Mr. Ebert’s review. For example, he spends a whole paragraph, in a relatively brief review, on the incongruity of emphasizing trains in the near-future in which Atlas Shrugged is set. Ayn Rand, writing in 1957, did emphasize the railroad industry (although, interestingly, virtually all of her heroes can pilot private planes).
But, by the nature of the mystery at its core, Atlas Shrugged always must be set in the future, so in making the film the dominance of trains had to be addressed. Mr. Ebert presents the emphasis on railroads in the film as incomprehensible. This is the obsession of the literary naturalist or realist, but Ayn Rand was an eloquent philosophical advocate of their opposite, romanticism, which is never about a slice of life, never reportorial fiction, but about the conflict of fundamental values that define character.
Accordingly, the co-producers of Atlas Shrugged Part 1 can dispose of the issue of trains quickly, with an easy finesse. In Atlas Shrugged, America’s technological civilization, made possible by capitalism, the market economy, is collapsing under the weight of the omnipotent state. Within this context, the most advanced technology, air travel, is the first to become unreliable, throwing the country back on its long-established railroads. This is simply explained as the story begins; I am surprised that Mr. Ebert missed it. Believe me, friends, I would not spend even a sentence on this issue in discussing an epic novel of plot, character, theme, and philosophy–but, as a naturalist-realist, this is the level at which Mr. Ebert considers the entire movie.
In fact, Mr. Ebert even devotes a paragraph to discussing the film’s Wisconsin scenery because it appears to be closer to that of New Mexico. All right, but, again, this is incomprehensible to me. Atlas Shrugged, the novel, and Atlas Shrugged, the film, bring to the screen some of the great conflicts of our time: reason versus religion, the morality of life versus the credo of sacrifice to the collective, the conflict of freedom with state worship. You would think Mr. Ebert might spend a few sentences on them, in addition to Wisconsin scenery.
But here is Mr. Ebert, going at the substance of the movie. He declares that the movie is made up of a few kinds of scenes: characters sipping cocktails and talking in “corporate lingo”; railroads; limousines passing through slums; city skylines; “the beauties of Colorado”; and the love scene between Dagny and Rearden. To his list, Mr. Ebert only appends a smutty comment that nothing beneath the waist is shown in the love scene and Rearden keeps his shirt on (not that I noticed?), and so libertarians who “enjoy rumpy-pumpy” might be disappointed. I did not experience this scene as disappointing for its lack of “rumpy pumpy.” Perhaps because I noticed the entire film as it built up to this scene: A man and woman standing virtually alone, their independent judgment against the government-sponsored attacks upon a great new innovation, Rearden metal; the predictions that the new bridge of Rearden metal would collapse, killing everyone on the train; the threats and boycotts the two face; and then the final heart-racing flight of the high-speed train through the wilds of Colorado toward the impossibly slight-seeming bridge thrown like a laser beam across and awful chasm–both he and she in the locomotive cab–and the hurtling train’s thunderous plunge onto the bridge, over a drop of thousands of feet–flashing for a moment in space and brilliant sunlight—then booming onto the tracks on the far side as the man and woman embrace in the singular triumph of humans who have risked their lives on their own reason, knowledge, and intellectual integrity, and won.
I noticed all this, and so, when they make love that night–in intense admiration, acknowledgment, and celebration of their shared battle and victory–I didn’t miss the “rumpy-pumpy,” as Mr. Ebert did. But then, perhaps he did not notice the build-up to this moment of ecstatic celebration of the best within two human beings, because he put the scene in its entirety under the category of scenes about “railroads and lots of ‘em.” Can it be that to a dyed-in-the-wool literary “realist,” for whom art is nothing more than a report on “real life,” the scene I have described is best summed up as “about railroads”? Again, my bewilderment is not rhetorical. I must not understand.
Mr. Ebert is a cannier reviewer than Michael Phillips–or, perhaps, merely more politic. He seems aware, from the outset, that Atlas Shrugged, the novel, has a huge following of readers whose lives were changed forever by the philosophy of Ayn Rand (you know, “I’m on board, pull up the lifeline”), and would not be easy to sell on his sneering dismissal of the film: “There are…people who take Ayn Rand even more seriously than comic book fans take Watchmen.”
Although it would seem, from that crack, that Mr. Ebert couldn’t care less what the admirers of Ayn Rand think of the review, he tries over and over again to let them know he “understands”: “I expect to receive learned and sarcastic lectures on the pathetic failings of my review.”
Well…right on, Mr. Ebert. The failings are pathetic. The admirers of Ayn Rand are not all “learned,” but they are more: They take ideas, morality, the conflict of values, and the reality of heroes seriously. Still, my initial impulse to express my contempt for this review in sarcastic terms yields to genuine curiosity. To whom is this review addressed? If it addresses those who have read Atlas Shrugged–identified in poll after poll (e.g., by the Book-of-the-Month Club) as changing more lives than any other book, fiction or nonfiction, of our time–then how did you expect to get away with characterizing Objectivism as “I’m on board, pull up the lifeline”? Ayn Rand’s books on the theory of knowledge (Introduction to the Objectivist Epistemology), ethics (The Virtue of Selfishness), politics (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal), and esthetics (The Romantic Manifesto) are available in libraries and bookstores worldwide. Let me not be learned or sarcastic, but simple and straightforward: Your characterization of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism makes you sound idiotic.
What can I add? You conclude with a reference to the shadowy figure of John Galt in Atlas Shrugged Part 1, and add that for a look at him and an answer to “Who Is John Galt?” the viewer must wait for part 2, because “I don’t think you can hold out for part 3.” I think that means that parts 1 and 2 will be so bad that no viewer can hold out for the finale.
Mr. Ebert, I, for one, can’t wait to see parts 2 and 3. But perhaps you shouldn’t bother. Romanticism and the conceptual level of presentation aren’t your thing.