Atlas Shrugged, Abridged

If you have not read Atlas Shrugged (and yes, I have), Brad DeLong has done you the favor of posting two essential excerpts. One is the “money speech” by Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastián d’Anconia. For d’Anconia, the dollar is like a sacrament, which is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. But for the profane DeLong, this meant “not that we ought to be on a gold standard, but that we should have a gold coinage—that we should not use credit cards or checks or currency at all.” In the name of virtue, d’Anconia would condemn the credit economy.

The other excerpt is John Galt’s radio address to the world, in which he explains his actions and reveals the nature of the universe. The entrepreneur is the life force of every enterprise. Their minds are the fountainhead of economic value. Those who labor for them are mere muscle, which must be animated by a proprietor’s vision. But this aristocracy of talent has been deposed by a conspiracy of envious parasites. So, the creative elite has gone on strike. When they withdraw their vital energy, the economy shuts down.

The depression which follows is a lesson to the mass of ingrates. It is meant to teach them respect for their natural superiors. To ensure everyone gets the message, Galt lectures the world for more than sixty pages. In the comments on DeLong’s post, Justine captured the gist of it. “You never loved me, I’m leaving you, and you’ll be sorry when I’m gone! Also, I’m totally over you, as I will now discuss in tedious and self-aggrandizing detail.”

Adapting Atlas Shrugged for the screen should have been simple. Film a lean, tall “prime mover” with angular features as they stand before a window in an Art Deco room. This genius should stare with certainty, straight-backed and smoking, occasionally wincing from the secret pain of their persecution. A montage flashes by of flabby, gimlet-eyed parasites as they loot and mooch. Shift back to the room, where a “second hander” slinks toward our lonely hero. There is a dramatic stare down, followed by an hour-long monologue on Reason. Loop endlessly. Add a histrionic score in the spirit of Rand’s prose. Show a close-up of a stick drawing a dollar sign in the dirt, and you’re done.

If you removed the delusions of grandeur and the pervasive sense of persecution from Rand’s tome, you would be left with less than one hundred pages. The actual drama in Atlas Shrugged is this ressentiment of ressentiment, a kind of psychic feedback loop. “I hate the hatred of those inferior beings who hate me for being their superior, which proves their inferiority!!”

But as vicious as these contortions can be, I suspect they serve an idealistic purpose. They salvage Galt’s vision of an inherently just world. If victims of misfortune are to blame for their own fate, then everyone gets what they deserve—by definition. Galt’s dream of virtuous harmony may be the real source of moral corruption in Rand’s pulp rationalism.

update (August 13, 2012): In Atlas Shrugged, Galt proclaimed “there is no conflict of interests among men, neither in business nor in trade nor in their most personal desires—if they omit the irrational from their view of the possible and destruction from their view of the practical.” The rejection of Reason was the cause of all social ills. So, Galt led an enlightened vanguard in a strike for immanent justice:

There is not conflict, and no call for sacrifice, and no man is a threat to the aims of another—if men understand that reality is an absolute not to be faked, that lies do not work, that the unearned cannot be had, that the undeserved cannot be given, that the destruction of a value which is, will not bring value to that which isn’t. The businessman who wishes to gain a market by throttling a superior competitor, the worker who wants a share of his employers wealth, the artist who envies a rival’s higher talent—they’re all wishing facts out of existence, and destruction is the only means of their wish. If they pursue it, they will not achieve a market, a fortune or an immortal fame—they will merely destroy production, employment and art.

In Galt’s vision, the “irrational” is a choice and the only impediment to universal peace and prosperity. Tragedy is just another word for the false “Morality of Death.” Hubris is a jealous insult, hurled by “parasites” against those who adhere to the true “Morality of Life.” Any talk of chance is the first refuge of a failure. A Promethean demigod creates their own luck.

Leonard Peikoff, the founder of the Ayn Rand Institute, said the “benevolent universe premise” was essential to Rand’s political philosophy. In Atlas Shrugged, merely being a creator was never enough to join the resistance. The protagonists had to perceive the just world beyond the parasites’ distortions, which could be restored by the power of positive thinking.

Original post has been revised and expanded for clarity.