Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand and the Cult of Productivity

Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged is a work whose reputation precedes it. Some may love and some may hate it, but most readers of this site, including ones who have not read this book, will likely have some knowledge of its major plot points and the ideological views of its author. Therefore this review will not be shy about including spoilers.

It is also of note that some contributors here have been heavily influenced by this work and at least one has even spent a great deal of time as an editor for the journal of Ayn Rand Studies. Of course, many here have been critical of aspects of Rand’s work, and various aspects of her life, philosophy, and legacy as well, and her admirers and detractors have often been the same people. While this essay focuses on some of the negative aspects of this work, some have found a lot in Rand’s writing that is positive such as Chris Matthew Sciabarra, who credits Rand with helping him cope with debilitating illness.

Atlas Shrugged is the third and final novel by Ayn Rand, and the one that she considered her masterpiece, as well as the one that most heavily features her views on philosophy and epistemology, thus marking a transition in her career from a writer of fiction to an essayist and movement leader.

While this is a fictional work, it makes a point of keeping its author’s beliefs about capitalism, ethics, and epistemology up front and center and has no interest in being subtle. This is not to say that the story is completely a vehicle for expressing the author’s political views, but the two purposes are heavily intermingled such that the book would shrink from one of the world’s longest works of fiction to one of the shortest if the ideology driven content could be taken out.

The characters tend to make lengthy ideological speeches. While not completely uniform in perspective and motivation, they spend a lot of time as mouth pieces for the author’s highly idiosyncratic views or fit the other extreme of being good for nothing parasites, and uttering straw versions of opposing views. Rand creates a dystopian vision where the ruling elite are ignorant, physically unattractive, utterly lacking in common sense and overly willing to use altruistic rhetoric for their own corrupt purposes. It’s up to a band of exaggeratedly attractive, intelligent, well-spoken industrial geniuses to save the day by destroying the global economy and teaching us all to be more selfish.

Attacks on the writing style of this book are easy enough to make. It strawmans the other side constantly, the climax is a fifty-page philosophical speech that is way too abstract to actually accomplish what it does in the story, and Rand’s prose with all its talk of men and the things made by men, for men, but only certain types of men, and needing the right type of men, is wearing after a thousand pages to say the least. Unfortunately, attacks on the message can be more difficult to make without missing important points. Such is the case with many critics’ dislike of Rand’s promotion of selfishness, while ignoring the strange limits to the type of selfishness Atlas Shrugged promotes.

Rand’s praise of selfishness as a virtue is almost entirely limited to selfishness that manifests itself in getting people to work harder to earn more money. If your particular selfishness is of the type that leads you to want more vacation time, a less demanding job or more time with your family, Rand has no use for it. Rand uses selfishness almost entirely in this book to promote a culture of work and an unhealthy obsession with productivity. In Atlas Shrugged there is a clear dividing line between the characters who Rand sees as good and the villainous ones. The good guys in the story all tend to be single-minded workaholics whose entire lives and identities are centered around their jobs.

Early in the book the character Francisco D’anconia, who almost entirely acts as a mouthpiece for Rand when speaking, explicitly tells the protagonist Dagny Taggart that the value he sees in her comes from the fact she will one day run her father’s train company. It is made clear the only interest Dagny has outside of work at the start of the book is the composer Richard Halley’s music. It is noted that the only vacation she has taken in recent years was three years prior to the start of the book, when she scheduled a month away, but came back after a week. Her romantic partner and the book’s other protagonist Hank Rearden notes he did the same, only it was five years prior in his case. When the two vacation together (which they do only because they cannot be publicly around each other among people who know them), they decide to use the time for a work related outing.

Likewise Michael “Midas” Mulligan, the superhuman investor who never took a loss despite taking many huge risks, is noted as having no friends or family. Ted Neilson the head of Nielsen Motors, is described as preferring to die rather than stop working. William Hastings, another hero of the book is described as having worked such long hours he had little time for his wife or any social life outside of work. Likewise Ken Danagger, the owner of Danagger Coal, is described as a man who “had never had a personal friend, had never married, had never attended a play or a movie, had never permitted anyone the impertinence of taking his time for any concern but business.”

These are all heroes in Atlas Shrugged. Their passion for work is strongly implied to be admirable. The above mentioned Danagger is addressed as “You, who loved your work, who respected nothing but work, who despised every kind of aimlessness, passivity and renunciation.”

While it can be argued that Rand is presenting this work obsession in a tragic light, for at least some of the characters, she clearly views their passion for work as an overall positive. Under normal circumstances, Danagger and Rearden are dependable, and they contribute to human well-being in immeasurable ways.

One could argue that Rand is implying that these characters have focused too much of their brilliance and purposefulness on work, neglecting other aspects of their life. This is not explicitly stated however, in a book that is otherwise incredibly bold about explicitly stating its message. It seems to be implied with Rearden’s story arc, in which he learns to apply his philosophy and values to areas of his life other than the workplace. But in practice all this seems to accomplish is that he is more willing to be public about his relationship with Dagny, better able to argue his philosophy to his ideological enemies, and more obnoxious about his beliefs towards his family.

In his efforts to extend his values of selfishness to the rest of his life, we do not see Hank Rearden take up rock climbing, or portrait painting, or whatever other activity people in the 1950s did just for the sake of fun. That is to say none of these supposed paragons of selfishness spends much time doing activities that benefit themselves only. Perhaps this is reflected in Dagny’s hatred for people wanting landscapes unspoiled by billboards. The commerce promoted by billboards benefits countless parties, but wanting to enjoy the view of an unspoiled wilderness is pure selfishness.

While Rand does pay lip service to things such as art and friendship (more often than not outside Atlas Shrugged), in the book both seem to be by and for the ideologically pure. The popular entertainment outside Galt’s Gulch is routinely derided by Rand as garbage showing a “hatred of its own existence” whereas the few mentioned artists among Galt’s strikers presumably create only the most exquisite output. Likewise the only instances resembling human closeness are also only among the like-minded. This is especially true about romantic love as similarly minded workaholics are the only successful couples in Atlas Shrugged.

Dagny Taggart is the most ideologically pure and industrious female in the story, and attraction to her is presented as proof of the philosophical correctness and overall decency of the male heroes. Rand claims both inside and outside the book that she can tell one’s philosophy by who they are sexually attracted to. Unsurprisingly, Dagny’s character arc involves a series of romances with the books three main male heroes each more ideologically pure and industrious than the last (as evidence of her own worthiness and ideological purity, as well as their own).

The one thing that gets them to step away from their jobs is participating in the above mentioned strike, led by another work oriented super-genius by the name of John Galt, who despite being a main driver of the books events and another Dagny love interest, has no discernible personality aside from spouting ideological talking points.

To be fair to Rand, it is possible that tireless dedication to one’s job, even beyond levels compatible with a well-balanced life, could provide a net benefit to society. But Rand wants it to be clear that the benefit to others should not be a moral consideration in one’s work. Profit, and the sense of accomplishment that comes from that profit, should be the prime motivation.  

It might be possible for one to achieve a passion for their job comparable to that of a Rand protagonist, if it involved something as exciting as creating a new type of motor or metal, as in the case of Galt and Rearden, or running the train service on which the entire country depended as in the case of Dagny Taggart. But realistically most of us are not going to be able to do anything all that rewarding in the work we do to support ourselves.

A typical white collar workplace (that is, an above average job) is almost certainly going to have some combination of petty micromanaging bosses, backstabbing coworkers, obnoxious quotas, trashy public relations campaigns, inscrutable computer systems, irritable customers, mind-numbing repetition, pointless forms and reports, malfunctioning office equipment, and endless time spent on hold or in phone trees.

Rand does a better job of acknowledging these dis-utilities of work in her previous works, but in Atlas Shrugged she makes American big business something of an ideal, portraying people who work in massive corporations as generally happy and fulfilled if not for state intervention and their altruistic ignorance. Ironically she seems to overlook the role state intervention had in making enormous firms as concentrated, hierarchical and corrupt as they are and were at the time of her writing. Her selective acknowledgement of this reality, often causes her to ignore the more radical implications of her own ideas.

Letting work in such an environment as the typical workplace define one’s life would not be an act of selfishness for most of us, but rather an act of self-sacrifice, which Rand clearly opposes. If anything those who truly love their lives (as Rand repeatedly claims she and her protagonists do) will likely want to spend less of it under such drudgery. For the vast majority of humanity attempting to live like a Rand protagonist would not be an act of selfishness but one of self-imposed slavery.

Again to be fair to Rand, she does have her protagonists quit their work in the global economy and go on strike when the excessive regulations and corruption from the state make the problems described above more commonplace. Rand makes it clear that this is an option that should be open to her readers, as initiations of force by the state, as well as private actors have played a major role in creating the current distributions of power and wealth in our real world. In a society, such as ours, where numerous forms of government favoritism and restrictions have led to massive concentrations of capital among inefficient bureaucratic businesses, one certainly cannot be blamed for not giving one’s all. After all who wants to slave away for a real life approximation of a Rand villain?

Unfortunately Rand strongly implies that the work centered lives of her heroes should be the default way for humans to behave, even in ideal circumstances, and that the strike is just a temporary measure to get the state off the backs of the noble workaholics she admires.

What makes this stranger is that her protagonists while committed to constantly working with earning more money as their stated motive do not seem especially interested in the things money can buy. In fact the above mentioned character Francisco criticizes those who see “acquisition of material objects as the only goal of existence” saying “he expects them to give him pleasure—and he wonders why the more he gets, the less he feels.”

Nor do they particularly like getting away from the office and enjoying life much. A repeated refrain in the book is “celebrations should be only for those who have something to celebrate.” Likewise Francisco is heavily criticized by the other protagonists when he appears to be going out having parties and enjoying time with members of the opposite sex. This is later revealed to be a cover for his real activities and he himself condemns even more harshly the playboy lifestyle he had previously presented.

Rand places a huge emphasis on having a purpose in life, which ideally, should be your paying job. In her previous works Rand makes more of an effort to acknowledge that getting paid to do what one wants to do, that is one’s true work, presumably, is not always easy or possible, but Atlas Shrugged definitely makes it an ideal. Merely using one’s paid work as a source of funding for the activities one truly enjoys is never explored. Also the satisfaction in one’s work is expected to be independent of any good said work does for anyone else. One has to wonder what sense of achievement would exist in creating, for example a railroad no one uses. Rand falls into the trap of wanting us to have a purpose for the sake of having a purpose, which is scarcely different than not having a purpose.

Rand ignores the more selfish and more liberatory possibility of working to live rather than living to work. What could be more selfish than turning down work on a more profitable venture, or choosing to work a lower paying job that is more enjoyable? Or better yet, turning down an opportunity to work longer hours to have more time to oneself. One who sees fulfilling selfish desires only in terms of profit accrued has a shallow understanding of selfish desires.

Rand appears to value productivity more than selfishness, hence her justification for the Native American genocide, whose land she believes was rightly forcibly taken because of their unwillingness to meet her standards of productivity. She is quoted as having said in a lecture at West Point military academy in 1974:

But let’s suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages–which they certainly were not. What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence; for their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched–to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it’s great that some of them did.

Certainly any robust defense of property would include the rights of people to lands they have used and occupied for millennia, despite their falling short of Rand’s desired level of productivity.

Ayn Rand’s writing is credited as being one of the more successful recruiting tools for the libertarian movement. That may reflect why our movement is still so marginal. As this work obsessed view of what society should be is ultimately invariably unattractive, and grossly puritanical. More emphasis should be placed on how markets, even the imperfect ones we have currently, have freed us from the need to work all the time, and have allowed us to pursue more quality time and interest outside our jobs. While Rand makes brief mention of the time-saving aspect of new innovations she does not follow this idea to its logical conclusion in this book. If anything more should be mentioned of how the free flow of knowledge and information as well as goods and services is pushing us towards a post-scarcity society where the need to work is greatly reduced. An anarchic free market system will be one that liberates us from constant labor, rather than one that pushes us towards ever more work.

It’s also worth noting that another positive thing about markets is that even in their imperfect state they would likely to prevent a strike like Galt’s from working. Whenever one industrialist steps down, a new niche opens and a strong incentive arises for someone to learn the needed skill and take their place. This is illustrated in instances where certain activities are forcibly prevented by law, and yet if there is money to be made someone rises to the occasion.

This is not to mention other problems with this book like the fact that it is just a huge revenge fantasy on all the people who ever bothered Rand for a hand-out, the fact that the hero destroys the global economy causing endless deaths and impoverishment, its bizarre puritanical views on sex and relationships, Rand’s making a huge plot point rest on her support for intellectual property (which is itself just a form of government granted monopoly), Rand’s entire philosophy being a failure to extract an ought statement from an is statement and it just being way too long for it’s own good.  Each of these things has been discussed at length by others elsewhere.

Overall the people most likely to benefit from reading this book are those so far to the left that they have no idea how right-wing elitists see the world. Though, this could probably be learned in a less time-intensive manner. Otherwise this is a thought-provoking book, though not always in a good way, that all too often ignores any positive implications its message might have while often driving home its worst ones.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory