By Jeff Kazmierski, We Are Atlas
Two years ago, in an attempt to understand the philosophical underpinnings of the modern Conservative movement, I attempted to read Ayn Rand’s magnum opus “Atlas Shrugged.” My foray was short-lived, as I only made it a third of the way through before giving up entirely.
I didn’t quit because the book was too deep, or too philosophical, or difficult to understand; it’s none of those things. “Atlas Shrugged” has the intellectual depth of a Maple Street chuckhole. I gave it up because it is, quite simply, one of the worst novels ever written.
The book is a turgid, self-absorbed, rambling train wreck, populated with indistinguishable two-dimensional characters, laden with unrealistic conversations and purple prose on every page, and a plot so full of holes you could, well, drive a train through it.
It would be easy to outline all the myriad ways “Atlas Shrugged” fails as a novel, but that’s not my purpose today. For me, its main failure lies in its premise. For those who haven’t read it, it’s fairly simple. In Rand’s fictional universe, the wealthy and powerful of society are the select few who make society move. To her, they are the Atlas of myth who carries the Earth on his shoulders. What if, she posits, they all collectively decide to stop moving the world? What if Atlas shrugs?
In her story, when this happens, society grinds to a halt. Nothing gets done, because the gentry have taken their balls and gone home.
You have to admit, there is a certain appeal to the notion that the world rests on your shoulders and responds to your every move, particularly if you are among the wealthy and powerful elite. Unfortunately, there’s really no truth to it, because the failure of the premise stems from a misinterpretation of the Atlas myth.
In the classic telling, Atlas was one of the Titans who sided with his brother Menoetius in the war against the Olympians. For their hubris, Zeus cast the Titans into Tartarus (hell) except for Atlas, who was forced to stand at the western edge of the Earth and hold up the sky. In other stories, Atlas can only be relieved of his burden if someone else willingly accepts it.
Rand’s error, therefore, is one of role reversal. Atlas’ burden is his punishment, while the wealthy have chosen theirs. Every wealthy and powerful person got there with the help, work and support of thousands of other, less powerful people. Therefore they are not Atlas – they are the sky. If the sky “shrugs,” does society come to a crashing stop? No. Their numbers are quickly replenished by newer, brighter stars rising from the ranks of the working class. If they abandon society they will simply be replaced.
When the sky shrugs, Atlas gets a break.
On the other hand, history is replete with examples of what happens when the real Atlas decides he’s had enough.
In 18th century France, the aristocracy had become bloated and corrupt, disinterested in the suffering of the poor and disconnected from the masses that they ruled over. The French peasantry, weary of being oppressed and abused by the nobility and the clergy, rose up and threw off the old feudal system and replaced it with a more enlightened and democratic system. In one brief period from 1793 to 1794 called the Reign of Terror, thousands of nobles were rounded up and executed, their assets seized by the state. Charles Dickens immortalized this period of history in his novel “A Tale of Two Cities.”
In the early 20th century, a similar revolution in Russia, originating for similar reasons, gave rise to the Soviet Union, which ruled most of Asia and dominated Eastern Europe for nearly 70 years before collapsing.
When Atlas shrugs, the sky falls.
And in America we have our own, less extreme examples. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a period of unrest between the rising forces of unionized labor, who wanted better pay and safer working conditions, and corporate bosses who were only interested in extracting as much work from people for as little money as possible. Often, strikes or the threat of strikes were met with violence by corporate thugs. Labor unions fought steadily for the rights of workers, despite resistance from business leaders, their lobbyists, and conservatives in Congress, have generally had good results. Unionization enabled the rise of the American middle classes in the mid-20th century and unionized labor built much of the infrastructure we have today.
Atlas is capable of building great things if the sky works with him instead of weighing him down.
America is increasingly becoming a divided society. We’ve always prided ourselves on our supposed lack of a class system (despite clear evidence our own aristocracy never went away) and being the “land of opportunity.” But that is under threat as wealth becomes increasingly concentrated at the upper strata of society.
According to recent statistics, the 400 wealthiest families in America currently control more wealth than half the population of the entire country. That means 50 percent of the wealth is concentrated in less than 1 percent of the people. That’s not a good ratio. And that’s the good news. The bad news is, the division is growing. Wealth is going (transferred) steadily upward while salaries and pay for the middle classes stagnate or slip backward Since the Reagan years, CEO pay has gone up 240 percent while worker pay has actually gone down slightly. The very people who will be the real drivers of recovery don’t have the resources to make it happen. And all our public policy is becoming skewed toward helping those at the top.
Do the math – for each of those 400 families at the top, there are nearly 400,000 Americans supporting them. That’s a lot of Atlases.
If the wealthy and powerful can’t take the time to read “A Tale of Two Cities,” maybe they should at least pay more attention to this quote from their idol Ayn Rand, who also said, “Upper classes are a nation’s past; the middle class is its future.”
Will the real Atlas please stand up?