Greek mythology is colorful and dramatic; an opera of various gods imagined to explain the natural world. Poseidon, God of the Sea, Earthquakes and Horses; Zeus, God of Sky and Thunder; Athena, Goddess of Wisdom; Hades, God of the Underworld; Apollo, God of Light and the Sun; Ares, God of War; Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, Forests and Hills, the Moon. A well organized lot, but they had disagreements. Atlas, God of Astronomy and Navigation, led the Titans against Zeus and his Olympians, fearing his rising power. Losing the war, Atlas was punished, forced to hold up the heavens and bear their weight on his shoulders forever.
Atlas’s fate is the subject of a bronze statue installed in 1937 at Rockefeller Center in New York City; it is 45 feet tall and weighs 7 tons. A figure of a Greek god, a Titan, forced to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders forever, planted in the courtyard of New York’s (then) newest and largest office building, built during the Great Depression, in a city and nation facing mass unemployment, as a monument to America’s most famous capitalist and ruthless monopolist, John D. Rockefeller, his recent biography entitled, perfectly, “Titan”.
“Who Is John Galt?” went by me on a bumper sticker the other day, a reference to Ayn Rand’s 1957 dystopian novel “Atlas Shrugged”. It has become fashionable in some circles to casually refer to oneself as “libertarian”, projecting a sense of individuality, of personal freedom, of self-reliance, unbound by rigid social standards or governmental control. Numerous political and senior government officials purport to be devotees of Rand and her “laissez faire” economic philosophy – what she called “radical capitalism”. Having read all three of Ayn Rand’s novels – “Atlas Shrugged”, “Fountainhead”, and “Anthem”, this bumper sticker led me to go back and revisit Rand’s belief system.
Ayn Rand was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1905, daughter of middle class professional parents, who fled to Ukraine, then to Crimea, in southern Ukraine, as refugees during the 1917 Russian Revolution. The subsequent Russian Civil War followed the family to Ukraine, and was fought to conclusion in Crimea in 1921, where the Red Army defeated the monarchist White Guard, which evacuated by sea; where Lenin consolidated Communist control of Russia; and where Ayn Rand graduated from high school.
After winning the civil war, the new Communist regime in Russia implemented disastrous agricultural policies, and especially hard hit was Ukraine, Russia’s traditional breadbasket. The post-revolutionary reign of political and economic terror eventually collectivized 90% of the region’s agricultural land, formerly productive family farms. More than 100,000 members of families of resistant political officials and intellectuals were deported to Siberia and Kazakstan. The Ukraine Orthodox Catholic Church was banned, its churches destroyed, and its officials deported. Property and food were confiscated from families of opponents of the regime. These policies, combined with extended drought conditions, led to the overwhelming failure of agriculture in Ukraine, and starvation of five million people in the region by the mid 1930’s. As destructive as this period was, events grew even worse 1941-44 as two colossal armies battled through the region, and then through it again, killing an additional four million civilians and two million German and Russian military personnel, and destroying most Ukraine cities and towns.
Rand’s family survived the Russian revolution and subsequent civil war, then went back to St Petersburg, where, as formerly prosperous, middle class, professional “bourgeoise” beneficiaries of the deposed Russian regime, they were politically targeted, and made desperately impoverished. Rand completed college in St. Petersburg, studying history and philosophy; and then attended graduate school in Moscow where she studied screenwriting. Rand emigrated to the United States in 1926, staying with relatives in Chicago, then migrated to Los Angeles, where she worked her way up from clerical work in Hollywood to become an assistant screenwriter. Rand’s own limited screenwriting was consistently rejected by filmmakers, and she turned to writing plays and novels.
Despite persistent efforts, Rand was never able to extract her family from Russia, and while they survived the revolution and civil war, the family did not survive the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during World War Two, perishing among 800,000 civilians, mostly dying of starvation, consistent with the overt German strategy to lay siege to the city, starve its population, then raze it. The Russian counteroffensive, after two and a half years of siege, was launched January 1943, quickly overwhelming German forces weakened by weather, disease, shortage of munitions, supplies and food, and resulting in 700,000 additional military deaths. The monument to the siege on the outskirts of the city holds a half million graves of civilian victims.
Rand published “Fountainhead” in 1943, just after the siege of Leningrad was broken, and so probably soon after realizing her family had not survived. Rand next published “Atlas Shrugged” in 1957, describing it as “the demonstration of a new moral philosophy – the morality of rational self-interest”. The plot involves a mysterious character, John Galt, who calls a strike by top industrialists, scientists and artists, who contribute overwhelmingly to the nations creativity and wealth, thus “stopping the motor of the world”, so that the economy and society collapse, and then rebuilding a new economy and society, controlled by them. Galt delivers a long speech explaining Rand’s philosophy of “Objectivism” – “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute – the virtue of selfishness”.
So “Atlas Shrugged” advocates for the inverse of the Russian revolution. A revolution of the capitalist aristocracy, controlling all of the economy and society, just the result John Adams and Karl Marx foresaw. Supported by “natural law’, essentially Darwinism, a scientific observation of animal behavior, industrialists possess the natural right, as a moral absolute, to strike, to destroy the economy and society, without regard to the effect on anyone but themselves, and rebuild an economy and society that they control.
Rand condemned altruism as incompatible with the requirements of human life and happiness, and she considered laissez-faire (“free market”) capitalism the only moral social system because it protected unfettered individual and property rights. Rand believed that natural rights should be enforced by a constitutionally limited government that would provide national defense, maintain civil order, and enforce contracts. Rand rejected theocracy, monarchy, Nazism, fascism, communism, dictatorship, and democratic socialism.
But Rand’s vision is so radical that it also rejects the basic tenets of democratic government in any form, and the Judeo-Christian ethic outright – eliminating these social and cultural mores for her preference – laissez faire capitalism. Rand’s heroes are superior beings who take advantage of inferior beings; they are titans of industry, her mythical Gods, fully entitled to what they gain, and yet they feel overburdened, the weight of the world on their shoulders, their creativity constrained, their talents shackled, their potential diminished. Rather than laborers striking to improve their life conditions to better than subsistence; in Rand’s world, the capitalists strike in order to unburden themselves of their constraints, so they can control their society. But this is not all fantasy. In John Rockefeller’s case, this titan of industry ended his career an outlaw, refusing to submit to the rule of longstanding law, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, insisting on his right, and relying on his wealth, to defy this Federal legislation, passed through democratic processes and signed into law in 1870, intended to preserve the very competition on which the free market economic system was based.
Having seen directly in her youth, and through her own family’s tragic fate in the real dystopia of early Communist Russia, why would Ayn Rand seek to create its mirror image, a capitalist dystopia, in America? Rand has long had important ideological followers in senior positions of the U.S. government. These include Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve Chairman for 15 years, who knew Rand personally and attended her weekly discussions as a young economics student; Paul Ryan, three term Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; Rand Paul, U.S. Congresman; Ron Paul, U.S. Senator; Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme Court Justice; and many others. But there is no discussion of her views in the fields of economics or political philosophy, just a couple of small non-profits dedicated to propagation of her beliefs and sale of her books.
This all got me thinking about the role of popular myth in our political system. Why have so many in the senior ranks of our political leadership organized their world view around the beliefs of a third-tier writer of dystopian fantasy novels, who is wholly ignored by serious economists and political philosophers, and who advocates a brutalist society? Perhaps, like the ancient Greeks, America’s conservative political leadership, grasping to understand the complex world around them, imagine an opera of mythological capitalist gods that help explain a world they can not otherwise understand.