Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Who was John Galt?

I ran across a notice that Part II of the movie version of Atlas Shrugged will appear in theaters this Fall (2012).  I heard Part I had been a box-office bust.  It made me curious.  So I got a copy of Part I from my local library and as you see, this flight of fantasy has given me pause for thought. 

Atlas Shrugged is by the late Ayn Rand, an arch-conservative Russian-American author most of us are probably at least passingly familiar with.  I’ve read Rand, including both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, and I find her writings both attractive and repelling.  I am an environmentalists, a sustainability advocate and communitarian and those are things she didn’t like.   I am also a planner, manager and have a fair share of business experience – things she did like.  What troubles me about Atlas Shrugged the most is that it doesn’t totally offend me.  There is something haunting about it.  Part of that is that I find Rand’s ideas both based on sound philosophical principles and profoundly warped.  Her stories, however, have a strange resonance with our day, 55 years after she first published Atlas Shrugged.

Atlas was a mythological man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.  Ayn Rand decided that the Atlases of her day, the champions of capitalistic democracy, were indeed carrying the weight of the world.  It was they who, in her words, “moved the world.”  But the masses, living comfortable, took their labors for granted and the socialist/communist wanted the able to carry those masses whether they wanted to work or not.  In her novel, that has sold approaching eight million English language copies (and millions of them on the used book market), she tells Atlas to shrug, to drop the weight of an unappreciative world.  In this book Atlas takes the name of John Galt.

Rand fully expected a John Galt to appear; that her novel was prophecy.  Rand’s disciples, however, seem to have turned her thesis on its head.  They are, today, pro-business, just out to make a lot of money, and not revolutionaries trying to bring the world down.  Nonetheless, it is exactly these people who have brought the world to its knees.  What I intend to do in this article is to turn her theories inside out:  It is time for us, and as I will explain, Mother Nature, sometimes named Gaia, to shrug off the burden of mindless commercialism and consumption, to put our house, our ekios (home/economy) back in order.  As Rand did clearly foresee, before a new order can come into existence, the old must pass.  It just didn’t happen the way she intended, there is no John Galt, and it is up to us, roughly defined as the sustainability movement, to learn how to put our world back together.

Who Was John Galt?

John Galt was a character invented by Ayn Rand for the 1,100 page novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957).  The iconic line of the novel, “Who is John Galt?,” was the response down and out people gave as the answer for their distress.  The name became the symbol of despair in a economy sunk to depression levels, a society of hopeless and homeless people.  There were no answers to the problems of the world.  It was about quitting, giving up.  But a select elite of business characters, symbolized by Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, could not do that.  They fought to save their businesses even as John Galt undermined the economy.  Galt did this by persuading the leaders of society, the achievers, to go on strike, to abandon their businesses and homes; to suddenly drop from sight.  But for the aim of making a story, Dagny and Hank are left out in the world to the bitter end, as clueless as everyone else about John Galt, or even that he really existed.

John Galt was a genius who invented an energy device that would have provided cheap and abundant electricity, pollution free, forever.  The workers of the company he worked for decided to form a collectivist union, a growing national trend (remember, this was the 1950s, Red Scare days).  Those who didn’t want to work insisted those who could, the able, support them.  John Galt walked out.  His parting word was that he would shut down the motor of the world. 

Ayn Rand died in 1982, at the start of the Reagan economic era.  It wasn’t until a half century after the novel that her prediction has seemingly started to come true with the Great Recession of 2008 and the faltering “recovery. “ As she predicted, the leadership of the great businesses of the world did slow the motor of the world.  Not as Galt and his friends did, not intentionally, but mindlessly; consumed by greed that drained the world of wealth and productivity. 

Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve and a one time Ayn Rand associate and devotee, was stunned by this course of events.  In October 2008, testifying before Congress, he said: 

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”

Yes, he clearly misread Rand.  Greenspan thought the leaders of industry and commerce around the world would work for wealth and that the world would benefit.  He did not, is seems, approve of Rand’s revolt.  Obviously he missed something.

How popular are Rand’s ideas today?  Atlas Shrugged is selling close to 400,000 copies a year.  It’s not in the Harry Potter league but close enough.  It has a different agenda.  It does have an agenda, a political objective. 

Atlas Shrugged is a very hard book to read.  Perhaps that is why it took so long to make it into a movie.  In 2011 a movie version, part one of three parts, was released.  It was a box office bust.  Supporters, Rand disciples, raised the money for part 2, to be released October 2012, on the eve of Presidential elections.  Just coincidence sponsors say.  Maybe so: An Ayn Rand Institute leader described Mitt Romney, business leader in real life, “empty;” a man without leadership value and one who would not be a crisis leader.  The movie does appeal to Tea Party followers.

The John Galt, character, embodies Rand’s personal philosophy, something she worked on for many years.  He (she) is an objectivist, a hard-headed, and as it turns out, a hard-hearted, philosopher.  Galt is one of three young students mentored by a philosopher who shaped their revolt:  Hugh Akston: “One of the last great advocates of reason.”  The other two great anti-heroes of the novel are his college friends Francisco d’Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjold.  Francisco and Dagny, it turns out, had once been childhood friends and later lovers. 

The philosophy, Rand later named it, is called Objectivism.  It is a cold, hard, unemotional thinking that celebrates self-interest above all virtues, indeed, the “art of selfishness.”  In this philosophy there can be no logical contradictions.  If there is a contradiction, one of the premises must be wrong.  The premise that is never challenged is self-interest.  She wrote and spoke extensively about this philosophy, appeared on a number of network talk shows, and had a following of students who later set up the Ayn Rand Institute that prospers to this day.  Greenspan is but one of a number of prominent men and women who champion Rand’s ultraconservative politics.

Ironically, Galt is a cold, ruthless intellect not unlike Rand’s hated Joseph Stalin.  Rand grew up in Stalin’s Russia.  Like Stalin, there is no flamboyance in Galt, no Hitlerian histrionics.  To give her credit, Galt is not the bloody-handed tyrant Stalin was.  His weapon is reason, a cold, intense will to create, or to destroy, that which he sees hindering his own life and the lives of those who he believes actually make society work, the business leaders.   The late arch-conservative William Buckley, and Buckley knew Rand, once commented that Atlas Shrugged is a book without a hint of goodness.  After Buckley published a downbeat review of Atlas Shrugged (not his own) Rand refused to attend parties at which he was a guest.  Odd behavior for one whose characters have no lack of ability to confront adversaries.  But then Rand’s realm was fantasy.  We will review the world of fantasy in an upcoming blog, a psychology that speaks to our world today and one reason it is failing.

Atlas Fainted

Today we see a world coming apart at the seams not because of deliberate manipulation of business revolutionaries but as a result of decades of pro-business policy and deregulation that have failed.  The true beneficiaries of “welfare,” have actually been businesses:  tax breaks, incentives, massive government spending, and now bailouts, a rising trend of them in Europe.  The “free market” is myth.

Rand’s entrepreneurial heroes were self-made men and women, Horatio Alger types who became rich by dent of hard work.  They created businesses and they ran them.  They were the American Dream.  We still have such types in the likes of Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs and an army of mostly high-tech entrepreneurs.  They are the One Percent and there are a lot of them.  There are more than 300,000 US citizens in the One Percent, some 400 of them billionaries.  In fairness most of them are not sociopaths.  A lot of their fortunes go to human welfare.  But this is also the era of the notorious, overpaid, CEOs of failing firms, living off assets and public bailouts.  No, what we have today is by no stretch of the imagination a free market.  It is also not an environment of opportunity and hard work and success, the American Dream.

This is an era of financial institutions that derive huge profits from highly questionable products.  These institutions produce well over one-third of US corporate profits.  They produce nothing tangible.  They are classed as part of the service sector of the economy but increasingly are in a sector of their own, serving only their own interests. 

Investments have become a financial enterprise in its own right.  Financial markets are places where hedge funds and futures commodities are traded.  Whether or not concrete capital and corporate profits are created from “investments” or not is secondary to repeated transfer of money, real or imaginary, and with each transfer the collection of a fee.  These financial products are in fact in imaginary dollars or Euros.  The fees are real money. These are not the products of achievers, of men and women of drive and ability.  They are not the production of wealth but rather the harvesting of wealth.

This model allows manufacturing plants to be built and promptly closed, newly hired employees release and assets sold for a fraction of what they cost.  These closed plants are built with guaranteed loans, local and state tax breaks, land acquires for a pittance and any number of other incentives.  After they are closed, and assets liquidated, what remains can be acquired for as little as five cents on the dollar of original investments – well under market value of land, buildings and equipment.  Taxpayers eat the guaranteed loans.

Business leaders like to complain about high tax rates.  Fact is the incentives we provide businesses in the form of tax breaks cost us far more than taxes in other, high-tax, countries, said conservative journalist David Brooks.  We are, when the books are truly balanced, one of the world’s leading welfare states.  In our case the corporations are the primary beneficiaries. 

The conservative chant, a platform of cutting public spending, is a measure of foolish ignorance.  Reduced spending has already taken a toll on both the economy and corporate bottom lines.  Our tax dollars, government spending, is on the order of one-quarter of our GDP.  Cutting public spending has a negative impact on the GDP, on growth.  And that is a job killer.  While I do not advocate maintaining the US economy on the backs of working people, taxpayers, the mindless, ideological dismantling of the Golden Goose will only accelerate the end of this system.  There is an alternative.

Paradoxically, we have a fanatical conservative tribe that wants more of the same toxic mix that has brought the world’s economy to a faltering stagger.  But on the balance, we don’t seem to have a viable political option.  Like the government in Atlas Shrugged, what we have today is something that many people hold in scorn.

Prevailing policies and practices are what slows the motor of the world.  And we should mention the fuel that runs the real motors, oil, coal and gas.  We are running out of these fuels, have already burned the cheapest, easiest to extract.  The cost of oil has skyrocketed over the last decade.  Only recession slows the rising cost of energy but not by much.  We are also running up an environmental cost that is not found on the financial statements, a cost that is either assumed by public programs (now facing budget cuts), by corporate welfare, or increasingly put on the ledger for the future, a future that is no longer that of our children but much more immediate.

This is not a rant against business or capitalism or government, merely a reflection. Things are, as Rand suggested, just what they are:  A = A.  I believe the free market is a good idea that ought to be tried. 

All good things have a dark side.  Our Eastern cousins understand this.  Our life is gained by the sweat of our brow.  Nature is not altruistic, or for that matter forgiving.  We survive only when we produce at least as much as we consume (profit).  We should learn from that.  Business and trade are part of human social organization.  They work best when they work organically, without regulation or manipulation, and on a scale where the people involved understanding the value of goods and services they trade.

Human society, be it family, village or other social organization, is inherently messy; always has been.  Rocks are hard, water is wet, human nature is faulty.  History is largely the story of how we adapted when things went wrong.  And things go wrong on a regular basis.  There is nothing special about the crises of today except its scale, a global-sized, all eggs in one basket, scale.  We are at our best when things are toughest.  This is a tough time, a time to rise to the occasion as hundreds of generations of our forbearers have done so valiantly.

One of Rand’s premises, at least, was wrong.  She was wrong about human motivation, human nature.  Ayn Rand was a troubled individual:  Brilliant but warped.  But as there is a dark shadow were the light doesn’t reach, there is also light in the darkness.  As American philosopher Ken Wilber (who we will meet by and by) said, and Wilber read hundreds of them, no author is every completely wrong. 

Rand evokes a love-hate response in many of us.  We are troubled by her cold, ruthless disregard for human well-being but we are attracted to her characters, to Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggert and Eddie Willer and even her anti-heroes Galt and his friend the debonair Latin aristocrat, Francisco d’Anconia (we don’t see much of Ragnar). 

The 2011 movie provided better characterizations of Hank and Dagny than Rand did (but new actors in these roles in Part II).  Hank and Dagny, like us, are caught in the rising storm of social disorder, struggling to hold their ground, determined to do or die, living up to the standards that made them the business leaders they are.  There is a profound element of the American myth in these characters that we are drawn too.  Hank and Dagny are not the enemies of the world, not trying to take it down, indeed quite the opposite, but they are caught between two classes of predators, both equally ruthless.  Their motives may be selfish but their companies support their society in a very real way.  They are driven in part by the awareness that if their businesses fail, it will cause terrible suffering across the country.

I need to add that most people these days have no idea of what is going on, either in life or literature.  We live in a fantasy world and increasingly so in this digital age.  Rand and her characters, in contrast, lived in a different time, in a more concrete world, one that has gone the way of history.  Reagan lamented its passing, Mainstreet America, but he did much to create the current train wreck of an economy. 

We then lived in the here and now.  Local business leaders were respected; they worked to make their communities prosper.  That world, just a half-century ago, was one that could still be encompassed by the imagination.  There was a sense of order.  There was a threat you could point your finger at, a real enemy.  That is not true today. 

On the movie DVD is an extra labeled “I am John Galt!”  A large number of people were invited to chant this line.  Not!  This is the fantasy world.  A few of them might but most of them do not have control of their own lives, let alone hands on the levers of the engine of the world.  In reality they are victims looking for an ideology of self-justification.

Perhaps the most important lesson we glean from the Rand epic is determination, purposefulness, a will to survive, to self-actualize, to be beholding to none, to be, in Emerson’s words, Self-Reliant.  These are virtues that ring true.

The motor of the world is slowing.  There is no John Galt causing it and there is no John Galt living with talented friends in a valley in Colorado waiting for the time to come out of hiding and build a new human renaissance.  We are at the tail-end of a cycle of history, a down cycle, one brought down in large part by a dysfunctional economy, that is disconnected from society, that serves its own ends and has increasingly little in common with the real world we live in.  Ditto the political system.

In another deep irony, Galt’s hidden community is a self-sufficient one.  People there work and work hard; they produce.  They are united by common values, by a common purpose.  They are free, independent and prospering.  These are values Jefferson would have approved of.  But even in his day the minions of the Free Market and industrialization, were coming to maturity.  The John Galt of his day was named Alexander Hamilton.

In the next installment, “Gaia Shrugged,” we will take up how we can capitalize on the changes in our world; how we can adapt to those changes and by doing so create a human-scaled life.  That is the mission of the New School of Living.