August 03, 2009
Who John Galt Isn’t
It was the "o” what did it, three swirling red crests with the vertiginous rabbit-hole center fading into white that hypnotized my attention and coaxed my bike tire left so that I nearly grazed the back wheel of a BMW. It was an encounter I would have lost, surely, and it surely would have been my fault, though I’m confident the owner was selfish and had no interest in looking out for my interests.
The bumper sticker was affixed with tape or static cling to the back windshield, hovering just below eye level. “Socialism Didn’t Work Last Time Either,” only instead of the “o” in “Socialism,” some wag had substituted the Obama “o”. One immutable law of rhetoric is that digs don’t need to be accurate to make their point. But as the BMW shifted gears and drag-raced past me, a second bumper sticker appeared, balancing the first like a convex diptych, secured in the other far corner of the back windshield, written in a cleaner sparer font than the fat white letters of “Socialism.”
“Who is John Galt?” Who, indeed.
The allusion, of course, was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a manifesto (or apologia) for capitalism unbound. Galt is the Prometheus of productivity, a dynamo whose fiery ideas would ignite the economy if not for the vulture bureaucrats. When Galt (among others) withdraws from society in the book and refuses to offer his liver to the body politic, the vultures panic, and society teeters on collapse. The lesson—practically spelled out in italics—is that a few brilliants like Galt drive mankind forward, and any constraints on their activities impoverishes all. Sporting a Galt bumper sticker ensures that you can take a moralistic stand without having to actually do anything.
I’m going to leave aside here the dubious taste of anyone who’d admit they read and liked Rand. If you plotted Literary Merit on the x-axis versus Book Sales on the y-axis, the slope of the line for Rand’s oeuvre would be undefined, a perfect vertical up and down. She’s atrocious with dialogue, unconvincing with sex, clumsy with pacing, heavy-handed with foreshadowing, lousy with clichés. (I’d add character development if she included any human beings in her stories.) I’m embarrassed for her, and she died in 1982.
What Rand does have is conviction, utter conviction, conviction saturating every comma and period. To her credit, she does summon up a unique world—only we happen to live, now, in an era antithetical to her vision, and have a president who disagrees on one or two or a thousand particulars. (Though who, ironically, wrenched himself from obscurity through sheer will in a way that you rarely read about outside of Rand or Horatio Alger.) According to The Economist, sales of Rand books spiked recently in the teeth of Obama’s various reforms, economic gooses, and stimuli, making her decades-old books bestsellers all over again. No one feels moved to scrawl “Frodo lives!” on walls anymore. It’s “Who is John Galt?”
Rand defines herself against all forms of collectivism, but she and her acolytes don’t, can’t, acknowledge that her philosophy, sneakily named Objectivism (talk about seizing the rhetorical high ground!), has one important chromosome in common with socialism. Socialism failed—and by “socialism” here I mean hard-core socialism, the kind tried and found wanting in the USSR and GDR, not the European democratic socialism that Obama does seem intent on introducing here—but hard-core socialism failed because it’s a fantasy. It’s nonsense to think that human beings will learn to share their possessions for the common good, and it’s nonsense to think that wars and greed and stomach aches will all cease once the government levels and razes all sign of status. We’ve always had the poor and we’re always going to have them. Charity can help; but however nice it sounds to outlaw poverty, it ain’t going to work.
That said, at least Karl Marx had the analytical talent to write a non-fictional and occasionally penetrating analysis of the capitalistic worldview. Socialism is largely fantasy, but Galt and his ilk in the gulch are pure, unadulterated fantasy: They appear in a novel. How, how, how can someone condemn socialism as the paragon of a nice-sounding but dangerous policy and yet simultaneously cite what’s more or less an economic Passion Play as the embodiment of a rational, level-headed, natural order? For Christ’s sake, even Alan Greenspan has disabused himself, and no one drank more Rand-flavored Kool-Aid.
Okay. At this point, I have to confuse things by making a small admission. As long as I’m not forced to read her actual writing, I’m kinda sorta sympathetic with Rand. Instinctively, I’m a squishy libertarian—Nudge was written exactly for me—and I do find Rand’s portrayals (again, as long as I’m just reading about them on Wikipedia) of the jealous empty parasites who do seem to get on and get ahead in this stupid world hilarious in a bitterly hard-won way. The Salieris who “couldn’t be, and know it.” But I recognize when I’m fantasizing about a new world order. I fully admit I would do a really, really bad job heading up any enterprise of any size larger than about two-point-five people; if it was a business, we’d declare insolvency within hours. I’m under no delusions that I’m who John Galt is.
Rarely for her time, Rand rightly judged that Fascism and Socialism were more or less equivalent, with the far right and far left wrapping around the political continuum and swallowing each other. But what Rand and her acolytes seem unable to grasp is that the cronyism, successful gamesmanship, and lack of scruples that she deplores in those systems aren’t products of collectivism. They’re products of human beings. The mental Lilliputians often win out in Rand’s horrorlands, but they’d win out in her fantasylands just the same. In fact without the restraining hand of at least a tiny bit of government, the forces Rand despised would gain even more naked power. They wouldn’t suddenly let Galt and his gulch-mates be. They’d invade, they’d rape, they’d raze. Some governments are superior to others and some do induce better behavior; let’s not kind ourselves on that. But let’s not kid ourselves here, either: When people suck, it’s usually because that’s what people are like.
To answer the question in the BMW window, since I couldn’t pedal fast enough. Who is John Galt? No one who ever has, or ever can, exist.
Posted by Sam Kean at 10:46 AM | Permalink