Needing a book recently when traveling, I stumbled on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” in a second-hand bookstore. I bought a“50th Anniversary Edition" of Rand's most famous fiction- all 1000 pages. A meaty read for my journey and, given how influential her works have been, good for my general education.
Only about 200 pages in, I can't comment on the plot but the themes are already clear. "Atlas Shrugged" is not beautiful prose nor does it offer a nuanced, multi-layered setting or complex characters revealing their humanity. The setting is simply a vehicle, the characters not-so-subtle mouthpieces for Rand's Objectivist philosophy. Via Dagney Taggart, Hank Readern and others- modernist heroes who run railroads, smelt iron and leech oil out of hard Texas earth- Rand eulogizes steely business, hard work, emotionless rationality, competition, and sef-interest as the morally right way to create a better world. For Rand humans,Prometheus-like, can- and must seize wealth for themselves .
Rand shreds frivolity, sees no reason to reward personal pleasure or anyone who does not work, rips apart the idea of welfare and denigrates government regulating capitalism. Her heroes live in loveless marriages, inhabit barren relationships, have mechanical affairs. Pure laissez faire is the way to individual wealth and is (?therefore) morally right says Rand. Neither environment nor resource shortages have appeared in the first 200 pages and I expect will not in the next 800. Nor have developing countries and their citizenry except Mexico which randomly nationalises all industries. Rand sees no connection between the good people of USA and the unruly lazy mob down there, and certainly no responsibility for them. (although resources within their borders are of interest)
Objectivism has been thoroughly deconstructed by philosophers but was (still is?) influential amongst right-wing conservatives. Donald Trump would enjoy it- if he reads novels. [ just discovered Trump In fact "loves Rand, "Fountainhead" is one of three novels he has read"]
What a difference time makes! “Atlas Shrugged” became a best-seller half a century ago by resonating with the views of book buying English speakers of its time. Now, it is to me a badly-written mouthpiece for ideas long past expiry date. Atlas shrugged before we learned rampant energy guzzling capitalism causes global warming. Atlas saw USA at its industrial zenith, before its Texas oil wells ran dry, before it started manipulating the Middle East before it started sending crew-cut Nebraska boys to commit atrocities in Iraq to secure its energy. I imagine Rand would support such capitalist resource wars, wondering “how our oil ended up under their sand”. She'd be sure it will be much better used by smart white men and women if USA takes it back. About falling biodiversity? Alongside Atlas she'd shrug. And she'd see no resson for USA or other rich countries to take refugees. She’d rather put the resources elsewhere- perhaps into a wall on the Mexican border.
What has all this got to do with development? "Atlas Shrugged" is pure modernism. Mostly development is still run by modernist principles using modernist tools like logical frameworks. In a way the global development project is an attempt to globalize "Atlas Shrugged" thinking.- hard work, human ingenuity, unbridled resource consumption and human selfishness as the morally and politically correct path to human happiness. Development includes the global South in the neo-liberal pyramid- on the bottom. There is no room for regulation of greed or deliberately trying to create equality. Human happiness and wealth are the same thing. About the same time as Atlas was shrugging under Rand’s pen development was being “invented’ (or at least introduced to the world ) in Harry Truman's 1949 presidential inauguration speech. Listen to his words reverberating with a modernist world view here. The same USA that had just obliterated Nagasaki and Hiroshima as Truman spoke would soon be up to its immoral armpits in Vietnam and later be launching resource wars (increasingly nuanced by funding and arming others to fight and die) in Latin America and the Middle East. To Rand all this would be justified by the resource needs of rationally self-interested captains of US industry.
Now look around you at where Truman's vision of globalizing "Atlas Shrugged" thinking, has brought us. Yes fabulous wealth and wondrous technology like the computer you're reading this on, but also see the links between unbridled rational capitalism and melting polar ice, falling biodiversity, the clash of cultures played out in Western violence and an extremist Muslim backlash. Look at the trouble your development project gets into when individualism trumps good common decisions. I know thats true regardless of your development area. Your subject. matter is human beings.
Published in 2009, “The Spirit Level” by Pickett and Wilkinson, a must read for all development planners, is empirical evidence that human wellbeing is related more to equality than absolute wealth. Today it is clearly evident that equality, relationships between people and group decisions about common resources are essential on global, national and local scales. Modernism and individualism cannot deliver those essentials. Development is about human aspirations for a good (not necessarily a rich) life and how we best realize those aspirations. Management of global commons, our environment, refugees, decreasing energy supplies and relationships between people have to be in the mix. Rand asserted selfish individual pursuit of wealth even at the expense of all that creates good for everyone, 50 years later we know it's bad for everyone.
Only 200 pages into Rands magnum opus, I already see it needs a subtitle:
...as they fought amongst themselves and trashed their planet
P.S. I manged to plough on through this entire book. It played out just as my premonitions in this review: terrible writing, unlikely plot and no characterization- all in support of a phlosphy of selfish ndividualism that is bad for individuals and bad for the planet