The notorious Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels is once said to have boasted that he needed no army to conquer a country. All he needed was a printing press and enough people willing to believe whatever he printed. And he was right. After all he once convinced most of Germany to vote for a man whose stated goal was to take away their right to vote. Genius. Pure, unadulterated evil genius.

Ayn Rand died in 1982. A writer and… uh… facial cream enthusiast she was a staunch anti-socialist and anti-communist. Her best known work, ATLAS SHRUGGED, was produced in 1957 and has been a rallying cry for conservatives and capitalists ever since. This election especially, Rand and SHRUGGED have been at the very heart of the conservative argument. But her alignment with the right wing aside, there is a lot more to what I hate about her. It goes deeper. Way deeper. And that is why Ayn Rand has the dubious distinction of being my most hated person of all time.

I first read ATLAS SHRUGGED in college. But, frankly, I was still an adolescent. And given the amount of partying I was doing I honestly didn’t remember huge chunks of it. But since college I have worked professionally as a film critic, a literary agent, a creative executive in Hollywood and a freelance copy writer and editor. So it was through this lens, and in preparation for this post, that I set about the daunting task of rereading ATLAS SHRUGGED. It would have been easier to read the fucking phone book. And yes, they still make those.

It’s okay. My first impression is how terribly overwritten it is. At over 1,000 pages I feel that roughly a third of it could have been removed without affecting the plot, the themes or any of the major character arcs. And while the kooky, 1950’s view of the future is kind of interesting the underlying premise, an alternate reality in which the world’s wealthy elite go on strike to combat socialism, is just too silly to take seriously.

The biggest obstacle to enjoying the book is Rand herself. Her Orwellian paranoia hangs over every fucking sentence like an oni from a goddamn Kurosawa film. The writing is mediocre at best and, frankly, Rand comes off as someone who just took an intro to philosophy course at her local junior college.

And we can just go ahead and get rid of the love story. I hate to be so crude but I have yet to see a picture of Rand that would convince me that she even had sex organs let alone a sex life. Or any kind of understanding about what makes human beings want to fuck each other. And her depiction of love in the book is something that an alien might attempt after studying humans for a brief period.

And that’s it. It’s an easily forgettable book written by an easily forgettable writer. Almost.

One has to take into account the historical context in which it was written. And also what Rand was really trying to do in writing it. Only then can you understand just how sinister this woman really was. When SHRUGGED was written we were firmly entrenched in the Cold War. The world back then broke down into two distinctly different camps: Socialists and capitalists. What’s more, both sides were practicing their ideologies almost to the exclusion of the other. Each side wanted to stamp out the other forever.

I’m a firm believer that no ideology or philosophy is capable of existing alone. I have no desire to live in a totally socialist state. But capitalism, which benefits a few and ignores everyone else, leaves a giant wake which socialism has always ended up filling. It’s just physics. Capitalism is also a cold ideology with no room for morality or emotion. Those who practice it are good at math and logic. Profit and loss. That kind of thing. They simply do not understand human traits like creativity.

That’s why socialists were winning the propaganda war. Socialists and communists produce propaganda like the French produce wine. Their shit is top shelf and always has been. Sure, capitalists in the west owned the newspapers and the radio and the fledgling medium of television. But even then the growing schism between the handful of rich and growing legions of poor in America were leading many to question capitalism. By itself, capitalism was not working and that was becoming clear. The “haves” found themselves facing a tide of cohesive rage from the “have nots” that resulted in things like welfare and The New Deal. Labor unions and unemployment benefits. A minimum wage.

See, there’s a reason why the wealthy don’t want the rest of us to have a safety net. It upends their precious social hierarchy. If I know that losing my job is not the end of the world then my boss has less power. And the Randian dream of an economic feudal state becomes just a little less obtainable.

Rand realized that to win, capitalists needed more than just control of information. They needed folklore. They needed a dream they could sell to the average person, something which would inspire them to vote against their own interests. Something which would make them rally to a cause that would ultimately just end up hurting them. And they had to cheer while they did it.

In short, Capitalism needed propaganda. And Rand was ready to serve it up big time.

What ATLAS SHRUGGED tries to tell us is that we shouldn’t have labor unions. There should be no laws protecting a worker’s rights. There should be no social safety net. No minimum wage. I think Rand was even going so far as to suggest there should be no democracy. In her worldview only the wealthy matter and should be allowed to make decisions or have choices. You and I are serfs.

Propaganda isn’t just about lying. It’s about inspiring. The aim is to get people to think with their hearts and not their brains. Once you’ve done that you can get them to do anything. Turn on their loved ones. Abandon their ideals. Even fight to the death. That so many working class people today embrace Rand’s teachings and praise SHRUGGED is a testament to just how effective a propagandist she was.

The book’s protagonist, Dagny Taggart, is by any measure a member of the one percent. She is also the only truly three-dimensional character in the book. She’s smart. She’s brave. She’s a good person and by gosh takes good care of her serfs, uh, employees. You can’t help but like her. And you can’t help but want to weep when she does as the dark specter of poor people taking control of their own destinies descends upon her beautiful and idyllic world.

The genius of SHRUGGED is that, from the start, you read the book not realizing it’s about a person you most likely will never be. Fans of the book, regardless of class, are convinced that they are Dagny Taggart. Or that they one day will be. But, only if every single shred of socialism is stamped out forever. Only by cutting off your own hands will you ever be able to grab the Golden Fleece.

Why, the robber baron buying up and liquidating companies isn’t greedy. It’s the guy making $8.25 an hour who complains that he can’t pay his bills. The investment banker absconding with people’s pensions isn’t the problem. It’s the guy with a sick kid who desperately needs health insurance. Your bosses who overwork you aren’t the bad guys. It’s the workers who unite and stand up to them. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

In the MATRIX films, humanity is on the brink of destruction after a cataclysmic war with a vastly superior enemy. Half of humankind is holed up underground and knows only too well how close to the brink of defeat everyone is. Their only hope for victory or even survival is to try and get through to the other half.

Unfortunately, the other half is under the control of the enemy. But not in any conventional sense. They are asleep. Their dreaming minds are plugged into a massive virtual reality and are blissfully unaware that they have been conquered. And their own sleeping bodies are providing energy to the very enemy enslaving them.

Here at Magnus Greel I bill myself as being “on the frontline between reality and bullshit”. And I cannot put it anymore succinctly than that. We are engaged in a fight against an ideology that still, even now, seeks to assert itself to the exclusion of all else.

There are those of us who live in reality and, day after day, see just how close to the brink we are to defeat. How close our vastly more powerful enemy is to complete domination. How far away and futile the ideals of our nation’s founders really are. We are cursed with clarity not unlike those on the Titanic or the 9/11 flights who could see the end coming but were powerless to stop it.

And there are those wasting away, plugged into a Randian Matrix, blissfully unaware of the situation. And they will never see how their blood, sweat and passions are simply being used to make our common enemy stronger. They will defend those enslaving them to the death. And they’ll cheer while they do it.

And somewhere in the depths of hell Ayn Rand and Joseph Goebbels are sharing a drink. And laughing.



  1. 1 Anonymous
    August 21, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    “You and I are serfs”. We are so I don’t see what your point is with that

  2. 2 Anonymous
    September 17, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    The wonder of the internet – a few clicks on seemingly unconnected links and I find myself here reading about a book I’ve heard of but never actually read. Having enjoyed your review (and taken comfort from the realisation that not all Americans are rabid capitalists in both heart and mind) I think I might!

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