Atlas Shrugged (historical context)

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Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, has no definite historical background, apart from its obvious setting in the United States of America. But the actions of several of the major villains in the novel, and the titles that Rand used to describe them, clearly indicate that the United States would no longer be governed, in fact or perhaps even in law, according to its Constitution. Therefore, the novel makes its own background, though it gives few details and almost no political context. Furthermore, that background is uncannily parallel to current events.


Contents

Omission of context

Rand omitted the historical context deliberately.[1] In several of her letters, she said that the story could take place at any time, but would take place when the political institutions she most admired about the United States would no longer function. To emphasize the timeless nature of her story, she left out any reference to any historical event that could “date” the story in any way.

And so the story does take place centuries after the fall of the Spanish Empire (the era of Sebastián d’Anconia, ancestor of Francisco), and at least a century after the founding era of the American railroads (including the fictitious Taggart Transcontinental Railroad). But exactly when it takes place in modern times, she gives no clue. She mentions the technology that existed in her day, to show either that:

  1. The story could have taken place at the time she wrote it, i.e., the great collapse could have come in 1957. Or:
  2. American society might literally forget any technology it invented and adopted after that date.

So references to public pay telephones, and a time when railroads were the primary means of transport, cannot set a "future limit" on the date.

Tellingly, the producers of the current Atlas Shrugged series of motion pictures wrote a specific back-story element: that the world had abandoned air travel, and even private jet aircraft were rare. He could have written "smartphones" and TV monitors out of the story, but decided instead to update the other technological references to modern times. Any other producer could do the same without affecting the essential plot elements. (A future producer could also change the Taggart Transcontinential Railroad to Taggart Airlines if he wanted to.)

Generic titles

Rand spoke of a Legislature, not the Congress, the House of Representatives, or the Senate. Likewise, she spoke of a Head of State, not the President. With regard to this second part, she specifically told a friend that the arch-villain, Mr. Thompson, did not deserve to have anyone address him by the Presidential title.

This shows that Ayn Rand admired, not the United States as it actually was, but the United States as it might be and, in her view, ought to be. Barbara Branden (The Passion of Ayn Rand) provided further evidence, in the form of an outline for a short story, which Rand never published, that clearly presaged Atlas Shrugged. In this story, the “flame-spotter” of the great strike is not a man, but a woman, and the site of her strike, or rather defection, is continental Europe. This woman entices the great minds of Europe to a secret location, from which she proposes to embark to the United States, the last refuge for the creative.

By the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged, Rand was disillusioned with the United States, but not entirely. She refused to conceive that such venal villains as she created would ever carry titles like “President,” “Senator,” or “Representative.” Thus she substituted the generic titles “Head of State” and “Legislator.” Future events would, of course, prove her sadly, even shockingly, mistaken.

Political changes

This one fact means that Rand never meant to suggest that a simple federal election would produce the kind of profound and deleterious changes she foresaw. That would take nothing less than a Constitutional convention, and specifically a runaway convention. Article V of the Constitution of the United States reads in part:

The Congress,...on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several States, shall call a convention for proposing amendments,...

But could Congress limit such a convention to any one subject, or a group of subjects? Might such a convention, once sitting, rewrite the Constitution entirely? That is what the original Constitutional Convention did in 1787. This is why Patrick Henry famously “smelt a rat” and refused to attend.

An application for just such a convention is now circulating. (Certain liberal activists also want a Constitutional convention, to overturn the recent decision in Citizens United v. FCC.[2]) Constitutional activists are very much afraid that this convention will “run away” and, rather than improving the Constitution, destroy it.[3]

Such destruction, in this case, would likely produce:

  1. A unicameral Legislature, the members of which the new Constitution would apportion arbitrarily. The new framers might write an arcane formula to explain the apportionment, but in reality they would seek to apportion Legislative seats according to political favoritism, not any sort of objective merit.
  2. A Head of State who would rule for a much longer term than four years. He might rule for seven years and be re-eligible as long as he lived. Or he might, once elected, serve for “good behavior.” Which is to say, life.

Charles de Gaulle famously destroyed the post-World War Two government of France, and instituted a new government more to his liking. The venal deal-maker known in the novel only as Mr. Thompson would thus combine the worst qualities of De Gaulle, Harry S. Truman, and Barack Hussein Obama.

A wicked financier?

One frequent criticism of Atlas Shrugged is that Ayn Rand did not create, for that novel, any truly worthy opponent for the Triumvirs of Atlantis. Atlas Shrugged has no counterpart to Ellsworth Monkton Toohey, the architecture critic of The New York Banner in Rand’s earlier novel, The Fountainhead.

Such a villain, if he existed in the Atlas Shrugged narrative, would be a George Soros type. Such a person might have financed Mr. Thompson’s campaign and runaway-convention drive. But later, after the whole world (apart from the United States) collapsed in the throes of the People’s State movement, this George Soros analog would be out of funds, thus out of power—and his name would not even be worthy of mention in the central narrative.

And even had Rand envisioned the actual mechanism of the profound changes in the governance of the United States and other countries, any savvy editor would have discouraged her from explaining it, if it did not advance the current plot.

Technological limitations—and some new inventions

Rand wrote in an era when television was new, airline travel was still hazardous, and telephony consisted of landlines and the distinction (now almost obsolete) between “local” and “long-distance” calls. Yet she projected four inventions that at the time were strictly in the realm of science fiction (as half of them still are): They are:

  1. Electrostatic motors,
  2. The alloy of carbon, iron, and copper known as Rearden Metal,
  3. A sonic weapon that can pulverize objects at a range of a hundred miles (Project X), and
  4. The use of infrared rays to project a false image and thus cloak a part of the ground (specifically, Atlantis) from spying eyes.

Today, a Project X might have a basis in the coherent sonic beam that engineers at Leeds University invented. Modern microprocessors and imaging techniques could produce the refractor-ray screen. That Rand did not project a future in which those same microprocessors would be ubiquitous, suggests a failure of imagination, nothing more. (John Galt does not specifically mention the digital control system on which his ray screen would necessarily depend. Neither does Floyd Ferris describe the true technological secret of Project X in any great detail, beyond hinting that it grew out of Robert Stadler’s work—though how, Ferris does not make clear.)

Lawrence suggests another interpretation of the lack of late-twentieth-century technology.[1] He suggests that the alternative history of the novel takes place at a time when computers, airline travel, and so on, never developed.

Rand's comments notwithstanding, as social and economic conditions in the real world continue to change more and more from what they were when Rand wrote the novel, the "alternate reality" interpretation becomes increasingly more plausible than the "near future" interpretation. There is essentially no likelihood that the social and technological condition of the world would resemble the novel ten years from today, but it is possible to envision an alternative history in which collectivism choked off progress in the 20th century, so that technology became more or less stuck on early 20th-century standards (no computers, no jet airplanes, railroads as a primary means of transport, etc.), similar to what is depicted in the novel.

Electrostatic motors (or quantum motors, as the motion picture adaptation suggests) and carbon-iron-copper alloys would be much more difficult to develop, regardless of the larger economic or technological setting. But electrostatic motors have been a dream of the electrical engineering sciences since the discovery of electricity itself. As to Rearden Metal, a real-life Hank Rearden might try to invent that, if the day ever came when the United States would lose all access to the rare-earth metals, especially elemental titanium. Titanium is expensive, whereas carbon, iron, and copper would be common, therefore cheap.

Technological abandonment

Rand wrote when railroads were the primary mode of long-distance transport. Airlines, in her day, were relatively new. Airlines became commonplace a few years after Atlas Shrugged first appeared in print. Likewise, telephony has advanced far beyond the original landlines, to the point that:

  1. Most telephony providers offer service, for a flat fee, that covers calls made from any point in the United States to any other (except to the States of Alaska and Hawaii).
  2. A simple hand-held device is available, for a nominal fee, that allows its user to have a conversation almost as private as on a landline.

The producers of Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 solved the airline problem by projecting the abandonment of airline travel. As to telephony, the “prime movers” could still carry cellular telephones, but the common folk might not. (The Obama Administration has promoted a scheme to give cellular telephones to persons who cannot afford them, but a hypothetical Thompson administration might have to abandon that idea fairly quickly in an environment that would force them to abandon the airlines.)

The novel hints at such technological abandonment in several places, such as “the shortage, and then the disappearance from the market” of various small appliances that depend on copper for their manufacture.

A much larger problem is that the United States Navy today is far too powerful for any buccaneer, or privateer, to seize cargoes with impunity and then “fence” them. Therefore, in this era, the Navy would have suffered severe downsizing. Furthermore, such downsizing would put some very powerful ships of war within that buccaneer’s reach.

That also would be in keeping with:

  1. An economic recession or depression,
  2. The anti-military attitude that nearly all progressives or “liberals” affect, and
  3. The short-sighted attitude that absolutely all liberal politicians affect.

Opposition

Ayn Rand projected no political opposition to Mr. Thompson and his gang. It was as if Mr. Thompson was serenely sure of his position and those of his friends in the Legislature. Rand never envisioned anything like the “Tea Party Movement” of today, so this alternate history assumes that no such movement arises.

The only practical opposition that Mr. Thompson had, consisted of John Galt, Francisco d’Anconia, and Ragnar Danneskjöld. The first two worked, not through politics, but by pure defection. Ragnar Danneskjöld took the problem to a new level, i.e. that of outright rebellion. Gradually other forms of opposition appear: simple “desertion” (“frozen trains,” etc.), common brigandage (the raiders), and finally a militia-like activity that ostensibly mirrors John Galt’s strike activity. To be specific, other, lesser “men of the mind” build their own Atlantis-like communities after he tells them, not to try to overthrow the government, but to stop supporting it. John Galt does not aim at an armed overthrow, but instead at a social collapse so complete that even Mr. Thompson could never hold the society together.

Thus the sort of networked militias that some activists envision, do not figure in the narrative. Rand did not consider them. Some networking does take place, for Galt says that Atlantis “will act as the rallying center” for the mini-Atlantises that others build. That implies that Atlantis will, following the collapse, become a capital city. But that occurs after the collapse, not before.

In fact, civil war is the main feature of the final throes of the great social collapse. Some of Galt’s words imply that a militia movement will coalesce around the Triumvirs of Atlantis. (Though when Ragnar Danneskjöld says that his rescue of John Galt is “the last act of violence that [he] will ever have to perform,” that cannot be correct. The militia would almost certainly look to him for guidance, inspiration, and leadership, whether he wishes that or not. Whether he would need to fight any more battles on the high seas is a different question.)


References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Lawrence R, "Atlas Shrugged FAQ: When is the story set in time?" Objectivism Reference Center, retrieved 16 February 2012.
  2. Editorial board, "Overturn Citizens United," Minnesota Daily, 14 February 2012. Retrieved 16 February 2012.
  3. Watts WL, "Letter: Prospect of constitutional convention intriguing, and also scary," TCPalm, 13 February 2012. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
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