05 April 2008

I'm nearing the end of Atlas Shrugged, the book I've been reading since mid December and I've been pining to write about it. Now that I'm nearing its climax, I feel free to release some preliminary thoughts. I expect this to span across multiple rants, so I'm going to indulge myself.

Firstly, I have to say that over the course of these analyses, I may seem overly critical, or unfair, or even resentful of the book. I'm not. I've loved every minute of it and its philosophy was a delight to read. In fact, as I had hoped, it has galvanised my own views on existence, which is always a great thing. However, that doesn't mean that I rolled over and accepted everything it said as gospel. In fact, it is the very process of judging its contents and cracking its flaws that is so very valuable and worthwhile and that ultimately lifts you up a stronger mind. So while these rants will discuss the flaws of the book and where its philosophy fell apart, keep in mind that that doesn't diminish its beauty and power, and that I will heartily recommend it to anyone who is mature enough to grasp its intricate contents and message.

Atlas Shrugged has many facets. At the top level, it is two distinct things: a complex story about political intrigue, the economy of a country and the love triangles between remarkable people on the one hand, and on the other a philosophical treatise rich with insight. The point where these two come together form at the same time its core strength and ultimately its decisive weakness, as we will come to see eventually.

In this rant, however, I wish to speak of the philosophical aspect that is common in many books of its calibre: the utopia. As many philosophers, Ayn Rand has a certain view on what would be the ideal state and how it would be composed. In Atlas Shrugged, her philosophy of the celebration of creativity and productivity and the discarding of altruism based on the value of 'need' leads her to a hidden valley filled with the able-bodied, able-minded geniuses of Earth, who have decided to turn their backs (to 'shrug') on the leeching, mooching, depraved souls that surrounded them outside their self-made kingdom. In the valley they each work diligently at their own tasks, producing happily and never asking anything without a form of payment. Trade is their ultimate rule, greed their greatest virtue and when everything is rightfully earned, possessions of every kind are meaningful instead of a farce. Free trade means that people can muscle each other out of the market, but this is OK. The losing party will happily resign to working underneath their former adversary.

Despite the unlikeliness of the valley's inhabitants in their astounding magnanimity (which is a later concern), there are other reasons for doubting this way of life would endure in any stable manner. Like all other utopias that have been created over the last three thousand years, it doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. It hinges on a single grand premise: that every human has the ability to produce something of more or less equal worth. If this premise would fail to be true, the system would crash under ever widening inequality between the incomes and outputs of people, which in turn would lead to discontent and at the very extreme an obvious dependence on others -precisely what the philosophy is trying to combat.

The uncompromising quality of the tone with which any and every claim to help on the basis of need is rejected is something that fails to be reasonable, practical and justifiable in real life. There are times, situations and events in every human life and in every society that make such stubbornness monstrous. A pregnant woman, for instance, who otherwise might be highly productive, enters a phase in her life that she is dependent on other people to provide for her. The same goes for the elderly, or someone who falls ill. But let's take it further. Say a person is born who is so handicapped, that he or she is incapable of producing or contributing anything to society. Is this person to be shunned and allowed to starve? This example is craftily avoided in the book; its own proposal strengthened by displaying the ones who ask on the basis of need as wholly depraved, scheming, treacherous, venomous and filthy.

Another reason why a society like this will inevitably be infiltrated by the forces of the Needy; why parasitic behaviour is bound to surface here as well, lies in game theory. Richard Dawkins describes in his book The Selfish Gene how in any society, a stable balance of elements is sought (an 'Evolutionary Stable Strategy'). An example of hawks and doves is used. The 'dove' is here an entity who is peaceful and docile and searches for food. If he encounters a competitor in the hunt, he will not fight, but flee, and resume is search elsewhere. In a society comprised only of doves, there is a big chance a 'hawk' will appear. The hawk is an entity who searches for food, but fights when confronted. Among doves -who always flee- this is a strategy that works tremendously well and will garner such success in survival that the hawk cannot help but appear.

The same applies to Rand's utopia. If the society becomes large and prosperous enough that social control becomes weakened to a certain extent, parasites will appear to abuse the system in some way. It is simply too profitable and exploitable not to happen. Especially in the case of this utopia, whose structure seems built on the sheer goodwill of its citizens. Their stern measures and watchfulness works brilliantly only until a certain critical size is reached, after which it is impossible to control any longer.

It is always delightful to read about utopias. Whether it's Plato's Spartan city or Rand's valley of trade. But ultimately, they are prone to be bubbles of fancy with little practical value. But don't discard them because of this; they are too enjoyable to ingest and too valuable a learning experience to pass up. And in this case, it was a delightful utopia to read; very earnest in its goals and not as lingeringly fascist as Plato's. In the next rant, Atlas Shrugged will provide us with more philosophy-cracking! Join in next week!