The first exchange of dialogue in the trailer for Atlas Shrugged pretty much captures the problem with Ayn Rand. When the answer to “Who’s asking?” is “someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself and not let others feed off the profits of his energy,” we know that we are in for a particular sort of artistic production. Ayn Rand was an ideological writer with powerful theories about human beings, a species she knew primarily from rumor. The problem of making any of her epic novels of ideas into a movie—Atlas Shrugged is too long, The Fountainhead is too rapey, the other ones are too no one knows what they are—has been an acknowledged fact of Hollywood for decades. Producer John Aglialoro made Atlas Shrugged: The Movie on a tight budget and even tighter schedule, in part because he needed to start shooting before his long-held option expired. The, uh, limited resources available for production show through in the final product, which is currently running at 8% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet the audience rating runs a robust 85%. That discrepancy becomes simultaneously more and less odd when you consider that the film is only playing in a few cities, and that the majority of those audience reviewers have therefore not seen it yet.
Those of you hoping to resolve this disagreement of obviously instrumental knowledge are directed to Roger Ebert, whose review observes that “only someone very familiar with Rand’s 1957 novel could understand the film at all, and I doubt they will be happy with it.” He is exactly half right. People who are very familiar with Rand’s 1957 novel effing love Atlas Shrugged: The Movie, as this completely objective review in the New American indicates. Bob Adelmann calls AS:TM “a beautiful, poignant, painful expression of the conflict between egalitarianism and the right to own private property.” Ah, yes—the poignant struggle that is the choice between an equitable system treating every human with dignity and purchasing a third house. If that’s not the central human dilemma, I don’t know what is.
According to the New American, “Rand was able to develop her objectivist philosophy by taking time in her book to explore, expand, and preach the stark difference between the freedom of the entrepreneur and the dull, drab weariness of the fascist economy that destroys opportunity, wealth, and freedom while claiming to ‘equalize opportunity’ for everyone.” The pile-up of abstractions at the end of that sentence—to say nothing of the scare quotes around the concept of equal opportunity—suggests the real nature of Atlas Shrugged. It is a passionate, almost feral yowl of selfishness hiding behind a mask of impassive logic. That this logic A) arrives at the conclusion that rich people don’t have to do shit for anybody and B) only makes sense to rich people should tell us something about its vaunted objectivity.
Except clearly, Ayn Rand makes sense to a lot of people who aren’t rich. One can question their discernment—which seems a manifestation of the same habits of mind that make them willing to award four-star reviews to a movie they haven’t seen—but their commitment is undeniable. So many Americans love Ayn Rand that they can’t all be rich. If they were, her hokum “philosophy” of disdainful self-service would actually work. What, then, is the appeal? Why do ordinary American adults, who are more likely to be customer service managers than owners of heavy rail corporations, read a book like Atlas Shrugged and agree with it so thoroughly as to let it decide how they’ll vote in the next election?
Let us dismiss the hypothesis “because people are dumb,” on the grounds that, like god, it is unfalsifiable and works for everything. Instead, I submit that Ayn Rand is popular because everyone assumes he or she will be rich later. It’s called the American Dream, not the American Likelihood, and even the most obvious victim of a system that protects corporate rapaciousness with inherited wealth fancies himself a winner among feebs. Normally, the natural tendency to assume you will be a golden god shortly before retirement is tempered by what Jesus/primate biologists called “compassion.” But as the possibility of actually becoming a billionaire railroad magnate grows ever more remote, so do such realistic human concerns.
Atlas Shrugged is a work of science fiction. Forget the part about railroads being the big-money industry in 2016; the fantasy is that you can pursue personal wealth at the expense of all other concerns and simultaneously live as an embodiment of noble virtue. Increasingly, the idea that any smart person who works hard can get rich in America is a fantasy, too. Rand’s America in Atlas Shrugged is ostensibly a dystopia where “equal opportunity” has become a cudgel to beat down any head that sticks above the crowd, and yet it is filled with tycoons. Our America is ostensibly a place where equal opportunity is a given, and yet it is filled with people whose future wealth correlates most strongly with the annual income of their parents. Atlas Shrugged: The Movie is therefore a fairy tale on two levels: it offers us a life where our obligations to other people don’t matter, and where the game is rigged in favor of those who don’t already have a billion dollars. That’s fine for a movie, but to call it a philosophy of government is like taking your military strategy from Lord of the Rings.