Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Atlas Spiked...

I read as much of Atlas Shrugged as I could. It was hard...frankly she's one of the WORST writers I've ever read. Unless you completely overlook the writing and focus only on the premise of the book (which you must have already accepted to consider slugging through the 19287047907 pages of bad writing), then really it's just a lot of bad descriptions. (Example: It was the kind of blue that wasn't blue, but a suggestion of blue like aura hanging over her." That's a description of a fur coat, if you couldn't figure it out...)

In any case, I figured it was one of those books like the Bible that you can't really ignore if you hope to engage with the world because it's simply had such an impact on how people think...and so, I read it.  I won't synopsis for those of you who haven't read it because there are enough websites that do so already, just google it and you can find it.

So, the three biggest take-aways I can remember are below:
  1. The whole idea that Daphne "pulled herself up" by her bootstraps because, by her own skill and intelligence worked her way up from mail room to owner (even though she didn't have to) simply ignores the fact that the only way she was able to do so was because society had skewed things in her favor. By ignoring the fact that people are more or less born into different starting positions in the game of life, it's easy to show someone like Daphne as proof positive that with "can do spirit" anything is possible. However, it's fair to ask that if Daphne had not had the education she did...if she hadn't been taught to read and write at home...would she have been a success?  It's not likely, but it's an inconvenient fact to the story, so Rand simply ignores it.
  2. Rearden and Tagert are the benevolent Gods of Industry who want nothing more than to create the Best Business they can and make money doing so. Great! But it's not reality. Why? Because in reality, Rearden wouldn't have spent YEARS developing a metal alloy that had ridiculously amazing properties. In a free market, all he'd have done is spent half as long developing something that APPEARED to work as well and would disintegrate in five or six years. He'd sell it to the train companies (because there would be no testing or god-damned regulations) and take his profits and run.
  3. The whole story-line about the conductors and coal-men and waiters just REALLY wanting to get onto that first train because they just love their jobs SO much they REALLY want to be a part of something big struck me as incredibly patronizing. The only people who see that kind of pure, unadulterated JOY in doing manual labor aren't laborers, it's the people who idealize labor to make money for themselves. This isn't to say that there isn't joy in labor, nor that there is no pride in labor. There are both.  However, people who DO manual labor also know that it's ridiculously hard and thankless.  They also know that the people who are generally crushed in the name of "free markets" and "deregulation" are those laborers and workers.  They are the ones who deal with the cancers of asbestos, the crushed hands from poor work conditions and the life-long complications from various ailments caused by taking the cheapest route to get the most profit possible.
I just read this article about a whistle blower in the Coal Industry that I thought illustrated this well. Basically, it's the story of Atlas Shrugged from the end of the worker (who Rand so lovingly attributes so much "folksy" wisdom).  In this story, however, the benevolent company doesn't try hard to create the best damned-mine they can in order to make a profit, the company creates the cheapest-damn mine it can and in the process places the bulk of the risk onto the backs of the employees.  Creating one of the most dangerous jobs in America with known, life-long health risks associated with it, the company continues to reap profits, pays politicians to NOT regulate it any further and uses those profits to sway public opinion in its favor. 

"But," you say, "it's a free market! The workers can move to another plant or another job and work there!"  Refer to my first take-away from Atlas Shrugged. This makes sense if you ignore the fact that as the sole industry in many areas of Appalachia, Coal Mining is not just the only employer, but drives the entire culture. Schools are funded by property taxes, which are incredibly low due to the low wages the company pays and in turn offers a poor education to children who can then, rarely, qualify for higher education. The "opportunity" to move is simply non-existent in anything other than a theoretical way.

In closing...this guy makes me want to write my own book, Atlas Spiked.  In it, the Titans of Industry manipulate workers, place all risk upon them, reap the benefits and in the process create a system wherein "choice" is a theoretical constant but a practical illusion.  In my book, the workers bear the brunt of the risk and receive none of the profits. In my book, the government isn't full of "looters" looking only to maximise their own power and wealth, but naively manipulated people who eventually only serve to increase the wealth of the wealthy. 

I doubt it would sell well though. It doesn't have the same "feel good" ending as Atlas Shrugged. But then again, Atlas Shrugged is a work of pure fiction whereas mine could be prefaced with "based on a true story"...


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