Punchinello’s Chronicles

April 20, 2011

Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 – The Movie

im·ply
–verb (used with object), -plied, -ply·ing. (Implication – noun: the act of implying)

  1. to indicate or suggest without being explicitly stated: His words implied a lack of faith.
  2. (of words) to signify or mean.
  3. to involve as a necessary circumstance: Speech implies a speaker.

I went to see part one of “Atlas Shrugged,” the movie, today and thought it was great! From what I hear, parts two and three should come out in 2012 and 2013, respectively, depending on audience reaction, profits and so forth. I look forward to seeing the remaining parts. I’m a conservative in all ways and disagree that Libertarians are the same thing as true conservatives.

The movie is a clear and direct representation of Ayn Rand’s novel, which was published in 1957. Rand took 12 years to write the book, so she began in 1945, right around the end of World War II and the emergence of the Soviet Union. Rand grew up in Russia, with her family having lost their status and wealth to the communist takeover. She managed to emigrate to America, taking the pseudonym Ayn Rand in order to protect the rest of family back in the USSR.

Few people have the combination of perspective and articulation to witness and directly experience the difference between communism and capitalism, and only Rand herself had the genius to extract the underlying core principles of philosophy. Throughout her life she vigorously defended capitalism (not crony capitalism, but true capitalism), eventually laying out the philosophy of Objectivism.

It’s not easy to summarize a 1200-page novel, but the basic idea is that little by little, all the competent people in the world are mysteriously disappearing. They’re quitting their jobs, going away and nobody knows why or where. At the same time, everyone is seeing and hearing the odd question, “Who is John Galt?” Dagny Taggart, Chief of Operations for Taggart Railroads, and Hank Rearden of Rearden Steel are soon the only remaining competent industrialists in the country.

(Side note: I thought that Taylor Schilling, who plays Taggart, looks quite a bit like Ayn Rand, particularly around the eyes. Rand was a brunette, Schilling is a blond but the resemblance is certainly there, in my opinion.)

Little by little, as those inventors, builders and developers quit and vanish, the politicians begin to take control of the economy. They pass more and more burdensome laws, mandating the equal sharing of all profits and revenues, not to mention intellectual property. Yet nobody can understand why the economy is collapsing.

Atlas, in Greek mythology, was one of the primordial Titans who gave birth to the more familiar pantheon of gods and goddesses. Atlas supported the heavens, and Ayn Rand held that selfish individuals operating under the morality of capitalism support the entire world and its varying economies. To Rand, selfish meant something totally different from today’s simplistic sense of the word, and she wrote her non-fiction book, “Virtue of Selfishness” to make the distinction.

Her core question was what would happen if all the competent and virtuously selfish people in the world went on strike? Who gives anyone the right to co-opt the efforts, labor and fruits of the individual’s mind for the so-called benefit of others? If 5% of the population produces 90% of the jobs, wages, invention and development, what would would happen if that small group of people simply walked out on the world?

Selfishness, in Objectivist philosophy, stands absolutely opposed to altruism. Altruism is the sacrifice of something you value highly in favor of someone else’s values, in many cases, in favor of a lesser value. In other words, altruism is placing someone else’s need ahead of your own core values. Another way to say it quickly is “to compromise” in today’s political sense of the word.

Like Plato, Rand believed that for a philosophy to work it should be viable in a life-simulation like a novel. Her first experiments, “We The Living” and “Anthem, were followed by “The Fountainhead.” She brought forth the argument that capitalism and private ownership are morally opposed to altruism, and that the individual always supersedes the collective. She tried to show that altruism rests at the foundation of almost all modern liberal, progressive, socialist and communist economics.

Not satisfied with the first three books, Rand moved into non-fiction where she laid out the principles of Objectivism (her name for the new philosophy). Eventually, she decided to pull it all together in the epic novel, “Atlas Shrugged.”

In almost all cases, whenever I’ve spoken with people who’ve read the book they didn’t understand what it was about. Nor did they understand the way it was written. A common criticism is that the dialog isn’t “realistic.” It’s stilted, and that “nobody talks that way.” Many people find the extensive and lengthy sections of dialog to be boring, onerous and a chore to follow. Someone asked her about it in an interview.

What Rand wanted to do was first lay out the circumstances of a real-world economy. She then developed individual characters, each of which represented a basic philosophy. Additional characters represented more simplistic ideologies, where the characters didn’t understand the underlying philosophy of their thinking. To round it out, she added in ordinary people who rarely think about philosophy and have no ideology.

The next step was to put each of these characters into action, bringing them together and having them interact with each other. The initial parts of dialog are the way people ordinarily talk. But the key point of both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead is that Rand then wanted to bring into the open the underlying premises, assumptions, logic and consequences of each concept. All of them, in their totality.

In other words, the characters in Atlas Shrugged aren’t “real people.” They’re symbolic representatives of whole philosophies and ideologies. Each character thinks and behaves according to the rules of logic making up those philosophies. But instead of speaking only part of their arguments, Rand has them speak out each and every component of their thought processes. Each conversation follows its internal logic to its inevitable end.

The characters in the book, now in the movie, true-to-form all speak the complete sentences and arguments that they mean to say. They don’t fade off into some vague, ill-defined “Y’know what I mean?” Nobody is allowed to rest on the laziness of incomplete thinking. That’s why the dialog isn’t what you’d normally expect.

That being said, the director has done a sort of reversal for the sake of time and entertainment value. He’s extracted the true essence of each passage of dialog, let go of the “fullness,” and laid bare the most necessary steps of logic. It’s very well done, and I found myself remembering whole sections of the book as though I were watching a sort of condensed version up on the screen.

Additionally, Atlas Shrugged was Rand’s first major attempt to clearly defend capitalism, and demonstrate the empty husk of altruism. That’s the core morality behind all the progressive ideas of sharing, equality, social welfare, fairness and so forth — all the many catchphrases we hear in the news today.

Gaining public notice by 1963, Atlas Shrugged could have been written yesterday afternoon. The reason the plot fits so well isn’t that Rand was psychic. It’s that she began to see the emergence of a hybrid philosophy and morality in the United States with the treaties signed following the war. She saw that capitalism had no philosophic justification, being an entirely new form of economics. She also understood at the deepest level what communism was all about, having lived under the system.

Rand eventually wrote, “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” which sets forth the foundations for the philosophy of capitalism. Almost nobody I’ve encountered has ever read this book. Every argument we hear today about “taxing the rich,” “sharing the wealth,” and whatever other politically correct blather coming from “the Left” is old hat. It’s been around for decades, and the developing Tea Party conservative movement is all that stands against it.

We’re entering the end stage of the inevitable conflict between a poorly defined capitalism and the more typical socialism that swept the world back in the early 1900’s. Due to the lack of integrated and articulated philosophy of capitalism, it never caught on as a complete system. Instead, America cautiously adopted several major premises from German philosophers and Karl Marx. Those premises stand at the foundation of today’s massive deficit.

What we’re seeing today is the destructive cancer of altruism having been embedded in Western economic and social thought for the past 60 years. As it’s failed everywhere else in the world, so too it’s now failing here in America. Ayn Rand knew it would and wrote out the entire laborious process. That’s why the book is so long.

One of the most difficult things to produce in the movie is the fundamental dependency of the US economy on both railroads and the steel industry. Back in 1945, those two industries were critical to the United States industrialism, along with coal, oil, science, and technology. They did a fascinating “trick,” which works very well!

Postulating that the price of oil and gasoline would skyrocket, the movie opens with $37/gallon gasoline. As a result, all forms of cheap energy and the resulting industries collapse. The airline and trucking industry lay in waste, leaving only railroads as the least expensive way to move goods around the country. This is NOT the stupid “high-speed rail” we hear bandied about nowadays.

This gimmick allows us to continue with cell phones, limousines, private planes and modern technology. But it also allows the movie to remain true to the original plot, with the railways and steel industry being the main focus.

For anyone who read and loved the book, the willing suspension of disbelief is simple to do. It makes the movie even more vivid, turning it into an authentic visualization of what we’ve wanted to see for decades. For those who disagree with individualism, fair-market capitalism and smaller government, this focus on railroads makes for an easy way to dismiss the entire movie as unrealistic.

We’ve reached a nearly 100% polarization now, with conservative Constitutionalists on one side and everyone else on the other. Nobody is going to be swayed to change their philosophic or ideological beliefs by this movie. So what? There is one demographic that this movie may very well help to rescue: young adolescents with functioning minds and critical thinking skills.

I thought it was a terrific movie, and it only steps away from the book for the purpose of “teasing” anyone unfamiliar with the entire novel. We get a basic hint as to what John Galt is doing, and we learn just enough about what’s to come that we don’t end up in a complete quagmire of unanswered questions.

At the end of the movie, an oil tycoon is persuaded to walk away from his business. He burns down his entire oil field, and there’s a sign that I thought could have been better lighted: “I’m leaving this as I found it. Take it, it’s yours!”

That’s the thing that today’s politicians utterly and abysmally fail to grasp about the economy and business: Not one single productive thing, anywhere on the planet, at any time in history simply popped into existence by natural forces or wishful thinking. ALL of what we use in our daily lives to make those lives better, more comfortable, more convenient, safer, and healthier is the result of the human mind!

Individual business people have spent their lives, their work, their money, their thoughts, and their love of creation to bring into existence all that we so casually use on a daily basis. Without a profit and satisfactory exchange of value by The World for their personal investments, the rest of us (The World) would still be living in caves!

Atlas Shrugged is the story of how politicians and philosophic altruists are using every coercive trick in the book to take away everything those dedicated capitalists have tried to build. Those “selfish” individuals have worked for the betterment of mankind. The altruists, regardless of the words coming out of their mouths seek to enslave mankind and concentrate the power of control under an elite group of government functionaries. Who’s the more virtuous type of person? Perhaps this movie (and the book) will make the answer more clear.

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