Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was published in 1957. While written many decades ago, this work of fiction has proven to be prophetic regarding many aspects of the world today. Much of what plays out in the novel – with the central thread being that the productive people in society choose to leave, to form their own society on their own terms – manifests steadily in the disintegration of society and all the components of modern life that people generally take for granted. In the novel, Rand writes:
“When you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing – When you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors – When you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you – When you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice – You may know that your society is doomed.”
Few paragraphs in any novel are more accurate to describe the state of play in many countries around the world, and especially in South Africa in 2021. And while you can read the novel for its prophetic value, I’d argue that the aesthetic and philosophical/moral aspects are much more important, regardless of whether you’re reading this article in 2021, 2050, or 3000. So much of the moral discussion that takes place around us nowadays is focused on the group or collective as the standard of moral action, and not individual achievement and action, that I think we can gain a lot of insight through reading Atlas Shrugged.
One of the major themes in the novel is the idea of ‘the sanction of the victim.’ When one is punished for one’s virtues, not one’s vices and failures, the idea is that one should begin to at least question one’s relationship with those who choose to engage with one from that particular moral framework. Indeed, when society at large adopts that framework, should one still remain in such a society and accept its edicts? Of great moral concern for Rand was the phenomenon where people of virtue willingly choose to be punished for their virtue, and go on to live in an environment where their best aspects are suppressed.
For Rand, virtues are characteristics such as integrity, honesty, and productiveness. During the COVID-19 pandemic especially, but also over the last 100 years or so, the ‘virtue’ of sacrificing to the group, or the collective, has been on the rise. On sacrifice specifically, Rand writes:
“It only stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.”
We need to be exceedingly careful with the extent to which we grant politicians and bureaucrats the leeway to ‘safeguard’ and ‘manage’ the collective interest, and the measures they take in that endeavour. One can argue that we have ceded that space to governments, and in the future they will take any possible gap available to extend the power of state’s to dictate the minutiae of people’s everyday lives.
For many people reading a novel of the length and depth of Atlas Shrugged, many of these philosophical issues will be unappealing. And simply picking up such a massive tome will be intimidating in and of itself. At the very least, I would encourage anyone who is curious about the various upheavals we are experiencing, to read the first few chapters of the novel. It is one of the most effective works of fiction to show the importance of the realm of ideas, of philosophy and ideology, on people’s real lives. The ideas that those in academia and government hold – for example, what is the proper role of a government, or what are individual rights (and why are they important) – determine the policies that they adopt. If we want to change the direction of South Africa (and the world at large), we must first influence the morality of sacrifice and collectivism that many people now hold.
In the South African context, would it be more accurate to say that value- and wealth-creation are admired and encouraged by the state, academia, and the wider commentariat? Or are people who try to engage in such activities (in various forms) vilified, punished, and generally driven away? Everyone will have their own point at which they decide to ‘shrug.’ Perhaps, South Africa is indeed well past the point of no return. Regardless, you should Atlas Shrugged. You will gain value from it. And hopefully, through reading and thinking about the ideas and themes, you’ll come to see that your life and happiness should be your standard of value, and that you should do everything you can to live the best life you can, no matter where you may find yourself.