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Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is one of the most iconic novels of the 20th century, selling over seven million copies since its publication in 1957. Rand is widely credited for providing a moral foundation to the “greed is good” ideology that now dominates modern life. Alan Greenspan, who served as chair of the United States Federal Reserve between 1987-2006, was a devotee, and one still hears about politicians assigning Atlas Shrugged to their staff as a kind of indoctrination. The Atlas Society has chapters on college campuses around the world and the Atlas Group is one of the most effective conglomerates of libertarian think tanks. As Internet memes, the names Ayn Rand and her fictional hero John Galt are mentioned as often as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek.
Rand promoted her philosophy, which she called Objectivism, in many ways, but Atlas Shrugged was unquestionably her most effective vehicle. She understood that fiction can be more effective than dry philosophical discourse when she wrote, “Art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal.”
I have written Atlas Hugged in the same spirit and as an antidote to the “greed is good” worldview that Rand championed. Like Rand, I am not primarily a novelist. In fact this is my first, although I come by the craft easily since my father, Sloan Wilson, wrote two other iconic novels of the 20th century: The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955), which described the corporate army that formed after World War II, and A Summer Place (1958), which described changing sexual mores during the same period. I became a scientist rather than a novelist, which enables me to critique the “greed is good” worldview on intellectual grounds. I have done this in many academic works and three nonfiction books for the general public, most recently This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Conveying the same themes in fictional form for me is a kind of homecoming.
The idea of critiquing Rand’s worldview with a sequel to her novel (in the form of satirical academic critique) is delicious. I wish I could claim credit for it, but it was suggested by someone else during a workshop on economics that I had organized. Since Rand had been so successful at promulgating her ideas through fiction, shouldn’t someone be doing the same for the ideas that we were developing? Within minutes, the title Atlas Hugged flashed into my mind, along with the beginning of a plot line. The protagonist would be an entirely new character – the grandson of John Galt – whose father is a libertarian media giant like Rush Limbaugh. Ayn Rand was not a character in her own novel, but – since anything goes in fiction – I could transport her into mine in the form of Ayn Rant. It was too delicious not to indulge!
That was seven years ago and I worked on it between my other projects ever since. I was amazed by how the story stayed alive and developed in my mind, even when I didn’t have a chance to write anything for months. Every now and then a new plot development would bubble up into my consciousness and I would think: “Of course! That’s how it must be!” We truly evolved as storytelling animals and creating my own story at such length has been a delight.
When I began to think about sharing my story, the typical publication route was cluttered with obstacles. Whatever my reputation as a scientist and nonfiction author, I was still just a guy peddling his first novel. Also, literary critics hated Atlas Shrugged – and rightly so! Judged purely as a story, it is a terrible novel. The same can be said for B.F. Skinner’s utopian novel Walden Two, which was rejected by two publishers and only accepted by a third under the condition that Skinner write a textbook for them! Nevertheless, both novels had a huge impact and continue to be read because the stories, despite their flaws, were good enough to serve as a vehicle for the ideas. I would like to think that my story is much better than either of those, but there is no getting around the need for a bit of speechifying to communicate the ideas.
In the end, I decided that the anti-Rand thing to do was to market my story online and let the reader decide how much to pay (including nothing for the e-book), with all proceeds going to support my nonprofit organization, Prosocial World. Such things are easy to do in the age of electronic publishing. If readers hate it, then no harm is done and maybe I’ll even learn from the feedback and write Atlas Hugged 2.0. After all, writing novels is not my main line of work and there is nothing to be gained from keeping it to myself.
Like Atlas Shrugged and Walden Two, Atlas Hugged is a novel of ideas and a vision for the future. I would never have written it just to tell a story. Exchanging “Shrugged” with “Hugged” also communicates a very different moral ideal. If you want the nonfiction version, read This View of Life and my other works. Or, you can learn about it through John Galt III, Eve, and the other characters that I have grown to know and love so well. And don’t worry, reading Atlas Shrugged first is not necessary. Enjoy!
Call me anything but John Galt. That is my name, but it is also the name of my father and grandfather. I am not like them and the world they created is not the one I desire. The III after my name does not sufficiently set me apart.
Not everyone remembers my grandfather, although nearly everyone has been touched by him. The first John Galt was a brilliant engineer with an unshakeable faith in himself and the folly of those who opposed him. He believed that the advances of civilization were due to a special class of men that he called the doers. Everyone else was dependent upon the doers but didn’t understand the source of their welfare. Instead of being grateful and giving the doers free reign, they placed unceasing demands on the doers. My grandfather had a rich vocabulary for describing the mass of humanity as looters, moochers, and parasites, robbing and sucking the blood out of the very people who supported them. If only the doers could liberate themselves from the moochers, the ideal society could be achieved.
My grandfather’s brilliance as an engineer caused him to advance professionally, despite his eccentric views. For every ten people that he alienated by treating them as moochers, he gained the allegiance of one person who was admitted into his elite club of doers. There was also his extraordinary claim that static electricity could be converted into usable power, providing an inexhaustible source of clean energy. Most experts scoffed at this possibility, but one automotive company in Michigan decided to take the gamble. The CEO had fallen under the spell of my grandfather’s doer philosophy and felt that the dawn of a new era was at hand. If my grandfather had critics, it must be because he was the doer and they were the moochers. He persuaded his reluctant board to fund the project, which would be top secret and under the total control of my grandfather.
Given the secrecy surrounding the project, it is difficult to know exactly what happened. My grandfather issued optimistic but vague reports that always ended with a request for more money. The board became increasingly skeptical but was reluctant to pull the plug on their own investment. The people involved in the project were afraid to oppose my grandfather, knowing that they might easily be banished from the sunlit world of the doers into the dark abyss of the moochers. He also assigned them to different parts of the project so only he knew how the parts fit together. Investment reports began to make fun of the company and its stock value began to plummet. My grandfather attacked the company’s pension plan and employees’ union as the root of its problem. Then, during a tumultuous meeting of all personnel, my grandfather strode to the microphone, shouted, “I will stop the motor of the world!” and stormed out of the room. When he failed to report to work for several days, security men broke into his office and discovered that he had removed the top secret documents associated with the project, leaving only a large and undecipherable piece of electronic equipment that had been smashed with a sledgehammer. John Galt had become a fugitive.
My grandfather’s outlaw status made him an instant celebrity. Before, he was known only to a small group of engineers and investment analysts. After, he was the hero of every self-styled doer who felt besieged by moochers. “Who is John Galt?” the New York Times asked rhetorically, and the question went viral as an ironic comment on social dysfunction. Interviews with the people who worked under John Galt revealed what he meant by “I will stop the motor of the world!” He thought that if enough doers stopped doing, society would collapse and the moochers would be brought to their senses. It would be like Atlas shrugging the earth from his shoulders. By disappearing with the plans for his static electricity engine, my grandfather wanted to start a revolution of doers going on strike.
In the months and years that followed his disappearance, fantastic rumors spread about my grandfather’s whereabouts. Some said that he had founded a utopian society of doers in a secret valley out west, powered by his static electricity machine and protected by a force field. Others said that he remained at large like a master spy, persuading other doers to join his cause. Every copycat disappearance, often accompanied by a note that read “Who is John Galt?” was attributed to his influence.
There was a grain of truth to both of these rumors. As it turned out, my grandfather did found a utopian society in a remote tract of land in Colorado owned by a wealthy banker named Midas Mulligan, who had fallen under the spell of the doer philosophy. At first Midas offered his hunting cabin to my grandfather as a hideout, but as they talked together in the rustic surroundings, sipping bourbons under the night sky, they developed a plan to create a self-contained society composed entirely of doers. It would have its own economy, even its own currency, with coins minted in gold and silver.
In addition to their faith in themselves, Midas and my grandfather also had an unshakeable faith in capitalism and the power of unfettered markets. Anything of value could be represented as a dollar value and therefore could be compared to anything else of value by their relative prices. Making money was the surest way to provide value to people, because the best way to make money was to provide what people are most willing to pay for. The system worked so well that no other form of care toward others was required. No empathy. No charity. No loyalty. No forgiveness. Old fashioned virtues had been rendered obsolete by the market. Thanks to the market, individuals could concentrate entirely on making money for themselves and the whole society would prosper as well. No society was bold enough to put this proposition to the test by removing all restrictions on trade. The utopian society that Midas and my grandfather planned to create on the remote tract of land in Colorado would be the first.
To begin, Midas and my grandfather needed to recruit some doers to join the cause. They compiled a list of likely candidates that my grandfather visited on a clandestine basis. This was not as risky as it might sound. It’s not as if he was public enemy #1. His legal offense was to abscond with documents owned by his company, which might earn a few years jail time at most. The FBI had better things to do than search for John Galt. Nevertheless, given his celebrity status, imagine what it must have been like for a doer to be approached by someone from the shadows who identified himself as John Galt with an invitation to join a secret society! Some resisted, but others abandoned family and career to follow the siren’s call, leaving only the enigmatic note, “Who is John Galt?”
Everyone knows about the existence of cults and their disturbing ability to steal minds. Otherwise normal people give away everything to wait for the second coming of Jesus or aliens from outer space. Midas and my grandfather would scoff at those irrational beliefs, but the society that they founded had all the earmarks of a cult. The first structure that they erected was a giant gold-plated dollar sign atop a granite column. They also invented an oath that members were required to recite at frequent intervals: I SWEAR BY MY LIFE AND LOVE OF IT THAT I WILL NEVER LIVE FOR THE SAKE OF ANOTHER MAN, NOR ASK ANOTHER MAN TO LIVE FOR MINE. The word “give” was banned from their vocabulary. Every human transaction was paid for with the gold and silver coins minted on site. Obviously, this was only possible thanks to the vast wealth of Midas Mulligan, who provided a bank account for each new member based on how much had been “stolen” from them in the form of taxes in the outside world. While the members of other cults waited for Jesus or aliens from outer space, the Galtians waited for society to collapse while working to build a microcosm of the perfect society for themselves.
Most of the Galtians were men, but a woman named Ayn Rant was to become their most important member. Rant was born in Russia and experienced the worst of communist collectivism before immigrating to the United States. This gave her a zeal for free enterprise that bordered on fanaticism. She regarded any form of government oversight as evil and a slippery slope toward the kind of ham-fisted control that made the Soviet economy such a disaster. A self-made intellectual, she earned a reputation writing articles extolling capitalism and heroic profiles of businessmen. She was also quick to slip into bed with the men that she admired. If they were married, this seldom stood in her way because the nobility and passion of the doers trumped a dowdy conventional virtue such as faithfulness in marriage. As a champion of capitalism, it was natural for her to be invited to join the Galtians. As a sexually liberated woman ahead of her time, it was only right for her to realize her ultimate conquest – John Galt himself. My father was their love child. He was presented to the community in a moonlight ceremony at the foot of the golden dollar sign, as if the King and Queen had given birth to the heir of the New Order.
In the heady atmosphere of the newly founded cult, inflamed by the passion of a union with the cult leader who stood for everything she admired, Rant set about creating an entire cosmology for capitalism and the sanctity of the individual. She called it a stylized universe because it was better than real. People who entered her world would have the sensation of flying through the air over the real world, which would appear unendurably dull by comparison. She called it Objectivism and said that it was based on rationality, not selfishness, as if it could be fully validated by logic and science.
Yet, the people who inhabited her stylized universe were nothing like real people. The true Objectivist was a paragon of moral virtue, even if the new morality differed from the old. If two Objectivists were competing for the same job, for example, they would both accurately assess each other’s abilities and the inferior person would voluntarily withdraw. As for business, so also for love. If two Objectivists were in love with the same woman, the inferior one would express his love by departing, knowing that his beloved would be happier with the superior man. In this fashion, Rant declared that in her stylized universe, “There are no conflicts of interest among rational men.” And while Objectivist men and women reveled in their carnal desires, it was always an expression of their higher ideals and never just the satisfaction of mere lust. Until they found their doer soul mates, they had a stoic’s ability to avoid the temptations of the flesh.
The peak of my grandfather’s notoriety was based on a stunt that was inspired by H. G. Wells’s radio production of The War of the Worlds, which described an invasion by aliens from outer space as a breaking news story. Legions of listeners confused it for the real thing and panicked. Impressed by the power of fiction presented as fact, Midas used his enormous wealth to purchase prime airtime from one of the nation’s largest radio broadcasting companies. As far as millions of listeners were concerned, their normal programming was suddenly interrupted by the voice of John Galt, as if he had used his technical prowess to take over the airwaves. In what became known around the world as “The Speech,” my grandfather spoke for an hour in a thundering voice about the impending collapse of society and the rise of the New Order. By the time his takeover of the airwaves was revealed as a hoax, the desired impact had been achieved. The Speech was the talk of the world. Who cared if it was a hoax? It was better than real!
Most cults fall apart when their extravagant expectations are not met, and the Galtians were no exception. They were flesh and blood people, not the paragons of moral virtue that Ayn Rant wanted them to be. They tired of the hard work of building their own society – the house construction, the farming, the boring planning meetings. They disagreed on what to do or who was best qualified. The men fought over women and status. They began to accuse each other of being moochers and having faulty premises.
The first person to leave the cult was my grandfather. He simply disappeared, just as he had disappeared from his engineering job. This time he didn’t even leave a note or a boastful proclamation. My father, John Galt II, was two years old and grew up knowing only the legend of John Galt I. Then other members started to drift away. Finally Midas Mulligan reached his breaking point and withdrew his financial support, observing wryly that the Galtians were more heavily subsidized than any socialist society. Like fleas shaken from the back of a dog, the Galtians were forced to make their way back to the society that they’d mocked and seek the forgiveness of family, friends, and former business associates.
The Galtian movement was a failure in every way but one. It had not resulted in a widespread strike of doers. The static electricity engine was a folly. The microcosm of the perfect doer society went the way of so many other utopian visions. But Ayn Rant’s better-than-real cosmology was a survivor that had been propagated around the world by The Speech. Everyone who fell under its spell became convinced, as fervently as any religious believer, that the path to salvation was to concentrate exclusively on making money for oneself.