Not “Who is John Galt?” I think we all know the answer to that question. At least for those of us for whom Atlas Shrugged has become the conservative Holy of Holies. We all know who he is. But just where he has disappeared to in this age of commerce by government fiat is the more pertinent issue. The operative question then becomes “Where is John Galt?”
We all know the story. John Galt – Ayn Rand’s Olympian Übermensch of American business and industry – stops the engine of the world in her apocryphal novel, now more than half a century old. He does so by various means at his disposal – from friendly (or not so friendly) persuasion, to kidnapping, to outright sabotage. Galt is everywhere and nowhere, ethereal and concrete, mystical and empirical. He is all things to all people, truly a man for all seasons.
It is a tribute to Rand’s skill as a novelist that the lion’s share of the book takes place without his presence in any concrete fashion. It is only in the story’s final stages that we get a clear picture of this visionary leader, whose ruthlessness in his singular destruction of the threads that hold civilization together speaks powerfully of his single-mindedness and commitment. He is a man without flaws, devoid of the petty failings that plague mortal men. He is the god of Ayn Rand’s fictional utopia.
So what are we to make of the absence of such men, now, in the 21st century? In the age of business by government takeover, he is conspicuously missing in action at a time when just such a man could be most effectively utilized. What does his absence indicate? And what does that say about the time in which we live, and ultimately about ourselves?
Unlike many of my conservative brethren, I don’t wield my rubber stamp when it comes to Rand’s objectivist philosophy or her fictional masterpiece by which she makes it known. Not long ago, one of my USC lawyer friends sent me a quote – whose origins I do not know, which encapsulates at least his area of interest when it comes to this compelling novel:
- "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves Orcs."
It begins with Eddie Willers – that eternal, ever-present everyman. Faithful, loyal, and reliable as a loaf of white bread, he chances upon a street derelict in some not-too-distant-future America suffering from a contemporary economic cataclysm. Recession? Depression? We don’t know. And in truth, it does not matter. Something has gone seriously off the rails. Eddie greets the bum in the vernacular of the day. Not “Hello, how are you,” but “Who is John Galt?” It isn’t so much a question as an acknowledgment. Things are bad, and there is no end in sight, all rosy claims to the contrary.
Eddie labors for Dagny Taggart – Vice President of Operations for Taggart Transcontinental Railroad – with whom, at least in this reader’s estimation, he is more than a little smitten. Give it up, Eddie. She’s out of your league. Any woman capable of running a national transportation company, carrying the dead weight of her deadbeat brother, slipping and dodging the strangulation of government edicts, is going to yearn for more than the likes of you. She’ll dream of Hank Rearden, the steel magnate, Francisco d’Anconia, the international playboy and mining executive, Ragnar Danneskjöld, the menacing privateer, or perhaps the predictably efficient Owen Kellogg. She will appreciate the operatic genius of Richard Halley. But she secretly yearns for her perpetual ideal, her unattainable dream – John Galt himself.
Forget it, Eddie. She’s not your type.
Note to anyone who doubts this little tidbit of truth and consequence: A woman of Dagny’s stripe – dynamic, multi-talented, striking in appearance and ability – will always look for a man who exceeds her own accomplishments. Time-card punching working stiffs need not apply for the favors of this gossamer goddess of American commerce.
It would appear that Hank Rearden fits the bill, and this certainly appears so in the early stages of the story. But Dagny quickly becomes enthralled by the overwhelming dynamism, vision, dare I say masculinity, of the driving force of a burgeoning underground society of entrepreneurs – John Galt himself.
Except he’s missing in action for the bulk of the novel. Ah, but his presence is felt everywhere. For all across the country, men like him – visionary men of power, talent, ambition and ability – are destroying what they’ve built by their own hand, and disappearing from the landscape. In the wake of government strangulation, confiscation, retribution, the men who built the modern industrial state are tearing it down. And Galt – elusive, ethereal, but ever-present – is the driving force behind this demolition.
John Galt stops the motor of the world, as the author so aptly puts it. As first among equals of that select group of farsighted men of superior ability, he recognizes that the country now plays a new game with a stacked deck of cards, and rather than play by the new rules, he overturns the card table and walks away, taking the bulk of similar men with him.
And so the bleak landscape of post-America America takes shape in Ayn Rand’s prophetic novel about the downfall of greatness in the country that nurtured it for so long. One by one, thriving enterprises are strangled by encroaching socialist policies of a tyrannical government. Incrementally, innovation and novelty are trampled underfoot by government bureaucrats. And when it’s over, we are faced with a country burdened by a dependent population, with a huge sense of entitlement, and no group of super-achievers left to support this modality of dependence.
Kind of like now.
This is not a review of the novel. If you are among the handful of conservatives who has not read it, I urge you to do so. Trust me, it will be worth the effort to wade through the 1100-or-so pages, whether you’re inspired at the end of it or horrified.
So where is he? Where is John Galt in the America of 2010? Could be he’s comfortably ensconced in Galt’s Gulch waiting for the end to come. Only in the real America he doesn’t have to go to great lengths to bring everything crashing down around his ears. All he has to do is sit back and wait.
At first glance, it would appear there’s no great cause for concern. In fact, what message does the current administration send to the titans of business and industry? Let’s see … We’ve had the Detroit bailout, the Wall Street bailout, the banking bailout, the (currently) abortive attempt to nationalize 1/6 of the nation’s GDP in the healthcare takeover. Gosh, and it all worked out so well. If you were a business executive, what would you conclude?
- “Hmmm … I really don’t have to make savvy, hard-hitting, well-conceived business decisions. If my company is big enough, and my mistakes are sufficiently bad, I can make whatever stupid move I want. Big Daddy in Washington will bail me out every time.”
No, we don’t need John Galt to tear down the infrastructure of the world. That’s being done. What we need him for is to rebuild the ruins like the Phoenix rising from the ashes. And alas, Ayn Rand doesn’t take us there. It is at this point that the story ends.
Yes, conservatives love Atlas Shrugged. It means more to us than the Holy Bible. For many of us, perhaps even most of us, it is the Holy Bible of conservative ideology. Objectivism is our new religion, John Galt, the knight templar of our new evangel. And what’s not to like? A multi-talented, powerful, uncompromising man of means and ambition, single-handedly destroys a world dominated by chair-bound paper-pushers – personified by Wesley Mouch (aptly named, if I do say so myself) – the consummate government bureaucrat. Galt does so out of a driving force of enlightened (or maybe expedient) self-interest. He cares nothing for anything or anyone beyond his own pulsing, powerful ambition, fueled by his talents and abilities.
We love this kind of stuff. We internalize it. We live it, where feasible. Problem is, most of us are not industrial Übermenschen. We’re forty-hour-a-week working stiffs. That is, those of us who are still in a position that commands forty hours of activity. The further problem is, there’s a dark undercurrent to the Olympian utopia of Ayn Rand’s vision of men of capital and accomplishment.
“What’s that, you say? I thought you liked Atlas Shrugged?” I do, but only up to a point.
Ayn Rand was prescient in her view of the vapidity of business by government control. She correctly saw the petty jealousies, the arbitrary mediocrity, the trivial meanness that comes when massive government intervention intrudes in an area it has no business going. She identified the evil inherent in a system of controls for which arbitrary spitefulness was the order of the day. What she failed to recognize was the same characteristics were alive and well in her objectivist ideal – John Galt.
There is a very apt passage of the Bible that points a troubling figure at Rand’s idyllic hero –
- “10 As it is written ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. 12 They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.’” – Romans 3:10-12
It’s an all too common tale, this tunnel vision of the intellect. We do it all the time.
I worship with the prime movers of the local community, devout Christians all. And many of them have illegals in their employ (still). They pay them under the table, and throw them away like yesterday’s leftover garbage when they have no further need for them. And they’ve got more coming in every day, despite the hard times.
I have a good friend with whom I’ve shared season tickets to USC football for the past ten years. He’s a staunch conservative, voting exclusively for Republican candidates since he’s been eligible to. But he’s not giving up the union job that guarantees him $125,000 a year for working on an assembly line at an ice cream factory. And you can bet his union isn’t giving any wage concessions to management to keep the company afloat.
One of my dearest friends is a middle-aged woman who is a passionate supporter of the troops fighting overseas. She’s always quick to defend the cause for which they fight, and the men (and women) who do the fighting. But she’s never gone to the local airport to welcome them home, and never attended a Memorial Day service in her life.
So there’s plenty of inconsistency to go around out there. It’s no surprise that Bible-believing conservative Christians also worship on the altar of Ayn Rand’s objectivist model of perfection. Oh yes, and then there’s this troubling passage ...
- “13 But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images 14 (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous GOD)” – Exodus 34:13-14
It’s intoxicating when you think about it. To be above the fray is one of the most seductive fantasies of people caught in the maelstrom. To be possessed of such monumental abilities as to be held, not to a higher standard, but no standard at all, is exhilarating. We see it in John Galt’s now world-famous objectivist monologue.
On the surface, there’s nothing to take issue with. Indeed, it is, and should be, a way of life for all of us. We should pursue our dreams and rise as far as talent and ambition can take us. Except people (of all stripes, not just government bureaucrats) are weak, envious, hateful and cruel. And the most enlightened pursuit of prosperity for whatever motivation, ultimately descends into an amoral lust for power for its own sake. There’s no avoiding it. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Tell the truth. We loved Ken Lay (of Enron notoriety). Our only disappointment was that he got caught. And we admired Bernie Madoff. His only sin was he wasn’t slick, savvy or fast enough. Only we don’t have that savvy. Most of us, anyway. And we certainly don’t possess the requisite ruthlessness to grab all we can and throw the people we are purported to serve on the grenade.
So what would be the role of John Galt be in the America of 2010, precariously balanced on the precipice of falling into a global abyss? He’s essential. For all his flaws – and he did possess them, regardless of the author’s characterization of him – the country will need him when things fall apart, and the center does not hold. Only men of such talent have the requisite steel in their spine to rebuild a nation.
But what will that nation look like when the talents of John Galt have come to full fruition? To answer that question, let’s fast forward to the point at which Ayn Rand’s yellow brick road came to a screeching halt.
There stood John Galt overlooking a darkened, desolate landscape, tracing the dollar sign in the air, poised and ready to rebuild a nation in his own image. Dagny Taggart nestled in the crook of his arm, gazing up at his chiseled features in adoring admiration, eagerly willing to sacrifice her sweet, young body without a moment’s hesitation.
Galt Enterprises will contract Hank Rearden to produce unlimited supplies of Rearden Metal© underwritten by a loan from Midas Mulligan to rebuild the nation. Rearden will do this at cost, with the clear understanding that he will receive royalties from Galt Enterprises when the country gets on its feet. Galt will breach that contract and, due to the new tort reform laws, Rearden will be driven into bankruptcy, his company to be taken over by none other than the man in which he held such blind faith, John Galt himself.
Dagney Taggart will rise to CEO of Taggart Transcontinental, all the while carrying on a torrid affair with John Galt. Unknown to her, Galt owns the exclusive rights to all air transportion services throughout the country. He undercuts Dagny’s shipping rates, driving her out of business. But she is so consumed with the constant stream of hot, steamy sex she enjoys with the god she worships that she realizes, too late, that her only future will be as Galt’s love slave, and to perform domestic chores around Galt’s Gulch.
Wesley Mouch will be executed by firing squad . . . without a trial.
And Eddie Willers, the ever-eternal everyman, the forty-hour-per-week loyal servant for whom dependability is the watchword of his faith, will be sent packing. His job will be offshored to India, thereby increasing Taggart Transcontinental’s bottom line without any actual increase in business efficiency. And Eddie will be consigned to die alone in the gutter, penniless and without hope. So much for a lifetime of faithful service, not to mention creating jobs in an era of double-digit unemployment. Not part of JG’s mantra.
Any future innovation will come from entrepreneurs in China, India and Russia, all under contract to John Galt. And the rest of us will be the slaves who serve him, worship him, and ultimately discarded upon the garbage dump of history by him. Because Galt is not an American. He owes no loyalty to this country. His loyalty is to his own bottom line, his own wealth. And he is a citizen of the world.
And the question ...
- “26 For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” – Matthew 16:26
Everything we have.