Books

What Happened When Some Libertarians Went Off to Build Ayn Rand's Vision of Paradise

Hint: nothing good.

The theme of Ayn Rand’sAtlas Shrugged, according to Rand herself, is “what happens to the world when the Prime Movers go on strike.” The prime movers are corporate executives – “the motor of the world” – and Rand imagines what would happen if they all just went away. To Rand this is nothing less than “a picture of the world with its motor cut off.”

Ouch. Paging Dr. Freud.

In Rand’s novel the great, throbbing “motor of the world” (it’s made of executives, remember?) retreats to an Atlantis-like idyll known as Galt’s Gulch. Without their ingenuity and drive the nation descends into chaos, leading many long pages later to their triumphant return and anointment as leaders of a new libertarian order.

Which gets us to the fraud charges now swirling around a venture called “Galt’s Gulch of Chile.” Its website is currently down, but it’s still being promoted as a real-world retreat for the world’s movers and shakers.

“Yes, you read that right,” the organizer chirps. “Those who become one of GGC’s Founders will be paid back… within three years of the consummation of their Founders Club participation (please contact GGC for the fine print and T&Cs).”

In what should be an unsurprising outcome, it didn’t turn out very well. That news comes (via Metafilter and Gawker) from a blogger named Wendy McElroy, who writes that she bought some property in Galt’s Gulch with her husband and then learned it never had legal rights to the property in the first place. A visit to Chile revealed that many of the area’s local vendors had also been defrauded by the Galtians.

As Gawker’s headline puts it, “Ayn Rand's Capitalist Paradise Is Now a Greedy Land-Grabbing Shitstorm.”

It’s possible to feel genuinely sympathetic to the McElroys’ plight, and yet wonder why this outcome was the least bit surprising to any reader of Rand’s work. Atlas Shrugged actually celebrates fraud, at least against those whom Rand despises. These charges aren’t an aberration. They’re the inevitable outcome of Rand’s own philosophy.

Atlas Shrugged opens with a question (“Who is John Galt?”) and then takes forever to answer it, clocking in at a weighty 1168 pages. One glance at its author’s pinned eyes, immortalized in the photo on the back cover of the hardbound Dutton edition, and the book’s interminable length becomes easier to understand. Rand is gazing slightly heavenward, as if locking eyes with some adored Übermensch. She sits poised as if preparing for flight, one hand nervously clenched in a half-fist, like Mighty Mouse on methedrine.

How misguided, how downright strange is Atlas Shrugged? Rand insists that the most sexually desirable human beings on the planet are wealthy male CEOs. But the auto-executive eroticism becomes considerably less amusing when one realizes that one of Rand’s heroes is a rapist:

He held her, pressing the length of his body against hers with a tense, purposeful insistence, his hand moving over her breasts as if he were learning a proprietor’s intimacy with her body, a shocking intimacy that needed no consent from her, no permission.

…She knew that fear was useless, that he would do what he wished, that the decision was his, that he left nothing possible to her except the thing she wanted most – to submit.

She wanted it, so it’s okay, right? Except she never said she wanted it, and the rapist (“Francisco”) had already roughed her up in an earlier scene: “When she came home, she told her mother that she had cut her lip by falling against a rock.”

Then there’s Hank Rearden, the married man whose sex with the heroine leaves her bloodied and bruised the next morning: “She saw a bruise above her elbow, with dark beads that had been blood.” The morning-after sweet nothings from Hank include “I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose,” and “What I feel for you is contempt….”

Vile talk. But then, women are an inferior species in Rand’s world, a place where little girls need not dream of growing up to be president. “By the nature of her duties and daily activities,” writes Rand, “she would become the most unfeminine, sexless, metaphysically inappropriate, and rationally revolting figure of all: a matriarch.”

Rand’s creepy mise-en-scène is as ridden with criminality as it is with misogyny and sexual brutality.  One of its cartoonish heroes is a pirate named Ragnar Danneskjöld, who’s celebrated for stealing from humanitarian relief ships bound for poverty-stricken lands and giving the money —I’m not making this up—to the rich.

"I'm after a man whom I want to destroy,” says Ragnar. “… Robin Hood …"

Rand’s heroes aren’t just rapists, woman-beaters and thieves. They’re also terrorists who freely blow up or burn properties for ideological reasons, or simply because things didn’t turn out as they might have liked. 

Then there’s the fraud. It’s praiseworthy in Rand’s eyes—if it’s practiced by the right sort of people. Francisco, the rapist/hero, even boasts about defrauding investors from the “looters'" parasitical economy. In an ironic foreshadowing of Galt’s Gulch in Chile, he brags about building defective housing for Mexican workers as part of a government contract:

Well, those steel-frame houses are mainly cardboard, with a coating of good imitation shellac. They won’t stand another year. The plumbing pipes – as well as most of our mining equipment – were purchased from dealers whose main source of supply are the city dumps of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. I’d give those pipes another five months, and the electric system about six. The wonderful roads we graded up four thousand feet of rock for the People’s State of Mexico, will not last beyond a couple of winters: they’re cheap cement without foundation, and the bracing at the bad turns is just painted clapboard. Wait for one good mountain slide.…

Is it any wonder that a venture inspired by this book eventually defrauded its customers? And yet, despite the allegations against them, Gawker’s Adam Weinstein tells us that, “GGC developers will still sell you a 1,200-acre "Master Estate" for a mere $500,000. As long as you're also willing to extend GGC developers a $2 million ‘Founders Club’ loan along with that $500,000, which they'll totally pay back, they swear.”

Weinstein snarks, “That silence you hear? That's the sound of Atlas shrugging.”

But hold the schadenfreude for a second. Every victim of criminal fraud deserves compassion, even when they admire a writer who idealizes greed. McElroy appears to be the kind of libertarian who, however misguided her economic views, can be found on the frontlines of many a good fight – for civil liberties and individual freedom, and against militarism.

McElroy says she still has faith in the project’s founder – Mr. “Yes, you read that right!” – and believes that other partners were responsible for the malfeasance. But one of the reasons the “Galt’s Gulch” crowd chose Chile is because of that country’s lax regulatory environment. Regulations exist for a reason. The Randians’ blind hatred of them, and of the democratic governments which establish them, flies in the face of reason. 

But then, a hatred of regulation is part of Rand’s profound contempt for democracy itself, which can be seen in her description of “the woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12 … a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.” Rand and her followers don’t think a “housewife” has the right to elect politicians who regulate giant industries. 

Hopefully the criminal justice system will bring justice to the McElroy household and to other fraud victims. These government agencies can be very effective at such tasks, although perhaps less so now that tax cuts for the wealthy have eaten into their operating budgets.

The truth is that we need government, in the form of police, legislatures—and yes, regulators—to protect us from the psychopathic lack of empathy which, along with the sadomasochistic sexuality, is such an integral part of the Randian ideal.

What sort of society would voluntarily surrender itself to people like the sociopath Ragnar, the rapist Francisco, or the rough-trade cruiser Rearden? That would be an act of collective masochism.

And let’s get one thing straight: Ayn Rand isn’t a deep thinker. She’s a gelatinous mass of chaotic and violent drives, loosely wrapped in pseudo-Nietzschian babble. Her writings are intellectually shallow econo-porn, part Krafft-Ebing and part Horatio Alger, possessing neither coherence nor philosophical depth. Rand writes that Galt’s Gulch represents “the mind on strike,” but it’s more like a work slowdown.

Atlas Shrugged’s long-awaited last line reads as follows:

"He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar."

Some of those now-invisible air dollars belong to fraud victims like the McElroys, victims who went looking for “the motor of the world” and got the shaft instead.

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, a consultant, and a former musician.

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