Atlas Shrugged Sales Overturn Policy Calculations
The biggest under-appreciated political story of this year is the astonishing surge in the sales of Ayn Rand's epic 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged.
In the past week, the ranking page which shows the top sellers among all of the books offered through Amazon.com showed the novel surging into the top 20, climbing as high as #16. Remember that this is a thousand-page-long, 52-year-old novel that is heavy on philosophical content. And those rankings surely understate actual sales, since the novel is listed under at least three separate editions, each showing strong sales in its own right.
Looking at Amazon bestseller lists in narrower categories, Atlas has been steadily in the top ten in Literature & Fiction (briefly hitting #1 during the past week) and has been switching between the #1 and #2 spot in Classics, routinely beating out lesser works like The Federalist Papers, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Heck, the Cliffs Notes to Atlas Shrugged rank in the top 20, outselling The Grapes of Wrath.
This reflects a general cultural "buzz" about Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. As someone who has been an Objectivist—an advocate of Ayn Rand's philosophy—for more than 20 years, I've never seen anything like it. Commentators on the right have recently been debating whether we should respond to Obama's tax increases by "going Galt"—a reference both to the mysterious hero of the novel and to its main plotline. Columnists have begun referring to the novel; Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have recommended it; and the phenomenon has even trickled down to the pop culture level, with Ayn Rand becoming the subject (or target) of sketches by late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert. Just today, I was sitting at lunch and heard a man at the next table say that he was planning to read Atlas Shrugged "because it's back on the bestseller list after 60 years."
Has it ever happened before that a book hits the bestseller list after it is first published—and then rises back to the bestseller list a half century later, purely through word of mouth?
What no one seems to have realized yet is that all of this upsets some of the basic calculations being made at the top level of American politics.
In particular, it ought to give the folks in the Obama administration a sense that the ground underneath them is not as firm as they thought. President Obama and the Democratic leaders in Congress clearly believe that the financial crisis discredited capitalism in the eyes of the public, leaving the American people open to a lurch toward some version of European socialism—because that's worked so well for the French. Obama has dismissed free-market economics as a "worn-out dogma" and as an "old, discredited Republican philosophy," while Barney Frank has openly exulted that the 2008 election gave the Democrats a mandate for vastly expanded government control of the economy.
But the sales figures for Ayn Rand's magnum opus tell us an opposite story. In the midst of this crisis, hundreds of thousands of people are turning to a book that glorifies capitalism.
Meanwhile, where are all of the socialist books on the bestseller lists?
Thus, while Obama has launched the de facto nationalization of two whole industries—finance and automobiles—his administration remains oblivious to the depth and strength of public resistance to socialism in America.
They may be about to get a reminder. A new website, go-galt.org—which has the delightfully non-slick look of a true grassroots undertaking—urges pro-capitalists to send copies of Atlas Shrugged to the White House and to their congressmen. The idea—and I think it is a brilliant tactic—is that stacks of hundreds or thousands of thick pro-capitalist novels piling up in the offices of our elected representatives would really get their attention, demoralizing the advocates of big government and emboldening defenders of the free market.
And the left should be demoralized. Six months ago, they had grounds to believe that the financial crisis, given the appropriate "spin," could be exploited to give capitalism a bad name. It was a dishonest attempt, given the role of the Federal Reserve, the US Treasury, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Community Reinvestment Act, and a whole constellation of federal alphabet agencies in causing the crisis and making it worse. The sales of Ayn Rand's novels are by far the strongest indication that the attempt to pin the crisis on the free market isn't working.
Instead, many people are convinced that the current crisis is a real-life parallel to the events in Atlas Shrugged, in which the power-hungry villains are always blaming businessmen for the disastrous results of the politicians' own interventions into the economy. The public reaction is similar to that of a businessman who recently sent me a note about Tim Geithner's grab for wider powers to seize businesses: "These guys are sounding like the villains from an Ayn Rand novel." Similarly, a blogger recently recounted his conversation with a fellow lawyer who is shutting down his successful independent firm because of the new taxes planned for him by the Obama administration. Referring to the signature catchphrase of Atlas Shrugged, he concluded: "Who is John Galt? Why, it looks as if we all are."
So rather than rejecting capitalism, a significant minority of the American people has sought out a better defense of capitalism, and everyone from Rush Limbaugh on down has told them where they can find it: Atlas Shrugged.
Boy, are they going to find it. As I wrote on the novel's 50th anniversary, Ayn Rand "saw the dramatic potential in asking a single question: what would happen if the innovative entrepreneurs and businessmen—after decades of being vilified and regulated—started to disappear? The disappearance of the world's productive geniuses provides the novel's central mystery, both factually and intellectually…. The philosophical question raised by this plot is: what is the role of the entrepreneurs and innovators in a society? What motivates them, what are the conditions they need in order to work, and what happens to the world when they disappear?"
What is really radical about the novel is Ayn Rand's answer to that question—a thorough philosophical defense of individualism, including a defense of the virtue of selfishness. As one of her characters puts it: "For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors—between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents here on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and the good is to live it." That's precisely what Ayn Rand came to say—and to dramatize in the pages of her novel.
But note that Ayn Rand didn't just oppose the Marxists; she also rejected the idea that your life belongs to God. She was an atheist who named her philosophy "Objectivism" to highlight her defense of reason and her rejection of all forms of subjectivism and mysticism.
It is this secular moral message that is likely to upset a few political calculations on the right.
Fifty years ago, William F. Buckley's National Review published an infamously savage review of Atlas Shrugged in an effort to eject Ayn Rand and the Objectivists from the right. Earlier this month, National Review Online made a repeat attempt, publishing a "symposium" on Atlas Shrugged whose upshot, as expressed by religious right spokesman Joseph Bottum, was that "William F. Buckley, Jr., and National Review did the world a favor, all those years ago, by throwing the…Randians overboard. Do we really have to let them climb back on the ship now?"
The presumptuous assumption in this analogy is that the religious right is steaming along under its own power, and we Objectivists are trying to hitch our pathetic little dinghies to their ocean liner. But what is actually going on is the opposite. The "fusionism" championed by Buckley was an attempt to take the real power behind the right—a patriotic love of liberty and of America's distinctive political institutions and attitude toward life—and to hitch onto that powerful ocean liner the dilapidated old galleons of religious traditionalism.
But when the time comes to defend American capitalism, does the rank and file of the right turn to the ideas of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell? Are they snapping up copies of 50-year-old books by William F. Buckley? No, because Buckley and the religious right never produced anything like Ayn Rand's defense of American individualism. So the rank and file is realizing that she is the thinker they need to help them cope with today's political crisis.
If enough of these new readers take Ayn Rand's underlying philosophy seriously, that could deal a permanent blow to the religious right's would-be monopoly on the moral foundations of Americanism.
And that's the other shoe waiting to drop. If the sales of Atlas Shrugged indicate a pre-existing popular support for capitalism, what will happen when hundred of thousands of new readers—or, at this rate, millions—make their way through Atlas Shrugged? How many will be influenced by Ayn Rand's philosophy? How many will become active advocates of that philosophy? How many will be won over to the capitalist cause, or be re-confirmed and emboldened in their advocacy of free minds and free markets?
The Ayn Rand Factor in American politics is only beginning.