Literary propaganda calls for a deft hand. It helps, of course, to be on the side of the Good and Right, as George Orwell was when executing 1984 and Animal Farm. Such was the uniqueness of Orwell’s genius that his novels seem to us today less expositions of any narrow parochial political point of view and something more like the fables of Aesop: This is the way the world is.
The desire to propagate political views through literature brings out the worst in better writers and the unbearable in lesser ones. Strangely enough, though, while John Steinbeck was a better — much better — novelist than was Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged is a better — much better — novel than is The Grapes of Wrath. The Steinbeck of Of Mice and Men is a far better novelist than is the Steinbeck of The Grapes of Wrath, just as the Rand of The Fountainhead is much better than the Rand of Atlas Shrugged. Steinbeck was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath and a Nobel Prize for his general contributions to literary leftishness. Instead of receiving a Nobel Prize, Rand was made the central figure in an ersatz religion. The Joads earned Steinbeck a pot of money, and John Galt earned Rand a cult — that is justice more poetic than anything to be found in either novel.
Atlas Shrugged and The Grapes of Wrath are a pair of mediocrities culturally bookending the discussion of what we call, for lack of a better term, capitalism. The problem is that neither Rand nor Steinbeck really understood capitalism as an economic arrangement or a moral system. Neither do their cultural heirs. From tea-party rallies to Occupy Wall Street, one of the least understood issues of our time is what we talk about when we talk about capitalism.
It may well be that this is inevitable. It may be impossible to write a great novel about capitalism, to write a great drama about capitalism, to make a great film about capitalism, or to paint a great painting about capitalism. Capitalism is, for the most part, boring. There is the occasional dramatic figure, a genius along the lines of Henry Ford (whom Rand idolized) or Steve Jobs, and the story of a man with a vision, a man possessed, can be a very good story indeed; Moby-Dick is that kind of story. But capitalism mostly consists of unexceptional men and women sitting in offices or factories or cubicles, trying to figure out how to make relatively mundane processes a little bit better, a little bit quicker, a little bit cheaper. In other words, day-to-day capitalism does resemble Moby-Dick: specifically, the chapters everybody skips over, the bits in which Herman Melville communicates excruciatingly detailed technical trivia about how much tar you want on your whaling rope. (“The line originally used in the fishery was of the best hemp, slightly vapoured with tar, not impregnated with it, as in the case of ordinary ropes; for while tar, as ordinarily used, makes the hemp more pliable to the rope-maker, and also renders the rope itself more convenient to the sailor for common ship use; yet, not only would the ordinary quantity too much stiffen the whale-line for the close coiling to which it must be subjected; but as most seamen are beginning to learn, tar in general by no means adds to the rope’s durability or strength, however much it may give it compactness and gloss.” Really, Herman Melville?)
Bill Gates and other Ahabs are part of the capitalism story, but they are a relatively small part of it. Consider the fact that nobody invented the internal-combustion engine: The Romans developed crankshaft-connecting rods, a millennium later Christiaan Huygens had the idea of using them in conjunction with gunpowder to run the water pumps at Versailles, Alessandro Volta developed a rudimentary sparkplug, the Niépce brothers put their Pyréolophore engine into a boat and powered upstream, etc. By the time Étienne Lenoir and Rudolf Diesel came onto the scene with designs that would be familiar to a modern mechanic, the project had been in the works for hundreds of years or more, with countless engineers and inventors following countless dead ends. I happen to find the Niépce brothers’ experimental fuel recipes (coal dust, resin, and Lycopodium moss spores in varying proportions) fascinating, but only a fool or a fanatic would try to write an epic novel about them.
In Rand’s imagination, capitalism is what happens when heroic, creative geniuses are allowed to work their magic, preferably in some heroically austere circumstances against a heroically austere Art Deco background. In the real world, capitalism is nothing more or less than what happens when property rights are respected. You get your John Galts and Dagny Taggarts, true, but you also get a lot of guys who start a pizza shop or build a successful chain of dry-cleaning businesses. Those guys don’t invent pepperoni or starched collars; they just work really hard, economize, try a few new things, invest in new equipment, hire people, create capital, and make the world go round. And John Galt is not going to do his own cleaning. Every era and every culture has its great men — every Golden Horde has a khan at its head. Civilization is sustained by nobodies, and the magic of capitalism is that it allows aggregates of nobodies not only to send men to the moon but to give them tasty powdered orange-juice substitutes to take along for the ride.
#page#Even at the rarified end of the spectrum, you rarely have the makings of great drama. Wayne Huizenga was once such a big deal in the business world that he made a cameo in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest to confer street cred upon a businesswoman, describing her as “the only woman I personally fear.” “Wayne who?” says everybody under 40. Huizenga was and is a tremendously successful businessman, having built three Fortune 500 companies. They are: a waste-management firm, a chain of car dealerships, and Blockbuster. Good luck turning any of that into high literature, though you might get a very sad opera out of Blockbuster.
Rand makes the occasional nod toward the big-picture view of capitalism and its complex ecosystem of creativity, which includes a great many people who are not earth-shaking titans. The best of the little people — the top workmen, the masterly electrician — invariably share the views and values of Rand’s heroes, and sometimes they get to play a semi-important role in the story. At Galt’s Gulch, we even meet a lady called “the fishwife,” a would-be writer who, having had no success in her chosen field in the outside world, retreats to menial work, with the consolation that she at least gets to do that for and among people she respects. The fishwife is, of course, no less a personage than Rand herself.
But you don’t write novels about fishwives — not if you are Ayn Rand, anyway. You write about the comings and goings of the great and the wicked. And you write about them presumably because they are important — morally important. This is, of course, where Rand goes off the rails like one of James Taggart’s mismanaged trains. Capitalism is for Rand merely the economic expression of a larger and more important reality, the study of which she organized into a potted philosophy called Objectivism. Rand was as thoroughgoing a materialist as any Marxist, militant not only in her atheism but also in her view of a clockwork universe governed by reason. She writes a great deal about value and values, and was a great abuser of the word “metaphysics.” Rand’s metaphysics were of course not metaphysics at all, but simply physics, with all the universe and every aspect of reality accessible to human reason.
The peculiar thing is that, working on the raw material of raw materialism with the toolbox of Aristotelian logic, Ayn Rand managed to replicate that least rational of exotic superstitions: karma. (She might be pleased to know that the literal meaning of the word “karma” is “work.”) In the famous Winston-tunnel episode in Atlas Shrugged, during which a great many train passengers are sent to their death by managerial incompetence, it is not enough for Rand that death visit the express train: It has to be a righteous death, the black angel of reason coming down like a ton of non-metaphysical bricks. It’s not just that A=A, but that A has it coming. She chronicles her victims’ transgressions at typically Randian length: One is a sociology professor who rejected the importance of individual ability, another a journalist who favored government compulsion in the name of “good intentions,” a third a publisher who believed men to be “unfit for freedom,” another a schoolteacher who crushed her students’ individualism, etc. And then the real bad guys: a profiteer who used government favors to make a fortune in frozen railway bonds, a businessman who relied on government support to acquire a profitable ore mine, etc.
“These passengers,” she writes, “were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas. As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt’s Torch was the last thing they saw on earth.”
This passage frequently is cited as evidence of Rand’s fundamental inhumanity, but it is in fact the best evidence of her fundamental humanity. She is in search of a transcendent principle to govern human life, ensuring not only order in the universe but moral justice — not in the next life, as believers in karma or Judgment Day would have it, but in this life. What she is in search of is God, unless you have another word for a divine force that intervenes in human affairs to enforce justice. The great defect in Rand’s thinking is not her atheism but her mysticism, her naïve belief that there is some inescapable force in the universe acting in accord with the best of human values. The fact is that the only guarantor of justice that man knows is the actions of just men, but that takes Rand down a road she does not much want to explore: toward politics, compromise, the building of institutions, and community life. Atlas Shrugged is in part a fantasy about community life — life in a community in which everybody holds identical values — and it even makes the occasional clumsy nod toward politics: Perhaps the worst moment in the novel is toward the end, when the judge who has joined Galt’s Gulch stages his own constitutional convention, as though simply amending the law would transform the broken hearts of men. Rand writes: “The rectangle of light in the acres of a farm was the window of the library of Judge Narragansett. He sat at a table, and the light of his lamp fell on the copy of an ancient document. He had marked and crossed out the contradictions in its statements that had once been the cause of its destruction.”
#page#In other words, he was delivering the law from on high. One constantly smells the smoke from the burning bush clinging to the atheist, who is strangely evangelistic in furtherance of an entirely negative creed. Real unbelievers simply accept the chaotic nature of the universe; they understand that bad things happen to good people and vice versa, and you can find them in the pews of the Episcopal Church or a hundred other noncommittal congregations on any given Sunday. Nonbelievers do not preach their nonbelief in the street. But Rand’s atheism is not simply a case of seeing no evidence for the proposition of God. What she wants is to go God one better. When Abraham asked God to spare the city of Sodom, he asked Him a bold question: “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” What, Abraham proposed, if there should be 50 righteous men in Sodom? God says that he’d spare the city for the sake of 50 righteous men, and Abraham, launching several thousand years of crude ethnic stereotyping, starts working the Almighty over on the price. What if it’s 45? Surely, the Lord will not let the absence of a mere five righteous men cost the other 45 their lives? Okay, the Lord relents, I’m willing to go down to 45. Abraham takes him down to 20, and then to ten. In the event, the only righteous family in Sodom gets a divine warning to get out of Dodge, and the rest is fire and brimstone.
“If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin,” T. S. Eliot wrote. That is perhaps what Whittaker Chambers had in mind when he wrote that one hears in the pages of Atlas Shrugged a tiny voice saying: “To the gas chambers — go!” But Rand did not aspire to dictatorship — she aspired to deity. In the Winston tunnel, Rand plays the role of both Abraham and God. She will not destroy the righteous with the wicked. But she is a pretty tough grader, and there is by her uncompromising standard not one righteous man aboard that doomed Sodom on rails. And so comes the judgment.
What the above passage from Atlas Shrugged also makes clear — something that is so regularly missed by Rand’s critics that one suspects willful blindness — is that the lower circles of Randian hell are not populated by welfare recipients and little people, but by crony capitalists. The great villains of Atlas Shrugged are not the poor and the vulnerable, but the rich and the powerful who got that way by using political clout, social pull, and any other means short of hard work and building a better mousetrap. Writers as different as National Review’s Jay Nordlinger and the illiterates at Salon and AlterNet have written in recent months that our current situation is Randian: We are “living in an Ayn Rand economy,” as Salon put it, or, as Nordlinger wrote, “American life is more and more resembling an Ayn Rand novel.” They even mean similar things by that sentiment: Both detect that the government is rigging the economic game for the benefit of its favorites. The strange thing is that the Left seems to think that this is an argument for giving the government even more power over the economy rather than restricting its ability to reward allies and punish enemies.
For that, you can blame Tom Joad.
For propagandistic crudeness and grotesqueness of vision, Atlas Shrugged has nothing on The Grapes of Wrath, an undisguised love letter to Communism by a man who would later pen an embarrassing apologia for Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror in A Russian Journal. Steinbeck’s novel is, it bears noting, a very long fantasy about putting people into camps — and them liking it there. If you have not picked up Grapes since high school, the badness of the writing really must be revisited to be fully appreciated. John Galt’s turgid denouement speech may be a subject of mirth, but Grapes is 450 pages of even more cartoonish prose: “Talking in the camps, and the deputies, fat-assed men with guns slung on fat hips, swaggering through the camps: Give ’em somepin to think about. Got to keep ’em in line or Christ only knows what they’ll do! Why, Jesus, they’re as dangerous as niggers in the South! If they ever get together there ain’t nothin’ that’ll stop ’em.” (Somewhere, some women’s-studies undergraduate is working on a thesis about Steinbeck, Rand, and body image in a literary universe in which lean is virtuous and fat is wickedness literally incarnate.)
#page#Like Rand, Steinbeck was a proponent of a godless philosophy out of which he inexplicably constructed a god and a cult to worship it: “I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road. I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit — the human sperit — the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent — I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.” And just like you-know-who, Steinbeck conflates the economic with the spiritual: “One big soul” is an echo of the Industrial Workers of the World’s demand for “one big union.”
Whereas Rand makes an object of worship out of machines and the men who invent them, Steinbeck uses a particular machine — the tractor — as one of the main villains of his novel. Tractors put people like the Joads out of work, and therefore are evil. Steinbeck is the par excellence literary exponent of the Malthusian error, which regards human beings as liabilities — mouths to feed — rather than assets to be invested in. One should not discount the violence of Steinbeck’s vision: His moral touchstone was Tom Joad caving in heads. Artistically, that is clumsy, especially compared with its counterpoint in Of Mice and Men: When Lennie catches the bully Curley’s fist in medias uppercut and crushes it in his own, that shocking image stays with the reader. There’s plenty of dumb politics in Of Mice and Men, too, but there’s also real humanity. It is a story, not a tract.
The Joads, on the other hand, are mere cartoons, the American version of the noble savage set loose upon the farm country of California. But one wishes that Ma and Pa Joad were with us today. All they wanted out of life was a roof over their head, honest work to do, a sufficient quantity of meat and bread, and the great luxury of hot water on tap. If one could transport them from Steinbeck’s dreary pages into even the dreariest modern American community, they would think that they had been bodily assumed into Paradise. Steinbeck predicted a hungry workers’ uprising against landowners and banks. What we got in short order was . . . Disneyland. A mere 16 years after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, California was a very different place, a wonderland of optimism and affluence. When Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States, all he asked to see was Disneyland. The revolution the IWW and Steinbeck dreamed of never came. Capitalism was the revolution.
What Steinbeck never foresaw — what he was incapable of foreseeing — was a capitalism in which the Joads of the world could be owners, too, at least part masters of their own lives. The only capitalism the Left can imagine is crony capitalism, whether described witlessly by Steinbeck or in more sophisticated fashion, as in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. When the Left says “We hate capitalism,” it is saying in effect what the Right says when it abominates the government’s “picking winners and losers” in the market. The difference is that the Left cannot imagine any other kind of capitalism — one based on free markets rather than favoritism — while the Right can. What Rand saw too well was that that latter kind of capitalism — dynamic, powerful, and productive beyond all previous imagining — would present an irresistible temptation. The hired goons of Steinbeck’s imagination gave up running off Okies for a living — where’s the profit in that? — and became the crony capitalists of Rand’s dark vision, the regulators and string-pullers and planners with whom we are all too familiar. Capitalism transformed California from John Steinbeck’s pre-revolutionary stew to Walt Disney’s utopian confection. And Ayn Rand, to her credit, as early as 1957 saw that the politicians and their pet profiteers would do their damnedest to turn it back.