The organizer of industry who thinks he has ‘made’ himself and his business has found a whole social system ready to his hand in skilled workers, machinery, a market, peace and order — a vast apparatus and a pervasive atmosphere, the joint creation of millions of men and scores of generations. Take away the whole social factor, and we have not Robinson Crusoe with his salvage from the wreck and his acquired knowledge, but the native savage living on roots, berries and vermin.
— L. T. Hobhouse
In Ayn Rand’s sprawling novel, Atlas Shrugged,ubermensch industrialist, John Galt, infuriated over the “theft” of his property by the parasitic government, calls upon his fellow “captains of industry” –” the “producers of wealth” –” to go on strike which, we read, brings down the entire economy. He then proposes that these elite “producers” leave the wreckage of the old “collectivist” order behind and establish their own utopian society.
What a splendid idea! I’m all for it!
So let’s suppose that each and every CEO of the fortune 500 companies suddenly disappeared, along with Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Robert Benmosche of AIG, and all those other bankster executives who claimed $150 billion in bonuses last year. (Supplied, by the way, by us taxpayers). Would the US economy collapse?
Well, maybe not. Is it not just possible that somehow, somewhere, there just might be a few new worthies quite willing and able to take their places? Would those vacated suites on Wall Street be filled if the replacements were offered a tenth of the salaries of the departed? Not the routine hundreds of millions in salaries and stock options, but rather a miserly ten million?
Oh, the inhumanity!
Perhaps, just perhaps, some of that “redirected” 90% and recovered $150 bonus-billions might be used to bail-out failing Main Street businesses, restructure foreclosed mortgages, hire workers to repair and renew the disintegrating physical and human infrastructure –” the roads, bridges, railbeds, utilities, public schools and universities, and courts –” without which no industrial economy can function. Without which, in other words, those allegedly indispensible “producers” could never have accumulated their wealth.
Physical and human infrastructure, let us note, is that governmental “beast” that a succession of GOP Congresses and Administrations have deliberately and enthusiastically “starved” –” that regressive ideologues such as Grover Norquist aim to “drown in a bathtub.”
Once those “indispensible” John Galts, without whom our economy would allegedly collapse, have left us to set up their libertarian paradise, how might they fare? Ayn Rand would have us believe that, with their aggregate geniuses and totally egoistic motivations, they would do just fabulously.
Without an educated labor force? Without an established infrastructure? Without an institutional and resource “commons” (all goods and services being privatized)? Good luck with that!
And how might this aggregate of total egoists function as a group? I say "as an aggregate group,” not "as a society” (“there is no such thing as society” –” Margaret Thatcher), and not "as a public” (“there is no such entity as ‘the public'” –” Ayn Rand). With no common purposes or shared loyalties apart from the precept, “you are on your own,” these individuals might find themselves in a Hobbesian “state of nature,” wherein life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” –” a condition vividly portrayed in William Golding’s novel, “The Lord of the Flies” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
However, we need not look to fiction to validate Thomas Hobbes’ warning, for history provides numerous examples of “states of nature.” Consider, Pitcairn’s Island.
The island was settled in 1790 by six of the Bounty mutineers, eight Tahitian men, and their women. Almost immediately after the settlers claimed parcels of land, savage fighting broke out over property and access to the women. Half of the men were murdered within the first four years. Ten years later, there was only one male survivor from the original company of fourteen, one John Adams, in addition to the women and their children.
Historian Will Durant speculates that a loss of community solidarity was responsible, in part, for the dissolution of the Roman Empire:
"… the mind of Rome, at the close of the Antonine age [with the death of Marcus Aurelius, 180 AD], sank into a cultural and spiritual fatigue.. Since the prince had almost all authority, the citizens left him almost all responsibility. More and more of them, even in the aristocracy, retired into their families and their private affairs; citizens became atoms, and society began to fall to pieces internally..” (Caesar and Christ).
So what if “Atlas Shrugs”? What if those self-centered “captains of industry” go on strike, disappear, and then reappear on some remote island?
I suspect that the rest of us will manage somehow to get along without them.
Much better, it seems, than they will get along without us.
PostScript: Those who require (as they should) a careful and extended argument in support of this brief critique of Ayn Rand and libertarianism, are invited to read my essays, “Why Liberals are Not Libertarians,” “With Liberty for Some,” and Chapters 5-9, 12 and 25 of my book in progress, “Conscience of a Progressive.”