Atlas Shrugged for the 21st Century: How to "Stop the Motor of the World"
It is now barely a half-century since the publication of Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957). If the Motor of the World has not yet stopped in the emerging, and on-going, financial crisis of the last year, it is no longer running very smoothly, nor are the so-called “Captains of Financial Capitalism” certain about how much fuel (Energy) remains in the tank, either.
What is proposed herein, in promoting and distributing some of the fundamental ideas in the novel, such as entrepreneurship, individual initiative, wealth generation, and prosperity, is to look at these anew from the perspective of the dawning of the 21st century. Before discussing, however, the means of disseminating these ideas, let us look at the historical context of the novel as well as what has occurred globally in the half-century since its publication.
Ayn Rand, History and Technology:
Rand’s two most famous novels both display a sense of History and, especially of the history of technology. The Fountainhead (1943) focuses on Architecture, and the emergence of the technology of the modern steel skyscraper building. The relationship between the Architect, Howard Roark, and his mentor, Henry Cameron, can best be understood as similar to the historical relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), and his mentor, Henry Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). Sullivan, however, was never as forgotten, or neglected, as is Cameron in the novel, and is considered “the father of modernism” and of the steel skyscraper in architecture See, for example, Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea (1924), as well as his Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings (1979), and, especially Wright’s Genius and the Mobocracy (1949), his brilliant defense of his teacher, Sullivan. In 1959, this writer (Marina), given his interest in design and building, wrote a research paper at the University of Miami on the relationship between Sullivan and Wright, focusing on the former. Wright was recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as"the greatest American architect of all time" Ayn Rand had chosen wisely in the choice of a role model for Roark!
Let us focus, however, on the several technologies in Atlas Shrugged, which is not only futuristic in time, but also science fiction as well, ranging from Reardon Metal to a Motor that will stop the Engine of the World. Finally, there is “Atlantis,” a Utopian Community if ever there was one. What can be the context and meaning of these ideas in the emerging Crisis of the 21st Century? To simply hash over the ideas of the novel as if nothing has occurred since 1957, or as if there is no present crisis, is to consign it to a sterile exercise in summary and literary criticism.
The novel is, on the whole, built around two technologically related ideas. The first is that of Galt’s motor, a rather small box that is able to draw static electricity from the atmosphere and convert it to usable, kinetic energy, the second is that there is a location, not primitive, as in the case of the caves where Osama bin Ladin has hidden successfully for years, but a rather sophisticated community into which the world’s creative geniuses can “drop out,” a “Galt’s Gulch” that can remain unknown to the governing authorities. That was highly problematic in 1957, let alone in a world of satellite mapping images and Predator drones, as is the case today. One might even wonder about the possibility of the success of Piracy as in the book, until we are reminded of recent events of that nature off the coasts of Africa and parts of south-east Asia.
From Futuristic Science Novel to 21st Century Reality, and Also Using the Past:
In using Atlas Shrugged as a starting point with which to explore alternatives to the Global Crisis of the 21st Century, it might be suggested that what is needed is to place these events in a broader historical, philosophical context, in short, within the parameters of what might be called a Philosophy of History.
Just as Miss Rand borrowed heavily from the biographical, historical context of the careers of Sullivan/Wright in writing The Fountainhead, so she borrowed from the writer Garrett Garet in many aspects of constructing the basic theme, name and character of Atlas Shrugged from Garet’s novel, The Driver (1922). Still, the heart of her book is her delineation of a Philosophy that she chose to designate as Objectivism, evident in Galt’s famous lengthy television address toward the end of the book, and in most of her subsequent writings.
What this writer finds most lacking in the novel is what one might call a broader Philosophy of History. In this regard, she could have done worse than to have again been influenced by Garet, whose most well known work is probably The People’s Pottage (1953), which contains three essays dealing with The New Deal, the US as a giant Charity organization, and, most important from a larger historical perspective, “The Rise of Empire.” Pretty much all that has happened in the last fifty years of US and Global history is outlined in that essay.
The major question facing us as human beings, living in an increasingly global society is, “Can that evolution toward increased government and bureaucratic centralization, which is the essence of Empire, and that has characterized every Civilization throughout History, be challenged and/or reversed?” Some historical determinists, such as Spengler and Toynbee, tended to believe, it cannot be done.
Rand’s creative solution was to offer an answer within the context of a somewhat futuristic novel involving Science and a mechanism to halt the drift to what she saw as Collectivization, and we have called Empire.
An Electric Motor and a Mechanism to “Stop the Motor of the World;”
When this writer first read Atlas Shrugged almost 50 years ago, he kept expecting that Galt would use his motor literally to stop the World in some fashion. That turned out, of course, not to be the case. His motor, to be sure, was used to generate electricity, but the “motor to stop the world” turned out to be convincing many of the worlds most creative thinkers and entrepreneurs to join him in his secret Valley in Colorado.
The question today is whether that withdrawal technique/mechanism would really work to halt the drift toward Socialism, Collectivism, or Empire – what might also be called State, Corporate Socialism? We would suggest, that it would not, and that imperial bureaucracies will simply find others to carry on even as societies, nations and civilizations continue their decline toward greater chaos and uncertainty as is evident in the financial crisis today.
What, Then, is to be Done?
What is needed is a new decentralized technology that breaks us free of the various governmental mechanisms which restrain innovation today such as antitrust laws, patents and copyrights, as well as a number of other legalistic procedures which block innovation, or slow it to a crawl.
At the Marina-Huerta Educational Foundation, we intend to demonstrate that an actual motor similar to Galt’s already exists, and can be used to create electricity in a house and beyond, selling the excess back to the power company, either private or government owned.
We suggest also that a somewhat similar mechanism to Ayn Rand’s withdrawal of the creative individuals already exists, in the earlier civilizations such as China and Classical Civilization in the West. We refer to Taoism and early Christianity.
Innovation and Instruments of Expansion
While it may seem paradoxical, despite the many inventions of the last century or so, there has been an increasing slowdown with respect to energy, what the historian Carroll Quigley referred to as “Instruments of Expansion,” upon which civilizations are built.
Let us look for example at classical, Greco-Roman Civilization from which Western Civilization developed. Karl Marx was perhaps first among those who asked, why didn’t Capitalism develop even before the birth of Christ when that Civilization had the steam engine, but used it only to power children’s merry-go-rounds?
The answer is actually rather self evident in terms of Instruments of Expansion. The great Instrument of the Expansion in Classical Civilization was human slavery, and which, apart from its morally repugnant aspect, had definite limits upon the amount of Energy that it could generate to produce goods. Both the slave owners and the workers in the Guilds (Unions) had vested interests in preserving human slavery, and kept the steam engine from being generally used. That sounds almost a bit like Atlas Shrugged, but over two thousand years ago!
In preaching Equality the early Christians withdrew to a great extent from that Civilization, “rendering unto Caesar,” (the State) as a little as possible, until, eventually, the State centralized these once decentralized communities, and created a Church that it could control to a great extent.
Thus, the development of the steam engine as a source of Energy for the Industrial Revolution had to wait almost two millennia until even Feudalism had been virtually expunged from Western Civilization.
One can trace a somewhat similar evolution in China as Statism, called Legalism and neo-Confucian, eventually triumphed over both Taoism and Confucianism. It is indicative of the intellectual confusion of our own age that many recent writers refer to Communist China as reverting to Confucianism, when it is evident the model is Legalism and neo-Confucianism, both of which fit in nicely with today’s State Corporate Socialism. (For one of this writer’s pieces on China and the Tao, see http://mises.org/freemarket_detail.aspx?control=100 )
It is evident that the first great Individualists in human history were the Taoists in early Chinese history. Recent discoveries of even earlier Taoist manuscripts make this even more obvious. As the great research chemist Joseph Needham demonstrated in his monumental 12 volume history of Science and Civilization in China, the Taoists were the great scientists of that Civilization. One does not need to go as far as did the Wall Street Journal several decades ago in discussing the Chinese Science Exhibit then touring the West, to ask “Did the Chinese invent just about everything?”
What the Taoists, early Christians and inhabitants of Galt’s Gulch have in common is that they chose essentially to withdraw from the evolving Statist, Imperial Civilizations in which they found themselves.
Using Atlas Shrugged as a takeoff point toward creating Decentralization and a restoration of individual freedom in one’s lifetime:
The Marina-Huerta Educational Foundation is dedicated to exploring new ideas with respect to an affordable, sustainable lifestyle that allows the individual to cut himself/herself free from many of the Statist constraints now facing one within many nations of the world. An emerging outline of these areas can be found at our website, which is itself now being totally redone with pictures from our recent Project in Guatemala. http://www.m-hfoundation.org
We would suggest that the State has the means today, and did at the time that Atlas Shrugged was written, to seek out and destroy any “secret” community such as Galt’s Gulch. What the State cannot do however, either in this country or in other nations such as Guatemala, where we recently completed a community center which will be at the center of a new village eventually housing 800 families, is to prevent individuals from building the kind of houses we suggest, along with new sources of decentralized energy, using the Sun and wind to develop Electricity, as well as utilizing rainwater and reusing gray water, along with more efficient kinds of waste disposal, all of which can contribute to growing one’s own food supplies. Thus, many people can openly, but without fanfare, begin to withdraw from essential cooperation with the State.
This writer has often wondered, how were these essentials of life accomplished in Galt’s Gulch, and by whom? Ah well, in Science Fiction, such realities are simply ignored!
A crucial point was reached in Western Civilization at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries with the discovery of Electricity and the means to put it to use. This ought to have led to an even greater Instrument of Expansion, eventually harnessing the power of the Sun and Wind. There is not space here to recount the titanic battle over Centralization as opposed to Decentralization that occurred over Electricity. It would appear, however, by the very nature of the role of Electricity and Galt’s motor in Atlas Shrugged, that Ayn Rand had some notion of this. One might argue that Nikola Tesla was the “hidden hero” of the book much as Wright was in The Fountainhead.
The use of AC Electricity meant it could be sold and moved from one location to another. While Tesla wanted Electricity to eventually be free, as is the air we breathe, J.P. Morgan wanted to create a monopoly over it. The State, of course, likes the latter notion since it can be taxed, and even corporations such as Enron become involved in the whole process of selling it in a centralized fashion.
Now the American Government continues this Centralization with billions of $$ to be spent on expanding this existing power Grid to move Electricity, losing immense amounts along the way, from the West to the East. If, in addition, Decentralization of Electricity was stressed as well at the level of individual homes, the existing Grid might still be used, without spending additional billions.
The great struggle of the 21st Century will be between those who seek to expand State Power through Centralization of a wide variety of human activities, which has led to the disintegration of State Empires throughout History, and those who actively use Decentralization to free up, and enrich their own lives in the relatively short time we each have on Earth, regardless of what the State chooses to do. That is the real lesson of Atlas Shrugged, and why it retains our interest today!
Kevin Carson - 3/3/2009
Very interesting. The fork in the road involved with the development of electrically powered machinery, and its potential for either decentralization or authoritarianism depending on the framework into which it was incorporated, was a common theme in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Kropotkin saw electricity as the basis of his decentralized manufacturing economy of small shops, coexisting with small-scale farming in local villages and towns, in Fields, Factories and Workshops. One of William Morris's characters in News From Nowhere mentioned that there was no need for factories, because a group of artisans who used power machinery could get power wherever they needed it.
Lewis Mumford picked up Patrick Geddes' framework of the "paleotechnic" and "neotechnic" stages of technological development. He argued that electricity was the defining technology of the neotechnic, and would render the centralized mass-production of the paleotechnic (iron, steam and Dark Satanic Mills) obsolete. The primary reason for the large factory was to economize on power. When production had to be colocated with a single prime-mover (whether a steam engine or a river), it was necessary to group as many machines together as possible to run off belts from the drive shaft.
Ralph Borsodi argued, similarly, that electric power had put the small machine in the small shop or household on an equal footing with the large machine in the factory. Although there were modest economies in unit production costs with large-scale factory production, most of the economies were already achieved with the use of power machinery in the first place. And the modest economies of large-scale production, as such, were more than offset by the increased costs of shipping in a larger market area, and by the heavy marketing costs involved in "push" distribution when expensive machinery had to be run 24/7 to minimize unit costs.
So why *didn't* electrical machinery shift manufacturing from the factory to the small shop and household? Mumford used the term "pseudomorph": rather than being used to its full potential as the organizing principle of a structurally different kind of economy, electrically powered machinery was instead incorporated into the institutional framework of the Dark Satanic Mills.
At the time electricity was being introduced, according to Michael Piore and Charles Sabel (The Second Industrial Divide), there were two choices for incorporating electrical machinery into production.
The first, living up to the new technology's full potential, was to integrate small-scale, general purpose powered machinery into craft production, with short production runs and frequent changes between products on a demand-pull (or lean) basis. This model was followed in several industrial districts in Europe, most famously Emilia-Romagna.
The second was Sloanism: the use of extremely expensive, product-specific machinery that could only be paid for by large batch production and push distribution (including mass advertising, consumer credit and planned obsolescence) to minimize unit costs by keeping the wheels of industry running 24/7.
At the beginning of the neotechnic revolution, the government (especially in America)adopted a series of policies that shifted the advantage artificially toward large-scale factory production. First of all, the state-created national railroad system was absolutely essential for the existence of large factories serving a single national market, rather than small factories and shops serving local markets. Second, mass-production required a stable institutional framework for ensuring that the output would be consumed: namely cartelized oligopoly markets, suppressing price competition and agreeing to spoon out improvements in dribs and drabs. Gabriel Kolko's work (and Rothbard's and Butler Shafer's continuation of it) on regulatory cartelization describes, in detail, how this was done.
Arguably, had it not been for such government aid in shoehorning electrical power into the old paleotechnic framework, "all the world would be Emilia-Romagna."
I would argue that Mumford's "cultural pseudomorph" has entered a second, weaker stage that he did not anticipate. Now, with the Toyota Production System and the more dumbed-down and bastardized versions of lean production adopted by American industry, the unique potential of electricity is being adopted (e.g., replacing large-batch Sloanist production with "single-minute exchange of dies"). But in the second stage, the pseudomorph takes the form of incorporating the decentralized technology into a centralized corporate framework based on control of marketing, finance and "intellectual property."
IMO this second stage is also unsustainable. A quantum leap in small-scale powered machinery (including desktop machinery like the multimachine), coupled with peer design networks and the unenforceability of "intellectual property," means that the old industrial cartels are dead men walking. Not only is the state unable to enforce the IP laws that they depend on, it is reaching a fiscal crisis beyond which "hollow states" will no longer be able to subsidize production inputs or afford to provide any kind of regulatory protection from competion.