February 8, 2004

Atlas Shrugged: An American apocalyptic tale

By: Susanna Dokupil

Ayn Rand’s classic libertarian manifesto Atlas Shrugged glorifies the omnipotence of the human mind. But, ironically, this secular humanist bible uses Christian apocalyptic archetypes. The main plot mirrors the second coming of Christ as some Christians understand the book of Revelation. Although the interpretation of Revelation is highly debatable in the Christian community, one reading understands the book as a literal prophesy of future historical events, including the rapture of the Church, a tribulation period that destroys the earth, and the ushering in of a new, perfect age. Viewed through this lens, Atlas Shrugged‘s metaphoric oxymoron takes on a uniquely American flavor.

Atlas Shrugged‘s wide renown eliminates the need for a lengthy plot description, but here is a brief refresher. Dagny Taggart, the heroine, strives to run an efficient and successful railroad despite ever-encroaching government intervention to help less-efficient-yet-politically-powerful competitors. As the most gifted businessmen of the country grow frustrated at the loss of the free market to the whims of rent seekers (“looters”), they quit producing and mysteriously disappear–to join a secret community of the best and brightest led by the hero, John Galt, who plans to initiate a new Renaissance after the present regime collapses. Dagny, painfully aware that the closing of productive enterprises impoverishes the country, struggles with whether she should employ her mind—which helps the evil looters maintain their regime–or quit and abandon the country to its fate. Ultimately, she joins the Galt community (after having passionate affairs with all the heroic male characters), and the world crumbles.

Thus, John Galt functions as a Christ figure. Like Christ, he disappears from the world, slowly gathering the believers together for the proverbial second coming. Premillenialist Christians believe that Jesus raptures the believers (I Thessalonians 4:17), spiriting them away into heaven to save them from the tribulation, during which the world is slowly destroyed by various plagues and pestilence. Similarly, Galt visits the brains of the world and invites them to live in his community rather than enduring the inexorable destruction of the capitalist system through all-consuming government regulation. And, just as Christ promises the Christians that after the earthly regime has passed away, they will return to create a New Heaven and a New Earth (Rev. 21:1-4), John Galt promises his followers that after the government and regulation-tainted economic system collapses, they will establish a free-market paradise.

Dagny, then, represents the convert. Revelation speaks of the sealing of the 144,000 (7:1-8), those whom God selected to live through and survive the great tribulation; indeed, to witness to others. The Galtians identified Dagny as one of their own early on, but, unlike the raptured businessmen, she remains in the earthly regime, toiling to keep the railroad running until almost the bitter end of the existing world order’s apocalyptic demise. Like those who choose Christ during the tribulation, Dagny’s ultimate conversion to Galtianity allows her to participate in the new world order the Galtians will establish.

But, unlike the biblical Revelation in which natural disasters such as earthquakes, falling stars, hail, and the ensanguining of the moon portend the end of the world (Rev. 6:12-14; 8:5-7), in Rand’s creation, man destroys himself. Socialistic business practices like paying wages according to need, agreeing to limit production, and rationing resources yield similar results as the apocalyptic plagues: famine (Rev. 6:5-6) and death (Rev. 6:8-9) abound, and others wish to die (Rev. 9:6).

Indeed, the government emerges as the beast or anti-Christ (Rev. 13:1). The beast rules the earth (Rev. 13:1-18), seeming to do good, but in fact, is evil and ultimately receives God’s judgment. Similarly, Rand’s government enacts anti-competitive policies under the guise of the public welfare, but these measures instead wreak havoc on the public. Like in the beast’s regime, no one could participate in market activities except by government permission (Rev. 13:16-17). And, in both cases, men were afraid to object because the ruler seemed all-powerful (Rev. 13:4-7).

What accounts for the presence of such imagery in the masterpiece of an atheist author? During Rand’s lifetime, the fundamentalist Protestant movement swept America. A religious revival began before the Second World War and reached its peak in the 1950s. According to Robert Handy in A Christian America, membership in churches and synagogues included almost seventy percent of the population by 1960. Handy notes that an important part of that revival was the growth of conservative evangelical Protestantism–the branch of Christianity that encompasses the premillenialist view of Revelation.

Quite possibly, Protestant Christian theology (and eschatology) had so pervaded American social thought that Rand used biblical patterns unconsciously. Protestant adherents, ironically, would excoriate Rand’s humanism–indeed, they might portray Galt as an anti-Christ figure. Yet, the premillenialist parallels in Atlas Shrugged reveal that Rand is a product of a unique culture that simultaneously fervently accepts religious precepts and tolerates dissent from them. Where else but in America?

Susanna Dokupil is an attorney and writer living in Houston, Texas.