"Anthem" by Ayn Rand



Ayn Rand's
Ayn Rand's "Anthem"

You must be asking yourselves: Why in the hell is Shoji writing about Ayn Rand?  My initial reaction was similar.  I read "Anthem" and "Atlas Shrugged" around the same time.  Now, I am not what you would call a warrior of collectivism and possess only a moderately liberal sensibility, but this book always struck me as asinine.  Anthem is written in very much the same vein as "Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged".  One might even say some of her early works were merely dress rehearsals for those last two novels.  But a dress rehearsal for what?  It amazes me to see the number of people who applaud this work as some sort of battlecry for exceptionalism and profit.  Most of Rands' works paint government regulation and even taxation as some sort of overreaching communist plot.  If you look at "Atlas Shrugged" in the context of the era in which it was published; the peak of the House Unamerican Activities Committee and Senator Joe Mcarthy, this book is little more than a person preying on the fears of her audience.  If you look at modern exceptionalism, you can see the clear evolutionary connection between it and this book.  Many people even defend the precepts outlined by Rand's works.  

What they don't see is that these precepts are reductive, simplistic, and inaccuracte, veiled in a weird dystopian jingoism.  This post is about "Anthem" but I would like to illustrate my point using "Atlas" because it is the natural and more refined offspring of Anthem.  The whole story centers around a train magnate heiress and a South American mining mogul.  In the distant future government regulation is portrayed, as stated above, as this intrusive regulatory power.  Keep in mind that the two main characters are not people who built their wealth, they inherited it.  And their response to this intrusive regulation (sidenote: intrusive = employee benefits, taxes, and collective bargaining) they forfeit their fortunes.  A sort of super weatlhy temper tantrum intended to demonstrate to the populace that prviliged heirs and heiresses are somehow necessary to the natural order.  This is what I mean when I say they arguments are flawed.  It completely glosses over the idea that regulation is necessary for a (mostly) free market.  It posits, indirectly, that "job creators" are entitled to some sort of special privilege.  And ultimately all of its arguments make their points in favor of a class system NOT a free market.  Free markets and economic oligarchies are fundamentally at odds with one another, and government "overreach" is often a natural reaction to industry unwiling or unable to regulate itself.  And, honestly, in what world does anyone see a mega privileged heiress or magnate suddenly decide to forfeit their fortune?  Which in the story is a joke, because the very next act does not portray either of the two characters standing in a bread line.  If it had, the next act after that would show them, hours later, admitting their stupidity and privilege and acknowleding a preference for being at the head of a company being crushed under the weight of "regulation" to abject poverty.  Rand argues for individuality and meritocracy by holding up two example of people who have no merit.  Inheriting wealth and privilege is inherently meritless, and yet she manages to portray these people as victims.  The government is merely an allegory for the natural, and grubby extension of the proletariat.  Once again, ignoring the fact that the optimal host for capitalism is a democractic civilization.

"Anthem" is no better.  Taking place in another dystopian future where a character names "Equality 7-2521", a young man born into a society of collecitves incapable of independent thought and relegated to menial tasks, begins to question.  The questioning itself leads to an upset to the current paradigm.  Rand is very much like Orwell, in that she uses these dystopian narratives to discredit "Communism" and extoll the virtues of maximum individuality.  There is some merit to this way of thinking, but only some.  Which is why I call the works "reductive".   Even the guys name has this cold sneer of classism and antipathy toward the underclass.  On the one hand Rand's protagonist is a street sweeper, on the other, he is fighting against an oppressive system (Communist allegory).  She declines to delve deeper into these power systems and reveal the true nature of oppressors.  She refuses to look at structural classism and racism (which automatically negates the notion of equality) endemic to the society she constructs in the story.  People defend the principles she represents in these stories because she buys their complicity with jingoistic flag words like "freedom", "individuality", and "exceptional".  In truth she is simply guilty of a political code switch designed to lure the masses into self oppression.

The reason I am offering this book up as this weeks "Free Reading" is because it has never been more relevant than it is today.  Oligarchs have invaded the US, and the world under the guise of being benevolent "job creators" while they extract resources and cash from us.  We subsidize companies like Wal-Mart by paying their employees public assistance, as well as McDonalds and other companies.  We let large companies like Apple forgo paying 24 billion dollars in taxes, while American schools and roads fall into disrepair.  And they get away with us because the consistently slap us in the face with this false grievance narrative of "house poverty".  A notion that so completely flies in the face of free market principles as to be laughable.  People should read "Athem" so they can immunize themselves against the currently prevailing class narrative.  A narrative that is causing Americans to make some really questionable political choices.  

Download the novella here.