Atlas shrugged? Sisyphus says he can fuck off

Francis Fish
9 min readDec 29, 2016

The dead hand of selfish ideology

Just in case you’ve been asleep for the last few years I will give some background.

A very odd, dysfunctional person called Ayn Rand wrote a book called Atlas Shrugged a long time ago. The book describes a lone hero who has vision, is better than everybody else in the herd and is not afraid to go against the consensus and go his own way. Because of his great mind and the power of his ideas he eventually triumphs over the people who did him down. He is the Atlas, looking down on the rest of us from his high vantage point. None of the rest of us are important or worthy of his attention. As long as he and his friends get what they want, however they choose to get it, who cares?

This makes him a hero to every selfish wannabe with a vision. Rand also hated socialists and communists. The idea of people working together for a common goal was an anathema to her. She goes into this at some depth over hundreds of pages of turgid prose in tiny font that read like bad 1950’s science fiction without the cute aliens.

You can see that this hero would be much loved by the Silicon Valley types who never question their privilege and know that they are entitled to the riches they have acquired. It also means that doing selfish or dishonest things is ok, because you are an Atlas, and fuck the small people. Of course this also makes her a doyen of the capitalist class in general. One of her best-known associates was the unlamented incompetent Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, thought by many to be the architect of the massive market crash in 2008.

Atlases hate rules, they hate not being able to do whatever the fuck they like to the rest of us. Can you see how beautifully this fits into the no such thing as society (although that’s not quite what Thatcher actually said) view. Atomised little ants consuming away to make the people at the top of their mountain obscenely rich.

But the world can only support so many of these Atlas types — there aren’t that many mountains. Indeed, everything you see around you in the human built environment is the result of a monstrous act of collaboration, care and thought. If you find a way to make a lot of money, get a lot of stuff, then you’ve built your fortune out of the commons the we all contribute to. After all, the commons is where stuff comes from. As a shrugging Atlas you might have a different take on how to use that commons, you might even use it in a way that breaks it for everyone else, but it’s still everybody’s common heritage and we all contribute to it.

This means that in mature societies run by grown ups there are rules and regulations. Things that people have agreed are the right way to behave and do business in order to keep the place functioning and reasonably fair. So of course these rules had to go. This is what Greenspan and others did. This is what the neoliberals do. They don’t like the idea of the commons being something that must be held in trust for all of us. They just want to rip us off using our own resources and make a big fetish out of markets. For example, there were rules in the futures exchanges to stop people with lots of money buying up the futures and driving the price up.

These rules were put in place after greedy speculators starved people and threw food in the sea. You were not allowed to buy more than a certain percentage of the market unless you were a producer of the commodity, as in you have a vested interest in the market working properly. During Greenspan’s tenure these rules were relaxed. You might not remember this, but there was a worldwide rise in the price of basic things that drove prices up about fifteen years ago and everybody blamed the growth of China and India. This was a lie. It was deregulated commodities companies picking everybody’s pockets and causing starvation in very poor countries. The sky rocketing price of energy destroyed a lot of small businesses all over the world.

Similarly the vast fortune of the Koch brothers is built on manipulating the price of oil in the USA and picking everybody’s pockets. They did nothing useful other than play clever accountancy games reselling things to themselves until the final consumer was pays a very high price. Not to mention their cost cutting cowboy behaviour meaning that a father had to watch his children consumed in a fireball when his car blew up a pool of butane (see article).

This is, of course, a parasitical drain on the rest of society. These kings of the world make no contribution. In fact their greed holds us all back, and they sponsor political idiots to protect their money and lie about things that might harm their interests. It’s one of the reasons for the massive funding of the fundamentalist christian taliban in the USA, and similar nonsense in the UK and the rest of Europe. It’s the main reason nothing useful is happening about climate change — these Atlases don’t give a fuck about the destruction of the environment or the mass extinctions because they believe they’re right and entitled to do what they like. See, it says so in the bible and fuck you because you won’t be there when the rapture happens anyway.

The dead hand of bureaucracy

You could say that at least some of this is a reaction to the dead hand of European state-socialism. This is in turn a partial byproduct of Stalinism, which is too much to go into in a short essay.

The state socialists didn’t want to see the back of capitalism and decided instead to use the capitalist state to create a planned economy. This was the big post-war project. They centralised and pulled enterprises together, for example the nascent computer industry in the UK was turned into one company called ICL by the government because it made sense to the bureaucrats. This level of interference is ridiculous and meant that companies could be completely incompetent and still carry on trading because of government handouts. You end up with pre-rusted cars no-one wants to drive because they are unreliable and expensive and often smaller better managed operations run rings around them. This is why every country had its own airline and nationalised car manufacturer in the 1980’s that was government owned and so on. It was also a source of well paying sinecures for civil servants.

Of course, after the second world war, when the manufacturing companies, transport and power utilities had been smashed to pieces by bombs, the only way to quickly get the economy running again was to use the state and create state owned enterprises. In the UK there was less damage and in fact the state used its powers to force British colonies to buy shoddy goods from worn out factories so their friends didn’t have to reinvest in new plant. This has in fact been a problem with moribund capitalism all over the world and is one of the reasons manufacturing capability is much reduced in the UK. It’s why the UK became so dependent on the financial markets when these factories finally closed.

Neoliberalism was a reaction to this state sponsored centralisation that broke the markets and made it difficult for non-state owned companies to compete or manipulate to make easy profits out of mugs like us. Many of these companies were broken up or just thrown away by the neoliberals. It was an ideological crusade, they believed anything owned by the state that distorted markets had to be removed. They also hated regulation that might affect the market’s ability to find its own balance. The concept of having a well-run commons covering key things like utilities and transport was completely alien to them, and after the reconstruction was complete the state didn’t appear to need to run those core services any more anyway.

The problem is, of course, regulations were put in place to stop manipulation of the markets and protect people like us. Also, once things like climate change start to be noticed there has to be some kind of centralised response, and some rules about what’s permissible and ways found to encourage different ways of running the commons. This doesn’t suit the fundamentally lazy billionaires who take the profits while pushing the consequences of what they do onto people like you and me, making us pay once through the state-owned services our taxes helped create being sold at massive discounts, secondly through tax breaks and subsidies, a third time through inflated prices, a fourth through cleaning up their mess, and a fifth with a poisoned environment that knocks years off our lives.

So the ideology is the atlas types deserve power because of vision and mental toughness that drives society forward. Everybody benefits and it trickles down into the rest of society. Research has shown this to be at best disingenuous, and at worst an outright, barefaced lie.

Instead the reality is making shady profits because the restrictions put in by the little people are removed. It’s subsidy and help from the state for the already obscenely wealthy. The results of the ideology are all one way, all about justifying obscene, undeserved wealth while the rest of us a little ants seen in the distance from the top of their mountains consume just enough to keep turning a profit.

Markets are also driven by sentiment, not rational thought, and actually are not a good model for organising things you depend on, for example power, transport and health care. Computer models show that there is no such thing as a stable market, either. Small changes in one place can cause massive instability that can be manipulated to make money for speculators. When the crash happened in 2008 the banks were betting against their customers so that they could make money, after fixing things so that their customers would lose.

Most legislation, and also the worship of the markets, assumes that things never change. But of course they do. Steady ways of appearing to make money stop working when they are based on lies and manipulations. The 2008 crash was caused by outright fraud, reclassifying high risk investments no-one wanted to buy as low risk, and fixing prices. You can only rob Peter to pay Paul for so long before Peter starts asking where the money is. The regulations in place that were removed, that stopped them making the huge profits they wanted to, actually meant that those profits weren’t there to make in the first place. It was all a magic trick, but instead of rabbits we got austerity and other lies. Barely anyone went to prison, even when they had broken what few laws seem to still be in nominal force. Read Mat Taibbi’s excellent book Griftopia for more detail.

Changing the metaphor

In the Greek myth Atlas was very strong and held the sky up. He eventually asked to be turned to stone because he didn’t want to do it any more. There is a better metaphor, Sisyphus. He was very clever and annoyed the gods, even managing to trick death on numerous occasions. Eventually Zeus punished him by forcing him to push a rock up a hill forever, the rock being enchanted so that it would roll back down before he reached the summit. I think that this is a better metaphor for the human condition than some arrogant fuck standing on a mountain acting out his mummy issues while giving the rest of us the finger.

We humans are pushing that rock all the time, it’s what we do in order to survive. I see it as a good metaphor for the human condition. Seasons change, circumstances develop, skills are gained, friends die or become enemies and all we have is the rock and our ingenuity, which Sisyphus had an enormous amount of. All the time we push at the rock and it never reaches the summit. If we acknowledge everybody else’s rock and find the common ground we can find ways to help each other, we can practice gratitude for the help we gain, we can work on making a commons that sustains all of us.

It does mean that you can’t always get what you want, it means everybody has to behave in a grown up and thoughtful way. It’s a society that isn’t run by selfish children.

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