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The Libertarian Contradiction Behind Atlas Shrugged's Failure

Ayn Rand's monumental and insufferably reactionary novel Atlas Shrugged was recently turned into a film and, despite all the hooplah of insufferably excited libertarians, tanked at the box office.  Of course, in truly hypocritical libertarian style, the film's producer, John Aglialoro, chose to blame the critics and some nebulous and collective "fear of Ayn Rand."  Obviously when libertarians fail to maximize their liberty then it must be the fault of some collectivist conspiracy.

The idea that there is some pernicious and collective fear of Ayn Rand and her ideas––in North America at the heart of world capitalism––is patently absurd.  Libertarian ideology is the wet dream of capitalism, the fantasy of every capitalist and everyone who wants to be a capitalist.  The hatred of taxation, redistribution, and the "slavish" masses––the belief that history is made by strong, maverick individuals and not by the people at the bottom propping up the whole damn system––is so commonplace that it is utterly silly to imagine Rand as some sort of radical: libertarian ideology is an extreme version of the ruling ideas of the ruling classes.  Every successful capitalist who is also literate would probably place Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead at the top of their all-time favourite books: one can imagine Donald Trump owning a dog-eared copy of both novels, filled with copious marginal notes.

Furthermore, this is the perfect time in North America an Atlas Shrugged movie to become a blockbuster.  The story after all is about an economic crisis and, true to capitalist form, blames this crisis on the laziness of the herd and the influence of big government: a perfect myth for capitalists who want the people to remain complacent and accept the terms of their exploitation.  The rise of the Tea Party movement is filled with people, though many of them are poor, who believe in the American ideology of the lone individual, selfish liberty or death, and who rant against even the most marginal welfare reforms that would probably make their lives easier.  These are Randians in the making, even if many of them have never read a book by Ayn Rand or know who she is––here is the proof that her philosophy is commonplace, mundane, nothing more than the outer limit of capitalist ideology.  Despite never having read Atlas Shrugged or anything else by Rand, the average Tea Party supporter will conflate Nazism with Socialism, will imagine that even marginal [very marginal] welfare reforms are "socialist" (and thus "national socialist"), and loudly demand that the government get out of their check-book.  Thus, it is ludicrous to speak of a widespread fear of Ayn Rand when the most prevalent and poisonous American ideology promotes, in varying degrees, a homogenizing fear of "collectivism."

Everything was perfect for an Atlas Shrugged movie and yet it still failed.  Like every libertarian, Aglialoro imagines that his own failures are the fault of some conspiracy: it must be the critics or big government ruining his supposed brilliance!  As the above cited review of Atlas Shrugged's failure pointed out:
"Let's be reasonable for a moment.  The world spends too much time claiming that critics are unnecessary and pointless to claim now that they've brought down an entire movie like a pack of hyenas on a slow gazelle.  Blaming critics for Atlas Shrugged failing is like blaming stand-up comedians for making everyone hate airplane food. […] It's even more obtuse to believe critics did it deliberately and with malice aforethought.  Trust me.  As someone who gets paid very, very little, I have zero stake in whether a movie does well or doesn't financially.  I'm apathetic as to whether his movie (or any other) makes bank.  Aglialoro seems to think that at our last Secret Critic Cabal, we all agreed to unanimously trash Atlas Shrugged and ruin his day, which is absurd.  At our last meeting, we all watched Blow Out and Roger Ebert read an original poem about John Travolta's hair.  It was really moving."
And this reviewer was someone who, in his original review that trashed the film, was actually sympathetic to the source material––thus proving my original point: there were people, many of whom were critics, who wanted to see the film succeed.  The Randian philosophy of Atlas Shrugged is not something critics feared: American critics often love films about mavericks, individual liberty, and the evils of big government––it is part of the American Dream!  The reason that Aglialoro's film failed was because it was badly made: wooden dialogue, entire scenes where people just talked about what was happening rather than using cinematic language to show it, and general boringness.

one of many boring business/exposition scenes

The average American movie goer who is drawn to the ideology expressed by Ayn Rand does not want to watch a film composed mostly of explanatory dialogue and business meetings.  As the aforementioned review complains, the real problem with Atlas Shrugged was that its propensity to rely on "commentary on exactly what's happening currently in the room that the people are in," and its "exposition-weighted jargon that sounds like it came from someone who stormed out of day one of their MBA classes because they thought they knew better than the professor."  (As an aside, the latter point perfectly describes libertarians: these are the students who have read a little of Rand and little of Nietzsche, and take up space talking out of their asses––not just in MBA courses but in undergraduate philosophy classes.)

What makes Atlas Shrugged's box office failure sad is that it did not fail on the merits of its ideology but on the merits of its film-making.  Those of us who understand that the ideology of libertarianism, of the American Dream, is poisonous and often leads to fascism secretly want a movie like Atlas Shrugged to fail because people are rejecting its ideology.  We want people to "fear" the ideas of Ayn Rand for the right reasons: because these ideas promote the most anti-person practices that are already sacred and part of actually existing capitalism.  Better yet: we want people to hate these ideas––these ideas that are all too common and not at all very radical since they are the ideas of the American Dream––and to struggle against them.

So the failure of the film was simply due to Aglialoro's failure to be a good film producer.  Really, if he was a good libertarian, then he would have heeded the rock band Rush's homage to Ayn Rand in their libertarian hair-rock hit Closer To The Heart: "ploughmen and philosophers, each must know his part."  Clearly Aglialoro didn't know "his part" and just assumed that he would be a good film-maker and write a good script, without any prior experience.  What is with all these libertarians who immediately think they will be the ubermensch in their "new reality"?

Rush rocks out to Ayn Rand

But libertarians like Aglialoro are incapable of thinking critically about what they produce––what films or novels they create––just as they are incapable of thinking critically about their own ideology.  They imagine, stupidly and ahistorically, that big government is out to ruin their individual autonomy.  This is because they also imagine that capitalism would survive without big capitalist government because the market, in their excited fever dreams, is apparently a natural force.  But those of us who study history critically are capable of understanding that capitalism, like any economic order, would not survive without the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.  Why would people choose to starve, choose to live in homes owned by landlords, choose to sell their labour power to millionaires, if there was not a state to enforce the rule of this market?  And why would this big government, if it was so bent on ruining capitalism, bail out banks and millionaires during a crisis?  Why are all of the reforms that capitalism produces nothing more than concessions to the struggles of the exploited, and pitiful at best?  The libertarian delirium might be the ultimate fantasy of capitalism, but it is nothing more than a fantastic/idealist order––an economized version of Aquinas' Great Chain of Being.  Here in the real world, the market requires states with militaries and police, with laws to mediate exchange, in order to exist.

Really, if Aglialoro was an honest libertarian he would have to admit that the failure of the film was due to his own individual failures.  If he was a John Galt, or some other banal version of the Nietzschean uber-mensch, he would have clearly succeeded in rising above the collective herd and establishing his film on its own supposedly "brilliant" merits.  But his magical Malthusian market decided for him, weeding out the bad commodities from the good.  In the end, by refusing to understand that his film was just a bad piece of film-making, Aglialoro reveals the contradictions of his asinine ideology.  Or, as one of the previously cited reviews joked:
"it's unsurprising that Aglialoro needs an enemy to move forward; the entire marketing campaign had a distinct Us vs. Them feel to it.  The last weekly email called the film's release a 'fight' and claimed that 'the opposition is out in force and they DO NOT want the message of Atlas to get out.'  Newsflash: the message of Atlas is already out.  In paperback form.  The only thing you're fighting against is the free market."


  1. The film of "The Fountainhead" is Slavoj Zizek's favorite film of all time. Slightly off topic but just sayin'

  2. Ahahahaha... Not that off topic. That is very sad and should tell us something about Zizek's supposed commitment to marxism.

  3. I'm glad this movie tanked. A good acquaintance of mine, a friend I even dare say, is an odd mix of Keynesian & Randian (he likes Rand, but he thinks she is unrealistic), and he couldn't wait for this film to come out.

    I agree with you though JMP that it would have been better if it had crashed and burned on the merits (or rather lack thereof) of its ideology, and not its filmaking.

  4. Keynesian and Randian? Usually the lovers of Keynes I encounter say that they "like Marx but Marxism is unrealistic." But yeah, it would be better if it tanked because of an overall rejection of Randian ideology: it is still hilarious, though, that it was made so horribly.

  5. Knowing a few libertarian, they seem to have a common trait of blaming collectivism for their personal failures, its always the governments fault that they have not achieved their goals..


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