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Understanding Ayn Rand - Galt's Gulch

This is the 2nd of a 6-part series designed to explain several important aspects of Ayn Rand’s influential Atlas Shrugged, or at least correct widespread misconceptions regarding Atlas Shrugged that disastrously influence modern culture. You can pick up the start of this series here.

America has been largely blinded and persuaded by the utopia of Galt's Gulch that Rand presents in Atlas Shrugged, which appears to place the sign of the dollar as the primary focus if not the gauge of every thought and action. Indeed, a careless reading of Rand might have us believe every interaction has an economic basis and should not occur without an accompanying payment. Given how misinterpretations of Atlas Shrugged have profoundly shaped America's current business ethics, many dub her the “Mother of Capitalism.”

Utopias can be laudable, if not visionary and inspirational, and Galt’s Gulch may be among the most influential of utopian visions. Space does not permit a complete description of Galt’s Gulch. But one passage, through the eyes of the protagonist Dagny Taggart as she enters and explores Galt’s Gulch, fairly summarizes a core ideology of this utopia:

And then she [Dagny Taggart] gasped, because the trail had turned and from the height of an open ledge she saw the town on the floor of the valley. . . . Far in the distance, some structures seemed taller, and the faint coils of smoke above them suggested an industrial district. But close before her, rising on a slender granite column from a ledge below to the level of her eyes, blinding her by its glare, dimming the rest, stood a dollar sign three feet tall, made of solid gold. It hung in space above the town, as its coat-of-arms, its trademark, its beacon—and it caught the sunrays, like some transmitter of energy that sent them in shining blessing to stretch horizontally through the air above the roofs.

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Given its influence, it’s surprising that half a century passed before a critical eye questioned the viability of Galt’s Gulch. Alan Clardy, writing in the journal Utopian Studies, rightly argues that when a utopia is offered as a vision for a future that requires social or political action today, that utopia must be able to withstand a strong scrutiny. Galt’s Gulch is a utopia in need of strong scrutiny and Clardy sets out a two-part test by which to critically evaluate a utopia. Here's our brief summary of Clardy’s test as he applied it to Galt’s Gulch.

First, Clardy tests and analyzes the description of Galt’s Gulch in terms of logical consistency, completeness, and continuity. Among the fault lines he points to are values and rules by which Galt’s Gulch operates that are contradicted by the characters’ actions and assertions that prove incorrect. Summarizing his analysis of the first part of the test, he writes, “... there is no appreciation of internal contradictions or externally imposed challenges that will stress—and in all likelihood, destroy—the fundamental principles on which her utopia is created. We are shown an idyllic still life, not a plausible scenario.”

The second part of Clardy’s test considers the utopia’s psychology and sociology. He asserts that Galt’s Gulch is fatally flawed because of its gross misclassification of all humans into the limited categories of hero industrialist, looters, or sheep. Similarly, he asserts Galt’s Gulch fails under its own weight of Rand’s label as a voluntary association -- run by and for the benefit of like-minded hero industrialists -- and not a society, yet describing it with the basic elements of a society. More pointedly, he concludes, her utopia is “... simply not plausible in reality. Her idealized version of society is flawed in terms of sociological and economic and political laws and rests on a distorted view of human psychology.”

In light of critical scholarship – and we’re not aware of any other scholastic analysis of Galt’s Gulch – should we continue to accept, or even aspire to, a construct where society increasingly judges relationships only by their economic value. To do so seems unwise. The question is increasingly relevant as America continues its march into ever deeper moral and economic divides.

Have you read Atlas Shrugged lately? Can you see how aspects of a fictionalized representation (Galt’s Gulch) of one philosopher’s construct (Objectivism) have been brought to life (the dollar sign as beacon)? Do you see aspects of those representations in your life (e.g., is your career in the service of profit, or does profit serve you in your career)? Do you think Glardy’s test and conclusion regarding Galt’s Gulch are accurate? These questions are intended as food for thought, and we invite you to think how Atlas Shrugged, identified as the second most influential book in the United States, has influenced you and invite you to share those thoughts with us.

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