The basic premise of Ayn Rand's “Atlas Shrugged” is that the producers of this world – the innovators, workers, and, yes, capitalists (which I would clarify by calling them “true capitalists” rather than the degenerate type we see all around us today) – become so sick and tired of socialism, collectivism, and liberals that they begin, one by one, to drop out – that is, to deny the collectivist, parasitical masses and their rulers any more of the fruit of their labor and creativity. It does not start out as a conspiracy, but eventually these titans -- who are ready to shrug off the burdens of a world in which industry is punished and sloth rewarded – find each other and retire, or retreat, to a Rocky Mountain redoubt established by the mysterious John Galt (as in “Who Is...?”, a question that made a brief appearance on bumper stickers a couple of years back). And thus, robbed of their host, the cancer cells of socialism presumably die off, although we are not treated to a description of their final days, Rand undoubtedly feeling that it was easy enough to imagine, and besides, 1000-plus pages was enough.
The book was published in 1957, in what some would consider the golden age of capitalism and big business – although the handwriting was on the wall even then. Business and government had reached an accommodation of sorts after having weathered the crises of the New Deal, and organized labor was powerful and well-established; there was a kind of equilibrium after many decades of strife. And one would have thought all was well and that optimism was the sensible attitude – except that the New Deal, still fresh in everyone's mind – had shown that government could drastically sway the balance of power by the stroke of a pen, at will, and with a minimum of consideration of real costs; rather, the labor-management issue was one terminally fraught with politics, and often corrupted by bribery. The tendency was still for government to grow larger and more oppressive, for the law to become more intrusive and arbitrary, and for the underclass and its enablers to demand more and more of the products of honest labor and innovation. And, incredible as it seems, this was before the New Frontier, the Great Society, and all of the other mischievous and oppressive legislation and programs still to be dreamt up by self-styled progressives – right up to the present day with ObamaCare. If it was indeed a golden age, it was also on the defensive, and the poison of collectivist thinking was well on the way to rendering the capitalist system obsolete (and, in fact, Rand considered capitalism an “unknown ideal” even then).
But in any case, was the book prophetic? The answer has to be an unambiguous “no”, because the very people who, according to the story, were supposed to see through the pretensions of collectivism wound up becoming its allies, in a display of cynicism and moral bankruptcy possibly unmatched in history. Rand was, perhaps, working from a historical and conceptual baseline dominated by communism as "the" enemy and the primary basis and force for collectivism, and her bad characters are, typically, mushy socialists of the New Deal type, gradually becoming drunk with power and moving rapidly toward totalitarianism. There are the liberal elitists, just as in our present day, and the restless underclass clamoring for a piece of the “pie”, also as in our present day. The middle class – whom she doesn't spend much time on, as I recall – are intimidated and “clinging” and silent, also as in our present day (at least up until recently). But the players – the people who can make a difference – are at the top of the heap. (Otherwise, it wouldn't be called “_Atlas_ Shrugged”.) They do have the power to make or break the system – to sabotage that which they themselves built up in order to keep it out of the hands of the parasites.
I don't think that Rand envisioned anything like what actually happened, however -- namely that “big business” -- and the bigger it is, the more true this becomes – would strike a devil's bargain with government, and thus become an equal, and later on dominant, partner in what is, for all intents and purposes, a fascist system. (After all, hadn't fascism been soundly defeated in World War II? Well, yes – two varieties of it had. But it didn't take long before it raised its head again in more subtle form.) It's not unlike what happened to the anti-communist Cold War crowd. They were rightly concerned about international communism and subversion on the home front, but they should have been paying a bit more attention to the rise of the other major form of socialism. But as usual – and matching our approach to foreign policy during that era – anything “anti-communist” was good, no matter what (and no matter how insincere). So when the Soviets broke up, we instantly found ourselves in the grip of other powers. Of course they had been there all along – or at least for a good time. But the Cold War had distracted us from the danger, as does the “war on terror” now (and I guarantee that this is one of the main reasons for the war on terror – to distract us from the real issues).
However, an interesting thing has happened of late. The middle class, which Rand apparently considered “flyover country”, has not only yielded up a goodly portion of libertarians (of both the Randian and non-Randian sort) over the years, but also a goodly portion of the paleoconservatives... and it is also the driving force behind the “tea partiers”. In other words, a small portion of the middle class has awakened from its slumbers and is, at long last, starting to ask the tough questions – not of the old-time left wing but of the ruling elite, which is a cabal of business and government, and of liberals and neoconservatives. Now, given that the questions are, let's say, not all that philosophical in nature, consisting mostly of some variation on “Why are you doing this to us?” -- the fact that they are being asked at all is remarkable. And, I hasten to note, very few people were asking that question in 1957; at that time everyone was pursuing the mirage of a “mixed economy”, where business, labor, and government could peacefully coexist without at the same time threatening the survival of the middle class.
But here's the problem. Whereas in “Atlas Shrugged” the strong and powerful Atlases had some real power -- not to mention a sense of ethics -- and the proletariat, as always and by definition, had sheer numbers, the middle class of today has no real power – at least none that they are interested in using. And their numbers don't mean a thing as long as they can be intimidated into consistently voting against their own interests. The power of the ruling elite is being used against them, as are the sheer numbers of the underclass, so how can they defend themselves? The answer is, they can't, and no amount of town hall meetings or tea party rallies is going to change that. And yet, in a paradoxical way, the middle class can, in a sense, win this battle in the long run – but in order to do that they have to disappear. They can't head for Galt's Gulch because there is no such place – there is no shelter from the growing storm. And yet who is it that feeds the system? Whose resources and “surplus labor” are regularly accumulated and rolled up into profits and wealth for the ruling elite? Certainly not those of the underclass! No, it is still, after all, the middle class that is the economic base for the system as it is presently configured – which means that, as the middle class declines, which it inevitably will, so will the system that it supports, until it gets to the point where the system itself cannot stand, and something will have to take its place. We will then be back to the two-class system of the time before the Renaissance and before the Industrial Revolution; in fact, we will have achieved the communist ideal but through a different route – a vast underclass of workers ruled by an elite, with no one in between. But the question then arises, how can middle-class values survive a cataclysm like this? Will the masses be divided into two parts -- “never anything but underclass” and “formerly middle class”? I doubt this very much. As tempting as it might be to think, or hope, that middle-class values will somehow survive collectivism and impoverishment, it's more likely that the values, or attitudes, will wind up based on the poverty, deprivation, and squalor that the vast majority will then be subject to... and that's the point at which the ruling elite (and those with a true “proletariat consciousness”) will be surprised. Oh, undoubtedly the great, gray mass of workers will manage to put out a level of productivity greater than zero – this certainly happened in the Soviet Union and even in China. But that's never been enough to sustain a modern technologically-based civilization – for that you need, as dull and boring as it sounds, middle-class values and attitudes, and, in particular, the middle-class willingness to sacrifice some of its labor for the benefit of others (deserving or not)... and the middle-class willingness to contribute to the fortunes of the rich. Who, in the brave new world of Obama-ism, is going to be willing, or able, to make that sort of sacrifice? No one! The underclass will feel entitled to, basically, sit on their rear ends, just like now... and the ruling elite will be searching the landscape for someone to do the heavy lifting, which is now still being done by the middle class. But no one will be found – which means that the ruling elite will start feeling like Third World despots, and the aggregate prosperity and productivity of society will plummet.
So what I'm saying is what I've said before, in (hopefully) different words – that the ruling elite is, at present, killing the golden goose – namely the productive middle class, i.e. the middle class that is willing to work but have much of its productivity siphoned off (in both directions, up and down). Part of what sustains the system, which has already become outrageously exploitative, is middle-class rigidity and fear. Plus, it takes a weird kind of faith to believe that a government that takes so much, and gives back so little, is still a government worthy of support. You couldn't pull that scam on anyone else and get away with it – and yet the American middle class is so bovine, and so lulled into contentment by the public schools and the media, and by “patriotism”, that it goes along, year after year – with the exception of a few who finally wake up and start to focus, and that's where the town hall people and the tea partiers come from. But theirs are the bleats and protests of sheep being led to the slaughter – of a dying class that is on the way to being liquidated. But they will get even, in way, because those who are marching them to the killing fields will miss them when they're gone – but by then it will be too late, and how do you “grow” a middle class in a chaotic, hostile environment? I'm not sure you can – which leads me to think we may be in for a very long dark age.