Is Atlas Shrugging?

At 100 years since Ayn Rand's Birth, is someone stopping the motor of the world?

"Who is John Galt?"

The signature question in Atlas Shrugged, the magnum opus of literary/philosophical giant Ayn Rand, echoes hauntingly across the decades to her modern faithful.  With a tinge of guilt, the question in the novel conveyed the unknowing helplessness of the common man in the face of a disintegrating material world.

"Why all the dire stuff, dude?  I should know but I don't."

The query toward Mr. Galt almost restates the famous sentiment by an English poet:

And how am I to face the odds, of man's bedevilment and God's, I a stranger and afraid in a world I never made?

— A.E. Housman (1859-1936)

Rand may roll in her grave(1) to have any of her phrasings compared to the more pessimistic, sensitive Mr. Housman.  She favored the more take-charge, can-do attitude of her literary heroes, such as Galt himself, Hank Rearden, Francisco D'Anconia, or Dagny Taggart… who ultimately won the day.

Still the reasons giving rise to such expressions of bewildered pessimism as, "Who is John Galt?" are similar for the dying world of Atlas Shrugged as for our own seemingly dying planet.

In the novel, an elite group of productive geniuses, "men of the mind," abandon their smokestacks, skyscrapers, bridges, cyclotrons, stethoscopes, and classrooms to go on strike.  Their terms: call off your altruistic-collectivist corporatist-government, so we can achieve our majestic, nonsacrificial goals.

In the modern world (at least in America) we're seeing thousands of accomplished intellects in many professions—virtually all fields today rely on core information technology (IT)—being forced toward the margins of the corporate system:

  1. Either they're underemployed in the system, taking lower-paid positions that emphasize relatively regimented, bureaucratic tasks for what are known as "legacy systems" or apply dime-a-dozen, snake-oil tools of the microsecond to ill-conceived project notions.
  2. Or they're unemployed by the system… in areas that don't use high-tech.  For example, I have a computer-science friend with an MBA working with his wife in a scrapbooking business.

I know several individuals with ideas that can demonstrably save hundreds of thousands of dollars in knowledge costs to IT systems' organizations.  Many of these individuals would take contract work at a rate commensurate with reward.  Yet employer interest in these individuals wanes, why?

The answer is more complex than an ephemeral [short lived  —Ed.] economic downturn.

The modern American corporate state differs from the Atlas Shrugged phenomenon in that the accomplished intellects are not grouping consciously to strike.  Rather they're being driven out by a concerted effort to move the control of production and trade away from the productive-creative class toward the antiproductive-parasitic class.  (These terms are solely descriptive.)

Take the common case in which a systems development manager has a requirement for a uniquely skilled creative resource A.  The need is objective.  As a consequence of having this specific resource, the company is assured of profiting either through increased business or reduced expense.  Conversely, not having resource A leads to a verifiable relative substantial loss.

The need is technical.  Meaning, only creative staff understands the nature of the skillset required.  The technical supervisors don't feel they should consult a Ouija Board, flip a coin, or ask the bagel guy for his opinion.  Nor do they seek input from people in the company with zero technical knowledge.

But today, alarmingly, technical productive staff has almost universally acquiesced in turning over its employment decision-making, even key technical business control, to the human resources (HR) department and its know-nothing bureaucratic ilk.

Thus, bean counters and politicians having literally no concept of how to produce anything whatsoever make increasingly big decisions.  Indeed, HR proudly asserts its authority based solely on largely arbitrary rules.  Upper management goes along, because in large American corporations, stratospheric management is indistinguishable from the real political class.

The analogy of corporate machinery to government systems is striking.

It is no accident the growth of antiproductive corporate systems parallels that of leviathan government.  At the upper levels the systems have become so ingrown and corrupt, so venal and slothful, so vicious and destructive that Wall Street and the statist-elite are virtually the same guys(2).

These entrenched political interests have driven the productive-creative "people of the mind" away from wealth-generating activity.  After having been so rudely shown the door, the productive-creative class may eventually "shrug" as second nature.  If the producers do say, "Bah bye," the remaining system will collapse.

At that point, honest, more ordinary minions who depend on the producers—think of people working the concession stands after the NHL lockout—suffer most.  Bank clerks, retail workers, service personnel, children working their way up—this system eats its young.  All will weep and gnash teeth grievously until the producers are restored.

And the producers will come back eventually, once and for all(3).

Then we can make the original question comfortably historic, "Who was John Galt?"

  1. Ayn Rand died March 6, 1982 (the day after John Belushi). back to text
  2. Ref. From the Wilderness back to text
  3. [But will they come back here?  Will the US go the way of the UK?  A stagnant second rate world power whose time has come and gone.  Which country will rise from the global ashes of the failed US imperialism?  Which country will have the balls and foresight to offer its citizens and incoming immigrants the freedom and integrity that once made the US a safe haven for creativeness?  —Ed.] back to text

Corporate Bureaucracy

Your post hit a nerve I've been feeling for some time. In my part of industry, electronics manufacturing, the more insidious purveyor of dysfunctional bureaucracy than HR is the Corporate Quality organization.

Many companies have built large, unwieldy departments supposedly dedicated to assuring product quality. Usually, these organizations come into being or grow as a result of pressure from naive customers, not actual need. These departments often are set up to enforce European-style quality "standards" such as ISO 9001, and usual apply little common sense (is there such a thing anymore?) to their task.

As a result, the "producers" in the company, creative engineers and technical managers, tend to roll their eyes and ignore the edicts of the ivory tower quality staff. Meanwhile, the more numerous weaker hands dogmatically follow the quality department advice and build ever more cumbersome, bureaucratic controls, designed more to stifle activity than to improve quality.

Years ago, I observed this phenomenon and predicted to myself that the practical businessmen in executive positions in these companies would eventually cease to tolerate the anti-business bent of "corporate quality" and chuck it out on its ear. To my surprise, that really hasn't happened. Maybe the dogma has become entrenched. It's too bad, because it is hobbling some of our most creative companies and individuals.

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