Donald R. Burleson, Ph.D.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Donald R. Burleson.
This essay may be reproduced in its entirety provided
original authorship is expressly acknowledged.
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In Ayn Rand's celebrated novel Atlas Shrugged, when John Galt delivers his powerful and
groundbreaking radio address-- a definitive statement of Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, and a
polemical tour-de-force unequalled in literature-- he opens up a philosophical question that Rand,
through her character John Galt, seems to have been the first to explore, at least with the
conclusions she reaches.

The question is: What is "society"? That is, what does the term "society" (which we should perhaps
capitalize in the same spirit in which a religionist would capitalize "god") mean in a context suggesting
that the individual human being should devote himself or herself to "what is best for society" rather than
to his or her own individual interests? The answer that Rand gives is, in effect, that "society" in this
sense is a myth, a delusion, a sham perpetuated for totalitarian political purposes. "Society" simply
doesn't exist, nor should it.

It seems to me that this is a rather neglected facet of Atlas Shrugged, one that seldom gets
much attention in critical commentaries on the novel. But I would claim that this particular issue,
as raised (however momentarily) in the John Galt radio address, is a fundamentally important one,
in that an awareness of the question and its resolution in Objectivist terms can be life-changing.
One simply cannot come to see the nature of "society" as John Galt sees it, and still think of
human life in the world the way one otherwise might.

Galt first distinguishes between what he calls "the mystics of spirit" (who tell us that we
need to subjugate ourselves to the "will" of an actually non-existent God) and "the mystics of
muscle" (who tell us, often at the point of a gun, that we need to subjugate ourselves to the
"good" of a likewise non-existent Society). Galt then proceeds to remark: "The good, say the
mystics of muscle, is Society-- a thing which they define as an organism that possesses no
physical form, a super-being embodied in no one in particular and everyone in general
except yourself"
(emphasis mine). This almost deified concept of "society" also goes
by such names as "the public" and "the people," and Galt later reiterates that "people
are everyone except yourself."

This notion that "society" or "the public" or "the people" really means everyone except oneself,
everyone except the person addressed, is an exceedingly intriguing one.

For one thing, when I characterized "society" as a myth, I meant "myth" in both the "untruth"
sense and the sense of "long-standing cultural tradition," because not only is there no such
thing as "society," but, more significantly, the term and the concept have been used since
time untold for the purpose of subjugation of individual human beings to various collectivist
politico-economic systems, systems which essentially more resemble ant colonies than proper
social assemblages of humans.

One thinks of the old Soviet Union, in which people were told, in effect: Just work for the
good of the People, the benefit of Society, and (as soon as the current Five Year Plan is complete,
or maybe the next one, or maybe the one after that) there will be reason to be glad. Here,
"Society" stands in place of the equally specious notion of an anthropomorphic "God," a creature
traditionally postulated for purposes of herding people about, "God" for whom one is supposed to
arrange one's life and work selflessly in hopes that in some incomprehensible way, future benefits
will accrue. Pie in the sky. Clearly in the totalitarian/collectivist sense, the "Society"
that is supposed to receive and enjoy these illusory eventual benefits no more exists
than does the coercive fiction called "God." In totalitarian regimes, the reality is, no one
ever ends up enjoying any benefits, no one, ever, except those party bigwigs who cruise about
in limousines and spout the party line for the "enlightenment" (read: acquiescence) of the masses.

Since the collectivist view of "society" functions in a manner not unlike the notion of "God,"
i.e. essentially conduces to the control of the many by the few, the problem we face here is
basically a religious phenomenon. As always, in the long and sordid history of religious
manipulation of people by other people, the device is one of a compelling but ultimately absurd
fictional construct, in this case not God the Father but Society the Family, the Tribe, something
to be served by self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of the individual to the abstract multitude.

Abstract, because ultimately there are only individual people. This is the proof that the
collectivist vision, of necessary sacrifice and ultimate benefit to "society," is a fraud.
Someone will object: "But when a scientist discovers a cure for a dread disease, does not the
benefit go to society, to the public, to the people, to humankind?" Well, yes, in a sense, but
one must remember that it is only individuals who can know this benefit. One does not
cure a "multitude" of a disease; one cures a person. And if it is only an individual who can
benefit from what another individual accomplishes, the notion of benefit to "the people" is
a linguistic shell-game.

What John Galt points out, that "society" means everyone except oneself, describes a bizarre
twist of logic. It is as if we said: Here's a collection of things: {A,B,C,D}, the members of
the collection being A, B, C, and D-- except that, ah, no, not A after all; and actually not B;
and, um, not C; oh, and not D. When one has eliminated A, B, C, and D one at a time from
the collection {A, B, C, D}, what is left? Actually, nothing. And to see "society" as everyone
but oneself
is precisely that: a group of people from which each person supposedly belonging
to the group is excluded. What is left is the ghost of an idea-- the nebulous notion of "people"
without the people. In short, a carnival illusion designed to gull the unwary.

Then again John Galt, later in his radio address, seems to shift the definition of "society" or
"the people" somewhat, when he says: "The people, to you, is whoever has failed to achieve any
virtue or value; whoever achieves it, whoever provides the goods you require for survival, ceases
to be regarded as part of the public or as part of the human race."

In this formulation, "society" or "the public" or "the people" seems, then, to mean: all of you,
unless you're a productive person, in which case you're excused, excluded from consideration.
We come here to the difference between totalitarian and free social systems. In a free system,
an inventor or discoverer of something that brings great benefit to large numbers of other people
can, properly and deservedly, become very wealthy from his or her invention or discovery; while in
a totalitarian state, one is expected to produce that kind of work-of-the-mind for free, not
being entitled to any better lot in life than anyone else, not being entitled to any advantage
not given also to those who did not think, did not innovate, did not produce. Are we to have
redistribution of wealth, in the fraudulent glow of the idea that "society" benefits from
government's taking from some (who produced) to give to others (who didn't), or are we to value
the individual person as someone free to pursue life, liberty, happiness? It's the difference,
again, between living in a rational socio-economic system driven by free-market dynamics and a
recognition of the worth of the individual, on the one hand, and, on the other, living in an ant bed.

What we need is a new kind of disbelief. Atheism has freed us from the stultifying delusion that
we should be made subservient to an imaginary god whom power-brokers tell us we must selflessly serve.
The needed new disbelief, a sort of social atheism, should now free us from the equally stultifying
and dangerous delusion that there is such a thing as "society," which we are to serve blindly, rather
than acting in our own interests. It is understood that when one acts in one's own interests, one
must not prevent others from exercising their right to do so as well. And yes, the individual can
and should think, innovate, invent, discover, produce what others may benefit from having if they
have earned the privilege. But the benefit must be value-for-value, must be receipt only of what
is earned and deserved and not just demanded by a sense of entitlement; and it must be remembered that
the benefits that accrue from the innovator's work accrue not to some fanciful, illusory "public" or
"multitude," but to individual human beings. That's all there is. We exist only one at a time,
and any government that fails to recognize this, and to restrain its actions by virtue of that
recognition, wields the lethal hand of tyranny.