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Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2002 / 14 Shevat, 5763

Robert W. Tracinski

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Atlas Shrugs in Venezuela | A recent news article described the nationwide strike in Venezuela, in protest against the nascent dictatorship of Hugo Chavez, as seeming "like something from fiction." Well, yes, it seems very similar to one work of fiction in particular: Ayn Rand's prophetic 1957 novel, "Atlas Shrugged."

The parallels between fiction and fact are striking. In Ayn Rand's novel, America is sliding into an economic dictatorship, so inventors and businessmen lead a secret walk-out, withdrawing their support from the "looters" who want to plunder the wealth they create. They declare that they won't return until the looters relinquish power.

Rand's working title for the novel was "The Strike." In an era of frequent, sometimes violent strikes by factory workers, it was shockingly original to suggest that the entrepreneurs, inventors and capitalists might go on strike.

Ayn Rand's imagined strike is no longer fiction. For four years, Venezuela has been gradually sliding into an economic and political dictatorship under Marxist populist Hugo Chavez, an open admirer of Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein. In response, the nation's largest federation of businessmen has led the nation for more than 40 days in a massive work stoppage. Venezuela's most productive citizens have gone on strike to protest their imminent liquidation under Chavez's communist revolution.

It is not just the main storyline that is the same; many details are similar. In "Atlas Shrugged," the decisive step toward dictatorship is Directive 10-289, which gives bureaucrats the power to rule by decree, holding an iron grip on every productive enterprise in the country. In Venezuela, the crisis was touched off a year ago when a Chavez-controlled assembly gave him the power to rule by decree. Without even consulting parliament, Chavez issued 49 infamous decrees that gave him an iron grip on every productive enterprise in the country.

In "Atlas Shrugged," political demagogues denounce the "monopolistic power" of a self-made steel tycoon -- while engaging in feverish horse-trading of government favors and black-market loot. In Venezuela, Chavez was elected on a promise to clean up corruption in Venezuela's state-run industries; what followed was an even bigger wave of corruption to reward Chavez's cronies.

Late in the novel, the political villains of "Atlas Shrugged" deliberately sacrifice the country's economic survival to maintain their control, decreeing that unprofitable rail lines be kept running -- even though this dooms the industrial centers -- so that they can ensure the transportation of government troops. Hugo Chavez just made a similar choice. Chavez has announced plans to split and decentralize Venezuela's oil monopoly in an attempt to break the strike by its workers. Analysts project the reorganized industry won't achieve more than a fraction of its pre-strike production. But, they note, Chavez has made a choice to sacrifice production -- and his nation's prosperity -- in order to maintain his dictatorial control.

In "Atlas Shrugged," as the country approaches full dictatorship, government functionaries start to adopt military affectations. This was a detail Ayn Rand learned from her own youth in Russia during the early years of the Soviet tyranny; in her 1936 novel, "We The Living," the young Russian Communists are described as wearing identical military-style leather jackets. Military trappings are the natural expression of a society increasingly subject to the rule of force. In Venezuela, therefore, we see Hugo Chavez -- a former paratrooper -- still wearing military-style garb, though he is ostensibly a civilian leader.

These parallel plot points are indications of a deeper connection. Chavez rose to power four years ago by spouting the accepted bromides of modern politics. Like the villains in "Atlas Shrugged," he demonized the real producers as "exploiters" and promised to exploit them in return. And he promised that there was no problem that could not be fixed by the use of a government bludgeon. The left-leaning international press so firmly believes these platitudes that it has rushed into print, in publications ranging from The New York Times to Britain's Guardian, to denounce the courageous Venezuelan opposition and sing hosannas to Chavez.

Ayn Rand's novel was not just a warning against dictatorship. It was a warning against the moral code that regards business, self-interest and the profit motive as evil. It was her warning against the moral philosophy that preaches the sacrifice of the individual to the envious masses -- and thus unleashes any demagogue who promises to loot the producers for the sake of the "little guy."

That lesson, presented in fictional form, is also the lesson to be drawn from the drama now being acted out in real life.

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