Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking Part 6

Dagny and Hank survey their Colorado paradise.

Chapter 7 The Exploiters And The Exploited

It's all about capitalism.

When Miss Megan "Jane" McArdle-Galt reviewed Atlas Shrugged: The Movie!, she did not hesitate to express her disappointment.

The worst part is that the movie is a bad caricature of what people think that libertarians believe. The genius of capitalism is nowhere to be found--in this movie, "business" mostly consists of shuffling papers around a desk, telling your fellow capitalists how great they are, and instantly promising to deliver metal for a railroad bridge without probing trivial matters like how much metal will be required, when and where the bridge will be built, and how much the customer might be willing to pay. This makes the capitalists who go on strike seem very little different from the "looters" in Washington who they are supposed to be fighting: they're all a bunch of pompous windbags delivering prim little lectures to each other. The only real difference is that in the middle of the movie, the capitalists get to ride a cool CGI train.

Of course, [Ayn] Rand's many critics will claim that this is all there was in the book. But that's not true. The movie left out the things that could have made it gripping: the aesthetic that deftly mixes comic books, film noir, and WPA murals; the reverance [sic] for genius and innovation; the stories that dramatize pure principle. These things are barely name checked, much less used. The best stories--like the nationalization of the San Sebastian mines, or the attempt by the 20th Century Motor Company to run its business along the lines of the communist motto "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"--are compressed into two lines, explained ineptly.

Chapter 7, all 80 glorious pages of it, digs deep into the "genius of capitalism." As depicted by Rand, the genius of capitalism resides in its purity; it punishes failure and rewards merit without prejudice or favor, as long as the looters-n-moochers don't get their dirty hands on it. As depicted by Megan McArdle, capitalism is a magical system that automatically resides in near-perfect balance between corporations' desire to make a profit and customers' desire to buy products. All things being equal, of course; these versions of capitalism depend on the assumption that capitalism ensures a equal playing field in which one group is not able to gain a disproportionate amount of power or information over the other because of this magical state of equilibrium. After all, if customers buy a bad product they will not buy it again and the company will go broke, and what company wants to go broke? None! Therefore in a capitalist society customers will never be unaware of bad products or services, corporations cannot amass excessive amounts of power, and equilibrium will always be maintained.

As for the corporations' workers, they exist in the happy state of equilibrium as well since they can always leave and get another job if they don't like their wages or working conditions. Under capitalism they can never be underpaid or exploited, since capitalism's perfect equilibrium provides jobs for anyone who is willing to work.

In other words, for Atlas Shrugged's depiction of capitalism to be realistic, one must divorce it from all context and utterly ignore any reality that manages to sneak in under the dark of night. Rand is respected for having lived through the Russian Revolution and having seen the wholesale theft of property by the state. However, it doesn't do you much good to endure hardship if you don't learn anything from it. The only thing Rand learned was that it was better to be the elite than the poor masses. Rand's audience was the prosperous middle and upper classes of the late 1950s, raised on American exceptionalism and enjoying the advantages of a booming economy, a large manufacturing base, and an educated working class. Rand had to invent a reason for her version of America to crush the masses and she chose the one thing that she abhorred more than anything else in the entire world--more than socialism or fascism or revolution or starvation.


Rand's looters and moochers want to drag down the elite Galtian Ubermenschen because the masses are weak and stupid. The looters-n-moochers (let's call them scum for short, Rand's other favorite term for the 99%) get angry and jealous when confronted with the superiority of the Galts. The scum want to punish the Galts for being so smart and pure and good so they try to stop them from being successful. It is so unfair that some people (like little Alisa Rosenbaum) are smarter than everyone else and get good grades without even trying (like Alisa Rosenbaum) but nobody likes them and all the other girls won't even talk to them, not that they'd talk to them anyway because they can't even think their way out of a wet paper bag like she, Alisa Rosenbaum, can. Rand did not understand emotions and resented being judged on emotional terms. She could always feel superior on an intellectual level and thus did not want anything messy and unknown like emotions to interfere with that happy state.

As we return to our story, Dagny Taggart is doing her damnedest to get the Rio Norte Line to Colorado, which we are informed holds infinite natural resources when the rest of the country is depleted. Dagny is exhausted from convincing various manufacturers to take her business; she spend most of her time trying to shovel buckets of money into businessmen's pockets but alas, they all are terrified of the prospect despite everyone's declining revenues. The nation's infrastructure is literally falling apart due to the mysterious disappearance of the few competent people in the world. Without these few, these happy few, the nation is falling apart at the seams. Since there is only a tiny number of people in the world who can do anything, when they disappear the world starts to sink into a sticky morass of inaction and failure. Over in reality, where we live, we know that when a Steve Jobs dies another will eventually take his place since there are millions of intelligent, competent people in the world, many of whom are kept from achieving by circumstance and lack of opportunity and who would jump eagerly into any gap left by a Galt-going Master of the Universe. But Rand was convinced of her Great Man theory and nothing would ever change her mind. There are superior people who hold up the world and everyone else is just scum that rides the coattails of the rich and successful.

Lesser men are stupid and cannot understand complicated things like math and science. Dagny wants her entire rail line built of Reardon metal but her engineers don't want the responsibility of working with an unknown quantity, foundries don't want to revamp their factories to handle the higher melting point, and companies she depends on for parts are going bankrupt right and left. This is one of the sections that Megan McGalt must greatly enjoy, for it is filled with the failings of her enemies and the triumph of her ideological heroes. Atlas Shrugged does not, as McGalt says, probe "matters like how much metal will be required, when and where the bridge will be built, and how much the customer might be willing to pay." It is not filled with the glories of capitalism as manufacturers sell to merchants, merchants sell to customers, and customers invest in manufacturers, all in perfect balance. Capitalism is a complete and abject failure in Rand's world, because the Superior People, the people who actually count, are constantly being insulted by the scum. Their feeling are hurt--where's the love? where's the appreciation?--so they go Galt, leaving poor Dagny to rage and fight to save embattled capitalism with only Hank Reardon to turn to for help.

She looked at the spikes in the rail at her feet. They meant the night when she had heard that Summit Casting of Illinois, the only company willing to make spikes of Rearden Metal, had gone bankrupt, with half of her order undelivered. She had flown to Chicago, that night, she had got three lawyers, a judge and a state legislator out of bed, she had bribed two of them and threatened the others, she had obtained a paper that was an emergency permit of a legality no one would ever be able to untangle, she had had the padlocked doors of the Summit Casting plant unlocked, and a random, half-dressed crew working at the smelters before the windows had turned gray with daylight. The crews had remained at work, under a Taggart engineer and a Reardon metallurgist. The rebuilding of the Rio Norte Line was not held up.

Remember that morality is for lesser mortals in Rand's world. Her serial killer fascination revealed that Rand's idea of achievement was not just creating someone great, it was imposing one's will on others while doing so.

Rand was broken by the Bolsheviks as a girl, and she never left their bootprint behind. She believed her philosophy was Bolshevism’s opposite, when in reality it was its twin. Both she and the Soviets insisted a small revolutionary elite in possession of absolute rationality must seize power and impose its vision on a malleable, imbecilic mass. The only difference was that Lenin thought the parasites to be stomped on were the rich, while Rand thought they were the poor.

It is irrelevant that Dagny broke the law and contributed to the culture of corruption that ostensibly disgusts her when others indulge in it; she has her railroad spikes and that is proof of her superiority. Her will is stronger than those in the government and legal system and her purpose is more pure than that of the fools who are incapable of appreciating visionaries. Dagny gets her own way because she is better than everyone else and she is better than everyone else because she always gets her own way. It's win-win for the Ubermenschen. This is one of the "stories that dramatize pure principle," in McGalt's words, as Dagny does not hesitate to use money to shift the balance of power towards herself. Principle be damned, Dagny has a railroad to build.

Fortunately Randians, like all authoritarians, do not demand adherence to principle from their leaders, who are supposed to be above rules. Just as authoritarian parents do not hold themselves to the same standards they demand for their children, authoritarian followers do not hold their ideology or ideological leaders to high standards. When Libertarians discovered Ayn Rand took government benefits when she was old and sick they all made up excuses for her behavior. A genuine Ubermensch would never suck off the public teat like any common moocher, he would rather die than lower himself to behave like the scum. But authoritarians believe that the rich are different and go by other, more tolerant rules; producers carry the rest of the world on their shoulders and one must make allowances.

Meanwhile Reardon is facing roadblocks as well. A government official in the service of the major US industrialists pressures him to sell Reardon metal to take it off the market. The official says that the metal will throw existing companies out of business but says he is "thinking in terms of the country as a whole, we are concerned with the public welfare and the terrible crises" of unemployment. Unemployment will not be improved by closing Reardon's conglomerate of businesses but Rand is not concerned with the little details of reality or consistency; a monopoly's attempt to control its market share is socialist because she says it is. Reardon threatens to kill the government lackey and refuses all offers, even those that would make him richer. Reardon metal is better than steel and excellence must and will triumph; it is the only source of joy in Rand's world and the only reason for living.

But the government declares Reardon metal unsafe and Dagny fails to convince the head of the national Science Institute to support the new discovery. He ignores her plea to support a simple fact, the excellence of Reardon metal. She is incredulous that a scientist could ignore the truth so he finally admits that it would embarrass the government if a private individual were the source of a brilliant new innovation. Since the government can't do anything ever, it must destroy those who can. This explains why Randians will never admit that the government has supported great and lucrative innovations; their ideology declares that it could not happen because only brilliant lone individuals could ever be successful. Governments can't do what individuals can do because only a few rare Supermen are innovative geniuses.

In desperation, Dagny convinces her brother James to give her the Rio Norte Line to finish building on her own. She assumes all responsibility for the socially unpopular line and tells James to take care of the paperwork, thereby relieving herself of anything that might mar her bright and shining purpose. Francisco refuses to help finance her project and once again Dagny is tossed into a spasm of distress at his uselessness. Battered but unbowed, Dagny vows to rename her line the John Galt line, in defiance of all the hopeless, helpless scum determined to drag her down.

In Atlas Shrugged the scum say that nobody can do anything ever and nobody can know anything ever. They believe in writing the laws to benefit a small monopoly of industrialists, eliminating competition and suppressing invention. They want to stand athwart history yelling stop, preserving their ancestors' Christian morality and preventing any changes in their world or worldview. These are the looters and moochers, which makes it odd to see Libertarians, the champions of capitalism, constantly repeat the words Ayn Rand considered beneath contempt. Libertarians do the very things that they accuse the looters and moochers of doing; they say there's nothing anyone can do about failure because it's built into the system. In fact, failure is the key to success, a phrase that would have enraged Rand.

In no time at all--really, it's on the next page--Dagny has her financing, from all the other Ubermenschen who recognize genius instantly when Dagny approaches them with her plans. Reardon tosses a check for a million dollars in the kitty, orders are pouring in from one Ubermensch to another, and Dagny is thrilled. She and Reardon are in perfect synchrony as they conduct business together, as business talk is the talk of love in Rand's world. Little does she know that under Reardon's cold exterior, he is seething with agonies of love for Our Dagny, or rather seething with urges to dominate her and force her to submit to his will, which is the same thing as love to Rand.

Do you know what it's like, to want [you].... for that degrading need, which should never touch you, I have never wanted anyone but you.... I hadn't known what it was like, to want it, until I saw you for the first time. I had thought: Not I, I couldn't be broken by it..... To bring you down to things you can't conceive--and to know that it's I who have done it. To reduce you to a body, to teach you an animal's pleasure, to see you need it, to see you asking me for it, to see your wonderful spirit dependent upon the obscenity of your need. To watch you as you are, as you face the world with your clean,proud strength--then to see you, in my bed, submitting to any infamous whim I may devise, to any act which Ill perform for the sole purpose of watching your dishonor and to which you'll submit for the sake of an unspeakable sensation.... I want you--and may I be damned for it!

Dagny is unaware of the rape fantasy unrolling in Reardon's mind, which is a great pity since her greatest wish is to be forced into submission by a cruel, ruthless, emotionless Master, so she could cower at his feet like a Frank Franzetta alien princess. But soon Reardon has more important things to worry about. The anti-competition law passes and Reardon is overcome with grief and despair. How could they drag him down so? A "screaming pain without content or limit" courses through Reardon, and he is temporarily overcome with the burden of living in a world of looters and scum who have all ganged up against him to bring about his destruction.

All of Rand's heroes are constantly persecuted by the weak and immoral, barely able to keep their heads up due to the scum's omnipresent efforts to drag down the superior men. Forty years after teenage Alisa's family lost everything to revolution, the fear, hunger, and paranoia were just as strong, even when she no longer had any reason for those emotions. All of Rand's characters are always at a fever pitch of emotion; they constantly cry and scream and shriek, rocketing from euphoria to despair and back again. Yet Rand also tells us that the only happy moments in their lives are those devoid of any emotion but triumph, that only emotionless people are able to think, create or rule the scum of the earth. Reardon and Dagny can only find happiness through eliminating anyone or anything that distracts from achieving greatness, and the little girl that dwelled in the heart of cold, self-obsessed Ayn Rand could think of nothing better than eliminating the one inescapable thing that plagued her for her entire life--those inexplicable, inconvenient, heartbreaking emotions and the inferior humans who insisted on feeling them.


Anatole David said...

Rand was an hysterical ideologue. "Objectivism" was a clumsy ruse to hide her emotional craving to be viewed just like the heroes of her books--or the movie stars she adored(enviously). Characters' ostentatious theatrics in the novel expose Rand's longing for attention unto unconditional idolatry(wanted to throw in faint allusion to "sickness unto death" for humor's sake).

editing note: you put an "a" where an "an" should be--reread and you'll catch it.

Nice work. Rand's a shrill fabulist for Capitalism. Emotional allegiance gets in the way of mundane reality. And, of course, she exploits a built in defense(Capitalist to the bitter end): It's fiction.

Downpuppy said...

Again, the mind boggling nonsense of her notions of railroads take center stage. The technical issues of building a railroad were solved by 1850 or so. Steel was, & is, just dandy. Rally fabulous material, not very expensive, strong, durable - by Crom, I love the stuff.

The issue, always & forever, is land rights. You can't buy a slice of land 20 feet wide and 500 miles long. Not gonna happen, ever. So every railroad ever built, beyond maybe a coal mine to foundry spur, is dependent on eminent domain or government land.

Oh, well. I guess it's for the best that she didn't come up with a more plausible plot.

Mr.Wonderful said...

There's another word for a "dramatization of pure principle." It's "fable." What you get with Randroids, alas, is a readership that takes her science fiction-fables as accurate depictions of the world.

Obviously--even to them--this is absurd bordering on psychotic. Real America, real Europe, real railroads, real business are to Rand's depictions of them as (per Susan) Frazetta's musclebound cartoons are to actual persons. (By Crom...)

No wonder Rand's acolytes fall all over themselves looking for examples in real life of the dilithium-fueled nonsense in Atlas Shrugged. Even Aesop didn't go on tv and announce that his talking foxes and rueful dogs actually existed.

(And, as usual--and with Susan's indulgence--no discussion of Atlas Shrugged is complete without this link: )

DFS said...

A heads-up for those who have not seen it: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, the new Adam Curtis doc from earlier in the year, has a lot of interesting stuff about Rand and the intersections between her philosophy and her personal life in the first episode.

Like Susan's review of the last few chapters, it lends itself to the proposition that Ms. Rand was deeply, deeply sexually fucked up.

Liam said...

...or the attempt by the 20th Century Motor Company to run its business along the lines of the communist motto "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"

Wow. A whole corporation staffed by strawpeople.

Susan of Texas said...

More and more, I am hearing people say that the US should get rid of any social spending at all because they are tired of supporting women, children and minorities who refuse to support themselves. They do not think for one second about the support they get; it's all fair because they work at lucrative jobs and pay taxes. They want the poor to stop cheating honest, hard-working elite and the upper classes. Nothing short of the total destruction of the middle and upper class will change their minds, but they all think they are invulnerable.

Eventually people will realize that large crowds of protesters are a large target. A couple of people can do a hell of a lot more harm by taking out a billionaire's pipeline or killing a bank executive's child. Do they really want the US to get to that point?

Nobody is invulnerable. Chaos is unpredictable and can take out anyone. The only thing the elite fear is chaos--terrorism, bombings, anthrax, the DC sniper. Large protests are organized, methodical, predictable, controllable. Sooner or later someone will realize that.

Batocchio said...

Speaking of land rights, did you catch that libertarian professor Reason put in a video arguing for privatizing roads? Yikes.

Rand was a egomaniac, a sociopath, and (worst of all?) a dreadful writer.

Also, the doc DFS mentions is worth checking out, at least part 1, for the coverage on Rand.

Downpuppy said...

Ya want Galtian superheroes in RipSnorting Adventure, with engines?

Babbage & Lovelace bring the funny.

antonello said...

So Megan McGullible assures us that Ayn Rand, who regarded herself and her ideas with the most stupefying solemnity, was actually a practitioner of "the aesthetic that deftly mixes comic books, film noir, and WPA murals." And Joseph McCarthy was, I suppose, a performance artist; inebriated paranoid snarling was merely his persona.

It's as if we were informed that Ed Wood, to all appearances a dunce of a director, was in fact a droll satirist, a gleeful hoaxer, a John Waters ahead of his time.

Susan of Texas said...

That bit struck me as well although the post was so long already I ignored it. It sound like something the boys at Reason told her during one of their scintillating dinner parties. There is no comic book aesthetic in Rand's work at all, of course, which tips McArdle's hand. She loved operettas and the type of adventure stories that were popular at the time, stories filled with strong, manly men who fought evil and explored new continents. She was Anthony Hope and The Student Prince, not Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

I took a second look at her claims of WPA aesthetic and it's amazing how little description Rand writes. It's all action and conversations; Rand tells and does not show. Film (or maybe roman) noir is the only aesthetic claim that McArdle could support if she tried, which of course she doesn't.

blivet said...

As the novel gets worse, Susan's commentary gets better. I'm eager to see what she does with The Speech.

satch said...

Great stuff, Susan. Thank you.

Kish said...

This entry seems to lack the "Atlas Shrugged: The Mockery" tag.

Kip W said...

A million bucks? Looks like Hank knows what Dagny is, and he doesn't even haggle over the price.