Atlas Shrugged: The Ruling Class

Atlas Shrugged, p.56-66

I’ve lingered on this section for a while, but the few brief scenes in these pages provide a wealth of unintentional insight into Rand’s thinking and her ideas about what motivates her characters. There’s one more insight I think we can glean, and it comes in the form of our introduction to a character who’ll be important later on, Francisco d’Anconia:

At the age of twenty-three, when he inherited his fortune, Francisco d’Anconia had been famous as the copper king of the world. Now, at thirty-six, he was famous as the richest man and the most spectacularly worthless playboy on earth. He was the last descendant of one of the noblest families of Argentina… His financial talent was called phenomenal; no one had ever beaten him in any transaction – he added to his incredible fortune with every deal he touched and every step he made, when he took the trouble to make it. [p.56]

It transpires that d’Anconia has bought land in Mexico to start a new copper mine, and Jim Taggart, Orren Boyle and others have invested heavily in him. Because he wants his investment to pay off, Jim is diverting badly needed resources from the repair of the Rio Norte Line to build a new railroad into Mexico, the San Sebastian Line, to connect to d’Anconia’s mines. Dagny fights back, but is repeatedly overruled at the Taggart board meetings, where the other executives

…spoke about the future importance of the trade with Mexico, about a rich stream of freight, about the large revenues assured to the exclusive carrier of an inexhaustible supply of copper. They proved it by citing Francisco d’Anconia’s past achievements. They did not mention any mineralogical facts about the San Sebastian Mines. Few facts were available; the information which d’Anconia had released was not very specific; but they did not seem to need facts. [p.57]

Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute. When Dagny made the unilateral decision to rebuild the Rio Norte Line with Rearden Metal, she didn’t cite any metallurgical facts either! She pushed that plan through based only on her own judgment, without consulting anyone else or presenting any evidence to justify her decision. Why is it OK when one of the protagonists does it, but not OK when the bad guys do it?

Now, we know the answer: because in Rand’s world, True and Heroic Capitalists are infallible; only looters and parasites can be tricked or make mistakes. It will turn out later on that the San Sebastian mines are a very bad investment, and even though Dagny has no way to know this yet (why doesn’t d’Anconia’s record of past success count for anything with her?), she fiercely opposes them and will be proven right in due course, because Rand has so arranged the world that her heroes can never be wrong.

The other noteworthy thing is that d’Anconia, like Dagny, is the head of a family-owned business, one that’s been run by his ancestors for generations and that he inherited a controlling interest in. This isn’t impossible, even for a large multinational corporation (South Korea’s chaebol are a real-life example), but you do have to wonder how it fits with Rand’s stated devotion to meritocracy. How has a world-spanning conglomerate stayed in the hands of the same bloodline for an unbroken span of centuries? Have the owners refused to promote anyone to management except one of their own descendants?

Rand is trying to have it both ways here. She advocates a capitalist worldview in which talent and ambition are the only things that matter, yet she’s also drawn to the romantic notion of companies that have been in the same family for generations and have survived and thrived through successive descendants. There’s only one way to reconcile this, and that’s if capitalist aptitude is literally in the blood: not the result of education or upbringing, but a genetic endowment inherited from one’s parents. (Presumably, this would make Jim Taggart the family black sheep who missed out on the capitalist gene.)

To put it another way, Rand is (unintentionally?) arguing for a modern version of aristocracy. Her characters embody the notion of a hereditary upper class. Dagny, Francisco, and others are the offspring of noble lineages that have the right to rule, not due to any advantages gained by the immense wealth and power of their upbringing, but simply due to an inherent deservingness by virtue of their birth. I don’t want to stretch the metaphor too far, but one could even make the case that in the world of the book, their upbringing makes them the beneficiaries of divine favor – the divinity in question being the author, who ensures that all their decisions turn out correctly – just as God was once believed to guide the decisions of kings.

In the real world, things usually don’t turn out as well. Whether for monarchs or CEOs, hereditary rule rarely proves to be an effective management principle. It may well be human nature for people to want to leave whatever they possess to their children, that’s likely to be a result of evolution – but if you’re a devotee of reason, you ought to recognize that this tendency should be resisted, not mythologized.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • arensb

    if capitalist aptitude is literally in the blood: [...] a genetic endowment inherited from one’s parents

    Either that, or the children of capitalists learn at their father’s knee the secrets of success. Of course, that raises a host of other questions, like why doesn’t one of these capitalists write a book on the subject, if only so that some of the people he uplifts out of moocherdom and into productivity can sell him the future fruit of their work.
    But maybe the secret of productivity is so arcane that it can only be taught in person, but that would seem to contradict Rand’s purpose in writing this book.

    But yeah, now I have a mental image of Hagrid visiting a young Dagny Taggart in the middle of the night to say, “You’re a Capitalist, Dagny.”

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    They probably would not write any book on how to be an uber-capitalist, because that results in more competition…

  • peter

    Her descriptions are so infantile regarding real Economics and the actors in a real economy – Scrooge McDuck seems to be a much more realistic figure.

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    The more I read this series, the more Atlas Shrugs sounds like a mean-spirited adult version of the original Tom Swift books, with the rich, brilliant, and wildly lucky protagonists surrounded by useful idiots and cartoonish villains.

  • arensb

    “I’ll build the Rio Norte line and make it profitable”, railed Dagny.

  • arensb

    See, that’s the thing. If you look closely, there are plenty of selfish reasons to be altruistic. The characters we’ve seen in Atlas Shrugs so far seem all seem to be short-sighted, buying and selling in the moment, never investing in the inventors or industrialists of tomorrow.

    I wonder what Rand would make of a loss leader, where you practically give one product away and make up for it elsewhere, e.g., printers that cost $10 after rebate, and $40 ink cartridges.

  • smrnda

    Perhaps, without wanting to, she realized that there was no plausible way for CEOs not to come from the ruling class. CEOs don’t pass the reigns down to their kids, but upper class positions are filled with the children of upper class people, mostly since networking and not talent tend to decide whether or not you end up there.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

    I don’t understand why, in Rand’s morality, d’Anconia isn’t also a hero. He’s skilled and making money with his skills, so clearly he’s a good guy, right?

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    He is a hero. That’s revealed later in the book.

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    It can’t be the inheritance angle. Dagny is no different.

    Maybe it’s just that d’Anconia actually enjoys his wealth, being a “worthless playboy” and not leaping onto every little opportunity that comes up, instead of grimly grinding away at the corporate machinery when he’s not forced to sleep or see his family.

  • Jacob Shelton

    I’d say her high-school Nietzsche crush is rearing her ugly head. But I don’t know much. To my understanding, Nietsche’s aristocracy was independent of the blood as well… so maybe it’s just an anti-Sowiet reaction – Bolsheviks break apart bourgeois-blood businesses, Bolshies = Commies, Commies are the opposite of Capitalists, therefore, family inheritance is capitalist. Simple like her “rationalist” principles, so perhaps this deadman strawman works.

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Whew!

  • Nonnie

    I don’t think it’s as meaningful as all that. It seems like Francisco is meant to be an example of a “good” heir, and James is a “bad” one.

    Also Dagny opposes the san sebastian line because she thinks Mexico will nationalize it and the mines. She supports Rearden steel because she saw the science and used her own judgment. The Taggart board supports the san sebastian line out of blind faith in Francisco. Making a correct decision about metallurgy after glancing over some equations for an hour is still a completely ridiculous fantasy, but it is a novel after all.

    There’s enough wrong with the book without adding in extra stuff…

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    You’re right, most ethical egoists say exactly that. No one wants to live in a world that has everyone attempting to maximize their short-term self-interest alone…except Rand, apparently. If people make selfishness a virtue, they should at least do it right. As many people have noted, though, she never worked in a large corporation, and thus had little if any knowledge of how it works.

  • J-D

    Is there some reason, relevant to plot, characterisation, or theme, why he’s the last descendant of his family? Or does that just help to fill a cheesiness quota?

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    Either that, or the children of capitalists learn at their father’s knee the secrets of success.

    That would be a reasonable explanation, it’s just not one that Rand ever propounds. As far as we’re ever told, Dagny, Francisco and the rest seemingly come out of the womb quoting Andrew Carnegie: they always know exactly what they want to do with their lives and how they intend to do it, even in early childhood.

    But yeah, now I have a mental image of Hagrid visiting a young Dagny Taggart in the middle of the night to say, “You’re a Capitalist, Dagny.”

    Ha!

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    Yes, he’s on the side of the good guys, it’s just not obvious at this point. This is a spoiler, but only a little bit of one: he’s deliberately wrecking the economy by making bad business decisions and encouraging the looters to throw their money away investing in them.

  • ORAXX

    Rand’s only, dubious, contribution to modern culture lies in providing a pseudo intellectual cover for some of the worst aspects of human nature. She has helped truly awful people feel better about their awfulness. The success of her writing is a good indication of just how desperate some people are to be told what they want to hear. Nothing the woman advocated has ever been demonstrated to work in the real world, but that won’t stop imbeciles like Paul Ryan from trying.

  • smrnda

    It’s also worth noting that nobody outside of the US seems to have even heard of her, let alone takes her seriously. When some idea has such limited appeal, it’s probably just because it happens to feed into some cultural myths.

  • James_Jarvis

    The problem with Rand’s heroes is they never make mistakes. If they do make what seems to a mistake it wasn’t their fault but that of the looters and parasite. Dagny never makes a bad judgement call. It is almost like she has perfect knowledge when it comes to matters of faith, oops, I meant to objectivist theology, oops, I meant philosophy.

  • Alejandro

    “Of course, that raises a host of other questions, like why doesn’t one of these capitalists write a book on the subject”

    Hmmm…are you talking about Ryands world or in real life? Because there are tons, and I really means tons of great books on success, business, money, investments, personal effectivity, etc, etc. I can think of several author just from the top of my head (Brian Tracy, Michael Gerber, Robert Ringer, Robert Kiyosaki). But how many people actually bother to read and apply those things? Specially when society becomes so socialist that there is less incentive to make more money. This may be also be the case in Rand’s world.

  • smrnda

    I actually *am* an entrepreneur (and pretty left wing too) so I’ve seen a lot of these books, and most of them aren’t very useful. Books on actually running a particular type of business can be helpful, but after that, what you’re reading is so vague as to be useless.

    Other books, of the “Rich Dad Poor Dad” variety, are just a waste since you can’t take the ‘advice’ unless you have adequate disposable income sitting around to invest. A middle class person might get some use out of it, but for most people, it’s a waste.

    Books on how to make money are a lot like religion – if it doesn’t work for you, the problem is YOU, not the program, and if it works for one person, then that’s PROOF even when most people don’t get ahead. Making money is pretty much all privilege and luck.

  • smrnda

    That reminds me of action films, where the heroes never miss, but the bad guys can’t seen to be able to hit anything, even when there’s 20 of them shooting away at the hero with machine guns.

  • smrnda

    Also, by looking at sales and other figures, these books are getting read by lots of people. The problem is their advice just doesn’t work.

  • arensb

    I meant in the world of “Atlas Shrugged”: why doesn’t Hank Rearden write a book about “I made a bajillion bucks by busting my butt and inventing a new type of steel. Here’s how I did it. Now go out and do the same thing, and if your locomotive/refrigerator/painting is as good as my steel, I’ll buy it from you.” ?

    Or does Rand (and by extension, her characters) believe that those who are destined for greatness will achieve greatness, those who aren’t won’t, and there’s no point in trying to nudge people toward greatness?

  • arensb

    I’ve seen a lot of these books, and most of them aren’t very useful.

    Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap.
    Though from my very limited exposure to books on making one’s fortune, I’d say you’re right.

  • smrnda

    I think we can up Sturgeon’s law to 99% in the case of ‘get rich’ books. It seems the first step is always having lots of money to invest – if you have that taken care of, you don’t need the book.

  • smrnda

    I’m guessing Rand thinks deception is okay, as long as the right people do it?

  • arensb

    Further along in the book, in a section about Dagny’s childhood, we find:

    Dagny and Eddie spent their winters trying to master some new skill,
    in order to astonish Francisco and beat him, for once. They never
    succeeded. When they showed him how to hit a ball with a bat, a game he
    had never played before, he watched them for a few minutes, then said,
    “I think I get the idea. Let me try.” He took the bat and sent the ball
    flying over a line of oak trees far at the end of the field.

    Maybe someone who, unlike me, knows something about baseball will disagree, but this seems implausible in the extreme. Or else Francisco just got supremely lucky. But AIUI this sort of thing is comparatively rare even among seasoned professional players.
    And if so, I guess it settles the matter: in Rand’s world, greatness is something you’re born with, not something you achieve by dint of study and practice.

  • Figs

    I’m stuck on “no one had ever beaten him in any transaction”. Isn’t the line of the market fetishists that every transaction represents a mutual benefit to both parties involved? If you go by Rand’s throwaway line here, every transaction isn’t a mutual benefit, but a competition that one side wins and the other side loses.

  • J-D

    Books on how to make money make money for the people who write them. Maybe that’s another way they’re like religion.

  • J-D

    Good point.

  • Science Avenger

    Actually, and forgive me its been years, but I recall Rand explicitly rejecting the short-sighted selfishness you mention. In some ways the whole point of her Virtue of Selfishnes is that selfishness doesn’t mean “grab what you can today and to hell with tomorrow”.

  • Science Avenger

    That’s consistent with Rand’s avoidance of the issues involved with raising children entirely. She acts as though they are born with children’s bodies, but adult minds.

  • Science Avenger

    Rich Dad Poor Dad is worse than that. Even someone with a lot of money will likely lose it all following the advice of that dreck. RDPD makes Atlas look like a documentary its so devoid of connection to the real world. One of the dads, rich I believe, was completely fabricated.

  • Science Avenger

    As long as they do it to the right people, yes, I’d guess that was her view. Lying to looters is no worse than lying to the Nazis that come looking for Jews in your basement…

  • Science Avenger

    Probably to eliminate the plot difficulties of having that other descendant call him on his BS. Same reason super heroes rarely have siblings.

  • Science Avenger

    It’s worse than that. As I’ve tried to explain to some pawn shop owners of my acquaintance, if you make a profit on every transaction, you aren’t taking enough risk. Net profit is al that matters, and 90% profitability is still a lot of profit. So if Francisco made profit on every transaction, that makes him a LOUSY overly conservative businessman, not a good one;

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Hmm…well, that would make sense, but it seems to be inconsistent with that I know of her fictional novels. I do make it a point to not criticize or base critiques on works I haven’t read though-I’ll reserve judgment about her egoist moral theory.

  • Science Avenger

    I don’t recall that insonsistency, not in direct relations anyway. Her heroes are, for the most part, honest and polite. They don’t lie, cheat and steal, at least not to/from each other. They do, of course, ignore externalities, but that’s a libertarian/objectivist mandate. Again, it has been years since I read the books, and I’m eager to see what gems Adam uncovers. I recall being very frustrated over my years as an Objectivist (mostly pre-internet) at the near universal misrepresentation of Rand’s ideas by her critics. Adam’s approach is a welcome departure from that, and I await each new post with great eagerness.

  • Todd Hays

    Kim Jong Il was hitting hole in ones his first time playing golf. He’s a Randian hero?

    You have to be taught how to hit, even Ted Williams was taught how to hit a baseball.

  • Wisedad

    Hank Rearden’s character did have extensive metallurgical knowledge and Dagny knew it. She knew that Rearden knew the facts about his metal and she had ample opportunity to size him up. She decided to trust Rearden’s knowledge and skill at his profession based upon her first hand knowledge of his character and reputation. This is much more of a basis than Jim Taggart and his fellow investors had for investing since they had never troubled themselves to even meet Francisco before investing. This was another brilliant move made by the Francisco character to deceive the deceivers.
    Rand was right. You, Mr. Lee, are looking for places to argue for the looters.

  • Wisedad

    After reading more of the comments here, I can see that this site is attracting Rand bashers.
    If you have a hard time seeing the virtue and morality of self-interest, ponder upon the words of Hillel the elder:
    1. If I am not for myself, who can be for me?
    2. If I am ONLY for myself, then who am I?
    3. If not now, when?

  • Wisedad

    As a father of four, I can tell you that children are smarter and more perceptive than you might think.
    They are taught to be producers if they have producer parents, moochers if they have a moocher parent. They will become monsters if a parent teaches them through deed or example that evil is virtuous, that they are entitled to other’s belongings, or that they should rely on the judgement of others, but never their own.

  • Pacal

    You do realize that Hillel was not a Randoid and believed in helping people and such other “Socialist” measures and did not worship greed or the wealthy. Further no 2 is clearly contrary to Randoid principles.

  • KevinC

    IIRC, later in that passage, Francisco can instantly drive a speedboat with consummate skill, while James Taggart fumbles with it like any normal human would when presented with some completely new skill-set and asked to perform it. “Master any skill instantaneously” goes beyond ordinary author-insert character “halo-of-awesomeness”–it’s an honest to goddammit comic-book *superpower,* like eye-lasers or telekinesis.
    It’s one of the things I disliked about Francisco even during my O’ist phase (The other being the nasty way he showed Dagny up at tennis before raping her). At least with others like Hank and Dagny, it’s implied that they (kinda-sorta) worked their way up, and we see them exhausted at the end of a hard day. Even with their “I will overcome the limits of my flesh in order to Work Even Harder so I’m not like those lazy bums who go home often enough to learn the names of those little-people-who-look-them that seem to appear from time to time!” attitude (Aside: Objectivism + Transhumanism/Singularity = Seriously Scary Shit), they’re not as bad as Francisco. They’re genetically-enhanced “quasi-supers” like Julian Bashir or Jessica Alba’s character in Dark Angel. Frankie could don tights and join the X-Men. He would have just magicked his way through any of their “hard work” with a laugh and smile, taunting them by accomplishing the same thing in five minutes.

  • Iphigenia

    1. If I am not for myself, who can be for me?

    The people who care about me are for me, just as I am for the people I care about.

    2. If I am ONLY for myself, then who am I?

    Good question.

    3. If not now, when?

    I try to live out my principles, even though it’s difficult.


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