Atlas Shrugged: Terror on the High Seas

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter VI

As Dagny drifts through the crowds at Hank’s party, she overhears a conversation:

“Last night,” said the spinster, “I stayed awake because of the shooting. There were guns going off all night, way out at sea. There were no flashes. There was nothing. Just those detonations, at long intervals… Everybody down on the shore knows what it was. It was Ragnar Danneskjold. It was the Coast Guard trying to catch him.”

“Ragnar Danneskjold in Delaware Bay?” a woman gasped.

“Oh, yes. They say it is not the first time.” [p.145]

Hank’s guests have an As-You-Know-Bob expository conversation about the terrors of Ragnar Danneskjold, a modern-day pirate who’s been preying on shipping in the Atlantic Ocean. We’re told that “the People’s State of Norway” has offered a million-dollar reward for his head, that he seized a relief ship loaded with supplies for “the People’s State of France,” and that his ship is better than any in the navy of “the People’s State of England”.

Although we previously heard about the looters’ takeover of Mexico, this is the first real hint that the same thing is happening all over the world, since Rand considers any invocation of “the people” to be a sure sign of evil. (Better not tell her that the U.S. Constitution begins with “We the People” and not “We the Individuals” – she worships America, and I don’t think she’d be able to handle the cognitive dissonance.)

What’s remarkable is that this apparently swift, easy, and more-or-less simultaneous socialist takeover of every country in the world other than America happens offscreen. It’s presented as a fait accompli, and we never really hear about it except through offhand mentions like these. This hearkens back to the question I raised in my first post about what’s causing this. How is it possible that everyone else in the world just happened to start thinking the same way at the same time? Especially if socialism is as manifestly disastrous as Rand says it is, shouldn’t there be at least a few countries that see their neighbors’ misery and buck the trend? Also, why isn’t there a flood of tired, huddled capitalist refugees from Europe arriving in the ports of New York?

“He’s been seen off Nantucket, too. And at Bar Harbor. The newspapers have been asked not to write about it.”


“They don’t want people to know that the navy can’t cope with him.”

“I don’t like it. It feels funny. It’s like something out of the Dark Ages.” [p.146]

Well put, nameless woman at Hank’s party! I agree. A pirate ship lurking off the coast, seizing and destroying commercial ships, sounds very much like something out of the Dark Ages. But it’s curious that Ayn Rand, of all people, should point that out.

I just finished reading Paul Collins’ The Birth of the West, a book about how the civilization that we now call “Western” emerged from the violent anarchy of tenth-century Europe. In those days, Europe wasn’t made up of nations, but loose confederations of squabbling city-states ruled by a patchwork quilt of petty kings and local strongmen. One of the themes of this time was the constant threat from outside raiders: in the east, the Magyars; in the south, the Saracens; and in the west, the Vikings, who were a particular threat in England, Ireland and Scotland, but who also invaded the continent as far inland as Paris. All of them sacked towns, plundered monasteries, and terrorized the countryside. Some kings fought them, with varying degrees of success; others paid exorbitant tributes to make them go away.

The point is that these incursions arose from a breakdown of law and order. With no strong central power or real ruling authority, isolated communities were unable to defend themselves against outside pressures. It took the rise of the Holy Roman Empire to restore some measure of peace and stability to the war-wracked continent.

Although Europe is no longer menaced by barbarian marauders, there’s an obvious modern analogue, which is Somalia. With the collapse of government in the aftermath of a bloody civil war, Somalia has been an anarchy for over two decades, and as a result has become a haven for pirates who take ships and crew hostage to extort ransoms. (One of the most dramatic episodes was the 2009 seizure of the Maersk Alabama, which ended with Navy SEAL snipers killing the pirates who had taken the captain hostage.) Things aren’t much better on land, with violent militias like the Shabab seeking to impose Islamic law.

This is lost on the libertarians who claim in all seriousness that Somalia, because it lacks a functioning central government, is a capitalist paradise. The Ludwig von Mises Institute declares, “Somalia has done very well for itself in the 15 years since its government was eliminated”, and Reason extols “The Anarchy Advantage in Somalia”. That “advantage” was probably lost on the tens of thousands of people who died in a 2011 famine, exacerbated by Shabab intransigence.

The point is that this is what always happens. Whether in Dark Ages Europe or modern-day Somalia, a power vacuum will inevitably be exploited by ruthless and ambitious thugs who try to seize power and dominate others. A peaceful free market isn’t a natural state of affairs, but a construct of civilization that needs to be protected by the strong arm of a state. Rand depicts Ragnar Danneskjold as the kind of problem that arises from too much government, when in reality it’s a problem of too little.

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

  • Yǒuhǎo Huǒ Māo

    Spot on, Adam.

    Piracy is a consequence of Libertarianism.

  • Jeff

    Spoiler alert!

    Later in the book we learn that Ragnar actually just wanted to be a gentle philosopher (no, really, that’s his backstory). He became a pirate in response to all the “looting” done by the various governments; his reasoning was that high-seas piracy was the natural extension of the social changes already going on.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Wow and here I thought that this “Libertarian Paradise” bit on Youtube was made up to mock libertarians by taking things to the logical extreme, not to mock actual libertarian beliefs.

  • Nancy McClernan

    It is odd that Rand posits that government is the problem considering the US government in Atlas Shrugged does nothing but write bills, which are always immediately put into practice.

    Meanwhile some Norwegian guy is able to steal from any government ship he wants, any time, without any intervention.

    And the government doesn’t even control the newspapers – apparently the newspapers just like to avoid printing actual news, because it’s all kewl and postmodernist to do so.

    And at the same time there is a thriving stock market, which is completely unfazed by piracy in the Delaware Bay, and Dagny and Rearden are able to make a bundle through their securities investments.

    The Ragnar Danneskjold character is so ridiculous that the Atlas Shrugged movies apparently leave him out, unless they’re waiting to introduce him in part 3. I haven’t seen part II but he isn’t in the cast list:

    And apparently Rand wrote about Danneskjold’s adventures on the high seas, but took it out, according to one of her former sycophants, Barbara Branden:

    Q: I heard that she wrote a whole section of Ragnar Danneskjold’s adventures that were cut out, is that true?

    Branden: It wouldn’t be a whole section. There were certain things that were cut out. At one point she had a priest as one of the people who goes on strike, but it just didn’t work. She wasn’t happy with it. He was too much like another character; so she took that out. But there weren’t really long sections. I think that was probably the biggest thing she cut out.

  • Nancy McClernan

    The Ragnar Danneskjold character is so absurd that the Conservapedia had to devote an entire section in its entry on Danneskjold to “feasibility” including trying to explain why the US Navy, which apparently does exist in the world of Atlas Shrugged, is so laughably useless:

  • GubbaBumpkin

    … since Rand considers any invocation of “the people” to be a sure sign of evil.

    Oh c’mon. The tendency of Soviet-style communist regimes to name themselves “The People’s Republic of …” is well-known. For example, North Korea is officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And I’m talking communist, not socialist. Northern European social democracies like Sweden (officially the Kingdom of Sweden) and Norway (officially the Kingdom of Norway) do not call themselves “People’s Republic” or “People’s State.”

    What’s remarkable is that this apparently swift, easy, and more-or-less
    simultaneous socialist takeover of every country in the world other than
    America happens offscreen.

    What do you want, a dozen pages of exposition at the start of the book to lay it all out before any action begins? In a book which already suffers from monologueing? You are going too far to criticise very detail of the book, rather than the obvious political/social deficiencies and objectively poor writing.

  • Nancy McClernan

    How does “some explanation” automatically translate to “dozens of pages of exposition”?

    Rand offers zero commentary on either how the world arrived at that state, or how the US government works, other than the random bills that occasionally sprout out of the fog. Which is a major factor of both the political/social deficiencies and the objectively poor writing of Atlas Shrugged.

    You can’t begin to critique political/social issues without providing some groundwork for how things got to be that way. Rand couldn’t be bothered. Probably because she herself had no comprehension of the socio-political-economic mechanisms. And it’s much easier to just posit that her ideological enemies are ugly sadists and morons.

  • Sven2547

    You are going too far to criticise very detail of the book, rather than the obvious political/social deficiencies and objectively poor writing.

    Relax. He’s pointing out one specific example of obvious political deficiency and objectively poor writing

  • agreen15

    I do have to point out that, with Atlas Shrugged being over 1100 pages long, I don’t think that Ayn Rand would have really minded spending another dozen or so pages actually fleshing out the world stage if she actually cared for making her premises plausible.

  • busterggi

    Whoa now, ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was published in 1957. Did Rand somehow miss WWII and the replacement of battleships with aircraft carriers as the main naval vessels of attack?
    Seriiously, cannons firing as combat when one carrier-based bomber armed w/ a nuke can take out a fleet?

  • smrnda

    Yeah, I’m used the same libertarian/Objectivist notion that requiring citizens to pay taxes for things like roads, schools, or other socially necessary things is *exactly* the same as someone robbing you at gunpoint.

    Though a catch – when I’m asked ‘do you think it is morally permissible to rob someone at gunpoint?’ I tell them the truth, that in some cases I think it’s probably okay.

  • smrnda

    Rand spends a lot of time repeating the same points over and over again, but she leaves actual *events in the story* up to the reader’s imagination. We don’t figure out how Reardon goes from working in a mine at 13 to being the inventor of a new sort of metal. The gaps in her books make her implausible story even more implausible, since she isn’t bothering to make it appear plausible *at all.* When you invent characters who aren’t realistic and provide events that are unlikely but without any attempt to explain how they happen, it’s more than bad writing – if she wants people to take her viewpoints seriously, she has to either show that she’s depicting a world similar to the real one (she isn’t) or she has to show how the events, which haven’t happened yet, are at least possible.

  • Nancy McClernan

    It really is so bad and most of the reviewers of the book, from all points of the political spectrum gave it a justly bad review when it was first published.

    The real mystery is how anybody can like this book – other than because they think it somehow supports their own views on altruism and individualism – but then you have to wonder if they actually read the book because it’s such a bizarre, irrational screed all the way through.

    I’d love to see somebody do a real in-depth study on the kinds of people who like Atlas Shrugged – including a quiz to see if they actually know what’s in the book.

  • Jeff_ret

    That’s one of the amazing things about “Atlas Shrugged”. For a work that is supposed to present a grand objective philosophy how utterly disconnected it is from reality. Trains are the big, cool things, but she completely misunderstands their history and how they work. And the fact that even then they were on the way out as the most important form of transportation. So many examples. And then she has to invent a completely implausible / impossible form of free energy to get any of it to work.

  • smrnda

    Rand has a *lot of gaps in her knowledge* but she didn’t really think that was an issue. Her perspective seemed to be that if you start off with the right assumptions (the whole ‘man qua man’ principle, or whatever) you *automatically* reach the right conclusions without having to mess with any empirical data whatsoever. I’m 100% certain that Rand thought her idea of how naval combat worked was better than anything the actual navy came up with.

  • smrnda

    If people think anarchy worked in Somalia, then they should have put their money where their mouth was and move there.

    Or else the real truth is that anarchic libertarian ‘paradises’ aren’t beneficial to their actual residents, but just beneficial to investors or such from outside. A nation without a functioning government might be a great place to send kids into a mine for 14 hours a day so that some pompous rich white person can get some dividends to enjoy in a country with a better government.

  • Azkyroth

    By the way, Clarence Thomas is one of the five Injustices on the United States Supreme Court.

  • J_Enigma32

    She certainly didn’t mind spending 35,000+ words fleshing out Galt’s six-hour long speech.

  • Adam Lee

    Oh c’mon. The tendency of Soviet-style communist regimes to name themselves “The People’s Republic of …” is well-known.

    That’s true, but it’s not a universal law. There are also self-styled “People’s Republics” that aren’t communist, like Bangladesh and Algeria today. There have even been some that were explicitly anti-communist. It’s Rand’s false converse fallacy that I’m pointing out here: observing that communist states often claimed to be acting in the name of the people, she concluded that anything done in the name of “the people” must be evil.

    What do you want, a dozen pages of exposition at the start of the book to lay it all out before any action begins? In a book which already suffers from monologueing?

    Well, my suggestion would have been to cut out some of the monologuing and other repetitive scenes and spend more time on world-building. But the point of my criticism is that Rand alludes to hugely improbable events, scenarios that run blatantly counter to human nature, but never makes any attempt to explain how or why they came about, because the demands of her plot and her philosophy force her to posit a wholly unrealistic world where people don’t act in the ways we know they actually do. To avoid having to come up with an explanation, she just hand-waves a statement that they happened and never tells us anything more.

    It’s similar to the Left Behind books, which tell us in an aside near the beginning that Israel has peacefully expanded to swallow the territory of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, apparently without any complaints or objections from the people living there. How on earth did that happen? No time to explain, we have a list of biblical prophecies to start checking off!

  • Nancy McClernan

    You’ve read Atlas Shrugged and the Left Behind books? You are an iron man.

  • James_Jarvis

    Of-course, if one of those child miners works hard enough he or she will one day own the mine and become a titan of industry. If not that only proves they were looters and deserved their fate.

  • James_Jarvis

    If he hadn’t died John Belushi would have been been the perfect actor to play the virile and manly Captain Ned aka Ragnar Danneskjold.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Wasn’t Danneskjold’s vessel called “The Raging Queen”?

  • James_Jarvis

    I’m pretty sure it was called “Queen Ayn’s Revenge.”

  • Nancy McClernan


  • Donalbain

    Do we ever find out WHY the Navies of the world cannot sink this one boat?

  • TBP100

    I was one of those who fell under the spell of Atlas Shrugged in my youth, to the point of belonging to an “Objectivist Study Group.” I got better, of course. A few years ago I thought I would reread it to see if I could figure out what its appeal had been to me all those decades ago. I didn’t make it very far. The writing is just not very good, the “good guys” are actually pretty repellant, yadda yadda yadda…

    So… I am loving this series and appreciate Adam slogging through it to bring us these simultaneously hilarious and insightful commentaries. I hope he makes it all the way through. FSM knows I couldn’t.

  • Loren Petrich

    There’s a further twist. This seems like yet another case of making her villains all alike. They all called themselves “People’s States” with no variation.

    But Communist countries have had a lot of variation. Looking at Wikipedia’s “List of socialist countries”, I find not only People’s Republics, but also Democratic Republics and Socialist Republics and various mixtures.

  • smrnda

    I suspect it’s probably the same reason the Left Behind series is popular – it props up a worldview and presents things as unambiguously black and white.

  • smrnda

    I love the way people from certain ideologies don’t understand the idea of ‘falsifiability.’ Religious people and objectivists both seem to go the route that if something can be imagined, it must be true.

  • Nancy McClernan

    No. Although Ragnar Danneskjold tells Rearden:

    …I have never robbed a private ship and never taken any private property. Nor have I ever robbed a military vessel – because the purpose of a military fleet is to protect from violence the citizens who paid for it…

    So apparently in the world of Atlas Shrugged the issue is not whether militaries can sink Danneskjold’s boat, the issue is whether he decides to rob them. And since he decided not to, presumably the world’s armed forces felt only the deepest gratitude towards Ragnar and his crew.

    And the ships that he does rob are paid for by the citizens, every bit as much as military fleets, but apparently since the purpose of those vessels is only to provide aid to needy foreigners, Ragner doesn’t care who paid for what.

    Important to remember: in Atlas Shrugged the United States is a functioning democracy – so much so that the Taggart Death Train incident occurs because Kip Chalmers is trying to get to San Francisco in time for a get out the vote rally.

    Rand’s Ubermensch don’t give a shit about democracy, of course, because in their opinion the democracy is doing bad things like providing aid to foreigners.

  • J-D

    I think it may be something of an exaggeration, or an over-generalisation, to insist (with emphasis) that the absence of a strong central power or real ruling authority will _always_ be exploited by thugs seeking power and dominance. It appears that the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands lived by a strictly observed pacifist code, and that this was maintained without disruption by ambitious thugs for three centuries. It is true that eventually power-hungry exploiters arrived from outside, conquered the Moriori, and destroyed their idyll. But the surviving accounts (I suppose their reliability might be impeached, but they’re all I know of) indicate that for three centuries the society and culture were maintained with no significant internally generated power-seeking violence.

    I acknowledge that small exceptions like this don’t undermine the valid general point.

  • Chaos Engineer

    Ragnar is a philosopher, so he has a perfect understanding of the world and his place in it. He explains his nature in a monologue later in the book. He’s a deconstruction of the “Robin Hood” stories, and his purpose is to rob the greedy commoners of their unearned wealth, and give it to the persecuted nobility.

    So the Navy can’t stop Ragnar for exactly the same reason that the Sheriff of Nottingham can’t stop Robin Hood: The conventions of the genre forbid it.

  • smrnda

    I’m not familiar with the Moriori people, but many people note that hunter-gatherer societies can be much more egalitarian, mostly since there’s no real wealth or resources for anyone to seize control of, and anti-social behaviors have a greater negative effect on the group so they don’t occur as much – you don’t plop down garbage next to your neighbor one hut over, but rich people might pay to have their toxic waste deposited in a poor neighborhood across town.

    At the same time, it’s best to avoid the whole ‘noble savage’ mythos as well.

  • John Alexander Harman

    Adam doesn’t need to read “Left Behind,” Slacktivist is reading and explicating it for him and all the rest of us, just as he’s doing with Rand’s ridiculous doorstop.

  • Edwin Karat

    How does Rand paint piracy as the fault of too much government? What is the reasoning?

  • Nancy McClernan

    What genre is it?

    The bit I quoted above is from the same meeting with Rearden in which Danneskjold declares himself a reverse Robin Hood.

    Danneskjold conveniently ignores the fact that the foreign aid ships he is robbing are paid for by all taxpayers, voted for in a democracy, while he apparently feels that only Ubermensch deserve a gold bar tax refund.

    Maybe he doesn’t have change for an ingot.

  • J-D

    I made a conscious choice to refer to the Moriori specifically and not generally to societies of food-gatherers (as opposed to food-producers). Their story is worth knowing partly because it is different from the stories of other societies with a similar technological and economic base. Band societies without agriculture don’t generally support the kinds of stratification and inequality typical of food-producing societies, but that doesn’t mean they’re free of violence–they can have a higher average frequency of violence over time, although it’s not generally violence in the pursuit of hierarchical dominance.

  • Azkyroth

    She doesn’t.

    She fingerpaints piracy as the fault of too much government.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Because Rand’s basic premise is that the only function of government should be police, military and courts of law.
    Providing food and other basic supplies to foreigners was too much government. And so Danneskjold had to resort to piracy to correct this situation by robbing the foreign aid supplies – correcting the unacceptable premise that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people may vote to send aid to foreigners.

  • Susan Thorpe

    Kia ora JD, your post is correct. Oral traditions of Moriori suggest the continued peace making may have lasted even as long as 500 years.

  • Science Avenger

    Oh I have no doubt they know what’s in it, most of us read it repeatedly. It appeals to people who cling to the notion that one can discern reality merely by thinking about it (as opposed to that messy work of collecting data). It will also appeal to those who feel put upon by the demands of those around them, conveniently ignoring the fact that the taxes and other aspects of the social system they so despise is responsible for much of their life status. There are many Rand fans among the people that so got their panties in a wad over Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment.
    In short, let us be rugged individuals in the world as it is when we are born into it, and never mind how it got that way, or how screwed some people’s situations are because of it.

  • Science Avenger

    This makes it downright poetic that it was Rand fan Paul Ryan that made the idiotic criticism of our current navy by comparing the number of ships in it to the number in our WWI fleet.

  • Science Avenger

    He’s not ignoring that fact at all. It’s the motive for doing what he is doing. To an objectivist, an aid ship full of goods created by people and taken by the government is not the good deed you and I see it as, but rather the ill-gotten booty of a mob by another name.

  • Nancy McClernan

    I really wonder how much even repeated readers recall from the book. Because it actually doesn’t make sense as a social system critique, in spite of all the people who seem to think it does.

    For instance – we learn through the monologue of the Bum on the Train that the Twentieth Century Motor Company is originally family-owned, and then becomes socialized – thus causing John Galt to go Galt. In other words, this event is the entire driving force of the book.

    Let me see if you remember the answer to this (you’re on your honor not to go back and re-read):

    How does the Twentieth Century Motor Company become socialized and why?

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    The fact that the Moriori were destroyed by the Maori, their close relatives living not far away, who attacked the very day when they learned where the Chatham islands were, suggests that the idyllic pacifist lifestyle only works for small, homogenous groups that live in total isolation. As soon as an external threat appears, it’s bye-bye.

  • Loren Petrich

    “He was not attacking *me*” is a poor excuse for dereliction of duty. One would expect the commanding officers to get court-martialed pretty quickly. But that does not seem to happen in the world of that novel.

  • Loren Petrich

    An interesting curiosity: the Moriori castrated some of their baby boys as a form of birth control. I think that this is independent evidence of successful pacifism, because it suggests that they weren’t killing each other in fights and wars.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    I don’t think anyone doubts that their pacifism was successful within their own society. What it was clearly a failure at was preventing their destruction from without. In fact, when the Maori learned of the Moriori’s peaceful ways, that only encouraged them.

  • Science Avenger

    Richard Dawkins goes into this issue in detail in “The Selfish Gene”. There he argues that the odds of any pacifist anything existing for any length of time is going to be pretty small, because they’d get swallowed up by anything else that was slightly more aggressive

  • Don Sakers

    Because Ragnar’s ship is protected by the same sort of magical force field that protects Galt’s Gulch…another by-product of supergenius John Galt’s static electricity motor. That’s pretty much the stock answer to most questions about how Galt’s peeps can accomplish all the stupendous things they do.

  • Kelvin Mace

    Ryan seemed to have missed the point that a WWII carrier task force could level a city, whereas a modern carrier task force with

    far fewer ships could level a COUNTRY.