Atlas Shrugged: Masters of the Universe

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter X

Still in Oregon, listening to Lee Hunsacker rant about the failure of his factory, Dagny hears him mention a name she recognizes:

“I worked like a dog, trying to get somebody to lend us the money. But that bastard Midas Mulligan put me through the wringer.”

She sat up straight. “Midas Mulligan?”

“Yea – the banker who looked like a truck driver and acted it, too!”

“Did you know Midas Mulligan?”

“Did I know him? I’m the only man who ever beat him – not that it did me any good!” [p.294]

Midas Mulligan is another of Rand’s disappearing capitalists. Seven years ago, he mysteriously vanished after closing his bank, selling off all its assets and repaying every depositor exactly what they were owed, “down to the last fraction of interest due”. No one can explain why he chose to wipe his business out rather than selling it, and no one’s ever found a trace of him or of his personal fortune. Dagny dwells on how inexplicable this is (“as if a New York skyscraper had vanished one night, leaving nothing behind but a vacant lot on a street corner”), although somehow it never occurs to her to wonder if there’s any connection between him and all the other disappearances.

Midas Mulligan had once been the richest and, consequently, the most denounced man in the country. He had never taken a loss on any investment he made; everything he touched turned into gold. “It’s because I know what to touch,” he said… It was he who had invested in Rearden Steel at its start, thus helping Rearden to complete the purchase of the abandoned steel mills in Pennsylvania. When an economist referred to him once as an audacious gambler, Mulligan said, “The reason why you’ll never get rich is because you think that what I do is gambling.”

…In the eyes of his contemporaries, he was a man who had committed the one unforgivable sin: he was proud of his wealth. [p.295]

Now, if Midas Mulligan were merely right more often than not, that would be one thing. But Rand has to depict him as always right, which seems less like business savvy and more like the gift of prophecy. As with Francisco d’Anconia, who has the same magical infallibility, there’s no other explanation for how it’s possible that he never makes a mistake or a bad investment. He never even invests in a business that fails because of a pure stroke of bad luck that no one could have predicted, such as the sudden and unexpected death of its founder. (Granted, this point is less about Mulligan’s implausible foresight and more about how, in Rand’s world, there’s no such thing as random chance.)

To be clear, I’m not criticizing this just because it’s bad writing. If Atlas were just a work of pulp fiction, an Art Deco mystery about square-jawed heroes and tough-as-nails heroines fighting to survive in a world gone mad, then its parade of Mary Sues wouldn’t occasion comment. But Rand intended, and her devotees believe, that this book is a mirror of the real world, and that its characters both good and bad are type specimens of real people. In short, Rand’s followers think they live inside Atlas Shrugged, that they’re the heroes of the story, and that people like you and me are the villains.

We can see this attitude in this 2012 account of a meeting between President Obama and a group of Wall Street financiers:

They felt unfairly demonized for being wealthy. They felt scapegoated for the recession. It was a few weeks into the Occupy Wall Street movement, with mass protests against the 1 percent springing up all around the country, and they blamed the president and his party for the public’s nasty mood. The administration, some suggested, had created a hostile environment for job creators.

…One of the guests raised his hand; he knew how to solve the problem. The president had won plaudits for his speech on race during the last campaign, the guest noted. It was a soaring address that acknowledged white resentment and urged national unity. What if Obama gave a similarly healing speech about class and inequality? What if he urged an end to attacks on the rich?

Remember, this was in the wake of the 2009 subprime mortgage crisis, an economic catastrophe caused by megabanks making risky (“subprime”) loans that failed en masse and plunged the country into recession. Rather than acknowledging their culpability in this, these Wall Street bankers all imagined themselves as Midas Mulligan – hated simply because they were rich and successful. In reality, public anger stemmed from the accurate perception that the people who were instrumental in causing this crisis escaped largely unscathed, and in many cases were even rewarded with multimillion-dollar bonuses, while towns all across the country were devastated and millions of people lost their jobs.

And as the crowning arrogance, apologists for the ultra-rich have asserted that we should be more grateful to them for deigning to grace us with their efforts – as in this Rand-worshipping column which argues that millionaires should be exempt from income taxes, as a way of proving how much we love them. The author even suggests, in all apparent seriousness, that “in an annual public ceremony, the year’s top earner should be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

It’s safe to say that America will never stop idolizing the wealthy and successful. But that admiration is bound to curdle into resentment if people begin to believe that the game is rigged and that the rich are exempt from any penalty no matter what harm they cause. Rather than encouraging the self-proclaimed “masters of the universe” to engage in some honest introspection and try to understand why people might be angry at them, Rand’s philosophy promotes a narcissistic, self-pitying caricature of the rich as downtrodden victims being unjustly persecuted by “losers” who have no motivation other than jealousy and hatred of success.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Hume's Meadow
Atlas Shrugged: Missing and Presumed
Atlas Shrugged: The New Feudalism
Atlas Shrugged: The Lilies of the Field
About Adam Lee

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


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