Atlas Shrugged: The Middle Path

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter X

OK, folks, programming note: Next week’s post will be the last for this chapter, which ends the first part of this book. Once that’s done, I’m going to jump right into a short review of the cinematic hilarity that is Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. Rent or stream a copy and get ready to follow along – if you dare!

* * *

Lee Hunsacker has just one useful piece of information for Dagny: the Starnes heirs, the owners who first ran the Twentieth Century Motor Company into the ground, live in Durance, Louisiana. She soon tracks them down:

The ill-smelling bungalow, where she found Ivy Starnes, stood on the edge of town, by the shore of the Mississippi. Hanging strands of moss and clots of waxy foliage made the thick vegetation look as if it were drooling; the too many draperies, hanging in the stagnant air of a small room, had the same look. The smell came from undusted corners and from incense burning in silver jars at the feet of contorted Oriental deities. Ivy Starnes sat on a pillow like a baggy Buddha. Her mouth was a tight little crescent, the petulant mouth of a child demanding adulation – on the spreading, pallid face of a woman past fifty. Her eyes were two lifeless puddles of water. [p.301]

We’ve often seen how Rand constantly equates physical ugliness with evil motivations, but I think this may be the first time that she extends this principle to places and not just to people. Perhaps Ivy Starnes’ evil is so concentrated that it’s leaking out into the environment, like toxic waste.

I have to wonder, how often has Rand’s obsessive focus on physical appearance led to her followers being duped? Given her insistence that all good people are beautiful and angular, I’d have to imagine that there are Objectivists who’ve been led astray because they thought a handsome, strong-chinned con artist couldn’t steer them wrong. And how many of them have scorned great investments because the person selling them was overweight or had a receding hairline?

“We put into practice that noble historical precept: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need… Twice a year, we all gathered in a mass meeting, where every person presented his claim for what he believed to be his needs. We voted on every claim, and the will of the majority established every person’s need and every person’s ability. The income of the factory was distributed accordingly. Rewards were based on need, and the penalties on ability. Those whose needs were voted to be the greatest, received the most. Those who had not produced as much as the vote said they could, were fined and had to pay the fines by working overtime without pay. That was our plan. It was based on the principle of selflessness. It required men to be motivated, not by personal gain, but by love for their brothers.”

I won’t spend much time on this, because there’s a longer section later in the book which goes into more detail about what happened at the Starnesville factory. But I do want to focus on Ivy Starnes’ explanation of why her scheme failed and the factory went bankrupt:

“We were defeated by the greed, the selfishness and the base, animal nature of men. It was the eternal conflict between spirit and matter, between soul and body. They would not renounce their bodies, which was all we asked of them.”

Dagny thinks of this as “pure evil”, recalling the people in the ruins of Starnesville scraping out a living in the fields. But then again, the obvious rejoinder is that capitalists through the ages have likewise asked workers to “renounce their bodies” by laboring, for the benefit of the capitalists, at work that’s bound to ravage their health. As we saw earlier, there have always been businesses that treated workers as disposable, reasoning that it doesn’t matter how many people are killed or crippled on the job, because they can always get more. (Remember Hank Rearden and Rand’s acceptance of children laboring in coal mines?)

The thing is, I agree with Rand that communism doesn’t work as an economic system. But I give Karl Marx credit for this one thing: at least he thought that people suffering and being exploited was a problem. Rand is clearly prepared to countenance any amount of human misery, as long as it happens in a society with the right premises.

“But I have seen my error and I am free of it, I am through with the world of machines, manufacturers and money, the world enslaved by matter. I am learning the emancipation of the spirit, as revealed in the great secrets of India, the release from bondage to flesh, the victory over physical nature, the triumph of the spirit over matter.” [p.302]

One of the things Ayn Rand has in common with fundamentalist Christianity is her notion that all belief systems which are not hers are the same belief system. In her eyes, you’re either a good capitalist who loves productive work, or an evil mystic who claims to value “spiritual” things because you hate productive work and the people who do it. What’s more, everyone knows which of these two camps they belong to, whether they want to admit it or not. That’s why she sees nothing odd about Ivy Starnes converting from communism to Buddhism; as far as she’s concerned, those are just two slightly different ways to be a malevolent, life-hating looter.

Actually, a touch of Buddhism might be just what the doctor ordered for Rand. Contrary to what she seems to think, Buddhism doesn’t counsel rejection of the world, but the so-called middle path, neither total devotion to sensual pleasure nor total asceticism and renunciation of the flesh. Rand’s life could practically be a Buddhist parable about the unhappiness brought by devotion to one extreme at the expense of the other. (The viewpoint advocated by Ivy Starnes sounds more like Gnosticism, the early Christian sect which taught that the material world was an evil place to be escaped as soon as possible.)

In the end, Dagny is able to intimidate Starnes into giving her one more clue:

“But, my girl, I said that I do not remember…. But I do not know their names, I do not know any names, I do not know what sort of adventurers my father may have had in that laboratory!… Don’t you hear me?… I am not accustomed to being questioned in such manner and… Don’t keep repeating it. Don’t you know any words but ‘engineer’?… Don’t you hear me at all?… What’s the matter with you? I — I don’t like your face, you’re… Leave me alone. I don’t know who you are, I’ve never hurt you, I’m an old woman, don’t look at me like that, I… Stand back! Don’t come near me or I’ll call for help! I’ll… Oh, yes, yes, I know that one! The chief engineer. Yes. He was the head of the laboratory. Yes. William Hastings. That was his name — William Hastings. I remember. He went off to Brandon, Wyoming. He quit the day after we introduced the plan. He was the second man to quit us… No. No, I don’t remember who was the first. He wasn’t anybody important.”

Gosh, do you think that first engineer might turn out to be important?

Even though we don’t see Dagny’s side of this conversation, it’s plain that she’s threatening to hurt Ivy Starnes if Starnes won’t give her the information she’s demanding. We’re not meant to draw any negative conclusions about Dagny from this, because Rand’s heroes are entitled to commit violence to get what they want, especially if it’s against someone who’s fat and ugly. One thing’s for sure: For all that Rand disparages Buddhism as irredeemably spiritual and mystical, one of its core ethical principles is non-violence, and I’d rather associate with a Buddhist who followed this tenet than with an Objectivist who might decide I don’t merit freedom from forcible coercion because I’m not True Capitalist enough.

Other posts in this series:

Bangladesh Is Killing Atheists
Atlas Shrugged: Hobo Sign
Atlas Shrugged: Hobo Sign
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 10
About Adam Lee

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.

  • Ryan

    The factory as described is a form of worker co-operative and contrary to Rand’s beliefs co-operatives have been shown to be a great way to run a firm.

  • Lagerbaer

    Another example of extremes on both sides wrapping around to meet each other.

  • Elizabeth

    Oh man…now I’m going to have to pick up the book again – you’ve caught up to where I stopped.
    I’m going to watch the movie too, I’m a glutton for punishment.

    I’ve been loving this series of posts, thank you so much for doing them. I’ve always known there was a great deal wrong with Rand and her philosophy, of course, but you are laying out the issues very clearly.

  • Shawn

    It is interesting that the only con man portrayed so far is d’Aconia, and that’s in a favorable light since he’s conning the right people. The looters are evil and anti-life, and they’re completely incompetent, but they are sincerely evil, anti-life, etc. However the main looters tend to live upper-class lifestyles, so maybe we’re supposed to conclude that they’re conniving to get extra resources from the masses somehow. They’re clearly not capable of tricking the True Capitalist Heroes except by consent. (So if you get bamboozled by a con man you’re not a True Capitalist Hero!)

  • raylampert

    Sure, when co-operatives are run the way they’re actually run, and not in the bizarre fashion illustrated in the book. I think we can add co-ops to the list of things Rand didn’t understand.
    And if you think of it, an employee-owned co-op is almost an ideal capitalist model. Everybody is an owner and they agree to come together freely in voluntary cooperation. One would think that Rand would approve of that sort of thing.

  • Tova Rischi

    I’d kinda like to see you one day examine a work more from my end of the spectrum (the communist end), though to be honest I don’t know a good example of an analog.
    Das Kapital would A) arguably be a worse tome to suffer to due to its nonfocus on aesthetics and B) I think would divorce it too much from its attempt at making a science out of history and economics (summa) by treating it as the fetishized cardboard cutout a bunch of 2nd world dictators turned it into instead of the fundamentally nondogmatic theory and critique it originally was meant to be. Das Manifest maybe but again nonfiction and even in its day it was regarded as a political tract gone awry with extremely oversimplified and mistaken ideas digested as such on purpose so as to communicate more effectively with the undereducated and downtrodden. I suppose there’s a large collection of Soviet films to watch but considering how most of that can’t be said to be on purpose I’m not sure if it’d be similar enough.
    I don’t know I’m probably just being dumb. Thanks for the series thus far, looking forward to movie day.

  • raylampert

    Good luck with watching the movies. They’re at least as tedious and boring as the book, but mercifully much shorter.

  • skyblue

    Oh boy! A movie!

    I googled it and got a good laugh from this line on the Wikipedia page:

    More than 100,000 DVD inserts were recalled within days due to the
    jacket’s philosophically incorrect description of “Ayn Rand’s timeless
    novel of courage and self-sacrifice”

  • Leeloo Dallas Multigrain

    The perfect thing to get everyone excited about Atlas Shrugged Part III, coming this fall! With, yes, another entirely new cast.

  • busterggi

    The Ojectivist paradigm seems to be, “If you meet the Budda or anyone else in the road who might even slightly interfer with your personal greedy agenda, which is superior to everyone else’s greedy agenda because you deserve it, kill him/her/them.”

  • busterggi

    Perhaps a look at the history of the civilization of the Smurfs?

  • Stephen

    I’ve been really enjoying reading your critical take on Atlas Shrugged. Thanks for writing this series.

  • Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Why, I’ll bet Ivy Starnes doesn’t even smoke!

  • Jackson

    An accurate portrayal of Buddhism would require Rand to try to understand a worldview that is not her own. Honestly, I think that’s asking a little much.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    Oooooh, I can’t wait to see what you think of the movie! Although the acting is pretty terrible through both parts so far, make sure you note that Taylor Schilling goes on to play the lead character in the excellent Netflix series Orange Is The New Black. Rising actresses gotta make a buck, ya know. It’s just capitalism.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    Oh, this is delicious. I just looked up the wikipedia page for the as-yet unreleased part 3. Guess what? Totally new director… again. Totally new cast… again. As far as I can tell, not one person involved with parts 1 or 2 was willing to throw their talent at more than one of these bombs. Then again, we can always hope for ANOTHER Sean Hannity cameo.

  • Huckster Sam

    There’s a common thread among these sort of fascist styled belief systems and that’s the existence of an Other that is simultaneously weak yet still strong enough to oppress the One True Group.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    Armin Shimerman has a cameo, too, which makes me wonder what Rand would have thought of the Ferengi…

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    What do you mean wonder? There is no doubt in my mind that Rand would have seen the Ferengi as the Platonic Ideal of an enlightened race. Well, except that they’re ugly.

  • eyelessgame

    “All people who aren’t like me are the same” is the clearest possible example of a sheltered mind, unexposed to most of the world. Yet again I am struck by the parallels between Atlas Shrugged/Objectivism and fundamentalist Christians.

    Which in turn means that I find their current alliance less surprising than a lot of folks seem to.

  • hector

    That’s pretty damn funny. You just know that whoever wrote that blurb for the jacket knew nothing about the contents and went with a cliche that normally applies to every story ever told – except this one.

  • Cactus_Wren

    I’m trying to work out how it is that a decision (like Hank Rearden’s) to ignore and simply work through exhaustion and “scalding pain in {one’s} chest”, on the grounds that they’re “not a valid reason for stopping”, does not equate to a renunciation of the body.

  • Sue White

    I know Rand loved the manly scent of cigarettes and smoking factories, but come on now – incense is not “ill-smelling”.

  • eyelessgame

    I remember that, and reading the blogs heaping derision on the marketers for having no clue about their product.
    And the fact that it’s a cliché that applies to every story ever told, except this one, tells us something about just how wrong Rand was about human nature.

  • Snooof

    Nah, cooperatives are bad because that way a single Mighty Capitalist is answerable to a bunch of worthless looters. Why, they’d have to learn things like, “compromise” and “negotiation” and “explaining what the fuck they’re doing”, rather than being able to insist their orders are followed to the letter on threat of firing.

    This is why history has showed us that the only viable economic model is the one where a given business is owned and run by a single individual. Concepts like “publically-traded companies” with “shareholders” and “boards of directors” are just too un-Objectivist.

  • X. Randroid

    I’m not sure Buddhism would have helped. If there was one thing Rand considered worse than ascetic spiritualism, it was any notion of a “middle path.” Says Galt:

    There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.

    What do you expect from a woman whose favorite form of reasoning is the false dichotomy?

  • X. Randroid

    Yep. One thing that strikes me about Atlas, in my post-Rand phase, is how the looters are incompetent at absolutely everything, except working the system to make life miserable for the True Capitalist Heroes. Orren Boyle can’t get his workers to make a foot of rail, but he can talk the owners/management of all those railroads into voting for a bill that’s pretty clearly against the interest of all but one of them.

  • Azkyroth

    “And what the fuck are you doing on a ROAD, anyway? They’re built by LOOTERS with STOLEN TAX MONEY!”

    Unless you built it with your own hands. And maybe murdered a senator over it.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    You’d think that, but the Ferengi government could actually be pretty obtrusive. Like it was illegal to employ unionized workers, and the various laws against women doing anything, plus all the bribes you’d have to pay to get anything done. It seemed closer to the government in Atlas Shrugged, where it was constantly meddling but only for its own enrichment without providing any sort of safety net.

  • Cactus_Wren

    I can’t drink beer, because I’ll always associate the smell with men in not-very-clean jeans, huge silver-and-turquoise belt buckles, and t-shirts bearing such messages as DON’T ARGUE WITH YOUR WIFE, JUST DICKER. But I wouldn’t try to establish as an essential characterization point that a particular person was crude, crass, and unsavory, and you can tell this by the aroma of beer.

    (Mercedes Lackey apparently doesn’t care for the smell of incense either, but at least when she associates it with her villains, the description is usually in some form such as “the room reeked of cheap incense.”)

  • Science Avenger

    Actually, Rand has a little more going for her here than usual. The middle is certainly not always evil, but it isn’t nearly as right as the tired bromide of the reasonable middle as compromise to battling extremes. Frequently either extreme is more reasonable than the middle ground. Anyone who has played poker, or crossed the street knows this. Fold, or raise, but don’t call. Cross quickly, or not at all, but don’t cross slowly. So it’s not a total loss for Rand.

  • Loren Petrich

    DK isn’t nearly as dramatically interesting as AS tries to be; it isn’t a didactic novel. The Communist Manifesto might be a better choice.

    As to Communism in practice, I’ve seen it described as a form of capitalism where the State is the sole capitalist. Big business taken to a grotesque extreme, complete with making an entire nation its company town. Central planning? That’s how a business is run. Many businesses, especially big ones, are also very collectivist about their employees.

    The closest Communist counterpart to AS might be Socialist Realism, a genre of artistic creation that I’ve seen described as “boy meets girl meets tractor”.

  • Michael

    I may be wrong here, but isn’t the end goal of Buddhism to achieve nirvana, a state of non-being, escaping reincarnation and becoming one with the universe by giving up desire? That does sound like a rejection of the world, even if not by asceticism. From what I’ve read Buddha preached that “life is suffering” which also seems like a rejection.

  • Michael

    I read a book named Looking Backward published in 1888 about a socialist utopia in the year 2000 that might be good for a review, which actually *said* “The state is the sole employer and capitalist” as a *good* thing. If capitalism is an evil, how does substituting One Big Capitalist make it better? Of course that was just one of many problems in the book which it simply ignores…

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    For the most part incense is okay but there are moments it can be awful, usually depending on the type. I can’t stand sandalwood but something like jasmine is fine. Then again, if enough of it is burned at once or if the room is small with little to no circulation it’s going to get bad no matter what.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    You mean sort of how the “They” in almost every conspiracy theory are super genius criminal masterminds that devise plans that no one can see happening or figure out and their hidden so perfectly except everything they do supposedly only serves to make the conspiracy blatantly obvious according to the theorist?

  • X. Randroid

    Everything in moderation … including moderation! :-)

  • Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Demonstrating that a sufficiently large and powerful corporation is indistinguishable from a government.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    “In her eyes, you’re either a good capitalist who loves productive work, or an evil mystic who claims to value “spiritual” things because you hate productive work and the people who do it. What’s more, everyone knows which of these two camps they belong to, whether they want to admit it or not.”

    I certainly see this playing out in conservative and libertarian politics. Communism, socialism, Islamic theocracy, fascism, whatever — don’t sweat the details, they’re all names for the one great evil: STATISM! I’m not as dismissive of this idea as others are; I think the notion that the similarities between fascism and communism swamp their differences can lead to a productive discussion. But the hamfistedness of the right on this issue is just appaling.

  • Gregory Lynn

    “Life is suffering” is a mistranslation; after all, if the Buddha believed that life was nothing but pain, why would so many statues and icons depict him smiling and laughing? A much clearer version would be “Life contains dissatisfaction.” No matter what we do, who we know, how much we have or what spiritual philosophy we follow, things are going to go wrong, we aren’t always going to be satisfied, we will all occasionally have negative emotions or sensations. Not rejection so much as a statement of realism. The Four Noble Truths are as follows:

    1) Life is often unsatisfying.
    2) This lack of satisfaction (suffering) has a cause.
    3) Because suffering has a cause, it can also have an end.
    4) The quickest and easiest way to end your suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path set out by the Buddha.

    Nirvana is a Hindu term, and while Buddhism does have a similar state known as enlightenment, it’s subject to many, many different interpretations other than just the one you state. So while your statement isn’t necessarily wrong per se, it is incomplete.

    An in-depth analysis would be better left to others more knowledgeable than myself; suffice to say that the definition you set forth is one that is generally held by the more “mystical” schools of Buddhism such as Tibetan Buddhism, while others, such as myself, view enlightenment as a mental state as well as, or even instead of, a spiritual one. For example, I don’t believe in any sort of literal reincarnation; after all, the self is an illusion, a temporary conglomeration of causes and circumstance. If you aren’t even the same person you were ten years ago, why would you expect some essential core of identity to survive beyond death? To me, the only afterlife or reincarnation we can count on is the impact we leave on the world, often in ways too subtle for us to imagine. There are always going to be unintended consequences, so our actions are always going to have some negative effect somewhere down the line, but actively striving to do good and improve the world is likely to have fewer and smaller negative impacts than adopting a lackadaisical attitude or not caring if people are hurt by your actions.

    Buddhism has sometimes been described as a “religion for atheists” and that description holds a lot of truth; there is no central deity or pantheon, no set ritual that has to be followed, not even a scripture that is universally held as beyond reproach; even the Buddha said, “If you find what I teach useful, use it; if not, discard it.”

  • Michael

    I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on Buddhism myself, and my disagreement is more with variations like Tibetan Buddhism that you mentioned (although that also has multiple sects, a fact many non-Tibetans are unaware of). Naturally I cannot disagree that life is sometimes unsatisfying, but I’m not sure that Buddha’s solution has merit. To each their own, though.


    If our distant ancestors had adopted Rand’s wretched philosophy, the question today would be moot, as our species would have gone extinct long ago. There were any number of predators who were, bigger, stronger, faster, and with more high developed senses, than puny little humans. Humanity survived, and prospered through cooperation, not every man for himself.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    “A month before the release of Part I, Aglialoro suggested that Part III might be made into a musical.”

    Holy. Shit. It’s as if they’re deliberately trying to make it a farce.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    So, they’re keeping it truer to the original, you mean.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    I also got a huge lol out of this:

    Although Aglialoro hopes for better box office, he isn’t holding out hope for better reviews.

    “We’re not going to get critics coming on board,” Aglialoro said.
    “The academic-media complex out there doesn’t want to like the work, doesn’t want to understand it, fears the lack of government in their lives, wants the presence of government taking care of us. … The MSNBC crowd doesn’t like us.”

    He’s pre-blaming his failure on other people. How Randian.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    Also, what is that shit about an “academic-media complex”? Someone should explain to Aglialoro that the media in this country are almost entirely owned by major corporations, and that academia has virtually no influence over it. But that probably wouldn’t do any good. He’s got his own version of reality, one in which there’s a conspiracy against him, and in which he did not make two movies with poor production values.