Atlas Shrugged: The New Feudalism

Atlas Shrugged: The New Feudalism August 14, 2015

Serfs

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter II

Last time, John Galt told Dagny that because she trespassed in his valley, he’s going to hold her there for a month, just because he wants to. He also tells her that he’s going to bill the account that Ragnar established for her at the Mulligan Bank for her accommodations:

“If you don’t claim it, some part of it — a very small part — will be turned over to me in your name.”

“In my name? Why?”

“To pay for your room and board.”

I quoted this passage last week, but I want to mention it again to call attention to this: Why does Galt only intend to charge Dagny a “very small” fee? According to the law which he made up on the spot, he could charge her any price he chooses. Why not say that the penalty for trespassing is a fine the size of her entire bank account, or that room and board in his house costs a thousand dollars a day?

This is John Galt we’re talking about, after all. The first time we saw him, the text said that he had “a ruthless innocence which would not seek forgiveness or grant it”. But this dialogue implies that he’s going to feed and shelter her virtually for free. That doesn’t sound very “ruthless”, does it?

This, again, points to the contradiction between what Rand shows and what she tells. She tells us that her heroes are fiercely selfish dealmakers, seeking every advantage for themselves, determined to wring the maximum profit out of every bargain no matter who they have to squeeze. But what she shows is that, when they’re dealing with fellow capitalists, it’s favoritism and sweetheart deals all the way.

“I shall comply with your terms,” she answered; her voice had the shrewd, confident, deliberating slowness of a trader. “But I shall not permit the use of that money for my debts.”

“How else do you propose to comply?”

“I propose to earn my room and board.”

Dagny offers to be John Galt’s housekeeper, a skill set that her days as a railroad executive have clearly left her well prepared for:

“If you will hire me,” she said, her face severely polite, her tone harshly clear, impersonal and businesslike, “I shall cook your meals, clean your house, do your laundry and perform such other duties as are required of a servant — in exchange for my room, board and such money as I will need for some items of clothing. I may be slightly handicapped by my injuries for the next few days, but that will not last and I will be able to do the job fully.”

…He was still smiling, it was a smile of amusement, but it was as if amusement could be transmuted into some shining glory. “All right, Miss Taggart,” he said, “I’ll hire you… I will pay you ten dollars a month, in addition to your room and board.”

“Very well.”

“I shall be the first man in this valley to hire a servant.” He got up, reached into his pocket and threw a five-dollar gold piece down on the table. “As advance on your wages,” he said.

The implausibilities keep stacking up here. In spite of Dagny having zero bargaining power, John Galt agrees (out of the goodness of his heart?) to hire her at a living wage, plus throw in free room and board – all in exchange for some light domestic labor which he’s fully capable of doing himself. He even gives her an advance on her salary before she’s done a thing!

Lest we forget, Dagny also needed medical attention when she crash-landed in the Gulch, but we never find out how much Dr. Hendricks charges for that, nor is there ever any mention made of her settling the bill. What if he’d charged her ten thousand dollars, plus interest accruing at punitive rates (no usury laws here!) until she paid down the full amount? Again, either he or John Galt could have chosen to reduce her to debt slavery, but somehow neither of them do.

Unfortunately, most real-life employers aren’t as giving and generous as John Galt, especially when it comes to low-skill jobs like the one Dagny takes on. Many of them pay the bare minimum allowed by law, which can be too little to live on – something these giant, hugely profitable corporations know perfectly well, since some of them brazenly instruct their employees how to apply for food stamps and other public assistance.

But that, arguably, isn’t even the most oppressive thing they do. After all, a low-paid worker could always quit to seek a better job – at least, you’d think so. However, employers both large and small have sought to constrain their employees’ liberty and prevent them from moving on to greener pastures.

Their tool of choice is the non-compete agreement, in which employees have to pledge as a condition of their hiring that they won’t work for a competitor for a specified length of time if they quit or get fired. In the past, these were usually reserved for high-skilled knowledge workers like programmers, salespeople or lawyers – people who might carry away trade secrets, client lists or other valuable intellectual property. But in recent years, they’re proliferating in all kinds of jobs, from summer camp counselors to gardeners to hair stylists. Amazon foists them on the laborers who pack boxes at its massive warehouses. Even $8-an-hour counter employees at the Jimmy John’s sandwich chain have to sign noncompete agreements that bar them from working at a competitor for two years (!). (Forbes snarks, “Does a quarter pound of roast beef with provolone cheese on a baguette count as a trade secret?”)

Whether these clauses are enforceable varies from state to state. However, they undeniably have a chilling effect, deterring people from quitting their jobs or discouraging other employers from hiring them if they do, and that seems to be very much the point. Low-wage workers in particular, who rarely have the savings that would allow them to be unemployed for months on end, can wind up trapped in a job they can’t afford to quit. The result is something like a new kind of feudalism, in which employees endure poverty wages and poor working conditions because they lack the freedom to leave and seek better employment elsewhere. That’s the kind of iron-fisted cruelty a Randian supercapitalist should appreciate.

As I wrote earlier, Rand seems unable to conceive of the consequences of her own philosophy. Her apparent belief is that the magic of the market would just take care of everyone, somehow, if only we repealed the laws giving even minimal protection to workers. She, of all people, ought to understand that most employers will exploit their workers to the extent of their power to do so. The only reason that John Galt doesn’t is because of an inexplicable benevolence that runs counter to everything else she tells us about the way an economy is rightly supposed to function.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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