Atlas Shrugged: Interesting Villains

Atlas Shrugged: Interesting Villains October 10, 2014

EvilOverlord

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter VI

After much debate, the assembled villains finally decide to put their sinister world-domination plan in motion:

“The picture now is this,” said Wesley Mouch. “The economic condition of the country was better the year before last than it was last year, and last year it was better than it is at present. It’s obvious that we would not be able to survive another year of the same progression. Therefore, our sole objective must now be to hold the line. To stand still in order to catch our stride. To achieve total stability. Freedom has been given a chance and has failed. Therefore, more stringent controls are necessary. Since men are unable and unwilling to solve their problems voluntarily, they must be forced to do it.” He paused, picked up the sheet of paper, then added in a less formal tone of voice, “Hell, what it comes down to is that we can manage to exist as and where we are, but we can’t afford to move! So we’ve got to stand still. We’ve got to stand still. We’ve got to make those bastards stand still!”

The means by which they propose to accomplish this, Directive 10-289, is a plan to take total state control of the economy. As Mouch explains it, no one will be allowed to quit their jobs, sell their businesses or retire, under penalty of imprisonment. All wages and prices are to be frozen. Existing patents and copyrights are to be signed over to the state, and no new inventions are to be created. Everyone will be required both to produce and to consume the same quantity of goods each year. A new government agency, the Unification Board, will be created to assign people “to where, in its opinion, their services will best serve the interests of the nation” when they turn 21.

There’s no way that even a Rand villain could believe this would work. To point out just the most obvious problem with it: this scheme forbids workers and business owners to quit, but what happens when they die? Who will run their businesses then?

The only way this could even begin to work is if the exact same number of people are born as die each year. But the directive makes no mention of controlling procreation, either through forced pregnancy or forced abortion, even though that would be the most intimate and outrageous violation of personal liberty of all and a suitably evil flourish to cap off the plan (and even though real-life communist regimes did this, notably Nicolae Ceauçescu’s Romania). I don’t want to read too much into this, but it’s a telling detail that, even when Rand was depicting her idea of the ultimate evil, she could only conceive of government overreach in strictly economic terms.

But then again, it misses the mark to criticize this plan for infeasibility, because Rand’s villains know this won’t work. In fact, they’re counting on it, because they want to destroy society and ensure the capitalists perish – even if it costs them their own lives – because they secretly worship death and don’t want to exist.

You may think I’m making that up, but I’m not. Rand has hinted at this before, and makes it clear later in the book. She lets a hint of it slip here, when Jim Taggart gets too excited and blurts out what they all believe but what none of them want to admit:

James Taggart spoke first. His voice was low, but it had the trembling intensity of an involuntary scream: “Well, why not? Why should they have it, if we don’t? Why should they stand above us? If we are to perish, let’s make sure that we all perish together. Let’s make sure that we leave them no chance to survive!”

“That’s a damn funny thing to say about a very practical plan that will benefit everybody,” said Orren Boyle shrilly, looking at Taggart in frightened astonishment.

In the world of Atlas Shrugged there are only two types of people, good capitalists and evil looters (just as, in Left Behind, there are only good Christians and evil Satan worshippers). This is something that stems directly from Rand’s totalizing, fundamentalist ideology. She’s so closed to other views that she can’t even conceive of any reason why people might disagree with her, so she does the only thing possible: she depicts her villains as wholly irrational and evil, seeking to destroy for literally no reason at all.

The antihero is a great tradition in English literature. From Satan in Paradise Lost to Severus Snape in Harry Potter, what the best antiheroes have in common is that we sympathize with them. Even though they’re villainous, we understand how they got to be that way; we have to get the feeling that, in their place, we might have made the same choices. Their creators have to show what it was that pushed them over the edge, whether it was the excess of some virtue that led to their fall, or simply cruel fate that led to them facing impossible circumstances.

In short, antiheroes are inherently interesting. We’re drawn to them, even as we’re repulsed by them. This, needless to say, is not something we see in the world of this book. Because Rand’s villains have no rational motivation, they inevitably end up as non-entities – cardboard cutouts with no distinct personalities. This also means that none of them ever get real backstories or character traits to speak of. The one arguable exception is Dr. Robert Stadler, but even he lacks the element of tragedy that defines the best antiheroes: he had a choice, he chose wrong, he gets punished for it, the end. We never have a reason to identify with any of them.

I’m not saying the black-versus-white plot can never be done well. There are plenty of sci-fi and fantasy universes with inherently evil bad guys that nevertheless tell great stories. The problem is that Rand’s devotees don’t think this book is fantasy. They think it’s reality, and that everyone outside their small ideological circle – that means you and me – are death-worshipping villains. For example, libertarian presidential candidate Wayne Allyn Root thinks Atlas is more or less a prophecy of real events. Paul Ryan idolizes Rand, though he’s backed away from that since her atheism became a political liability. I’ve also made mention of this in reference to Wall Street bankers.

Whatever your disagreements with communism or socialism, we should be able to agree that they don’t consist of a desire to kill all the productive people for literally no reason. As Rand herself would say: check your premises. It ought to be obvious, incontrovertible even, that the vast majority of human beings want to live and are pursuing their own vision of the good, even though we may disagree sharply on what that is. But accepting that conclusion would force Rand to believe that something is wrong with her philosophy, and since she couldn’t abide that, she instead concluded that non-Objectivists really don’t want to live, whatever they may say. The moral implications of this will be horrifyingly drawn out later on in the book.

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