Atlas Shrugged: Horseshoe Theory

Atlas Shrugged: Horseshoe Theory October 30, 2015


Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter IV

Here’s this chapter summarized in two sentences: Jim Taggart’s wife Cherryl finds out that he’s not the great businessman she thought he was, but one of the worst of the looters, and that he married her for the sadistic pleasure of crushing her spirit. In despair, she commits suicide.

That’s really the only thing that happens. It has no larger importance, but Rand spends an entire chapter on it, piling on the bathos and melodrama, just to emphasize what an eeeeevil villain Jim is. It’s meant to be a glimpse into the bad guys’ psychology: they despise thinkers and producers, but also envy their achievements and desperately crave their approval. To resolve the contradiction, they want to torture and destroy the capitalists, as if by doing so they could vicariously achieve those people’s greatness.

At this point, Jim and Cherryl have been married almost a year. She’s slowly figuring out that he might not be quite as great a capitalist as she thought he was, based on the fact that he’ll never talk to her about the railroad business (“I don’t care to talk shop”), but he’ll rant about how he hates profit and money (“we have no selfish ends in view, no private motives, we’re not after profit”), or curse businessmen like Hank Rearden and Francisco d’Anconia (“They’ll be stopped! They’ll be stripped! They’ll be brought down!”).

One night, after another screaming fight in which the two of them exchange Randian dialogue like, “Do you want… love… to be… causeless?” or “What sort of metaphysical subject are you trying to deal with?”, Cherryl storms out. She decides to go see Dagny and beg her forgiveness:

“I know that it was you who ran Taggart Transcontinental. It was you who built the John Galt Line. It was you who had the mind and the courage that kept all of it alive. I suppose you thought that I married Jim for his money — as what shop girl wouldn’t have? But, you see, I married Jim because I… I thought that he was you. I thought that he was Taggart Transcontinental. Now I know that he’s”—she hesitated, then went on firmly, as if not to spare herself anything—”he’s some sort of vicious moocher, though I can’t understand of what kind or why.”

Dagny accepts Cherryl’s apology, but only after Cherryl assures her that she’s not seeking “alms” (because Rand’s heroes always have to suffer and despair in the ideologically correct way). Dagny tells her that what she’s grappling with is:

“…the greatest problem in history, the one that has caused all of human suffering. You’ve understood much more than most people, who suffer and die, never knowing what killed them.”

There’s an idea called horseshoe theory, which states that political theories at the farthest ends of the spectrum have a tendency to curve around and meet each other. This isn’t to say that the truth is always found by taking the average of the two most extreme positions – merely that extremists of all stripes resemble each other more than you might guess.

Objectivism and communism are the classic example of horseshoe theory. For all that Rand despised the Soviets and everything they stood for, her worldview bears some striking similarities to theirs.

Just in the pages of Atlas Shrugged, there are many examples of this. We’ve seen the omnicompetence of Randian capitalists who can understand and improve on anything at a glance, which is the same superhuman power that communist states like North Korea ascribe to their dictators. We’ve seen Rand advocate the strikingly communist idea that work is its own reward and that everyone should love their job and take pride in it regardless of tangible compensation. We’ve also seen her belief that people in her utopia would voluntarily contribute to support the state, just as communists believe laborers will willingly do.

This chapter offers another. Dagny’s line about “the greatest problem in history” points to something Ayn Rand shared with Karl Marx: the belief that history was “a kind of spiritualized class struggle” [Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market, p.192] between the working poor and the wealthy. (Of course, they were rooting for different sides.) She also shared with Marx the belief that she and her followers “were the wave of the future” [p.165] and that their eventual triumph was foreordained by the forces of history.

There’s also this line, in which Dagny tells Cherryl that there’s only pure good and pure evil, nothing in between, and that the greatest thoughtcrime you can commit is to feel pity for the guilty:

“You never hear it said by a good person about those who fail to do him justice. But you always hear it said by a rotter about those who treat him as a rotter, those who don’t feel any sympathy for the evil he’s committed or for the pain he suffers as a consequence. Well, it’s true — that is what I do not feel. But those who feel it, feel nothing for any quality of human greatness, for any person or action that deserves admiration, approval, esteem. These are the things I feel. You’ll find that it’s one or the other. Those who grant sympathy to guilt, grant none to innocence.”

No doubt, the censors and secret police of the Soviet Union would have found this way of thinking quite congenial.

The similarities between the two schools of thought go on and on. The peaceful anarchism of Galt’s Gulch bears not a little similarity to Marxist utopias, as SmogMonster observed in this comment:

“Isn’t that oddly close to Marxist theory? The dictatorship of the proletariat will wither away of its own accord once Communism has been properly established. Once the perfect system has been achieved, government will be kind of unnecessary. Oh, sure, there’ll always be some bureaucratic offices; someone’s got to keep track of valid contracts or food production, as the case may be. But it will cease to be important, and somehow people will lose the desire to acquire and impose power over each other.”

And the idea of Randian protagonists being able to accomplish anything through pure willpower hearkens back to one of communism’s greatest failures, as Pierre Cloutier observed:

“Actually the similarity between Rand’s ideas about the economy with the Great Leap Forward are also in her idea that ‘will’ and ‘reason’ could overcome any obstacle. Mao and his clique in planning the leap disregarded the cautions of actual experts and stated over and over again that Revolutionary will could overcome any obstacle… Of course all this Revolutionary will clashed with reality and reality won with over 20 million people paying for it with their lives.”

It’s the height of irony that Rand, who despised the communists so deeply, ended up concocting a worldview that they’d have found immediately recognizable. Then again, it may not be so surprising. Every cult is founded in an absolute, black-and-white view of the world that rejects all outside thought as not just wrong but evil. And every cult has to tell itself that its followers are the righteous ones, persecuted and downtrodden by the world, but that the day will come when they’ll be elevated as they deserve.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 PL license

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