Atlas Shrugged: Big Soy

Atlas Shrugged: Big Soy November 27, 2015

Edamame

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter V

With d’Anconia Copper gone and the last few copper mines in the U.S. perishing for lack of machinery and spare parts, it’s become almost impossible for Hank to keep making Rearden Metal. But as he tells Dagny, a bigger problem is looming. He’s been selling as much metal as he can on the black market to the wheat farmers of Minnesota, who desperately need new farm equipment:

“Dagny, I was in Minnesota last month. I’ve seen what’s going on there. The country will starve, not next year, but this winter, unless a few of us act and act fast. There are no grain reserves left anywhere. With Nebraska gone, Oklahoma wrecked, North Dakota abandoned, Kansas barely subsisting — there isn’t going to be any wheat this winter, not for the city of New York nor for any Eastern city.

Minnesota is our last granary. They’ve had two bad years in succession, but they have a bumper crop this fall — and they have to be able to harvest it. Have you had a chance to take a look at the condition of the farm-equipment industry? They’re not big enough, any of them, to keep a staff of efficient gangsters in Washington or to pay percentages to pull-peddlers. So they haven’t been getting many allocations of materials. Two-thirds of them have shut down and the rest are about to.

…I don’t know how they managed to survive till last spring. I don’t know how they managed to plant their wheat. But they did. They did.” There was a look of intensity on his face, as if he were contemplating a rare, forgotten sight: a vision of men — and she knew what motive was still holding him to his job. “Dagny, they had to have tools for their harvest. I’ve been selling all the Metal I could steal out of my own mills to the manufacturers of farm equipment. On credit. They’ve been sending the equipment to Minnesota as fast as they could put it out. Selling it in the same way — illegally and on credit. But they will be paid, this fall, and so will I. Charity, hell! We’re helping producers — and what tenacious producers! — not lousy, mooching ‘consumers.’ We’re giving loans, not alms. We’re supporting ability, not need. I’ll be damned if I’ll stand by and let those men be destroyed while the pull-peddlers grow rich!”

For anyone who’s acquainted with American politics, this passage ought to provoke some bitter laughter. Atlas Shrugged depicts farmers as a small, powerless minority, helpless to stop an overbearing government from rolling over them. In real life, the agribusiness lobby, which includes corporations like Monsanto and Cargill, is enormously wealthy and politically powerful. The biggest sign of their political pull is the federal omnibus farm bill, which is reliably riddled with price subsidies and other government giveaways.

Federal farm programs date back to the New Deal, and normally Rand wouldn’t miss a trick in denouncing them. But if they were to be mentioned in this scene, it would threaten to blur the line between looters and producers – since farmers demand, and get, generous state subsidies, but they genuinely do produce huge quantities of crops – and so, as in previous scenes where she rewrites American history, she chooses instead to pretend that none of that ever happened.

Also, why aren’t Hank and Dagny upset at Francisco? They’re fighting a desperate, last-ditch effort to save the country by supporting the farms that feed millions of people. When he blew up his mines, Francisco took away the source of copper they were counting on to make Rearden Metal for farm equipment and rails. He’s kicked the legs out from under them. Ironically, this was probably the most humanitarian thing Hank and Dagny have ever tried to do, and Francisco has completely ruined it. His act will directly result in the starvation of millions of people. Yet Hank acts as if they’re the ones who should apologize to Francisco, not vice versa (“The only homage I can still pay him is not to cry for forgiveness where no forgiveness is possible”).

While Hank scavenges whatever copper he can get and the wheat farmers struggle to harvest their crop, “thirty million dollars of subsidy money from Washington” have been given to Emma Chalmers, mother of the dead Kip Chalmers, for a project to grow soybeans in Louisiana:

“The soybean is a much more sturdy, nutritious and economical plant than all the extravagant foods which our wasteful, self-indulgent diet has conditioned us to expect,” Kip’s Ma had said over the radio… “Soybeans make an excellent substitute for bread, meat, cereals and coffee — and if all of us were compelled to adopt soybeans as our staple diet, it would solve the national food crisis and make it possible to feed more people… At a time of desperate public need, it’s our duty to sacrifice our luxurious tastes and eat our way back to prosperity by adapting ourselves to the simple, wholesome foodstuff on which the peoples of the Orient have so nobly subsisted for centuries. There’s a great deal that we could learn from the peoples of the Orient.”

The weeks pass, and harvest time is approaching. But at the last minute, Dagny gets a phone call from a Taggart employee in Minnesota, warning her of catastrophe. Every warehouse and silo along the way is packed with grain, and loaded trucks and farmers’ wagons are lined up along the highway for miles, but the freight trains they were counting on to ship the harvest haven’t arrived.

In a day and a night of frantic phone calls to division points across the country, they learn, too late, that Cuffy Meigs ordered the freight cars to be sent to Louisiana for the soybean harvest. Dagny, Eddie and the loyal employees remaining desperately order every train to be sent to Minnesota, but too late. The grain is rotting in the fields, and the farmers are rioting in a spasm of despairing fury:

The men in Washington were last to be reached by the panic… They waited, they evaded all pleas, they declared, “Oh, ridiculous, there’s nothing to worry about! Those Taggart people have always moved that wheat on schedule, they’ll find some way to move it!”

…In Minnesota, farmers were setting fire to their own farms, they were demolishing grain elevators and the homes of county officials, they were fighting along the track of the railroad, some to tear it up, some to defend it with their lives — and, with no goal to reach save violence, they were dying in the streets of gutted towns and in the silent gullies of a roadless night.

Then there was only the acrid stench of grain rotting in half-smouldering piles — a few columns of smoke rising from the plains, standing still in the air over blackened ruins — and, in an office in Pennsylvania, Hank Rearden sitting at his desk, looking at a list of men who had gone bankrupt: they were the manufacturers of farm equipment, who could not be paid and would not be able to pay him.

The harvest of soybeans did not reach the markets of the country: it had been reaped prematurely, it was moldy and unfit for consumption.

The funny thing is that Ma Chalmers’ plan was actually a pretty good one. Soybeans are highly nutritious – they’re an excellent source of essential nutrients, rich with healthy fats and contain more complete protein than almost any other food. But Rand’s IOKIYAR plotting guarantees that anything attempted by the villains has to fail. If the wheat harvest had been lost but the soybean harvest had reached the Eastern cities and helped feed hungry people, then readers might feel some smidgen of doubt which side they were supposed to be on. To forestall that possibility, the novel is written so that it’s only the capitalists who can do anything, even something as fundamentally simple as plant and harvest crops.

The implicit comparison here is that wheat is a properly rational crop and the appropriate food for capitalists, whereas soy is an evil looters’ food, the staple of “the mystic-ridden nations of the Orient” (as a later chapter puts it with none-too-subtle racism). Eating soy rather than wheat, in Rand’s eyes, is a sign of civilizational regression. (Yes, she complains both that soy is the wrong thing to eat and also that the looters aren’t any good at growing it. It’s the Objectivist version of the old joke: “The food here is terrible, and such small portions!”)

It’s a grand irony that, since Atlas Shrugged was written, soybeans have grown into a colossal industry in the United States. Soy has become one of the “commodity crops” grown in massive quantities for export, livestock feed and industrial processing. And in a development that would have astounded Rand, the U.S. has become the world’s largest soybean producer, now exceeding the size of the American wheat industry. Even more ironically, Minnesota is one of the biggest state growers.

As with Dagny and the railroad, it’s jarring that Ayn Rand depicted farmers as heroic independent businessmen struggling against government oppression. Agriculture has long enjoyed large subsidies and protectionism in most developed countries. But then again, there’s a reason for that. What country would want to be dependent on the vagaries of weather and the market to feed its people? When staple crops become scarce or the price skyrockets, food riots are a very real threat. In Rand’s view, people who can’t afford food ought to peacefully sit and starve (as shown by young Hank Rearden), so this doesn’t even enter into her mind as something that governments ought to concern themselves with.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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