Atlas Shrugged: Fanfare for the Common Man

Atlas Shrugged: Fanfare for the Common Man December 24, 2015


Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter VI

There’s a scene in this chapter that I’m going to pass over briefly. In it, Hank Rearden is invited to a conference in New York where a cabal of prominent looters proudly announce their Steel Unification Plan, in which every steel maker will be paid based on the number of furnaces he owns. Hank points out that this plan will force him to produce at a loss, since he owns fewer furnaces but produces more steel than his competitors. Since he knows that they know their situation is desperate, he asks how they could possibly believe this will work. Jim Taggart cheerily tells him, “Oh, you’ll do something!”, which brings Hank to an epiphany – what they were counting on was him, finding some way to keep producing in spite of the looters’ schemes, just as he always has. He walks out.

Hank drives back to Philadelphia and his mills, but as he gets closer, he notices a disturbance:

The mills were still a mile ahead when a small spurt of flame caught his sudden attention. Among all the shades of fire in the vast spread of structures, he could tell the abnormal and the out-of-place: this one was too raw a shade of yellow and it was darting from a spot where no fire had reason to be, from a structure by the gate of the main entrance.

As he gets closer, he sees that there’s a mob at the gates trying to break in, while workers inside the plant are trying to defend it. The attackers have set fire to the gatekeeper’s booth, and gunshots are flying back and forth on both sides.

Rather than drive into the midst of the mob, Hank makes a sharp turn and sends his car screeching down an unpaved side road. The car almost goes off the road and plunges into a ravine, but he manages to regain control and pull over. In that instant, he glimpses a human form lying at the bottom of the ravine, beckoning for help:

Throwing off his overcoat, he went hurrying down the side of the ravine, lumps of earth giving way under his feet, he went catching at the dried coils of brush, half-running, half-sliding toward the long black form which he could now distinguish to be a human body. A scum of cotton was swimming against the moon, he could see the white of a hand and the shape of an arm lying stretched in the weeds, but the body lay still, with no sign of motion.

“Mr. Rearden…”

It’s Rearden Steel’s government overseer, the Wet Nurse – his actual name is Tony, as the text finally sees fit to tell us – and as Hank discovers when he kneels over him, he’s suffered a deadly wound and is clinging to life.

He felt the boy’s hand clutching his with the abnormal strength of agony, while he was noticing the tortured lines of the face, the drained lips, the glazing eyes and the thin, dark trickle from a small, black hole in too wrong, too close a spot on the left side of the boy’s chest.

Obligatory editorial note: Is there a right spot for a hole in your chest?

The riot at Hank’s mill wasn’t started by his own workers. It was staged, incited by thugs hired by the government, who wanted to create an excuse to step in and take over. But they didn’t count on their inside man switching sides and refusing to let the hired goons past the gates. When Tony wouldn’t cooperate and tried to go for help, they shot him and dumped him there. In true Hollywood style, he managed to remain alive until Hank found him so he could explain everything. And in true Randian style, despite a sucking chest wound, he’s still able to gasp out a long, agonized philosophical monologue:

“They… they’ve got a Steel Unification Plan ready… and they need an excuse for it… because they know that the country won’t take it… and you won’t stand for it… They’re afraid this one’s going to be too much for everybody… it’s just a plan to skin you alive, that’s all… So they want to make it look like you’re starving your workers… and the workers are running amuck and you’re unable to control them… and the government’s got to step in for your own protection and for public safety… That’s going to be their pitch, Mr. Rearden…”

His eyes wandered over the vast darkness, then rose to Rearden’s face; the eyes were helpless, longing, childishly bewildered. “I know… it’s crap, all those things they taught us… all of it, everything they said… about living or… or dying… Dying… it wouldn’t make any difference to chemicals, but—” he stopped, and all of his desperate protest was only in the intensity of his voice dropping lower to say, “—but it does, to me… And… and, I guess, it makes a difference to an animal, too… But they said there are no values… only social customs… No values!” His hand clutched blindly at the hole in his chest, as if trying to hold that which he was losing. “No… values…”

Hank picks the boy up and carries him toward the plant, hoping to get help, but it’s too late. With his final breath, Tony fulfills his purpose in life – to offer up his worship to the superior humans who are better at capitalism than he is (“Mr. Rearden… I… I liked you very much”) – and dies in Hank’s arms. Like Cherryl Taggart before him, he turned out to be a decent person but not an implausible super-genius, so there’s no place for him in Ayn Rand’s utopia, and he has to be shuffled off the stage.

Hank goes on walking, carrying the body. The text tells us that he feels a slow-burning fury, “a desire to kill”, which you might agree is understandable given the circumstances – except that it says his anger is not at either the thug who shot Tony or the government bureaucrat who hired that thug. No, Hank’s murderous rage is directed at the dead boy’s teachers and college professors:

The desire was not directed at the unknown thug who had sent a bullet through the boy’s body, or at the looting bureaucrats who had hired the thug to do it, but at the boy’s teachers who had delivered him, disarmed, to the thug’s gun — at the soft, safe assassins of college classrooms who, incompetent to answer the queries of a quest for reason, took pleasure in crippling the young minds entrusted to their care.

Somewhere, he thought, there was this boy’s mother, who had trembled with protective concern over his groping steps, while teaching him to walk, who had measured his baby formulas with a jeweler’s caution, who had obeyed with a zealot’s fervor the latest words of science on his diet and hygiene, protecting his unhardened body from germs — then had sent him to be turned into a tortured neurotic by the men who taught him that he had no mind and must never attempt to think.

…Men would shudder, he thought, if they saw a mother bird plucking the feathers from the wings of her young, then pushing him out of the nest to struggle for survival — yet that was what they did to their children.

Armed with nothing but meaningless phrases, this boy had been thrown to fight for existence, he had hobbled and groped through a brief, doomed effort, he had screamed his indignant, bewildered protest – and had perished in his first attempt to soar on his mangled wings.

Not to be pedantic, but there’s an obvious problem here. However much Hank despises teachers, they weren’t the cause of Tony’s death. He was killed because he shook off their teachings and started thinking for himself! If he’d continued to be a pawn of the looters and had gone along with their scheme, this wouldn’t have happened to him. This monologue would only make sense if he’d died because, I don’t know, he’d jumped into a vat of molten metal because he’d been taught that fire isn’t hot.

This section is another exhibit in something Ayn Rand never could seem to make up her mind about, namely whether education can shape or change a person’s basic character, or whether people are predestined to be capitalism-loving heroes or death-worshipping villains from birth. This passage suggests the former, but given the seesawing views expressed at various points in the book, the only thing you can really say is that Rand is consistently inconsistent about it.

Rand’s vagueness is strategic, because either way holds peril for her. If people are what they are because of their education and upbringing, and not because of some indomitable inner will, then you could argue that her heroes aren’t the unique, irreplaceable keystones of civilization they claim to be; someone else could have gotten the same education in their place and achieved the same things. But if education isn’t necessary, if character is innate, then how can you blame bad teachers like Tony’s or praise good ones like Hugh Akston? What’s more, how can you condemn the looters for being what they are if their destiny was fixed at birth? It can’t be their fault if there’s an inherent capitalist essence that you either have or you don’t.

With Tony’s body in his arms, Hank regains the road and slips into his mills by a side entrance. He leaves the body in the hospital building, where workers are being treated for wounds suffered while fighting the mob, and goes out to see what’s going on.

By the time he gets there, the siege has already been broken, and there’s just the mopping-up left to do. But before Hank can take part, he’s ambushed by two thugs in an alley. One of them clubs him on the head, but even as he falls unconscious, someone catches him and breaks his fall, at the same time drawing a gun and shooting his assailants at point-blank range.

Hank wakes up in his office, with the mills’ doctor and the superintendent hovering over him and bandaging his head. He asks who saved him, and they say it was a man named Frank Adams, the “new furnace foreman” who was hired two months ago. They also say that “Frank Adams” organized the defense of the mill, killing many of the thugs from a sniper’s position on a roof overlooking the main gate. Hank asks to speak to him, and you’ll never guess who it turns out to be:

The man standing on the threshold, with disheveled hair, a soot-streaked face and furnace-smudged arms, dressed in scorched overalls and bloodstained shirt, standing as if he wore a cape waving behind him in the wind, was Francisco d’Anconia.

Again, speaking as the editor Rand never had, I have to point out that this makes no sense. How could Francisco have been working incognito at Hank’s plant for two months? Even before he blew up his mines and vanished, he was a jet-setting international playboy, the inheritor of the world’s most famous fortune, the darling of newspaper gossip columns. And after his spectacular feat of global sabotage, he ought to be one of the most infamous faces on the planet. There should be Wanted posters and Interpol Red Notices with his name and picture on them. It’s believable that John Galt could work as a manual laborer because no one actually knows he exists, but there’s just no way that Francisco could do the same and not be recognized.

“Now I’ll tell you the things I had come to say, but did not finish, that night when I came here for the first time. I think you’re ready to hear it.”

“I am.”

This is the conclusion of Hank Rearden’s storyline, as he finally decides to hightail it out for Galt’s Gulch. But Hank has never been a complex or sympathetic character, and he still isn’t, so I’m not going to say any more about that.

Even more so than with Cherryl, the sad fate of Tony the Wet Nurse shows the disdain that Ayn Rand has for the vast mass of humanity. It’s not just that ordinary people have no place in Rand’s ubermensch utopia; it’s that she implicitly expects them to sacrifice themselves to smooth the way for the chosen few. (That theme will be hammered home even harder when it comes to poor, tragic Eddie Willers.)

The historically most resonant critique of capitalism has been that it permits a small, greedy rentier elite to live large off the sweat and toil of the working classes, draining their health and even their lives for the sake of the owners’ profit. It’s amazing how little effort Rand puts forth to counteract that stereotype. You’d think a book like Atlas Shrugged, written to sing the glories of capitalism, would want to make the case that a freer market would make everyone better off. Rand does half-heartedly assert that, but what she tells isn’t the same as what she shows. What she shows, repeatedly, is that capitalism is good because it benefits the elites, and that it’s right and proper that the owners be exalted above everyone else, up to and including having ordinary workers take a bullet for their bosses if that’s what’s required of them.

Image credit: Room237, via Wikimedia Commons; released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

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