Atlas Shrugged: Manifest Destiny

Atlas Shrugged: Manifest Destiny January 29, 2016

WeaponsOfLiberty

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter VII, The Speech

John Galt is still talking. In this section of the speech, which is the last part that I’ll cover, he addresses an important question: what happens to the people who listen to him and come away convinced?

After all, you’ve got to admit, he waited till pretty late in the game to deliver this grand manifesto. Civilization is disintegrating; the world is on an irreversible slide into violent anarchy and mass starvation. He’s already swooped in and plucked out all the millionaire executives he wanted, but what about the ordinary, hardworking people who are left behind – the Eddie Willerses of the world? Does John Galt have anything to offer them, or is he just mocking them by offering enlightenment now that it’s far too late for them to save themselves?

“I am speaking to those among you who have retained some sovereign shred of their soul… If, in the chaos of the motives that have made you listen to the radio tonight, there was an honest, rational desire to learn what is wrong with the world, you are the man whom I wished to address.

…If you find a chance to vanish into some wilderness out of their reach, do so, but not to exist as a bandit or to create a gang competing with their racket; build a productive life of your own with those who accept your moral code and are willing to struggle for a human existence.

…Act as a rational being and aim at becoming a rallying point for all those who are starved for a voice of integrity — act on your rational values, whether alone in the midst of your enemies, or with a few of your chosen friends, or as the founder of a modest community on the frontier of mankind’s rebirth.”

I can just hear the response, chorused in unison from millions of people gathered around their radios and TVs: “Gee, thanks!

If he’d delivered this message earlier (and since he has a magic device that lets him take over all public broadcasts at his convenience, he clearly could have), people could have planned for survival. They could have stockpiled canned food, converted their savings into gold, moved to a cabin in the wilderness and learned to farm. By now, surely, it’s far too late to do any of those things. Given that even the world’s greatest collection of geniuses needed many years to turn Galt’s Gulch into a functioning society, it’s hard to believe that ordinary, non-genius people would have a chance in the short time that they have left.

“When the looters’ state collapses, deprived of the best of its slaves, when it falls to a level of impotent chaos, like the mystic-ridden nations of the Orient, and dissolves into starving robber gangs fighting to rob one another — when the advocates of the morality of sacrifice perish with their final ideal — then and on that day we will return.”

Continuing the theme of Ayn Rand’s racism against non-white people, all the countries in Asia (“the mystic-ridden nations of the Orient”) are mentioned only to serve as a foil to the great strides made by proudly angular Caucasians with blond hair and blue eyes. Like her earlier polemics against soybeans and Buddhism, she’s convinced that nothing good has ever come out of any group of humans except the narrow subset of nations colloquially defined as “the West”, and that the rest of the world labors in superstitious darkness scarcely advanced beyond humanity’s beginnings.

An elementary grasp of world history shows this to be ridiculous. The fertile valleys of India’s Indus River and China’s Yellow River were two of the world’s first cradles of civilization. Far from Rand’s depiction of them as in a state of “impotent chaos”, they gave rise to great empires and highly organized, sophisticated states. China, in particular, came up with four great inventions – the magnetic compass, gunpowder, paper, and the printing press – centuries before they were reinvented in the West. China was even the first country in the world to use paper money.

One more anecdote, this one from Ian Morris’ book Why the West Rules – For Now, drives home just how much more advanced the “mystic-ridden nations of the Orient” were at the dawn of the modern age:

…no one now disputes that when Europe’s great age of maritime discovery was just beginning, Chinese navigation was far more advanced and Chinese sailors already knew the coasts of India, Arabia, East Africa, and perhaps Australia. When the eunuch admiral Zheng He sailed from Nanjing for Sri Lanka in 1405 he led nearly three hundred vessels. There were tankers carrying drinking water and huge “Treasure Ships” with advanced rudders, watertight compartments, and elaborate signaling devices. Among his 27,000 sailors were 180 doctors and pharmacists. By contrast, when Christopher Columbus sailed from Cadiz in 1492, he led just ninety men in three ships. His biggest hull displaced barely one-thirtieth as much water as Zheng’s; at eighty-five feet it was shorter than Zheng’s mainmast, and barely twice as long as his rudder… Zheng had magnetic compasses and knew enough about the Indian Ocean to fill a twenty-one-foot-long sea chart; Columbus rarely knew where he was, let alone where he was going. [p.16]

How and why these relative positions reversed, and why it was Europeans who ended up conquering China rather than vice versa when the two civilizations clashed decisively, is a fascinating historical question which Morris explores at length. Regardless, it’s a stark disproof of the Randian view of history where Europeans crawled up out of the darkness of superstition and invented civilization, then moved to America and created capitalism, all before the rest of the world had even begun the first step of this progress.

“We will open the gates of our city to those who deserve to enter, a city of smokestacks, pipe lines, orchards, markets and inviolate homes.

We will act as the rallying center for such hidden outposts as you’ll build. With the sign of the dollar as our symbol — the sign of free trade and free minds — we will move to reclaim this country once more from the impotent savages who never discovered its nature, its meaning, its splendor. Those who choose to join us, will join us; those who don’t, will not have the power to stop us; hordes of savages have never been an obstacle to men who carried the banner of the mind.”

Atlas Shrugged never depicts what happens after the looters’ society collapses, but there’s a chilling hint of what Rand had in mind. John Galt says that after civilization has crumbled and millions of people have starved, the gates of Galt’s Gulch will open and he’ll emerge at the vanguard of a capitalist army to recolonize the world.

But the capitalists aren’t going to emerge onto a vacant planet. However bad the crash is, it’s highly unlikely that everyone will have died. There are bound to be some people left, either surviving as scavengers in the ruins or, like Starnesville, reverted to an agrarian existence. What’s going to happen to those people?

Well, John Galt tells us. Read again:

“Hordes of savages have never been an obstacle to men who carried the banner of the mind.”

We know what Rand thought about the indigenous Americans. She called them “savages”, cheered for their genocide and said that people who brought capitalism had a moral right to take over the land, getting rid of the previous inhabitants by whatever means they thought best.

What she intends is that history will repeat itself. As the Monologue says, “we will move to reclaim this country once more“. John Galt will return not as a producer, but as a conqueror, slaughtering any survivors who are in his way and taking their land and resources so that his inherently superior brain can put them to better use. As in real history, his new nation of peaceful free trade and rational enlightenment will be built on a foundation of bloodshed and violent conquest.

Image: “Weapons For Liberty”, via Wikimedia Commons

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