Atlas Shrugged: The Galtocaust

Atlas Shrugged: The Galtocaust April 22, 2016


Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter X

(Thanks to Sajanas for the title suggestion!)

With John Galt on board safe and sound, the capitalists’ plane heads for the Gulch and freedom, leaving the looters’ world behind. The countryside below them is “an empty black sheet”, reduced to darkness by the collapse of society:

But when the place that had once been the source of the tide — New York City — rose in the distance before them, it was still extending its lights to the sky, still defying the primordial darkness, almost as if, in an ultimate effort, in a final appeal for help, it were now stretching its arms to the plane that was crossing its sky. Involuntarily, they sat up, as if at respectful attention at the deathbed of what had been greatness.

Looking down, they could see the last convulsions: the lights of the cars were darting through the streets, like animals trapped in a maze, frantically seeking an exit, the bridges were jammed with cars, the approaches to the bridges were veins of massed headlights, glittering bottlenecks stopping all motion, and the desperate screaming of sirens reached faintly to the height of the plane. The news of the continent’s severed artery had now engulfed the city, men were deserting their posts, trying, in panic, to abandon New York, seeking escape where all roads were cut off and escape was no longer possible.

The plane was above the peaks of the skyscrapers when suddenly, with the abruptness of a shudder, as if the ground had parted to engulf it, the city disappeared from the face of the earth. It took them a moment to realize that the panic had reached the power stations — and that the lights of New York had gone out.

This is pure pedantry, but I have to point out that this flight plan doesn’t make sense. The shortest path between two points on a sphere is a great circle, and the great-circle path from New Hampshire to Colorado doesn’t come anywhere near New York City, let alone pass directly overhead. I’d normally excuse a minor departure from reality like this as forgivable for the sake of dramatic impact, but isn’t Ragnar, you know, the Best Pilot in the World?

Be that as it may, what the heroes have just witnessed is a colossal catastrophe. We never see the collapse of New York City play out, but what we’re meant to infer is that in a matter of days, it will plummet into apocalyptic chaos. Millions of people will be slaughtered in the orgies of mob violence that will inevitably break out. Children, the elderly, and the infirm will be abandoned in their beds. Criminals and armed gangs will run rampant, plundering and killing as they choose. Plague and sickness will spread as hygiene breaks down; the wounded will die of fever and gangrene. Buildings will burn, tunnels will flood, wires will rust and break, bridges will collapse. And then, as a final blow, whoever survives the violence and the plague will starve as the food supply runs out. The remnants will turn to cannibalism in a last, doomed effort to survive, only to freeze to death when winter arrives and there’s no fuel. In a few years at most, New York City should be a ruined wasteland of corpses. All this, though Ayn Rand never shows it, is what we’re meant to imagine.

And since New York City was the last redoubt of civilization, we’re meant to imagine this carnage happening all over the world, as every city slides into the abyss of anarchy and savagery. People will die by the millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions. The human race will be reduced to a pitiful fraction of its former numbers and will be plunged into a new dark age.

In pretty much any other book, the heroes would be the ones trying to save the world – to prevent an outcome just like this. In this book, the heroes have done everything in their power to cause it. They wanted to tip the world over the edge into destruction. The collapse of New York and the death of numberless millions is the culmination of their plans and the sign of their triumph. Remember, this is the outcome that John Galt foresaw:

“John found the way… He stepped to the window and pointed at the skyscrapers of the city. He said that we had to extinguish the lights of the world, and when we would see the lights of New York go out, we would know that our job was done.”

And it’s not as if this “Galtocaust” is something that the heroes observe solemnly, conscious of the heavy price they paid for their victory. On the contrary, they’re delighted to witness it. They’re positively eager to see the old world purged so that they can start dreaming of all the money they’ll make building the new one. Here’s what Rand says about how Hank and Dagny react to the sight:

She glanced at Rearden; he was not looking down, he was looking ahead, as she had seen him look at an untouched countryside: with a glance appraising the possibilities of action.

She knew what Nat Taggart had felt at his start and why now, for the first time, she was following him in full loyalty: the confident sense of facing a void and of knowing that one has a continent to build.

She felt the whole struggle of her past rising before her and dropping away, leaving her here, on the height of this moment. She smiled — and the words in her mind, appraising and sealing the past, were the words of courage, pride and dedication, which most men had never understood, the words of a businessman’s language: “Price no object.”

Although Dagny imagines the continent as “a void”, that can’t be true. No matter how bad the crash is, the world isn’t going to be vacant afterwards. There will be survivors, battle-hardened and violent from living through the chaos. And when the capitalists return, it’s very unlikely that those Mad Max-style gangs will just step aside. Before John Galt, Dagny and the others can rebuild the world, they’ll have to become warlords and conquer it, bloodily slaughtering anyone who refuses to yield to their dominion. Galt himself said as much in his epic speech.

This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that Galt told all the capitalists remaining in the outside world to form hidden communities of their own, and some of them did. When the Gulchers return and meet up with these people, who’s going to be in charge?

In Randworld, every person has an unerring sense of who the Best Capitalist in the room is, and they instinctively defer to their betters. But in an even marginally more realistic model of human nature, things wouldn’t be so easy. Given the total collapse of society and all its legal apparatus, including things like title deeds and county records offices, there’s bound to be pointed disagreement over who owns what. What happens when, say, Hank Rearden comes back and wants to resume management of some land he owned before the crash, and some scruffy farmers say no, we took it over while you were away, so we’re the new owners now?

And that’s without assuming that none of the people in the outside world will be disgruntled that they weren’t considered important enough to invite to the Gulch. Again, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the only way to settle this will be through warfare.

This isn’t hard to foresee; it’s what always happens when an empire falls. It leaves a vacuum, and all kinds of people who were on the margins emerge to jockey for power and pick over the spoils. When this has happened in history, it can be generations before a new order replaces the old, and that new order may not be anything like its predecessor. Dagny’s certainty that the economic system she’s used to will resume the day after the crash isn’t just without basis, it’s anti-historical.

Realistically, it’s unlikely that any of the protagonists would ever go back to work in the industries they loved. Except for the tiny handful of people in the Gulch, everyone is either dead or reduced to primitive existence. In a world of small, scattered subsistence communities, there wouldn’t be anywhere near the level of demand needed to justify large industrial plants or steel mills. Nor would there be commerce at a level that would justify maintaining resource-intensive railroad links. And with all the world’s infrastructure in ruins, complex machines like automobiles and airplanes would be worse than useless. Before long, there’d be nothing left of them but rusting hulks.

In all probability, the former capitalists would spend the rest of their lives fighting to pick up the pieces of the shattered world and restore some minimal version of civilization. The specialized skills that they worked their whole lives to develop would be useless, meant for a world that no longer exists. John Galt may have believed he was rescuing capitalism and industry, but all he’s really accomplished is to destroy the society that made those advancements possible.

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