Atlas Shrugged: Exeunt Omnes

Atlas Shrugged: Exeunt Omnes May 6, 2016


Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter X

After three years and 160(!) posts, we’ve finally come to the very last scene of Atlas Shrugged. In our previous installment, Ayn Rand lowered the curtain on Eddie Willers, inexplicably abandoned by his closest friends to die in the desert. In this closing scene, she takes us to Galt’s Gulch to show what the capitalists are doing instead.

It’s a quick scene, with just a few lines devoted to each of the protagonists. But in those few lines, like a parting gift, Rand manages to fit in some of the wildest and most extravagant absurdities of the entire novel. Let’s take a look.

The lights of the valley fell in glowing patches on the snow still covering the ground. There were shelves of snow on the granite ledges and on the heavy limbs of the pines. But the naked branches of the birch trees had a faintly upward thrust, as if in confident promise of the coming leaves of spring.

One slightly unusual thing is that we aren’t told exactly how much time has passed. The last few chapters of Part III are set at the beginning of winter, a winter in which the rest of the country is going to starve and collapse due to disruption of the food supply. This line implies that it’s still that same winter and that we’ve skipped at most a month or two, but it never comes out and says that. It could also be years later. That difference matters a lot, as we’ll see.

The rectangle of light on the side of a mountain was the window of Mulligan’s study. Midas Mulligan sat at his desk, with a map and a column of figures before him. He was listing the assets of his bank and working on a plan of projected investments. He was noting down the locations he was choosing: “New York — Cleveland — Chicago… New York — Philadelphia… New York… New York… New York…”

Wait, what?

Has Ayn Rand forgotten what she just depicted two scenes earlier in this very same chapter? There is no New York anymore. There’s no Cleveland, no Chicago, no Philadelphia. The world outside Galt’s Gulch is a wasteland of ruins and corpses. When the capitalists return, they’re going to find crumbling roads, collapsed bridges, flooded tunnels, frozen and burst pipes, machinery rusted into solid masses, burned-out and gutted husks of buildings.

Rand seems to think that the Galtocaust was like a neutron bomb, killing people but leaving buildings intact. The reality is that infrastructure breaks down and decays very quickly without human beings to maintain it – one reason why the amount of time that’s passed is relevant. But even if it’s only been a short time, everything useful or valuable should have been ravaged by whatever warfare there was in the terminal agonies of civilization’s collapse. When the capitalists return to the world, they’ll find a post-apocalyptic ruin like any other from science fiction.

Just clearing that mess, making it possible even to start rebuilding, ought to be a lifetime’s work. It’s absurd for Mulligan to plan “investments” in a world that no longer exists, let alone investments spread across many different cities, as if the United States is going to spontaneously reconstitute itself tomorrow. Who’s going to be living in any of those places, much less doing business there?

The rectangle of light in the acres of a farm was the window of the library of Judge Narragansett. He sat at a table, and the light of his lamp fell on the copy of an ancient document. He had marked and crossed out the contradictions in its statements that had once been the cause of its destruction. He was now adding a new clause to its pages: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade…”

Ah, yes, the famous one-man constitutional convention.

Normally, when you’re writing the laws that are going to govern a nation, you want to have some kind of, I don’t know, vote. It’s generally considered advisable to have little things like public debate, persuasion, coalition-building, ratification protocols, majority consensus. But not in Randworld!

Here, one guy can sit down with the Constitution and a Sharpie and just make up laws, no questions asked. Because they all agree on everything, there’s no need for any debate or amendment process. Citizens of real democracies can testify how often they’re blessed with that fortunate condition. (Minor note: Isn’t this more like what the bad guys do? Declare themselves “the public” and put themselves in charge?)

Also, given Judge Narragansett’s modifications, one has to ask: Can you do anything as long as you’re doing it for profit? Sell heroin to children? Trade slaves? Provide assassinations to the highest bidder? Make weapons of mass destruction and sell them no questions asked? Pump toxic waste into your neighbor’s yard? Is there any law at all that doesn’t infringe on someone’s freedom to “produce or trade” something?

The rectangle of light in the midst of a forest was the window of the cabin of Francisco d’Anconia. Francisco lay stretched on the floor, by the dancing tongues of a fire, bent over sheets of paper, completing the drawing of his smelter. Hank Rearden and Ellis Wyatt sat by the fireplace. “John will design the new locomotives,” Rearden was saying, “and Dagny will run the first railroad between New York and Philadelphia… She will probably try to take the shirt off my back with the freight rates she’s going to charge, but — I’ll be able to meet them.”

Again, why on earth is there any talk of running railroads between cities? Who’s trading with whom? Are the fifty people left alive in New York engaging in commerce with the fifty people in Philadelphia?

This just goes to show that Rand couldn’t face the implications of her own ideas. As I said earlier, what ought to happen is that the capitalists would spend the rest of their lives reconquering the world and struggling to reestablish the rudiments of civilization. When Europe collapsed after the fall of Rome, it took hundreds of years just to regain the level of progress that had been lost, let alone to surpass it. That’s the timescale we should be talking about. The narrative makes it seem as if civilization will be restored in a few months, when really it should require centuries.

Now, you could argue that Rand’s Mary Sue supercapitalists, who know everything and can do anything, can rebuild society much faster. But even granting that premise, there’s a still bigger problem: the question of who’ll be living there. Don’t forget, there are only about a thousand people in Galt’s Gulch!

It’s not enough to rebuild the world. You also have to repopulate it. And as we’ve seen, there’s a massive imbalance of men over women in Objectivist societies, and the few women who make it seem distinctly uninterested in procreation or parenthood.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the crisis this is going to cause. Even if the Gulch had a perfect 50-50 gender split, which it doesn’t, each woman would have to have at least two surviving children just to keep the population stable. The more it deviates from gender equality, the more children each woman would have to have. For every Objectivist woman who refuses to have kids, or proves unable to, that increases the burden on the others even more. And if they want to grow the population so they can take back the world, that makes a very deep hole even deeper. How likely is it that Dagny will agree to have six or eight or ten babies for the good of humanity?

There’s only one explanation that makes sense. We’ve seen how the presence of Rand’s protagonists causes consumer goods to spontaneously materialize. One has to assume their capitalist powers are so all-encompassing that, once they really get up and running, they’ll be able to conjure up customers ex nihilo and so rebuild the human race.

The faint glitter of light weaving slowly through space, on the highest accessible ledge of a mountain, was the starlight on the strands of Galt’s hair. He stood looking, not at the valley below, but at the darkness of the world beyond its walls. Dagny’s hand rested on his shoulder, and the wind blew her hair to blend with his. She knew why he had wanted to walk through the mountains tonight and what he had stopped to consider. She knew what words were his to speak and that she would be first to hear them…

“The road is cleared,” said Galt. “We are going back to the world.”

He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.

How stirring! How inspiring! Um, why exactly are you going back, again?

As we’ve seen, Galt’s Gulch is a utopian microcosm. It has limitless natural resources, infinite energy, and robot labor. There’s nothing they need from the outside world, which is in ruins anyway, and no customers there to buy anything they produce. The only reason they might want to expand is if their population has grown enough to overfill the valley, but that would take generations. So why not just stay there and live out their lives in idyllic agrarian peace?

The explanation, I’d imagine, is that Ayn Rand was consumed by the heroic notion of her characters forging out into the wilderness to rebuild the world – so much so that she never stopped to ask herself whether they’d have any reason or motivation to do that. She was so enthralled by the image of skyscrapers rising over Manhattan, or railroads chugging between cities, that it didn’t matter to her if there was no one to live in or use them. The people, in her view, are an afterthought.

This work-for-its-own-sake mindset is the hallmark of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. She wrote that the only measure of a person’s worth is how good they are at their job; that money is the supreme value and that labor is its own reward, requiring no higher justification. Her characters have no families, no lives outside the office, and no interests other than work. Their existence has the ceaseless, mindless busyness of an anthill. And whenever they meet anyone who doesn’t share that outlook, they treat that person as an irredeemable evil fit only to be destroyed.

There’s nothing wrong with loving your job or taking pride in being good at what you do. But work is only meaningful or worthwhile if there’s a higher purpose you’re working toward. Otherwise, there’s no reason to care about what you’re doing or why. If hard work is its own reward, why not spend your life digging holes and filling them in again, rather than inventing more efficient engines or new medical techniques?

The only answer there can be is that useful work contributes to the betterment of humanity. Every labor-saving innovation that reduces drudgery or boosts productivity means that much less time and energy we need to spend on brute survival. And that frees us to spend more time nurturing love and friendship, raising families, creating art and literature, exploring the universe, helping the downtrodden and the needy, and all the other pursuits that make people happy and give their lives meaning.

Ironically, this is the one reason Ayn Rand cut herself off from accepting. Her philosophy forbade her to believe that the general welfare or the common good of humanity should ever be a consideration in anyone’s mind. She insisted that all human behavior had to be motivated by the desire for selfish gain. Naturally, this meant there were huge swaths of life and culture that baffled her, that she condemned as evil, or that she simply refused to acknowledge.

Like all religious cults and other dogmatic and totalizing worldviews, she attempted to crush all the diversity of human existence into a single dimension. This may work in a literary environment of author-enforced conformity, but over the past three years, we’ve seen where it really leads: isolation, paranoia, and misery. It’s a cruel final joke that, in the name of this ideology, enormous suffering has been inflicted on the vulnerable – and yet its most devoted practitioners, and even its creator herself, never wound up benefiting in exchange.

Coming up: We’re done with the book, but not with Ayn Rand! Next week, I’ll begin my review of the third and final Atlas Shrugged movie, following which I’ll have some closing thoughts.

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

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