Atlas Shrugged: The Great Chain of Being

Atlas Shrugged: The Great Chain of Being July 1, 2016


Atlas Shrugged, Closing Thoughts

Throughout Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand tells us that her ideal state would be a perfect meritocracy. Everyone would rise or fall as their talents merited. There’d be no corrupt bargains, no discrimination, and no hereditary ruling class.

It’s an appealing vision, but what the novel shows isn’t the same as what it tells. Regardless of what Rand says she wants, she repeatedly undermines her meritocratic ideal by writing characters who do indeed have special rights and privileges by virtue of their birth.

To start with, there’s the fact that two of her protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Francisco d’Anconia, are millionaire scions who inherited their companies from their parents. Even though they’re both depicted as supremely competent in their roles, you can’t possibly argue that they won the jobs on pure merit or that any other qualified applicant would have had an equal chance. The novel even shows why this nepotism is a bad thing by making Dagny’s brother Jim, the hereditary president of Taggart Transcontinental, an evil and incompetent looter. In the author’s eyes, this doesn’t show that wealthy families passing control of a multinational corporation from father to son is wrong – just that the right family members have to inherit it.

Another specimen of Rand’s hypocrisy is how she dealt with property rights. On the one hand, she said that in her utopia, initiation of force would be strictly forbidden and everyone’s right to property would be protected by ironclad law. But again, what one hand giveth, the other taketh away, as the novel repeatedly shows she’s willing to waive her insistence on the sanctity of property whenever it might inconvenience her protagonists. Whether it’s through theft, bribery, or force, they’re entitled to take whatever they want and to obtain it any way they want.

For instance, there’s the time when a railroad spike factory goes bankrupt, threatening Dagny’s plans to complete the John Galt Line, and she responds by bribing judges and legislators to let her seize the business and force it to open again. When Hank Rearden wants a divorce, he bribes the entire judicial system from top to bottom, just to make absolutely sure he gets a settlement that leaves his ex-wife penniless and homeless.

In another scene, Dagny steals – the book actually uses that word – some drinks from the private property of one of her employees. When she sees an airplane she wants for her own personal use, she bribes the airfield attendant to let her steal it. And when Dagny and Hank find the rusting prototype of a perpetual motion machine in an abandoned factory, they walk out with this priceless artifact without even wondering if there’s a legitimate owner who might have objected to their taking it. Some people might call this “looting”.

There’s also out-and-out violence. Dagny’s illustrious ancestor, Nat Taggart, murdered a legislator who was going to pass a bill that was unfavorable to his business interests. Dagny threatens to do the same to anyone who makes her apply for permission to build a new railroad line, and then uses both bribes and threats to bully mayors into letting her run an experimental train at high speed through the middle of their towns. Ragnar Danneskjold, the pirate, wages a terrorist campaign against all the world’s governments.

When Francisco decides he wants to have sex with Dagny, he throws her down and does it without asking her permission. When Hank wants to know the names of her former lovers, he seizes her and twists her arm in an attempt to hurt her enough to make her tell him. When Hank’s wife objects to his cheating on her with Dagny, he threatens to beat her if she won’t shut up about it, and gives serious consideration to murdering her. And when Francisco and Hank each find out that the other is one of Dagny’s lovers, rather than asking Dagny what she wants, they’re willing to fight to the death over her right there on the spot.

None of this behavior is condemned by the novel. Instead, it’s treated as admirable, sympathetic, and philosophically proper. In Ayn Rand’s eyes, a violent, hair-trigger temper and a willingness to casually break the law if it impedes your business plan are good, even desirable, traits.

To complete the psychopath’s trifecta, the only other trait you need is utter indifference to other people’s feelings, and Rand’s protagonists have that in spades. In the author’s view, if a powerful billionaire ever allows himself to be swayed by criticism or shame from the people he breaks and crushes underfoot, that’s “the sanction of the victim”. The heroes basically have the morality of comic-book supervillains: they repeatedly avow that they have no concern for the lives they trample in their pursuit of riches and power, and go on to prove it.

Francisco d’Anconia builds a shoddy, death-trap housing settlement for his Mexican workers, chortling about the people who’ll die when the flimsy buildings collapse. Ellis Wyatt blows up his oil wells, choking the state of Colorado under toxic smog. John Galt’s grand plan is to pull the supports out from under civilization, causing the collapse of society and the deaths of tens of millions of people, all because he feels that he and his fellow capitalists weren’t appreciated enough. And remember, these people are depicted as the heroes we’re meant to look up to and aspire to imitate.

I once pointed out that Rand railed at the Soviet Union for letting its people starve, but not because people starving bothered her, per se. It only matters if they’re starving under the wrong ideological system. In Rand’s ideal world, we could be confident that the right people were starving. Galt’s purge is just this fantasy come to life – and the heroes even convince themselves that this isn’t only just, death is what ordinary people secretly desire.

Whatever criticisms might be made of it, the best thing that meritocracy has going for it – in principle, at least – is a firm rejection of the racism, sexism and other gross prejudices that have held back humanity for ages. But here, again, Ayn Rand lets us down.

Even though her female characters are just as tough, intelligent and competent as the male ones, the text compromises this otherwise laudable feminism by saying that it’s women’s nature to be inherently submissive and that it’s “metaphysically inappropriate” for a lady to boss men around. Even though Dagny is far more competent and ambitious than Jim, she never seeks to depose him and take over the presidency of Taggart Transcontinental, and this may be the reason why.

When it comes to race, it’s even worse. Galt’s Gulch, supposedly the haven for the world’s greatest minds, is a sea of blond, blue-eyed white men. There are no black people in the Gulch, and in fact, there don’t seem to be any black people anywhere in the entire world of Atlas Shrugged. The only person of Hispanic ancestry we meet is Francisco, whose whiteness the text stresses.

There are also no Asians or Native Americans, and those races are mentioned only with dismissive racist scorn. Rand referred to the indigenous people of America as “savages“, and said that the land where they lived was “unoccupied”. Meanwhile, she uses Asia as a byword for irrational mysticism and backwardness.

Even within the ranks of the chosen few white people who love capitalism, there’s no equality, but rather a hierarchy as rigid as in any medieval feudal state. Rand instinctively expects lesser peons to sweat, to labor, and if need be, to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their bosses who are better capitalists than they are. Even if you love money and hard work, if you’re not also a wealthy aristocrat or self-made supergenius, Atlas Shrugged treats you as a disposable redshirt who’s not worthy to enter the gates of Galt’s Gulch.

There’s Tony the Wet Nurse, a minor bureaucrat who learns why capitalism is good just in time to take a bullet for the sake of Hank Rearden and die with his life’s purpose fulfilled. There’s Cherryl Brooks, who’s driven to suicide just as a way of showing how evil the bad guys are. There are all the nameless Rearden Steel and Taggart Transcontinental workers whom Hank and Dagny abandon when they flee the collapsing world for the safety of Galt’s Gulch.

But there’s no greater example than Eddie Willers, Dagny’s faithful right-hand man, who’s been her best friend and trusty companion her whole life and practically worships the ground she walks on. As a reward for his lifetime of devotion, Dagny literally sends him on a suicide mission and then forgets about his existence. It’s a scene so awesomely callous that even many hardcore Objectivists can’t stomach it.

Interestingly, this pyramid of feudal devotion has multiple levels. John Galt, Rand’s ultimate Mary Sue character, is the Best Capitalist in the World – better even than the business owners – and so in the climax of the novel, when he’s in peril, all of the other protagonists drop what they’re doing and rush to save him. These people are supposed to be the epitome of shrewdly selfish, what’s-in-it-for-me wheeler-dealers, but when their Glorious Leader is threatened, they pile into what for all they know is a suicide mission, without even a qualm. Whatever this is, it’s not the ferocious individualism that Rand claimed to advocate.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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