Political Culture: Ayn Rand Takes a (Midas) Mulligan

Written by Books, Current Events, Political Culture

When I was a senior in college, instead of prepping for a career as a Rand-ian Master of the Universe with high-level courses in economics or engineering, I chose a pair of classes in Northwestern’s speech department: “Rhetoric of Popular Culture” and “Rhetoric of Popular Music.” The professor for both was a crotchety, hilarious guy named Irv Rein, and I learned so much from him that I can safely say that without those courses I wouldn’t be who I am today – a stay-at-home dad who writes about pop culture for no money. Thanks, Irv!

Professor Rein had wonderful lessons to impart, from the ways in which pop bands were marketed to the “rhetoric” behind shopping center names and layouts: “Check out any shopping mall,” he’d say, “and most likely it’s named after whatever was destroyed in order to build it.” Unfortunately, in order to get to those lessons you’d have to sit through a lot of bullshit. Torrents and torrents of bullshit, really – ramblings that seemed utterly tangential to the stated topic, interspersed with classmates’ idiotic questions and comments that sounded like they came off the message boards at American Idol’s website. At some point during every lecture I’d think to myself, “I can’t believe I’m sitting through this … I’ve got to drop this class” – but then good ol’ Irv would finally get to the point, and the skies would open, the sun would shine, and he’d once again snatch reason from the jaws of inanity.

Right now, two paragraphs into a column that’s supposed to be about Ayn Rand, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Yeah, Jon, you’ve obviously learned a lot from Professor Rein.” But two paragraphs is nothing! I’ve read 336 pages of Rand’s monument to megalomania, Atlas Shrugged – just under a third of the book — and I’m still waiting for her to cut the shit and get to the point. However, I thought of Irv today because Rand did manage to slip a bit of wisdom onto page 331. Here it is: “By the essence and nature of existence, contradictions cannot exist. If you find [the connection between two facts] inconceivable … check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”

It’s a great set-up for whatever’s to come during the remaining 832 pages. Unfortunately, at the moment I’m still struggling to climb down (temporarily) from Rand’s Tower of Babble. Here’s a synopsis of Chapters 6 through 10:

When we last left our intrepid world-beaters, railroad magnate Dagny Taggart and industrialist Hank Rearden, they were facing down some mighty odds — creeping government regulation, and the incompetence and blame-shifting of those around them — in their efforts to renovate a broken-down railway line that would serve the rugged-individualist tycoons of the newly prosperous Mountain West. Those obstacles grow exponentially as the story continues … and while Dagny and Hank have the cojones to stick it out, an unusual number of like-minded entrepreneurs have begun to give up on their depraved society and vanish into obscurity. There’s Francisco d’Anconia, for one; he had sunk his fortune into a copper mine he knew held no copper, then had put up no fuss when the Mexican government nationalized the mine. As they continue their adventures, Dagny and Hank learn of other such cases – including my personal favorite, that of a meticulous and upstanding (if greedy) banker named (no kidding) Midas Mulligan, who is told by a judge that he can no longer “discriminate” against loan applicants simply because they have no collateral and no prospects of success. Instead of granting the loan, Midas closes up his bank and disappears … taking a “mulligan” on his career as a mogul, as it were.

He leaves behind an economy that’s clearly in decay because of too much government intervention and too much concern for the “common man.” As we begin Chapter 6, poor anti-social Hank is steadying himself for a dinner party where he’ll encounter a rogues gallery of the forces that are Bringing America Down: nihilist philosophers, university professors, liberal newspapermen, altruistic simps, and other assorted socialist socialites. The buzz at the party is about the Equalization of Opportunity Bill, which would forbid any one man or corporation from owning more than a single business concern; everyone seems to love the idea, except for poor Hank, who has been buying up iron mines and trucking lines because he’s learned he can’t trust any business he doesn’t run himself. The bill soon passes, of course, forcing Hank to sell off businesses and place himself at the mercy of the inept and corrupt – but evil forces are plotting even higher barriers to his success. The “State Science Institute,” concerned more with the welfare of the moribund steel industry than with industrial progress, announces its disapproval of Hank’s invention, Rearden Metal – leaving him with no market for his product apart from the ever-loyal Dagny.

By hook and by crook, they build their railroad anyway – after Dagny separates herself from her family’s company and renames her project (of course) the “John Galt Line.” With help from renegade contractors and train conductors willing to betray their unions and trade associations – heroic scabs, in other words – the line is completed. The press, the government, and all those socialist pinheads are certain that Rearden Metal won’t hold up, that the first train will crash like the Titanic, but Dagny and Hank’s ride on the inaugural excursion becomes a triumphant experience that (for them, and clearly for the author) is far better than sex. Afterward they get their freak on anyway, and soon they’re taking a “romantic” vacation together – a vacation that takes a strange turn when they tour an abandoned automobile plant, and discover the ruins of an engine prototype that they’re convinced could change the world by harnessing the power of atmospheric electricity … if only they could find the genius who had invented, then abandoned it.

At this point Dagny embarks on a Nancy Drew-like quest to find that inventor – and along the way she suffers through another rogues gallery of the sorts of people who could kill a capitalist economy: bankers who make loans to people who can’t afford to pay them back (hmmmm…) … government bureaucrats who are so blinded by their concern for “the people” that they can’t distinguish the merits of a single individual … executives who destroy their businesses by worrying too much about being “fair” to their workers, and wind up draining the workers’ productivity. Eventually, though, Dagny comes within one degree of separation from the inventor – the short-order cook in a Wyoming diner, who turns out to be a famous philosopher (“the last advocate of reason,” Dagny calls him) who has turned his back on the degenerate world … and who refuses to give up the whereabouts of the inventor, who has similarly abandoned the society that has stomped on his individualism. On her way home, Dagny is jolted by the news that the government has imposed its most draconian regulations yet – rules that will make it impossible for her, or Hank, or those Colorado industrialists to profit from their businesses. Dagny rushes to consult with her favorite Colorado oilman, Ellis Wyatt … only to find that he has set his oil fields aflame and disappeared. Dunh-dunh-DUNH!!!

It doesn’t take a genius, or even an Objectivist, to decipher that Wyatt, the inventor, the cook, the banker … and Dagny, Hank and d’Anconia, too … are all going to wind up in one place by the end of Atlas Shrugged. The key question at this point is, are they going to respond to the “degeneracy” of government meddling and overbaked communitarianism in a manner that’s constructive or destructive? That’s the question that dominates my own response, at least, as a 21st-century American watching the tea party movement take up Rand as one of their patron saints. What will the teabaggers do with their own (largely irrational) fury over the “socialism” that they imagine is currently swamping America’s economy? Will they offer intelligent solutions and alternatives – or will they merely burn down the oil fields?

It should be interesting for those teabaggers to note that, 330-some pages into Atlas Shrugged, the word “tax” has not been mentioned. Not once. The redistributionist evil that Rand dreams up is far more nefarious; she imagines a nation which decides that industrialists and businessmen shouldn’t be able to profit from their endeavors in the first place, and that all men must be placed on equal footing in the economy. The economy being created in her scenario is Communism without totalitarianism – it’s a society that chooses en masse (so far, at least) to shackle its entrepreneurs in an effort to uplift “the people.” (Of course, to people like Dagny and Hank the new restrictions placed upon them certainly feel totalitarian.)

It’s understandable that the Saint Petersburg-born Rand, who was a teenager during the Russian Revolution and watched as her father’s business was confiscated by the Red Army, would make strident anti-Communism a keystone of her philosophy. (By the way, Rand’s settlement in America – on an expired temporary visa that had been granted willingly by the Soviet government – was what we would today call “illegal immigration.”) What isn’t so understandable – even considering that much of Atlas Shrugged was written during the paranoia-laden McCarthy era – is why she felt she couldn’t put across her own ideas about self-reliance and laissez-faire government without placing them in juxtaposition to a fantastical, quasi-Communist America that did not then, and realistically never could, exist. I ask again, as I did in my last column: Did she not trust her philosophy, or did she not trust her readers to get it?

In either case, for contemporary conservatives to be taking lessons from Rand while opposing the bailouts, or the stimulus, or health-care reform, or climate-change legislation is frankly laughable. While there are arguments to be made against each of those “big-government” initiatives – though not necessarily good arguments – all of them have been undertaken either for the direct benefit of, or with fundamental input from, exactly the types of Masters of the Universe who, in Rand’s fantasy world, would avoid such cooperation (or government money, for that matter) like the plague. Just think of it! Wall Street banks contribute a few tens of millions of dollars to politicians annually. In return they were given a seat at the government table when their luck ran out last year, then walked away from that table with nearly $800 billion in taxpayer funds! Currently, Congress is bending over backward to ensure that health-insurance companies – whose entire business is comparable to that of third-world highway bandits – will not only survive, but will profit even more, from the “reforms” that are being pushed through. Yet teabaggers have deluded themselves into thinking these programs are “socialist.”

There’s a certain irony in placing the bailouts within a Rand-ian context. One of the driving forces behind the investment-banking disaster was the diversification of the banks’ activities that had been made possible through the repeal, 10 years ago, of the Glass-Steagall Act. That Act, which (among other things) had prohibited bank holding companies from owning other financial enterprises as well, had functioned for the banking industry in much the same way that the “Equalization of Opportunity Act” would function for the entire economy in Rand’s nightmare vision. Yet, in the real world, it was the repeal of such legislation, and not the legislation itself, that nearly brought down the economy, through uninhibited (and unwise) bank expansions and abusive profit-taking at the expense of building sustainable business models.

It’s difficult to read Atlas Shrugged without noting such ironies. The novel’s principal plotline (so far) concerns the us-against-the-world quest by Dagny to complete a huge railroad project that no one believes will work, using Hank’s unproven Rearden Metal. It’s a project undertaken not out of any concern for its societal ramifications, but purely for the profits that can be taken from it, and for the satisfaction of Proving Everyone Wrong. And it sounds (to my jaundiced liberal ears) distinctly like a pre-emptive allegory for the run-up to the Iraq War: An oilman-turned-president decides, for reasons that are unclear (or at least unconvincing, to most of the world), to invade a country that’s bursting with oil! His vice president is certainly gung ho about the idea – perhaps not least because the vast company he used to run stands to make a mint in no-bid contracts related to the invasion and occupation! Working together and standing tall, the two of them overcome (or ignore) the nay-sayers who say their evidence is shoddy, their intentions misguided and their plans doomed to fail … and, by golly, they get that country invaded!

The irony, of course, is that while Rand’s characters are wildly successful in building a state-of-the-art railroad line, proving their Metal (so to speak), and fulfilling all their ambitions – at least temporarily – Bush and Cheney screwed the pooch completely, getting practically nothing right over the course of a six-year boondoggle. Reading Atlas Shrugged in 2009, it’s not a stretch to make such comparisons; in fact, it’s a necessity, considering that Rand wrote her novel less as a creative outlet than as a forum for exploring the supposed real-world applications of her ideas.

I’ve gone on long enough here, but I’ll leave you with another example of Rand’s bizarre attitude toward romance and sex. Her every description of male-female relations is laced with words like “contempt,” “mocking,” “anger,” “triumph” and “lowest instincts.” After Dagny and Hank finally fall, mockingly and disgustedly, into the sack, here’s a sample of his morning-after pillow talk:

“What I feel for you is contempt. But it’s nothing, compared to the contempt I feel for myself. I don’t love you. I’ve never loved anyone … I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose … All the greatness that I saw in you – I would not take it in exchange for the obscenity of your talent at an animal’s sensation of pleasure … I’ve given in to a desire which I despise … I want no pretense about love, value, loyalty or respect. I want no shred of honor left to us, to hide behind … It’s depravity – and I accept it as such – and there is no height of virtue that I wouldn’t give up for it. Now if you wish to slap my face, go ahead. I wish you would.”