Political Culture: Ayn Rand’s Polemical Porn

Written by Books, Current Events, Political Culture

Here’s the thing about reading Ayn Rand: She forces you to think the way she does. Once you’ve immersed yourself in her black-and-white worldview — and once you’ve adjusted your expectations to accommodate her rhetorical method, in which every fictional event is created as a forum in which she can communicate her notions of good and evil, morality and immorality – it’s hard to avoid applying that same method to the real world around you. Not to reach the same conclusions, necessarily … but to judge every person and situation on her terms, and to use those judgments to create a tidy little moral cocoon around yourself.

It’s fun, really – and dangerous. It’s also becoming more and more common these days, as the news media, Hollywood, religious institutions, and government officials have mastered the skill of tailoring events (what we now call “spinning”) to fit their particular ideological viewpoints. Even as they do so, their audiences/parishioners/supporters increasingly use those institutions to reinforce their own beliefs, and become more attached to whichever news channel, films, churches and politicians provide the information and analysis that will confirm their worldview.

But enough of this sociological bullshit! I put the word “porn” in my headline, and that’s probably why most of you are here, so let’s get on with it.

Since we last met in this space a week ago, I’ve managed to get through another 200 pages of Rand’s magnum opus of miserdom, Atlas Shrugged, so I’m just about halfway through. We left off with a rather cataclysmic event – the nation’s most prominent oilman setting his wells aflame and vanishing, with our heroine Dagny Taggart arriving too late to stop him. But I’ve gotta tell you, not much has happened since then. In fact, a summary of the events that actually furthered the “plot” over these last five chapters boils down to this:

More moguls disappear, unwilling to produce goods in an environment where they cannot profit from their labor. Government “looters” respond by passing more regulations to ensure the “people’s” welfare (at the expense of the “greedy” entrepreneurs), even as the nation slides into a chaos reminiscent of Children of Men. Our protagonists, railroad magnate Dagny and steel tycoon Hank Rearden, struggle to keep their businesses going; their affair continues as well, growing more co-dependent even as Rearden’s wife begins plotting her revenge. Dagny’s brother, the evil communitarian Jim Taggart, marries a shopgirl (a triumph of elitist condescension) in a social event that’s reduced to panic when attendees learn that the world’s largest copper company is about to suffer huge financial losses. Rearden goes on trial for violating a government regulation, but gets off with a suspended sentence. With the industrial giants of Colorado all having disappeared, Dagny is forced to close the John Galt Line that she and Rearden had struggled so mightily to build.

And that’s … about … it. Not really, though – because the point of these past 200 pages has not been the events themselves, but the opportunities they have provided our protagonists to pontificate on Rand’s most beloved topics: the morality of money-grubbing, and the immorality of anything (government, altruism, loyalty, human emotion) that gets in the way of money-grubbing. Jim’s wedding, Hank’s trial … even a Thanksgiving dinner at the Rearden household … all are mere set-pieces designed to offer a podium for the latest exercise in long-winded speechifying.

In that sense, Atlas Shrugged is … yes … polemical porn, a thin tissue of plot that functions as the setup for one episode after another of rhetorical foreplay and climax. During the wedding scene, one speech (by copper magnate/playboy Francisco d’Anconia, who I’m now convinced is The Most Interesting Man in the World) goes on for five pages, or about 6,000 words, a speech whose general theme is finally stated in his last paragraph: “Money is the root of all good.” Rearden gets a 2,500-word speech of his own during his trial, in which he responds to the government’s over-the-top efforts to regulate his business by arguing fiercely for the morality of profit-taking, and concludes, “The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!”

Was it good for you, too? Rand certainly hopes so – and, in fact, she makes certain of it by making the alternative to avarice completely unpalatable. She continues to imagine a society that’s in the midst of destroying itself because its elites have chosen to destroy capitalism. It’s a fascinating scenario – the notion that the death of capitalism (and, inevitably, of democracy) could come from the top down, rather than from the bottom up. It’s also, as I’ve said before in these columns, preposterous. Rand’s theories emerged largely as a result of her experiences during the Russian Revolution, when Marxist intellectuals (Lenin, Trotsky) organized the lower classes to overthrow the government supported by the middle and upper classes – yet in Atlas Shrugged she envisions Communism as evolving from liberal-elitist guilt run amok.

For evidence that such an evolution is outside the realm of possibility, at least in this country, look no further than the rapidly deteriorating effort to reform health care. President Obama promised throughout his campaign to achieve “universal” coverage: to improve access, increase efficiency and lower costs related to a huge, yet dysfunctional sector of the economy. “Socialism!” cried conservatives – even as Obama bartered for, then won at least a modicum of support from, every capitalist functionary in our current misbegotten system: insurers, pharma companies, the AMA, etc. Meanwhile, those same folks fed hundreds of millions of dollars into Congressional coffers to ensure that their interests would be represented there as well. In the last week we’ve seen the price of all that bartering and all that lobbying, as legislation that supposedly was meant to curb excessive profit-taking in health care will now enable even more of it. It is not the Hank Rearden-esque industrialist who faces punishment for refusing to play by the new rules – it’s the unemployed, or underemployed, worker who cannot afford overpriced health insurance but will now be mandated to purchase it anyway, at whatever prices the insurance industry sees fit.

See what I mean? Now that I’m immersed in Rand’s philosophies, I can’t help but apply them to every issue that comes down the pike. (Next week: climate change!) Of course, being who I am – and remaining so far unconvinced by all that speechifying – I tend to apply them in exactly the opposite fashion from the way she’d like me to. My obsession is not even limited to political affairs – perhaps next week I’ll delve into a analysis of Up in the Air, whose hero is a Rand-ian titan of non-communitarianism much like Hank Rearden … with personally disastrous consequences. But no spoilers, for now. Go see the movie, if you haven’t already (and you really should – it’s a great film), and we’ll talk about it later.

For now, my apologies if you were looking for something a bit more … prurient following my promise of “porn.” This is the best I can do, for now, on that score – to quote from Dagny’s speech to Rearden on the transaction of their affair:

“Hank, I want nothing from you except what you wish to give me. Do you remember that you called me a trader once? I want you to come to me seeking nothing but your own enjoyment … My way of trading is to know that the joy you give me is paid for by the joy you get from me – not by your suffering or mine … If you asked me for more than you meant to me, I would refuse … If ever the pleasure of one has to be bought by the pain of the other, there better be no trade at all. A trade by which one gains and the other loses is a fraud. You don’t do it in business, Hank. Don’t do it in your own life.”

Ah … romance