I have to admit, I’m a bit conflicted this holiday season. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been going through the motions — spending lots of time at home with my family, plotting how I’m going to shower them with more gifts than they’ll know what to do with. I’ve been doing my bit with Toys for Tots and Cookies for Kids with Cancer, and I’ve been worrying (to the point of clicking that “donate” button again and again) about those folks who have to show up at sports arenas to get health care from volunteers because they can’t afford insurance. I’ve even stuck a buck or two in the Salvation Army pot, even though the folks ringing the bells no longer even bother to dress like Santa.
But something feels wrong about all this holiday “giving” this year. I’ve found myself thinking, shouldn’t I withhold just a bit of that cash, and time, and effort, and spend a little bit more of it on … me? Isn’t that Salvation Army money, and aren’t all those toys and cookies just going to wind up in the hands of folks who ought to get up off their asses and start contributing to society? Looters! And those kids of mine – when are they finally going to start pulling their weight? They’ve been living off me for years, and have they brought one penny into the household coffers? Hardly. Why did I have these kids anyway? Moochers.
Why have I got such a bad feeling about the holidays lately — that they distract us from our natural self-absorption, and encourage altruistic behavior that doesn’t push society forward? I don’t know, but I’m determined to figure it out … eventually. For now, though, it’s back to my exploration of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of all-consuming self-interest, by way of her bottomless pit of polemics, the 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged.
If you’ve been reading along (with this series, if not the 700 pages I’ve conquered to date) you’ll recall that when we last left our protagonists, the industrialists/illicit lovers Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, they were reeling in the face of a crumbling economy, disappearing peers, and a snooping Mrs. Rearden – or at least they were doing their best to reel, during those few moments when the novel didn’t grind to a halt so that Hank could listen to (or himself offer) yet another long-winded diatribe about how money makes the world go ’round. Well, all that speechifying takes a breather as Part 2 of Atlas Shrugged picks up momentum, becoming a veritable potboiler of creeping Communism, chance encounters in the middle of the night, resignations and re-appearances, and a tour de farce of buck-passing on the Taggart railroad that brings disastrous results.
As the novel’s second half begins, the evil do-gooders (some government, some corporate) who have driven the nation into a ditch are meeting to finalize their most wrong-headed move yet – a law that, in an effort to slow the general collapse, will freeze all employment, all production of goods and services, all profits and losses and salaries, at their current levels. Indeed, everything will be frozen except taxes (which will naturally rise, as the government becomes all-powerful) and patents and copyrights, whose holders are expected to benevolently grant them to the government via “gift certificates.” This last move is one more shot across the bow of our hero Hank, whose patented Rearden Metal is the only thing holding the economy together, but whose profit-taking and anti-government attitude have made him a villain among the snivelers. Hank initially refuses to sign his gift certificate … until a bureaucrat blackmails him with threats to go public with the Rearden-Taggart affair, at which point he signs his livelihood away rather than betray his beloved.
When Dagny hears about the new law she abruptly resigns – but she doesn’t follow all the other vanished magnates into their mysterious oblivion. Instead she retires to a cabin in the backwoods, where she tinkers with handyman work while Taggart Transcontinental quickly goes to the dogs. She springs back into action after hearing about a horrible accident in a Colorado tunnel, but she’s soon distracted by her concern for the newfangled motor she believes will save the world. She senses that the engineer she’s hired to reinvent the motor is going to be the next man to disappear – and sure enough, as her plane lands at his local airport she learns that he and a mysterious interloper have taken off in the opposite direction. She gets back in her plane and takes off after them, soaring high into the Rockies and then plunging down, down, down into a magical hidden valley, where she crash-lands in a grassy field screaming “words of defeat, of despair and of a plea for help: ‘Oh hell! Who is John Galt?’”
But back to that train accident. Rand’s depiction of the unfolding catastrophe is a terrific piece of writing, and a welcome reprieve from the nonsensical, hyperbolic mess of a political context she had cooked up to make us sympathize with her protagonists. It’s a CYA (Cover Your Ass) scenario one can easily imagine happening in a real-life corporate bureaucracy: A westbound train goes off the rails in the Rockies in the middle of the night, with a snotty, vaguely powerful figure aboard. The tunnel ahead lacks sufficient ventilation to handle a coal-fired engine, yet no diesel engine can reach the site before morning. The official demands a quicker fix than that, but no practical solution can be found, and the night-shift employees are loath to take responsibility for the situation. The buck gets passed up and down the railroad’s slipshod chain of command, as each individual on that chain weighs the welfare of the train’s passengers against his own job security. Finally, an immoral supervisor is found who is willing to order a steam engine into the tunnel – sending all the train’s passengers to their deaths.
It’s a tragedy of cowardice and compromised ethics, and it’s utterly believable – until Rand spoils the whole thing by identifying the train’s passengers as a rogues gallery of “looters” and “moochers”: a professor of sociology who taught his students to forsake individuality, a journalist who cheered the government’s economic takeover, a businessman who took a government loan (horrors!), a “sniveling little neurotic” of a playwright who depicted businessmen as scoundrels, etc., etc. I suppose Rand was trying to portray the “victims” as complicit in their own destruction, just as they were complicit in the nation’s downfall. But the effect is to coerce the reader into rooting for their deaths, or at least trivializing them. It’s a make-or-break moment; if you’re with me, she seems to be saying, you’ve got to be with me all the way through the gruesome euthanization of a train full of the kind of folks I despise.
It seems to me that only a person with an exceptionally narrow worldview could sign on to such grotesque manipulation – but then, the type of self-absorption celebrated throughout Atlas Shrugged can only be the byproduct of a profound narrow-mindedness. And Rand clearly kept the blinders on as she was writing. She envisioned a weak, self-destructive “United States” that was the antithesis of the hard-charging, world-beating nation of her era – and in doing so she ignored all sorts of historical and cultural factors that precluded the possibility of her vision ever coming to pass. (Of course, she rationalized this failure in one of her most famous quotes: “The uncontested absurdities of today are the accepted slogans of tomorrow. They come to be accepted by degrees, by precedent, by implication, by erosion, by default, by dint of constant pressure on one side and constant retreat on the other – until the day when they are suddenly declared to be the country’s official ideology.”)
Well, that’s all well and good, Ms. Rand, but it didn’t make your vision any less absurd in the late ’50s – and it doesn’t make it any less preposterous now. Nevertheless, blessed as I am with the holiday spirit (however tainted it seems this December), I’d like to offer Rand some gifts – all fashioned from the historical context she left out of Atlas Shrugged. Here goes:
1. War. World War II transformed America in practically every way possible, from the remarkable pulling-together of the U.S. workforce to the generation of young men who returned from battle to climb the ladder of success via the government-created G.I. Bill. (And don’t get me started on the war’s communitarian impact on Europeans, who had to rebuild from complete devastation and decided they had had quite enough of megalomania, thank you very much.) On a purely economic level, FDR’s team brilliantly threaded the needle between capitalism and nationalization during the war, grabbing the reins of U.S. manufacturing while ensuring continued control and massive profits for the entrepreneur and investor classes. Our economy has been operating on a variation of that model ever since. Yet Rand (writing during the ’50s) imagined a nation in which the Big War had never happened. Why? Perhaps it was inconvenient for her that communitarianism ruled during the war (there are no Objectivists in foxholes) and its aftermath (the Marshall Plan was taxpayer-funded – you got a problem with that?).
2. Labor relations. Rand’s magnificent magnates never have to deal with a disgruntled workforce because, to the extent we ever see anyone below the managerial level, Dagny and Hank employ only the very best and brightest, pay them ridiculously high wages, and command absolute loyalty and even hero-worship. Yeah, right! Hey, Dagny – those tracks on which your beloved Taggart Transcontinental trains run? They were built by Chinese slave labor. And don’t turn your back, Hank, or the workers in your steel mill will organize in a heartbeat. Rand seems unable to wrap her head around the fact that American industry was built largely on the backs of exploited labor, not overly generous tycoons who demand no more of their workers than they put out themselves.
3. Race relations. I don’t recall a single African-American of any consequence appearing in Atlas Shrugged, so far at least. Of course, in economic terms this topic is inseparable from labor relations – and it was even more so in the ’50s, when the novel was being written. Jim Crow laws, segregation, hostilities between black and white factory workers … all were uniquely American issues of Rand’s time, yet none of them make a dent in Rand’s invented nation.
4. Children. There is (unless you’re Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest) probably no more selfless act than creating and raising a child – which no doubt explains why no one under the age of 18, except for the youthful Dagny and her copper-magnate buddy Francisco d’Anconia, makes an appearance in Atlas Shrugged. Dagny is what folks in the ’50s still called an Old Maid; Francisco’s a (supposed) playboy; and Hank Rearden has a childless marriage, even though his wife is desperate to hang onto him (and we all know how clingy wives in bad dramas use children to get their hooks in). Apparently, there’s just no room for child-rearing in an Objectivist’s life … which must mean that Rand recognized her philosophy was an elitist, exclusive one, or else she understood that a world running on self-interest wouldn’t last more than a generation.
I could offer more gifts of context to Ms. Rand, but I have a feeling she wouldn’t appreciate it anyway. Once Dagny reaches the Valley of the Magnates (yes, I’ve read ahead a little) she learns from her tour guide that “there is one word which is forbidden in this valley: the word give.” Well, bah humbug to you, too, Ayn! In any case, the contextual factors I’ve identified share one unifying characteristic — they all involve competing interests. The combatants in wartime; labor and management; blacks and whites … all have legitimate concerns that often exist in opposition to one another, and must somehow be reconciled. Heck, half the time my kids’ agendas are entirely different from my own! Simply put, Ayn Rand’s philosophy can’t work in the real world because it leaves no room for negotiation and compromise between such interests — it’s every man for himself, and such a world can only end in bloodshed and misery.
Now there’s a Christmas-y sentiment! Anyway, if you’re still reading this you probably have something better you should be doing. See you next year in this space, when we’ll wrap things up with a visit to Tycoon’s Paradise – and John Galt’s big (big, BIG) speech. Til then, when you’re watching It’s a Wonderful Life tonight, look for Rand-ian theories as practiced in Potter’s Field. As for me, I’ll be hanging with George Bailey.