Atlas Blogged #1
June 28, 2010
The Internet is full of libertarians in a way in which real life is not. In the past, I have blogged about how I find their credo oddly fascinating; and have skirted around the edges of their arguments without ever fully engaging. I felt it to be rather unfair, without being familiar with their core texts, so to speak, attacking a position on the basis of Wikipedia’s interpretation of their arguments is unsportsmanlike. On this basis, however, I disagree with them, quite vehemently. But one cannot disagree with something without at least attempting to understand what it is, even though many appear to have a good run at it.
With this in mind, I have decided to read one of the core texts of libertarianism, Atlas Shrugged, the most well-known literary outpouring of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. I will blog my progress through this work, providing a brief summary of the plot and analysing more interesting arguments carefully. I do not intend this to be a wholesale attack on this philosophy, as the core of my political & philosophical motivation is identifying the truth and acting in accordance with it, and to claim that something is false before examining it is to presume an arrogance about the nature of reality to which no-one is entitled.
I am reading the Penguin Modern Classics edition, and in keeping with the minor touches of the ridiculous I use to make out like I have any creative gifts whatsoever, I shall be using a Peter Rabbit bookmark.
Without further ado, Chapter 1, The Theme
The book opens with a man called Eddie Willers being asked ‘Who is John Galt?’ by a tramp in the street, a question which causes him minor concern, a smidgen of apprehension. His concern is inexplicably heightened by the sight of a large calendar installed by the local government to tell citizens the date, and then equally inexplicably assuaged by the sight of a street stall, a bus and a flapping curtain.
His fears are entirely put to rest by his arrival at the Taggart Building, the offices of a railway company in which Eddie works. We learn of his past association with the Taggart family in a brief reminiscence of old oak tree, a symbol of strength that a bolt of lightening tore asunder to reveal a hollow core.
My first impressions are ‘Woah, steady on the symbolism there!’ Having a character be inexplicably afraid of symbols of state intervention and cheered by private enterprise is a little excessive when it comes to setting a plot – not to mention that the hollow oak tree is manifestly a symbol of the decayed version of capitalism that confronts our main character in the next scene. If this excess of blatant symbols continues, I’ll have to add a section called ‘Atlas Shrugged – The Graphic Novel’.
Eddie confronts his boss about the condition of a railway line owned by the Taggart Company, the Rio Norte line. In this confrontation, Eddie is oddly passive-aggressive, the conversation reading more like a lecture in which his boss makes rejoinders with which Eddie does not engage. His boss is revealed to be a creature of patronage and inertia, more focused on giving favours to preferred companies and friends than ensuring his own is successful.
The conversation reaches an impasse, and Eddie leaves his boss – who, as previously mentioned, was also a childhood friend – in his office. An old employee laments the decay in the quality of typewriters to Eddie, finishing with a mysterious, ‘Who is John Galt?’
The scene shifts to an enigmatic lady on a train, who – following a brief interlude with a train guard, in which a non-existent symphony is momentarily discussed – is revealed to be the sister of the boss from the first section, the rather ridiculously named Dagny Taggart. Descriptions of Dagny tend towards the worshipful: ‘She looked like a young girl; only her mouth and eyes showed that she was a woman in her thirties. The dark gray eyes were direct and disturbing, as if they cut through things, throwing the inconsequential out of the way‘.
There’s a lot more description of Dagny cast in this manner. Hello there, Mary Sue.
A delay on the line caused by a tedious guard’s regimented following of the rules is overcome by a decisive Dagny, who is speeding towards a meeting with her brother, Jim Taggart. Dagny feels that Jim has impeded work on the Rio Norte line long enough, and takes decisive action to remedy the situation. Jim is terrified by her decisiveness, reduced to a pathetic man anxiously blaming others for his own failings.
Decisive, decisive, decisive.
Following her crushing of Jim, Dagny moves to promote an employee she has admired as being effective – far more so than many of her weak other employees. He has already arranged a meeting, to her surprise, to tell her that he is resigning – but when pushed as to why, responds with only, ‘Who is John Galt?’
My initial impression, in philosophical terms, is that Rand is heading for a slightly more feminine version of Nietzsche. I add the feminine qualifier because Zarathustra’s legs were never described at such length and so frequently. This is interesting, because the theme of the chapter – a decayed capitalism holding back a few strong individuals – lends a significant role to the will and ability of those individuals, analogous to Nietzsche’s ubermensch*. The problem is the derivation of notions such as that from first principles tends to be very difficult – Nietzsche used the rather odd notion of eternal recurrence as a kind of rational check on the form of action one should take in a given circumstance, which while interesting was much more Kantian than he would’ve ever let on. Rand has a similar loathing of Kant, so it’ll be interesting to see how she derives a value system that encourages the virtues on display here.
The difficulty in generating such a system is that it is typically drawn from experience first and inferred second; we all know the annoyance that comes from working with those who frequently blame others for incidents for which they were at least partly responsible. This is the character of Jim Taggart here, a weak man unwilling to take responsibility – and hence blame. His character is reflected in the tedious train guard who delays Dagny. Indecisiveness and shirking of responsibility are the sins demonstrated to be the cause of the general decay of capitalism in this work thus far. But how to derive them?
*Not the same as the Nazi version.
Part 2 is here.