Atlas Blogged #4

July 5, 2010

Part 4 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 4: The Immovable Movers

The chapter opens with our heroine, Dagny, returning from a visit to a supplier of diesel trains, who had been unable to offer any real reason for his delay in supplying the trains to the Taggart company. He had been, as many of the foils to Dagny’s wit had, pathetic – in the yard of his company lay an enormous irreplaceable machine tool now beyond use through neglect. Dagny was driven into a fury by such a egregious waste of potential.

Everyone’s useless except a few select men and Dagny.

Back in her office, she learns that the contractor who had efficiently laid out the San Sebastien track has mysteriously vanished – McNamara simply left his profitable business concern, and disappeared.

And now those select men are disappearing.

Dagny returns home, and listens to the music of Richard Halley, her only pleasure outside work. We briefly examine the tortured existence of Halley, who fought for years to achieve recognition, and at the peak of his success simply walked out of his own life, never to be seen again. His music had the quality of the heroic, a virtue lost on the world in which Atlas Shrugged is set.

Jim Taggart learns that the San Sebastien line has been nationalised, as Dagny predicted, and takes the credit for her fore-sighted reduction of service.

Rand, we get that Jim is a bit of twat.

Thanks to Boyle’s lobbying, the National Railways Alliance passes the ‘Anti Dog-eat-Dog Rule’, which effectively forbids competing railway networks and gives the preference to the antecedent in areas in which competition already exists. Dan Conway, the owner of the Phoenix-Durango line which had begun to take trade away from the Taggart Company’s Rio Norte line, is ruined at a stroke.

Dagny attempts to encourage Conway to overturn the ruling, but Conway refuses to on the grounds that he had committed to obey the rulings of the majority, and as a man of his word cannot countermand that now that the will of the majority has gone against him.

This is the crucial argument in this chapter – I will discuss this more at the end.

Ellis Wyatt, the man responsible for the sudden industrial expansion in Colorado that led to the importance of the Phoenix-Durango line, bursts into Dagny’s office to demand that she bring the Rio Norte line up to scratch, otherwise his sudden inability to export his goods will ruin him. Dagny consents, despite the pain of being taken to be a ‘looter’.

Rearden and Dagny have something of a love-in, engendered by Dagny’s sudden urgent need for her line to be finished in time to meet Wyatt’s demands. Dagny finds Rearden’s commitment to his product, Rearden Metal, inspiring, and the two contemplate its potential uses. We are left in no doubt that people like this are those who move the world.

Analysis

Effective people are the movers of the world; the ones who bring about the goods of civilisation. In the world of Atlas Shrugged, you are either a mover or you are not – Rand does not present any real middle ground between movers and non-movers, although she does occasionally touch on movers who’ve decided to stop moving. In this sense, there’s a definite Manichean aspect to the argument that she’s developing, which may or may not be a hindrance.

In this chapter, we encountered Conway, who was hoist by his own commitment to majoritarian decision-making. Rand demonstrates the obvious here – the majority may decide to take an action which enriches them at the expense of a minority, thereby destroying the good thing that minority created. Her Mary Sue, Dagny, refuses to accept this – “One can’t be punished for ability”.

This, of course, is the central problem of democratic politics – the majority may decide to do something that is objectively wrong. Dagny’s response to this is highly emotive, and it’s not clear at this point whether Rand believes this too. It is a triumphant expression of individuality, and stands at the opposite end of the spectrum of answers to the democracy problem to something like the philosophical statism espoused by Plato. However, simply rejecting democracy because you don’t like the outcome isn’t an argument, merely a statement of preference. It remains to be seen whether Rand has anything substantial beyond the emotive.

Part 5 is here.

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