Atlas Blogged #5
July 17, 2010
Part 5 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 5: The Climax of the d’Anconias
The chapter opens with the discovery by the Peoples’ Government of Mexico that the d’Anconia copper mines they’d nationalised in the previous chapter were worthless. No decent ore was to be found in the mountains at all, leaving the ‘looters’ feel as though they’d been cheated.
Dagny takes this rather hard – Taggart Transcontinental had been exposed to the copper mines as a consequence of Jim’s manoeuvrings, meaning that the clear deception practiced by d’Anconia had financial implications for TT too. She goes to meet Francisco d’Anconia, with whom the previous chapters have hinted she has some sort of history.
We go into another childhood flashback, in which we learn the Taggart children (Jim & Dagny, along with Eddie) spent their summers with the young Francisco. Francisco is presented as being good at anything he turns his hand to, sneaking away from home to take up jobs on the railroad and in mines; acquiring his first mine at a young age by raising the capital from the stockmarket. He’s your perfect proto-mogul; focused on work, and instantly skilled at anything he tries. Naturally, Dagny greatly admires him.
Dagny’s mother arranges her society debut, an event Dagny finds greatly disappointing, partly as a consequence of the poor quality of men on offer, and that the people there appeared to believe that the decorations – the ‘lights and flowers’ would make them romantic, rather than the other way round.
Okay, we get it. Rand doesn’t think ordinary people are worth a damn. However, this is a bizarre criticism of balls as an event concept – balls have an edge on other similar parties because of the increased effort put into presentation of the venue and the attendees, adding another layer of pleasure to a standard party.
Dagny complains to Francis about the pathetic people she’s encountered at the ball. They end up making love; a peculiarly out-of-character sex scene in which Dagny enjoys submitting to Francis.
I’m not going to speculate on Rand’s sexual proclivities, but women who are submissive in bed tend to be (a) rubbish and (b) in possession of mental health problems. At least, in my experience.
They become lovers, and Francis begins to act strangely. He talks about giving it all up – all of his business, all his endeavours. He makes references to finding it hard, even though he knows that “he’s right”; an unidentified character.
Who is John Galt?
Dagny and Francis part ways for a period of time, in which Francis becomes a playboy – ice palaces in the desert, absurdly huge yachts – all emblems of a lack of purpose, a purpose he once said he couldn’t imagine not having. His business ventures become occasionally forays, as if for sport. Dagny doesn’t understand this apparent conversion to hedonism, finding it distressing. Francis’ only response appears to be a slightly patronising version of ‘You’ll understand when you’re older’.
Back in the present day, Dagny goes to confront Francis over the San Sebastien mines. Francis professes to now be a creature of the moment, delighting in the spectacle of the investors in the mines losing money and the sheer angry frustration of the Mexican government. His goals have shifted from having purpose to accelerating the decline of contemporary society, by pushing capital away from men with ability to the corrupt. Dagny doesn’t understand this personality change, and leaves in a kind of frustrated despair.
The interesting argument in this chapter has little to do with the advancement of the plot, but is perhaps the key to unpicking this sub-plot. At one point during the chapter, d’Anconia claims that the only kind of morality that makes sense is an ethic of competence – a ‘gold standard’ he refers to it as. How well you do your job is taken as the only moral value worth the name.
This doesn’t sit well with the ‘acquisition by neither force or fraud’ principle the book has touched on before – one can be a competent practitioner of violence. Perhaps Rand will resolve this in a future chapter. It does, however, have a deeper problem than mere inconsistency – how does one assess competence on an objective framework? Value of competence in a particular field is given by the marketplace, not an objective measure. Perhaps one could work up a definition around productivity, but that would prevent significant fields of human endeavour counting as endeavour in themselves – making X products in Y time doesn’t really cover, say, composition.
Part 6 is here.