Atlas Blogged #10
August 8, 2010
Part 10 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 10: Wyatt’s Torch
Dagny’s now spending her time trying to find the man who invented the static engine, as well as what happened to the factory. She meets all manner of disagreeable socialists – sorry, people – on the way. Meanwhile, the strawmen who constitute the opposition to Dagny and her fellow titans of industry are coming up with even more bizarre regulations for industry, including limiting the length of trains on the John Galt Line, preventing businesses from relocating and limiting production of Rearden Metal in every plant to the level of the least effective plant.
Rearden’s wife, Lillian, confronts him with her own unhappiness. The combination of his failure to produce her happiness, which he believed he committed to when he married her, with his affair with Dagny leaves him wracked with guilt.
Or, at least it appears to do so. Caught up with the guilt is a resentment at being made to feel it. It appears Rearden is disgusted that anyone would use his capacity for guilt against him, as though it were a weapon.
Dagny finally catches up with the heiress of the motor factory, now reduced to squalor. The factory and the surrounding area suffered a collapse brought on by a bizarre version of socialism, derived from the phrase ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’.
We’ll skip over the part where traditional socialism focused on ownership of plant by the workforce. Let’s instead assume that phrase implies some sort of bizarre hippy commune.
In this system, a majority vote determined the needs and ability of each member of staff – a worker would be penalised if their work did not reach the standard the majority believed it should.
Rand presents this as the apotheosis of this ‘need’ evil, the climax of a system that allocates according to need. However, this isn’t how communities arranged along these lines actually work – for example, the nearest analogue to a similar society in the UK today is the Findhorn Foundation. This community allocates resources according to need, but allocates work according to individual desire. It somehow works, but requires every individual to be committed to the system. As such, it can’t be a model for the entirety of society – and Findhorn doesn’t claim to be.
Dagny, of course, finds the whole thing dreadfully evil. She continues to follow the trail of the static engine, and encounters Hugh Akston, the philosopher who taught d’Anconia, working as a chef in a diner. He makes good burgers.
Akston knows the identity of the designer of the engine, but refuses to divulge it. He has something of a penchant for inscrutable answers.
Rand presents philosopher in a good light shock. This would be more impressive if he’d actually said anything to do with philosophy at all, rather than simply being a good chef at a 50s-style diner. I do hope Rand isn’t making a subtle dig about the job prospects of philosophy graduates here.
Disappointed, Dagny returns to New York, and learns that Rearden’s former ‘Washington Man’ (i.e. lobbyist) has been appointed to the position of the Top Co-ordinator for the department of pretty much everything economic. He’s declared a national emergency and used it to push through the directives demanded by the strawmen.
Woe is Dagny. But even greater woe is Ellis Wyatt, who reacts to this immoral imposition by setting fire to all of his oil wells, disappearing from public view and leaving a note behind on a board at the foot of his burning hill say, “I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours.”
Rand is attempting to demonstrate a far stronger conclusion in this chapter than her premises merit. She seems to be claiming that societies based on fulfilling the needs of their citizens inevitably fail – hence the devastation around the old motor plant. One could argue that they may not be as economically effective as capitalism, but inevitable failure is not borne by the evidence – indeed, voluntary co-operation seems a fairly stable and fulfilling way to build a society. Rand may be correct about compulsory co-operation, but the stronger conclusion she is claiming, which covers voluntary co-operation too, is simply wrong.
Part 11 is here.