Atlas Blogged #13: Perhaps this is all a big joke
August 21, 2010
Part 13 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 13: White Blackmail
Rearden’s wife, Lillian, discovers his infidelity by sneaking back to New York in the early hours of the morning following James Taggart’s wedding, having told Rearden that she was heading back home. Rearden’s paltry effort at deception – telling her he had business in town the next morning and so was staying on at the hotel – allowed her to surprise him when he returned to the hotel in the morning after spending the night with Dagny. Rearden refuses to divulge the name of his mistress, which Lillian assumes cannot be Dagny because Dagny is only interested in business. Lillian refuses Rearden a divorce in order to retain her position as a kept wife of a prominent businessman, and to torture Rearden with the knowledge that he’s broken a contract – which, to a man convinced of the sanctity of contract, is tantamount to demolishing his integrity.
Of course, the problem is that the only proper contract is a business contract involving exchange of value – social contracts like marriage are not exchanges of values, but moral commitments. Luckily, everyone’s favourite genius Franciso d’Anconia is along later in the chapter to point this out to Rearden.
Dr Ferris, he of the State Science Institute, comes along with more threats for Rearden to ensure that he hands over enough Rearden Metal for the Government’s Project X. This time he’s armed with knowledge of Rearden’s illegal business deal (illegal under one of the bizarre new laws Rand’s government of socialist strawmen decreed) with a coal mine owner, Kenneth Danagger. He threatens Rearden with the full force of the law if he does not comply – wait, no, actually, he doesn’t. He just threatens him with ruining his reputation by taking him to court. This is intended to spur Rearden into obedience, and leads to a passage that every libertarian everywhere quotes whenever they’re talking about civil liberties and the state:
“Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?” said Dr Ferris. “We want them broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against – then you’ll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We’re after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you’d better get wise to it. There’s no way or rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr Rearden, that’s the game, and once you understand, it you’ll be much easier to deal with.”
The argument is that the only way a government can control people is by making ill-defined acts illegal and capitalising on the guilt as a form of social control. Remember this argument, because joined together with the more general form of this argument that comes later in this chapter it quite comprehensively demonstrates that either libertarianism is a massive practical joke played on the world by Rand (i.e. like James Delingpole’s career), or she’s ignored the Janus-like quality of this sort of meta-ethical argument.
Rearden of course stands up to Dr. Ferris, and is indicted.
Dagny has been tracing the progress of the mysterious disappearances of the men of industry, and has worked out a formula. The ones to disappear are the one who at any given time the remainder of the structure of the economy rests upon. She intuitively realises that the next person in this chain is Kenneth Danagger, and rushes to his office to prevent him from departing.
She is pipped to the post by a mysterious individual, who persuades Danagger to retire, and leaves his office just before Dagny is allowed in. Dagny cannot persuade him to stay – whatever he’s been told has unseated even his lust for industry.
Rearden, still in his offices late into the night, is surprised by Francisco d’Anconia, who launches into an exposition of why he’s so much more moral than anyone else, because all his actions were aimed at producing the best products for exchange. There’s one passage in particular I want to pick out:
“Did you want to see [Rearden Metal] used by men who could not equal the power of your mind, but who would equal your moral integrity – men such as Eddie Willers – who could never invent your Metal, but who would do their best, work as hard as you did, live by their own effort – and riding on your rail – give a moment’s silent thanks to the man who gave them more than they could give him?”
“Yes,” said Rearden gently
Bask in Rearden’s glory, little people!
d’Anconia goes on to tell Rearden that since his efforts are necessary for life (i.e. non-violent productive activity is what supplies us with food, because humans have never hunted anything ever), his opponents are using their own moral code to guilt him into supplying them with the products of his labour with providing fair exchange. By accepting their code he has caused himself guilt for something that wasn’t wrong, because the only moral value is derived from productive activity.
During this exposition, the tap-hole on one of Rearden’s furnaces blows open, and hot metal comes rushing out. Rearden and d’Anconia rush down and beginning filling the hole by throwing clay at it; d’Anconia is obviously superb at doing so in the way he is with everything else. Afterwards Rearden washes and cleans d’Anconia.
This section is a bit, well, homoerotic. We already know that Rand likes rough sex; it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that she also likes the thought of two titans of industry getting hot and sweaty together.
Rand’s strawmen are using morality to control the titans of industry our main characters represent. They do this in order to extract value from them. The Government is criminalising things as a means of social control. The way to overcome this is to identify the correct morality, which d’Anconia presents to Rearden as the morality of the producer; property is accrued according to one’s effort of production for the purpose of fair exchange. This enables life to exist, so anything opposed to it must necessarily be a morality of death and destruction.
The problem comes as soon as one reads the first part of the argument alongside the morality & social structure Rand is supporting. This is that Government exists to enforce contracts and protect property rights and that taking of the products of another without fair exchange is immoral.
This achieves exactly the same social control goals for the rich, as opposed to the poor. It ensures that value is always concentrated in the hands of Rand’s aristocracy of talent, and like poor Eddie Willers, the less able have to be content with what they can achieve from their own effort. It is a morality that rejects others in society as only worthwhile inasmuch as they can produce; it is only pro-life for those lives who demonstrate their own worth. Under this system, Government exists to protect the rights of the rich against the depredations of the poor – and the poor should feel guilt for desiring the goods of another. It’s social control following exactly the same pattern Rand gave above; it merely reverses who’s in charge.
With this argument, Rand has demonstrated that either libertarianism is a joke, or that she is an enemy of freedom. The only freedom one really has is the freedom to author one’s own morality, and Rand seeks to take that away in the name of the rights of the rich. The self-authored life is how morality must function in a liberal society – anything else intrudes on an individual’s freedom.
Part 14 is here.