Atlas Blogged #16: Freedom for the few, not the many

August 31, 2010

Part 16 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 16: Miracle Metal

This chapter is annoying. Annoying not in the standard Rand sense of teenage characters having pretend angst, but rather in the sheer number of obvious stupidities it crams into relatively few pages.

We’ll start with the opening section, which deals with what Rand clearly considers to be a council of evil. It consists of the various strawmen we’ve encountered so far; James Taggart, Wesley Mouch, Orren Boyle, and more ridiculous chaps with silly names. There’s also a representative of the unions, Fred Kinnan, who just appears at this point without any prior reference to him in the book. Given that he’s now responsible for much of the ensuing, this seems something of an oversight (i.e. something Rand forgot to put in because she was too busy raving about other things, and couldn’t be arsed to go back and correct her mistake, because it’s her work so must already be perfect, dammit).

The strawmen mince around their subject rather pathetically for a while, talking about how making sure peoples’ needs are fulfilled is the most important thing in the world, while Kinnan (who for some reason is presented as the embodiment of knowing evil; the evil that’s happy to deliver men into socialist bondage in the full knowledge of what it’s doing) makes occasional sarcastic remarks about their pretensions. They commit to a directive that institutionalises socialism in the USA – or rather a Randian version of socialism that involves various insanities like not being able to fire anyone at all any more or demanding that all invention and innovation stops. Kinnan is the enabler of this directive, inasmuch as he agrees to commit the workers he represents to it and by weight of numbers will ensure its enactment. In exchange he gets control of the Unification Board, the body discharged with overseeing the wacky new employment laws.

I don’t understand Rand’s antipathy towards unions. The free exchange of goods in the marketplace is her moral standard, and unions merely improve the relative position of the worker selling their labour by virtue of collective bargaining. This is free association – while closed shops would obviously be immoral to Rand, someone paying for the representative service that union membership represents is exchanging value for value. Many of Thatcher’s anti-union reforms were anti-libertarian in this sense; they curtailed the freedom of that private enterprise. This, much like the janus-faced moral argument in preceding chapters, implies that libertarianism is nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with class. Hence the title of this post.

The directive is implemented, and Dagny quits, refusing to deliver men into bondage. She retreats to a cottage in the country. Rearden stays in position, intending to defy a requirement that he surrender his patent to Rearden Metal to the State.

Dr Ferris comes to collect, and reveals to Rearden that the strawmen know about his relationship with Dagny and will reveal it to the world if he does not voluntarily surrender his patent. Rearden gets lost in a reverie, which begins with:

‘It was not to Dr. Ferris that Rearden was speaking. He was seeing a long line of men stretched through the centuries from Plato onward, who heir and final product was an incompetent little professor with the appearance of a gigolo and the soul of a thug.’

This is yet another Randian slander on philosophers. Plato’s political philosophy involved no reference to need, and in fact celebrated reason above all other qualities – as Rand does. His aristocracy of reason bears more resemblance to Rand’s aristocracy of talent than she appears to realise.

There follows some of the most tortured reasoning it has ever been my misfortune to read in any attempt at moral prose. The net result is that Rearden signs over his patent to protect Dagny, on the grounds that he placed her in jeopardy in the first place and so is culpable on the grounds of his own moral failure. He should’ve divorced Lillian and married Dagny, to avoid this very situation.

But this makes absolutely no sense under Rand’s moral system. Self-flagellation is unreasonable, as one’s moral worth is judged by one’s ability to produce and exchange goods. There is no exchange here, no demolition of property. Dagny’s perceived morality in the eyes of the world is not something one can exchange – rather, from earlier chapters, it’s a form of public relations and so is irrelevant. It is noble of Rearden to take the act he does, to sacrifice himself – but self-sacrifice, and a moral system which demands it of oneself, has previously been condemned by Rand.

I suspect that Rand, at the last, couldn’t permit her hero to be ignoble to a lady. This betrays a certain latent morality deep within a confused attempt to be ‘rational’; certainly the passages in which Rearden makes his choice are the most human of the book so far. I doubt Rand will permit herself any more.

Part 17 is here.

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