Atlas Blogged #20: Tramp Takes Responsibility for Communism
September 12, 2010
Part 20 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 20: The Sign of the Dollar
Dagny is on her way to Colorado, attempting to beat The Destroyer (chap who’s been convincing all these businessmen to give up and take a holiday) to the scientist she employed to decipher the workings of the static engine. She’s thinking lots of deep, melancholy thoughts about the fate of civilisation, so she invites a tramp to share dinner with her.
In an astonishing coincidence, the tramp turns out to have been working in the factory in which Dagny found the static engine when the proto-commies took over. He expands on the tale, because there’s nothing like beating a strawman again to really solidify your point. Incidentally, the one chap to objected to the plan (and is, therefore, most likely the engineer who came up with the static engine) is called John Galt. Whatever can have become of such a proud upstanding young man of industry, I wonder, especially as we’re told he announced his mission to stop socialism once and for all.
I’ll go back to Rand’s straw commies in a second. The train stops in the middle of nowhere, the crew having abandoned the train because they’re being forced to work for other people rather than themselves. Dagny sets off to find a trackside phone to call for another train. Coincidentally she happens on an airfield, and flies to a field in Colorado, from which the scientist who’s been working on the static engine has just taken off in the company of a man Dagny presumes to be The Destroyer.
Dagny pursues in her plane, following it into the wilderness when all of a sudden it vanishes into a seemingly empty rock valley. She flies into it, when suddenly the seemingly solid valley floor disappears, a green grass field is revealed and her engine cuts out. She desperately tries to avoid a crash.
I’m no fan of communism; barely even a fan of socialism, but Rand’s characterisation of it here is rather unfair. She interprets the phrase ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ as the sum total of communist thought, neglecting the role that workers’ councils are meant to play in ensuring that surplus value is divided fairly. In Rand’s fake communist system, need and ability is determined by a single person, with sham votes by the workers on such things.
She appears unable to conceive of a system by which ability is determined, if not by central diktat or by the marketplace. Instead, ‘mooching’ becomes the order of the day – one’s need is determined by how effectively one can give an emotive display of one’s miseries. Ability is accorded the same, with any displays of such penalised by harder work. Rand appears to be unable to accord to her ideological opponents even the basics of common sense. Even in Stalinist Russia, manufacturers were penalised for failing to reach their targets, rather than the other way round. It fails as an economic system because targets discourage initiative and the centre can never have enough information to micromanage productivity – but to claim that initiative and ability is actively penalised is simply false.
Rand fails the most basic test of debating – according to your opponent a reasonable position. I can see how someone might take her ideology at face value – certainly, its religious simplicity is as attractive as, well, a religion – but clearly not understanding why her opponents believe what they do is just incompetent.
Part 20 is here.