Part 19 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 19: The Face Without Pain or Fear or Guilt

Another filler chapter, the main point of which appears to be that Rearden discovers that d’Anconia used to be Dagny’s lover and gets angry about it, even though it was, like, twelve years ago dude, and you’re still married to someone else. Rearden was still mad at d’Anconia in any case, as he feels d’Anconia betrayed him by allowing a shipment of copper he purchased from him to be sunk by pirates, even though d’Anconia specifically told him not to deal with his company as he was running it into the ground.

This chapter reminds us once again that Rearden has the emotional maturity of a fourteen-year-old.

The remainder of the chapter sees Dagny rushing to Colorado to talk to the scientist she employed to work on the static energy motor, in order to stop the ‘destroyer’ convincing him to jack it in. This could’ve happened a hundred pages ago, but it’s not really important, as this chapter serves to demonstrate something about Rand’s philosophy that’s been tickling at the back of my mind for ages.

Consider the following paragraphs, firstly an internal monologue from Dagny:

‘You – she thought – whoever you are, whom I have always loved and never found, you whom I expected to see at the end of the rails beyond the horizon, you whose presence I had always felt in the streets of the city and whose world I had wanted to build, it is my love for you that had kept me moving, my love and my hope to reach you and my wish to be worthy of you on the day when I would stand before you face to face. Now I know that I shall never find you-that it is not to be reached or lived-but what is left of my life is still yours, and I will go on in your name, even though it is a name I’ll never learn, I will go on serving you, even though I’m never to win, I will go on, to be worth of you on the day when I would have met you, even though I won’t…’

Now an argument between Dagny and d’Anconia:

“Franciso! … You do understand it, you know what I mean by that kind of man, you see him, too!”

“Oh yes,” he said simply, casually, looking at some point in space within the room, almost as if he were seeing a real person. He added, “Why should you be astonished? You said that we were of his kind once, you and I. We still are. But one of us has betrayed him.”

“You know, Dagny, we were taught that some things belong to God and others to Caesar. Perhaps their God would permit it. But the man you say we’re serving – he does not permit it.”

“There’s to be a second renaissance in the world. I’ll wait for it.”

Anyone who’s even cursorily studied Plato will be clapping their hands at this point. Both Dagny and d’Anconia are paying obeisance to no single man, but rather the Form of the Man of Talent. They worship not the iteration of the form in mankind, but rather the idealisation of it in itself, beyond the world of men. Similarly, anyone familiar with the works of Jesus Christ and his fans will recognise the unmistakeably biblical undertones in the quotes above – a second renaissance after a final conflict between good and evil? A man who takes the place of God as an object of worship?

This explains the bizarre characters of AtlasWorld – the titans, looters and moochers are so divided because they’re iterations of the Forms of Talent, Looting and Mooching; unlike in the real world where such qualities are all present in every person, in AtlasWorld people are divided by their adherence to Forms. It explains Rand’s antipathy towards Kant: Randian ethics are based on something out there in the world (or beyond it in the case of the Forms), which Kant demonstrates is unknowable in itself. Kant’s philosophy gives man the capability of determining what is moral without reference to anything external, based purely upon the way in which he encounters the world. Rand relies upon an external notion of morality, based on a concept of talent that lies out in the world and is iterated in man. It is worshipped by the titans of Atlas Shrugged and personified in the messiah-like figure of Dagny’s ‘destroyer’, whom we’ll meet shortly.

For this reason, my earlier description of Rand’s ideal society as an aristocracy of talent was incorrect. Rather, it is a theocracy of talent – a society in which talent is worshipped and before which all men must prostrate themselves. Like Plato’s Guardians, the rulers of Rand’s utopia are those who approach closest to the Form of Talent. It is therefore Rand who is the heir of Plato – not Kant. Rand has confused a rationalist theory of knowledge with rationality itself; distorted reason in the name of her false God.

For a man to be free, judgement of his actions must come from within himself and not pay service to an external standard, for the only judge of standards is man, and interpretation of standards will always lie in the hands of other men. Rand’s philosophy aims to deliver mankind into religious bondage to the rich, who are the arbiters of the market and hence the arbiters of talent. Liberalism has nothing to do with a society dominated by the high priests of commerce.

I do not know how far this Platonic disease infects other forms of libertarianism, but I would suspect many. It is, however, clear that Rand is the enemy of true liberty, and that her followers aim to set up a society in which the most fundamental liberty of all – the right of a man to make his own moral judgements – is to be suppressed in the name of the God of Talent.

Part 20 is here.

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Atlas Blogged #18

September 7, 2010

Part 18 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 18: By Our Love

Something of a filler chapter this one, so I won’t spend too much time on it. Dagny has retreated to a country cottage following her resignation from Taggart Transcontinental. Of course, Dagny being Dagny, she’s rebuilt the cottage into a thousand-foot high fortress – or, at least, cleared the paths and reshingled the roof. She’s wracked with what I can only assume is Rand’s idea of what her industrial idols experience in the absence of their industry. Dagny’s behaving like a lovesick teenager, in other words.

d’Anconia comes to visit, ostensibly to reclaim Dagny now that she’s seen the importance of not working for the ‘looters’. He reveals that he’s been purposely destroying his own company to stop it falling into their hands, which would be more of a revelation if Rand hadn’t spent much of the book waving a banner saying, ‘LOOK! HE’S DESTROYING HIS OWN COMPANY WITH HIS OWN HANDS!’ Astonishingly, none of the characters in the book catch onto this until d’Anconia tells them. For all their vaunted industrial prowess, they really aren’t very bright.

Despite d’Anconia believing Dagny to be over the railway, the news of the destruction of the rail tunnel in the previous chapter forces her back to her office in New York, where she’s of course the only one willing to make decisions. Rearden calls, for the first time in weeks, and she tells him that they’re both shackled to production for looters by their love of production. That’s nearly poetic. You know, for Rand.

Analysis

Not much in this chapter; it seemingly exists because Rand couldn’t have her heroine simply quit once and for all, which would’ve allowed her to avoid at least a hundred pages. I can’t help but think this book would’ve benefited from a decent editor, and a less self-deceiving author.

Part 19 is here.

Part 17 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 17: The Moratorium on Brains

Rearden is going through a teenage existential crisis; the sort of thing one experiences when one is 18 and does something bad for the first time. He’s attempting to rebuild himself because of his mistake in accepting an alternate moral code that went against the moral code he actually believes. He walks alone at night a lot, thinking ‘deep’ thoughts. If I was, say, fifteen, I’d probably be identifying with Rearden right now. As it is, I’m more likely to identify with Xander in Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Rearden. A vampire-fighting class clown is significantly more believable than a middle-aged industrialist having a pretend moral crisis.

But anyway. On this particular angsty evening, Rearden encounters a tall blond Nordic chap, who turns out to be Ragnar Danneskjöld, the international pirate. Ragnar is embarked on a scheme to – get this – repay the income tax of industrial titans by raiding aid ships destined for communist countries. He gives Rearden a downpayment of a gold bar, along with a quick rehash of Rand’s gold standard fetishism.

Rand clearly thinks that it’s entirely logical for a substitute police force to arise when state-backed force is being used for ends she doesn’t approve of. It actually reveals something subtle about her philosophy: Ragnar does not seek the consent of those he polices on behalf of, and does so on the self-interested basis that rebuilding civilisation will require competent men such as Rearden to be in possession of significant capital. The message here is that the Government does not require your consent to act unless it is engaging with exchange with you, which is the only legitimate form of engagement in AtlasWorld. You can be policed without your consent as long as you obey the law; democracy doesn’t need to get a look-in. All that’s required is for someone to want to do it. This is an interesting indication of Rand’s dislike of democracy, which is alluded to again later on in the chapter.

The rest of the chapter is a harrowing indictment of what happens when you put a whole bunch of people who refuse to take responsibility in charge of anything; think New Labour. The end result is that a coal-fired locomotive is sent into an unventilated tunnel in the full knowledge of everyone involved, but with none of them willing to take responsibility for not doing so on account of an indignant dignitary on the train. Of course, everyone chokes to death on the fumes, and then a following train carrying explosives crashes into its rear and blows up.

Even though this is a great tragedy caused by even greater incompetence, Rand can’t resist having a dig at the classes of folk she judges to be responsible (collectively?) for the decay of civilisation in Atlas Shrugged. One of them is worth picking out:

“The woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12, was a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.”

As I mentioned earlier on, Rand really doesn’t like democracy. And, as I mentioned last time, this means that she has more in common with Plato than she could bear to accept.

Analysis

One of the amusing things about Ragnar’s little speech is his indictment of Robin Hood as history’s greatest villain, for making a virtue out of robbing the rich to give to the poor. He blames him for mankind’s current ills. This ignores two things: firstly, that Robin Hood robbed the unproductive rich to give to the productive poor, and secondly that the real Randian ‘villain’ is Jesus. You know, that chap who turfed the money lenders out of the temple, claimed it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to get into the kingdom of heaven, and specifically said in Matthew 19:21

“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Sounds like we have the source of our Randian evil right there! I wonder why she didn’t mention it. Can’t be anything to do with her audience being massively religious, of course.

Part 18 is here.

Inspired partly by Jack of Kent’s effort to define what he means by liberalism, I thought I’d share with the world a handy philosophical device for checking whether the principles you ostensibly hold are the ones you actually hold.

It relies upon the insight, derived from various philosophers of language, that the meaning attached to a word or phrase has two components – the intension and the extension. The extension of a word is the objects that word picks out, while the intension of a word is the function that picks out those objects. This is analogous to a mathematical function; for example the intension “X is a real number” refers to the extension “1,2,3,4…”. If one could come up with the intension for, say, a turtle, it would pick out all the turtles in the world.

When applied to principles, this has some interesting consequences. For example, if we were to take the libertarian principle that property rights are equivalent to freedom, we would have the intension “X is free if and only if his property rights are protected”. When applied to the world, this should pick out all the free people in the world as the principle’s extension. If you can identify someone in the world whom this principle picks out but who you do not consider to be free, it demonstrates that your ostensible intension of liberalism does not match your intuitive sense of what you mean by your politics.

In the case of the libertarian principle, one could perhaps make reference to the debt slaves of Dubai; those who took out loans from gangmasters for travel to Dubai for construction work, but upon arrival discovered that the level of payment they received was insufficient to ever pay off the loan, effectively indenturing them to gangmasters. Insufficient knowledge of maths has trapped them into a form of slavery, while the gangmasters have not used force or fraud against them. This does not correspond to my intuitive notion of freedom, and so I must reject the libertarian intension thereof.

Different ways of phrasing a principle have different types of extension. For example, the harm principle – that one is free to do as one wishes as long as one does not harm others – gives the intension “I am free to do X as long as I harm no-one else”, of which the extension is the set of actions, rather than the set of people. One could of course reverse this to produce another intension which refers to people – i.e. “X is free as long as he is not being harmed against his will”. You’d then need to check the various types of extension of your principle to ensure it didn’t contravene your intuitive sense of freedom – for example, the lack of clarity of the first intension of the harm principle implies that one could torture one’s own animals without impacting on anyone else’s freedom. Again, that may not be in line with your intuitive understanding of liberalism.

Much of this is, of course, common sense – but formalising common sense can be very useful – and very powerful – indeed.

I remain bewildered by the Right’s conviction that AV will make it more difficult to remove a government and that this somehow counts against AV. The comments on this IEA piece are rather indicative. I suspect that this is going to be the main thrust of the No2AV campaign; not least the statements from the main players about ‘accountability‘ seem to indicate this. However, on even cursory examination this makes no sense whatsoever.

Under FPTP, an MP can remain in office with only 30% of the vote – even if the remaining 70% of the electorate despise him. All it takes for this to happen is that 70% to be divided between three alternative candidates – just to show I’m unbiased, look at this example of a Lib Dem winning in Norwich South on 29.4%. Under AV, the transfer of votes from the Greens mean that Simon Wright would’ve almost certainly lost to Labour.

A more obvious example is Luton South, the former seat of Margaret Moran. There was a clear majority of anti-Labour votes based on Moran’s expenses controversies, but yet Labour got back in even with a 7.9% swing against them. This is a clear case of FPTP protecting a discredited local party from the implications of their abuses – not to even go into Mark Thompson’s analysis of expense abuses by safety of seat. AV goes a long way towards eliminating safe seats by substantially reducing the level at which a seat can be considered ‘safe’ – absolute majorities count for a lot less under AV than relative majorities. There is no way in which this cannot be considered to provide more accountability.

The other bizarre issue the Right raises is the power to reject a government. This appears to be a confusion about what a government is, or indeed a political party. Any party is a coalition of a variety of different agendas, policies and programmes, in most cases individuated down to the level of the individual themselves. A party’s manifesto is an amalgam of these; the mean of the beliefs of everyone within that party (at least theoretically). A coalition between parties is exactly the same, except with fewer formal structures.

The policy agenda delivered by a government is the result of that amalgamation. Correspondingly, voters never reject a particular government, they reject the individuals who support that particular policy agenda. AV facilitates this, as discussed above. The Right appears convinced that the rejection of sufficient numbers of individuals across a given geographic area (corresponding to the constituencies of our electoral system) is enough to justify pushing out that policy platform entirely. This misses the point that the policy platform may remain in operation if sufficient individuals have been elected who support it, even if they are wearing the wrong badge. For example, New Labour continued many of the lassez faire policies of the Tories, despite wearing different badges. The policy platform of the Tories was not rejected wholesale. The emphasis merely shifted marginally, if you looked really closely.

It needs to be said again: rejecting a party is not the same as rejecting a policy platform. British politics is not Manichean. It’s individuals that matter, and AV gives voters more power to reject – or elect – a given individual than FPTP. The Right’s arguments against AV are just plain weird. It’s almost as though they have an alternate agenda they daren’t spell out.