Part 21 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 21: Atlantis

Dagny is rescued from the wreckage of her aircraft by – drum roll – John Galt, the inventor of the static engine and the Destroyer she’s been pursuing all this time.  Of course, he’s a paradigm of a man, handsome, gifted, and utterly free of guilt over his talents. Galt’s Gulch, the valley in which Dagny has landed, is home to all the titans who retired from the world, and Dagny meets old friends like Ellis Wyatt and Kenneth Dannager.

The premise behind the titan’s retreat is that of a strike of minds; what Rand claims to be the motivating force behind the world. Galt has been systemically persuading these minds to strike against the ‘looters’ and ‘moochers’ who refuse to engage in honest trade or productive work. Then they’ll see who they really need, runs the theory.

The obvious problem with Galt’s strike is something I’ve identified before: it only works in a Platonic world in which people are strongly divided by their qualities, rather than the real world in which talent and mindfulness are spread across the population. Titans going on strike in the real world just results in their deputies taking over – no company is reliant on any one man, except at the lowest end of the scale.

Analysis

Bizarrely, the strongest clue to Rand’s theocratic elitism comes from a section in which the titans are talking individually about what caused them to go on strike, specifically the story of Dagny’s favourite composer, Richard Halley:

“I saw the impertinent malice of mediocrity boastfully holding up its own emptiness as an abyss to be filled by the bodies of its betters.”

Halley argues that the ‘looters-in-spirit’ extract the value from his music on the back of years of sneering at him because they did not understand it, only rising to acclaim his success when it is evident. He did not write his music for such as those, and so retreated from the world.

The implication here is subtle, but is echoed elsewhere in the book: commerce is only worthwhile with those who live up to Rand’s moral standards.

That’s right: people aren’t worthy to even be customers unless they sign up to Rand’s worshipping of talent. Otherwise they’re still looters or moochers, wresting one’s essence from one’s product.

Part 22 is here.

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Atlas Blogged #8

July 25, 2010

Part 8 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 8: The John Galt Line

Dagny has been thrown out of the Taggart Transcontinental offices, and runs the new John Galt Line company from a couple of pokey rooms behind the tower of her former empire; part of the pretence that this new line is nothing to do with TT.

The Equalisation of Opportunity Act has forced Rearden to divest himself of his ore and coal mines, leaving only his forges remaining. He sells his ore mines to a rather wet chap called Paul Larkin, who appears to find the whole business so upsetting that in a peculiar way he wants Rearden to say that it’s fine that the government has forced Rearden to sell Larkin his ore mines, because he trusts Larkin. Rearden doesn’t believe trust has anything to do with commerce.

Rand launches on a brief survey of public attitude towards the John Galt line, which is mostly of the ‘IT’S GOING TO KILL US ALL!’ variety. She indulges in attributing a few ridiculous arguments to her straw men: Slagenhop says, “There is no source of public opinion. It is spontaneously generated. It is a reflex of the collective instinct of the collective mind.” The general policy of the press is set by the maxim: “There are no objective facts. Every report on facts is only someone’s opinions. It is, therefore, useless to write about facts”.

Oh Rand, you are naughty. How can the convincing win which Dagny is doubtless about to achieve be convincing in the face of morons like this? At least give their arguments a little intellectual bite.

Dagny confronts the Union of Locomotive Engineers, who are refusing to let any of their workers drive trains on the John Galt line. Dagny (and by extension Rand) uses the following argument against them:

“I know what you want. You want a stranglehold on your men by means of the jobs I give them – and on me, by means of your men. You want me to provide the jobs, and you want to make it impossible for me to have any jobs to provide. [The train is going to be run, and you can choose whether it’s run by your men or not]. If you think that I can run an engine but they can’t build a railroad, choose accordingly.”

No wonder all the libertarian boys love Thatcher. She spent much of the 80s channelling Dagny. This argument works by the implication of control – if a few men represent the workforce in an area of endeavour that requires skilled labour, then they can determine which manufacturers they permit their staff to work for, thus determining which manufacturer has the advantage over the others. By doing so, they can shut down manufacturers they don’t like, and force the remaining manufacturers to only employ union members.

However, this argument has little to do with real-world unions, as in AtlasWorld they seem more akin to guilds – or, perhaps, the RMT, and to a certain extent British unions before Thatcher’s reforms. Unions representatives exist to secure better pay and conditions for their members; during period of low unemployment they provide an effective path towards collective negotiation. Rand’s attitude towards this appears to be that given that workers are incapable of building an industry in the same way as Dagny, they do not have the right to bargain collectively. Individual worth is the determinant of economic success – collective action represents a check on the individual, and so is to be ignored or circumvented. This argument only really applies when unions are too strong – but, of course, given that this is AtlasWorld, the unions are too strong.

Dagny holds a press conference in front of the media of AtlasWorld, who are naturally shocked that she intends to make a profit out of her business venture.

This chapter is generally wonderfully written and joy to read – Rand is a superb author of scenes of triumph and success – but the sheer stupidity of the opposition somewhat detract from this.

The day of the completion of the John Galt Line arrives, and Dagny and Rearden ride the first train along the line. Rand spends thirteen pages talking about how wonderful this is – and quite deservedly so, as even the most hardened socialist couldn’t fail to be moved by this section. There is one interesting argument; although perhaps it’s more simile than argument:

‘[Machines] are alive, she though, but their soul operates them by remote control. Their soul is in every man who has the capacity to equal this achievement. Should the soul vanish from the earth, the motors would stop, because that is the power which keeps them going… the power of a living mind – the power of thought and choice and purpose.’

The train arrives, amidst hullabaloo. Wyatt greets Rearden and Dagny, and they have a triumphant dinner, marred only by Wyatt’s despair at the state of the rest of the world.

Dagny and Rearden become lovers (which surprises no-one who’s been paying attention). Rand makes lots of references to submission, but like the rest of this chapter it’s beautifully written.

Analysis

The argument I quote above is perhaps the core of the book – the notion that the removal of a mind from the world will remove the motive power that mind’s achievements lend to it. It’s a strong statement of the significance of the individual –  that the individual is the key to advancement, that the strong and visionary mind powers the world by reshaping it in its image. It is countered with the weaker collective minds of the press and contemporary commentators, who ride on the back of the strong. This provides part of the justification for Rand’s version of freedom of the individual.

The obvious problem with this argument is that it’s a false dichotomy – human achievement comes in both collective and individual forms. The largest engineered object mankind has ever produced, the Large Hadron Collider, is the product of collective action – state funds and committees of engineers and scientists, as well as the aggregate demand of European scientists for such a facility. It was not the product of a single mind, but rather the shared vision of many. This is a necessary function of complexity; as the knowledge of our species grows, so does the complexity of our tools and specialisation required for each individual to play a part. Thus, the complex collective achievement of public services represents not a single vision but rather a multitude of overlapping visions, one for each employee therein. We should celebrate both the individual and the collective, for both are vital, but Rand would seek to diminish co-operation as a virtue, and in AtlasWorld it inevitably leads to destruction. Why?

Part 9 is here.