Archive for February, 2012
Welcome to the part where the book gets good. Yes, as of Chapter 9 we’ve finally been introduced to Atlas’ MacGuffin: a lean mean clean green motor that could replace the internal combustion engine and save the world from environmental disaster if only it weren’t broken beyond repair in an abandoned warehouse.
You may have also noticed that in Chapters 8 & 9 I started referring to Rearden Metal as rMetal, expanding on the comparison to Steve Jobs that I made in Chapter 2, and started calling Taggart Transcontinental Taggart Transcon, which sounds more like a telecom company.
Slowly but surely, we’re drawing the Randverse away from its steampunk alternate history and towards a cyberpunk future more like our own. And while we could really use that motor here in reality, the most obvious and important cyberpunk element of our world that the Randverse lacks is cyberspace itself — the internet. No doubt the open-source, democratizing, community-building, often non-commercial culture of the web would horrify Ayn, but that’s exactly why it will be a major element of this blog during Part Two (Chapters 11-20) in the same way that lobbying and climate change have been the major motifs of Part One (Chapters 1-10).
And as we are still in Part One, it’s worth revisiting the post I wrote after Chapter 3, “Political (and Actual) Climate Change,” to see how the themes I introduced there have paid off handsomely now that we’re near the ‘season finale,’ so to speak.
That earlier post focused mostly on the lobbying, which rears its head again here when Dagny’s former contractor mentions Wesley Mouch, the shadowy influence-peddler who has now become a government official overseeing economic management.
Before, I emphasized how lobbying corrupts legislation even if individual lobbyists and congressmen aren’t corrupt. I didn’t even mention the infamous revolving door of K Street (DC’s lobbying district), the part of the lobbyist-politician axis that makes conflicts of interest most obvious to the layperson. Now that Mouch has walked through that door, it’s worth adding a bit more to the picture.
Here in real life, we see the negative influence of the revolving door on both sides of the aisle. A decade ago, former House Majority Leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay (R-Texas) actively encouraged lobbyists to become Republicans and Republicans to become lobbyists in what was called The K Street Project (in which Rick Santorum pariticipated). Three years later he was convicted of money laundering and conspiracy in Texas elections.
More recently and less criminally, former senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) became the top lobbyist for the MPAA after leaving office, despite promises that he would never become a lobbyist, which means his job for the past year has been to promote SOPA and PIPA and other roads to cyber-serfdom.
By contrast, this sort of problem is what President Obama has specifically sought to avoid by setting rules for his campaign and administration that ban registered lobbyists from fundraising for him and former lobbyists from taking jobs regulating industries that they’ve recently lobbied for.
The latter scenario is exactly what happens with Wesley Mouch, but even if Obama’s policies address the danger of Ayn Rand’s fictional example (and there is some debate about the rules’ effectiveness), the real world examples above suggest the danger isn’t just lobbyists becoming G-men, it’s G-men becoming lobbyists.
Because as Matt Yglesias illustrates in this post, for the middle class on down a government job is a sweet gig with good benefits relative to the rat race. That’s why populist rhetoric often includes the accusation that government workers of being do-nothing bureaucrats living cushily off the taxpayers’ dime. But for civil servants with a doctorate or professional degree, which is to say the highest ranking ones, private sector work pays better than public sector work, so public service at the elite level is genuinely a sacrifice, presumably made out of a sense of patriotic duty.
But this nonetheless warps the incentives of our top public officials away from representing genuine public interests and towards networking with the people they’re supposed to regulate, so that they will have good job offers to look forward to when they’re done regulating. For many, that may not even be an explicit plan, and certainly not at first. But if they aren’t consciously avoiding it, it becomes the path of least resistance pretty easily.
So let’s grant that the institutional corruption circles back and corrupts individuals. Those individuals still don’t think of themselves as corrupt because the costs of selling out are external and don’t fall on the corrupt people themselves unless they get convicted of a crime like DeLay. From their own subjective position, their choices are self-interested in an entirely reasonable way.
Hey what do you know, that’s how climate change works too! When I wrote on it before, I acknowledged that a strict reading of Atlas Shrugged doesn’t involve climate change per se so much as a general energy crisis. Yet climate change is actually more vital to the story. Not only because it makes the book better and more suspensful, but because it shows clearly how Rand’s philosophy fails to work in reality, due to natural conflicts between individuals’ incentives and how those seemingly reasonable choices have unseen costs that compound over time and burden every individual in the society.
The only real difference between that argument for climate change and Rand’s argument for the road to serfdom is that on the road to serfdom the crisis is one of dwindling liberty, but on the road to climate change the crisis is one of abusing liberty. Abuse which takes the form of negative externalities.
Negative externalities are any cost of a transaction that affects the market as a whole but isn’t factored into the price between the producer and the consumer. For example, we learned in 2008 that unregulated derivatives and other financial products didn’t actually reduce risk as claimed, they just turned it into a negative externality. The risk became an invisible danger building up in the economic atmosphere until things reached a tipping point and the real cost of the products became apparent — a cost that had to be paid by the country as a whole.
Negative externalities therefore require one to admit limits to self-interest. If you exceed those limits, there are costs, but they’re paid by everyone and especially by future generations living further down the road, who will face even stricter limits on their liberties and opportunities due to their forefathers’ excesses. It brings whole new meaning to the phrase so popular among supporters of the War on Terror a decade ago: freedom isn’t free.
And that’s the bottom line here. For people who believe in Rand’s radical vision of capitalist philosophy, whether they would call it Objectivist or libertarian or just Republican, the idea of climate change provokes a nearly unbearable degree of cognitive dissonance, because the negative externalities involved in climate change are created by billions of individuals behaving mostly reasonably and thus addressing the issue threatens individual liberty across the board.
This is a very legitimate concern and important to consider in shaping a solution to the climate change problem. One doesn’t want to get off the road to environmental apocalypse by getting on the road to serfdom. But we must admit that there is a problem and that course correction is necessary. Unfortunately many conservatives reject the whole premise as false because it would call their entire value system into question.
So yes, Ayn Rand considered herself a hard-nosed realist as well as an opponent of social thought. But the threat to the techno-industrial lifestyle presented by climate change requires all realistic individuals to take social concerns into account if a free and prosperous civilization is to survive. To ignore this would be to resent the facts and live in denial about the truth, while promoting willfully ignorant consumption that will inevitably climax in nihilistic self-destruction. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a real Jim Taggart move.
Once again, just as I pointed out in Hayek Anxiety, Rand turned out to be remarkably insightful about what the major issues of the early 21st century would be, even as her philosophy turned out to be not only unsuited to address those issues but to have made them worse.
You know, maybe I should have mentioned earlier that Part One of this book is titled “Non-Contradiction.”
PREVIOUSLY: The John Galt Line, Dagny & Hank’s game-changing high speed railroad, opened in Colorado to phenomenal success. Dagny & Hank celebrated with some highly cathartic adultery.
Dagny wakes up the morning after in a post-coital haze. Completely content, she watches Hank getting dressed. Then he turns to her and is like “I want you to know I hate you now, and I hate myself even more. We are depraved animals. I act like a principled man, but I want nothing more than to make you my fuck puppet. It’s disgusting.” Dagny, progressive at heart and decidedly not as… married, laughs in his face. “What is this, the real 1950s? We live in the steampunk ’50s, stop being so repressed. I want to be your fuck puppet, baby. I want to be your fuck puppet all day. Now creep up on this.” And he does.
That night on the east coast, Jim Taggart is wandering aimlessly around New York. The success of the Galt Line and Dagny’s imminent return to Taggart Transcon with the Line’s fresh business in tow have sent Taggart stock sky-high again. As CEO, Jim is getting all the publicity, but the accolades make him feel like shit because he didn’t really do anything. To avoid acknowledging his self-disgust, he projects all his hatred and resentment onto Dagny and Rearden. But with nothing to keep him busy at night, introspection is harder to avoid.
So that’s how he finds himself in some ghetto-ass neighborhood in the rain, coming down with the sniffles. He steps into a run-down bodega for some tissues. Inside, the place is unsurprisingly barren under pale fluorescents but the girl behind the counter is staring at him like he’s radiating sunlight. She timidly asks if he’s THE James Taggart.
Why yes, yes he is. And it turns out this blue-collar ingenue is Cheryl, your classic small town girl who moved to the big city to make it and found herself working the night shift at a corner store in… Harlem? Is it racist to assume it’s Harlem? Either way she is utterly starstruck that the guy on the front page of the day’s paper is buying Kleenex from her. He is in turn struck with perverse fascination at how innocent she is. The poor thing actually believes his company’s media talking points for Christ’s sake. He flirts with her in his vaguely sociopathic way and convinces her to come back to his place.
Alone at his apartment, Jim quizzes Cheryl on her backstory. She lived somewhere in the blighted midwest and decided she had to move away before inertia settled her permanently into white trash mediocrity. And how’s that working out? Not well obviously, but she still believes in pulling herself up by her bootstraps.
Jim confesses to her that he’s in an awful mood. She can’t understand why. Shouldn’t he feel completely triumphant after tasting the fruit of all “his” labor? No. He can only talk mad smack about Dagny and Hank for being self-absorbed and conceited, and about Orren Boyle and his other friends for being corrupt cowards. He hates everything. Poor naive Cheryl can’t square it. The American economy finally has a shot at recovery thanks to “his” achievements. Why does it upset him? Would he rather society collapse?
Jim lashes out — he didn’t say that! Don’t put words in his mouth! And who cares about that material bullshit anyway? Why can’t the news promote proper values? Spiritual values! Think of all the suffering in the world… frankly, being unhappy for the sake of others is the real test of virtue. Yes, a great capacity for unhappiness is what truly makes one great, Jim decides. Cheryl is like “Golly Mr. Taggart, that sure is swell of you to be so hard on yourself when you’ve already done so much. I wish I had all your fancy book-learnin’.”
Taggart just stares at her in cynical awe. What a rube! Dawn is breaking so he takes her back to her apartment. She thanks him profusely for not taking advantage of her. Will she ever see him again? He does not say. But he knows she will, because he is still grotesquely mesmerized by her free spirit.
A couple weeks later, Dagny and Hank meet up at her place for a brunch-time bone. He orders her to tell him about all the other men she’s fucked while he bangs her. Dagny’s like, “There was only one other man and I’m not telling you who it is.” He likes it when she talks back. In all seriousness if you had to make this book 1100 pages Ayn, you should’ve made at least 800 of them sex scenes.
Meanwhile one of Dagny’s former contractors, one of the guys who was afraid to buy rMetal, is watching the factory across the street from his get liquidated for parts. He starts up a chat with one of the day laborers hauling the scrap, lamenting how every local business he knew growing up is collapsing and all the rest are hauling ass to libertarian Colorado. He’s all over the place politically, wishing the government hadn’t shut down competition among the railroads because it cost him business, but wishing that it would subsidize legacy companies like his so he can stay in business now.
He mentions an oil man in Oklahoma who had to stop pumping his fields because he lost all his business to Ellis Wyatt, which makes absolutely no sense. A guy with oil supply in a time of scarcity would find demand, period. The vagrant worker offers his own counterpoint, citing Rearden’s mills in Pennsylvania that are booming with rMetal production.
Fair enough. Mr. Contractor asks his name. “Owen Kellogg,” says the vagrant. Hey wait a minute, that’s the corporate suit who handed Dagny his resignation in Chapter 1. Didn’t he disappear mysteriously forever? Why is he roughing it as a hobo now? How curious.
But the name means nothing to the nostalgic contractor. He simply hopes the latest government initiative will help him keep his business afloat. You see, to manage the Equalization of Opportunity that is now required by law, the Congress has commissioned a Bureau of Economic Planning. And it will be headed by a brilliant young policy wonk taking his first job in the public sector. His name? Wesley Mouch.
What Mr. Contractor doesn’t know, because he gets his news from the same press that reprints Taggart’s PR memos, is that Mouch is a well-connected former lobbyist. The foxes are running the henhouse, people!
Nex– oh, Dagny and Hank are having sex at her apartment again? Well, they’re about to. Hank just got in from some awards ceremony honoring him for inventing the now-popular rMetal and saving America, but everybody there was just a hanger-on or a fair-weather fan. Dagny sympathizes. Hank has an idea to cheer himself up, though. The two of them should go on a month-long off-the-grid vacation, roadtripping around the country in cognito. Dagny thinks that sounds awesome.
So cut to them on the open road, tearing down the decaying routes of the blighted midwest, touring the abandoned factories and warehouses of the Rust Belt. This is your guys’ dream vacation? You are the shittiest. They watch the natural beauty speed by all around them and Hank literally goes “You know what this view needs? Advertising. Where are all the billboards?” Ugh, blow me. I’m trying to revise you into a likable character Hank, and you’re making it really hard.
Their journey takes them to the condemned campus of
The 20th Century Motor CoGM. The surrounding ghost town is full of dull-eyed impoverished zombies who have given up on improving their lives or leaving, if they were ever inclined to do either in the first place. One lady is wearing a potato sack for a dress. Not an exaggeration.
The factory itself is a skeleton. Or so it would seem until Dagny notices an unusually futuristic coil amid the wreckage in the old R&D lab. She digs out the machine to which the coil belongs. Though it has been looted for parts it is recognizable as a motor. A crazy cyberpunk motor, trapped in this dying steampunk world. Venturing further into the rubble she finds a yellowing report on the device, mostly illegible.
Hank hears Dagny screaming for him and runs to the R&D lab. She shows him the gutted device and the shred of paperwork describing how it works — or how it would have worked. The coil, you see, would draw static electricity out of the air to drive the gears. Simple, clean, brilliant: it is in essence a low-cost carbon-free completely renewable energy solution. Or it would have been, if it hadn’t ended up as junk.
“Fuck, this could revitalize the entire infrastructure of modern civilization! Fossil fuels would go right out the window! Imagine this motor paired with rMetal construction — we’d be living in a prosperous utopia of economic efficiency! This is what the world needs!” Dagny is spazzing out like a true tech nerd.
“Yeah but Dags, why is it here? Why is it buried, broken, and lost? What cruel fate could have befallen the inventor that such a work of genius was covered up?” Hank responds ominously. The two grimace at each other, suddenly aware they are up against much darker forces than they had imagined.
So… vacation canceled then?
NEXT: 1:10, Wyatt’s Torch — “Desperate Times”
PREVIOUSLY: Congress passed an ‘Equal Opportunity’ law that forces Hank Rearden to sell his subsidiary companies to his failing competitors. He and Dagny were upset, but they sublimated their (sexual) frustrations by forming a start-up company, John Galt Inc, to finish their Rearden Metal railroad that could be the potential game-changer for industry and country that the nation desperately needs.
Hey it’s Everyman Eddie Willers! Remember his cafeteria buddy, the grease-monkey prole? From Chapter 3? Yeah, neither did I. But the two are chatting over lunch again and just like last time, Eddie rambles on about his ennui and inner turmoil while the lowly prole just listens. You know, guy, if you had a graduate degree you could profit from this. Anyway Eddie’s verbal diarrhea exposits that Dagny has officially “quit” Taggart Transcon to focus on the Galt Line and now works out of a dirt-cheap 1st floor office in the building next door. Eddie’s holding down the fort in her Taggart office, but in name only, and he feels guilty and kind of slimy for playing the stooge in this corporate shell game. The prole’s only contribution is that he likes Dagny’s ironic reference to the John Galt meme.
Cut to: Dagny, at her desk in her scuzzy new office, which faces a brick wall alley no less. She’s exhausted from constantly flying back and forth from New York to Colorado. I also think her blood sugar is low; her internal monologue is uncharacteristically whiny. She feels like all her disappointment with the world can be summed up by the fact that she’s never met the man of her dreams. Okay 1) I thought we agreed last chapter that you were going to stop moping; and 2) is this not a tad regressive an attitude for a strong-willed corporate businesswoman? I like you better as a feminist Dags. Woman up.
After some time spent staring blankly out her window Dagny sees a shadowy masculine shape approach and hover hesitantly at her door. Hey maybe it’s the man of her dreams! She watches curiously as the silhouette paces back and forth and eventually decides against… whatever it is. He stalks off; emphasis on the ‘stalk.’ Dagny runs outside to investigate, but the mystery man has disappeared.
Montage! Hank Rearden isn’t getting sidetracked by emo frivolity, though he is a coiled spring of rage. He stoically sells his ore mines to his spineless friend Larkin and his coal reserves to one Ken Dannager, a respectable and competent fellow. Then he meets with Eddie and restructures the debt that Taggart Transcon owes him, the better to help Eddie keep Taggart afloat until Dagny returns. This guy gets shit done, yo.
Montage part deux! This would be the one composed of spinning newspaper headlines and staticky clicks between TV clips. The media is buzzing with controversy and prophecies of doom over this highly abnormal rMetal project. Even though the Galt Line could be the first step towards solving the world’s energy and environmental problems, it’s so out of step with the conventional wisdom of rationing that people are knee-jerk doubtful and suspicious. Yet for all the “if it bleeds it leads” hype about potential catastrophe, it’s clearly got the country excited for once.
Behind the scenes, Dagny has decided to staff the Line’s pilot run with volunteers only, in the wake of a contentious meeting with the head of a rail workers’ union. Since the train itself will be leased from Taggart, Eddie posts the notice. Despite the sensationalized doom-saying in the media, pretty much every engineer at the company signs up for a chance. Dagny stops by her old VP office to draw the winner’s name from a hat and announces that she will ride along with him in the engine car. Roaring applause!
Next on the list is for Dagny to hold a press conference in her shitty current office. Hank thinks the idea is hilarious so he shows up to watch. She rattles off a list of technical stats and financial projections and the assembled reporters don’t know how to deal with such dry and/or substantive material. “Yeah yeah great but we need sound bites. What are the talking points? Do you have any spin to counter your critics?” Dagny rolls her eyes. “Only all those facts I just gave you.” But now that she’s annoyed she decides to throw them a bone and boasts about the obscene amounts of money she intends to rake in off this. Hank joins her in gloating about the potential profit margin. They just like getting a rise out of people though, they’re really in it because this is what they love to do. Hank announces he too will ride on the first train.
And lo and behold we’re in beautiful Colorado on the big day. The rails of what I will hereafter call rMetal are glistening in the sun. The crowd is large and abuzz with anticipation. Dagny steps onto the platform with that sort of zen serenity and lightness of being that comes from being in the moment of reward that you’ve imagined all along during your months or years of creative struggle. Nobody can touch her right now. She and Rearden lock gazes and see the joyous calm of satisfaction reflected back at each other.
Dagny congratulates team mascot Eddie Willers, who will be cutting the ribbon as the train leaves the station. She says he is Taggart Transcon now. I love it when Eddie gets treated like a peer. On her way into the lead car, a reporter calls to her for a sound bite. Even the press can’t help but get caught up in all the positive energy that is so rare for this goddamn universe. ‘Who is John Galt?’ he shouts.
‘We are!’ Dagny declares. She steps into the train where she, Rearden, and the two guys who will actually run the thing all share a “Let’s rock this” glance. Through the glass Eddie snips the ribbon; they roll out.
As the train cuts through the state like a laser Dagny reclines in a chair, just feeling how smooth the ride is. She and Rearden meet each others’ look again, and it is all eye-fucking now. Outside, a number of locals have stationed themselves along the track, their guns in hand, protecting the great progressive invention like the volunteer border patrol.
The train approaches the Rockies. As it corkscrews through the mountains and crosses the rMetal bridge, Dagny is overcome with love of life. She jumps up and steps into the engine room to watch the churning blood and guts of this enormous technological achievement.
Why had she always felt that joyous … confidence when looking at machines? … In these giant shapes, two aspects [of] … the inhuman were radiantly absent: the causeless and the purposeless. Every part … was an embodied answer to “Why?” and “What for?” … The motors were a moral code cast in steel.
They are alive, she thought, but their soul operates them by remote control. … [T]hat is the power which keeps them going — not the oil … not the steel … the power of a living mind — the power of thought and choice and purpose.
Damn, Ayn, you’re gonna get me choked up. Who knew you could write?
She returns to the drivers’ car and exchanges another meaningful nod with Hank. The sun is low; we’re in magic hour. The train pulls up to its destination — Wyatt Junction. A beaming Ellis Wyatt and the company’s other investors are laughing and cheering.
Wyatt leads Dagny and Hank out of the celebrating crowd and the three retreat to his remote mansion for a toast. Salud, says Wyatt (emphasis mine): ‘To the world as it seems to be right now!’ Hmm, I don’t think they’re gonna get drunk from this, because that was seriously watered down.
Wyatt takes his leave, pointing Dagny and Hank to the guest rooms. But standing alone under the portico, there is one inevitable thing left for them to do today and it sure as hell isn’t sleep.
The making out and grabbing of asses is rough, almost violent in its intensity. They are both immediately drunk on the heady brew of submission to and domination of each other. Hank pulls her into the room and tosses her onto the bed. He makes her say that she wants it, then gives it to her. They begin what I can only hope is a very long night with a simultaneous orgasm.
NEXT: 1:9, The Sacred and the Profane, “Motor of Love”
It just so happens that last night as I was drafting today’s post, titled “Objectionisms,” a fellow blogger named Benjamin commented on one of the Chapter 7 posts.
Turns out he’s writing a blog called Objectionism, in which he fisks various works by Ayn Rand (he apparently has just started reading Atlas Shrugged).
So if you’re following this project, I encourage you to check him out too; he has also been added to the blogroll at the bottom of the page.
PREVIOUSLY: The Reardens threw a swank party. All the main characters were there and everybody acted with the maturity you’d expect at junior prom.
Dagny’s at work under the Colorado sun, supervising construction of a Rearden Metal bridge. The contractors are pains in her ass, because the cutting-edge tech frightens rather than excites them. They want to use steel, and designs based on steel’s properties, and Dagny has to drag them kicking and screaming towards innovation. Ain’t that always the way? Also it sounds like somebody is bad at hiring decisions.
Ellis Wyatt, oil magnate and vital client, visits to assess her progress. Now that he’s seen her at work, he knows she’s a go-getter who go Gets It, and mutual respect has bloomed. Naturally they shoot the shit by talking about how lousy everybody else is.
That afternoon, Dagny spies another visitor. Hank is at the edge of the site, scribbling in a notebook while he leans against a shiny new car. There aren’t many new cars left, thanks to fossil fuel depletion, but the last good automaker (and the last good everything really) is Colorado-based. No Detroit bail-out for the Randverse!
Our heroine approaches this luxurious tableau and happily finds Hank returned to his flirty ways now that his wife’s across the country. They geek out about how much they love the mountain West, seeing as it’s the last refuge of truly original thinkers and determined producers. Hank shows Dagny what he’s sketching: a better version of the bridge, designed around Rearden Metal. Her oven temperature rises, if you know what I mean. He flatters her work ethic and kiddingly offers her a job.
Dagny: ‘I think you’d like it … giving me orders to obey.’
Hank: ‘Yes. I would.’
Then there’s an awkward beat while Dagny loses herself in some BDSM fantasies. She suggestively suggests that they pool planes back to New York, but Rearden cops out with the excuse that he’s off to Minnesota.
However, at the airstrip that evening Dagny learns from the chatty attendant that Mr. Rearden departed for New York after all. Lying bastard! Poor stood-up Dagny has ‘no clue to any reason, nothing to give her a foothold … or understand.’ Dagny, he’s married. And Catholic. Fucking duh. Ayn I don’t know if placing all your protagonists on the autism spectrum was the right call, but it was certainly a bold choice. Very forward-thinking.
Next scene! Grim Manhattan. James is dragging Dagny to some social club to speak on Rearden Metal. Only in the limo does he offer the context: she’ll debate Bertram Scudder on the question “Is Rearden Metal a danger to society?” Disgusted at the bait-and-switch, Dagny has the driver pull over and abandons Jim in the car.
At a nearby diner in the shadow of some abandoned construction Dags stops for coffee and eavesdrops on the other patrons debating the decline of civilization. One hobo argues that ‘there is no human spirit,’ that people only know how to eat sleep and fuck and that everything else, like morality, is just a pretense. A truck driver questions if there’s really no morality to be found in the world; somebody sighs ‘Who is John Galt?’
For the second time, a bystander offers an apocryphal answer: Galt was a famous explorer seeking the fountain of youth. He found it on top of a mountain it took him a decade to climb, but he never came back because there was no way to bring its water down. How allegorical.
Next scene. Rearden takes a meeting with Dr. Potter from the State Science Institute. Potter unctuously encourages Rearden to suspend R-Metal production until the steel industry stabilizes. Rearden stares blankly. “Destabilizing the steel industry is the whole idea.”
Potter suggests Hank should play ball because there’s a lot of interest group pressure for the Institute to pan Rearden Metal in its upcoming report. Rearden stares at him blankly. “Good thing the report is based on science then.”
Potter doesn’t like having to explain the convoluted reasoning behind his bureaucratic chicanery out loud, so he offers to straight-up buy all the rights to R-Metal. He can offer an exorbitant amount of (taxpayers’) money, more than Rearden would see in profits for years. And since Hank is infamous for being all about the profit, Potter’s offer would seem reasonable. But of course none of Hank’s rights are for sale, so he just stares his stare of hatred and tells Potter to leave. Oh Hank, I knew you weren’t in it for the money! Self-deceiver.
Next! Dagny arrives at Taggart HQ to find loyal everyman Eddie Willers waiting with the newspaper in his mouth. The headline? State Science has indeed panned Rearden Metal. The report found no metallurgical flaws but concludes with a vague note that R-Metal could still be dangerous and warrants extensive further research. Sowing doubt with hearsay and burying the stuff in red tape. Eddie curls up against Dagny and whimpers. How terrible that people fall for such slimy bullshit! Dagny pets his head gently, quoth Dags: ‘Quiet, Eddie, quiet. Don’t be afraid.’ Have a biscuit.
Next! D visits Dr. Stadler, illustrious head of State Science. She has great respect for him as one of the brightest minds alive, and he’s just happy to match wits with somebody he finds genuinely intelligent for once.
D asks the Doc if he read the Rearden report. He hasn’t; his signature was just stamped on at the end. She wants him to study the Metal personally and issue a statement defending its quality. Stadler sours; he hates dealing with the politically sensitive side of his government-funded institute and won’t risk the headache.
You see the Doc only founded State Science because he thought he’d be free of big-money corporate-industrial pressure on his results. Not so much, it turns out. Now he just holes up in his office studying theoretical physics and avoiding contact with all his less reputable peers.
Dagny is upset that the great Doctor has become so disillusioned. Stadler can tell, and justifies his withered ambitions with the following anecdote:
Once upon a time Dr. Stadler taught physics at Patrick Henry U. He and the philosophy professor, Dr. Akston, had a friendly competition over who would best mentor their three favorite students, young scholars of such talent as appears only once in a generation. But as the years passed his prized pupils all betrayed his hopes for them. The first was Francisco, now living the hollow life of a worthless playboy. The second grew up to be Ragbeard, so you know, pirate. And the third man? Well he never amounted to anything at all. Some mediocre, anonymous schlub. You might even say nobody knows who he is.
All that squandered potential so broke Stadler’s faith in the human spirit that his once groundbreaking career has stagnated ever since. Which explains the government job, am I right? Ooh, public sector burn!
Dagny leaves respectfully, shaken by the Doc’s cautionary tale. Hopefully shaken right out of the funk she’s been in since Chapter 3. Shit’s been getting kinda slow around here.
NEXT: Chapter 7 cont’d, “Adventure Capital”
PREVIOUSLY: Hank Rearden and his wife Lillian are hosting an anniversary party. Hank hates the party and everybody at the party. Then Francisco D’Anconia shows up. Wild card!
The room is abuzz as people notice Francisco’s arrival. Dagny in particular avoids him like the plague. But not to worry, his first stop is the conversation with the philosophy professor, who is still arguing that ‘nothing is anything.’
“Ah Dr. Pritchett, you teach at Patrick Henry U? That’s my alma mater! Though I was taught by your predecessor, Dr. Akston.” Some random asks whatever happened to Akston. “Oh he disappeared mysteriously, forever, nine years ago,” Francisco shrugs. And what was his philosophical argument? ‘That everything is something.’
Jim Taggart sidles up, laughing falsely, and quickly pulls the man aside. “Oh Frisco, you card. Why haven’t you returned my calls? How are we going to get our money back from the mining fiasco?”
Francisco laughs in Jim’s face. “We’re not! Wasn’t it the perfect project? I disregarded my greed and only paid attention to my social responsibilities. I operated at a loss so that the poor needy people of Mexico could stay employed. They needed the cash so I refused to shut down. Then I let them have the whole thing! Sure it cost me a lot of money, but that only goes to show how wonderfully selfless I was, right? Isn’t that how we’re doing things these days?”
Jim is agog, but Frankie ditches him and hunts down Hank Rearden in his corner of solitude. Hank steels himself for a stream of bullshit, yet Francisco’s tone is now genuine and reverent instead of ironic and mocking. D’Anconia explains that he came specifically to meet Hank.
‘Why, so you can make me lose all my money?’
“Sort of,” Frank admits. But for now he’s just sizing Hank up.
Now Francisco’s smirking again. “Don’t worry about it.”
Before Hank can blow him off, Frankie gets real. “Listen, I know why you’re standing alone in this corner. You know you’ve earned a big party, but not this one. When you look around all you see is people living large on your tab while they denigrate you and your work and your beliefs. You’re the one left miserable at your own celebration, because the only thing it’s missing is worthwhile guests.”
Hank is taken aback by Francisco’s
flattery insight. “Nice parlor trick, asshole, but you’re the worst of the bunch.”
“Maybe, but nobody else will offer you gratitude. They can’t admit how needy and dependent they are; they’re scared you might realize it.”
Frankie’s charms are slowly working their magic, but that only pisses Hank off more. “It only makes you an even greater hypocrite if you can see all that clearly and still live your life as a worthless playboy. You are a man without a purpose, Senor D’Anconia, and that’s the worst kind of person.”
Francisco dons his poker face. With an “It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it?” he departs, but Hank is too intrigued for his own good and pulls him back for one last question. “What kind of game are you playing, anyway?”
Another sly look from Frisco. “I told you don’t worry about that. You’re winning it.”
Hank still hasn’t had that stiff drink he so very much deserves, but just as he sets off in pursuit once more, Dagny darts into his way determined to have a more amicable conversation than the one she attempted while he was standing next to his wife. This poor bastard. Dags, get a clue.
“So what’s with Bertram Scudder being here? Didn’t he trash you in a national publication?” she asks. Great ice-breaker. I’m sure that’ll improve his mood. Sure enough he keeps stonewalling her, claiming that he invited the muckraking Scudder because he doesn’t give a shit about this party so why not. Dagny is discouraged. “Yeah, this party’s lame. I totally don’t care either. I mean, I like parties but… I don’t know. Everyone is just so frivolous. Shouldn’t a party feel like a celebration of… something?” and then she looks down at her shoes.
Okay Dags it’s not gonna happen. Time to walk away now. Just… walk away.
She does, thank God, and takes refuge in a ring of people discussing the pirate problem. The what? PIRATES? Amazing. Why is this only coming up now?
Yes, the Dread Pirate Ragnar Danneskjold (fuck that; Ragbeard) has apparently begun to loot the American side of the Atlantic. Ragbeard’s former targets, by the way, include the “People’s States” of Norway, France, England, Portugal, and Turkey. That’s a lot of socialism.
Someone says it makes sense Ragbeard came to America. He went to school here don’t you know. Does that sound ridiculous? Well, you try getting into piracy without a bachelor’s degree. Oh, and he went to Patrick Henry University, just like Francisco and the philosopher who mysteriously disappeared. Small world!
The guests agree that with no end to Ragbeard’s scourge in sight the only thing left to say is ‘Oh well, who is John Galt?’
And then some lady pipes up: “I know who John Galt is.”
“He discovered Atlantis! He was out boating and saw it, and he sank the boat to get there.”
How curious. But Dagny will not abide nonsense and checked out right around “Atlantis.” Out of the blue Francisco is behind her and tells the woman he totally believes her. She thinks he’s making fun, and she and Dagny both attempt to leave in a huff, but Francisco holds Dagny up for hard-boiled banter.
They agree everyone here sucks, but he finds that amusing and she’s depressed. He finds that amusing too. She does not. He wistfully tells her she’s the only worthwhile guest here and eyes her in her elegant black dress. ‘What a magnificent waste,’ he says, and that strikes a chord with Dagny. The “bottomless pit of loneliness” chord. Which when she opens her mouth sounds like “Fuck off, Francisco.”
But she fails to execute the obligatory storm-away maneuver because as she heads for the exit she passes Lillian Rearden explaining Hank’s gift bracelet to someone. Naturally Lily’s giving it a back-handed compliment. It’s very valuable, but so ugly that nobody will trade her for some proper diamonds! What a bitch, I assume Dagny must think. This is the woman keeping me from getting laid?
Our heroine butts in, the diamond bracelet she was wearing now in her palm. She calls Lillian a coward to her face and demands she fork over the Rearden Metal ornament. Everybody gets quiet and stares. Some lady literally cries out ‘This is horrible!’ like she’s watching war footage, which is hysterical by two definitions.
Then Lillian plays it cool and exchanges the wristlets just as Hank shows up to defuse the tension. He clasps the diamonds to his wife’s arm and kisses her hand. The “we have a functional marriage” act is far more convincing all of a sudden. Dagny is wearing the Rearden Metal now, but she’s appropriately embarrassed and apologizes, weakly offering Hank an ‘I had to do it.’
His eyes remained expressionless. Yet she was suddenly certain that she knew what he felt: he wanted to slap her face.
Don’t worry Hank, she’s into that. But he just tells her the gesture was ‘unnecessary’ and she leaves in defeat. Aaand scene.
Much later, Hank visits his wife’s bedroom (separate bedrooms? Is this The Dick Van Dyke Show?) with an intent to hate-fuck (guess not), but he simply can’t get it up for this bitter, frigid woman anymore. Not now that he’s got the hots for another bitter, frigid woman.
He considers the arc of his relationship and it becomes very clear that he’s Catholic, because sex makes him feel dirty and he’s got a huge madonna/whore complex. He finally admits to himself that he hates his wife and his marriage. But he made a vow, dammit, and he’s a man of his word. Yep, definitely Catholic.
His dick flaccid but his mind resolute, Hank declares, “Tonight sucked. Don’t invite Dagny Taggart over here anymore,” and reassured of his self-righteousness retires to his room. Pretty sure he never poured himself that drink, either.
NEXT: Chapter 1:7 The Exploiters & the Exploited , “Mad Science”
PREVIOUSLY: Dagny confronted her ex-lover Francisco about why he would deliberately create and burst a market bubble at his own multi-million dollar expense. He was evasive and smirked a lot. Dagny decided he must be crazy. Crazy like a fox.
Congratulations Hank & Lily Rearden, it’s the long-awaited evening of your anniversary party! Has it really been three fictional months since Chapter 2? My how the time flies.
Time isn’t flying for Hank so much though. He’s holed up in his bedroom, trying and failing to get psyched. The problem seems to be an epic disinterest in hanging out with vapid, pretentious, high-society douchebags. His wife’s friends suck, basically, and besides that he has many projects he’d rather be working on. Like that erotic poem he’s been writing about Dagny Taggart.
But he feels so guilty, because he really has been an awful and neglectful husband this past… marriage. If only he understood his wife! Or cared! Short of actual feelings, however, going downstairs is the least he can do. And so he does.
In the drawing room, Lillian is delighted to be schmoozing with the leading lights of American culture. Hank arrives and joins her.
She looks beautiful in a cocktail dress and diamonds. She’s even wearing the Rearden Metal bracelet, although it completely clashes with the rest of her ensemble, which annoys him. I don’t buy Hank noticing that much about his wife’s accessorizing, nevermind taking it as an insult, but whatever.
They are currently embroiled in a “conversation” with the philosophy professor from Patrick Henry University. The Prof is bloviating about how man is ‘a collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur,’ and how the modern philosophical project is ‘not to help men find the meaning of life, but to prove to them that there isn’t any.’ No doubt Hank wants to kick him in the face for such claptrap, but then again Hank should have popped an Ativan while he was upstairs sulking. ‘Once [man] realizes that he is of no importance … he will become much more… tractable,’ the Professor finishes.
“Well that’s deep and all but I was asking what you think about the new bill before Congress,” says some guy. That bill, by the way, is the one that lobbyist Wesley Mouch wrote for Jim Taggart & Orren Boyle. Dun dun dun!
“Oh, the Equality of Opportunity Act? Yeah I’m down. We have to nationalize the means of production to keep the market competitive,” the Prof proffers.
That provides him a smooth transition into how the universe is an unintelligible contradiction and human reason is an illusion because we can’t ever know anything. Wow guys isn’t this a great party?
Across the room, the conversation is dominated by an author named Balph — that is Balph — Eubanks, whose latest book is titled The Heart is a Milk Man. First of all, that is hilarious and the first genuinely funny thing in the book. Congrats Ayn, it only took you 150 pages. Secondly, Balph’s opinions on literature are as absurdist and depressing as the professor’s thoughts on metaphysics.
For some reason he thinks that the printing of any individual book should be capped at a few thousand copies, which would… produce very expensive books? Balph thinks it would promote new authors. This makes no sense. Ayn, your social satire is going to have to be sharper than this. Balph’s socialism plan would clearly result in some nightmarish future where publishers and bookstores all go out of business and the uneducated rabble stops reading entirely. Which the free market would never do.
Anyway at the bar some guy named Bertram Scudder (these names are all awesome) is drunkenly harassing brother Buster Rearden about how the Equal Opportunity bill is totally righteous. Buster is all, “Dude I like it too, chill out!” and stumbles into an over-share of his own regarding how Hank thinks he’s such hot shit and this bill will finally force him to
be less awesome do his part for society.
So yes, this party is insufferably didactic, which explains why Hank has retreated to a window in the corner where he can stare in peace at his steampunk city of industry in the distance rather than listen to these jags prattle on until he wants to shoot himself.
He joins them out of etiquette but manages to give Dagny the cold shoulder pretty hardcore. She tries to celebrate their progress on the Rearden Metal track; he’s like “Yes, that is a positive development in our mutual commercial interests. Your enthusiasm will be noted in the minutes. I am leaving now.”
On his way through the crowd — and straight to the bar if he has any sense — Hank is assaulted by some gangly journalist kid who wants to know what he thinks about Bertram Scudder’s latest magazine cover story. Scudder apparently wrote a crazy harsh hit piece on Rearden, titled “The Octopus” and published in Future magazine.
Jimmy Olson points Scudder out and says he was surprised to see him here. Hank certainly did not realize the lush between him and that sweet sweet whiskey was the nefarious polemicist and backs right the fuck up to Lillian. No Hank, pour your shot first!
“The fuck is Bertram Scudder doing here? Are you trying to piss me off?” he hisses. And Lilian’s mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. She had to invite Scudder, he’s the talk of the town! Once again Rearden chooses to live in denial about his wife’s passive-aggressive mean streak, because his emotional IQ is a 1.
At this point Hank’s night is going about as poorly as he imagined, what with all these snooty liberal elites and their lamestream media. Surveying the assemblage of weak-ass caricatures he sees only boring faces melting together into a colorless puddle of banality.
That is until a striking figure, dare I say a glaring beacon of charisma, steps into the doorway and also surveys the room. Except this guy does it like he owns the place.
Francisco has crashed the party.
NEXT: Chapter 6 cont’d, “Awkward Confrontations”
So we’ve finally met Francisco D’Anconia, and because of all the Francisco-as-Bruce-Wayne allusions I made in the Chapter 5 recap, I shared a link on the Facebook page to this excellent post by Taylor Martin about The Dark Knight and the collapse of social order. The key passage:
Heath Ledger’s hyperactively schizophrenic Joker is so compelling because … he embodies an anarchic concept of state failure that’s deeply foreign to most audiences. The Joker’s insistence that “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules” is disconcerting because [we fear] it is true — in the absence of the social order guaranteed by government’s monopoly over the legitimate [use of] violence … successful individuals are those best able to employ violence.
Another good example of this from Batman canon is the No Man’s Land arc from the comics, in which Gotham City is quarantined and members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery become the only power-brokers in town, forming gangs and fighting over black markets and turf.
Atlas Shrugged is about the decay of social order too, but in the opposite direction, towards a Hayekian dystopia like we discussed before where the threat is a government monopoly over everything and the threat doesn’t grow out of the barrel of the gun, it grows out of the philosophical bankruptcy of mass culture. In The Dark Knight, The Joker’s anarchic liberties threaten democracy. In the Randverse, democracy threatens liberty.
At this point it becomes important to differentiate between two kinds of liberty.
‘Positive liberty’ is the kind of freedom that comes with a good standard of living and economic opportunity. The freedom to ‘be all you can be,’ or at least not work 80 hours a week in a coal mine for sub-minimum wage at the age of nine to stay fed.
‘Negative liberty’ is the kind of freedom you have when the government isn’t on your back about what you can and can’t do. The freedom to own guns, smoke weed, and have actual privacy.
Both kinds of liberty have their virtues, but they are in conflict. To promote positive liberty is to infringe on negative liberty. To expand negative liberty is to endanger positive liberty. Liberals who generally want positive liberty still believe in negative liberties such as freedom from surveillance. Conservatives who generally want negative liberty still believe in positive liberties such as secure property rights.
In The Dark Knight, Batman takes complete negative liberty to bring positive liberty back to Gotham. The Joker works to prove that the joke is on Batman: once anybody claims complete negative liberty, social order and positive liberty simply become illusions.
That same tension between liberties lies at the heart of the American politics of the Gilded Age, that era which Rand so idolizes in Atlas.
In what is easily the fastest and most fun read I’ve yet suggested here, The Money Men by H.W. Brands covers the highly entertaining stories of crazy 18th and 19th century titans like Hamilton, Jackson, Grant, and J.P. Morgan, all in under 200 pages. Here the Gilded Age Morgan is the most relevant.
In the real world of that era, as in the Randverse, economic power was all about the railroads. They were revolutionary. They created national markets and companies that operated at scales never seen before, not to mention an unprecedented need for finance and credit. The stock market inevitably exploded into a hotbed of speculation and intrigue. By the end of the century, one Wall Street colossus stood over all the others, and this was J.P. Morgan. His influence in finance grew so powerful that he once single-handedly made the banks bail out the government.
Which sounds bizarre post-2008, but only in the way it suggests that our financial sector is actually more morally bankrupt than that of the Gilded Age. But Morgan did at least make a profit on the deal, and despite the scope and scale of his power he considered his business entirely private.
When brought before congress to testify about his apparent monopoly over the country’s credit, he claimed that a monopoly on credit was impossible and that the only condition he required to qualify someone for a loan was strength of character.
With that sort of worldview Morgan would definitely have been hanging out with Ned Taggart and the Senor D’Anconia of his day, if they’d existed in the same universe. Perhaps they’d meet in a bar on top of a skyscraper, although they probably wouldn’t plot an industrial cartel among railroad companies to carve out regional monopolies and reduce competition.
Oh wait, yes they would, because that’s literally true. When the railroad market became saturated with too many lines competing for too little traffic, causing economic growth to stagnate, J.P. Morgan had railroad company owners over his house to call a truce and focus each one on his home turf. One gentleman spending a day on Morgan’s yacht wasn’t sure he was down for this, but slowly came to realize that they would not be going back to shore until he agreed to the deal. That’s right: the very robber barons whom Rand fetishizes as exemplars of virtue and merit did exactly what James Taggart & Orren Boyle do to spark the plot of the book.
This makes the dynamic of the Gilded Age clear. Moneyed interests had nearly endless negative liberty, and so economic elites enjoyed tremendous positive liberty. But the vast majority of people were effectively disenfranchised on both counts, and the democracy of which Rand is so skeptical was their only recourse to justice. J.P. Morgan may have been a benevolent economic dictator of sorts, but that’s still a dictator.
So Morgan’s real-life adventures in central planning as orchestrated from the private sector expose Rand’s visions of socialism and capitalism to be simplistic caricatures.
The move from the Gilded Age into the Progressive Era was not a rise in human mediocrity as Dagny Taggart’s constant reveries suggest. It was due to a growing monopoly on negative liberty that threatened to destabilize the state monopoly on violence, forcing the state to act for positive liberty before the market for freedom was cornered and the market for violence was freed. What seems like a radical turn towards liberalism was in fact a conservative measure — it was the only way to conserve a society that was both free and prosperous.
But appreciating both sides of an issue is not exactly Ayn Rand’s strong suit. Everything in the Randverse suffers from being defined by polar extremes, just like Gotham City in The Dark Knight. The successful are those who take extreme liberties, such that the only effective defender of justice is a wealthy radicalized vigilante and his foe is an anarchist out to prove that seeking justice at all is a bad joke.
So with that in mind as we wade deeper into the Randverse, the question becomes — which one is Francisco?
Is he Batman…
or is he The Joker?