The most important development in the last two chapters is simple: the characters are now explicitly discussing philosophy.
At Rearden’s party, one of the vapid elites is a philosophy professor. Both he as a speaker and the listening socialites confuse his condescension for profundity. And though it isn’t stated quite this bluntly, his comments unmistakably suggest that existential nihilism is mankind’s last great intellectual achievement.
He further implies that this worldview is what leads him to support socialist policies, which is ridiculous but we’ll get to that. The other guests just smile, nod, and defer to his presumed wisdom until Francisco reasserts existential meaning with a pithy one-liner (‘Everything is something’).
In the diner Dagny visits in Chapter 7, the lowly plebs are having their own version of this conversation, but this time politics doesn’t come into it so it’s clearer that the root of the Randverse’s problems is not political philosophy, but existential philosophy. The professor’s cheerleading for nihilism illustrates that the world has become a spiritual desert; the commoners in the diner illustrate that humanity is dying of thirst. Rand’s political evil, socialism, is actually a symptom, a sad attempt to compensate for a deeper metaphysical rot.
But on both the political and philosophical levels, she maintains her strict dualities. That may be acceptable for stories about apocalyptic confrontations between the light and dark sides, but it is extremely detrimental to three-dimensional character development in a realistic setting. And those two genre descriptions don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
What’s nevertheless interesting in this crude schema of good versus evil is what characterizes evil in the Randverse. Instead of villains with an ambitious master plan, the bad guys are philosophically adrift. Their moves to manipulate and gain control are flailing and desperate, born out of panic and helplessness. They are timid and fearful and slaves to petty resentments.
And the key here is that while James Taggart & Orren Boyle use lofty social justice language to justify their behavior, they don’t really care about social justice. It’s important to them because it serves as an excuse for their cowardice and allows them to live in denial about their real motivations. But they don’t actually believe it; they act skittish and shifty whenever pressed because they know intuitively if not consciously that they’re full of shit. Really, they only care about looking like they care. They are all PR spin and no principle.
That distinction does a lot to defang Rand’s venomous hatred of liberal sensibilities. She has so far failed to demonstrate that socially conscious rhetoric is morally perverse in itself, despite her best intentions; rather, she demonstrates that socially conscious rhetoric can be abused by morally perverse people. Which is true of course, but the same principle applies to the rhetoric of personal responsibility. If the rot is existential, the politics are incidental.
Which means placing all the blame for human abuses of language on the left side of the ledger just makes Rand a vapid elite who mistakes her own condescension for profundity. It’d be like George Orwell ending “Politics & the English Language” by saying “Oh by the way, this only applies to Labour. The Tories are unimpeachable.”
But Dagny and Hank don’t just disagree with their enemies over economic policy. They literally cannot understand them or comprehend them as human beings. Remember way back in Chapter 1 how Dagny suspects Hank’s excellence at his job pisses Jim off, but she disregards the notion because she considers it literally ‘insane’ that Jim would feel that way? I’m not saying irrational jealousy is acceptable, I’m just saying that being unable to grasp it as a concept makes Dagny seem developmentally stunted, like the Forrest Gump of the darkest timeline.
Here’s an example from Chapter 7, after Hank tells his mother off:
The look on her face astonished him … a look of defeat and yet of an odd, sly, cynical cunning … The memory … remained in his mind, like a warning signal … [b]ut he could not grapple with it, he could not force his mind to accept it as worthy of thought, he could find no clue except his dim uneasiness and his revulsion.
Now people failing to communicate across the ideological divide isn’t exactly unrealistic, and as always there’s a kernel of insight in Rand’s portrayal of otherwise good men and women viewing those they disagree with as terrifying pod people.
But look, this book doesn’t end with Dagny and Jim having a good cry together at a family reunion. Rather than have her characters transcend their differences to better understand their shared human nature, Rand actively encourages her readers to view people with different beliefs as alien, other, and existentially threatening. Which is, how do I put this… totally fucked up.
So where does that leave us as we approach the end of Part One (the book is divided into 3 parts of 10 chapters)?
As the pontificating of villains and the background chatter of the rabble attest, popular culture in the Randverse has become so devoid of meaning that the underlying metaphysics of society have curdled into a diffuse, subconscious nihilism.
Our heroes have been oblivious to this because they are fully absorbed in self-motivated creative and productive projects. But now that those projects are threatened, they have slowly begun to notice what can only be described as the disturbing obliteration of genuine human values.
And yet, even though the good guys and bad guys have been obvious from page 1, the philosophical battle lines between them are still inarticulate. The good have not defined their libertarian philosophy and the bad hide behind a progressive philosophy they don’t actually take seriously (and based on Rand’s caricatures of progressive policies, she doesn’t take it seriously either).
It’s too bad, really. If only these people had a creator who would send them a messiah figure to preach about what true values are, things could get clearer a lot faster. But since Ayn Rand is an atheist, I’m sure she definitely wouldn’t stoop to a deus ex machina like that. Oh well; who is John Galt?