Archive for June, 2012

Applied Randology #5: How the Objectiverse… Isn’t

Or,  HOW AYN RAND MISINTERPRETED HER OWN GREATEST WORK.
In 1957, Ayn Rand meticulously constructed a fictional world with the express intent of proving her vision of radical conservatism to be THE objectively correct life philosophy. She called this philosophy Objectivism.In 2012, many of her world-building elements have proved prophetic, and her philosophy enormously influential. But the elements that have turned out to be the most eerily insightful are those to which Rand paid little or no attention. While her fans focus on the threat of government expansion — a theme explored in a parody so blunt and overwrought as to verge on camp — the discerning and open-minded reader might notice that Atlas Shrugged implicitly references:

*The necessity of new infrastructure, sustainable development, and clean energy, as championed by the protagonists.

*The dangers of fossil fuel exhaustion and natural resource depletion, as exemplified by the circumstances of the plot.
*The tragic co-opting of the state by powerful business interests who ignore the afore-mentioned dangers and oppose the afore-mentioned reforms, as embodied by the antagonists.You’ll also notice, discerning reader, that this set of implicit issues is a pretty accurate rundown of modern liberal priorities. And Rand’s explicit issues with the proper role of government and the nature of the economy outright define the modern Republican agenda.

So at least in this one way, 2012 America really is Ayn Rand’s world and we just live in it. But insofar as the heroes of the Objectiverse pursue progressive goals and the villains erect conservative barriers, the parallels are actually perpendiculars. And there are at least two features of Objectiverse politics that explain why.

First of all, the heroes of the Objectiverse are, by definition, uninvolved with and opposed to democratic political processes. They are anarcho-capitalists. So when a real-life politician like Paul Ryan says reading Ayn Rand is what made him decide to go into government, this directly contradicts and violates the morals of Rand’s story — unless of course the politician in question is actually on a covert mission to undermine democratic governance from the inside. Then such a statement would make sense. It would also make that politician Emperor Palpatine, but never mind.

Secondly, the Objectiverse has no discernible political parties. Elections play no significant role and the state is portrayed entirely as a Soviet-style monolithic politburo. Because, after all, if democracy as a form of government is illegitimate, then how much could the differences between political parties actually matter?

Answer, as provided by the real world: A whole lot.Because even though “The Party” in Atlas Shrugged preaches socialist economic intervention — even though that makes the liberal party in the real world seem like the obvious analogue — remember that the incident which incites America’s dystopian transformation is a corrupt conspiracy among some of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, not its elected officials. Remember that their plan is executed by intentionally creating quid-pro-quo revolving-door career opportunities between the public sector and the lobbying industry, which happened in the real world thanks to Republicans.

And remember that the head of state in this dystopian regime is one Mr. Thompson, a generic political chameleon void of principle who looks so much like the stereotype of an upper-middle class businessman that voters can barely remember his face.

It looks like this.

And the ironies don’t end there, they just begin. Note that the heroes sink tons of money into R&D for new technologies that are cleaner and more sustainable, in defiance of the conventional wisdom that their investments make no economic sense. Note that the industrial behemoths of yesteryear only maintain their market superiority by lobbying successfully for enormous tax breaks and government subsidies.
Can you see how Atlas Shrugged is actually, if accidentally, a critique of modern Republicanism? Where Rand’s intended satire of liberalism is so over-the-top it quickly jumps the shark, the satire of modern conservatism that she could not have intended from her vantage point in the 1950s is subtle and insidious; a rewarding discovery that you have to make yourself.
Simply put, substantive critiques of modern liberalism are actually beyond the book’s reach because Rand only presents liberal arguments in straw-man form. She never touches them. Within the Objectiverse, modern liberalism isn’t wrong, it’s simply not an option.
The only ideology that Atlas Shrugged can truly expose as either meritorious or meritricious is its own, because that is the only ideology actually present in the book. And oh man is it presented, in rigorous detail, for hundreds of pages, just begging to be explored. And because this ideology has become central to modern conservatism, a dissection of it can be used to legitimately critique modern conservatism as well.
SO:
What does it mean that the world Rand created and the behavior of her characters  both good and bad all validate the concerns of 21st century progressives more than they do the concerns of Rand herself, and by extension the concerns expressed by the Republicans who swear by her work today?There is a storytelling device known as ‘the unreliable narrator‘ — think Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita. In a story told by an unreliable narrator, the audience cannot trust that the story as its being relayed to them is actually the story as it should be truthfully understood. Atlas Shrugged, formally speaking, employs a third-person omniscient narrator. And in Ayn Rand’s case you can bet she believed the ‘omniscient’ part to be literally true. So, formally, she didn’t write a book with an unreliable narrator. She just sure as hell produced one.

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Atlas Shrugged Parts One and Two Recap

ATLAS SHRUGGED: EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW BUT DIDN’T WANT TO READ

The “Objectiverse” is a fictional dystopia in which fossil fuel scarcity and economic depression have led all governments to adopt the sort of centralized economic control you might see in China or the Soviet Union.

Dagny Taggart is the heroine of the story, and she literally keeps the trains running on time, as the COO of America’s largest railroad company. With all the natural resources getting exhausted, cars and planes are now a rare luxury and railroads are once again the lynchpin of U.S. transportation infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Hank Rearden, the Objectiverse answer to Steve Jobs, invents a lightweight metal stronger and longer-lasting than steel, let’s call it rMetal. It’s applications are endless. It could revolutionize every major industry and radically improve the country’s environmental sustainability and economic efficiency.

So Dagny and Hank become business partners — and lovers, even though Hank is married. But their success is short-lived. The media attention paid to their high-speed rail venture upsets the status quo balance of power, and soon lobbyists for a cabal of special interests descend on DC to buy laws that will obstruct our heroes’ cleaner, leaner, meaner business models.

One of these corrupt businessmen is Dagny’s brother Jim, the Taggart CEO. He is a mediocre man who always resented Dagny for her excellence and ambition. Since his only contribution to the company’s functioning is to pull tax subsidies and policy favors from Washington, he easily gets caught up in the fervor for government centralization even as it undermines his family’s business and his self-interest.

As the global economic collapse becomes a self-perpetuating death spiral, America’s corrupt industrialists and political puppets fully embrace a totalitarian state, declaring that all economic decisions must be approved by an all-powerful tribunal, The Unification Board.

In response, nearly all of the hardest-working entrepreneurs in America abandon their companies and drop off the grid entirely. The founder of the last remaining US oil company torches his oil fields on his  way out for spite.

Only Dagny and Hank remain, determined to overcome the Board and save society from the dangerous vested interests and the self-destructive government they’ve purchased.

Weaving in and out of all this business is Dagny’s former lover Francisco D’Anconia, scion of the world’s oldest fortune, who is brilliant and gifted but squanders his talents as a decadent playboy. Turns out, he’s actually Batman and that was his decade-long Bruce Wayne act. In that time he has meticulously and “accidentally” torpedoed his own multinational conglomerate with the express intent of plunging industrial society into an irreversible tailspin.

Francisco reveals himself to Dagny as a double agent for the faction of off-the-grid elites. He asks her to join them, but when she learns a humanitarian disaster occurred on one of her rail lines, costing 300 lives through the willful negligence of employees appointed by the Board, she refuses to abandon the world to either the incompetents who are ascendant or the shadowy conspirators who seem hell-bent on bringing it down.

Then, during their own off-the-grid lover’s retreat, Hank and Dagny randomly discover the defunct prototype of an ion drive of sorts — a motor that could literally run on air (the static electricity in the air). If fixed, it could solve the world’s energy and environmental problems in one fell swoop forever.

Obsessed with finding out who invented it and if it can be repaired, Dagny sends it to a physicist and engineer in the Rockies for study, basically Q from James Bond.

So naturally, when Dagny gets word that Q has decided to join the off-the-grid shadow faction on their seemingly nihilistic mission, she races to reach him in time to preserve her one last hope of saving society from a new Dark Ages.

Landing her commandeered plane just in time to see Q take off on a mysterious unmarked jet, Dagny gives chase and is soon shocked to see the mystery jet disappear in a shimmering haze in the middle of the Rockies. Yet she pursues it with an almost suicidal fervor, and discovers herself breaching some kind of futuristic cloaking device that short circuits her plane and sends her plummeting to the earth, where she crashes and, I can only assume, dies in an enormous fireball.

What secrets of the shadow faction lie behind the cloak? How will the people of America and the world be freed from their totalitarian overlords? What is the classified military-industrial technology the government is developing under the name Project Xylophone?

All these questions and more will be answered in the coming weeks, in the climactic third act of Ayn Rand’s obnoxiously fascinating Atlas Shrugged.

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2:10 The Sign of the Dollar, “End with a Whimper”

PREVIOUSLY: A conceptually interesting book got unbearably shitty because the author sucked at writing plot and character and dialogue and prose. A blogger took the scenic route through the narrative doldrums while biding his time for the return of thought-provoking material in Part Three.

Dagny is on the Transcon train heading west, staring out the window at a barren, abandoned landscape that used to be the American heartland. This is depressing as shit so she decides to leave her private car and get some fresh air to help her snap out of it.

But as soon as she steps out she finds the conductor trying to throw a hobo off the moving train in the middle of nowhere. The hobo clutches his hobo-bag of hobo-stuff like a comfort blanket, so Dagny knows he believes in private property and thus deserves to live. I wish I were making this up. She invites him to dine with her in her car.

The hobo has table manners and acts generally respectable. He’s headed west to find work, if there is any, since in the east the Unification Board has a complete stranglehold on employment decisions and you need to know somebody to get anywhere. As he recounts his tragic backstory, Hobo Code here mentions that once upon a time he held the same job for twenty years, and it was glorious. Then the founder died, the heirs took over, and the place went to shit. That’s right, Hobo Code was the foreman at GM! The very same GM where Dagny found the abandoned protoype of the ion drive!

“I demand lower taxes for the wealthy!”

Not only that, but Hobo reveals that it was he and the other employees at GM who coined the term “Who is John Galt?” Dagny’s ears perk up, but not mine, because I stopped giving a shit about this ‘mystery’ about four hundred pages ago.

Despite my disinterest, Hobo recaps the whole story of how GM got converted to a socialist pay system where the most able were exploited and the neediest were over-privileged. The specifics descend even further into ridiculousness this time around, like how the company forbid some dude from sending his kids to college, or how one guy was denied money for his record collection so that the company could pay some chick to get a gold-plated grill. I don’t even know where to start.

The Hobo’s main gripe with this system was that it established a moral code by which “the honest ones paid, the dishonest ones collected,” which of course has never and could never occur under the profit-motivated morality of capitalism. Never!

Anyway, this recap of stuff we’ve already been told goes on for pages and pages and pages, and Hobo Code makes sure to lash out at ‘professors and leaders and thinkers’ for trying to dupe the world with a bullshit morality based on human compassion, which has so clearly and inevitably led to the destruction of everything good. I think Ayn’s brush is so broad that it’s basically a broom now, but…

Finally Hobo trails off at the point where GM went bankrupt and he was out of work, and Dagny is like, “Uh, weren’t you going to explain who John Galt is?” And he’s like “Oh, right. He was this genius kid who had just started at the factory when the communists took over, and he quit as soon as they announced the plan, and he said he would make it his personal mission to ‘stop the motor of the world.'”

“Shit, sounds ominous,” nobody says, and Hobo’s like “Yeah when everything started going to shit, we all remembered what he said and got pretty freaked out. And that’s how we came up with the saying ‘Who is John Galt?’

Dagny does not respond “Well fuck, I pretty much knew all of that already! Get out of my car,” because Dagny has literally fallen asleep. Even the characters have checked out, and here I am still reading like a sucker. Goddammit.

When she wakes up she remembers Hobo Code’s story and how she gave him a sleeping car on the train afterwards for all his troubles. But all of that drops out of her consciousness when she realizes the train is stopped! And it seems nobody is in board! What in tarnation is going on??

As desolate and barren as Ayn Rand’s soul.

Running through the cars for signs of life, she bumps into none other than Owen Kellogg, the very first undercover charismatic anarchist we encountered in the book. Dagny does not ask where he went after he dropped off the grid, but he confirms that the crew has abandoned the train — an increasingly common form of political protest against the economic dictatorship.

After calming the scattered passengers who remain, all of whom are whiny and unappreciative of course, Dagny and Kellogg leave Hobo Code in charge of the train and set off for the nearest emergency phone station along the track. As they walk, Dagny bemoans how everything was better in Nat Taggart’s Gilded Age, and Owen Kellogg responds:

…[Nat Taggart] represented a code of existence which—for a brief span in all human history—drove slavery out of the civilized world.

Which is so historically wrong and factually meaningless as to be offensive, but no time to dwell because it just now occurs to Dagny to ask where this dude has been for the past… what, three years of story time?

When Kellogg shrugs and answers vaguely, she quickly realizes that he’s on the same shadow team as Francisco and The Destroyer. They arrive at the phone box but it’s broken, and they have to walk another five miles. Kellogg sighs and takes out a pack of cigarettes — $tamped cigarettes!

Dagny demands more information, and Kellogg goes on some rant about American exceptionalism and how calling money evil is itself evil. I punch myself in the nuts to stay awake. Special K wraps up the monologue and gives Dagny the rest of his cigarette$ as a token of good will. Let’s pick up the pace here:

“I’m just borrowing it to chase a mad scientist across an inhospitable wasteland. It’ll be back in mint condition, I promise.”

At the next phone box, Dagny calls the local Peter Principle and expends a lot of effort getting him to send a crew to help them restart the train. Some building is glowing a couple miles in the distance and she asks what it is. Peter Principle says it’s an airstrip. This gets Dags’ attention, seeing as she’s now running out of time to reach Q and save their research on the ion drive. Kellogg knowingly encourages her to do what she needs to do; he’ll make sure the train gets running again.

So Dagny commandeers one of the planes at the airstrip and flies all through the night across the Rocky Mountains. She thinks redundantly about Thematic Issues some more until she lands at Q’s airstrip in Utah just as another plane is taking off. She jumps out of her plane all “I’m looking for Q!” and some guy is like “You just missed him, he’s in that plane that just took off! Him and a mysterious, charismatic gentleman!”

Dagny knows immediately that The Destroyer has stolen Q and her last hope of saving society along with him. In a fury she takes right back off and follows The Destroyer’s plane into the treacherous heights of the Rockies once more. Right in the most uninhabitable dangerous patch of peaks, the nefarious plane descends out of sight. Turning the corner, Dagny is flabbergasted: there’s nothing but a jagged valley of rocks. Where did they go? Did they crash?

She descends too, to get a closer look, but something’s weird. The craggy expanse below her is almost like a mirage… Suddenly there’s a flash of light and her motor cuts out. She is now below the craggy rockface — it was a CLOAKING DEVICE! OH SNAP!

But with no motor, her plane drops like a stone to the grassy valley floor below, and as she braces herself to die in a giant fireball, Dagny cries out “Fuck you John Galt, Fuck Yoooooouuuuuu!!!”

The end.

REFLECTIONS ON PART TWO: Ayn Rand as an Unreliable Narrator

NEXT — 3:1 Utopia, “Meet John Galt”

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