Archive for August, 2012
PREVIOUSLY: The same goddamn shit happened over and over, and will now happen again. This book is like an experiment in Nietzschean eternal recurrence.
Jim has been incredibly needy with Dagny ever since Cheryl died, but still seems to resent Dags for his dependency (Plot Point Monotony #1). The night D’Anconia Copper is to be nationalized he holds her in his office waiting for the news report to come in. As Dagny checks her watch, he says a bunch of ridiculous barely coherent things. Like his emotionally abused wife before him, he seems to be on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown.
And that doesn’t get any better when the news finally hits: Francisco has blown up all of his company’s holdings, literally, and drained all the D’Anconia bank accounts. There is nothing for the government to lay claim to. Francisco has disappeared for good.
PLOT POINT MONOTONY #2-5: This is the fourth time that Francisco has very publicly ruined his own business and the global economy to send a message. The San Sebastian mines, the stock collapse, the shipments Ragbeard sank for him, now this.
When Dagny and Hank meet for a friendly dinner the following night they bask in the afterglow of Francisco’s dubious victory, though things quickly turn back to the grim realities of maintaining life on the grid. Specifically, the country’s shipping priorities and transportation infrastructure have become such a wacky parody of an economy that America’s supply of grain is all stuck in Minnesota with no way of getting to the eastern seaboard. Mass starvation will ensue!
Oh well. The giant LCD screen in Times Square or wherever switches to a new image reading, “Brother, you had it coming. -Francisco” and Dagny and Hank laugh like assholes at this renegade message. Yeah, the millions of starving people who will suffer the consequences of Francisco’s terrorism totally had it coming. Because of all the terrible things that… Jim Taggart and Orren Boyle and Wesley Mouch did. Obviously! Sweet sweet… justice?
Back in Philly, Hank is at his mills congratulating himself for being a heartless bastard and the world’s greatest amateur philosopher (Francisco and Galt being credentialed, of course) when his whiny brother Buster slinks up to him and asks for a job. They have the same conversation that Hank already had about Buster with his mother, twice, and with Buster himself, also twice (PLOT POINT MONOTONY #6-9!) Hank’s take-away this time is that Buster and his ilk are “men who worship pain.” Hank can now “feel nothing” and considers people like Buster “inanimate objects” or “refuse.” If general sociopathy counts as a monotonous plot point, this is example #710.
NEXT! Hank goes to the Philly courthouse to finalize his divorce. He is so sickened by the lawyers and the judge that when he leaves he feels he has “divorced the whole of the human society that supported the [modern judiciary].” One more mark in the anarchist column.
NEXT! Hank returns to work. Again. (Plot Point Monotony #815) His primary responsibility still seems to be self-righteous glowering, though. This time he’s approached by the Ivy League poindexter who’s supposed to make sure Hank follows government regulations. Poindexter has seen the light and wants a job, a real job. Even though he says his college degree in metallurgy is worthless (wow guy, you sure know how to ace an interview), he’ll put in the effort to make up for his lack of experience. Hank likes him but turns him down, because Poindexter’s Washington friends would never let them get away with it, and Poindexter understands. He warns Hank that the state has been replacing all his departing workers with “goons” and thugs.
NEXT! Dagny is handling the latest railroad crisis caused by various shortages (PLOT POINT MONOTONY x 1,000,000). There are more extraneous anecdotes about train schedules (x 2,000,000!). One passage mocks a Buddhist widow using government grants to grow soybeans, as if soybeans are a foolish investment even though they are the biggest crop in the U.S. behind corn today. Shut up, Ayn.
Doc Stadler is on the radio preaching that just as medicine is left to doctors and electronics to engineers, thinking should be left to elite thinkers, and everybody else should just shut up and take it without question. This is supposed to be a bitter satire of evil, but it sounds like Objectivism to me, vis a vis how the average person should accept moral inferiority as proper to their station and defer to the judgments of an inherently virtuous elite. Shut up, Ayn.
Where were we? Oh right, the bumper crop of wheat in Minnesota is rotting because there’s not enough trains to circulate it around the country. The soy crop fails because of farmer incompetence. Oh well! Suffice it to say millions of Americans are starving to death and there’s riots and stuff and you should blame Buddhism and the FDA and… beans, for some reason. God shut up Ayn shut up so much!
So at Jim’s request, Dagny goes to an ‘off-the-record’ dinner meeting with all the big wigs at State, who mostly try to — pardon the expression — railroad her into silent compliance with whatever their latest bullshit scheme is. One of these guys says:
“It’s a great responsibility …to hold the decision of life or death over thousands of people and to sacrifice them when necessary, but we mast have the courage to do it.”
Which, again, is effectively synonymous with John Galt’s dictum that the meritorious need the intellectual courage to tell the masses to fuck off and die. I’m starting to see a pattern here.
The bureaucrats argue over where to ration resources and decide to let the east starve so they can keep enough trains available to send troops around the country to maintain order and authority, which is threatened mostly by food riots. Priorities! Dagny is disgusted and when a call comes about another pressing emergency at the railroad (Plot Point Monotony x 2,000,001…) she is happy to escape.
Power has gone out at Transcon Terminal. All the trains are halted. Dags corrals her switch operator to lay out a plan for manually guiding the trains to their tracks. She assembles all of the laborers before her and announces the strategy.
But she is distracted when she sees John Galt himself is one of the grimy tunnel workers. Gasp! This is where he hides out when he’s on the grid, how he keeps an eye on Dags! She gets weak in the knees, which I still think is an odd reaction to being stalked by a guy who is basically L. Ron Hubbard.
Nonetheless she wraps up her speech and then sneaks off into the ancient abandoned tunnels of the railroad. Sure enough, as she intended, Galt follows her. Hidden away with the rats and decrepit debris, they make violent and passionate love in the dirt. She bites him, he elbows her, they think about metaphysics. It’s the usual mash-up of 50 Shades of Grey and a pretentious college dissertation.
This time, the sex is so good that when Galt cups her boob she has a transcendent vision of the meaning of life, and all of her accomplishments flash before her eyes. I know it can be hard to tell sometimes if I’m exaggerating, so let me be clear: that’s literally what happens.
After she cums, “she gasp[s] and lay[s] still, knowing that nothing more could be desired, ever.” The End!
If only. No, they lie down on a pile of sand and burlap sacks (ROMANCE) and confess their love for each other. Galt says he was the shadowy figure who approached Dagny’s door in the alley that one time, as if anyone actually still cares about that shit. He tells her he will pay the price for breaking cover so he could ravish her. Word will get back to Jim, the statists will finally catch him and expose the shadow faction. She doesn’t buy it.
Whatever, Galt shrugs. When she wants to jump the sinking ship and elope to Galt’s Gulch, she should graffiti the statue of her great-grandfather Nat Taggart witha $, and he will come for her within 24 hours. Unless it’s too late… Then he leaves to go back to his menial labor job. Dagny wanders back upstairs, exhausted by his brilliant penis mind! Mind.
In a post from last week Gwynn Guilford of The Dish starts out exploring Paul Ryan’s monetary beliefs and ends up curating arguments about Ayn Rand. Not that surprising, right? On the relationship between them, Gwynn points out (and isn’t the first) that Ryan’s “rejection of Rand’s philosophy has mainly emphasized his disagreement with her atheism,” and that his economic ideas are textbook Objectivist — something I also highlighted in my “Paul Ryan, Republican Microcosm” post from May.
How can Ryan back Rand’s second-order political beliefs when her first-order metaphysical beliefs directly contradict his own? Easy: Rand’s metaphysical position is not actually atheistic, and her claim that it is is self-deception. As David Foster Wallace once put it (again, hat tip to The Dish),
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
Rand chooses to worship money; her nominal atheism is superfluous. So the incisive quote I want to focus on today is Ryan’s from 2009, claiming that Ayn “does the best job of anybody to build the moral case for capitalism.” This doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Paul Ryan’s beliefs about the free market. But it does tell us something important about Paul Ryan’s beliefs about morality.
First things first: there is a far better moral case for capitalism than anything Ayn comes up with. The simplest argument is the consequentialist one. Of all the economic systems in recorded history, capitalism has clearly produced the most wealth in the fastest amount of time, and done the most to raise living standards and promote widespread opportunities. In this way it is self-evidently superior to, say, mercantilism or feudalism or communism (let’s table the issue of democratic government’s role in capitalism’s success, for now).
Despite that bit of common sense, Ryan and Rand are libertarians, and as Ron Paul has said (and as I discussed during the GOP debates), libertarianism is indifferent to outcomes. The historical record is immaterial; moral justice comes from a set of first principles that are objectively right, such that when these principles are put into practice, whatever the results are, they’re fundamentally just too. From this position of moral absolutism, consequentialist arguments are moot exactly because they are consequentialist.
And under this moral accounting, consequentialist arguments aren’t just impotent, but are in themselves a symptom of moral degradation. Rand constantly pegs her villains as moral relativists who declare their actions immune to moral judgment because morality is a social construct or simply unknowable. Any departure from an absolute morality is a heresy intimately tied to society’s overall moral bankruptcy.
This philosophical posture extends to Ryan too; you can see the moral absolutism in his “no rape exemption” stance towards abortion (another issue getting press lately). You also see it in the quote I emphasized above: Ryan prefers Rand’s convoluted faith-based justification for capitalism over the basic consequential argument that it makes peoples’ lives better.
Yes, Rand’s love of capitalism is faith-based, and for proof I refer you to Francisco’s speech about the value of money, as I recapped here (Dave Weigel also examines this passage in his Ryan-Rand coverage, excerpted in the Dish post I linked to above). In that recap, I explicate how Frisco isn’t just saying “greed is good,” he’s saying that there is an objective moral law at work in the universe bringing inevitable justice to human affairs. For the atheist materialist Rand, this sounds dangerously metaphysical, so Francisco adds a logically independent premise, that money is an empirically measurable mechanism by which this karmic market operates. Rand thus uses money as a literal token of objectivity, a fig leaf disguising the fact that her premises can’t be reached by logical deduction or induction: they are purely subjective value judgments.
But the strongest psychological glue between Rand and fundamentalist Christianity isn’t the prosperity gospel, it’s the false equivalence they posit between moral relativism and modernism in general.
In a great post at Boingboing, Maggie Koerth-Baker explores why Christian fundamentalists vilify set theory in their math textbooks, honing in on an important point about the fundamentalist worldview:
Modernism, to the publishers of A Beka math books, is sick and wrong. The idea is that if you reject their specific idea of God and their specific idea of The Rules, then you must be living in a crazy, dangerous world. You could kill people, and you would think it was okay, because you’re a modernist and you know there’s really no such thing as right and wrong. Basically, they’ve bumped into a need to separate themselves from the almost inhuman Other on a massive scale, and latched on to modernism as a shorthand for how to do that. It doesn’t matter what you or I actually believe, or even what we actually do. They know what we MUST believe and what we MUST be like because of the tenets of modernism.
More importantly, they know that we are subtle, and use sneaky means to indoctrinate children and lure adults into accepting modernist values. So the art, the literature, the jazz … are all just traps. They’re ways of getting us to reject to One True Path a little bit at a time.
And that paranoid dynamic is found all over Atlas Shrugged. It’s baked right into Rand’s thinking. Just look at the last chapter I recapped, in which the innocent Cheryl comes to understand the nihilism of her relativist husband. Driven mad by his cruelty, she stumbles through Manhattan, seeing only that same nihilistic philosophy implicit in the eyes of everybody she encounters. Rand very explicitly claims the world is overrun with a perverse value system that lures the innocent masses to moral depravity. She explicitly cites art and culture as contagious symptoms of this rot. She denounces the false consciousness of religious thinking, but her train of thought runs on a perfectly parallel track.
This psychological sameness is what keeps intellectual contradictions from tearing today’s Republican party apart along religious v. economic lines. Both sides are united against the world — or more accurately, a shared dehumanizing misconception of the world.
Due to a death in the family, I’m postponing this week’s posts until next week, when all my thoughts about Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand will no doubt be old hat already.
I already discussed Paul Ryan in an overly verbose post here, but for anybody who stumbles across the blog today because he just won the Veepstakes, here’s a few bullet points:
*Paul Ryan is an extremely competent, charismatic politician who knows the in’s and out’s of budget policy inside and out.
*Paul Ryan’s greatest influence is Ayn Rand. He gives out copies of Atlas Shrugged to his staff.
*Atlas Shrugged is an inspiring story with an overt ideological agenda about rich people who embrace economic apocalypse and the collapse of society so that they don’t have to worry about the middle class anymore.
More thoughts to come next week, when I discuss why Ayn Rand’s militant atheism and conservative Christian fundamentalism actually go together like chocolate and peanut butter.
PREVIOUSLY: Cheryl and Jim’s emotionally abusive relationship was driving her crazy. Literally.
Jim gets drunk in his study, stewing in his own toxic juices. Emotionally speaking. Suddenly the doorbell rings and his manservant Jeeves tells him it’s Mrs. Lillian Rearden at the door.
This piques Jim’s curiosity and he commands Jeeves to let her in. She enters, looking sour and anxious. So, that’s going around then. He needles her about showing up to his house randomly, and she just plops down on a duvet or whatever and starts talking some whiny shit about all the other people in their social circle. You know, the venal and corrupt hollow men.
Jim agrees, the new breed is even worse than the assholes they came up with. There’s a very “At least Avon Barksdale had a code, this Marlo kid is a wild animal” feel to the conversation.
The other important facet of this tete a tete is that it’s extremely sado-masochistic. Now, considering Ayn’s sex scenes, you may be a little unclear on whether sado-masochism falls in the “good guys” or “bad guys” column, but it’s actually relatively simple. These bad guys are spiritually and emotionally sado-masochistic. The good guys are honorable and earnest and virtuous in their hearts and souls (Ayn would disavow both hearts and souls, but anyway). This foundation of virtue allows their kinky sexual games to be a healthy expression of adult interplay, rather than a sad indicator of moral rot. And I’m not being sarcastic here, I think that’s legit.
So they both kind of laugh bitterly at how pathetic they are as their social cache declines, and insult each other about it, and then Lillian admits the reason she came. Hank has paid off a bunch of lawyers and judges so that he can A) get a clean divorce, and B) keep everything and leave Lily with nothing. She will be a pauper. “Jim,” she entreats him, “you’ve got to do something!”
But there’s nothing Jim can do, he tells her with relish. He disingenuously says he wishes he could help. She draws inward, stewing in her own bitterness now. This pleases Jim and he gets even more comfortable, dropping the pretense of good feeling or intention that he finds so exhausting to maintain all the time.
Obviously nothing can be done, because they have nothing to trade or leverage in return. And she should know that. She admits she does. He pours her a drink and they get soused together now. Naturally this leads to more shit talk, about Dagny and Hank this time, and it is especially hateful. Who do they think they are? I’d love to see them get fucked up, take ’em down a peg. If they won’t grant us respect, we’ll just have to show them our power by ruining them. That’ll get their attention. Etc.
When Lillian reflects that she will only be Mrs. Hank Rearden for another month or so, they both kind of get this evil, salacious look in their eyes. Sure enough it only takes a few more sips of liquor for them to get to the hate-fucking. Neither of them is actually enjoying it. In fact they keep getting distracted by how unattracted they are to each other. What they’re really getting off on is their intention to insult and disrespect Hank with their gross, demeaning, mechanical sex.
Shortly thereafter, Cheryl arrives home from her spirit-bolstering visit with Dagny. She immediately notices the discarded clothes, the sloppy glasses, and hears the post-coital sniping coming from the bedroom. Naturally the pit of dread and horror in her gut surges back.
Cheryl hides out to process this latest betrayal, and after Lillian sneaks out she returns to the anteroom to confront Jim.
Jim, for his part, has no patience left for Cheryl anymore. Her presence makes him feel guilty and morally inadequate, and now that he’s celebrating and reveling in his own base gross impulses, he basically calls her out. “Goddamn right I was fucking some other woman. What are you gonna do about it, huh?” He shoves her into the study and closes the door.
“I’m sick and tired of you acting like you’re better than me. You’d be nothing without me. I married you because you’re worthless. You want to know who I was fucking just now? Mrs. Hank Rearden!”
Jim then goes on a diatribe about the nature of love. Doesn’t Cheryl understand that all people are worthless and mean and base at heart? Love is wallowing in your decrepitude together without judgment. Despairing co-dependency is the name of the game. He wanted her because she would owe him everything, could not judge him. Poor Cheryl feels like a fool. She honestly tried to deserve her newfound luxury. Jim just laughs in her face.
The scene has finally blossomed into a full-on “Skyler confronts Walt and gets emotionally battered and abused” kind of affair. Shattered to her core, Cheryl realizes that Jim specifically married her so he could destroy her moral superiority to him. She was prey.
She calls him a soulless monster, a moral assassin, a sociopath who destroys for the sake of destruction (not like the charismatic Joker, though, because Jim can’t even enjoy it, in fact hates himself for it).
Faced with this accurate assessment of his spiritual vampirism and accompanying self-hatred, Jim punches his wife in the face.
Her last shred of sanity literally knocked out of her, Cheryl runs out of the house in a delirious fog. She does not know where to go, just that she has to get away from Jim. But everywhere she looks, all the people around her, all she can see is venal apathy, people too checked out to realize that at their core they have embraced Jim’s bankrupt philosophy, that they are bottomless pits of nihilistic complacency. The only coherent thought she can find is “No!” Her only remaining option is some definitive kind of protest against this utterly hollow and evil world.
Somewhere on the grimy docks of the city, a social worker from a nearby half-way house sees this disoriented, haggard young woman in an expensive dress. Even though Cheryl’s in the throes of a psychotic break, the social worker sees only her fine attire and glassy stare and scolds her for being some kind of trashy Lindsay Lohan type, shallow and full of wasted potential.
“You rich bitches need to stop being so selfish and wasteful and find some higher social purpose,” the social worker says, entirely right about rich bitches in general though woefully, tragically wrong about poor broken Cheryl. And also, kind of callous either way, considering she just found this chick wandering around in the industrial district in the pre-dawn hours. You are kind of a bitch, lady.
Anyway, “NO!” Cheryl screams, “Not your world!” as if this social worker represents the pervasive moral villainy of modern society. And look, she’s being shitty, but she’s not Jim here, and I’ll forgive Cheryl for the mistake because she’s literally lost her mind at this point and the whole thing has an air of tragic misunderstanding. But Ayn, you don’t get off so easy. You’re being stupid. Stop it. Stop. No? Fine, I’ve only got six more of these chapters to go anyway. Fuck yourself.
Cheryl, by the way, runs for her life, screaming like a banshee, crying, flinging herself right off the pier, where her suicide succeeds by, I’m assuming, cracking her head against a rock and drowning. Bye Cheryl!
Guys this shit just got dark.
PREVIOUSLY: Sleazy ol’ Jim Taggart met the innocent naif Cheryl in a Rite Aid in the Bronx. She was starstruck, he was perversely fascinated by her undeserved hero worship. So they got married.
Heads up, I genuinely think this chapter’s good. Let’s begin:
Just like on the night he met his wife, James Taggart is wandering the streets of New York in a funk. Just like that night, he has reason to celebrate in theory, but finds himself feeling dissatisfied, angry, with an unsettling pit in his stomach. Just like that night, he does his best to avoid effective introspection because it always leads him to disturbing thoughts, truths about himself that he is unwilling to face.
He’s supposed to be celebrating because he’s just come from a bunch of parties and meetings in which visiting Argentinian elites let slip the details of D’Anconia Copper’s impending nationalization. Furthermore he has arranged a lot of inside trading to invest in the Argentinian state-owned businesses that will absorb D’Anconia’s resources.
But the toast celebrating the wink-wink nudge-nudge-type deal had sent an unexpected wave of panic and claustrophobia through Jim, spurring the long walk and evasive navel-gazing. And now even that escape is over, because he has arrived at home.
Cheryl waits inside with poise and dignity. Over their first year of marriage she has come into her own as one classy bitch. Jim finds this obnoxious and irritating. She asks what he’s doing home so early, and he says he came to celebrate with her. They both know this is bullshit.
Anyway, he boasts about his shady deal in a hollow and defensive way, and she just kind of studies him with clinical detachment. That gets under his skin so he accuses her of not appreciating ‘welfare philosophy.’ She says she saw enough welfare queens and unambitious degenerates when she lived in the slums, and has no problem voting Republican thank you.
She then mentions Dagny’s speech on the Rush Leno show and how inspiring she found it. This obviously drives Jim nuts even more. He goes into a convoluted explanation of the politican gamesmanship at play in the scapegoating of Leno, but Cheryl doesn’t care. She realizes the D’Anconia grab will take place on their first anniversary and gets lost in thoughts of the last year.
Specifically she thinks of how hard she worked to learn etiquette and culture and as befitting her newly elevated station, and how Jim seemed to grow more annoyed and resentful the more competent and impressive she became. She remembers when she learned it was Dagny who really kept the lights on at Taggart Transcon. She remembers the night Jim and his cabal suspended the Constitution in D.C. and how he came home in an anxious manic frenzy. Her fears and suspicions have grown ever since, and grown more insidious.
She remembers — God, are we still in flashback? Pick up the pace Cheryl — when she confronted him about his fraudulent accomplishments, he lashed out and spewed self-pity, making her feel guilty and apologizing. Afterwards she realized how manipulative and emotionally dishonest his behavior was (and always had been). Truly frightened but determined to figure out the nature of her husband, she has had one gnawing question in mind:
“What do you want from me?” she blurts out in the present. Jim is taken aback. “Love,” comes the obvious answer. She says she did love him, for his courage and ambition and all those things that turned out to be a lie. What does he want to be loved for? He’s disgusted.
“I don’t want to be loved for anything. I want to be loved for myself—not for anything I do or have or say or think. For myself—not for my body or mind or words or works or actions.”
“But then . . . what is yourself?”
This skirts too close to the self-reflection that Jim so skittishly avoids. He dismisses her as unfeeling, unloving. His nature finally starts snapping into focus for her.
“You want unearned love. You want to be a man like Hank Rearden without the necessity of being what he is. Without the necessity of being anything. Without . . . the necessity . . . of being.”
Jim tells her to shut the fuck up just as the butler arrives with champagne for their ‘celebration.’ He demands she toast with him to Francisco’s impending ruin and she refuses. He smashes his champagne flute on the floor and storms off to the bedroom. Cheryl gets out of the house as fast as she can.
Meanwhile, alone in the dark of the Transcon offices, Dagny — you’ll never guess — is hard at work. She is sullen, for all her time is consumed putting out fires and preventing disasters, instead of building or improving or inventing anything new. She longs for the stress-free, naturalistic beauty of Galt’s Gulch.
Her reverie is broken by a knock at the door — Cheryl has come for a visit. Dagny sees how frightened and upset she is and offers her a seat. Cheryl apologizes to Dagny for being misguided and mean to her before, tells her how much she respects her, and spills some of her fears about Jim.
Dagny reassures her that her fears and beliefs are all true. She isn’t crazy. Jim is indeed a bad guy. Oh and anybody who accuses you of being “unfeeling” is just criticizing you for having a sense of justice. Ugh. I’m not saying that’s never true, but claiming it’s always true sure sounds to me like a patented Ayn Rand coping mechanism for being a miserable asshole.
In response, Cheryl goes on a borderline-psychotic rant about how living in high society where everybody shares Jim’s value system is making her feel suffocated because thinking that the world runs on Jim’s perverse philosophy of ‘love’ and ‘compassion’ (ease up on the strawmen there, Ayn) makes her feel like the universe is oppressively meaningless and that her own existence is unsustainable and under threat and she’s drowning in a sea of moral relativism and the alienation of modernity! Aaah!
Dagny, perturbed by Cheryl’s fragile mental state, tells her she should absolutely not go back home to Jim tonight. She promises that the philosophical struggle overwhelming her is not her responsibility to solve. Just have faith in your own mind and life (but don’t call it faith). Stay sane. And seriously, don’t go home to Jim.
Cheryl finds Dagny’s wisdom reassuring, and calmly promises that she’ll be okay. The two women agree to start getting together regularly, but when Cheryl exits with the intention of returning to her house, Dagny feels momentarily scared on her behalf.
TOMORROW: Anti-Life part 2, “The One Who Knocks Boots”
In my last post I discussed the contradictory attitudes toward globalized industrial capitalism that Ayn Rand exhibits in Atlas Shrugged. She sanctifies the processes and artifacts of this system while denouncing the consumerism and amorality that are its primary cultural effects. While this ambivalence doesn’t square with Rand’s political reputation, it’s implicit in her story in any number of ways, and there is no better issue with which to illustrate these tensions than the issue of food.
I’ve just finished reading Michael Pollan’s seminal Omnivore’s Dilemma, and about a third of it chronicles Pollan’s time spent on the farm of Joel Salatin, a self-described Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist. Salatin is a fascinating character, and many of his most memorable quotes could have come straight from one of Rand’s characters. But not all.
Salatin prizes personal independence, self-sufficiency, competence, and unwavering integrity. In this he embodies all of the positive aspects of Rand’s heroic archetype. And like Rand, he takes issue with the unsustainability of consumerism and the role of the government in perpetuating it.
Where Salatin and Rand diverge is that he detests economies of scale, global finance, mass industry and capital. Rand is obsessed with civilization and progress, with the image of the railroad as a straight line shooting forward to infinity. She fetishizes the domination and exploitation of nature as overcoming the savage and irrational. By contrast, Salatin organizes his entire life around the self-contained and self-sustaining cycles of the natural world. His Christianity, which Rand abhors, plays some part in this philosophy.
Essentially, Salatin’s farm runs without the farmer having to purchase anything that he can’t produce there himself. All the waste on the farm is composted and fed back to the grasses that feed the animals that produce the waste. All the animals eat the diet that they evolved to eat, and are moved frequently to keep the pasture (and their menu) fresh and varied. Like Rand, Salatin believes everything in his life should be an expression of his worldview. In Salatin’s case, it is.
But there is a dark side to this consistency. When Pollan asks Salatin how a place like New York City would get enough food in his idealized vision of replacing industrial agriculture with locally-grown organic farming and one-to-one farmer-customer relationships, Salatin replies that there just wouldn’t be a New York City. Pollan is perturbed.
This is, I think, inherent in the premise of Atlas Shrugged, insofar as the book is about an industrial world collapsing under society’s moral bankruptcy versus an intimate pastoral world that redeems human virtue. Yet Rand loves New York City and the industry it represents. The Galt cult expresses their intention to rebuild industrial society after its collapse without any consideration of how this might recreate the very problems they identify as justifying said collapse.
Another way in which Salatin is a purer, more honest libertarian than Rand is that his dislike of government is inherently tied to a perception that government policies are written by and for “Wall Street,” his (appropriate) shorthand for all corporate industry. He is wholly anti-institution. Once again, this is Salatin affirming a position that is implicit and unavoidable in Rand’s vision, one that she ignores. Sure, she glances sidelong at the corrupt collusion of big business and the legislature, but does not seriously reflect on how this real-world fact should affect her unqualified worship of ruthless capitalism or her indiscriminate vitriol toward public service.
Stepping back from Salatin and his non-partisan radicalism, the food industry as a whole serves as an equally apt demonstration of Rand’s merits and faults.
For example, government subsidies for corn farming put in place by the Nixon administration in the ’70s have contributed to an absurdly large and unnecessary surplus of the stuff, causing its price in the market to plummet and corn farmers to become ever more reliant on the subsidy to keep their heads above water. Point Rand.
At the same time, the corporations lobbying for this subsidy have capitalized on corn in wildly innovative ways. Agribusiness continually expands the annual yield of the raw material and the variety of the finished foods into which the corn is then chemically rearranged. But the toxin build-up in the soil, plants, and animals; the fossil fuels burned in massive quantities to assemble the meals; the calorie-rich, nutrient-light nature of the results — all have had a perverse effect on the food economy, stable ecology, and human health and nutrition. Industrial innovation producing rampant and spiritually hollow consumption? Rand’s point is deducted.
Also, because the cost of these side effects is passed on to the taxpayers, consumers, and health care providers, industrial food is priced artificially low. Not only does this violate Rand’s belief in market prices’ karmic integrity (even accounting for the tax subsidy side of the equation), but it obstructs the growth of organic food chains in the marketplace. Here we see that the miracle of capitalism that Rand praises is, basically, its ability to consume more than it produces and write off the difference as a negative externality — the behavior Rand vilifies.
But, finally, it’s worth emphasizing that our options for addressing these issues in the real world are not stark “Either/Or” propositions like Ayn Rand suggests and Joel Salatin endorses.
On the one hand, corn-related policies from the 1930s to the ’70s were far more sensible: the government bought excess corn from farmers in the years when the crop exceeded demand, and then sold the banked corn in years of drought or when the harvest was lean. This stabilized a volatile market without warping the natural equilibrium of supply and demand. The basic logic of Keynesian economics is similar, and similarly sound.
On the other hand, the vigorous entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector is undeniably necessary if we are to restore our food system to a Galt’s Gulch-like sustainability. As we speak, a cadre of former McDonald’s executives are launching a new venture that seeks to combine sustainable food practices with franchisable fast food convenience.
Which is to say the narrative of Atlas Shrugged, a direct product of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, is reflected most honestly not in the life of Ayn Rand but in the life of Joel Salatin. By studying the contrast between them, we see that Rand fails to embody her own convictions, to fully face reality and the logical consequences of her beliefs. She contradicts herself. Which of her premises is false? Comfortingly, it is that the tensions between progress and social justice — between industrial and organic — are irreconilable. They aren’t. It isn’t “either/or.” It’s “yes, and…”