Posts Tagged morality
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.
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: Dagny returned to work, only to realize more acutely than ever how shitty humans are.
Hank Rearden’s wife Lily, scorned woman, repressed vessel of hellacious fury, and bitter harpy, shows up at Dagny’s office unannounced. Dagny is like, “Goddammit, these assholes expect you to save the world and then never give you a moment alone to do it!”
Lily puts on the pretense of civility but holds back nothing when she tells Dagny she will absolutely go on Leno like her brother asked her to, and assuage the peoples’ fears. Dagny balks.
Relishing the moment, Lil informs Dags that she knows about her years-long affair with Hank. She boasts that Hank sacrificed his rights to rMetal under duress, to prevent a scandal that would ruin Dagny’s reputation for integrity and professionalism. And now, Lilian declares triumphantly, Dagny will also play her part in greasing the wheels of a morally bankrupt society, for the very same reason. Mwa ha ha, etc.
But Dagny is unimpressed. Lillian tries to goad her some more by taking credit for uncovering the adultery and passing that information on to the blackmailers (specifically Dagny’s brother, but she doesn’t mention that). Anyway, still nothing. The lack of reaction is getting to her, and she’s like, “Well?”
Dagny shrugs. “Yeah sure, I’ll go on Leno.”
CUT TO: Jay Leno. Or “Bertram Scudder,” but who cares anymore. Actually, by this description:
He was laboring to sound cynical, skeptical, superior and hysterical together, to sound like a man who sneers at the vanity of all human beliefs and thereby demands an instantaneous belief from his listeners.
He’s clearly Rush Limbaugh. So Rush/Jay/Bert bloviates for a hot minute before turning the mic over to our heroine, who has been primed by his preamble to endorse the totalitarian regime.
BUT! Dagny blows up everyone’s spot. She announces to the nation that neither she nor Hank Rearden endorsed the forfeiture of all economic liberty, regardless of how things seemed. Allow her to explain… Then with one pang of guilt for… hurting John Galt’s feelings? Jesus, shut up…, Dagny confesses:
“I had been Hank Rearden’s mistress. … Not as a shameful confession, but with the highest sense of pride … have I experienced the most violent form of sensual pleasure. Specifically I let him put it in the butt.”*
*I’m paraphrasing that part but it’s almost definitely accurate.
Anyway she continues that she doesn’t care who knows because they were doing it for the right reasons: because they admired and respected each other and inspired each other to be better. Not like Rearden’s sham marriage, or like “most of you” for whom sex is “an act of casual indulgence and mutual contempt.”
Then she transitions to how their extramarital fuckathons are morally similar to building railroads and stuff, because that’s the next logical step. More to the point, anybody who judges their affair negatively she accuses of being a soured soul who wants to destroy all human happiness. Because that’s what she has attained, after all, and the haters are just jealous.
At this point Limbaugh tries to take back the reins, because as we all know he’s not into sluts or women taking pride in their sexuality generally. Dagny brushes him off, concludes that it was only through explicit blackmail and implicit moral perversity that the powers-that-be kept Rearden in line while she was gone.
The goverment handlers hanging ominously in the shadows step forward and cut the signal. Jim and Lillian, watching from the studio audience, rush the booth. Everyone’s flipping their shit, trying to figure out what to put on in place of dead air. Dagny just slips out the back.
Back at her apartment, Dags is surprised to find the door open and the lights on. Hank has returned! He indicates the TV/radio/whatever and she knows that he heard. But he looks relaxed, happy, confident, etc. It’s a weight off his chest too. Overwhelmed with everything, she crumples in his embrace and cries her little heart out. OH THE HUMANITY. Literally.
Eventually she calms down and braces herself to tell Hank they can’t sleep together anymore because she’s got a crush on L. Ron Hubbard, but he’s like, “Shh, shh, shhhh… let me go first.”
“Dagny,” he says, “I love you, always have, always will. But we can’t sleep together anymore.” Allow him to explain…
So the gist here is that he feels they’ve run their course in a totally mutual way. They have successfully exchanged value for value and don’t need to stay together out of some sense of obligation.
See, when they first slept together he was all ashamed of sex, believed the body to be sinful, etc. But it was only his guilt and shame that gave their enemies leverage over him. He now rejects what he calls the “mystic’s” false distinction between mind and body. Which, good for him, I guess.
Except that he’s blithely conflating the philosophy of every spiritual and theological belief system into one tenet about how sex shouldn’t be fun, which is… false. Untrue. Hiding from reality, to use Rand’s condemnatory phrase. Afterall, not only are there myriad spiritual traditions that celebrate the holistic nature of the self as encompassing both mind and body, but Western intellectual rationalism hasn’t exactly resolved its own contradictory attitudes towards the mind/body problem either.
Which is to say that for the length of a very boring monologue, Hank lumps everything bad in the Objectiverse under the heading of “the mystics’ morality.” Then he declares everything that is not specifically Objectivist in nature as falling into that category. Somehow this results in an epiphany that ancient patriarchical attitudes towards sex are exactly like Keynesian economics. Outside Dagny’s window, the Fonz leaps over an entire school of sharks.
Even Hank admits that he would find his own conclusions laughable if he hadn’t been convinced by his 800 pages of existence in a universe specifically designed to prove that exact point to him. Wow yeah, isn’t that weird? Here, I’ll give you guys a hint: the conclusions are still laughable, and SO IS YOUR UNIVERSE.
Long story short Hank lets Dagny down easy. He knows she already found somebody else, because she spoke about their affair in the past tense when she was on the air. He’s not jealous or upset, just happy they helped each other grow as people.
Dagny is relieved. Hank is pleased. But also kind of curious as to who her new beau is, and she can’t really tell him, but he pieces it together that she found The Destroyer, and that it was John Galt, and that he invented the miraculous ion drive, and that now she’s banished from her love for wanting to save the world. Somebody get this guy a pipe and a magnifying glass.
And so, with the Galt-Taggart-D’Anconia-Rearden-Rearden love pentahedron finally resolved, Dagny and Hank bask in the satisfied afterglow of personal drama averted, even as the darkening world outside continues to gnaw insidiously at their idealistic guts.
PREVIOUSLY: Our heroine stumbled upon John Galt and his organic, locavore, good-vibes utopia in the Rockies. It’s a little weird.
Dagny wakes up to find John Galt staring at her. She’s into it. She offers to cook them breakfast. He’s into it. He goes off to run some errands, and Dagny is all like, “Wow, I’m a feminist prototype but I’m really enjoying this traditional domestic gender role right now,” until there’s a knock at the door.
Whaddya know, it’s the Dread Pirate Ragbeard. He’s here because all the secret meritocrats come every June for summer vacation. Francisco, apparently, is late. Galt gets back and they all have a drink together. Mimosas? Who knows. It is early.
Ragbeard goes on about his noble mission to rob from the poor and give back to the rich. He mentions that Dagny has an account waiting for her at the top-secret World’s Greatest Bank here in the valley. He does not mention to Dagny that he dedicated his life to this mission as a big fuck you to a folk tale. Idiot.
After he leaves, Dagny tells Galt she doesn’t want his money because that guy is a fucking moron. Preach it sister. She and Galt settle on an arrangement. She will stay in Galt’s Gulch for the summer vacation month, then decide whether to join or leave permanently. In the meantime she will pay her way by being Galt’s servant. Which is her idea, by the way, because this bitch is mad kinky.
So then Dagny’s old employee Owen Kellogg pops by with news from the outside world. Everybody thinks Dagny is dead, including and especially Hank Rearden. Kthanksbye! Owen leaves. Dagny gets to patching up Galt’s shirts, fretting about how to send Hank word that she’s safe, when Francisco shows up.
Our Man Frankie is all in a tizzy. He’s late for summer vacation because he was desperately searching for Dagny’s body in the mountains. Galt is like, “Yeah about that…” and calls Dagny out of her servant’s quarters or wherever to reunite with her childhood sweetheart.
Frankie is overwhelmed. He confesses his undying love to Dagny, ecstatic that she is finally here and can appreciate this utopian valley, this place that he became Batman to fight for. He reminds her of the night he had the nervous breakdown in her bed, explains that he made the decision to ally with Galt that night because of her, because of a vision of the three of them here, in this future, in this refuge of freedom, all liberated together.
Dagny is overwhelmed. Francisco soothes her fears that he expects her romantic devotion in return. He understands it’s been too long for that. He is just happy and grateful that all of the secrets are now out on the table. And Dagny’s thinking, “Yeah but this is still gonna get real awkward when I tell you I’m gonna fuck your best friend.”
She and Frisco visit his house, and they talk about Galt’s Gulch and their mission and the outside world, and as always when one of Galt’s acolytes considers the world beyond Galt’s borders, they get extremely resentful and bitter and threatening. But Dagny is so overwhelmed with the journey-to-Oz-like nature of her experience that even that is starting to seem natural. NOOO Dagny! Resist The Destroyer!
Anyway, summer vacation passes day by day, it’s all pretty uneventful. The community holds lectures and seminars on science and futurism but Dagny isn’t allowed to come. She can go to the concerts and plays though. We don’t get any details about them but I think we can be sure they are The World’s Greatest.
Meanwhile all the submissive roleplay at her new job is getting Dagny extremely worked up. Whenever Galt leaves the house she paces around thinking about all the dirty dirty things they could do together. Jesus, just rub one out Dags. You’re usually so ahead of the curve on this stuff.
This routine carries on. Galt comes home, flirts and taunts her, she digs at him right back. “I’ve been watching you.” “You want to hold me here, don’t you? Keep me to yourself?” “Yes.” Then, once the gears are wound, they go to their separate rooms and
masturbate furiously Dagny listens to Galt lighting a sexually frustrated cigarette.
One day late in the month, Dagny is enjoying a private performance by The World’s Greatest Composer, Richard Halley. After he wraps up, he explains to Dagny in excruciating and rhetorically tortured detail that he loathes the outside world because audiences felt feelings when they listened to his music, instead of appreciating it as an abstract but specific intellectual argument that should be appreciated solely in line with authorial intent.
What the fuck is wrong with this guy? Maybe, if you want your work to be interpreted so specifically and intellectually, MUSIC was the WRONG FIELD. ASSHOLE.
Dagny also spends time with The World’s Greatest Actress, who is also Ragbeard’s wife by the way, just because. She said “Fuck you world” because she kept getting type-cast as sexpots and bitches. Guys isn’t their cause so righteous? It’s inspiring.
The piece de resistance of this demographic sampling is when Dagny meets The World’s Greatest Mother, who is the only person allowed to bring children into Galt’s Gulch because
they don’t fit neatly into Ayn Rand’s philosophy she wants to home-school them. And also banish irrationality from their lives. Good luck with that.
And then, on a quiet starry evening some time around halfway through the summer vacation, Dagny finds herself sitting outside The World’s Greatest Philosopher’s house with Akston, Galt, Francisco, Ragbeard, and Ragbeard’s Wife. The men reminisce about their time at Patrick Henry University, and that one time Galt came up with this crazy idea of living peacefully in a remote valley and oh yeah also destroying civilization because “Fuck you world.”
This reminds Dagny of her meetings with Dr. Stadler, the boys’ other mentor from Patrick Henry, the disillusioned man whose life-force finally atrophied because he… took a job funded by grant money? Ayn, we’re like 700 pages in here, could you please stop ruining evocative characterizations already? Ugh. Anyway if y’all think Stadler sucks now wait til you read the next chapter.
So Akston is like “If I could murder anyone on earth — not that I condone murder — but if I did want to murder someone — not that I do, because I definitely do not condone murder — I would totally murder Dr. Stadler. Theoretically. If I condoned murder. Which I don’t.” And Dagny just nods, because as fucked up as this place is getting, let’s face it: when you’re drowning in kool-aid it’s impossible not to drink some.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American lives. In the case of Ayn Rand, there is a second act, she just sucks at writing it.
But now we’re near the end of the literary death march known as “Part Two: Either/Or” and things are finally starting to pick up again. The nation is firmly and totally under the control of corrupt executives and bureaucrats. Francisco has confirmed the existence of a conspiracy among the off-the-grid elites. And Rand’s morally abhorrent moral philosophy is beginning to come into sharper focus.
If we take a step back though, what becomes clear is that Rand’s morals are exactly what keeps Atlas from being more impressive. She has after all created a world of exhausted energy resources and excessive consumerism, where the heroes pursue technological advances that will create a more sustainable and renewable civilization, and the villains are vested big-money interests and the willfully ignorant politicians who enable them. Yet for some reason this book is about how the poor as a class should be treated as subhuman. What?
It’s also important to note that Ayn didn’t realize the depletion of natural resources was an actual looming danger, or that unchecked consumption poisons the earth as well as society. According to Ayn, the problems in the Randverse could have been solved long ago if Hank Rearden and Ellis Wyatt were left free to “Drill baby drill,” if only those yellow-bellied liberal pussies wouldn’t hold them back.
The irony, of course, is that the sustainability dangers are real in an objective way, verifiable by applied science and deductive reasoning. “Drill baby drill” might be a necessary stalling tactic to keep society running while renewable energy gains traction, but it is at best a stopgap measure. Rand’s Objectivist version has none of this foresight. Arthur C. Clarke she ain’t.
So in Objectivism (if not objective reality), threats of fossil fuel consumption and environmental corrosion are just false fronts for the liberals to enact an evil agenda that they won’t admit to anyone, least of all themselves. You can really see here just how influential the Rand worldview is on Republican ideology today.
This is why, now that we’re getting back to the thematically meaty part of the book, I’ve started replacing the protagonists’ talk of moochers and looters with vulture capitalists, moral vampires, and consumer zombies. The two sets of terms are vaguely synonymous but differ vitally in the details. Specifically, my descriptors cut across class and political boundaries whereas Rand’s place blame for society’s ills squarely on one side of the income and political spectra.
By making this change, I like to think I make the Randverse more widely relatable, not to mention recognizable as a relevant commentary on our world today. The American right circa 2012 thinks Ayn’s O.G. interpretation of Atlas is a relevant commentary on politics today, but their worldview simply doesn’t line up with the facts, the objective reality, in which we actually exist.
With this slight shift in the focus of moral blame I think the story actually gains potency as Ayn’s critiques get more extreme, rather than the original version in which the author’s awkward and bizarre proselytizing ruins the dramatic tension. Now, though the crisis is still rooted in moral degradation as Rand claims, the failings are not attributable to just one class or political party.
Part Two, as I mentioned above, is titled “Either/Or.” Either Objectivism, or nihilism. And, well… I choose Neither. Insofar as it encourages a perilous, willful denialism, a false consciousness about the objective state of the world that endangers that world, Objectivism can itself be nihilistic. It is not always and necessarily so, but neither is altruism or progressivism. There is no mutual exclusivity between the two sides of Ayn’s “either/or” proposition; no contradiction. And once you surgically remove Ayn’s insistence that there is, Atlas Shrugged gets waaaay way better.
PREVIOUSLY: The feds charged Hank Rearden and Ken Dannager with black market trading. Dagny rightly intuited that the shadow faction of missing elites would pull Dannager off the grid, but she was too late to stop it. Francisco visited Rearden and was possibly recruiting Hank to the shadow faction too, but then Hank saved his life in a freak factory explosion and he backed off his agenda.
It’s Thanksigiving dinner at the Rearden’s! And in spite of all the luxury they have to be thankful for, they are even more passive-aggressive and hostile than your family. Tomorrow is Hank’s trial (two months from charge to trial? Awfully efficient for the government, no?). Lillian cites moral relativism as a reason for him to plea bargain or buy someone off. His harpy mother asks how could he put them through this. His brother outright says he’s guilty and should face a harsh sentence.
Hank is all about done with these people, thank you, and tells brother Buster to get the fuck out and never return. Everyone freezes and Buster immediately tries to walk it back, but Hank has had a moment of clarity. He sees now that his family uses guilt as a weapon, shaming him for his virtues so that he feels like he owes them something. Their entire value system is warped, he realizes, and Francisco’s speech about Atlas shrugging is ringing in his ears.
Throwing in the towel (or, napkin, I guess), Hank stands and announces he’s leaving for New York. Lillian, who has been overdosing on schadenfreude ever since she confronted Hank about his adultery, feels her grip on his conscience fading and commands him to stay. He does not. And now I bet the turkey’s cold, too.
On his drive to New York he mulls over how pervasive this sort of moral vampirism is. He figures his family is a lost cause, but he remembers that impressionable collegiate regulator that the state assigned to him. The kid turned a blind eye to Rearden’s black market arrangements with Dannager, even at the cost of his own career prospects. How selfless! There may be hope for the world yet… I mean, wait, no, selflessness means the world is doomed. Right? I think Ayn’s starting to lose the thread.
When Hank arrives in Manhattan he meets Dagny at her office, where she and Eddie are working late to minimize the damage from a terrible accident on the Transcon main line. Everything is falling apart in this country! On that score Hank tells Dagny that the next steel order for Taggart Transcon will be secretly doubled and full of rMetal. He has realized that their political enemies, just like his family, have no leverage if the likes of he and Dagny don’t subordinate their virtue in service to their vices.
Dagny is thrilled at Hank’s newfound enthusiasm for spiting the masses and takes out a bottle of lube to celebrate. Eddie is confused because he doesn’t know they’re diddling. Don’t worry Eddie, you’ll understand one day, when you’re all grown up.
JUDTJUT! That was the Law & Order noise, because we are at The Trial. The room is packed. There is no jury, just a panel of three judges at a card table or something equally unceremonious. The room suggests ‘the kind of meeting where a presiding body puts something over on a mentally retarded membership.’ Is that even a comparison to anything? I think Ayn just called you a scam artist. Or a retard. Either way, she’s not even trying anymore.
They ask Hank if he would like to make a statement in his own defense. Hank says NO, he will not make a statement in his own defense. BUT — and I know this might come as a shock — his version of “NO” is a lengthy, overwrought monologue praising anarcho-capitalism and condemning the court as a sham.
But he must be onto something because the jurists don’t hold him in contempt of court for, uh, ranting about his contempt for the court in great detail. They do not even recognize that he has waived his right to a defense. They are basically flummoxed by his bold “I will not defend myself, aside from this endless speech defending myself” approach, and they are cowed by his successful riling of the crowd. They let him off with a small fine. God this scene is just so dumb. Did David E. Kelley write this? I guess he was only one when the book came out, so… if the shoe fits.
Several weeks later. The dead of winter. Rearden is drinking alone in his hotel suite. He was popular for a minute there, after the trial. People remembered that he invented rMetal and built the Galt Line and told those lousy bureaucrats to fuck off. But the lamestream media got them back on talking points and all his fellow businessmen started asking him to cool his jets. He’s giving entrepreneurs a bad name, don’t you know. Don’t want to rile up more populist anger at the 1%.
This unthinking cowardice really pisses Hank off. Human emotion in general pisses Hank off, but whatever. The only person he really wants to see is Francisco D’Anconia, to thank him for inspiring his courtroom testimony. And Hank’s courage is liquid enough that he decides to show up at Francisco’s room unannounced.
But of course Frankie welcomes him when he shows up, and they both clearly revel in their new, unspoken bond of friendship. They shoot the shit for a minute and Frank congratulates Hank for his court performance. Hank gives him all the credit, but admits he still doesn’t get Francisco’s angle. Between you me and the recapper, he wonders, what’s the deal?
Francisco weighs his options and decides to throw Hank a bone: he admits that his public persona is an elaborate ruse. He has gone to great lengths to convince the world that he is a spendthrift playboy, but really he’s never slept with any of the women he has been associated with in the papers. In fact, he’s loved only one woman his whole life. Hank is thinking like, “Me too! This guy so gets me,” except neither of them knows they love the same woman. I smell awkward revelations coming! Does this mean we have to split into ‘shipper Teams now?
Anyway Frisco justifies his celibacy with — yes, that’s right — a long speech. The gist is that people with self-respect will only sleep with other people they respect, while people who feel worthless will seek sex to boost their esteem and will fail because the sex will be hollow and demeaning. Truly groundbreaking stuff. The takeaway is that sex and desire and pleasure are therefore not sins, are in fact sacred, unless their life-affirming potential is perverted by self-destructive motives.
Hank has mad respect for this outlook, since he’s been such a tangle of contradictory impulses when it comes to his sex life (thanks, Catholic upbringing!). As repayment for Frankie’s wisdom, he confesses to Frisco that he already came to trust him before hearing this admission of his true beliefs. He explains his plan to produce an rMetal surplus and sell it on the black market to Dagny, and pointedly adds that he ordered all the raw metals for this project from D’Anconia Copper, as a testament to their trust and friendship.
Francisco’s face falls ashen. He shakes Hank violently by the shoulders. “You fucking idiot! What behavior of mine could have possibly made that seem like a good idea? You know nothing of my work!”
Hank is completely lost. Frank kicks him out, telling Hank that he likes him but this was a huge mistake. But the sudden about-face makes no sense to Rearden until a few days later, when he learns that his shipments of D’Anconia ore have been sunk to the bottom of the sea by the dread pirate Ragbeard.
Yeah Hank, I’m mad too — your author is being a real cocktease about this pirate plotline.
The primary side effect of this tactic is that Rand backs herself into a philosophical corner and the novel itself becomes unbearably pedantic. By treating most of the history of human intellectual achievement as a nihilistic parody, and then defining Objectivism as the direct opposite and negation of it, Objectivism itself becomes a parody, a caricature of itself. Rand doesn’t just reduce her most-loathed views to the absurd; she reduces her own to the absurd, too. That’s why Francisco, my favorite character, has so far spent Part Two making questionable sermons in praise of illogical ideals.
Take Ayn’s belief in the moral incorruptibility of money, for example, which she forces into Francisco’s mouth in the “greed is good” speech from Chapter 2:2. S/he claims that “To trade by means of money is the code of men of good will.” But the code of men of good will is, obviously, to act by good will. Trade can be mutually beneficial without money as long as both parties negotiate in good faith. Money can make those transactions more efficient, but the moral character of the deal is decided by the parties and not the medium of exchange.
What Rand is really trying to do, then, is outline the code of morals by which ‘the moral law’ — or, for those of us who don’t categorically dismiss eastern philosophy, ‘karma’ — operates. Treating money as a spiritual totem and objective measure of karma is a totally unnecessary addition to this project. It is certainly not arrived at by deductive reasoning — the premise of an objective moral law that rewards honor, integrity, and hard work does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that those rewards come in a directly proportional pecuniary form. Furthermore, in an attempt to make the sanctification of money fit the experiential evidence, Rand admits her conclusion cannot be arrived at by inductive reasoning either.
Specifically, Francisco hedges that ‘money is only a tool’ whose karmic effects are only visible ‘in the long run.’ He claims that the only person fit to inherit a fortune is the one who would earn one anyway — which does not preclude people from inheriting undeserved fortunes — and that anyone with a fortune they don’t work to maintain will lose it.
This last qualification flies in the face of reality — anybody with sufficient funds can live off the interest and pay others to manage their investments, thereby purchasing more responsible financial management than they themselves could provide and thereby divorcing their net worth from their competency and merit, a.k.a. their moral worth.
Furthermore, fortunes can be created in bad faith and by exploitation, which Rand denies, and they can be used to oppress the less wealthy and accumulate unearned privilege, which Rand implicitly admits in her portrayal of Francisco’s corrupt ‘crony capitalist’ investors and their use of money to purchase laws squelching the liberties of the masses. Wealth does not by nature punish entitlement and laziness and can in fact be used to enable those same vices.
And since the idolatry of money cannot be arrived at as a necessary part of a moral code of honor, personal integrity, and hard work by deductive or inductive reasoning, Rand is ultimately making a faith-based claim about nature, a claim that describes the noumenal qualities of money as a Platonic ideal, rather than as a phenomenal reality. And faith-based claims, not to mention Platonism, are anathema to Rand’s stated beliefs. She is essentially preaching a prosperity gospel here.
This all follows from the fact that Ayn can’t just reject the Biblical wisdom that “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) — a verse which demonstrates that the prosperity gospel of the real world is itself a contradiction. No, Ayn must embrace the opposite stance, that money must be the root of all good. Yet this “either/or” choice is, again, a logical fallacy. Money doesn’t have to be the root of anything. Both positions are absolutist caricatures of a nuanced and multivalent reality.
Another example of Rand’s faulty invocation of the law of the excluded middle is in Francisco’s 2:3 speech to Rearden, when he’s declaring that the mythic Atlas should shrug if the world he supports is about to break his back. Whereas the former speech illustrated how Rand’s worship of money is literally unreasonable, this latter one exposes her irrational damning of humanity.
Early in the 2:3 conversation, Francisco tells Rearden that there are three kinds of people. There are Rearden’s equals, ‘giants of productive energy.’ There are Eddie Willers types, ‘men who could not equal the power of your mind, but who would equal your moral integrity.’ And then there are ‘whining rotters who … drift from failure to failure and expect you to pay their bills.’
Now even if you think that’s too reductive, it at least includes a “middle ground” option in the loyal, true, competent-not-excellent Eddie Willers. That’s more than one can say for most of Rand’s assessments of the world’s possibilities, except that Rand’s worldview as exemplified in the Randverse ignores even this middle ground that she herself provides. To wit —
After laying out the three categories of man, Francisco asks Rearden which type of person is riding the rMetal rails he and Dagny built, and Rearden admits it is the ‘whining rotters.’ But even with all Rearden’s equals going off the grid, where did all the Eddie Willers’ of the world go? Eddie is the book’s everyman character, the average Joe, and yet the character of the Randverse’s average man implied by her portrayal of the general populace, the “public at large,” is an intellectually insufficient and morally suspect character, a moocher. Not exactly our pal Eddie. Dare I say Ayn’s attitudes towards humanity are… contradictory?
Suffice it to say, that suffices to say. I don’t intend to spend all of Part Two picking apart the many reductively absurd arguments Rand makes. Having spent Part One roughly delineating the ways in which I think the Randverse is relevant and/or irrelevant to our ‘verse, I now consider Rand’s erroneous delineation of same as mostly an obstacle to appreciating what actually works in this book. This dissonance will only get worse throughout Part Two’s remaining chapters.
So going forward I’m going to focus these analytic posts on articulating a stronger left-libertarian alternative to Rand’s over-the-top vision. If I spent Part One considering Rand’s thesis (the effective parallels to real 21st century issues, the shout-outs to Hayek and the attendant fealty to negative liberty), my Part Two will consider a reasonable antithesis.
That will come in handy in Part Three, when the Randverse delivers resolutions and conclusions to the issues it’s raised. There, I will seek a satisfying synthesis — in contrast to Ayn, who doesn’t so much synthesize her theories as bludgeon her antithesis to death with a mallet.