Atlas Shrugged V: The Professionals
As you’ll recall last time, the main issue our so-called heroes were facing was that the railroad was wearing out. Specifically, the Rio Norte Line, which was getting its ass handed to it financially by some brash young upstart, was in desperate need of repair. And Dagny Taggart decided she was going to use the new magical Rearden metal. And she was arguing with her brother, Jim. So with that in mind, let’s pick up the tangled thread of this narrative.
Now, as I’ve pointed out before, Rand shoots herself in the foot from the first page. She makes all of her heroes amazing and dynamic masters of industry, and all of her villains more wishy-washy than John Kerry on a “wash your wishes in the Nile” field trip. To the point where you’re wondering why their positions aren’t flip-flopped. There is no indication that anyone, anywhere wouldn’t let Dagny take over. Every time she makes a suggestion to Jim, he waffles, than accepts it. So why in hell doesn’t she do what corporations everywhere do when there is some crotchety old bugger who’s an utterly useless drain on the system: create a position called “CEO in Charge of Public Relations,” and shove him gracefully out to sea on an iceberg of money. Let Jim run around and play kissy face with the novelists, and Dagny can get some work done.
This idea is so obvious that you can’t help but wonder why she didn’t do it. One possibility is that Dagny is just passive aggressive, and likes letting her brother twist in the wind. Like so:
“The Mexican government is going to nationalize your line any day now.”
“That’s a lie!” His voice was almost a scream. “That’s nothing but vicious rumors! I have it on very good inside authority that-”
“Don’t show that you’re scared, Jim,” she said contemptuously. He did not answer. “It’s no use getting panicky about it now,” she said. “All we can do is try to cushion the blow. It’s going to be a bad blow. Forty million dollars is a loss from which we won’t recover easily. But Taggart transcontinental has withstood many bad shocks in the past. I’ll see to it that it withstands this one.”
“I refuse to consider, I absolutely refuse to consider the possibility of the San Sebastian Line being nationalized!”
“All right. Don’t consider it.” “
Think back to every action movie you’ve ever seen with a generally incompetent character. And, sure as God made little green apples, there will be the scene where Our Heroes rush in, type in the correct password to deactivate the nuclear device, and just give the hapless one A Look. They don’t gloat. Because gloating isn’t heroic. They just take over, and do what needs to be done, because someone has to, and Dumbass McUseless over there isn’t gonna do it.
But Dagny passively stands aside. As a matter of fact, of the “good” characters in this novel, she is the only one who isn’t the head tycoon. Everyone else is president, CEO, and usually sole owner of their company. Rearden, Wyatt, Midas Mulligan: they’re all the old-school tycoon type. But Dagny isn’t.
And I do hate to tantalize like this, but yes, I’m sure this is related to Rand’s view on the role of women. And yes, when the time comes, that will be an absolutely fascinating, if somewhat creepy alley to walk down. But the fact is, now is nowhere near the best time to get into that. There are still sex scenes, and scenes with chains, and…well, it gets very creepy in this book. But for now, suffice it to say that Rand seems to believe that this is as far as Dagny would rise.
More properly, she seems to feel that this is as high up as she can place Dagny. It’s not because she doesn’t feel that she could write from the position of someone at the top of the heap: she writes from Rearden’s perspective, after all. And it isn’t that she doesn’t think Dagny is really running the company. It’s just that Ayn Rand had a deeply fucked up view of women, and this is one small but nasty tentacle of that sexist octopus.
But leaving aside the metatext: Dagny seems shockingly unwilling to engage in the sort of commonplace Wall Street power play she should’ve made a year ago. She is apparently willing to continue to let this company that she loves be destroyed rather than simply displacing Jim. The logic, apparently, is that if Rand just makes Jim slimy enough, our sense of outrage will prevent us from noting that she hasn’t kicked his whiny ass out of the captain’s chair.
I suppose if you were to corner Rand, she would say that the reason her villains are so weak and wishy-washy is that they are not the real villains at all: the weakness and wishy-washyness is the true villain of the story. But as our little lamented previous president so aptly showed, you can’t declare war on a word.
And you can’t have heroes who don’t do things. Well, ok, perhaps in the coolest most post-modern novels, you could have a hero who saves the world through inaction. But Rand hates those smelly post-modernists and their silly ideas that maybe, just maybe, we should take off the rose tinted glasses once in a while. For traditional manly men like Hank Rearden, action is life. They live to move, to fight, to be what Wolf Larsen called the biggest piece of the firmament.
And, if there is a novel that stands in sharp contrast to Atlas Shrugged, it is Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. I bring this up for two reasons. One, I need a little break from writing about Atlas Shrugged here, and two, this novel couldn’t be a better response to Objectivism if the back cover photo was Jack London peeing on a copy of “The Fountainhead.”
For those of you that haven’t run across this one, it’s the story of a literary gentleman who is shanghaied onto a seal hunting ship. This ship is run by the monstrous Wolf Larsen, who believes in no God, no good, no philosophy but “The strong survive by eating the weak.” It was published 53 years before Atlas Shrugged, and sets out to disprove Rand’s central thesis. Wolf Larsen is, physically and mentally, very close to the perfect man. He is inhumanly physically strong, teaches himself calculus and invents a revolutionary new star chart. And he is a brute. With no philosophy but his own success, he is cruel and rapacious, killing or not killing, destroying or not destroying on his own whim. He is a renegade, and like the wolf, admirable from a safe distance.
Rand lacks London’s courage, for even while her heroes reject society and its shackles, they do so in a half-hearted manner. She claims that she has created man taken to his limits, shown human beings perfected. That her philosophy taken to the extreme (what Atlas Shrugged claims to portray) creates Man Perfected. London neatly cuts the feet out from under this argument. The central, and extremely unsubtle subtext of his novel is that man left to his own devices, given power and strength, without even the bonds we place on ourselves, becomes a brute destroyer, given over to pleasure and what London calls “piggishness.”
That Rand’s characters do not become Wolf Larsen’s shows that Rand is lying to herself. That her claim that her characters can believe that the highest good is individual profit, is simply a lie. (And before you go, “But yes, that book is fiction, it doesn’t constitute proof!” remember that Rand herself believes that this novel is a proof. A is A, Ms. Rand. You seem fond of that argument.)
So, this point is where Rand first starts to lose what little coherence this novel had in the first place.
“I’m not interested in. helping anybody. I want to make money.”
“That’s an impractical attitude. Selfish greed for profit is a thing of the past. It has been generally conceded that the interests of society as a whole must always be placed first in any business undertaking which-”
“How long do you intend to talk in order to evade the issue, Jim?”
“The order for Rearden Metal.”…
She remained silent; he was forced to ask, “Did you decide to order it just like that, on the spur of the moment, over a telephone?”
“I decided it six months ago. I was waiting for Hank Rearden to get ready to go into production.”
“Don’t call him Hank Rearden. It’s vulgar.”
“That’s what everybody calls him. Don’t change the subject.”
“Why did you have to telephone him last night?”
“Couldn’t reach him sooner.”
“Why didn’t you wait until you got back to New York and-”
“Because I had seen the Rio Norte Line.”
“Well, I need time to consider it, to place the matter before the Board, to consult the best-“
“There is no time.”
“You haven’t given me a chance to form an opinion.”
“I don’t give a damn about your opinion. I am not going to argue with you, with your Board or with your professors. You have a choice to make and you’re going to make it now. Just say yes or no.”
Ok, so, lets get unpacking, shall we campers?
First of all, no liberal in the history of Liberalism has ever dreamed of saying: “Selfish greed for profit is a thing of the past. It has been generally conceded that the interests of society as a whole must always be placed first in any business undertaking.” That’s not liberalism. That’s not even communism. That’s not even Marxism. It’s Stalinism, in the sense that Stalin’s ministry of propaganda might say something like that.
Second, if Dagny decided this six months ago (seven months after the contract was actually due, already an act of fantastic irresponsibility) why didn’t she do something then? All we have heard is how dire the situation is, and yet there is no indication that Dagny could not have done this a full year ago. Which, again, reflects on her. If we are to believe that she is the person Rand claims she is, there is no way around it- she has been acting irresponsibly. Lackadaisically, even.
Third-that little line at the end. Again, Rand is uncertain of the mechanics of her own world. It could be supposed that if all decisions had to go through the board in the first place, that Dagny would’ve been helpless until now. But if all that was required was to bully Jim, then, again, why not a year ago?
The most striking thing about this entire scene is the almost petulant unprofessionalism that we are expected to applaud. The Slacktivist has often commented on this in the Left Behind books. There, supposed ‘journalist’ Buck routinely treats important figures with the same sort of petulance that Dagny shows here. One of the marks of the true professional is that they never lose their cool. Later on in the book, reactions to bad news are described in near erotic detail, and the thing that Rand stresses is the cool professionalism of her characters. That no matter what, you never let ‘em see you sweat.
And to their credit, most of these other characters actually do maintain their professionalism in the most dire situations. Except Dagny. Throughout the book, she will be notable as the least professional of the assorted businessmen. And it starts here, with this petulant and passive-aggressive discussion with her brother that she should have had a year ago.
The next few pages are filled with foreshadowing and a somewhat turgid description of Rearden’s factory. With lines like “They saw towers that looked like contorted skyscrapers, bridges hanging in mid-air, and sudden wounds spurting fire from out of solid walls. They saw a line of glowing cylinders moving through the night; the cylinders were red-hot metal,” it’s hard not to feel that Rand likes machines just a little too much.
The next interesting piece is in her description of the trains passengers.
A passenger, who was a professor of economics, remarked to his companion: “Of what importance is an individual in the titanic collective achievements of our industrial age?” Another, who was a journalist, made a note for future use in his column: ‘Hank Rearden is the kind of man who sticks his name on everything he touches. You may, from this, form your own opinion about the character of Hank Rearden.’
Ayn Rand has the mark of the true hack, in that her characters always talk like they know they’re in an Ayn Rand novel. Her characters declaim, or pontificate, or deliver biting commentary. They never just talk. Not once, in this novel, is there a real human conversation; just twin strawmen in ironic juxtaposition. Every conversation is a battle with a pre-determined end. Human contact is no more than a confrontation from a ‘70’s chop socky flick, a desperate struggle to see whose conversational kung-fu is stronger. No wonder none of the other characters like these assholes. If every time you went up to Francisco D’Anconia to chit-chit about the latest Charlie Chaplin movie you got twenty minutes on the superiority of industrial magnates, you’d start to hold a grudge too.
And finally, a good place to stop for the day, as we introduce the next player in our little drama: Hank Rearden.
Swinging through the darkness of the shed, the red glare kept slashing the face of a man who stood in a distant corner; he stood leaning against a column, watching. The glare cut a moment’s wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice-then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair- then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hands. His body was tall and gaunt; he had always been too tall for those around him. His face was cut by prominent cheekbones and by a few sharp lines; they were not the lines of age, he had always had them: this had made him look old at twenty, and young now, at forty-five.
He sounds dreamy.
Until next time, campers.