Thursday, April 14, 2011

Atlas Shrugged and the Sphere, Part II

Today is Part II of our review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In Tuesday’s post I introduced what we’re doing this week, and in Part I in Wednesday’s post we covered some of the main characters and a little plot and theme. Today we cover more of the philosophy, including the three factions, as well as John Galt’s oath.

Atlas Shrugged depicts a clash of three philosophical factions. First are the looters, the inane intellectual elites, many of them at that Rearden party that functioned in the plot to give us the opportunity to hear from so many of them; included in this faction are the moochers, those who just receive the results of others’ work and take for granted that they should.  The looters, who take one step after another to limit the ability of producers to produce while pressuring them to do the impossible, are only occasionally beyond believable. We see so much of their philosophy and political behavior in our world this very year. Maybe every time the President speaks, for example. I refer to these two groups in “The Political World Is Round”:

[They] are a symbiotic mix of people demanding that government provide for their needs—health care, education, housing, redistribution of wealth, regulating use of resources, even making jobs: the demanding needy, we could call them—along with the elites who are willing to pander to the demanding needy in order to increase their personal power: the would-be dictators.

These looters are the enemy to the other two philosophical groups.

The second faction is made up of the producers, represented by Rearden and Dagny, who continue to produce in the face of the opposition. There are various smaller characters, industrialists, in similar positions, determined to keep producing, against all odds, as long as possible.

Then there is the third faction, the strikers, to which D’Anconia belongs. It is led by a character named John Galt. We hear his name often in the book; the phrase “Who is John Galt?” is used with a shrug of the shoulders to mean, “Oh well, there’s no explanation or hope for our problems.” Dagny uses the name John Galt for the line of rail built of Rearden metal, as an in-your-face insistence that the rail will work, an ironically anti-defeatist name in the face of doubt. About two-thirds of the way through the book we are introduced to the John Galt behind the legend. The phrase about him began more than a decade earlier following his standing up against an unfair collectivist takeover of the factory where he had been working. Upon leaving he promised that he would fight those ideas until he completely defeated them.

He spent the next decade-plus identifying the brain power in the nation. He recruited two schoolmates, D’Anconia and a Norwegian named Ragnar Danneskjold, to join him. D’Anconia sets out to follow the looter philosophies to the letter in an effort to get rid of his copper fortune—so that the looters, the evil first group, will have nothing to exploit. Ragnar employs himself as a feared pirate. What he is actually doing is stopping the transfer from producers to non-producers, and building up in the form of gold whatever wealth he can identify as the profit confiscated from the producers, so they will have start-up capital when the time comes to start over.

Galt and his key partners have an uncanny knack for turning up at the offices of any producer just as he reaches the end of his rope. Suddenly each producer disappears, leaving nothing behind. When the government looters recognize the pattern of producers disappearing, they make a law against it, of course to no effect.

Dagny and Rearden also recognize the pattern. They believe that someone, a destroyer, is somehow convincing these producers to leave, and it makes life for the remaining producers progressively more difficult. They promise to each other that they will not give in to the destroyer; they will survive and never give up, no matter what.

Much of the book chronicles the steps taken against them by the progressive looters, one government act after another, making inevitable an end when they disappear with the rest of the brain power of the country. (And did I mention that the US is the last producing country because the rest of the world has already succumbed to the looters and therefore are starving?)

Poverty, unemployment, and industrial devolution continue apace throughout the book. The worse the government-caused chaos, the more government insists it must control things during the time of crisis (startlingly prescient, or simply a description of the Marxist pattern?)

We learn, about 2/3 of the way through, when Dagny learns it, that the disappearing brains are actually colonizing in a hidden valley in Colorado, building up their own society based on principles of John Galt. He has an oath that he lives by and insists that others who join him must live by: “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Dagny crashes a small plane in the valley. She stays there for a month, enjoying the company of those who have chosen to live by the oath, and hearing their philosophy day and night. But at the end of the month, her love for her railroad and her hope that she can keep it by enduring to outlast the looters, keeps her from taking the oath. So, by the standards of Galt’s colony, she remains an outsider. Since they are the intellect of society on strike against the policies that enslave them, they refer to her as a scab, as crossing their strike line. But they get along well, because their view is that it’s just a matter of time until she understands what they already see.

There are a couple of lectures that reveal Rand’s philosophy more directly than storyline. One is a response, at a wedding party, by D’Anconia to a reference to money being the root of all evil. He spends half a dozen pages soliloquizing (pp. 380-385 in my copy), on the virtues of money. Worth reading. Another is a lecture by John Galt, over radio that they have seized, that covers pages 923-979. If you want a briefer version of Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, without reading the whole of Atlas Shrugged, this might be the place to get it.

We won’t get around to talking about various symbols: a breaking copper wire, a flame that burns in a mountain, among others. But there is a lot of literary richness in the book that makes it worth reading.

As an explanation of why free enterprise, hard work, and self-interest are morally superior to socialism (or state enforced legalized theft), the book is invaluable. So why don’t I give it a ringing endorsement? That’s what we’ll cover tomorrow.

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