Atlas Shrugged?

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“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

­- Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight

 

 

During my collegiate years, I was searching for answers as to why “the world” was the way that it is, and whether I ought to change it for the better, or simply endure it. Seldom were there any real answers in my coursework or textbooks, yet I stumbled upon an essay-writing contest for college-bound/freshman year students who had or would read Ayn Rand’s purported magnum opus. Needless to say, I didn’t receive any rewards or payouts, but what stuck with me were the ideas she presented in her novel, which tantalized me with the notion that maybe they were translatable to real life.

Not until two years or so later did the Great Recession happen, and what truly concerned me was how the banker bailouts mirrored the various legislative enactments that had occurred within Rand’s novel. What started as a passing fancy for me suddenly transformed into an urgent mission to warn people about what is going on in this country. Thus began my foray into the alternative media; first as a blogger, then a podcaster, and most experimentally as a videographer & vlogger, before returning back to podcasting occasionally but mostly blogging, which is now what I do today.

Given that it has been 9 years since I’ve joined the alternative media, I think it is long past time to reevaluate the novel that truly inspired me to become an independent media content producer in the first place. Was the promise of Objectivism really all that it was cracked up to be, or did Rand’s experimental philosophy just peter out? Either way, it has irrevocably changed my life forever.

Most critiques and apologetics regarding Rand’s epic novel typically revolve around the socio-economic implications of her character depictions, particularly that of the heroic industrialists versus the scheming looters. Unfortunately, many of the “side” characters are often ignored by both Objectivists and their critics alike, so what I would like to do here is to focus on two such characters – Orren Boyle and Ragnar Danneskjöld. Lastly, I would like to offer a glaring contradiction made by John Galt during his filibuster speech about the initiation of the use of force vis-à-vis the “proper” role of government.

Orren Boyle is depicted as a minor villain; he is introduced thusly in Part I, Chapter 3:

 

“Orren Boyle had appeared from nowhere, five years ago, and had since made the cover of every national news magazine. He had started out with a hundred thousand dollars of his own and a two-hundred-million-dollar loan from the government. Now he headed an enormous concern which had swallowed many smaller companies. This proved, he liked to say, that individual ability still had a chance to succeed in the world.”

 

Chances are that government subsidized corporatists like Boyle would support the mercantilism of Alexander Hamilton. Boyle told his fellow looters:

 

“My purpose is the preservation of a free economy. It’s generally conceded that free economy is now on trial. Unless it proves its social value and assumes its social responsibilities, the people won’t stand for it. If it doesn’t develop a public spirit, it’s done for, make no mistake about that…[i]t seems to me that the national policy ought to be aimed at the objective of giving everyone a chance at his fair share of the iron ore, with a view toward the preservation of the industry as a whole…[b]ut I guess there aren’t many people in Washington capable of understanding a progressive social policy.”

 

Notice how the words “social” and “policy” are repeatedly used to promote collectivism (not to ignore “public” and “national”). I think Rand brilliantly depicted the use of verbicide by authoritarians who use language to disguise their real meaning. Later in Part II, Chapter 6, Boyle tells a larger group of fellow authoritarians some of his difficulties:

 

“What profits? When did I ever make any profits? Nobody can accuse me of running a profit-making business! Just look at my balance sheet – and then look at the books of a certain competitor of mine, who’s got all the customers, all the raw materials, all the technical advantages and a monopoly on the secret formulas – then tell me who’s the profiteer!”

 

Boyle went on to issue odd statements, like people shouldn’t buy anything new until everybody had lots of old stuff (or something to that effect). My point here is that due to his use of graft and pull, Boyle was able to ingratiate himself with key bureaucrats like Wesley Mouch and Mr. Thompson, thereby gaining undue advantage over his competitor by forcibly limiting the production of a “strategic metal” to an amount not exceeding that of other steel mills. This is the epitome of fascism, and I think it is too bad that Rand did not emphasize this pivotal realization harder than she did, for I think that clearly demarcating the line between corporatism and laissez-faire would finally demonstrate to the “progressive” leftists the error of their ways, which seem to be rooted in economic illiteracy.

Ragnar Danneskjöld is the only one of the strikers who actually bothers to physically attack the looters. During what I honestly consider to be the most important scene in the entire novel, Danneskjöld explains himself in Part II, Chapter 7:

 

“I do not rob men who are tied and gagged, I do not demand that my victims help me, I do not tell them that I am acting for their own good. I stake my life in every encounter with them, and they have a chance to match their guns and their brains against mine in fair battle. Fair? It’s I against the organized strength, the guns, the planes, the battleships of five continents…I am merely complying with the system which my fellow men have established. If they believe that force is the proper means to deal with one another, I am giving them what they ask for. If they believe that the purpose of my life is to serve them, let them try to enforce their creed. If they believe that my mind is their property – let them come and get it.”

 

Simply put, Danneskjöld is a vigilante, not unlike V or Batman. He is, quite literally, giving the looters a taste of their own medicine in a very direct and visceral way. Naturally, his style conflicts with that of nearly all the rest of the strikers, as Danneskjöld points out in Part III, Chapter 2:

 

“I’m used to objections. I’m sort of a freak here, anyway. None of them approve of my particular method of fighting our battle…[t]hey think that my life is too valuable for it…[i]f my fellow men believe that the force of the combined tonnage of their muscles is a practical means to rule me – let them learn the outcome of a contest in which there’s nothing but brute force on one side, and force ruled by a mind, on the other.”

 

From this scene, there’s a feeling that the other strikers merely tolerate Danneskjöld’s strategy, yet they do not accept it as being desirable, either for themselves, or more importantly, for Danneskjöld himself. Immediately following the rescue of John Galt from the torture room at the State Science Institute, Danneskjöld remarks in Part III, Chapter 10 that:

 

“One of these centuries, the brutes, private or public, who believe that they can rule their betters by force, will learn the lesson of what happens when brute force encounters mind and force…[t]onight was the last act of violence that I’ll ever have to perform. It was my reward for the twelve years. My men have now started to build their homes in the valley. My ship is hidden where no one will find her, until I’m able to sell her for a much more civilized use. She’ll be converted into a transatlantic passenger liner – an excellent one, even if of modest size. As for me, I will start getting ready to give a different course of lessons. I think I’ll have to brush up on the works of our teacher’s first teacher.”

In other words, Danneskjöld is retiring from piracy in order to begin his new hobby of teaching Aristotelian philosophy within the utopian hideout of Galt’s Gulch. Truthfully, Danneskjöld is really the only striker who pushed the non-aggression principle (NAP) to its limits, although one critic thought he openly broke it. Whatever you may judge the morality of Danneskjöld’s actions to be, I’d also like you consider the ethical qualms presented by contemporary fictional vigilantes like Frank Castle or Oliver Queen.

John Galt is essentially the Messianic Christ figure for Objectivism. During his approximately three-hour filibuster, Galt explains the following in Part II, Chapter 7:

 

“Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate – do you hear me? no man may start – the use of physical force against others. To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death in a manner wider than murder: the premise of destroying man’s capacity to live…I do not place my moral sanction upon a murderer’s wish to kill me. When a man attempts to deal with me by force, I answer him – by force. It is only as retaliation that force may be used and only against the man who starts its use…[h]e uses force to seize a value; I use it only to destroy destruction…[a] holdup man seeks to gain wealth by killing me; I do not grow richer by killing a holdup man.”

 

This isn’t a completely bad way to explain the NAP, which only prohibits the initiation of the use of force; that is, coercion. The only ethical justification for vigilantism, then, would that it must be discriminatory and retaliatory in nature (and quite possibly, proportional as well), so as to forcibly halt the destruction of value already produced; fundamentally, this is a justification for self-defense. However, Galt jumps the shark when he later says the following during his “epic” speech:

 

“The only proper purpose of government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man’s self-defense, and, as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force. The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law. But a government that initiates the employment of armed compulsion against disarmed victims, is a nightmare infernal machine designed to annihilate morality: such a government reverses its only moral purpose and switches from the role of protector to the role of man’s deadliest enemy, from the role of policeman to the role of a criminal vested with the right to the wielding of violence against victims deprived of the right of self-defense. Such a government substitutes for morality the following rule of social conduct: you may do whatever you please to your neighbor, provided that your gang is bigger than his.”

 

Ah, so that’s where the holy trifecta of the police, the military, and the law courts came from! First of all, government “law” enforcement is unconstitutional. Second, the Army of the United States wasn’t the only form of a constitutionally enumerated military entity, for there was also the Militia of the several States, which were customarily made up of the common people themselves. Thirdly, judges and juries seldom protect property in any sense, preferring instead to convict defendants for mala prohibita (victimless crimes); this is the reality, not the theory, of the democratically republican form of “limited” government – simply put, the law is a racket!

If history taught us anything, it is that the smallest governments inevitably become the largest despotisms. The fact of the matter is that institutionalized coercion, as expressed in the government’s monopoly on the production of law, renders potential competitors for security and adjudication services essentially outlawed, usually for mimicking judicial process. To paraphrase Josie Wales, the Great American Experiment proved that the Founding Founders were right about all the powers the government shouldn’t have, but they were wrong about all the powers it should have; in essence, the Great Experiment in limited government demonstrated that limited government itself is a myth.

Since Objectivism must be followed rigidly, it is for this reason primarily, despite my sympathetic affection for it, that I never joined up with either The Atlas Society or the Ayn Rand Institute, thereby becoming an Objectivist myself. It’s not my disagreement with Objectivism regarding metaphysics that irked me so much as its insistence upon the labor theory of value as a presumptive truth undergirding capitalism, (and by extension, limited government), which seemed quite arbitrary to me. I don’t see it as either useful or principled to rebut communists on their own terms using the labor theory of value, when it’s noticeably easier (and more accurate) to promote the Austrian School’s subjective theory of value, which cuts off the authoritarian central planners at their knees.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is subpar when compared to We the Living, which I personally consider to be her true magnum opus, as a cautionary tale about the evils of communism. Truth be told, Atlas Shrugged is really more of a “gateway” novel that inspired actual libertarian novelists to improve upon this type of fiction by surpassing Rand herself, as was done in The Probability Broach and even The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. In the final equation, my conclusion is that Atlas Shrugged and Objectivism have both been most successful, not in changing the world for the better, but merely as a recurring American pop culture meme, as evidenced by the Bioshock video game series, fictional vigilantes such as Rex Graine and Lonnie Machin, as well as satirical parodies, like Atlas Snubbed, Mozart was a Red, and the Cobra Commander Dialogues.

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