Atlas Shrugged Book Club, Entry 5: The Money Speech and the Pirate Ship

Discussing Part II of Ayn Rand's dystopian novel  

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From: Jerome Copulsky
To: Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta, Michael Brendan Dougherty
Subject: Part II

After slogging through nearly 700 pages now, I've come to the conclusion that Atlas Shrugged would have benefited much from the services of a good, ruthless editor. If something is worth saying once, for Rand it is worth repeating again and again. And again. And, what the heck, again again. Even the casual reader cannot fail to get the point. And there is, Michael, not nearly enough good sex in this thing! In short, I'm finding it overwrought and an overbearing read. Rand particularly enjoys having her characters speechify, which may be a way for her to express the details of her ideology, but in a work of fiction -- one which purports to be a romance and a mystery -- it is increasingly tedious. As I suggested, it appears that Rand doesn't trust her readers to draw their own conclusions from her characters and narrative.  They must be told, over and over, about the virtue of the self-interested industrialist and the evil of the looters and their system. 

Francisco D'Aconia might be fun to run into at a cocktail party, Conor, until he got you in a corner and delivered an interminable lecture on the nature and glories of money. At that point, I wouldn't blame you if you excused yourself to get another gin and tonic. I like him better in his guise of "worthless playboy" than as a sincere (and chaste, as it happens) apostle of Randianism.

But these ideas are what the novel is all about, so in Part II we get treated to a number of disquisitions, particularly on the notion of the sanction of the victim, which Francisco explains to Hank at length, and which Hank then goes on to repeat to the court. According to Rand, it is the capitalists who are the world-historical victims, and they have willingly participated in their own destruction by giving their sanction to the morality of their oppressor. And now things are coming to a head. As Francisco tells Dagny later on as he tries to convince her to join the strike, "Our age is the climax of centuries of evil. We must put an end to it, once and for all, or perish -- we the men of the mind. It was our own guilt. We produced the wealth of the world -- but we let our enemies write its moral code."

Unite, boys! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

But such is the nature of Rand's world, where it is the producers who are exploited and the unappreciated and meek have already inherited the earth. Frankly, I am astonished by the level of resentment that Rand's heroes express, not only about their current economic situation, but also about what they regard as the debased condition of capitalists throughout history.

I mean, really, Francisco. Your people have had it pretty good. Buck up, man. (As a side note, I'm struck by how often Rand's characters, too, are "astonished" in reaction to something or other -- when they aren't feeling contempt or indifference, of course. It strikes me as a kind of tic, a go-to word -- disclosing I think, a kind of laziness of psychological imagination.)

Yet, as one ponders this Randian complaint, one wonders if things are really all that simple.  Sure, in Atlas Shrugged Rand has created a dystopian world, full of crony businessmen, power-hungry bureaucrats, and "People's States," where the virtuous capitalist finds him or herself always on the defense, hated, oppressed, and abused. But is it the case that the moral code of the world has always been stacked against him, against production and commerce? I'm more than a bit skeptical. At some point in my reading, I really wanted to tell Francisco to shut up for a moment and hand him my copy of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, for starters. Clearly, he should have steeped out from under the clouds of Professors Akston and Stadler and taken a broader set of courses at Patrick Henry University, perhaps a few in modern history.

Francisco's (that is Rand's) own lack of historical awareness comes across in passages of uncritical celebration of America. For example, in his sermon on money, Francisco exclaims that "to the glory of mankind, there was, for the first time in history, a country of money -- and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man's mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being--the self-made man -- the American industrialist."

Later on, another character remarks to Dagny that the United States "was the only country in history where wealth was not acquired by looting, but by production, not by force, but by trade, the only country whose money was the symbol of man's right to his own mind, to his own work, to his life, to his happiness, to himself."

No "fortunes-by-conquest"?

Rand's characters imagine an America born pure and pristine, without violence, without seizure, without slavery. This is simply a delusion of the first order. Ms. Rand, I have a few books for you to take a look at as well.

But it is in the train disaster at the end of chapter seven where Rand most powerfully discloses the ugly flip side of her celebration of man. Her point -- that incompetence and buck-passing lead to this kind of catastrophe -- is well taken, but her catalog of victims is shot through with real hatred. There is a display of Schadenfreude in these pages, as Rand suggests that all of these people were mere looters who met with their just desserts. And Schadenfreude, as another philosopher has taught, is not a noble virtue.

From: Michael Brendan Dougherty
To: Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta, Jerome Copulsky
Subject: Part II

After my first entry into this book club, I've all but given up the notion of evaluating Rand's unique ideas -- her particular contribution of Objectivism -- and am instead finding myself softening to her just so slightly. Of course the dialogue is terrible and interminable. And I can't help but agree with Jerome that Rand's imagination of America seems to go back only to the Edenic Vanderbilts and stretch toward the Satanic New Deal. But the exaggerations of her morality and her style that I described as like a comic-book in the first entry increasingly seem to me to fit into the general dystopian novel genre and maybe the 20th century more generally.

The premise of other dystopian novels are often just as striking. The mottos and slogans shouted in 1984 are just as sharply evil as anything in Rand. The speeches in Rand's book, though immensely longer, are not so different from the pages upon pages of Party propaganda in Orwell's work. The mathematical dystopia of egalitarian efficiency in Yevgeny Zamyatin's We is just as inhuman and contemptible as any horror of the People's States herein described. And why shouldn't these novels be drawn this sharply? The geopolitics of Rand's era are, I think, becoming distant enough from our own as to become slightly unrecognizable. Whatever is left of an "intelligentsia" in the West argues about "austerity" vs. "stimulus" -- in reality these figures barely register when measured in GDP. In Rand's time, serious intellectuals talked openly about liquidating classes, nations, religions, and fomenting revolutions that would alter human nature itself.

And even in the 1980s, a close relative of mine visited the Soviet Union. He remembers the workers at a restaurant answering his requests for more water with a sighing "Nyet." So even if Jeff Allen's account of the Twentieth Century Motor Company's fall into dysfunction and corruption is overdrawn and scorchingly moralistic, well, Rand is right about the wrongs of Communism, even if her Objectivism is revealing itself to be almost as disgusting, since it seems to treat every needy human as a wrecker of civilization and progress.

Rand's useless moochers, especially Hank Rearden's family and some of his "competitors" and those officials urging him to comply in the confiscation of his life's work, are barely even ideologues at all, especially compared to the protagonists. "Give and take. Give in and take in. That's the policy of our age -- and it's time you accepted it," another in the endless parade of lazybones bilkers urges Hank.

Even when Rearden is threatened that his refusal to give up will mean embarrassment for Dagny, I couldn't help but think how much lower the stakes were than for Orwell. No torture, and no forced betrayal on the level of "Do it to Julia!" For our other dystopians the future was a boot stamping on a human face forever. For Rand, it is Rearden's mother nagging him incoherently for several more hours.

But then there's the magical counter-looterutionary pirate. You have to give Ayn credit for baldly stating that this reverse Robin Hood is no more silly than an anti-capitalist government.

There are reams to be written about d'Anconia's famous Money speech. He says that money is not created by guns at the head. I'm pretty sure it is, actually. The Fed's credibility seems to be based on the presumed military strength and social cohesion of the United States. He's a goldbug, of course.

But I found this interesting:

Did you get your money by fraud? By pandering to men's vices or men's stupidity? By catering to fools, in the hope of getting more than your ability deserves? By lowering your standards? By doing work you despise for purchasers you scorn? If so, then your money will not give you a moment's or a penny's worth of joy. Then all the things you buy will become, not a tribute to you, but a reproach; not an achievement, but a reminder of shame. Then you'll scream that money is evil. Evil, because it would not pinch-hit for your self-respect? Evil, because it would not let you enjoy your depravity?

Is this the root of your hatred of money?

At least for a moment it seems one of Rand's heroes is really opening up a possibility for an evil kind of capitalism that isn't a form of cravenness to the state, but rather a cravenness about human nature. Can a Randian look down on capitalists who make money off vice? Or am I missing something in what Rand is implying here?