Saturday, December 10, 2016

Atlas smirked

Just finished Atlas Shrugged. I have to admit I am confused by Ayn Rand and the hype her works beget. Don't get me wrong, rationality and laissez-faire capitalism appeal to me but I do find her narratives rather contrived and decidedly odd.

Despite its didactic tone and lack of fiction, I felt Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom" enriched me more than "Atlas Shrugged". I felt "Serfdom" conveyed the intimate link between economic freedom and liberty far better than "Atlas": self-determination of one's financial choices is a necessary pre-requisite to any and all other freedoms; freedom of speech, freedom to pursue ones ambitions and dreams, political freedom and, ultimately, free will, share the fate of financial freedom; take one and the others follow. I believe Rand's motivation is to present this same thesis in more comprehensible and intuitive narratives.

I believe Rand struggles to convey this in both "Atlas Shrugged" and "Fountainhead". Both works describe protagonists and antagonists who are equally featureless, amorphous and, ultimately, unbelievable. The denouement in both works involve lengthy, monotonous, repetitive tirades by the protagonists; Roark rambles in court during his trial, while Galt drones mercilessly for pages. Both novels also attempt to show strong women but end up almost glorifying sexual assault e.g. when Roark follows Dominique from the quarry.

Even if one were to blame Rand's milieu for the disservice to female characters, the parables fail to suspend disbelief and distract from the core message. The Fountainhead, for example, constructs a society inexorably hurtling into the abyss of coercive governmental altruism. In this context, Roark and Dominique represent a dwindling minority of individuals fighting for their personal freedoms. And yet, the court and jury in Roark's trial, populated with individuals from this same universe and who most likely subscribe to the disfavored altruistic ideology, are swayed by Roark's inconceivably long "since the beginning of time" testimony. This incongruity essentially places the court and the jurors outside the putative social construct, to the extent that the jury nullification exonerates Roark for vandalism and destruction of property. Not only does this seem highly unlikely, it also violates Rand's notions of capitalistic ownership. Even if Roark owned his initial designs, he owned neither the land, the raw materials, nor the final chimerical building. So in demolishing the building, Roark essentially usurped and destroyed another's property. How is this not anathema to Rand's essential capitalistic, "unfettered ownership", message? How does the jury fault the government for misappropriating Roark's designs and yet excuse Roark for destroying government's property?

Meanwhile, Atlas Shrugged creates a sci-fi world tormented by a totalitarian government which overtakes hardworking businesses in the name of the common good. The "Atlas" government connives to use its legislative power, foments public opinion to blackmail, and uses coercive policing to achieve its endeavors, motivating all the capitalists, including intellectual capitalists such as those trained in the Dark Arts of science, technology, engineering, math, art, music, cigarette rolling, fossil fuel extraction, banking, etc. so basically people who like to make things in exchange for fair wages for their efforts, to up and leave in protest. This capital flight causes "Who is John Galt?" to enter the vernacular of the hapless and feckless masses as an expression of futility paralleling perhaps "God knows" or "Who knows" or "Who cares" (and the like) from our real-world.

The individuals who thus decamp the carcass of the increasingly communist United States of America congregate in a secret valley in the Rocky Mountains. This "Hidden Valley" is an allegorical microcosm of the erstwhile laissez-faire United States of America. The residents of "Hidden Valley" shun contact with the external world and instead trade amongst themselves goods and services wrought from their superlative capital, be it monetary, physical, or intellectual, by means of a gold-backed legal "dollar"; there is no reserve bank, but the initial market and coinage was apparently bankrolled by a certain banking magnate named Magnus Midas.

The Valley is protected from prying eyes by a science-fictional vision field akin to the one from the latest edition of "Star Trek: (Bed, Bath and) Beyond". The whole commune, including the "Cloak of Invisibility", is powered by a perpetual motion machine housed in a fully autonomous power plant. The power plant is protected by a speaker-agnostic natural language processing voice sentry system.  The passphrase to unlock said hi-tech theft deterrent is inscribed in bold capital letters above the door. All these technologies and the commune itself were created by a brilliant engineer, the aforementioned John Galt, with funding from Midas. It's not clear if the commune is owned by a corporate structure or what the terms of agreement between Galt and Midas are. It's also left unspecified if the entire valley is owned by the founding members and its inhabitants as a limited partnership. The readers are also spared from the basic politico-socio-economic construct of utopia: it is unknown if the newcomers are forced to rent from Midas-Galt or are assigned habitats or what the general laws governing land titles and deeds and life in general are.

The reader is steered clear of any tangible alternatives to the impugned socio-economic constructs of the "outside" world. Instead, the story (mainly) revolves around three super-human industrialists endowed with pulchritude, gumption and wealth, Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart, Francisco D'anconia, and their mustached self-deluding nemesis, James Taggart.

Hank Rearden is a self made steel magnate who is beset in his domestic life by moochers in the form of a dainty socialite wife, a resentful mother and a lout of brother. Rearden's family is happy to denigrate his dedication to his business and consequent fortune, and yet is given to emotionally blackmailing him into providing comforts borne by the same. His greatest accomplishments include a science-fictional green steel-alloy "Rearden Steel" and an extramarital affair with Dagny Taggart.

Danny Taggart, the train loving scion of the Taggart dynasty, serves as the sole sensible executive of the railroad behemoth Taggart Transcontinental. In addition to experiencing teenage sex with fellow industrial heir, Francisco D'anconia, Dagny labors to restructure and turnaround her eponymous family business. In this endeavor, she is often frustrated by her misguidedly altruistic brother, James Taggart. Her attempts to revive the company hinge on laying new tracks with Green Steel and improving the company's bottom line by reducing the cost of transportation while fairly competing with the rest of the increasingly regulated train industry. She's also romantically involved with the aforementioned Hank, Francisco, and John.

Francisco D'anconia is an apparent paragon of physical and mental perfection who realizes the error of the world's ways after (or around the time of) having teenage sex with Dagny. He then promptly disappears for a large section of the book to mysteriously appear in unexpected situations, including as an anonymous but highly skilled steel worker helping Hank Rearden fight a molten steel leak in Rearden's mill. It is not clear if Francisco is a founding member of the valley or holds a pecuniary stake in its financing structure given his large patrimony.

James Taggart in addition to being the president of Taggart Transcontinental serves to highlight the errors of self negation and altruism: he marries a department store salesgirl to demonstrate his humility leading her to eventually commit suicide. He also attempts to work with the government to create a legislated and regulated transportation monopoly which is supported in part by public funds. His personal and financial abnegations are contrasted against the laissez-faire sexual competition and business actions of his adversaries.

In the process of plumbing the depths of despair and ruin inflicted on society by a coterie of legislative altruists and communists, the reader experiences the struggle of the industrialists as they lose their companies and a portion of their souls to the soulless socialists. Science and media are perverted to spread destruction and canards as companies are taken over by nebulous and nefarious "worker's unions".

The narrative climax sees John Galt captured by James Taggart and his cohorts. The malcontents proceed to torture Galt using a electrical contraption fashioned from science purloined and perverted by their unholy nexus. When the machine breaks down in the midst of torture, John offers technical support to his non-technical persecutors from the torture bed. This causes massive cognitive dissonance, not just in the minds of the reader but also the tormentors, leading to the villians' nervous breakdown. This event is also coincident with the advent of a rescue team formed by the aforementioned industrialists now transformed into gun toting action figures. It is left to imagination if Dagny wore heels or a bracelet fashioned from "Green Steel" on this excursion.

The sheer incredibleness of the plot, the implausibility of characters and the impossibility of critical story constructs distract from the central message that free will and free economics are inextricably intertwined. Rand repeatedly expounds that contradictions "do not exist in nature", yet they apparently proliferate in her work.