Atlas Summer: Part Two: Chapter 7: The Moratorium on Brains


“Now go get your shine-box!”

“That was it. No more letters from truant officers. No more letters from school. In fact, no more letters from anybody. How could I go back to school after that and pledge allegiance to the flag and sit through good government bullshit.”

“For us to live any other way was nuts.  To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”

Henry Hill, Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

Chapter VII: The Moratorium on Brains

Pages: 567 – 607

Summary: The chapter begins with Eddie Willers again talking to the unknown worker in the underground cafeteria.  Another exposition dump bringing the reader up to date on things.  (Given the inordinate length of the novel and the static nature of the scenes, couldn’t Rand just as easily written an epic tome but with more action in it?  The exposition-speech-exposition shtick is wearing thin.)

Ragnar kind of looks like this guy.

In Philadelphia, Hank attempts to find a way to divorce his wife Lillian, provided she receive no money or property in the settlement.  Hank Rearden wanders down a lonely road and meets a man looking like a bandit.  The man reveals himself to be none other than the dread pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld.  Hank can be forgiven for not recognizing him, since Rand describes Ragnar as a blonde-haired blue-eyed athletic man in a windbreaker.  Despite the fact that a pirate raiding ships would make for compelling action and provide more illustrative examples of Objectivism at work, Rand chooses to have Ragnar uncork a Francis D’anconia-like speech on Hank.  At the end of the speech (about the usual topics: gold, lazy poor people, and the evil income tax), Ragnar offers Hank a gold bar.  The gold bar represents the profits the looters stole from him.  He also vows to give Hank what the government stole from him on his income tax.  In his lengthy monologue, Ragnar tells Hank that he’s raised funds from trading with black marketeers in the People’s States of Europe.  He fancies himself the Anti-Robin Hood, since he steals from the poor and gives to the rich.  More accurately, he steals from the undeserving poor and gives to the productive rich.  Hank, the perpetual Mary Sue, refuses the gold bar since he wouldn’t accept anything from a lawbreaker.

Kip Chalmers isn’t one for subtlety.

On a special train, that one could call The Poetic Justice Express, Kip Chalmers and a pair of looter sycophants travel across the country on their way to a political rally out west.  Chalmers, a Legislator, is part of the nomenklatura, a special caste “more equal” than the rest.  The train does not make it because it is beset with mechanical problems and Chalmers has to deal with the Byzantine bureaucratic foibles of Taggart Transcontinental employees.  Buck-passing by incompetents ensues until finally an outdated diesel engine is sent to the derailed train, trapped in a tunnel.  With ferocious relish, Rand describes each and every passenger of the train.  Each passenger (men, women, and children) are found collectively guilty because they subscribed to the looter philosophy.  Because of this, they meet their Objectivist-justified deaths.  Did I mention I find this ugly and repellent?

Observations: Thank the Almighty Dollar we’re nearly halfway done with this book.  With each successive chapter, it seems like Rand is daring the reader to throw the book across the room.  Her philosophy has gone from debatable to morally repellent.  I know what you’re going to say.  “This is just a book, man.  Chill out.”  Sure, sure.  So was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, the Turner Diaries, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the Da Vinci CodeUncle Tom’s Cabin was just a book too … or so people in Kansas thought until John Brown bisected them with a sharpened broadsword.

Moving on …

I mentioned in the summary that I now find Atlas Shrugged morally repellent.  The charge requires clarification and explanation.  The anarcho-libertarian thread weaving its way through the narrative is debatable.  One can discuss the philosophy’s finer points and at least come away with an appreciation for an alternate perspective on morality and economics.  What happened in Chapter VII borders on jumping the shark.  Due to the world of Atlas Shrugged becoming more and more like a kakistocracy, the reader is left with no option but to put his or her loyalty behind the philandering, wife-beating, rough sex-having Objectivist Heroes.

Ragnar Danneskjöld espouses the usual free market mythology to Hank Rearden.  Another case of preaching to the converted, or semi-converted, since Hank agrees with nearly everything Ragnar says but refuses to take the gold bar due to his own unalloyed ideological purity.  The scene’s utter lack of drama is not my concern here.  The Republic and The Symposium weren’t that plot-heavy either and the philosophical novels of the Marquis de Sade possess characters railing off equally long-winded tirades.

“Is that crazy Ayn Rand lady still yammering on about the income tax while we die on the street?”

First, Ragnar’s appearance is a bit disconcerting, given that World War 2 ended only a decade earlier.  The blonde-haired blue-eyed athletic person is the hero.  Throughout the novel, morality has been unambiguously linked to appearance.  Ragnar looks like a Nazi caricature.  Francisco D’anconia is a Spaniard.  (In 1957 Spain was also ruled by a non-communist whose first name was Francisco.)  Hank Rearden is a muscular Nordic genius.  And the entire novel swoons when it describes technology and speed … two main motifs in the proto-fascist movement called Futurism.  When do these accumulated motifs stop becoming coincidental?  Francisco Franco and Adolf Hitler were both dictators and butchers, but they were also committed anti-communists.  One of the social trends following the War was that “We had fought on the wrong side.”  One of Churchill’s crazier schemes was to continue fighting the War until the Allies reached Moscow.  It could have possibly ended the Cold War decades earlier, but it could have also seriously depopulated the Earth.

The Nazis had awesome technology that could have been used to fight the USSR.  The USSR and the USA both used Germans to build their space programs.  (Then again, FOX News has numerous blonde-haired female news readers.  I’m probably just overreacting.)

But does the ideological carpet match the drapes?

Second, Ragnar’s monologue is at once a hyperventilating rant against the status quo and a fatuous attack on the income tax.  World events provide a degree of context.  In 1956, the Soviet Union sent troops and tanks to crush the Hungarian Revolution.  The Korean War ended less than five years after Atlas Shrugged was published and World War 2 remains real and raw in the memories of every American.  So while Hungarians were dying at the hands of brutal Soviet oppression and American troops were dying at the hands of Korean and Chinese Communist arms, Rand expounds on the most profound evil imaginable: the income tax.  (NB: The income tax is in the US Consitution.  Article 1, Section 8 reads as follows:

“The Congress shall have power To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”)

The income tax reached very high levels, especially for the wealthy, in the Fifties and Sixties.  Following the Soviet incursions and real threats of nuclear annihilation, how else was the US government going to finance its military-industrial complex?  Rand and Objectivism were indeed popular, but could the free market warriors raise the funds to purchase, say, a wing of B-52s or an aircraft carrier, without the income tax?

How many Objectivist bake sales would it take to purchase a B-52?

Ironically, the libertarian philosophy espouses replacing the income tax with the flat tax.  (The income tax boils down to “the more you make, the more you pay” whereas the flat tax means “everyone pays equally.”)  Given what’s been said in Atlas Shrugged, the flat tax seems oddly egalitarian and therefore suspicious.  Only looters and second raters want to be treated equally.  That said, the US tax code should be radically reformed, since it is an incomprehensible Byzantine labyrinth and used as a mechanism for social engineering by condescending nitwits from both the Right and the Left.  It doesn’t matter which major party controls Washington, DC, the idea that the government knows what its doing is laughable.  Most politicians will slavishly adhere to whatever the polls say or whatever will garner them more votes for their inevitable re-election.  However, I don’t need Ayn Rand to tell me the government is full of crap.

But why would anyone trust his advice?

Third, Ragnar characterizes himself as an Anti-Robin Hood, since one has to justify a hatred for economic redistribution somehow.  While his characterization is typical Rand purposely misreading a common text anyone could understand, this relates to Ragnar’s anti-tax, anti-regulation anarcho-capitalist philosophy.  Rand blames the misreading on the looters (obviously), having propped up a false mythology of the needs of the poor over the proper moral of the legend, which is restoring property.

Since the world of Atlas Shrugged is such a miserable kakistocracy, a kleptocracy founded on the presumption that the government knows what’s good for the people, it allows Ragnar to justify his sleep-inducing ideological purity.

Let’s compare Atlas Shrugged to Robin Hood.

Robin Hood aka Robin of Locksley: Prince of Locksley who “stole from the rich to give to the poor,” or more accurately returned the wealth stolen from them by the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham.  (Since the Sheriff was both a law enforcement official and a tax collector, Rand has to misread the Robin Hood legend to oppose it.)

King John: A greedy incompetent boob who stole the throne from Richard, the rightful heir.  Sounds a bit like James Taggart, friend to the looters and incompetent fool.

Maid Marian: Dagny, although she’s hardly a maid as Lillian aptly noted, since she’s been laid by half the section hands of Taggart Transcontinental.  To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, Patron Saint of Snark, “If you laid the graduates of Patrick Henry University from end to end, you wouldn’t be the least surprised.”  Atlas Shrugged is like Chasing Amy, but with more minutiae about trains.

Richard the Lionheart: The saintly heroic king who had his throne stolen from him while he fought in the Third Crusade.  In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden seems a likely parallel.

The Sheriff of Nottingham: The corrupt chiseling sheriff, who extracts the earnings of the peasantry, then throws the indebted in jail.  The looter government of any people’s state seems an obvious comparison.  The Sheriff as both a law enforcement official and tax collector is representative of the libertarian concept of “limited government.”  King John was a moron, but at least he had one person doing both tasks.  The Sheriff also puts a crimp in the Objectivist mythology of limited government, since Objectivists are anti-taxes but pro-law enforcement.

Little John: Robin’s right hand man.  In Atlas Shrugged, Eddie Willers fits the bill as omnipresent sidekick.

Friar Tuck: A goodhearted friar who helps Robin.  No equivalent in Atlas Shrugged, since Ayn Rand thinks religion is for irrational stupid people.

Ragnar’s misreading of the Robin Hood legend is based on the premise that all rich people are industrious and all poor people are lazy thieves.  Since Rand deals in easy caricatures, it only follows her philosophy should be built on the bedrock of generalizations.  Suffice it to say, all rich people aren’t evil and all poor people aren’t lazy.  How ironic for a philosophy that fetishizes the individual to traffic in these generalizations.  Karl Marx, in his critique of free market economics, attacks this misguided premise at its root:

“This primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as sin does in theology.  Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race.  Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote about the past.  Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, the lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living.   …  Such insipid childishness is every day preached in the defense of property.  …   In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part.  In the tender annals of political economy, the idllyic reigns from time immemorial.  …  As a matter of fact, the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic.”

Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 (1867)

What is fascinating is that Ragnar’s tirade in favor of the powerful comes close to another atheist philosopher:

“Destruction being one of the chief laws of Nature, nothing that destroys can be criminal; how might an action which so well serves Nature ever be outrageous to her?  The destruction of which man is wont to boast is, moreover, nothing but an illusion; murder is no destruction; he who commits it does but alter forms, he gives back to Nature the elements whereof the hand of this skilled artisan instantly re-creates other beings.”

Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795), Marquis de Sade.

Which brings us to the end of the chapter, where Rand, with relish, describes a variety of individuals on the train?  In the end, they all die from inhaling toxic fumes from the old coal burning train.  Since the accident was caused by the incompetence of those following the looter philosophy, not only do the passengers die, they deserved to die.  It isn’t said so explicitly, but one can hardly misinterpret the scene.  Unfortunately for any reader of the novel, the kakistocracy is now in power and the reader has to swallow that these deaths were a good thing.  Granted, it’s just a novel, and not a well-written one at that, so my repulsion is more with the principle of the thing and not its artless inventory of caricatures traveling on the train.  So soon after World War 2 and the Holocaust, the death via smoke inhalation just didn’t sit well with me.

Quotes:

  • “That is the horror which Robin Hood idealized as an ideal of righteousness.  It is said he fought against the looting rulers and returned the loot to those who had been robbed, but that is not the meaning of the legend which has survived.  He is remembered, not as a champion of property, but as a champion of need, not as a defender of the robbed, but as a provider of the poor.”
  • “It is the foulest of creatures – the double-parasite who lives on the sores of the poor and the blood of the rich – whom men have come to regard as the moral ideal.”  This is reminiscent of another Ragnar: “Socialism, Christianism, Democratism, Equalityism are really the whining yelpings of base-born mongrel-multitudes.  They howl aloud for State intervention – “protection for suffering humanity” – regulated mill-grinding, as it were, with the State to be their Supreme Idol, their God and Master, their All-in-All, their Great Panjandrum.” (from Might is Right, Ragnar Redbeard [1896]).

  • “If men like Boyle think that force is all they need to rob their betters – let them see what happens when one of their betters chooses to resort to force.”

  • “You’re one of them, Mr. Rearden.  I cannot compute all the money that has been extorted from you – in hidden taxes, in regulations, in wasted time, in lost effort, in energy spent to overcome artificial obstacles.”  Granted the laws and regulations enacted by the looter government in the novel are profoundly stupid, this is not real life, nor should it be interpreted as such.  These generalizations simplify the novel’s drama – what little there is – but paper over complex government and corporate issues.  Living in the Great Recession, nearly two decades following the collapse of the USSR, one can see how both a totally planned economy and a totally deregulated economy can fail.  With proper regulations, the economy can be disciplined into thoroughbred performance.  With no regulations whatsoever, the economy is about as stable as a meth lab.  What makes for proper regulation?  It’s best decided on a case-by-case basis and with a non-politicized regulatory body.

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  1. Deus X. Nihilo
    March 2, 2011 at 2:41 am

    Your problems are either psychological or related to reading comprehension. Your interpretation says a helluva lot more about you than it does about Rand, as anyone else who has actually read the novel can clearly see. I suspect you’re letting your self-esteem issues cloud your analysis.

    Rand is the scum of the Earth, but Karl Marx should be a trusted authority???? A man who let his own children starve to death rather than get a job??? A man whose philosophy spawned nearly an entire century of butchery and tyranny in a lunatic attempt to institute his credo “from each according to his ability to each according to his need”???? BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA=HA!!!

    You may have noticed that the collectivist system we live in is quite literally destroying society right now, and it’s only just beginning. But when we’re all hunting for scraps in the streets just to keep ourselves alive we’ll be able to comfort ourselves by blaming Ayn Rand’s books.

    You’re a cipher. A zilch. A non-entity. Grow up.

  2. driftlessareareview
    March 2, 2011 at 5:34 am

    Speaking of psychology, Mr. God X. Nothing (I do know my Latin), you sound pretty hysterical. Marx is a trusted authority in terms of his critique of free market economics. His solutions were … well, a tad off. But both Marx and Rand were deluded idealists and both have defended systems (capitalism and communism) that have lost their worth. I trust neither system.

    And to be quite fair, one can have their children starve to death while having a job … and even two jobs.

    “Butchery and tyranny.” Yes the Commies were pretty bad, but the US has a long role in supporting pro-US dictators, despots, and absolute monarchs. So long as US business interests were followed, we turned a blind eye to human rights abuses.

    “Collectivist system we live in”? Not sure I follow. We’ve deregulated the banks, the financial system, and pretty much everything else in the last thirty years. Just take a look at the banking legislation since 1980.

    You call me names and then tell me grow up? Wow. Keep being classy.

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