A Reader’s Guide to Atlas Shrugged, Part 8
Spoiler Alert: You do not need a reader’s guide to Atlas Shrugged—at least not for your first reading. Ayn Rand’s novel is clear, compelling, eminently readable, and perfectly comprehensible on its own terms. Yet Atlas is also a rich and complex novel, with an intricate plot in which dozens of moving parts mesh together and many minor themes are woven in amongst the novel’s big philosophical issues. It rewards further study, and my goal in this series is to share what I’ve learned about the novel over decades of reading it and thinking about it.
This series assumes that you have already read Atlas Shrugged. That means there will be plenty of “spoilers”: discussion of important plot points that will ruin the novel’s suspense for someone who does not already know how it all turns out. I don’t want any reader to find himself slapping his forehead in the middle of one of these articles and thinking: if only I hadn’t missed out on this experience that has now been wrecked for me.
So take this spoiler warning seriously. I mean it.
If you haven’t read the novel and need some inducement, read the overview I wrote on the 50th anniversary of its publication—then go read Atlas Shrugged, then come back to this.—RWT
Who is James Taggart?
That’s not exactly the question that gets us interested in reading Atlas Shrugged. In fact, it’s the opposite of the question that gets us interested. But Ayn Rand spends a lot of time in the novel exploring this question, bringing us farther inside her main villain’s miserable psyche than we might have wanted to go.
And that’s interesting, because her critics usually claim the opposite, that her characters are “two-dimensional” and unrealistic, that her heroes are simply “spokesmodels” for her philosophy and that her villains are cartoon caricatures. I will deal with Ayn Rand’s heroes elsewhere, as I’ve been doing throughout this series. But let’s look specifically at this idea that her villains are unrealistic and two-dimensional.
Which raises the question: if Ayn Rand’s villains are so unrealistic, why do people in the real world keep insisting on speaking and acting like them?
I first raised this question in response to a screed by British environmentalist George Monbiot in the leftist newspaper The Guardian. Writing about the Copenhagen Summit, the most recent attempt to impose draconian restrictions on private industry under the pretext of stopping global warming, Monbiot identified the underlying issue.
The summit’s premise is that the age of heroism is over. We have entered the age of accommodation. No longer may we live without restraint….
Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits.
There is no space for heroism here; all passion and power breaks against the needs of others. This is how it should be, though every neuron revolts against it.
As I put it, Monbiot makes clear that “the goal of the environmentalist movement is not anything so trivial as capping our carbon. It’s about crushing our spirits.”
Monbiot’s article is an impressive audition for the role of Ellsworth Toohey, the socialist intellectual from The Fountainhead. Compare Monbiot’s paean to restricted life to Toohey’s confession:
Make man feel small. Make man feel guilty. Kill his aspiration and his integrity….
This is most important. Don’t allow men to be happy. Happy men are free men. So kill their joy in living…. Bring them to a state where saying “I want” is no longer a natural right but a shameful admission….
Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy. Let progress stop. Let all stagnate. There’s equality in stagnation.
Monbiot even identifies Ayn Rand as representing the opposite of his outlook, referring to his opponents as “clutching their copies of Atlas Shrugged.” And Atlas has its own Tooheys: the power-hungry intellectual Floyd Ferris, and the relativist philosopher Simon Pritchett, who tells us:
It is this insistence of man upon meaning that makes him so difficult. Once he realizes that he is of no importance whatever in the vast scheme of the universe, that no possible significance can be attached to his activities, that it does not matter whether he lives or dies, he will become much more…tractable.
Back to Monbiot, who gets more specific about how Tractable Man spends his spare time: “All those of us whose blood still races are forced to sublimate, to fantasize. In daydreams and video games we find the lives that ecological limits and other people’s interests forbid us to live.” Or maybe Monbiot could compensate for his sense of aborted personal efficacy by seeking political power over others, just like an Ayn Rand villain. Oh, wait. He’s already doing that.
Speaking of the other Toohey type from Atlas Shrugged, at one point Floyd Ferris makes the following philosophical argument:
A man’s brain is a social product. A sum of influences that he’s picked up from those around him. Nobody invents anything, he merely reflects what’s floating in the social atmosphere.
Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957. In 1966, sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann published a book titled, The Social Construction of Reality, and their view has since been recognized as a formal school of thought called “social constructionism.” Today, you can hear this notion repeated as a bromide on any college campus. (In our current cultural moment, you are most likely to hear it from those who insist that “gender” is not biological but socially constructed, so that dressing up a man in women’s clothing makes him a woman.)
Or you might hear this kind of collectivism from the president of the United States. During a campaign rally in 2012, Obama declared:
If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own…. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
This should remind you of Jim Taggart’s rant about Hank Rearden:
He didn’t invent iron ore and blast furnaces, did he? He didn’t invent smelting and chemistry and air compression. He couldn’t have invented his Metal but for thousands and thousands of other people. His Metal! Why does he think it’s his? Why does he think it’s his invention? Everybody uses the work of everybody else. Nobody ever invents anything.
Or consider this, from Rearden’s resentful younger brother Philip: “He didn’t dig that ore single-handed, did he? He had to employ hundreds of workers. They did it. Why does he think he’s so good?”
Let’s take another example, from “The Philosopher’s Zone,” a feature of the Australian Broadcast Corporation, which examines the question: “Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?”
So many disputes in our liberal democratic society hinge on the tension between inequality and fairness: between groups, between sexes, between individuals, and increasingly between families.
The power of the family to tilt equality hasn’t gone unnoticed, and academics and public commentators have been blowing the whistle for some time. Now, philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse have felt compelled to conduct a cool reassessment….
Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.
So, what to do?
According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.
“One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.”
Swift ends up not going that far, but he concludes:
I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.
In a follow-up, one columnist had the presence of mind to ask the ABC reporter “if it might be just as easy to level the playing field by encouraging other parents to read bedtime stories.” His reply: “We didn’t discuss that.”
There’s a characteristic kind of exchange in Atlas Shrugged where one of the villains is droning on about his collectivist theories and one of the heroes interrupts with a question that exposes a basic logical flaw in the whole scheme. The villain then dismisses the interruption without even stopping to notice the absurdity. This is a real-life version of that scene.
Atlas Shrugged is full of pouting “humanitarians” who launch into saccharine speeches about “compassion” and “the heart,” as excuse for not thinking. Note that a lot of these characters, like Jim Taggart and Philip Rearden, get to boast about how much they don’t care about money because they’ve always had it, thanks to the far more productive members of their families. And here in real life we find Peter Buffett, the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. The younger Buffett is a “philanthropist” who manages a foundation, and he recently argued against the need for charities to measure the results of their generosity (in order to demonstrate whether they’ve actually helped anybody or not). Instead, he declares that “Philanthropy Must Lead with Its Heart.”
As Valentine’s Day approaches, we are struck by a paradox that confronts philanthropy. The very meaning of the word philanthropy is “love of humanity”—yet the concept of love is almost never discussed in our sector….
As humanity progresses through time, our narcissistic tendencies may be getting the best of us. It’s imperative that we see ourselves in a loving relationship to each other and our planet if we are going to survive—collectively and quite possibly individually….
As our foundation seeks to address the root causes of big global challenges, all we see is symptom after symptom of a poisoned root. It’s systemic: education, agriculture, politics, media—the planet and the people—all commoditized to buy and sell.
This has led us to a new way to think about our role: alchemy. In a world in which everything is a commodity, we’re going to try to turn money into love. Into trust. Into safety. The first elements in the periodic table of relationships.
Then again, maybe this isn’t quite like something out of Atlas Shrugged. It might be a tad too maudlin for Jim Taggart.
So yes, Ayn Rand’s villains are so unrealistic that you can’t read the news without having their ideas and even their style of expression pop up on a regular basis.
This is precisely what converted me to a fan of Ayn Rand’s writing. When I first encountered her work, I read about 200 pages into Atlas Shrugged and put the book down because I thought it wasn’t realistic. She was a very powerful writer and vividly constructed the world of her novel, I thought, “but the real world doesn’t work that way.” Then over a period of months, I would be watching the news, or reading a newspaper, or having a conversation, and I would find myself thinking, “That’s just like something out of Atlas Shrugged.” I began to realize that perhaps the book was realistic and the world did work that way.
None of this should be a surprise because for every example we can think of today, Ayn Rand had an example drawn from the newspapers of her day. While working on Atlas Shrugged, she kept a “horror file” of statements drawn from books, newspapers, and magazines, some of which she would later share with her readers, like this one, a summary of an academic seminar at Wesleyan University.
Perhaps in the future reason will cease to be important. Perhaps for guidance in times of trouble, people will turn not to human thought, but to the human capacity for suffering. Not the universities with their thinkers, but the places and people in distress, the inmates of asylums and concentration camps, the helpless decision-makers in bureaucracy and the helpless soldiers in foxholes—these will be the ones to lighten man’s way, to refashion his knowledge of disaster into something creative. We may be entering a new age. Our heroes may not be intellectual giants like Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein, but victims like Anne Frank, who will show us a miracle greater than thought. They will teach us how to endure—how to create good in the midst of evil and how to nurture love in the presence of death. Should this happen, however, the university will still have its place. Even the intellectual man can be an example of creative suffering.
So if some of the passages above seem like life imitating art, that’s because art began by imitating life.
To be sure, statements exactly like those of the villains in her novel are not as common in real life and are not usually stated as explicitly. But that’s the whole point of the novel—to project the way things would be if those attitudes became more commonly accepted and more stridently stated as a matter of course. The world of Atlas Shrugged is supposed to be a more intensified version of trends already at work in the world at the time she wrote it—and which are still at work in the world today.
Seeing President Obama echo the sentiments of James Taggart suggests how close the parallels still are. Fans of Atlas have long played the game of coming up with a list of our favorite actors to join the ideal cast for an Atlas Shrugged adaptation. But here’s a more interesting notion: how about trying to cast the characters in the novel from real life? You’ll find that’s easy to do with the villains.
Incidentally, I’m offering this up as a free idea for the future producers of another Atlas Shrugged adaptation, as a way of making it seem immediately relevant to the politics of the day, without risking that the adaptation will feel too dated a few years later. For the roles of the political villains, cast actors who are right for the roles on their own terms—but who are also recognizable as look-alikes of real, current political figures. We won’t necessarily find perfect analogues who match Ayn Rand’s characters in every respect. But we can definitely find people who match her characters in some important respect. Here are a few suggestions drawn from the politics of the early 21st century.
For Wesley Mouch, I would cast the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. What makes him similar to Mouch is the same sense of stubborn blindness. It is said that Krugman used to be a decent economist who did valuable work on the nature of international trade. But since he became a political commentator, he is most famous as a dogmatic advocate of the Keynesian Broken Window Fallacy, the idea that destruction is good for us because the rebuilding will stimulate economic activity. So Krugman has argued that the 9/11 terrorist attacks would be good for the economy, or maybe earthquakes, or even that an attack by space aliens would be just what we needed to get out of the Great Recession. No version of this fallacy is too ridiculous for him. His practical purpose is to argue that the federal government should borrow trillions of additional dollars to spend in a massive attempt to stimulate the economy. What I once called the “peculiar madness of Paul Krugman” was his insistence, faced with the failure of 2009’s economic “stimulus,” that the only reason it didn’t work was because it wasn’t bigger. This is what reminds me of Wesley Mouch, the Top Co-ordinator of the Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources, who keeps proposing new government controls on the economy, and when they fail, always complains, “I need wider powers.” No matter what the problem, it’s never the fault of his policies, and more government is always the answer.
In Atlas Shrugged, Eugene Lawson represents the idealistic “humanitarian” wing of the pro-big-government faction. But he’s a curious kind of humanitarian who talks a lot about love yet seems much more driven by hatred. Which makes him Bernie Sanders. In his campaign for president, Senator Sanders is the politician who supposedly stands for a compassionate government that is going to provide all sorts of things to us for free. But his stump speeches actually put a much bigger emphasis on the great progressive cause of hating billionaires, whom he presents as an enemy to be defeated.
If we are serious about transforming our country, if we are serious about rebuilding the middle class, if we are serious about reinvigorating our democracy, we need to develop a political movement which, once again, is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation. The billionaire class cannot have it all. Our government belongs to all of us, and not just the one percent.
We need to create a culture which…cannot just be based on the worship of money. We must not accept a nation in which billionaires compete as to the size of their super-yachts, while children in America go hungry and veterans sleep out on the streets.
Then there is Mr. Thompson, the “head of the state,” the equivalent of the president. (Ayn Rand doesn’t use the normal names for American political institutions. He’s not the “president,” just the “head of the state,” and there’s no Congress, just “the Legislature.” It’s her way of letting us know that something has changed and that the American political system is not what it once was.)
I once did some ill-fated work on a screenplay for an Atlas adaptation, and it gave me the opportunity to spend a lot of time working with the characters’ dialogue, picking excerpts, making cuts, stitching parts together. You begin to get a real feel for the rhythm and style of each character. I spent a lot of time working on the dialogue for Mr. Thompson, and I found after a while that I could get him pitch-perfect if I just kept one thing in mind: he’s Joe Biden.
There’s the relentless glad-handing. When you read his dialogue, picture that famous, flashing-toothed Joe Biden smile.
There’s the lowbrow colloquialisms. There’s the soul of the horse-trading machine politician. But above all else, there is one thing: his weakness for poorly thought-through brainstorms that seem really shrewd but end in disaster. That’s classic Joe Biden.
To get a feel for Biden, read a terrific profile of then-Senator Biden written just after 9/11. It starts with Biden berating a group of constituents for standing against him on a political issue, but “strangely, Biden keeps grinning—even fraternally slapping the stunned man’s shoulder a couple of times.” And it ends with this anecdote.
At the Tuesday-morning meeting with committee staffers, Biden launches into a stream-of-consciousness monologue about what his committee should be doing, before he finally admits the obvious: “I’m groping here.” Then he hits on an idea: America needs to show the Arab world that we’re not bent on its destruction. “Seems to me this would be a good time to send, no strings attached, a check for $200 million to Iran,” Biden declares. He surveys the table with raised eyebrows, a How do ya like that? look on his face.
The staffers sit in silence. Finally somebody ventures a response: “I think they’d send it back.” Then another aide speaks up delicately: “The thing I would worry about is that it would almost look like a publicity stunt.” Still another reminds Biden that an Iranian delegation is in Moscow that very day to discuss a $300 million arms deal with Vladimir Putin that the United States has strongly condemned. But Joe Biden is barely listening anymore. He’s already moved on to something else.
If you realize that Mr. Thompson is Joe Biden, it really helps make sense of a crucial point in the resolution of the novel’s plot: the scene in which Dagny Taggart talks Mr. Thompson into holding a big televised event to introduce Galt to the public. You can’t understand it unless you understand Thompson’s impulsive pragmatism. He is a man unmoored by any principles and unguided by any deep, serious knowledge. He is convinced that everyone else in the world is as unmoored as he is and therefore just as amenable to the temptations of power and vanity. Hence his quip to his underlings, when one of them suggests that John Galt sounds like “a man who’s not open to a deal.” Thompson responds: “There’s no such thing.”
Incidentally, if you understand this, you will understand Mr. Thompson’s role in the plot. Technically, in literary terms, he is not really a villain. He doesn’t actively drive the evil events in the plot and tends merely to acquiesce to them, as at the end when he allows Dr. Ferris to take Galt off to be tortured. (As Ayn Rand first describes him, “he was a product of chance and knew it and aspired to nothing else.”) And when the whole system comes crashing down, there is no real reckoning for Mr. Thompson as there is for most of the other villains. He is merely left cut off from power—literally—and irrelevant.
No, Mr. Thompson is not really a villain. He’s comic relief. Just like our current vice-president.
But if we’re talking about figures of the current political moment, what do we do with Donald Trump? Certainly he does not fit with the businessmen-heroes, as was made painfully clear in a parody that imagined what would happen if you tried to write Trump into a party scene from Atlas Shrugged.
Trump slouched against the buffet table as Rearden held forth on the merits of his newly invented wonder alloy, Rearden Metal, which was said to combine the tensile strength of a spider’s web with the durability and load-bearing capacity of the purest titanium. Rearden was saying that his metal, with its unheard-of resistance to heat, could revolutionize the smelting of vital industrial ores in foundries of such might as to approach the heart of the sun, when Trump interrupted the conversation.
“Rearden Metal? Let me tell you something about metals. Now I happen to be quite an expert in metals, and alloys, and it’s very well known that my opinion counts for a lot in these things. Reporters, cable TV guys, metallurgists, all the polls, they say Trump’s the go-to guy when you want the latest on metals. Trump knows metals, they all tell me. It’s a fact. I’ve been making deals in the metal markets for a long time. And not your average everyday metals, no tin pots at a Trump hotel. I’m talking about high grade metals, the very best of metals, you understand. Gold, platinum, all of your classier metals, that’s what you’ll find at my resorts and casinos. All of the guests at my Trump Atlantis resort, they come up to me after dining on USDA prime angus steaks, those mouth-watering steaks you can only find at world-class restaurants and exclusively through The Sharper Image with my Trump Steaks brand, the very best steaks you can buy, with my beautiful silverware, and they say, ‘Donald, I have never seen such rare and expensive metals as are on display at your five star resorts and casinos. Where do you find such metals?’ And I tell them I know all there is to know about metal. You could say, and people have said it, very influential people say it, they say it all the time: that Donald Trump is America’s foremost expert on metals.”
As Rearden cleared his throat to reply, Trump went on. “And it’s because I know people. I make deals. I negotiate the lowest and best prices for the finest quality metals. I do it all the time. Not like Rearden here, who to put it frankly, doesn’t know metals the way I do. Now Hank’s a good friend, Hank and I go back in the metals markets, so I hate to say it, but Hank doesn’t know his metals, doesn’t know his alloys, doesn’t know his chromium from a hole in the ground. Totally ignorant about metals. A very low energy guy, this Hank Rearden. Came up in life the hard way, dug his way out of an iron mine. And it shows. Hank Rearden would never be admitted to one of my top-rated golf courses, the groundskeeper would take one look at Hank and he’d say, ‘This guy looks like a bum. Probably dug his way out of an iron mine, or a coal smelter, or something.’ And who can blame him? Everybody come round and look at this guy Hank: he’s wearing Rearden Metal cufflinks. Jesus Christ, is that what you wear to a business gathering, among all these titans of industry? No class. And no Rearden Metal, not at any of my hotels and resorts, which are consistently rated five stars, the best in the world. I wouldn’t use a Rearden Metal club at the training hole at a Putt-Putt Goofy Golf in Fargo North Dakota, and I sure as hell wouldn’t allow one at the Trump golf course and country club at Mar-A-Lago, the finest in south Florida, where the waiting list for a guest reservation is six months, the most exclusive golf resort in the United States of America.”
This is a gentle parody of Atlas and the way it presents its business heroes as sophisticated, tasteful, and eloquent, which I will admit might not always be true in real life. But it is much more a parody of Trump, whose inarticulate bluster and contemptuous indifference toward specialized knowledge makes him the exact opposite of an Ayn Rand hero.
In his specific personality traits, Trump actually seems a bit more like a character from The Fountainhead. Notice the classic trait of the “second-hander”: his habitual appeal to the crowd to support his claims and deflect criticism. He answers questions by referring to his poll numbers or to what “everybody says” about how great he is. More specifically, he has the gauche, populist public persona of Gail Wynand—the gaudy luxuries, the publicized affairs with beautiful women, the pandering to the lowest common denominator—with the soul of Alvah Scarret, Wynand’s second-in-command at The Banner. The difference between Wynand and Scarrett is that Wynand uses sensationalistic, muckraking journalism to pander to a rabble he despises from a position of intellectual superiority. Scarrett does it because sensationalistic muckraking is who he is. He is expert at pandering to the mob because that’s what is already in his soul. As to which of the two Trump resembles, let’s just say that I really doubt he has a secret collection of highbrow art tucked away at Mar-a-Lago.
But if we move past these specific details and look for a deeper psychological resemblance, Trump is frighteningly reminiscent of Jim Taggart. He inherited a fortune and set himself up as a big wheel, an important man, the ultimate deal-maker—with many of his deals based on his political connections. But analyses of Trump’s fortune indicate that all this furious deal-making hasn’t really increased his wealth. He has done worse than if he had just soaked up the sun in Palm Beach and parked his father’s money in an index fund. So why all the active management of his portfolio? Precisely so he could view himself as a big man and inflate his own importance—and woe to anyone who punctures that puffed-up image.
We can sense in Trump the same sense of wounded insecurity as Taggart, the same frantic need to prove himself to the world as a big and important person, without having to actually gain the virtues that would justify it. And when we’re not as impressed as he wants us to be, he lashes out in the same way. Consider the story of a British reporter who profiled Trump in the 1990s. When she resisted his charms, he harassed her for decades afterward.
Over many years he sent me a series of intimidating letters branding me “sleazy, unattractive, obnoxious and boring.” He said I was “totally uptight,” and that I had begged him for a date. In his dreams!
This vicious tirade was often accompanied by fanzine newspaper cuttings which purported to show how much money he was making. He scrawled across the top: “Selina you are a major loser.” Another letter declared: “Dear Selina, I hear your career is going terribly. In the meantime I have had the best year of my entire career. Fitting justice? Yours truly, Donald Trump.”…
This harassment only stopped when I threatened to take legal action against him for effectively stalking me.
What James Taggart does to Cheryl Brooks—where he keeps trying to browbeat her into awe of him by insisting that “my work is bigger than any job you can hope to imagine”—is more subtle by comparison, but along the same lines.
I’ll admit that I’m cheating a bit here, because I’m defending Ayn Rand against the accusation that her villains are caricatures by citing a real person who is, arguably, a caricature. But that’s the intriguing thing, isn’t it? People do have a tendency to become caricatures of themselves. Or to put it differently, they have a tendency to follow their basic premises to a more and more consistent extreme, to carry their worldview to its logical end result. The Internet has coined a term for this, Poe’s Law, which points out that at the extremes, it is impossible to tell the difference between the sincere expression of a particular view and a parody of it.
That leads us to look at this issue in a more positive way. When people talk about Ayn Rand’s characters being caricatures, what they are actually complaining about is the way she does, in fact, explore the motivations of her characters and draw them out to their logical extremes.
Ayn Rand’s villains aren’t just there to chew the scenery. They represent a variety of different outlooks, attitudes, styles, and ideologies of evil—both the ideologies, and their psychological manifestations.
My favorite is Eugene Lawson, the embodiment of the inhumanity of the altruist “humanitarian.” He is the watery-eyed bleeding-heart “liberal” who likes to talk in pleading tones about “compassion”—while also being the most remorseless, draconian, bloodthirsty advocate of tyrannical government. Late in the novel, as the economy is collapsing, here is Lawson’s response.
“People could do with fewer material gadgets and a sterner discipline of privations,” said Eugene Lawson eagerly. “It would be good for them.”… [Dagny] saw that Eugene Lawson, the humanitarian, took pleasure at the prospect of human starvation.
If you think that sounds unrealistic, there’s plenty of historical precedent. Ayn Rand’s mentor, Isabel Paterson, had Robespierre in mind when she described this type as “the humanitarian with the guillotine,” who is going to achieve the betterment of humanity one severed head at a time.
It is Lawson’s reaction to Galt’s Speech that captures the basic contradiction of altruism: “It’s the most vicious speech ever made! It…it will make people demand to be happy!” This is what I’ve called the Auden Paradox after a line from W.H. Auden: “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.” The contradiction is that happiness is always good for somebody else, but never for you. Which means that the altruist is just paying lip service to the good of others. In practice, the only part that is actually important to him is your sacrifice and suffering—which is what motivates Lawson.
Floyd Ferris is the Kantian intellectual who comes up with complex logical arguments against logic, turning reason and science against themselves in order to remove the barriers to political power. Kant famously sought to deny knowledge to make room for faith. Like The Fountainhead‘s Ellsworth Toohey, Ferris is a modern, secularized version, denying knowledge to make room for the state.
Cuffy Meigs is the brute materialist, both in his theory of economics and in his soul. Consider the two main descriptions we get of him.
He had a yellow complexion, curly hair, a hard face made of soft muscles, and the revolting handsomeness belonging to the esthetic standards of barroom corners; his blurred brown eyes had the empty flatness of glass.
Cuffy Meigs strode through the offices of Taggart Transcontinental, wearing a semi-military tunic and slapping a shiny leather briefcase against his shiny leather leggings. He carried an automatic pistol in one pocket and a rabbit’s foot in the other.
You can notice here a couple of details that subtly creep in toward the end of the novel, as the nation is sliding toward dictatorship. First, the names of the political villains become more lowbrow and informal. There are fewer grey little Ivy League bureaucrats like Clem Weatherby and more guys who rolled off the mean streets with names like Cuffy Meigs and Chick Morrison. Second, we start to see government officials take on military affectations. I suspect this is something Ayn Rand picked up from her experience with Soviet Communism. Totalitarian regimes have always implemented a kind of militarization of society, because in this perverted form, military culture instills two key characteristics of the totalitarian worldview: regimentation and the worship of force.
But this is also something she might have drawn from American examples, particularly in her first decade in America, during the grand collectivist schemes of the New Deal. Meigs may well have been inspired by Hugh Johnson, a retired Army general appointed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 as administrator of the National Recovery Act, responsible for imposing a regime of price controls. Johnson was notorious for distributing fascist pamphlets on “The Corporate State,” being “domineering and abusive,” and drinking heavily.
Interestingly, these three characters end up being Jim Taggart’s key political allies. In the internecine squabbling over political spoils, Jim is part of the “Ferris-Lawson-Meigs faction.” Note how the three are seemingly incompatible: the unintellectual brute joining forces with the calculating intellectual and the sentimental humanitarian. But Ayn Rand throws them together to make the point in the end they cooperate to produce the same result. The intellectual who denies reason needs the brute to wield force for him. The humanitarian who demand that people sacrifice themselves is setting up a great racket for the brigand who wants disarmed victims ready to give up the loot. It doesn’t matter if you abandon reason because of pseudo-intellectual rationalizations, or because of your feelings, or because you just don’t care. It all leads to the same result.
So she is using these characters to demonstrate some very profound points, based on real experience, about the psychology and practical meaning of widely accepted ideologies.
I guess it comes down to the question of what it means for a character to be “three-dimensional.” But what could be fuller and deeper than to draw out your characters based on their basic outlook on life? And that brings us back again to the villain we spend the most time with and whose soul we witness in the most introspective way: Jim Taggart.
Why does Ayn Rand spend so much time delving into Jim’s psyche, even adding a secondary character, his wife Cheryl, whose only role in the story is to draw him out more fully? What makes Jim interesting as a character, the issue that takes the whole course of the novel to reveal, is a fascinating paradox: is Jim an idealist or a swindler? Does he sincerely believe his fuzzy headed humanitarianism, or is it just a cover for his cynical political manipulations?
What’s interesting is Ayn Rand’s answer, which is: yes. He is a sincere altruist and a cynical manipulator. And it doesn’t really matter, because they both bring him to the same result.
The cynical side of Jim is his presumption that the producers and thinkers are there to serve him, to be bossed around and exploited. Because he can’t match them, he wants to make them follow his orders and clean up his messes. But that is also the essential message of his moral “idealism.” When he says that it is the duty of the strong to serve the weak, he means that it is the duty of the competent and self-reliant to sacrifice themselves to those who don’t have those virtues—him first and foremost.
I’m your brother, therefore I’m your responsibility, but you’ve failed to supply my wants, therefore you’re guilty! All of mankind’s moral leaders have said so for centuries—who are you to say otherwise?… I want this kind of world, today’s world, it gives me my share of authority , it allows me to feel important—make it work for me!—do something!—how do I know what?—it’s your problem and your duty! You have the privilege of strength, but I—I have the right of weakness! That’s a moral absolute!…
There was no reason to feel more revulsion than usual, she thought; he had merely uttered the things which were preached, heard and accepted everywhere; but this creed was usually expounded in the third person, and Jim had had the open effrontery to expound it in the first.
So the two sides of his personality are not opposites but two perspectives on the same thing. His cynical psychology is identical in its essence to his moral idealism. This is why we need to explore the character of Jim Taggart: he is central to Ayn Rand’s critique of altruism. He is meant to demonstrate the real, practical meaning of the philosophy.
In the real world, this cynicism is a basic feature of dictatorships and statist schemes. Al Gore, after decades of railing against the dangers of industrial capitalism and fossil fuels, becomes a multimillionaire off of oil money. Hugo Chavez launches a socialist revolution in Venezuela, proclaiming, ser rico es malo, “to be rich is bad,” and today the richest person in Venezuela is his daughter. This happens so often it’s a cliché. Under every system of altruism, the leaders of the system always live like royalty.
This is an issue Ayn Rand first explored in We the Living, in which an idealistic young Communist realizes that the ultimate beneficiaries of the revolution are corrupt bureaucrats. It was her experience under Communism that showed her the symbiosis between slogans about the good of society and schemes of official plunder. Others might have been content to attribute this to mere hypocrisy, and a writer satisfied with two-dimensional caricatures would have left it at that, portraying someone like Jim Taggart as a con-man motivated by the very greed he denounces. Even in We the Living, however, Ayn Rand had begun to grasp that the sacrifice of the idealists to the manipulators was not a betrayal of the system but part of its whole point from the very beginning. So she kept following that thread until, in Atlas, she follows it all the way down, below even the level of morality to its deepest metaphysical and epistemological roots.
As the novel goes on, we delve deeper into Jim’s psychology, and we find that the real driver of both his whining and his schemes is that he has no real identity. There is nothing to him, and he deeply fears and suspects that he is worthless. So he tries to compensate by seeking power over others and specifically the ability to destroy them.
“You bet I’ve worked hard. My work is bigger than any job you can hope to imagine. It’s above anything that grubbing mechanics, like Rearden and my sister, are doing. Whatever they do, I can undo it. Let them build a track—I can come and break it, just like that!” He snapped his fingers. “Just like breaking a spine!”
He speaks that line to Cheryl, who later sums him up as a killer who kills for the sake of killing. That was just a metaphor, but in the real world, this has been well-documented as the basic psychology of a serial killer. The common psychological profile of a serial killer starts with an inflated sense of entitlement to power and greatness, combined with the knowledge that in actuality, he’s a loser living in his mom’s basement—which causes him to seek a sense of power and importance by means of his ability to inflict pain and death on others.
But there’s one more layer of Jim’s character left. As we go beneath that, we get to a deeper paradox: does Jim know what he is doing, or not? It’s part of the big question that keeps Dagny Taggart mystified almost to the very end of the story.
Dagny observed some faces—it took her an effort fully to believe it—who were looking at Galt with hatred. Jim was one of them, she noted…. They hate him for being himself—she thought, feeling a touch of cold horror, as the nature of their souls became real to her—they hate him for his capacity to live. Do they want to live?
There’s an old philosophical conundrum that dates back to Socrates: is it possible to knowingly do evil? If you held fully in your mind the harmful consequences of an action, could you still do it? Imagine trying to force your own hand to stab yourself with a knife. It seems impossible.
The key part of that question is: could you do evil if you fully knew and kept in your consciousness its meaning. Jim Taggart is Ayn Rand’s philosophical and psychological answer to that question. Until the very end of the story, Jim Taggart never really knows, fully and explicitly, the evil of his actions—because he doesn’t allow himself to know it. He is constantly skirting towards that knowledge and frantically pushing himself away from it. And his real evil is that act of evasion.
Here is Ayn Rand’s description of one of Jim’s painful, reluctant run-ins with introspection.
It seemed to him that his brain was a maze where a blind alley opened at every turn, leading into a fog that hid an abyss. It seemed to him that he was running, while the small island of safety was shrinking and nothing but those alleys would soon be left. It was like the remnant of clarity in the street around him, with the haze rolling in to fill all exits. Why did it have to shrink?—he thought in panic. This was the way he had lived all his life—keeping his eyes stubbornly, safely on the immediate pavement before him, craftily avoiding the sight of his road, of corners, of distances, of pinnacles.
This—worked out by way of an introspective narrative inside Jim Taggart’s head, in response to the unraveling crises of his marriage and business deals—is Ayn Rand’s answer to the conundrum posed by Socrates. What makes evil possible is the choice to evade knowledge of the full meaning of one’s actions.
This also explains the final resolution of the plot, in the showdown between Jim Taggart and John Galt. It is Galt who is being tortured by the Ferris Persuader, but it is Taggart who is drawn to confess his fundamental nihilism.
“Jim, hasn’t he had enough? Don’t forget, we have to be careful.”
“No! He hasn’t had enough! He hasn’t even screamed yet!”
“Jim!” cried Mouch suddenly, terrified by something in Taggart’s face. “We can’t afford to kill him! You know it!”
“I don’t care! I want to break him! I want to hear him scream! I want—”
And then it was Taggart who screamed. It was a long, sudden, piercing scream, as if at some sudden sight, though his eyes were staring at space and seemed blankly sightless. The sight he was confronting was within him. The protective walls of emotion, of evasion, of pretense, of semi-thinking and pseudo-words, built up by him through all of his years, had crashed in the span of one moment—the moment when he knew that he wanted Galt to die, knowing fully that his own death would follow….
It was not by means of words that his knowledge confronted his consciousness: as all his knowledge had consisted of emotions, so now he was held by an emotion and a vision that he had no power to dispel…. [H]e was seeing his face as the face of a killer whom all men should rightfully loathe, who destroyed values for being values, who killed in order not to discover his own irredeemable evil.
“No…” he moaned, staring at that vision, shaking his head to escape it. “No… No…”
“Yes,” said Galt.
What causes Taggart’s psychological breakdown is the knowledge of his own motives, which the showdown with Galt forces him to confront.
So rather than staying on the surface of her villains, Ayn Rand takes us as deep as it is possible to go into Jim Taggart’s character, and we do it in a way that is intimately tied to the development and resolution of the plot.
We find out who James Taggart is, all right, and in the process we learn about much more than the personality quirks of one particular villain. We’re grappling with basic questions about the nature of evil as such—which makes her villains among the deepest and most complex in literature.