Ayn Rand’s Atlass Shrugged: Analysis and Critique

Part One:  Analysis

Exposing the means by which the looters of a nation are able to exploit the abilities of the productive members of society lies at the heart of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.  The plot of the novel makes a clear distinction between the two factions through the values each side exhibits for their worldview, and more importantly the imagery by which they express such ideals.  This is best illustrated in a dialogue that occurs halfway through the novel, in which the pirate character Ragner Danneskjöld—speaking to industrialist Hank Rearden—declares his intent to destroy the person of Robin Hood from human consciousness.  To him, Robin Hood is the embodiment of the misplaced mentality modern society has come to embrace.  He claims that it s through the legacy surrounding his exploits that the looters of today are offered a convenient excuse to promote their detrimental moral superiority, which encourages that the need of one man justifies the sacrifice of another.  Ragner Danneskjöld’s aim to eradicate the ideals, legend, and righteousness of Robin Hood, as a means to free mankind from his own self-imposed deprecation and provide him with the independent morale necessary to survive, stands as a perfect metaphorical expression to illustrate Rand’s philosophical stance for the virtue of self-interest over the misguided value of self-sacrifice.

Right from the start Ragner Danneskjöld makes it abundantly clear how his worldviews contrasts that of the man he is out to destroy, Robin Hood, and why these differences create an odious contempt against the man, and the ideals which are embodied by him.  He explains that where Robin Hood sought to take from the rich and give to the poor, he in turn is “the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich” (page 532).  Here, Danneskjöld is careful with his diction, as not to give a misconstrued representation of his words.  He uses thieving to describe the needy underprivileged poor and illustrate his belief that a group who seeks compensation, without the intent of earning their imbursements, is in fact robbing from those who have accumulated their wealth through relentless labor and resourcefulness (the productive rich).  The idea of Robin Hood, Danneskjöld states, creates a false warrant of merit where it is the inept who are justified in demanding aid from the skilled, a logic which holds little ground against objective reasoning, based on the notion that strength and intellect are factors of dominance not servitude.  Danneskjöld’s views differ in that he sees each man responsible for his own wellbeing, but realizes that this is challenged by the faux guilt hanging over the conscience of the productive few, and the widespread assurance that those with manufacturing ability have a responsibility to provide for the survival of others with lesser capabilities.  He encapsulates this partiality as, “the need of some men is the knife of a guillotine hanging over others—that all of us must live with our work, our hopes, our plans, our efforts, at the mercy of the moment when that knife will descend upon us” (p.532).  Such a grim depiction further serves to emphasize the intense abhorrence Danneskjöld feels for the looter’s ideology.  He sees the admiration of men like Robin Hood as a prime factor society has become to delude itself of the supposed inherent justice of altruism that is being offered as the only humane quality necessary for people to posses.  By encouraging these sentiments, the looters render any counterargument as nonsensical simply through the public impression that all other takes on the matter are immoral by definition.  Hence, leaving the producers and providers of society to be drained and deposed of as the needy masses see fit.

Ragner Danneskjöld’s vehement reproach towards Robin Hood stems not so much from the actual reality of the man, but the pretense which has come to symbolize him.  On page 532 he says, “It is said that 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.”  Clearly, Danneskjöld is able to differentiate between the folk hero image Robin Hood represented as someone who stood against an abusive ruling authority—and even accept the gallantry associated with it—from what he sees as a prevarication created by those seeking to use his actions to elevate their own ideology amongst the populace.  His contempt is not so much aimed at eradicating the man, but the myth of him that has come to serve the plunderers of society.  Nonetheless, Danneskjöld also understands that in order to free the world from the self-deprecation brought on by the legend, no distinction can be made between man and myth.  The reason being that as long as a man like Robin Hood exists to serve as a guiding example for the looters, it is necessary to deal with the two entities as one and the same, due to the extend the myth has come to overtake every aspect of the man’s personhood.  Danneskjöld explains his rationale plainly when he gives his assessment of what Robin Hood has become, “He is held to be the first man who assumed a halo of virtue by practicing charity with wealth which he did not own, by giving goods which he had not produced, by making others pay for the luxury of his pity” (p.532).  It is through his selfless servitude that Robin Hood’s legacy evolved into the defender of the poor, rather than the robbed.  Such an image caused the distortion which Danneskjöld hopes to destroy; the idea that the true nature of mankind involves the demand for self-sacrifice.  And, although, Danneskjöld considers it complete folly, he understands the depth to which man is capable of falling if such nonsensical sentiment continues to be valued as morally correct.

The righteousness of Robin Hood is the ultimate goal Ragner Danneskjöld wishes to remove from human consciousness.  Considering it a personal duty to relieve man of the foul virtues he has accepted through centuries of fanciful tales, which have caused the discarding of realistic sensibility.  Danneskjöld argues against an ideology that considers the preservation of the self immoral, yet praises the believe that, “in order to be placed above rights, above principles, above morality, placed where anything is permitted to him, even plunder and murder, all a man has to do is to be in need” (p.533).  The championing of need is in Danneskjöld eyes the greatest depravity luring mankind away from realizing the importance of personal interest.  A world where all men are held accountable to provide for themselves, Danneskjöld argues, is a world where every member of society will labor to achieve highest proficiency, rather than depend on someone else’s productive output.  He sees the preservation of egotism not just as a necessity for his own values to survive, but the existence of mankind as a whole.  This is best summarized by Danneskjöld in his closing words, “Until men learn that of all human symbols, Robin Hood is the most immoral and the most contemptible, there will be no justice on earth and no way for mankind to survive” (p.533).  To remove Robin Hood from the moral pedestal society has set him on, would deprive the looters of a functioning symbol to hold over the head of men striving to earn their wealth instead of waiting for free hand-outs.  As long as the idolization of someone like Robin Hood persists amongst the general public, no hope lies for the true providers of society—working not to serve another man’s needs, but solely their own interest.

The fundamental plot of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged exhibits the struggle between those few in society who have rejected the moral superiority of altruistic self-sacrifice, and the looters who use the concept of need to subjugate any trace of personal interest and basic individuality.  The character of Ragner Danneskjöld serves to illustrate the idea of what man should strive to be; resourceful, fearless, and nondependent on other men’s capabilities.  He declares Robin Hood as the one man he is out to destroy as his personal mission to rid the world of its unyielding thirst for need.  He views the ideals, legend, and righteousness of the Sherwood Forest archer as the primary symbol serving the looters false ethical cause.  Ragner Danneskjöld reasons that the fatal blow necessary for man to see through the gilded façade the looters have erected to cover their noxious ideology is the death of their idol, the original offender against the nature of man, Robin Hood.

Part Two:  Critique

Although the brief exchange between Hank Rearden and Ragner Danneskjöld is meant by Ayn Rand to logically outline her philosophical position concerning the destitute nature of altruism, a number of apparent logical faults can be found right in the midst of the impassioned dialogue.  On page 532, Ragner Danneskjöld explains how he has never robbed a single private or military vessel during his pirate campaigns against the looters of society.  The reason for the first is self-evident by the stance of Rand’s ideals on capitalism, as to why military vessels are not to be attacked, Danneskjöld notes, “because the purpose of a military fleet is to protect from violence the citizens who paid for it, which is the proper function of a government” (p.532).  However, on the same page, the pirate names his ideological foe as “the idea that need is a sacred idol requiring human sacrifice.”  The problem with this line is that it seemingly negates the point he has made about the necessity of preserving the military, since the military is a prime example of an institution that operates primarily on the notion of self-sacrifice for the sake of a particular society/country/community as a whole.  Danneskjöld’s acceptance of the need for such an establishment runs counter to his vehement promotion of individual self-interest.

Rand might argue that this is irrelevant, on account that Ragner Danneskjöld specifically mentions that the military is supposed to protect those who “paid for it,” but such a rationalization does not solve the philosophical dilemma at hand, and even leads to a number of more conundrums.  Namely, it does not address the fact that in a world where self-interest is heralded as the ideal standard of behavior, the fundamental principles of military combatants will be eradicated, because it is universally understood that a soldier is expected to give his life for his brothers in arms, and for his country, if the situation calls for it; the interests of the individual are secondary to the interest of the unit as a whole.  And, on the point of the military serving those who paid for it, one is left bemused by what exactly Danneskjöld means by this.  He mentions that such is the proper function of government, thus it implies he does support the notion that the government is to be the arbitrator of the armed forces.  However, further on in the text, Danneskjöld firmly rejects taxation as a form of robbery (p.534), suggesting that the method by which citizens are to pay for their military protection must come from some other means—more than likely, what is implied is a direct payment of some sort.  This leads to a major problem that is left ignored by Rand throughout the dialogue; the possibility that if the military is privatized to protect those who have paid for their service, the result will be unmanageable disparity that can lead to losses amongst all economical sectors of society.

As a thought experiment, say, for example, that the East Coast of the U.S. is the more affluent part of the country (let us assume it is due to it having more entrepreneurs investing into a growing industrial economy) and uses its affluence to thoroughly protect its shores from any possible threats that might harm its source of wealth; while the West Coast is significantly less affluent, and, as a result, cannot afford as much military protection for its shores.  Let’s also set that the material resources the industrial centers on the East Coast use to produce their wealth is located on the uncultivated areas of the West Coast.  Since, presumably, the entrepreneurs of the East Coast would have a vested interest in keeping the West Coast as nonindustrial as possible, so as to keep the production costs of their products lower than the selling price.  But, because the West Coast cannot afford to properly protect its shores, their material resources (which are used by the East Coast) lie more vulnerable to external threats of theft.  Should the East Coast pay for the needed military protection of the West Coast?  And, if so, in whose individual self-interest is it to cover the cost?  Ideally, the West Coast should be expected to cover the cost itself, but in order for it to produce the wealth necessary to properly protect its shore it will need to increase prices on its material goods; at the expense of the East Coast.  Thus, it would appear, the East Coast is left picking up the bill no matter the angle one chooses to lock at this dilemma.

Now, since the government is the arbitrator of the military (as implied by Danneskjöld), one would be justified in proposing that it should also bear the responsibility of paying for the expenses that go into deploying its forces.  But where would the government get the revenue to make such payments?  Presumably taxes, but Danneskjöld has already established that taxation is equivalent to robbery, therefore for the government to tax its citizens would be criminal in nature.  It is true that the average worker has some interest in keeping the resources of their employer protected, lest they risk losing their place of employment.  However, to what degree should a menial employee be expected to pay for the protection of resources, whose total revenue potential he will only receive a fraction of (in comparison to the individuals who run the company)?  Perhaps, the wealthy entrepreneurs and industrialists, who have the greatest interest in protecting the West Coast, can be expected to provide the greatest payment to the government in order to finance the needed military protection (and, yes, it would have to be given through the government, since Danneskjöld has already acknowledged that the government’s function is to be in charge of the military).  Thus, the burden to pay falls on those who earn the most from the protected resources.  This seems like a viable position, but the question then becomes, how, in practice, is this any different from taxation?  It would appear that the only difference would be a lack of coercion on behalf of the wealthy, and maybe that’s the underlying point, but if the end result is still the same as before, what sense is there in pretending that the current system is a form of tyranny since the solution will essentially be the exact same thing only promoted by the tenets of a different ideological principle?

Another major point of contention arises through the message Ayn Rand is trying to present through Ragner Danneskjöld’s condemnation of Robin Hood (and altruism in general).  In his dialogue with Hank Rearden, Ragner Danneskjöld makes the case that wealth is an inherent indication of productivity.  Implying that due to the competitive nature of the market those who are wealthiest will also be those who possess the greater intellect and talent, and, thereby, are by definition the most deserving of all the riches and power they can accumulate; while those who occupy the lower ranks of society do so by the merits of their own failures.  However, this is clearly not as absolute as Danneskjöld is making it sound, and as the Robin Hood fables are meant to convey.  The rich Robin Hood stole from were corrupt monarchs who demanded servitude from the lower classes of society, not because they had gained their wealth by the merit of their work, but due to an arbitrary right of birth.  In this scenario, the most productive members of society were the underprivileged poor, the looters as Ragner Danneskjöld would call them, but who had no means to benefit from their productivity due solely to the fact that they were born in poor households.  Hence, in such a system, it would be fundamentally disingenuous to claim that the lower-classes lack of economic motility is the result of a lack of productivity, just as it would be insincere to proclaim that wealth to be a representations of intellect or work ethic.

The question of inherited vs. earned wealth is an issue that Ayn Rand never dwells into in Atlas Shrugged, even though any defense of her philosophy demands a clarification on this point; especially if one branches out to the greater narrative of the novel.  For example, two of the main characters in the novel, Dagney Taggert and Francisco d’Anconia (both of whom are presented throughout the prose as the epitome of the productive capitalist) lay claim to their fortune strictly by an accident of birth.  Both have inherited their wealth through the work of their productive ancestors, not through, shall we say, the sweat of their brow.  It is true that they are shown to be ardent entrepreneurs (although, for the aristocratic d’Anconia, this is more a matter that the reader is just suppose to grant as a given for the sake of the narrative; he is never actually shown creating anything industrially successful throughout the plot), but the question of how these characters would have succeeded if they had not been born in such a privileged position remains open to question.  This is particularly noteworthy, since the majority of the named antagonists in the novel (who seek to undermine all the values the Rand’s protagonists hold dear) are also wealthy industrialists, thus, the plot subtly acknowledges the point that the possession of wealth is not an ideal indicator of productivity.

The pivotal event Atlas Shrugged is leading up to is the point at which the productive few of society unanimously go on strike, and allow the looters of society to fully see the catastrophic fate that their self-sacrificing policies will inevitably lead to; i.e. the complete collapse of civilization.  Although the novel ends at this point, in his dialogue with Rearden, Danneskjöld gives the reader a glimpse of what is to follow thereafter.  He states, “When we are free and have to start rebuilding from out of the ruins, I want to see the world reborn as fast as possible” (p.535).  Here, he is giving justification for his work as a pirate, he is simply collecting the money that has been looted away from the productive to be utilized by them to remold society after the coming collapse (ironically drawing parallels with the criminal aspects of Robin Hood).  He continues, “If there is, then, some working capital in the right hands—in the hands of our best, our most productive—it will save years for the rest of us and, incidentally centuries for the history of the country” (p.535).  Thereby, those productive few who currently are held down by the looting majority will be well compensated in the imminent future.  However, this once again brings up the topic of earned vs. inherited wealth.  While those who Danneskjöld sees worthy today are bound to continue accumulating their wealth in this approaching utopia, what exactly will happen to those who might possess the potential to be entrepreneurs, but were unfortunate enough to have been born amongst the looting majority?  The narrative seems to imply that once the virtue of self-sacrifice has been thoroughly annihilated in favor of self-interest, those who deserve to rise through the social ladder will be able to do so.  However, it goes without saying that, whether or not the potential advancement exists, few will be able to actually occupy the ranks of the rich, simply because the number of available spots will always pale in comparison to the number of lower-ranking poor.  Therefore, most people will have to be content with the lower position they occupy in society, and these will be the ones upon whom the fortunes of the rich few will be founded on; meaning that, once more, the social reality that is to arise from the coming collapse will not be much different from the society that exists today.

Furthermore, the question is still open as to how someone such as the aristocratic Francisco d’Anconia, who has never been shown to produce anything of worth, whose entire fortune is based on the merits of his last name, deserves to be amongst the ranks of the productive few, other than strictly through his association with the other protagonists in the narrative?  How is someone born poor in this post-looter society, expected to compete with the generations worth of wealth that d’Anconia has inherited from his ancestors? (This point still stands even if one takes into account the fact that d’Anconia’s mission is to undermine the current social order by wasting the wealth he has, because Danneskjöld’s words to Rearden clearly imply that he will be reimbursing all the productive rich in the coming era for their present losses.)  While a reader can speculate one scenario after another, the truth is that all of these points remain unaddressed by the plot itself.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is meant to convince the reader of the superiority of promoting strict capitalism in all aspects of a person’s life.  It is a simple philosophy, best articulated by the pirate character Ragner Danneskjöld, in his dialogue against the legend of Robin Hood, and the virtue of self-sacrifice the looting masses have accepted as morally viable.  Although there are times in which Danneskjöld seems to be conveying a deeper truth pertinent to the advancement of an industrial society, upon scrutiny, much of the foundation that he sets to build this new ideology of self-interest on is based on flimsy premises that leaves too many factors unexamined (two of which, the proper function of government and the dilemma of inherited vs. earned wealth, are pointed out here).  As such this simple philosophy comes across as overly simplistic to hold any practical application.

Bibliography

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. Signet Book (New York: 1992, original 1957).

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