Ayn Rand’s naive ignorance of history, and of how a real business functions–it’s painfully obvious she never ran one–was already subtly visible in the first two chapters. But nowhere have I found it better illustrated than here in Chapter 3 of Atlas Shrugged. We’ll get to that later.
We can see by the opening of Chapter 3 why, in the 1930s and 1940s, Ayn Rand looked attractive as a potential screenwriter. Rand’s time in Hollywood is documented in multiple places, but in short: it didn’t work out because the studio people found her difficult and she didn’t like them much either. Nevertheless, while her descriptions of people and things are often overwrought and wordy, you can sense that technical people in Hollywood would find her alluring: she likes to set up scenes that practically beg for a camera, and for costumers and set designers to start scribbling notes. As with the first two chapters, in Chapter 3 (entitled “The Top and the Bottom”) Rand starts us out not with the people so much as their setting, with a vivid description that evokes the mood that she intends to convey:
The ceiling was that of a cellar, so heavy and low that people stooped when crossing the room, as if the weight of the vaulting rested on their shoulders. The circular booths of dark red leather were built into walls of stone that looked eaten by age and dampness. There were no windows, only patches of blue light shooting from dents in the masonry, the dead blue light proper for use in blackouts. The place was entered by way of narrow steps that led down, as if descending deep under the ground. This was the most expensive barroom in New York and was built on the roof of a skyscraper.
Four men sat at a table. Raised sixty floors above the city, they did not speak loudly as one speaks from a height in the freedom of air and space; they kept their voices low, as befitted a cellar.
I can almost imagine a young Orson Welles wanting to make an Atlas Shrugged picture from that passage alone.
Although her prose often lacks elegance, Rand is clearly trying to convey something with every word here–which is true of practically everything in her fiction. Good writers often strive to do this and fail; to give credit where due, Rand doesn’t fail. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would build a skyscraper with a ritzy rooftop bar that you nevertheless have to walk down stairs to get to, and that is so dank and cloistered, but the impression is what’s important: like rats in a cellar, these people at the top of a crumbling and decaying world are meeting to collude in sinister business. Why it’s sinister is not clearly spelled out: we are meant to gather from the conversation alone that these people are philosophically evil.
The four men in question are: James Taggart, the President of Taggart Transcontinental we met in Chapter 1; Orren Boyle, VIP of a railroad track firm that has been chronically slow in delivering badly needed rail lines that Dagny Taggart had complained about in Chapter 1; Wesley Mouch, whom we can probably assume is a bad guy since his name sounds like “Mooch” and he is a Washington Man (boo hiss); and Philip Larkin, Hank Rearden’s sycophantic hanger-on that we met in Chapter 2.
As usual with Rand, expressing the philosophy takes precedent over the story. Thus the sinister nature of the meeting can only be understood if you understand why what these men is doing is evil: three corporate bigwigs are meeting with a Washington Man (by which Rand almost certainly means a lobbyist–boo hiss!), all busily explaining to each other why the multiple ongoing failures in the rail and mining industries are not their fault, how people must unite for the common good and put the interests of their fellow man above themselves, and how those who threaten the order (like Hank Rearden) should be viewed as dangerous. They also obsess over Mexico, where Taggart Transcontinental is currently running a dysfunctional and highly unprofitable train schedule for the purposes of helping the Mexican people develop their economy. They also discuss the doings of a mining kingpin we have yet to meet, one Francisco D’Anconia, who is supposed to be building a very big copper mine down there in Mexico which in theory will require a lot of train service to deliver the ore northwards, although no such copper is currently being shipped. But they are all mutually assuring of each other that they’re doing the right thing, trying to create progress in Mexico in the name of the common good. Rumors that the Mexican government will nationalize the industry are airily dismissed, and everyone is assured that D’Anconia is surely busy down there producing ore because people down there sure look busy and D’Anconia is a great guy. The common good must unite these businessmen, anyway, so why fuss over details? Especially when we’ve got troublesome, arrogant people like Hank Rearden to deal with. Only dilettante Philip Larkin has any reservations at all, and only hesitantly.
“Social reforms are slow,” Taggart says in sinister fashion. They’re probably going to do something to try to mess up hated Hank Rearden, but it isn’t clear what yet. But the symbolism is clear as Rand describes their exit from the bar into the streets below, telling us that the building they emerge from is “sharp and straight like a raised sword.” Pointed at Rearden and all those who threaten the collective order, one presumes.
We next cut to Taggart’s sister Dagny, whom we have already been told is the only person who really makes things work at Taggart Transcontinental. The next few pages are mostly biographical, telling us more about Dagny. One can see from Rand’s description why the character of Dagny Taggart is both liked and despised by people who call themselves feminists (a totally nebulous term anyway). While Dagny works feverishly to find ways to keep the otherwise incompetently-managed Taggart Transcontinental afloat, and thinks of how Hank Rearden’s company may help save hers, she muses on her life up to this point. Since she was a girl she had a strong interest in math and engineering and changing the world by bending it to her will. She had decided since she was a very young girl that she would eventually run Taggart Transcontinental, and it did not even occur to her until she was older that women don’t so such things–and then she promptly disregarded the notion and did it anyway. Caring nothing about titles or what anyone thought of her, as a Taggart she simply started taking over company operations wherever she saw something needed doing, contemptuously dismissing and treading over incompetence all around her as she made things work better. Although there had been some rumblings that they would never make her a corporate officer, when she threatened to quit because she couldn’t stand the incompetence anymore they made her Vice President.
She also muses a bit on her brother. He was made President of the railroad because of the tradition of handing the office of President to the oldest son in the Taggart clan, but also apparently for his public relations skills. Dagny views public relations as unpleasant stuff akin to working in a sewer and not something she’d ever imagine wanting to do anyway. In sitting in corporate board meetings, she always found them mostly incomprehensible since the people at those meetings almost always talked about things that didn’t matter, people and social responsibilities rather than the business of making the trains run on time and at a profit.
James Taggart comes into Dagny’s office to argue with her: he demands to know why the important train line into Mexico is using old, obsolete trains and on a very limited schedule. Dagny matter-of-factly says that she’s explained all this already to him in memos that he never reads: there is nowhere near enough passenger or freight volume to make running that line affordable, and even running a short schedule on cheap equipment is still causing the company to lose money. As in chapter 1, James becomes angry when he’s told things he doesn’t want to hear, and rants some more about how people are more important than profits and tries to deny that anyone can be blamed for anything theoretically going wrong with the organization. James talks about how Francisco D’Anconia’s mines will soon be shipping enough copper to make the Mexican line profitable, but Dagny asserts that Francisco long ago became a worthless bum; James is angered by this and darkly alludes to some sort of sexual past between Dagny and D’Anconia, to suggest that she’s jealous. Dagny just ignores the allusion. She doesn’t believe any copper will be coming from Francisco’s mines, and she also believes that the Mexican government will soon nationalize and seize their train line anyway; this possibility has been discussed a few times in previous chapters, always vociferously denied by James Taggart and others. From this we can conclude that the Mexican government–which is described in this chapter as a Communist-type state–will indeed probably be seizing Taggart Transcontinental holdings in Mexico any minute now.
James angrily demands that she find a way to get the Mexican train lines running at higher volume and with better equipment, but Dagny coolly refuses, saying this is impossible. The company is nearly bankrupt and can’t afford it, and she won’t do it. He angrily threatens to make her answer to the Board for her refusal, and, unruffled, she calmly says she’ll answer to the board. She then goes back to her work and proceeds to ignore James. He leaves, then eventually leaves herself. On her way out, she muses at the structures of the corporate headquarters, especially on the statue of her great ancestor who founded the company, Nathaniel Taggart. Contemplating Taggart is the closest thing Dagny has ever come to prayer, not because he is her ancestor but because of who he was as a man.
And here we read the biggest thing, so far, to betray Ayn Rand’s near-complete ignorance of history and how big corporate capitalism has always worked in America:
Nathaniel Taggart had been a penniless adventurer who had come from somewhere in New England and built a railroad across a continent, in the days of the first steel rails….He never sought any loans, bonds, subsidies, land grants or legislative favors from the government. He obtained money from the men who owned it, going door to door–from the mahogany doors of bankers to the clapboard doors of lonely farmhouses. He never talked about the public good. He merely told people they would make big profits on his railroad, he told them why he expected the profits and he gave them his reasons…Through all the generations that followed, Taggart Transcontinental was one of the few railroads that never went bankrupt and the only one whose controlling stock remained in the hands of the founder’s descendants….In his lifetime, the name “Nat Taggart” was not famous, but notorious: it was repeated, not in homage, but in resentful curiosity; and if anyone admired him, it was as one admires a successful bandit. Yet no penny of his wealth had been obtained by force and fraud; he was guilty of nothing, except that he earned his own fortune and never forgot that it was his.
And there it is again: people hate the rich, and they hate them because they’re successful and people envy success. Whatever element of truth there is to this view (some but not much, in my experience), Rand drives it home over and over again with the sledghammer subtlety of an Oliver Stone movie.
But hey, you know that you’re going to get that with Rand going in: of course rich people are automatically hated because they’re successful. No one ever hated a rich guy for any reason but that. Fine. Roll with it, that’s how Rand and her acolytes see the world. As dips#!+ dumb as that is, you know you’re going to get that going in with Ayn Rand.
No, what’s really annoying is the ludicrous notion that anyone anywhere ever built a transcontinental railroad without substantial government assistance. Which is akin to saying Nathaniel Taggart worked like John Henry with nothing but his hammer in his hand, rails on his back and pitons on his belt, laying all the rails with his own hands every day late into the night to cross North America. Sure it took him a few years but by gum he had a strong back and strong hands, you should have seen the way he laid 5,000 miles of rail with nothing but a toolbelt and gumption. That’s a real man I tell ya!
Yes, it really is just that dumb. You have to be thunderingly ignorant of history to believe it’s not dumb. Any study of the railroad industry as it developed in the US makes it very clear that you needed more than rails and ties and hammers and Chinese laborers: you need this teensy, tiny, inconvenient little thing called RIGHT OF WAY, my dear Randites. You have to put those rail lines through land that has people living on it. Or farming it. Or raising cattle on it. And over or through rivers other people are using. Or who otherwise find your trains a nuisance. Which means you’ve got to purchase that land, either by buying it from people willing to sell it to you, or by going to big, bad, evil government to get a deed that says “No one currently owns that land so I can have it now.”
And what actually happened, dear Objectivists, is that all the great railroad barons (yes, all of them) did was go to Governors, Presidents, Legislators, Judges, and Indian Tribal leaders to get right of way for their rails. And when various people objected and said “no, we won’t sell at any price,” if a workable route around was not practical (and it frequently wasn’t) or was just too expensive (which it frequently was), they made extensive use of something called Eminent Domain to trample over cattlemen, farmers, homeowners, Indian tribes, and so on to get their rails run whether the people in the way liked it or not. In fact, this is one of the many reasons why the railroad “robber barons” were often hated: not because people were like jealous schoolgirls who can’t stand the prettier girl with the fancier dresses. It’s because the railroad barons forced them to allow train rails to be run where some people didn’t want them. They took that property, often by force, with government assistance every step of the way.
What justification did all those railroad builders use to force their rails through whether the people using that land wanted them to or not? Yes, that’s right: the sinister, evil thing that the dastardly businessmen out to destroy Hank Rearden at the beginning of this chapter are talking about: the public good, progress, economic development for all. Most people agreed that this was a good idea, and most government officials agreed, so using Eminent Domain laws and other various court and legislative action, the railroad barons (like the fictional Nathaniel Taggart) got their way over the objections of the minority who didn’t want their land torn up to run rails through, nor their peaceful quiet and clean air mucked up with screeching whistles and clouds of steam and choking smoke dirtying the air and spooking their animals.
In reality (as opposed to Randian fantasy) the railroad barons were both hated and loved, admired and criticized, for a lot of reasons. But if you aren’t even going to bother learning about the history of Eminent Domain use by the railroads, why would you bother learning about any of those other things either? Why look at the use of the U.S. Cavalry in forcing the issue and protecting the rails, railroad workers, and trains? Why look at how it took government to create the very concept of the publicly traded corporation that Nathaniel Taggart had to use, for that matter? Or how the banks he got loans from were a government-regulated industry from the beginning of this country? No, no, it’s all about envy and jealousy of the collective against the individual–you can stop thinking right there. This is Rand’s universe, and no one ever hated a rich guy for any reason other than envy.
Hey, this is fiction anyway, right? Maybe in the Randian universe, he could have just bartered gold with local farmers to get it done and run it without benefit of incorporation or banks or lawyers or lobbyists or any of that. I guess we’ll let all that slide. In this fantasy universe, men can build railroads without government assistance. It’s just fantasy right?
Yeah, OK, it’s just fantasy. Just as long as we acknowledge that it’s a fantasy no more realistic than Jedi Knight hereos fighting Dalek villains, I can roll with it. Just don’t make me pretend it’s anywhere near as much fun as Daleks fighting Jedi Knights (and by the way, wouldn’t that be sweet?!?). And just so long as we recognize that any philosophical lessons we are to learn from this are no deeper than the philosophical ramblings of Doctor Who or George Lucas.
For all the silly shallow fantasy nature of this chapter, though, the character of Dagny Taggart sticks out: it’s hard not to like her. It’s appealing to see a female character, especially in fiction from this era, who is neither a mewling sycophant, nor a sex goddess, nor a sex kitten, nor a victim, but merely self-possessed and competent. Contrary to what you might believe, women like her have always existed, all throughout history—just not often enough in fiction, especially during Ayn Rand’s era.
Anyway, the chapter closes with Eddie Willers, the self-described serf to the Taggart clan that we met in the opening pages of Chapter 1. He’s a bit despondent about the decaying state of the company, and wanders into the underground cafeteria of Taggart Transcontinental. He meets an unnamed grease-stained worker, but rather than getting the fellow’s name he just treats him like a fellow employee, rambling about how lousy things are getting, what the company’s upcoming plans are, how Dagny’s fighting the good fight but things don’t look so great, and other grousing. We never find out who the unnamed worker that he’s spilling all this insider information to is, but it’s hard not to suspect we’ll be seeing this faceless worker again in the coming chapters.
Chapter 4 awaits…
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