Skip to comments.FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, Ten Years After
Posted on 08/27/2009 9:05:35 AM PDT by Publius
Well, Publius asked, and sig226 asked again, and so here we are. As we stated previously, at the end of Atlas Shrugged, the titular character has only just done so, and the world is hurtling out of control toward the hard, hard ground. We are spared the horrible clamor of impact and we miss it.
What does happen after Atlas shrugs? Ayn Rand preferred not to advance the story much beyond Galts ceremonial drawing of the Sign of the Dollar, probably wisely, inasmuch as post-apocalyptic fiction was as yet a sparsely populated field. Narrative in Atlas Shrugged was only a secondary object anyway.
We can speculate, but exact models turn out to be surprisingly few. The collapse of central government in post-Shrug America suggests the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and Rand herself alluded to the Dark Ages during Galts speech, although hers was a screenwriters understanding of history, and his an engineers, and their apparent conception of the Dark Ages bore very little resemblance to the real thing.
There are significant differences, however, between the two scenarios. For one thing, technology is more pervasive and persistent than we are given to believe in the novel; and for another, the Roman Empire exhibited nothing like the capitalist infrastructure of pre-Shrug America. Banking, credit, deficit spending and widespread economic depression had to wait until the Renaissance to take a form that would be recognizable to a banker such as Midas Mulligan. That infrastructure will be far easier to rebuild than it was to invent in the first place. Pieces of it local banks, for example might not disappear at all.
More contemporary models of collapse are not without their own difficulties. That of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, for example, offers insights into survival among the ruins of a people dependent on a past surplus no longer being generated in the present. It is a useful enough model but for the fact that its continuation is now entirely dependent on outside sources that serve to prevent, or cushion, complete economic collapse. No such outside agency will be available to a post-Shrug America; about that Rand is quite specific. Short of an invasion by wealthy and benevolent Martians, wed be on our own.
The Day After
Let us start, then, by listing the things we have been told in the novel and extrapolating from there. The security doors on Galts Gulch have clanged shut, and we may assume that there is very little in the way of ingress and egress. New York fell quickly. The rest of the country has been pretty much picked clean of potential Gulchers. For a time, the Gulch lies inert, developing inwardly like a chick in an egg, presenting an eggs blank face to the outside world.
Central government collapsed within the novel. Government, the economy, the raising of food -- and children, a topic Rand avoids with the assiduity of a vampire to garlic -- transportation and education all these things localize in the sense that electricity did in one of the last chapters lovelier metaphors. Rand likened it to a stream stopped and turned stagnant, evaporating and leaving little puddles here and there. She actually can write like that when she cares to make the effort.
So what we have is a constellation of little communities more or less self-sufficient, stuck in a pre-industrial state of technology and relating to their neighbors very little. We saw this in Starnesville, Wisconsin. As far as they are able, they will subsist on the surplus created by their industrial antecedents; we are reminded, comically, of the Mayor of Romes possession of a particularly luxurious shower stall culled from the ruins of the Twentieth Century Motor Company. They will not use electricity unless situated at some sort of natural source: a waterfall, perhaps, or a coal mine, and there only until the generators fail. Replacement parts are no longer being produced.
They will not use cash. Rand described the likely devolution of exchange toward a barter economy in Starnesville. It is not fantasy. Paper money is, after all, no better than a promise. Even when it is backed by gold, it is only good insofar as the guarantors promise of exchange for precious metal is to be trusted. Backed by nothing at all, it is quickly meaningless, printed in whatever amount the printer thinks can be a temporarily convincing illusion of value. In Zimbabwe we have seen this classic progression from trusted currency to toilet paper, a slide based on the slow realization that no central bank would exchange it for anything of value but would happily continue generating the joke. It wasnt even very good toilet paper.
It is the fact of backing, and not sentiment toward the backers, that is critical. Certainly the bulk of communities would retain a commitment to the dollar not only out of nostalgia but out of sheer necessity for some medium of exchange. Sentiment and custom are, however, insufficient to run an economy in the long run, as holders of Confederate dollars finally came to concede.
However, the necessity for a medium of exchange would not simply evaporate. Local currencies would arise, just as they did during the early days of America, each backed by the issuers physical possession of gold. The micro-economy of Galts Gulch works on this literal physical presence, although the notion of making a financial transaction of the magnitude its denizens are accustomed to by hauling sacks of the stuff around is as impractical in fiction as it proved in fact. There is, by all reports, a small forklift moving weighty piles of gold from one alcove to another within the bowels of the New York Fed to reflect financial transactions between countries. That has an atavistic charm to it, but one can quickly discern that it probably would be outside the capabilities of the common investor.
And thus there is no central government and no central currency. That would be high on the to-do list of the nascent federal government on that debatably happy day when it once again coalesces around the political ambitions of its sovereign states. In the new federal government presumptive, the currency would most certainly be backed by gold if Rands entire thesis is to be followed. The opportunities for thievery inherent will not be new, but they will at least be different.
But for now we have the Dark Ages, the real ones, not the Randian caricature. Civilization will contract to the limits of lamplight and torch, of horse and oxcart. And incidentally, we have seen covered wagons emptying towns at the close of Atlas Shrugged, but where, one wonders, did the drovers and the teamsters find the necessary livestock? One does not simply harness a riding animal and expect magic to happen. If the farming economy is bereft of the internal combustion engine, who or what will pull the plows? This has starvation written all over it, and is one additional reason why the farming areas will produce only that which is sufficient to their own needs. They wont have a choice until Wyatts wells start producing again and Hammonds engines roar to life once more.
Thus the state of the country after Atlas shrugs. It isnt, nor does Rand intend it to be, markedly different from that of the United States of 1840 or so. It is to be remembered that the real-life Taggart bridge, the Rock Island Mississippi River bridge, was not constructed until 1856. Up to that point even the railroads were necessarily regional. And regional political and economic structures are the most likely pattern one might expect from a post-Shrug America.
Would these independent communities retain a loyalty to the government of Mr. Thompson and Cuffy Meigs? Hardly. Would they retain a loyalty toward that social contract that is the Constitution, buttressed by the memory of the past prosperity it accorded? That is very likely. But that is, after all, a blueprint for federal, and not local, government. Would the people surge forward united, based on a universal acceptance of that garbled, borderline incoherent statement of principle that was Galts radio broadcast? It seems, to be charitable, unlikely. They would, as people do in that situation, abide.
One might construct an entire body of fiction around this alternate world. It is a pity that Rand declined to do so.
Where from Here?
We must assume that the inhabitants of Galts Gulch have been assured by some sort of benchmark or omen that their return is likely to succeed. It seems rather implausible that it could have been in the spring following the collapse that is detailed in Rands final chapter. How long before the warehouses run out? How long before the population gives up its sentimental attachment to Central Park and begins to migrate to where the food is? How long before the last gasoline pump runs dry and the last automobiles riders take to horseback? Our society is, at the test, quite a bit more resilient than one might think, a bounty offered a thankless people by the capitalists it affects to disdain. Let us say ten years.
Even this may be a bit abrupt. One annoying thing about Rands social model is that it posits helplessness on the part of the ordinary citizen in the absence of guidance from the super-producers, something that is not borne out empirically. When that last gas pump runs dry, are we really to believe that no one in this country is capable of figuring out how to make a refinery work? Given that the technical manuals are still there and a hundred-year-old process is not in fact lost, is it not perfectly accessible to anyone who wishes to try?
The single suspension of disbelief necessary to make Atlas Shrugged work as a novel is that the genuine producers are so tiny in number that a single individual and a handful of friends may convince the lot of them to strike; that there even exists a super-elite whose absence is sufficient to make the entire system come crashing down. It may be a contrivance necessary for fiction, or it may be that Rand believed this with all her heart. I do not.
But let us remain within the boundaries of fiction. A decade later, let us imagine Galts people finally ready to emerge from their bastion. They have wealth, they have expertise, and they have a moral code that enables the trust necessary for large-scale economic transactions. What they dont have is a foothold, a necessary consequence of sequestration. Where do they start?
Colorado, of course.
Consider its advantages. First, there is physical proximity to Galts Gulch in a time when travel has become highly unreliable. Second, there reside the remnants of the last and presumably the most modern of Americas industrial development. Wyatts wells are still there, and so are the numerous concerns whose needs were to have been met by the John Galt Line. The latter is, of course, torn up for its rail, but the most important part is that the roadbed still exists, the routes cleared, the rights-of-way established. Given resources, Dagny will have it operating again in weeks, not years.
Third, its close to where the food is grown. The existence of railroads was originally to move resources to consumers, wheat to the granaries and timber to the mills. Kansas and Nebraska arent starving, but they are only producing that which is sufficient to their local needs. The cities are at the end of this logistics chain, not at its beginning. That chain will be re-forged, extended once again to the hollow and empty concrete canyons of New York. But it starts in Colorado.
It will start with the re-occupation of the Wyatt fields, the re-population of the factories that produce necessities first, and luxuries only later when the economic surplus necessary to afford them is once again in place. There will be tractors before there will be limousines, all paid for in product, financed in gold by the Mulligan Bank.
Towns and villages that have earned a hardscrabble existence from the land itself will find that they too have product to trade, wealth to earn, but only if they agree to trade with Colorado on Galtian terms. Some with brute strength may be tempted to try to acquire that wealth by force, not trade. The Coloradans will have to devise a means of collective security: force, as Rand proposed, guided by intelligence. The ability to produce will not confer a magical safety; the Gulchers will find they have to fight for their freedom. These things are not a function of talent or economics, they are inherent in the human condition.
They will likely prevail, not just because force guided by intelligence really does beat brute strength, but also because freedom is impossibly seductive, and that too is inherent in the human condition. Even a brute knows it, envies it and will, given the chance, embrace it rather than destroy it. Freedom is an intoxicant, an elixir, a permanent addiction. A half-century of relentless propaganda could not stamp out its attraction even in the New Soviet Man. Galt flashes gold, he propounds morality, but what he actually offers is freedom. Prosperity is only a necessary consequence.
What a story it might be! Towns in Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, re-establishing industry, technology, education, lit by the electricity that is a product of their own labor, the light beating back the darkness without. It will be a clarion call for the honest and a siren song for the looters who will still be practicing their bullying, lies and theft, and who will see in the new towns a new host for their parasitism. Danneskjøld has stated that he has committed his last act of violence. Poor fellow, he is impossibly naïve. Reason will prevail, yes, but reason alone and unarmed will not.
And at last it will be worth someones while to rebuild the Taggart bridge. It may be Dagny or her granddaughter, if Rand will allow her the blessing of offspring. And so to a new utopia? Probably not. For however excellent it is in the beginning, the rot will take hold from within once again if all of human history is any guide. Galt will be acclaimed a moral genius for a generation, two, perhaps ten, but that part of the human condition that is not the best that is within us will find its voice once more, and the conflict between producer, moocher and looter will once again rage. We are not, nor despite Rands fondest fantasy, will we ever become, super-beings. Neither are we animals, but we are men and women. We learn, we enjoy, we grow complacent, we forget, and we pay for the lesson once again in blood. It isnt fiction, its history.
The New Characters of the Post-Shrug World
Who will accomplish this act of economic and cultural sporulation? Unfortunately Rand does not give us a great number of clues in that direction. One of her major weaknesses as a novelist is a distressing tendency toward static main characters; very few of them are a whit different at the novels end than they were at the beginning. Franciscos character is revealed slowly but does not evolve. Galts is a very rock of permanence. Dagnys only real change is in the identity of her lover of the moment, and Rearden at the end is the same as Rearden at the beginning, only happier because his external circumstances have changed. It is if Rand is presenting a Galtian philosophical epiphany as an end state, an attainment of perfection.
Worse, those characters that do develop in the novel Cherryl Taggart, Eddie Willers, Tony the Wet Nurse, even Jim Taggart after a fashion all come to a rather unhappy end as a consequence. And so beyond the certainty that Francisco will mine in the diaspora to come, Wyatt drill, Galt engineer, and Dagny build railroads, we are left with very little to populate a cast of characters that must fill the roles that an expanding civilization will inevitably find wanting.
And so well have to find new characters or develop old ones into new roles. Perhaps Quentin Daniels will finish his tutelage under Galts hand and find a talent for building radio sets and firearms. Perhaps Owen Kellogg will find a direction in life hes a natural leader -- and so perhaps one of those newly-born towns will have him as its mayor, or its defender. Perhaps another will be led by a mysterious character named Floyd Kennedy, who is Fred Kinnan under a new identity. Perhaps Jeff Allen will make the transition from hobo to patriarch.
And maybe, just maybe, one night in Stockton, Colorado, before the gates of the town walls slam shut, a stranger with a backpack and a staff will stagger in out of the storm, and Francisco will take him into the shelter of a clapboard tavern lit by bare electric bulbs, sit him down, thrust a mug of ale into his hand, and say, Good to see you, Eddie. Welcome home.
Stranger things have happened.
The Challenge to FReepers
So now we open the topic, FRiends. Publius threw down the gauntlet. What do you think will happen after the smoke from Galts cigarette dissipates into the Colorado night?
I love this stuff. For further reading on the general topic of how civilizations stagger back out of the ruins, Id like to recommend two series of books: Asimovs brilliant Foundation Trilogy, and for those ready for the real thing, Gibbons incomparable Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
was just a warmup!
On September 8, our agent in New York will blitz publishing houses with our book, tentatively titled A Navigational Tool for Atlas Shrugged, which is based on the work done in these threads. We couldnt have done it without FReeper peer review.
FReeper Book Club: Introduction to Atlas Shrugged
Part I, Chapter I: The Theme
Part I, Chapter II: The Chain
Part I, Chapter III: The Top and the Bottom
Part I, Chapter IV: The Immovable Movers
Part I, Chapter V: The Climax of the dAnconias
Part I, Chapter VI: The Non-Commercial
Part I, Chapter VII: The Exploiters and the Exploited
Part I, Chapter VIII: The John Galt Line
Part I, Chapter IX: The Sacred and the Profane
Part I, Chapter X: Wyatts Torch
Part II, Chapter I: The Man Who Belonged on Earth
Part II, Chapter II: The Aristocracy of Pull
Part II, Chapter III: White Blackmail
Part II, Chapter IV: The Sanction of the Victim
Part II, Chapter V: Account Overdrawn
Part II, Chapter VI: Miracle Metal
Part II, Chapter VII: The Moratorium on Brains
Part II, Chapter VIII: By Our Love
Part II, Chapter IX: The Face Without Pain or Fear or Guilt
Part II, Chapter X: The Sign of the Dollar
Part III, Chapter I: Atlantis
Part III, Chapter II: The Utopia of Greed
Part III, Chapter III: Anti-Greed
Part III, Chapter IV: Anti-Life
Part III, Chapter V: Their Brothers Keepers
Part III, Chapter VI: The Concerto of Deliverance
Part III, Chapter VII: This is John Galt Speaking
Part III, Chapter VIII: The Egoist
Part III, Chapter IX: The Generator
Part III, Chapter X: In the Name of the Best Within Us
Afterword and Suggested Reading
When I saw the drift of this essay, I was immediately put in mind of this work:
A New Dark Age may be the best we can do.
This pretty much puts a finish to an eight-month project. Publius, thanks, and thanks to all the Book Club members for their support. ;-)
This is an interesting read.
Thanks, you guys! This has been a work of love! :)
Very cool article.
Nice job, guys.
... and our future.
While I loved the idea behind Atlas Shrugged, I had the same thoughts about how such a small group of super-producers isn’t realistic. Also, the novel ends on a happy note as the bad guys’ government is collapsing, as if the hard part is over and now it will be easy for Galt’s people to rebuild society. But the reality is that a society once collapsed into anarchy is a VERY hard thing to rebuild! I appreciate Rand’s ideas but I just don’t have the optimism to think it would be an easy task. A Canticle for Leibowitz strikes me as the far more realistic scenario, unfortunately.
When I addressed this in the other thread, I neglected one important detail. John Galt and Francisco D’Anconia did not do things on the spur of the moment. They planned. It is therefore logical that they would anticipate the world many of us expected and take steps to reduce the damage. Any considerations of what comes after, including my own, should be based on that premise.
I shall now cogitate. :)
The dissertation I'm sweating my way through at the moment deals with two guys who pulled the swirling wreckage of a broken culture together, and built a new world in the middle of a maelstrom. One was a fifth century African Christian. The other, a 20th century secular Muslim.
Congrats, guys! Very impressive work!
Awesome news — you’ve invested so much time and put so much work into this project, it’s wonderful for you to get some recognition. Thanks for all your efforts!
Immediately after society collapses, there will be anarchy. Food and water are emergent needs. The delivery of fresh water and the disposition of waste water are the two things that make civilization possible. Civilization evolved around sources of potable water. Whoever controls the water controls the world. The ancients knew this. They used animal carcasses to poison the wells of conquered villages. Likewise, dumping large amounts of human waste into the water will kill those who drink it. London and Chicago are two large cities that experienced cholera epidemics due to dumping sewage into drinking water.
It is not modern medicine that eliminated this scourge. Modern sanitation did it. We take this for granted. The infrastructure of clean water is a given in this country. Most of us never give it a second thought. Cities will die if they cant get rid of human waste and provide water to drink. The cities also can't support agriculture until the tar and concrete are removed to expose dirt. They'd be empty. This leaves several opportunities for human survival that can be based upon three known social models. After water, people need food, shelter, clothing, and tools.
Farmers would be the self sufficient. They are the most keenly aware of the need for water, and most attuned to natural processes. They have food and they know how to make more of it. They have the ability to make clothing out of animal skins. They may have the ability to make cloth. They have animal fat that can be used for soap and light. The downside of their lifestyle is that it is time consuming. They have the least available time to pursue outside interests, like reintroducing technology, even though they would profit the most. Farmers would divide into two types. Those who work cooperatively would be agrarian villages. Authoritarian models would be feudal manors.
Peaceful nomads would be people who know enough to support themselves without infrastructure. They would be small groups, probably families, similar to traders in early 1800s America. They could trade their skills and materials they found or made for things they needed. Specialized knowledge and skill in some areas would be valuable. Famer Joe might know how to fix a roof, but if he has a surplus and you can do a better job, hell trade with you to do the work. They could spend free time mastering the things they read in books. This would take time. Its one thing to read about firing clay in a kiln, another thing to actually do it. Farmer Joe is also not stupid. He knows that if you figure out how to smelt iron, he can keep his tools in good order. He might agree to sponsor your work if he thinks he can gain from it. Hunter gatherers would be a subgroup of peaceful nomads. They would avoid other people, perhaps out of fear, perhaps to forget what they had lost.
Warrior nomads would be the last group. These people take what they need by force. They would eventually be destroyed, but it would take time. Many of the nomads would be city dwellers who survived the food riots. They would be tough and willing to use force. The farmers and nomads they encountered would also know the use of force. We saw the farmers riot in Wisconsin when the harvest wasnt transported. Given the presence of potential attackers, farmers with surplus land would find it in their best interests to offer some land and food to other people in exchange for farm labor and self defense. Those with the most surplus, and the best managers, would expand. Welcome to feudal America. Weve been there. We called them indentured servants and slaves.
So, the most populous group in post AS America would be . . .
People who are still pissed off at John Galt for what happened.
Add to this some of Galts more noteworthy companions in Galts Gulch. These are: Ragnar Danneskjold, a pirate. Hank Rearden was an honest man, but the whole book shows the media turning him into the most reviled industrialist in the world. Francisco DAnconia is the worthless playboy who stole the wealth of the San Sebastian Mines, then destroyed everything of value in DAnconia Copper before the Peoples State of Argentina could seize it. We never learned the fate of James Taggart, Mr. Thompson, Floyd Ferris, Bertram Scudder, Lillian Rearden, and numerous other people who have ample reasons to hate the strikers.
If I was John Galt, the first thing I would do is hunt these people down and kill them. If not, the chance that they would find some group of followers to manipulate and ultimately exact revenge is a certainty. I would do this while there was still anarchy. This would make it easier for me to avoid persons who would be angry with me, and make it easy to find them by pretending to be some poor slob who wants to get revenge for what happened. But it would have to be done. Millions of people would die. Tens of thousands of people would face life after their families were killed and everything they had was destroyed. Even a weenie like Philip Rearden could find success in advocating the death of his brother, and what else does Philip know but destruction? This has to be done.
Next they would have to wait until society was stable enough for them to deal with it. They could not wait until monarchy took over, for they are a small group and they would be unable to fight against a large number of feudal or monarchical bands. First, anarchy would result in wars for food and water. Then, a barter economy establishes itself among the survivors as they reorganize and trade skills to fill needs. The key indicator of a society that will listen to reason and deal is exactly what Rand portrayed as the most important element of civilization: money. Some of the oldest writings that we can interpret are 6,000 year old Sumerian tablets with cuneiform accounting information marked on them. These were used in grain repositories, which were essentially banks. Money does not have to be gold or currency. It is a medium of exchange that allows people to place a value on an intangible, like work or knowledge, and negotiate that value. This is the point of Franciscos money speech.
So when some system of money appears, it means that society has a surplus and people understand the need of a medium for trade Thats when they can go back. Theyll have to wait until the anger subsides, and they will have to offer things that will convince the others to deal with them. Theyre certainly capable of it. They have electrical power. They have copper and iron. They have men who can mine, refine, and smelt metals. They have engineers. They have manufacturers of heavy equipment. They have Galts motor.
They cant manufacture fuel injectors. They cant make turbines, or even radial tires. So they build what works while they develop the factories and methods to restore the modern world. The obvious need is power. They have the generator and they have the people they need to produce the things that run on electric power. They can make the wire, light bulbs, refrigerators, pumps, stoves, and water purifiers to run on the power. They also understand the wealth of human knowledge, and they would be sure to bring much of it along for future use. Pumps and purifiers would solve peoples water problems. Preservation of food, and safe sources of light and heat are obvious advantages.
John Galt observed that, Theyll lose their airplanes first, then their automobiles, then their trucks, then their horse carts. They wouldnt lose their horse carts. They would have to figure out how to build them. Local transportation would return to horse. The obvious advantage is that the drive train reproduces itself. There would be trade among groups of people, and nomads. Horse people would be of particular value. Wheelwrights and carpenters would also be able to work trades and produce excess income for themselves. Eventually, the trade would return to a monetary system. The strikers would have to have observers to look for signs of this.
At some point during the transition, the strikers would need to offer rifles to the masses. You cant force production from people who can shoot you. Cheap, easily produced rifles like the AK-47 ensure that Lord So and So eschews absolute power. This would give the strikers a way to return to the world. Theyre the ones who make the rifles. When society has money, the strikers have had time to establish small factories (they havent got a lot of people to employ in the factories) and they could trade power for money. Theyll have to hire people from the outside world, and theyll have to get resources from there. Whatever they get for the rifles can be returned as money for work and material.
It would take a long time, but it would happen. My bet would be fifteen years.
When your book comes out I'll be sure to buy it. I'm sure that'll mean a re-read of Atlas Shrugged. The recommendation of Asimov's Foundation trilogy is one I think I'll take up. I've read a good deal of Asimov over the years but somehow I've managed to never get to that one, though I've heard a great deal about it.
I've gotten much, much more out of my reading of Atlas Shrugged because of you guys. Thanks.
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