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Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter VII

Pulled by a coal-burning engine that’s not designed for the poorly ventilated tunnel it’s about to enter, the doomed train chugs upward into the mountains:

Some of the passengers aboard the Comet were awake. As the train started its coiling ascent, they saw the small cluster of Winston’s lights at the bottom of the darkness beyond their windows… A black veil went streaking past the windows at times, dimming the lights: it was the heavy smoke from the coal-burning engine.

…It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.

Rand has told us that there are three hundred people on this train, men, women and children. As should be obvious, they’re all about to die horribly, asphyxiated by toxic smoke. And since the text is concerned above all else with assigning moral responsibility for this disaster, we too can ask who’s at fault. Is it Kip Chalmers and his entourage, who demanded transportation at any cost and damn the details? Is it Dave Mitchum, who gave the fatal order while rigging the system to avoid blame?

Those would be sensible answers, but Atlas Shrugged has something much bigger in mind. Ayn Rand’s answer is that everyone on board is guilty and deserves to die. And to prove it, her omniscient eye of narration moves down the train, describing in detail the crimes that each person has committed against capitalism. Let’s watch:

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that individual effort is futile, that an individual conscience is a useless luxury, that there is no individual mind or character or achievement, that everything is achieved collectively, and that it’s masses that count, not men.

The very first thing we learn from this roll call of the doomed is that it’s not just committing immoral actions, but having the wrong opinions that she considers worthy of death. This sociology professor, for example, ends up in Rand’s rolling death chamber because he doesn’t subscribe to the “great man” theory of history.

The man in Roomette 7, Car No. 2, was a journalist who wrote that it is proper and moral to use compulsion “for a good cause,” who believed that he had the right to unleash physical force upon others — to wreck lives, throttle ambitions, strangle desires, violate convictions, to imprison, to despoil, to murder — for the sake of whatever he chose to consider as his own idea of “a good cause”…

Only the most detestable villains would advocate violence against others! Of course, when you throw someone down the stairs for offering you a government loan, or attack and rob supply convoys carrying bought-and-paid-for goods, that’s totally different. Because of reasons.

The woman in Roomette 10, Car No. 3, was an elderly schoolteacher who had spent her life turning class after class of helpless children into miserable cowards, by teaching them that the will of the majority is the only standard of good and evil…

Teaching conformity and mob mentality to young children who don’t know any better: a heinous evil. Except that if those children were destined to be True Capitalists, wouldn’t they have seen through this? Randian protagonists basically come out of the womb quoting Aristotle. (Remember Francisco inventing calculus at age twelve?)

This acknowledgment that education can “turn children into” anything at all is a curious contradiction with the rest of the book, where both goodness and badness are inborn, immutable characteristics of the protagonists and villains. It seems Rand couldn’t make up her mind whether capitalists were born or made, though that didn’t stop her from assigning people to death for holding the latter view.

The man in Drawing Room B, Car No, 4, was a newspaper publisher who believed that men are evil by nature and unfit for freedom, that their basic instincts, if left unchecked, are to lie, to rob and to murder one another — and, therefore, men must be ruled by means of lies, robbery and murder, which must be made the exclusive privilege of the rulers…

It’s weird that Rand condemns him for this, since this is the same thing she believes: that there should be a minimal state which holds a monopoly on force. She may not believe that people are “unfit for freedom”, but that’s the only difference. Apparently she considers “You believe the same things as me, but not for the same reasons!” to be an accusation that merits death.

The man in Bedroom H, Car No. 5, was a businessman who had acquired his business, an ore mine, with the help of a government loan, under the Equalization of Opportunity Bill.

The millions of American entrepreneurs who’ve gotten loans through the federal Small Business Administration may have thought they were being good capitalists, but it turns out the gates of Objectivist Heaven are barred against them.

…The man in Roomette 2, Car No. 9, was a professor of economics who advocated the abolition of private property, explaining that intelligence plays no part in industrial production, that man’s mind is conditioned by material tools, that anybody can run a factory or a railroad and it’s only a matter of seizing the machinery.

The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, “I don’t care, it’s only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children.”

Caring about the well-being of your children more than the bank accounts of rich strangers is a capital crime.

The man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels.

The venom just drips from this passage, more so than for any of the other passengers. For someone who claimed to value personal liberty above all else, Rand had no tolerance whatsoever for freedom of speech used in the “wrong” way. Obviously, she saw nothing wrong with her own books and plays which send the “social message” that all capitalists are heroes; but if you’ve ever breathed a word of criticism against businessmen, you’re a traitorous participant in the downfall of society and you deserve to die for it.

The woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12, was a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.

Rand doesn’t even seem to recognize that this is the whole point of democracy and regulation. No one, in real life, is an omnicompetent super-capitalist; no one can realistically know whether every product on the shelves is safe and effective. That’s why we elect politicians and regulators, who get the guidance of expert opinion to pass laws on the entire population’s behalf. This isn’t a flaw in the system, but the way the system is supposed to work.

The man in Bedroom F, Car No. 13, was a lawyer who had said, “Me? I’ll find a way to get along under any political system.”

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 14, was a professor of philosophy who taught that there is no mind—how do you know that the tunnel is dangerous?—no reality—how can you prove that the tunnel exists?—no logic—why do you claim that trains cannot move without motive power?—no principles—why should you be bound by the law of cause-and-effect?

…The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 16, was a humanitarian who had said, “The men of ability? I do not care what or if they are made to suffer. They must be penalized in order to support the incompetent. Frankly, I do not care whether this is just or not. I take pride in not caring to grant any justice to the able, where mercy to the needy is concerned.”

Can we take a moment to discuss Rand’s bizarre view of humanitarians? She seems to think people get into the charity business not to help the poor, but to punish the rich. Have you ever heard someone working for a charity say that they don’t care about the suffering of the rich or that they have no concern for justice? Julian Sanchez, a libertarian himself, decries the libertarian tendency to “treat… good faith disagreement about what is right as equivalent to amoral indifference to what is right”, and this is a perfect example.

Something to notice is that this list of offenses is a curiously mixed bag. Some of them seem more culpable than others: for example, the philosophy professor who denies the existence of objective reality, or the economist who advocates the total abolition of property. It’s not that people like this actually exist outside the most extreme libertarian strawmen – I doubt even communists believed that intelligence plays no role in operating machinery – but if there were people like this, it’s plausible that their beliefs might make them blind to dangerous situations.

But look at the rest of the people on this train! There are voters who support the regulation of industry, writers who criticize the excesses of capitalism, businessmen who take government-backed loans, parents who value their children more than rich strangers, even people who merely accept the system as it is rather than rebelling against it. These are perfectly ordinary, unremarkable traits that describe the vast majority of politicians, businessmen and workers – in fact, they apply to the vast majority of Americans, period. If it comes down to that, they probably apply to you and me as well. Yet the text strongly implies that these people are all equally guilty, and equally deserving of a death sentence.

You deserve to die! And you! And you! Everybody deserves to die!
You deserve to die! And you! And you! Everybody deserves to die!

Having packed this cattle car full of supposedly deserving victims, it’s time to usher them to their fate. The end, when it comes, is surprisingly brief. They go into the tunnel, Rand says that the lights of the outside world are the last thing they see on earth, and that’s that.

Even so, there’s a gloating, sadistic sense of satisfaction in the narrative. Rand could have scripted this as a preventable catastrophe brought about by looter incompetence. Instead, she depicts it as righteous justice – taking the stance that we shouldn’t feel sorry for these people, because they got what they deserved.

This scene has more than a passing resemblance to turn-or-burn Christian fundamentalism, where even a moment of lust or anger makes a person deserving of eternal hellfire. In that theology, the majority of humans are unsaved sinners heading for damnation, and the only people who’ll be saved are the tiny minority who repent of their sins and accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. In Rand’s theology, meanwhile, the majority of humans are parasitic socialists, and the only people who’ll be saved are the tiny minority who love capitalism and accept John Galt as theirs.

Both philosophies are utterly black-and-white, leaving no middle ground between absolute good and total evil. And just like fundamentalist Christians, Rand’s devotees believe this fiction is reality, and that the lessons of the text apply to this world also. If you match any of these descriptions, that makes you a worthless looter, and you too deserve to die in a horrible accident – unless, of course, you hear the Word of Rand in time and turn from your evil ways.

Image: The logic of this scene is basically, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee” (Luke 12:20). Via Shutterstock.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...