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Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter IX

Dagny returns home from her first day back after the destruction of the Taggart Tunnel:

The silence of her apartment and the motionless perfection of objects that had remained just as she had left them a month before, struck her with a sense of relief and desolation together, when she entered her living room… She had left the office earlier than she intended, unable to summon the effort for any task that could be postponed till morning. This was new to her — and it was new that she should now feel more at home in her apartment than in her office.

It’s a new and unfamiliar sensation to Dagny that she should feel more at home in her home than she does at the office. “Work-life balance”, needless to say, isn’t a phrase you’ll find anywhere in Atlas Shrugged.

I’ve already discussed the detrimental effects of overwork. Fictional characters like Dagny can put in hundred-plus-hour weeks week in and week out with no consequences, but in reality this level of stress leads swiftly to burnout, health problems and even early death.

What’s interesting is the way Rand justifies this, by depicting Dagny as seemingly the only person in her company who can make decisions. This is an excellent, if inadvertent, illustration of how perfectionists see the world: convinced that they have to be in the office every waking moment, certain that every task needs their personal attention and that everything will fall apart without them. Of course, Atlas Shrugged insists they’re right about this – in fact, it magnifies this worldview to the point of insisting that civilization itself would collapse without executives putting in gruelingly long workweeks.

The writer James Surowiecki calls this mindset the cult of overwork: putting in soul-crushing hours as a way of signaling what a valuable employee one is, rather than because there’s that much actual work to do. The truth is that almost no one is that important or that irreplaceable, as Sarah Leonard argues in an article on overwork in the financial industry that sounds like it could have been written as a critique of Randian protagonists:

[T]hese hellish on-call conditions do not exist because Wall Street’s work is so vital. They exist because financiers sustain their untouchable status by insisting that their work is vital and that they’re the only ones who can do it, that the world might stop turning if they took time to eat, sleep or call their mothers. Long hours are a source of self-worth for banking employees… If bankers were to work 9 to 5, they might have to admit that finance is just a job.

While Dagny is exploring the strange new sensation of not being at work, someone rings her doorbell. It’s Francisco, come to resume their interrupted conversation from last chapter:

“I don’t think I can stop you now,” he said, “if you’ve made your choice. But if there’s one chance left to stop you, it’s a chance I have to take.”

She shook her head slowly. “There isn’t. And — what for, Francisco? You’ve given up. What difference does it make to you whether I perish with the railroad or away from it?”

“I haven’t given up the future.”

“What future?”

“The day when the looters will perish, but we won’t.”

“If Taggart Transcontinental is to perish with the looters, then so am I… I thought I could live without it. I can’t. I’ll never try it again. Francisco, do you remember? — we both believed, when we started, that the only sin on earth was to do things badly. I still believe it.”

Remember: “The only sin” in Rand’s worldview is to be bad at your job. If you’re good at your job, then you’re a good person, period, even if your job is making the world worse for other people. Even if you’re clearcutting rainforest for palm oil plantations, or obliterating whole communities with mountaintop-removal mining, or poisoning the groundwater with cyanide to extract gold, or demanding such fast shipping that truckers are falling asleep at the wheel and crashing in an attempt to keep up… as long as you’re making a profit, you’re blameless, regardless of the human costs your job imposes on others.

As Francisco tries to convince Dagny to quit, she finally realizes something she should have realized several hundred pages ago (despite their being good at everything, Rand isn’t averse to having her protagonists carry the Idiot Ball to prolong dramatic tension):

“You’re one of them,” she said slowly, “aren’t you?”

“Of whom?”

“Was it you in Ken Danagger’s office?”

He smiled. “No.” But she noted that he did not ask what she meant.

…She shrugged; her face was growing hard. “The men who’ve quit, are they still alive or dead?”

“They’re dead — as far as you’re concerned. But there’s to be a Second Renaissance in the world. I’ll wait for it.”

Like every conversation Francisco has had with either Dagny or Hank in the last nine chapters, this one embodies Can Not Spit It Out. Why does Francisco confine himself to cryptic remarks about how “I haven’t given up the future” or how there’s going to be a “Second Renaissance”? Why doesn’t he just say, “The capitalists who quit are hiding out and will return to rebuild the world after the looters’ civilization collapses”? Why doesn’t he offer to show her their secret society, even, so she can get a better idea of what her options are?

The only in-story explanation for why Dagny and Hank don’t join the capitalists’ strike sooner is that they’re too devoted to their jobs to give them up. But the real explanation seems to be that Francisco, for no good reason, is withholding information that might change their minds. They’re under the impression that renouncing their jobs means living out their lives as hermits in the wilderness, and he’s done nothing to inform them otherwise.

When Dagny was weighing whether to buy Rearden Metal for the railroad, Hank showed her the data she needed to come to a decision. Just the same way, Francisco is “selling” the capitalist strike to both of them. What possible reason, other than this story being an Idiot Plot, could explain why he’s not giving them the facts that could help persuade them?

Other posts in this series:

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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...