Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Politics Of: Atlas Shrugged Part 2

Then Atlas Went To Soak In The Jacuzzi
I had a chance to see the second part of the cinematic adaptation of Ayn Rand's seminal work Atlas Shrugged. In the first part I'll discuss the movie. In the second, the politics, where there will be spoilers.

The Movie
Atlas Shrugged Part II takes us back to the Rand-verse where, in the not so far future, government kleptocrats have tightened their stranglehold on all industry. Gas is north of $40.00/gallon and city streets are all but empty of cars. Planes no longer fly (save for very expensive chartered jets), and trains are now--again--the major method of long distance travel.

Worse, the great minds of industry (and some in the arts) have been vanishing. Are they being abducted? Are they being killed by rivals? Who is John Galt? (It turns out John Galt has been meeting with them and making them an offer that none of them refuse--the content of which we get a glimpse of in this movie).

Following on Part 1--and hewing, I'd say, reasonably close to Rand's massive book--this middle chapter takes us from the time when the government comes down full-force on Rearden Steel (run by captain of industry Hank Rearden played by Jason Beghe). They mostly leave his lover (mistress is too low a word: Rearden is married--but it's a purely and explicitly loveless marriage) Dagny Taggart (Samantha Mathis) alone as she has stepped back from running the last great rail empire: Taggart Transcontinental.

Specifically, she's left it in the hands of her brother (Patrick Fabian) who is in bed with the government moochers--even as their mandates and rules continue to eat away at his ability to run a business at all.

The movie is a message: the book explained critical elements of her philosophy, Objectivism, in story-form. The narrative does include a love story and she does give her characters more than one dimension--but every page is carefully built on the foundations of the philosophy she was explaining (you can note how, in the first movie, no matter what the disaster, the characters always pay their check at the restaurant before dashing out).

Is it preachy? Slightly--yes. But not overly so. Notably, the antagonists in Atlas Shrugged are the other wealthy elite. You see the poor--but mostly they just want to work. It is not about the wealthy vs. Occupy Wall Street but rather the Wealthy vs. The Government (the liberal government, anyway).

Is it good? I'd say it is. It suffers from middle-of-the-trilogy syndrome so it doesn't really "begin at the beginning" and its end is something of a cliffhanger. It gets the pageantry of the super-rich of the Rand-verse pretty well: the director knew how to throw a party. The production had to hire all new actors this time around and while the cast is generally considered to be stronger in Part II I did miss some of the Part 1 actors (specifically Grant Bowler who's slightly hapless smile managed to convey that Hank Rearden was a really, really good sport about all the abuse he was taking).

Still, it's a bit of a shock.

It got mediocre reviews and I wouldn't recommend it as a stand-alone movie: anyone seeing Part 2 had better see Part 1--but if you liked Part 1 even a little you'll probably be fine with Part 2. If you saw Part 1 and couldn't stand it? Well, there's no point.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics Of Atlas Shrugged Part II
At first I was a bit stymied: how can one "do the politics" of Atlas Shrugged Part Anything when the entire book is a political / philosophical essay? I mean--I could just have one line: 'Study the heck out of Objectivism' and call it a day. Any deep discussion of Objectivism will require--if you are talking to an actual objectivist--that you have done all and I mean all of the reading.

Good luck with that: even summarizing Objectivism is something I'm "not qualified" to do (according to Objectivists I have talked to). But then I realized there was an angle I was legitimately curious about--and it's this: is the movie (Part 2, for this discussion) Objectivist ... or is it Libertarian? [ OMINOUS CRACKLE OF THUNDER ]

Let me tell you a joke:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well, are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are your Christian or Buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, Me too! Are your Episcopalian or Baptist? He said, "Baptist!" I said, "Wow! Me too! Are your Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord? He said, Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are your Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off.
To most people Libertarians and Objectivists look a lot a like--at least from 30,000 30 feet away. They're not--just ask one. Oh, sure, there are some similarities (vague ones):
Here there are two close substitutes; the world can barely distinguish between what it sees as the Tweeddledee of libertarianism and the Tweedledum of Objectivism [ You can, by this one line, tell where the author fell! ]. Both favour freedom; both oppose welfare; neither supports socialism; both are against anything but laissez faire capitalism. 
The reason this is of interest with Atlas Shrugged is because it was made, in part, by Tea Party types (allegedly) and while they were certainly fans of Rand they may not have been pure ideological Objectivists. So ... let's look!

So ... Is ASII Libertarian ... Or Objectivist?
The driving force behind the Atlas Shrugged movies is John Aglialoro--a Tea Party superstar--with some help from Freedomworks--also a Tea Party promoter (and the Tea Party is neither Objectivist nor, entirely, Libertarian--although they fall much closer to the latter than the former). I've no doubt Aglialoro has towering respect for Ayn Rand, at least in his own mind, but I suspect that "any adaptation" made without full cognizant adherence to Rand's philosophy simply cannot propagate it from the page to the screenplay to the screen.

It is also critical to note that the trilogy, being created now, is being created as a political tool--with the help from political agencies (Freedomworks). Atlas Shrugged Part 1 was released when it was with the hopes of influencing the election. The messages that get promoted here too, may be calculated more for their political impact than for their philosophical teaching. You can see this with an appearance by Sean Hannity in the movie: he's not an Objectivist--but is appealing to the Tea Party audiences.

If that were the case, it would be libertarian--even if it only touches on the areas where Libertarians agree with Objectivists. The principal differences between libertarians and objectivists are, I would say, as follows:
  1. Libertarianism is a political position--freedom as opposed to tyranny. It has certain rules but no consistent philosophical base. Objectivism, conversely, arrives at many of the same rules (No Initiation of Force) but comes about them differently--from specific, consistent objectivist principles. Libertarinaism has a larger tent. Objectivism has specific underpinnings for each rule (so there might be a distinction in Libertarian vs. Objectivism on, for example, retaliatory strikes).
  2. Libertarians and Objectivists see a substantial difference in the role of the state, laws, and crime. Take for example whether or not a citizen in either regime could forgive an assault. Under libertarianism, the citizen (presumably a pacifist) could tell an arresting officer not to haul off an attacker. Under an objectivist regime, presumably, if the law was violated ... it was violated. There is also a question about the innate coercive nature of states and the requirement for a standardized philosophy for successful government (Objectivist, presumably)--something libertariansim does not have.
Looking at the plot, I think Atlas Shrugged Part 2 has four 'critical' scenes where the philosophy is most exposed. These are:
  1. The Francisco d'Anconia speech at James Taggart's wedding--which is about the value and goodness of money.
  2. The Hank Rearden trial where he is brought before the judges for failure to comply with the Fair Share Law (and sells coal to the guy who pays for it rather than who the government tells him to).
  3. The Winston Tunnel Disaster where the eventually mismanagement of the railway under the boot of the government leads to a crash with hundreds of deaths.
  4. The government requirement that patent holders sign over their patents to the government as "gifts" (when Readen refuses, they threaten to ruin Dagney Taggart's reputation with blackmail photos of her going out with him--a married man!)
The Money Speech
The money speech:
The link is to a person from the Ayn Randian  Atlas Society discussing the speech and its meaning (that, alone, is a fair Objectivist-endorsement). The speech in the movie was cut down a lot (listen to a computer reading of it here). If you compare the two of them there are similarities--but there are also differences. Specifically these differences are:
  1. The book speech exalts the intellect and the mind as the source by which value is created. That is left out of the movie speech.
  2. The book speech makes the case that money is the tool of deals for the participant's own benefit only (and that you will, philosophically, never use money in a deal that is not to your advantage)--that the common bond of men is the exchange of goods (which links to their reason) and not the sharing of misery.
  3. It points out that the degree of productiveness is the degree of a man's reward.
  4. The book speech notes that money will not give a code of value, a focus, or ideas if he has none--it will not make up for weakness--it will only help you realize what you already have in mind. 
  5. Only the man who does not need it, says the book speech, is fit to inherent wealth (as he would make it wherever he started).
Conversely the movie speech hits on:
  1. The measure of a man is not in having money--but in how he got it.
  2. That making money from back-room deals and political manipulation is wrong.
  3. It centers on the concept of "crony capitalism" (although not by that name)
The movie speech is the political element of the speech only--it leaves out the book's philosophical content. What is important in today's political environment is not the moral underpinnings of money and the philosophy around its exchange and moral virtue--but rather the influence of money on industry--specifically a few hot-button issues ("Crony Capitalism") like Soylendra.

None of what is in the movie is out of keeping with Objectivism--but it seems to me that the movie makers have chosen the middle ground where Objectivists and Libertarians agree in a way that highlights a specific issue that is of interest to the Republican party and the Tea Party. It does not introduce any philosophical issues about who should have money or how money functions in an ideal fashion which could possibly cloud the issue (and instruct viewers). This simplification is probably "necessary" for the length of the movie--but it also seems to me to be calculated.

Conclusion: Libertarian.

The Judgment Of Rearden
Here is the scene where Rearden is judged:
Here is audio-only from the book: Part 1, Part 2.

While the book is much longer the key elements are similar:
  1. Rearden requires the government be overt in its use of force ("I won't participate--send guns").
  2. The government cites the public good as its moral value. 
  3. Hank does not recognize the public good as anything of value to him.
What is important, however, is the order in which these arguments are developed. In the book there is a great deal of emphasis placed on the idea that there is no public good and therefore any attempt to coerce him / take his stuff is cannibalism and thievery. In the movie it is the other way around: Rearden declares their actions thievery and then the court cites the public good as a defense.

The book also makes much more of Hank's refusal to cooperate. His refusal to enter a plea is in the movie but is comparatively shortened. I think this is because Rand is making the philosophical point that the court has no moral principals as its foundation whereas the movie is more focused on making the point that the court is coercive

This is subtle--and I think it leans Libertarian as the practical consequences (the government initiation of force) is 

Conclusion: Leans libertarian--by a hair.

The Tunnel Disaster
Two trains go into a tunnel (due to mismanagement)--no train leaves. I can find no video for it--but here's a link to an excerpt from the book. Note that Rand catalogs her victim's crimes against Objectivism before killing them:
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 man in Drawing Room A, Car No 6, was a financier who had made a fortune by buying 'frozen' railway bonds and getting his friends in Washington to 'defreeze' them.
The man in Seat 5, Car No.7, was a worker who believed that he had "a right" to a job, whether his employer wanted him or not.
The woman in Roomette 6, Car no. 8, was a lecturer who believed that, as a consumer, she had "a right" to transportation, whether the railroad people wished to provide it or not.
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.'
The idea in the book is, I think, to show, with concrete deaths, the wages of non-Objectivism. The movie, on the other hand,makes no mention of the mental state of anyone on the train (we get some conversation). Presumably innocents die (especially on the Army train)--but there's no direct tie-in to the philosophy or even to government mismanagement (if Kip had been a little more patient he'd be just as bad but alive). It wasn't high taxes or initiation of force that causes the collision either (nor was it Obama).

This makes the event not a philosophical one but rather a practical one. No matter how badly run the lines were there was no requirement for a spectacular disaster. It goes from a scene that makes an inescapable point (non-Objectivism or governmental influence kills people) to one that simply shows a possible outcome of some bad mangement.

Without the book's narrative judgment or a direct connection to Libertarian principals it lacks philosophical underpinnings for either Libertarianism or Objectivism.

Conclusion: Neither.

Taking Patents As Gifts
Hamsterdam Economics writes that Atlas Shrugged II high-lights how confused Ayn Rand was about intellectual property as she decries the government's forced taking of patents from their owners:
I think that Rearden’s position on this is a bit contradictory. He is indignant that the state would move to deprive him of his patents, thereby also depriving him of the fruits of his labors. But isn’t that what those patents do to others? Don’t they prevent others who develop similar products from bringing them to the market? ...
Furthermore, Rearden’s position seems to me to be a little bit disingenuous. After all, he opposes the state’s use of force. ...  At the same time, however, his patents themselves rest on just such a threat. I see this as something of a double standard.
If, indeed, mainstream libertarian thought is against patents (and copyright?) then, yes: this is Objectivist. I'll assume it is!

Conclusion: Objectivist.

Conclusion: Libertarian
I think that looking closely and carefully, the political requirements (like putting in Sean Hannity) and the requirements of making a movie (taking out the narrative judgment of each train rider) override the source material's philosophical underpinnings. The end result is the seminal Objectivist work of fiction has become a Libertarian artifact.

In a way you'd expect this to be good: the larger-tent position of Libertarians would encourage more people to see it. Thus, it would make more money. Rand-verse Galt Gulchians would approve (note: did not do well at box-office despite that).

* She ends with: "These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas."--presumably either (a) the kids are either too young to be 'men'--or maybe were both daughters? In any event, uh, way to go Rand-verse.

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