Atlas Shrugged’s Shock Doctrine
Naomi Klein opens The Shock Doctrine by comparing the psychological hypothesis that an array of shocks “could unmake and erase faulty minds” with Milton Friedman’s economic hypothesis that a course of painful policy shocks could return society to “pure capitalism.” Klein’s book raises the following question: why did shock become the dominant metaphor for economic and psychological modernization? This article suggests that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged provides one answer, revealing how shock’s emergence as a form of neoliberal subject-making is rooted in the white flight anxieties about racializing and decaying urban cores that emerged in the postwar period.
Naomi Klein opens the first chapter of her best-selling book The Shock Doctrine with an analogy. She compares the psychological hypothesis that an array of shocks “could unmake and erase faulty minds, then rebuild new personalities on that ever-elusive clean slate” (29) with Milton Friedman’s economic hypothesis that a course of painful policy shocks could similarly “depattern societies, . . . returning them to a state of pure capitalism, cleansed of all interruptions—government regulations, trade barriers and entrenched interests” (50). The premise in both cases, she argues, is that shock intervenes in a subject or market that has grown sick and returns it to a salubrious state of nature. Klein’s book raises the question, though without explicitly asking it, why did shock constitute such a powerful and persuasive image under neoliberalism? How did shock change from a traumatic force associated with unconscious, libidinal desires and left-wing revolutionary potential to the dominant metaphor for economic and psychological rationalism during the second half of the twentieth century? This article suggests that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged provides one answer. In Atlas Shrugged, the recuperation of shock as a force of what Matthew Huber, following Michel Foucault, terms “entrepreneurial” (xv), or neoliberal subject-making, emerges from the white flight anxieties toward racializing and decaying urban cores that emerged following World War II. Within Atlas Shrugged this neoliberal vision of shock is a recuperative fantasy in which the destabilizing shocks experienced by white flighters faced with the racialization or so-called blight of downtown cores in concert [End Page 73] with a rising Civil Rights movement are transformed into a bitter yet necessary medicine that will ultimately create more resilient, self-sufficient, free, and implicitly white subjects and cities. I argue that Atlas Shrugged simultaneously acts as an origin story for what Klein conceives as the neoliberal doctrine of shock therapy and reveals the racialized, revanchist urban processes that helped create and shape these economic narratives.
Atlas Shrugged opens with its protagonist, railway magnate Dagny Taggart, and her assistant, Eddie Willers, strolling through a seemingly war-torn New York City, its streets, houses, stores, and factories largely empty, abandoned, or destroyed. Eddie makes three seemingly disconnected observations about his surroundings: first, that the skyscrapers look “like an old painting in oil” (12); second, that he hates the new electronic calendar that “the mayor of New York had erected last year”; and third, that the plenitude of commodities in the store windows on Fifth Avenue comfort him, as “he liked to see . . . objects made by men, to be used by men.” However, these windows also arouse in him a feeling of the uncanny, triggering an uncomfortable childhood memory of an oak tree struck by lightning. He recalls the childhood “shock [that] came when he stood very quietly, looking into the black hole of the trunk” (13). What is this shock and why does his stroll through the streets of New York City trigger this memory? Furthermore, why is this intrusion—a memory of nature’s awesome and destructive power—into the urban landscape of department stores and skyscrapers so deeply troubling for Eddie? Why does this single “shock” disturb his otherwise “sunlight”-filled memories of childhood and his love of New York (13)?
The blasted oak tree of Eddie’s childhood recalls the opening scene of Mary Shelley’s classic novel of modernity, Frankenstein, when Victor Frankenstein recalls his childhood experience of witnessing a storm that reduced “an old and beautiful oak” to a “blasted stump” (57). He explains, “we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribands of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.” When he asks his uncle, in awe, what force has just reduced a magnificent tree to ribands, his uncle responds, “Electricity!” This story of creative destruction both marks the primal scene of Frankenstein’s obsession with technology and progress and—like Marx’s sorcerer, who “is no longer able to control the powers . . . he has called up” (226)—foreshadows Frankenstein’s downfall: his inability to harness the forces of nature he has conjured. However, Atlas Shrugged is no Frankenstein. Where Frankenstein projects the horrific consequences of modernity, Atlas Shrugged celebrates modernity and displaces what Eddie experiences as these Promethean shocks from the shoulders of modernity onto [End Page 74] those of the postwar Keynesian state (called “the looters” in the novel ). In doing so, the novel transforms the metaphor of modernity from Prometheus into Atlas: from a model of modernity rooted in traumatic shock, deadly compulsion, and ultimate destruction to one rooted in strength, stability, and domination.
Atlas, in Atlas Shrugged, is the ur-capitalist figure John Galt, a low-level employee for Dagny’s railway company who is at once building and destroying the infrastructure underpinning New York City’s economy and ultimately the US-driven capitalist world system. As the novel begins Dagny is trying to save the city and her family’s railway, Taggart Transcontinental, from two threats: the looter state and an elusive figure she calls the “destroyer” (354) who is disappearing the country’s most innovative and competent industrialists, artists, and thinkers (whom the novel terms the “men of the mind” ), exacerbating the looters’ large-scale economic crisis. As the novel develops, Dagny must learn that the destroyer is actually Galt and the disappeared are on strike against the looters. These men do not seek to destroy capitalism but rather to save it. The novel follows Dagny as she realizes that the destroyer is actually her and society’s redeemer and that she must join the men of the mind and give up her attachments to her railway company in order to save the city and transform herself into one of the men of the mind.
Atlas Shrugged emerges out of and participates in the debates surrounding the future of America’s cities at a time when the often opposing forces of urban sprawl, suburbanization, urban decay, and urban renewal were making that future increasingly uncertain. What Rand calls a “strike” turns out to be an enactment of the twinned processes of white and industrial flight to the suburbs, and Eddie and Dagny’s traumatic encounter with the decaying city simply rehearses the myriad white flight narratives that cast the postwar city as a war zone that shocks and traumatizes the working- and middle-class white subject who needs to flee.1
Read thusly, Atlas Shrugged is what Catherine Jurca terms a “white diaspora” novel—that is, a novel of white, middle-class resentment that promotes “a fantasy of victimization that reinvents white flight as the persecution of those who flee” (9). However, the novel ultimately refuses a position of victimization as a form of looter ideology. It instead reimagines the shocks and traumas of a decaying urban core as a therapeutic force that purges the characters and the reader of neurotic, anxious, and compulsive drives, facilitating the creation of the entrepreneurial subject, what Huber defines as the subject for whom life is a “coherent space of privatized freedom . . . entirely produced by and reducible to one’s own life choices and entrepreneurial efforts” (xv). Ultimately, this transformation is not [End Page 75] simply about the nature of the city or the subject; it is about the experience of shock, which in the novel becomes a positive force of subject formation. Through this transformation, I argue, Atlas Shrugged exemplifies the processes through which shock ceased to be understood as a traumatic, libidinal, and potentially revolutionary force and instead came to be understood as a form of therapy that would forge the strong, stable, and self-reliant subject that would come to underpin neoliberal ideology.
By the early 1950s the story of Frankenstein was an apt analogy for the vertiginous rise and fall of the US’s great industrial cities, which appeared victims of their own progress. Between the 1870s and the 1930s, American cities expanded at a seemingly limitless rate. Cities were home to the factories producing the weapons and goods ensuring US economic and military dominance, thousands of immigrants were arriving every year, and migrants were moving from the rural South to escape the physical and economic violence of Jim Crow. During the Great Depression, however, that growth stopped. Factories closed and neighborhoods emptied. No longer were cities associated with growth, prosperity, and futurity but with decline; unemployment; and a foreclosed, industrial past. Throughout the 1930s, proponents of what would become urban renewal started speaking of a blight plaguing the core of US cities as industry and businesses closed shop and moved to the suburbs, following government and the white middle class, who were moving into their newly built and subsidized suburban homes (Fogelson 57). By the 1940s a national consensus had emerged that an urban crisis was brewing, which would result in a national catastrophe without large-scale government intervention. While Eddie might not be able to find the words in the “empty shape” of his mind (12) to connect the shock he experiences staring at the hollowed-out oak tree and the hollowed-out city, the novel does. Eddie’s anxious observations that the setting sun’s reflection off the skyscrapers makes it look like the city is on fire, that even the “prosperous” streets are filled with “dark and empty” windows, and that the skyscrapers are “brown” and “soot-eaten” like “the color of a fading masterpiece” all make clear that for Eddie, New York City is that oak tree, struck down and dying out. New York is the blighted city that must be saved.
The term “blight” was first used by the Chicago school of sociology in the 1920s, which introduced an “ecological approach” to sociology and especially to processes of urban change (Pritchett 16). [End Page 76] However, blight was an amorphous term. “Blighted areas” were not necessarily dangerous or unsanitary places to live, work, or shop as “slums” were. Instead, they were areas considered old, obsolete, in need of repair, or poorly planned—or whose property values were declining, generally as a result of the movement of industry and white shoppers to the suburbs.2 While the slums had been a longtime concern of urban reformers, blight didn’t emerge as a wide-scale social concern until the late 1930s.3 The term’s prominence reflected a larger reorientation in urban policy. Throughout the first half of the century, housing reformers and activists such as Jacob Riis, Edith Elmer Wood, and Mary Simkhovitch used the term “slums” to refer to the cramped and squalid condition in which “the other half lives” (to borrow from Riis’s famous book title), which, they worried, would lead to social unrest and class warfare. During the Great Depression, a new generation of prominent housing reformers and activists such as Catherine Bauer, Lewis Mumford, and Henry Wright modernized their predecessors’ ideas, calling on the government to marshal the tools of urban planning—such as public housing and slum clearance—to create better housing and social conditions for the urban poor (Klemek 49). In the postwar period, however, the urban reform movement was usurped by a growing coalition of downtown business interests—shop owners, politicians, and planners—who repurposed the tools of urban planning for economic development. Whereas for Bauer, Mumford, and Wright the goal of urban planning was social betterment, in the postwar period the purpose of urban planning became economic: specifically, luring the bodies and dollars of the white working and middle classes back downtown.
In the hands of developers, this ecological approach to urban space implicitly worked to naturalize the economy and reconceptualize factors perceived to harm the economy into unnatural diseases that had to be cured.4 These economic factors and the language of blight were always political and particularly racialized. In 1943, for instance, the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ Fundamentals of Real Estate Practice added the category “colored man of means” to its list of factors that would create blight in residential neighborhoods (qtd. in Avila 80). Technically speaking, they were not wrong. Because federal housing policy discriminated against and effectively condemned neighborhoods that were densely populated, aging, or had what one Federal Housing Authority manual termed an “infiltration of inharmonious racial and national groups” (qtd. in Abrams 61), the arrival of African American or other ethnic groups literally did reduce property values.5 As a result, while blight was ostensibly an economic term used to describe neighborhoods that were either in decline or simply not growing in accordance with the [End Page 77] wishes of specific downtown business interests, the term provided a race-neutral sheen to the thoroughly racist assumptions underpinning urban redevelopment and renewal.
The objects to which Eddie attaches himself in defense against the blight he sees taking over his city are, in this respect, particularly revealing. Eddie lists three objects that inexplicably “reassure” him: a vegetable pushcart with “bright gold carrots and the fresh green of onions,” a “clean white curtain blowing at an open window,” and a “bus turning a corner, expertly steered” (12). These objects implicitly articulate a vision of the unblighted or natural city: prosperous, healthy, well ordered, spacious, white, and clean. While Eddie never explicitly uses the term blight, his sudden desire that “these things” not be “left in the open, unprotected against the empty space above” frames the city within the ecological imaginary of blighted versus healthy. The problem Eddie faces is that he feels unable to protect these enclaves of prosperity against the winds of blight. Dagny, however, is confident that she can protect these spaces, and at least initially the solution she offers—both politically and aesthetically—is remarkably in line with the modernist principles of urban renewal. Not only does Dagny live on the top floor of a large, glass-sheeted skyscraper—the de facto modernist cure for crumbling and blighted older neighborhoods—but she also tries to work (albeit grudgingly) with the state, investing her private capital in large infrastructure projects to rescue a city benighted by the flight of industry, capital, and skilled labor. She soon realizes, however, that her efforts are in vain. No matter how hard she works to save the city from blight, the blighted city consumes her. Just as she finds herself increasingly unable to overcome the chronic mismanagement, bad government policy, and industrial decline that threaten to destroy her business, she finds herself increasingly swallowed up by the city’s maze of abandoned parks, dilapidated houses, and other ruins. In one particularly notable instance, Dagny exits a cab to find herself in a neighborhood near the East River that has fallen into disrepair. Wandering blindly, Dagny spots “the black shape of a ruin” (167). As she approaches it, she realized that “it had been an office building, long ago; she saw the sky through the naked steel skeleton and the angular remnants of the bricks that had crumbled” (167). As with Eddie, so Dagny’s experience of the city too becomes one of blight, decay, and decline.
In contrast to this decayed and rotten city, the novel offers us Atlantis, the “private property” enclave (650) constructed by the men of the mind in the Midwestern mountains. Rand’s comparison of New York and Atlantis reads like any number of modernist architectural urban-planning visions for an alternative to the industrial city. Rand’s Atlantis in fact is perfectly in line with the 1933 Athens Charter of [End Page 78] the highly influential International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM), which called for, among other things, the rational organization of urban space, a focus on air and sunlight to ensure healthy living, and the “segregation of the four functions of work, residence, transportation, and leisure” (Klemek 11). Whereas in New York directionless and chaotic citizens stumble around a poorly designed and crumbling downtown, in Atlantis the buildings are new, well designed, spacious, and maintained; the healthy inhabitants walk the streets with orderly purpose; and the factories and businesses are open and prospering. And whereas New York City is a tangled mass of industrial, residential, and commercial neighborhoods, in Atlantis the different housing, industrial, and commercial “districts” (667) are separated and connected by a system of well-planned roads and railroads. Atlantis, in short, is the model modernist city—except that Atlantis is not a city but a planned, private, and homogenous development located in an enclave outside of the city. In other words, Atlantis is the model suburb.
Stripped bare, Atlas Shrugged is a white flight novel, a novel about these processes of suburbanization, urban decay, and urban renewal. What makes this context difficult to see is a twofold operation that also explains the novel’s efficacy. First is its complete erasure of race save for a one-sentence description of the oil baron Ellis Wyatt’s servant as “an elderly Indian with a stony face and a courteous manner” (233). The second is its coding of white flight within the imagery of the frontier. The two are related: not only is the Native American servant the one racialized character in the novel, but also, as Andrew Hoberek has noted, the frontier mythos this minor character evinces plays a crucial role in the larger narrative operation of Atlas Shrugged. Hoberek persuasively reads the novel’s “celebration of frontier individualism” (36) as an “ahistorical fantas[y]” (37) that serves “as a site for the conservation of middle-class agency” at a moment when that agency is eroding. The frontier is an even more timely metaphor than Hoberek suggests; it reflects the reconfiguration of suburban and, subsequently, urban space into the new frontiers of capital.
Rand captures this fusion of nineteenth-century frontier imagery and twentieth-century modernist architecture and urban planning within her descriptions of Atlantis’s architecture. On the one hand, as Hoberek points out, Galt’s home “has the ‘primitive simplicity of a frontiersman’s cabin’” and “one of his lieutenants lives in a home ‘like a frontiersman’s shanty’” (37). On the other, both of these buildings are thoroughly modern. Galt’s cabin, for instance, has both “primitive simplicity” and such attributes of suburban modernity as “chromium glittering on an electric stove” (655). Similarly, while [End Page 79] Francisco d’Anconia’s house is a “log cabin beaten in dark streaks by the tears of many rains,” it also has “great windows withstanding the storms with the smooth, shining, untouched serenity of glass” (672–73). Rand’s depiction of Atlantis as both a frontier and a suburban enclave offers a remarkably clear-eyed enactment of the suburb’s role during the Cold War as a factory of and showcase for what historian Elaine Tyler May terms “the American way of life as the triumph of capitalism, allegedly available to all who believed in its values” (8).
But the mythos of the frontier also points to the racial politics embedded within Atlas Shrugged. Like the depiction of the frontier in the Westerns it draws on, Atlas Shrugged’s use of the frontier serves to efface the role of race in these processes of spatial redevelopment. In The Frontier Club, Christine Bold traces how what she terms the “frontier clubmen” (2)—turn-of-the-century east-coast aristocrats such as Teddy Roosevelt, Owen Wister, and Frederic Remmington—bleached the West of its Mexican, Indigenous, Jewish, Eastern European, and African American inhabitants in order to reimagine the frontier as a space of Anglo American dominance. Writing within the context of Jim Crow, Bold argues, these frontier clubmen “produced segregationist stories—not so much arguing the case against African Americans as pushing them to the margins of the western scene or out of the picture altogether” (131). Rand’s recasting of white flight in the terms of the frontier Western participates in a larger cultural shift that produced a new segregationist rhetoric for the post-Jim Crow era, one in which, as David Freund documents, whites shifted from arguments based on biological difference to the economic arguments that “racial-minorities simply threatened white-owned property” (12).6 Put differently, Atlas Shrugged doesn’t need to mention race because Rand’s depiction of the decaying and economically blighted urban core—contrasted with the well-organized and affluent suburban development—is already coded within the new segregationist language of white flight.
Read within this context, Rand’s articulation of the men of the mind’s main strategy, the withdrawal of capital from public space and into the enclave of Atlantis, becomes all the more nefarious. At the end of the novel, Dagny tracks Galt to his home in New York, which she discovers is located in a slum. Surveying her surroundings, Dagny describes the “crumbling plaster, the peeling paint, the fading sign-boards of failing shops with unwanted goods in unwashed windows, the sagging steps unsafe to climb, the clotheslines of garments unfit to wear” (1000). When Dagny, shocked, asks Galt about his choice of abode, Galt explains that “no money earned in [Atlantis] is ever to be spent outside” (1005), so he must work as a track laborer to pay his rent and buy food in New York City. This conversation reveals [End Page 80] the actual state policies that created a system of economic and racial segregation between wealthy suburbs and impoverished cities: the subsidizing and expansion of home ownership and white-collar industry in the suburbs and the underdevelopment and concentration of poverty in urban centers. Yet paradoxically, it does so while giving voice to the moralizing fantasy of white flighters that government interventions were only helping the urban poor whereas the deserving suburban homesteaders had earned their houses through independent hard work.
Moreover, this scene reveals the deeper importance of the ideological fantasies underpinning white flight and suburbanization to the forging of neoliberalism. Galt’s identity—split between that of a blue-collar worker in the city and a successful entrepreneur and capitalist in the suburbs—mobilizes a fantasy of suburbanization as upward class mobility, of the move from a dependent blue- or white-collar laborer to an independent owner-operator. But it does so at the same time as that possibility is foreclosed. Class mobility does not exist within the novel. No character successfully ascends. Instead of mobility, Galt offers the alternative of identification. In him, the subject position of the hard-working, blue-collar, white worker fuses with the subject position of the capitalist. What this scene ultimately reveals, then, is how a fantasy of white dispossession creates an ideological realignment in which the blue- and white-collar, primarily male, worker comes to distance himself from the social welfare state and to identify with capital.
Thus, while Atlas Shrugged undoubtedly mobilizes feelings of dispossession that Jurca rightly sees as underpinning white flight, the novel’s perspective is ultimately that of capital. This is why the novel cannot end in the enclave of Atlantis. While suburbanization, as David Harvey and others have shown, was crucial to solving the profitability crisis that marked the end of World War II, so was developing the newly destroyed city. “Capital,” Harvey writes, “cannot abide limits. When it encounters limits, it works assiduously to convert them into barriers that can be transcended or bypassed” (“Enigma” 90). In the 1930s, that limit was the suburbs and, as William Whyte notes, the great postwar expansion of suburbia in the 1940s and 1950s drew on the “romantic veneration of the frontier tradition” (1). But by the beginning of the 1960s, as Charles Abrams pointed out in his 1965 book, the frontier had shifted to the city. Abrams was not alone in this observation. Just a year earlier, Lyndon Johnson had declared the city “the frontier of imagination and innovation” (705). Indeed, as Christopher Klemek suggests, the very project of urban renewal was “conceived and executed as a kind of frontier assault, drawing red battle lines around entire districts and neighborhoods, advancing against blighted slums, imposing rational new form on cities” (2). [End Page 81]
Writing in the 1940s and 1950s, Rand could not have known the specific shape urban revalorization would take in the 1970s and 1980s after, as Neil Smith writes, “the new urban frontier” became “the frontier of profitability” (22). But what Rand was able to clearly see from early on was the continued importance of urban space to capital, even at the moment when urban space appeared abandoned. Smith argues that with capital’s return to the city, the imaginary of urban space similarly transformed from a “wilderness”—a chaotic space of decay and decline—to a “frontier” (16), a space of “economic progress and historical destiny, rugged individualism and the romance of danger, national optimism, race and class superiority” (186). This is the transformation that both Dagny and the reader undergo as they reorient their perspective of the city from that of Eddie, who experiences the city as a hopeless battle against blight, to that of Galt, who embraces this blight-ridden New York with all of the excitement of a cowboy heading west. Where initially the slums evoke a sense of terror in Dagny—at one point she cries out uncontrollably, “But this is New York City!” (1001)—Galt sees the slums as a laboratory. Inside his crumbling apartment, nested within a slum, Galt has built “the most efficiently modern laboratory [Dagny] had ever seen” (1005). And whereas Dagny, like Eddie, initially experiences the slumification of New York as a blight, a traumatic shock that threatens to destroy the city she loves, the men of the mind see in these slums the seeds of a new civilization that will supplant the looter state.7
This change in perspective encapsulates the difference in standpoints between an embattled middle class and capital. While the middle class fleeing the city experience the phenomenon of urban blight and decay as a constitutional shock that threatens the values of their houses and their identity, capital views these same processes as creating new spaces of potential redevelopment. One way we can think about the problem that Atlas Shrugged ultimately tackles, then, is how to shift the readerly perspective and identification from the position of a shell-shocked, embattled, working- or middle-class subject who flees to the suburbs to that of capital, which sees the suburbs as a tactical and temporary retreat.
I opened this article by discussing the shocks that pervade Eddie’s experience of the city. I want to suggest now that Eddie’s experience of shock—his compulsive descriptions of his fear, his powerlessness, his sense that things are happening “in some horrible way which [he] can’t quite grasp” (205), and his mysterious, one-sided [End Page 82] conversations with the nameless track-fixer in the cafeteria, who we later find out is Galt—positions him within the Freudian symptomology of shock, the death drive, and particularly the uncanny, in which the subject projects an internal compulsion to repeat as the result of repressed trauma bubbling to the surface, onto an outside or “daemonic” presence (Beyond 21).8
At least initially, Dagny doesn’t fare much better. From the repetitive disappearances of key industrialists at the moments she needs them to the sudden disasters that strike both her railroad and the industries she relies on to keep the railway running, Dagny and her railroad too appear to be haunted by that “fateful and inescapable” thing Freud locates at the center of the uncanny (237). Thus, while Dagny begins the novel by challenging Chalmers’s and Worthing’s views on life by fighting the blight of her city, the novel warns us that she does so on their terms. Dagny, like Eddie, remains trapped in the symptomology of the uncanny, struggling against what seems like a demonic force wreaking havoc on the economy and social life of New York City and on their own psyches. The point is that while the reader may abhor the looter state, so long as she identifies with the sense of powerlessness and defeat felt by Eddie (and, initially, Dagny) she is still trapped within it.
However, the novel’s demonic force, which is given the title of the “destroyer,” is both real and symptomatic. Eddie and Dagny’s sense of being haunted—the golden dollar signs that appear, Richard Halley’s ghostly symphony that has never been written, the cigarettes of a nonexistent brand with the “sign of the dollar” “stamped in gold” on the carton (310)—are not quite external displacements of an internal compulsion to repeat. Everything they experience is the actual work of the men of the mind, who are deliberately sabotaging them. But because they are unable to see clearly, because their attachment to the neurotic looter state has blinded them, they experience this reality as a traumatic form of repetition-compulsion, instead of as a form of salvation. Thus, the novel suggests, what needs to change is simply Dagny’s perception of reality. Dagny must learn that what she initially perceived as a traumatic breakdown in the social order that renders her powerless and bewildered is actually the carefully planned and well-executed work of a striking capitalist elite whose goal is not the destruction of the city but the creation of a new, modern, and superior city.
Like the many modernist writers who Rand both draws on and breaks away from, she places the question of shock at the center of the problem of perception. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, artists and writers drew a connection between urban modernity, industrialization, traumatic shock, and the thickening of [End Page 83] the shield between consciousness and unconsciousness. Most prominently, Walter Benjamin built on Freud’s theory of shock and the death drive by asking—assuming Freud was right in that the job of the consciousness is to “cushion” the subject from excessive stimuli (318)—what happens to the structure of experience in an era of urban modernity in which excessive stimuli, and thus shock, becomes the norm of daily life? Benjamin theorized that as consciousness becomes more effective at “screening stimuli . . . the less these impressions enter long experience . . . and the more they correspond to the concept of isolated experience” (319). Thus he concluded that in a world where everything from factory work and playing in bumper cars to walking down a crowded street was a shock, human experience would become more isolated, automatized, and fragmented. But Benjamin wagered that the shocks produced by certain works of art, as well as the vertiginous and creative destructive energies of industrial capitalism, also contained within them both the potential for revealing the historically contingent nature of the calcified and seemingly natural social relations structuring one’s life and the potential for imagining other ways in which life could be organized.
Rand also wagers that shock can shatter the reified consciousness of society. Not only does the novel aim to act as a disruptive shock to the reader but it also repeatedly deploys both experiential shocks—moments that surprise the characters and sudden plot shifts that bewilder the reader—and depicts literal, physical shocks as the primary mechanism that facilitates the potential men of the mind to regain their vision and join the revolution. When Henry Rearden discovers that the legislature has passed the “Equalization of Opportunity Bill,” the novel describes him as looking up “as if a curtain of anaesthesia had broken” (201). This “sudden stab” (201) represents a crucial moment when Rearden is “jolted” (203) out of complacency and begins to act against the state. Similarly, when Dagny’s plane veers off course and crashes into Atlantis, the “shock [that] threw her back, her hands off the wheel and over her eyes” (22), is described not as inducing blindness but rather as a necessary recalibration and restoration of sight that signals her arrival into the laissez-faire paradise of Atlantis. Whereas in Beyond the Pleasure Principle a plane crash is the kind of mechanical “accident” (12) that would create in a subject “traumatic neurosis” around which a Freudian “protective shield” (27) would develop, in Atlas Shrugged industrial accidents break through the “curtain of anaesthesia” created by the bureaucracy of the state and its mass cultural apparatus. Shock, in Atlas Shrugged, becomes the force able to shatter the shield the novel associates with the welfare state. This is because, like the urban decay the characters encounter at the novel’s start, the psychic state of the [End Page 84] death drive too is refigured as a frontier to be pushed through, and shock, of course, is the force capable of doing so.
However, unlike the modernists she ultimately breaks away from, Rand makes clear that shock is not constitutive to capitalist modernity or an expression of capitalism’s internal contradictions but the self-regulating system of a fully rational capitalist system when faced with the unnatural and contradictory interventions of the state. Thus, the industrial accidents that recur throughout Atlas Shrugged are rational events caused by the growing bureaucratization of society that also does the necessary work of separating the fit from the unfit and often literally clearing the ground for the new economic developments envisioned by the men of the mind. When a train crashes into the Colorado mountains as a result of a series of breakdowns along the chain of production, the narrator comments, “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” (560). The narrator challenges this idea by systematically discussing each passenger of the sixteen cars, all of whom are teachers, professors, journalists, union men, and financiers representing the nanny-state mediocrity of 1950s Washington, DC. The chapter concludes, “These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their [the looters’] ideas” (562). There is no element of chance or chaos here. The accident is the result of a series of bureaucratic laws that hampered the railway industry from running in a safe and efficient manner while all of the people aboard the train were party to and responsible for this destructive process.
Throughout Atlas Shrugged Rand suggests that it is not shock but the looter state’s attempts to cushion the blows of shock—largely through anti-competition, aid, and social welfare and arts funding programs—that is destroying society and blinding it to the state’s destructive forces. Galt makes this point when the men of the mind take over a television station and he delivers his famous laissez-faire manifesto. His speech aligns the looter-state and its ideal zero with the death drive itself, which Freud identifies with that incessant urge to “lead organic life back into the inanimate state” (Beyond 40).9 Galt accuses the state and looter society of being so intent on “avoiding death” (941) that, paradoxically, they have made the price of life “the surrender of all the virtues required by life—and death by a process of gradual destruction is all that [such a] system will achieve” (945). In short, he concludes, the looters have created a religion of the “ideal zero which is death.” This point is driven home in the myriad fates of the heads of the looter state, all of whom are either driven mad or literally killed by their own psychic contradictions, [End Page 85] which the novel emphasizes reflect the contradictions of their policies. Both Orren Boyle, the head of the steel company of the looters, and James Taggart, the president of Taggart Transcontinental, suffer mental breakdowns while James’s wife, Cheryl, is so haunted by the contradictions of James’s policies that she commits suicide by throwing herself into the harbor.
In contrast, the men of the mind are unshockable—or rather, because they have passed through the frontier of the death drive, they have come to identify with those shocks. The looter state discovers this once they kidnap Galt and subject him to a literal shock therapy machine, the Ferris Persuader, in a desperate attempt to convince him to change sides from the men of the mind to the looters. Not only does the machine fail to persuade him but Galt ultimately breaks the machine. The reasons Rand offers for this failure are entirely psychoanalytic. The machine, the narrator explains, is unable to work on Galt because he neither tries to “fight” the machine nor “negate” it (1050). Rather, he defeats the machine by “surrendering” to its shocks. In Freudian terms, “negation” is the mechanism through which “the content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness” (“Negation” 667). It is a condition of the divided mind and, as such, the condition of Dagny, who maintains a hysterical attachment to the society she knows must be destroyed. Galt, in contrast, has already moved through his attachments to the past and society and no longer requires others to fulfill his drives; he has moved through the death drive and become, in the words of Dagny, a “single whole” (650).
Whereas Galt can inflict the most dramatic and devastating shocks to the looter state—destabilizing their cities, roads, railways, industry, international trade, and individual psyches—the looter state can’t shock Galt because he (and by extension the men of the mind) is on the side of the shocks. While this shock therapy scene is carried out in entirely psychological terms, the parallelism between the shocks and the acts of destruction visited on New York City are exact. Just as the shocks of the Ferris Persuader only work on the looter state, only the looters and the unconverted experience the shocks of urban decay, decline, and blight as traumatic. To those who have crossed over and come to identify with capital these shocks are actually therapeutic, serving to rid the city of the infrastructure of the older, self-contradictory state in order to make way for a new rational and prosperous city remade in the natural image of the market.
And here we finally arrive at the kernel of Rand’s most dramatic intervention into midcentury politics and aesthetics: the creation of the neoliberal fantasy of shock therapy. The novel creates this fantasy in two ways. First, it transforms the meaning of shock. Shock in Atlas [End Page 86] Shrugged ceases to be, as it was for Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and numerous modernists across the political spectrum, something inherent within and resulting from capitalist modernity (capitalism as Prometheus). Instead, the novel refigures capitalist modernity as a strong, stable, and natural force (capitalism as Atlas) and displaces shock onto the state, which replaces capitalist modernity as the contradictory, vertiginous, and destructive force. Within this revision, shock and the death drive are an effect of the natural, self-regulating mechanism of the market, which is attempting to purge itself of the impurities and sicknesses caused by state intervention. Second, the novel transforms the subject’s experience of shock at their encounter with a world wracked by the struggle between the market and the looter state—a world that the novel depicts in all of its brutal creative destruction of human relations, urban infrastructure, and environmental landscapes—into a therapeutic force. Shock, the novel promises, may be painful, but it will heal the subject, returning him or her to a natural state of volition, force, and freedom. In carrying out this transformation the novel refigures the creative destruction of capitalist modernity into a process of personal salvation, one that if submitted to will lead to a stronger, more flexible, more tensile human subject and, as we will see shortly, a more modern, profitable, and healthy city.
Shock in Atlas Shrugged is at once reparative, ridding the system and the self of unnatural aberrations, and evaluative, separating out the fit from the unfit. Thus the typically naturalist scenes of destruction, decline, and shocks faced by all of the characters become a test for the reader. Will readers be dupes of the looter state and take on the anxieties of the characters, or are they potential men of the mind who see these passages as a rational, natural response to an irrational society and a salutary cleaning of blighted ground? The ultimate test, or final exam, is the explosion of Project X, a thinly veiled representation of the atomic bomb. Project X is a sound weapon created by the head scientist of the looters, Robert Stadler, that explodes when one of the scientists accidentally pulls its lever. The explosion is described as destroying everything “within the circle of a radius of a hundred miles, enclosing parts of four states” (1041): “telegraph poles fell like matchsticks, farmhouses collapsed into chips, city buildings went down as if slashed and minced by a single second’s blow.” It is a short leap from Rand’s vision of telegraph poles falling “like matchsticks” to Benjamin’s famous metaphor of the striking of the match. In “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin argues that the striking of the match symbolizes the many nineteenth-century inventions whereby “a single abrupt movement of the hand triggers a process of many steps” (328). For Benjamin, this process is central to understanding [End Page 87] the almost supernatural power man now possesses in modernity and, as with Shelley’s Frankenstein and Marx’s sorcerer, the uncontrollable nature of the creations this power conjures. The eruption of Project X is also caused by a single abrupt movement of the hand, in this case the looter’s accidental “yank[ing of] a lever of the xylophone” (Rand, Atlas 1041). Yet, significantly, only the looters experience this event as an uncontrollable and traumatic disaster akin to Freud’s railway disasters or World War I. From the perspective of the men of the mind, Project X is a rational outcome of the looter’s laws and a final rational shock that clears the ground for the emergence of a new laissez-faire system.
It is Project X and the myriad other destructive looter policies that allow Atlas Shrugged’s ultimate victory: the retaking of a now cleared-out New York. The novel ends with the banker Midas Mulligan sitting at his desk “listing the assets of his bank and working on a plan of projected investments. He was noting down the locations he was choosing: ‘New York—Cleveland—Chicago . . . New York—Philadelphia . . . New York . . . New York . . . New York . . .’” (1072). Meanwhile, Judge Narragansett sits in his farm drafting new laws that forbid “abridging the freedom of production and trade” (1073). Finally, Galt stands at the road (presumably leading back to New York) and announces, “The road is cleared. . . . We are going back to the world,” at which point he traces the sign of the dollar “over the desolate earth” (1074). Reading these final few pages, it is difficult not to be struck by the uncanny prescience of this scene, which was realized following the near-bankruptcy of New York in the 1970s and the structural adjustment programs of privatization, deregulation, financialization, and gentrification that followed in its wake. And like the frontier narratives of gentrification that would follow, Atlas Shrugged too turns the destruction of New York City’s urban core into a bildungsroman narrative for the embattled white flight reader who comes to identify capital’s victory over the welfare state with their own personal success and salvation.
When read against the historical trajectory of New York City, what appears as the zero point or death drive of the subject is really the frontier of the welfare state and its attendant political and legal structures, aesthetic forms, and subjectivities. Dagny is purged of the vestiges of collective responsibility, the novel is purged of its sympathetic identification with the disenfranchised and dispossessed, and New York is purged of its social safety net and market controls. What remains is an empty space that the financiers, judges, and industrialists [End Page 88] can take control of. However, while Dagny passes through the death drive, and the city passes from welfare state to laissez-faire, the novel remains haunted by the conditions of its own success.
Most telling here is the novel’s need to purge the two middle-class characters most closely associated with the novel’s own readers: Cheryl Taggart and Eddie. The novel begins with Eddie and Cheryl in the city and the men of the mind out of the city—Dagny on a train, Hank in Philadelphia, Francisco gallivanting and philandering across the world, and Galt underground—and ends with the displacement of Eddie and Cheryl and the return of the men of the mind to the city. Why? Cheryl should be a proto-man of the mind. She is a woman of action, a woman who “saw pictures of New York and . . . thought, somebody built those buildings” (245), a woman who unlike her father “didn’t just sit and whine that the kitchen was filthy and the roof leaking and the plumbing clogged,” and a woman who sees opportunity and seizes it. Cheryl is one of the few characters other than Dagny and the only other woman to undergo a transformation from looter to man of the mind, to see that what appeared as “greatness” was really “its enemy” (817) and who realizes the truth of the principle “my life is the highest of values, too high to give up without a fight” (820). By the end of the novel not only has Cheryl converted, explaining that she has no “sympathy for that welfare philosophy” (800), but she even resembles Dagny in both style and appearance, gaining what the novel describes as “smooth efficiency” and “poise” (799). Even James comments, “she was no longer an incongruous little freak, dwarfed by the luxury of the residence which a famous artist had designed; she matched it. . . . She wore a tailored house-coat of russet-colored brocade that blended with the bronze of her hair, the severe simplicity of its lines serving as her only ornament.” And yet the novel cannot let Cheryl rise to the social status and class position of the men of the mind. The best fate the novel can give her is a noble suicide in which she throws herself into the harbor, becoming, as Stacey Olster points out, a “spokesperson for the underlying sense of anomie” that animates the novel (289). Why can she rise only to suicide? And similarly, why does the novel strand Eddie, who appears to be very much on the side of the men of the mind, on an abandoned railway somewhere in the Arizona desert, “sobbing at the foot of the engine, with the beam of a motionless headlight above him going off into a limitless night” (1072)? Why can he not undergo a similar transformation to that of Dagny?
While there is a veritable cottage industry in Rand studies justifying this narrative decision, I want to suggest that their excision from the plot has more profound implications for the novel.10 Eddie and Cheryl represent the fissure between changing one’s perspective [End Page 89] and changing one’s class position that the novel aims to efface. Here we arrive at the most important difference between Jurca’s white diaspora novels, which remain trapped in a “fantasy of victimization” (8–9), and Atlas Shrugged. While Rand’s novel animates this sense of victimization—Dagny spends most of it feeling victimized by a mysterious force she cannot control—it does so only to demand that the reader overcome their victimization, which is revealed to be either misidentification or, worse, a symptom of not being on the right side of history. While no characters actually transcend their class positions within the novel, the failure to transcend is always coded as a personal failing, so the reader must identify with capital if they are to identify with the novel’s developmental arc. Readers must identify with Dagny and Galt while they remain Eddies and Cheryls.
It is here, ultimately—in this space between the fate that awaits the working- and middle-class characters in the novel and the presumed middle-class reader’s identification within the novel—that Atlas Shrugged offers a remarkably canny and prescient model of shock therapy as a form of reidentification. In the most naked and clear-eyed manner, the novel lays out the cynical ways in which a small group of economic elites systematically hollowed out and destroyed urban infrastructure in order to take it over for capital. It also lays out the devastating effect these policies have on the same white middle class whose disaffection the novel animates. Yet the novel’s ending is a happy one because the reader no longer identifies with the victimized middle class but rather with the forces of capital. This is Ayn Rand’s shock therapy. It is the transformation of shock from a traumatizing but potentially revolutionary force with the potential for collective uplift into an individualizing force that leads not to a change in status or class position but rather to a change in individual identification. Shock therapy creates entrepreneurial subjects whose lives appear to them, to return to Huber, as “a coherent space of privatized freedom. . . entirely produced by and reducible to one’s own life choices and entrepreneurial efforts” (xv). The result of this reconceptualization is that if the subject’s life is entirely of her own making, they have two choices when economic or personal disaster occurs: they can either identify with the winners, those who profit from the shocks, or they can identify with the losers, those who fail to profit from the shocks. As the novel’s conclusion shows, the choice is clear.
MYKA TUCKER-ABRAMSON <email@example.com> is a lecturer in Contemporary Literature at King’s College London. Her writing has been published in Modern Drama, American Studies, and Edu-Factory, and is forthcoming in PMLA. She is currently completing a manuscript on post-1945 novels, urban renewal, and the emergence of neoliberalism.
1. Throughout the postwar period, writers drew comparisons between European cities destroyed by bombs and industrial US cities that had, [End Page 90] the comparison went, been bombed out by the problem of growing slums and white flight. For more on this comparison, see Zipp 15.
2. My account of blight and its relationship to but distinction from slums draws on both Weiss and Beauregard.
3. Walker and Wood solidified the use of the term “blight.”
4. Pritchett highlights the relationship between the term “blight” and shifts in racial policy. He explains that the most important court case on the topic of urban renewal, Berman v. Parker, was argued four months after the monumental Brown v. Board of Education. At issue in Berman v. Parker was the question of whether clearing a blighted area in and of itself constituted “public use,” even if the cleared land would be given over to private developers. The court finally concluded that such condemnations were constitutional (1). Pritchett argues that the Berman and Brown cases were “intimately related” because “the urban renewal program that the Court approved allowed cities to redistribute their populations, increasing residential segregation” (44). Urban renewal, in other words, became a policy of segregation by other means.
5. Jackson explains this process in Crabgrass Frontier. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) refinanced and restabilized millions of mortgages across the country and revolutionized how mortgages worked, creating the twenty-five-year loan and laying the groundwork for transforming the US into a nation of homeowners. HOLC also carried out the first large-scale appraisals of urban space. They divided cities into neighborhoods, developed elaborate questionnaires, and created standards to measure the value of all urban neighborhoods in the US. However, their system “undervalued neighborhoods that were dense, mixed, or aging,” characterizing them as “Fourth grade” or “red” (197). This system came to underwrite federal housing policy from then on. In 1934 Franklin Roosevelt created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to ensure and guarantee mortgages, thus bringing down interest rates and making home ownership available on a wide scale. The FHA used HOLC’s rating system and refused to ensure mortgages that fell under the “red” line. These processes, Jackson argues, guaranteed the underdevelopment and ghettoization of urban, racialized populations and the overdevelopment of suburban, white populations.
6. Sugrue, Kruse, and Self have all made similar arguments.
7. Houseman points out that cities have special importance to Rand, as they represent “the triumph of creative people over nature” (162). The suburbs, for Rand, thus could never be an ultimate solution.
8. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud puts forward his theory of shock and trauma. Writing in the wake of World War I and drawing on his work with war veterans, Freud tries to make sense of his patients’ compulsive repetition of traumatic events, which seemed to contradict his theory of the pleasure principle that assumed a rational subject who sought to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. In [End Page 91] this work, Freud concludes there is a human drive that exceeds the pleasure principle: the death drive, a conservative drive that seeks to repel external stimuli and return to an earlier, “inorganic” state (38). Imagining the unconscious as an internal space with a “protective shield” (27), Freud argues that trauma occurs when the subject’s shield fails to keep out external “excitations” (29)—a physical stimulus resulting from war injuries or industrial accidents, for example, or a psychological stimulus resulting from an unexpected event such as the sudden loss of a lover or parent. Shock is the term given when the subject’s protective shield is penetrated by this stimulus.
9. Žižek transcodes this “ideal zero” or “zero point” into Lacanian terms as “subjective destitution” (222), the point the subject must pass through to become wholly actualized. But such a transcoding removes our ability to situate Rand in her proper modernist context amid a diverse range of other novelists and writers who were engaged in the problem of shock. By keeping our language within the terms of Freud’s death drive, we are better able to historicize the critiques that Rand is leveling at the psychological and economic tenets of modernism and the welfare state.
10. This is a common topic on Rand Internet forums such as Galt’s Gulch Online or Objectivism Online, and Rand herself partially addresses it in a letter, in which she explains, “Eddie Willers is not necessarily destined to die; in a free society, he will live happily and productively; in a collectivist society he will be the first to perish. He does not have the ability to create a new society of his own, but he is much too able and too honest ever to adjust himself to collectivism” (“To Jennifer” 564).