Ragnar Danneskjöld

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Ragnar Danneskjold, in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, was a philosopher who became a privateer. Alone he defied the might of the United States Navy and of all the People's Navies of the world to be, as he famously said, "the friend of the friendless."

Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information

Background

Ragnar Danneskjold was born in Norway, the last son of one of its first families. His father was a Catholic bishop. When he was sixteen, his father sent him to study at the Patrick Henry University, in Cleveland, Ohio[1] (not to be confused with the real-life Patrick Henry College in Chesapeake, Virginia).

Ragnar Danneskjold studied physics and philosophy—a highly unusual double major. What at PHU, he made two lasting friendships that would change his life forever, though he did not know it at the time. One of these friends was Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d'Anconia, who also was an aristocrat of sorts, though Latin American rather than European. The other was John Galt, who was anything but aristocratic, and came to PHU with barely a penny to his name. These disparities in background and circumstances did not matter to any of these three. All three shared a love of the natural world, how it actually worked, and how one should function within it.

When they graduated, each made a different plan. Francisco d'Anconia planned to take over his father's great copper company, D'Anconia Copper SA of Argentina. John Galt planned to go to work as an engineer and an inventor. Ragnar planned to teach philosophy and perhaps to remain at PHU, though this part of his plan is never made clear.

Though each of the three began to implement his respective plan, all three would receive a rude interruption.

The Strike

About six years following their graduation, Ragnar received a summons from John Galt to meet him, not at his home in Starnesville, Wisconsin, but in a garret apartment in a run-down brownstone in New York City. Francisco d'Anconia received a similar summons. John Galt then told his two friends what had happened to him.

Galt had gone to work for the Twentieth Century Motor Company in Starnesville, named after Gerald "Jed" Starnes, the company's founder. There he had built the prototype of the first-ever practical electrostatic motor. But Gerald Starnes had died, and his three children inaugurated a plan to have everyone at the factory work according to his ability, but be paid according to his need. Ragnar probably recognized that principle at once, from The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx.

John Galt had refused to work under such a plan. He not only quit the factory, but also announced to the three heirs that he would "stop the motor of the world." He began, of course, by wrecking his prototype and carrying away with him those portions of his notes that would enable any future investigator to duplicate his work. And now he was asking his two friends to join him in what he called the strike of the men of the mind, and recruit others to do the same. The rules were simple: anyone having savings to retire on, would do so; the rest would take the lowest jobs that they could find, so that they would not give society the benefit of their talents.

Ragnar found the plan elegant and logical—but incomplete. In truth, Ragnar was infuriated with what John Galt had told him. Or perhaps the business plan of the Starnes children struck Ragnar as a prize example of a much larger social and political problem. This problem had long filled him with righteous indigation, and now this indignation boiled over. As Ragnar saw it, society was guilty of armed robbery—and if that society would not police itself, then the men of the mind must not only withdraw from it, but make war against it to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. Ragnar decided then and there to fight that war and carry it directly to what all three called "the looters."

The Privateer

Ragnar Danneskjold's solution came from the heritage and tradition of his Viking forebears. How he acquired or captured a ship and outfitted it as a ship of war, or recruited and trained a crew to navigate and fight that ship, the novel never makes clear. From the descriptions given of his activities, Ragnar had a fast ship that nevertheless carried guns capable of bombarding either another ship or a shore target at long range. Ragnar also had at his disposal at least one aircraft: a cargo carrier with which Ragnar would later transport large quantities of the gold he collected in his activities. The novel provides confusing clues as to whether or not this aircraft launched from and landed aboard his ship. Ragnar does boast at one point of "defying the law of gravitation," but that is a specific reference to his carrying a record load of gold, more in fact than the aircraft was rated to carry. Though he launched from the Mid-Atlantic, he might possibly have seized control of an island in the Portuguese Azores and turned that into a berthing place and air station.

And so he became a privateer, and in fact became known as the scourge of the high seas (chiefly the Atlantic Ocean and occasionally the Caribbean Sea). He was careful never to kill a member of another ship's crew if he could avoid it; if he ever had to sink another vessel, he would put the crew adrift in lifeboats. One such sailor described Danneskjold's face as terrible to behold, because it showed no feeling whatsoever. It did not even show hatred; it was cold and hard. It was the face of one who, having a job to do, did it and did not waste time emoting about it.

He never directly attacked any naval vessel, unless said vessel attacked him first. He never attacked any private vessel, nor seized private property. With one exception: at Francisco d'Anconia's specific request, he attacked D'Anconia Copper ships and sank them with their loads. Francisco had decided to destroy D'Anconia Copper systematically, so that no one would benefit from his talents or those of his father and grandfather and ancestors.

Ragnar's actual targets were what he called the "loot carriers." These were "humanitarian" cargoes paid for with taxpayers' money and sent by order of the Bureau of Global Relief. This was the best method available to Ragnar to recover the substance that was taken from men of the mind by force. Eventually, not a single such cargo could ever sail from an American port to any of several "People's States" throughout the world and hope to reach its destination. Ragnar Danneskjold was always waiting, and always found his targets. From the description given of some of his other activities, one may infer that he had an espionage network unrivaled for effectiveness and avoidance of compromise.

Ragnar would take these cargoes to various smugglers throughout Europe and Africa (whether he ever penetrated the Straits of Gibraltar with one of his prizes, the novel never says) and sell them. He always demanded payment in gold. He would never accept any fiat currency, be it Federal Reserve notes or the scrip of any People's State.

Galt's Gulch

At first, Ragnar had no plan for making restitution to John Galt and his fellow strikers, except to hide the gold in a secure cove until John Galt declared the strike over. But the defection of Michael "Midas" Mulligan changed that. Midas Mulligan, after losing a lawsuit brought by an unsuccessful loan applicant, liquidated his Chicago bank and converted all his worldly assets into land and food. The land was a secluded valley in the Rocky Mountains, to which Mulligan intended a permanent retirement. Soon after Midas built his house in the valley, Judge Narragansett, the trial judge who had found in his favor only to be reversed on appeal, came to rent some land from him. Perhaps at this point, John Galt then built a very large electrostatic powerplant to provide electricity for the valley. This made life in the valley attractive to other strikers, and soon they established a working, even a thriving town where they could use their talents for the benefit of themselves and one another.

And so Midas Mulligan re-established his bank in what was now known widely as Galt's Gulch (though Galt himself called it Mulligan's Valley, in recognition of the actual owner of the land). Now Ragnar could make a more definite plan to restore the spoils he had recovered. He opened accounts with the New Mulligan Bank in the names of all the strikers, and in the names of those persons still on the outside whom John Galt and Francisco d'Anconia were laboring the hardest to recruit. He then asked his spies to ferret out those people's income tax returns, with the intention of refunding, in full and in gold, the income taxes that these persons paid.

The establishment of Galt's Gulch complicated Ragnar's life in another way, though a pleasant one. Actress Kay Ludlow left the motion picture industry on the outside and came to the Gulch to live. Perhaps Ragnar attended one of her performances in one of his annual trips to the Gulch with his cargo of gold for deposit in the Mulligan Bank. In any event, he fell in love with her, and she with him. They were married in a civil ceremony, with Judge Narragansett presiding.

Henry Rearden

The last full year of the strike saw an event that would drive him to take the greatest risk of his career, a risk that even he must have recognized as foolhardy. The Bureau of Economic Planning and Natural Resources had issued Directive 10-289, by which all persons were to remain attached to their jobs and all intellectual property was to be surrendered to the government. From his spy network, Ragnar learned that Henry Rearden had been forced, by blackmail, to surrender his right to the new copper and iron alloy, called Rearden Metal, that he had invented. He also learned that a rival firm, Associated Steel, headed by Orren Boyle, would attempt to make Rearden Metal at one of its factories on the coast of Maine.

Ragnar stood off from the coast and addressed Orren Boyle's workforce over a powerful and probably directional megaphone. The novel never says how this megaphone was deployed, nor did the witnesses ever figure this out; perhaps it was carried by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Ragnar simply identified himself and ordered them to evacuate the facility within ten minutes. Then he leveled the factory, and all of its blast furnaces, using his ship's guns.

The foolhardy part was what he did next. Somehow he infiltrated the Delaware River, had himself taken ashore near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and accosted Henry Rearden as he was walking home along a lonely road—all without having the authorities detect him or his ship. He handed Rearden a gold ingot, probably one Troy pound in weight, and described it as "a small repayment on a very large debt," that being "the money that was taken from you by force." Rearden was shocked to hear Ragnar identify himself by name, and even more shocked to hear Ragnar's description of his activities. Rearden told Ragnar that if he now was to be defended only by a "pirate," then he did not wish to be defended any longer.

Then a highway-patrol cruiser pulled up to the two men. The lead officer asked Rearden whether he was in any danger, and Rearden said no. Then the officer asked who Ragnar was, and Rearden referred to him as his bodyguard. In short, Henry Rearden could have handed Ragnar over to the authorities, but did not.

Ragnar thanked Rearden for this consideration, and predicted that he and Rearden would meet again, and that sooner than Rearden might think. Then he returned to his ship and put back out to sea, again escaping detection.

Dagny Taggart

Later that year, Ragnar made another of his summer trips to Galt's Gulch, with the largest cargo of gold he would ever carry. The Bureau of Global Relief had been very active in sending "relief cargoes" to various People's States, but of course none of them reached their intended ports. It was in this context that Ragnar boasted of having "defied the law of gravitation." Quite simply, that cargo was far larger than his aircraft was rated to carry.

He called on his friend John Galt, and then discovered Dagny Taggart staying in John's house. Dagny puzzled him by saying that she was still a scab, and had not committed to joining the strike. She in fact was in the Gulch after a mishap: she had tried to follow one of John Galt's recruitment flights and had had her engine shorted out by the refractor-ray screen that provided the Gulch with its concealment.

He described his activities to her as well, and perhaps sensed that she did not approve of them. He also started to tell John about his exciting encounter with Henry Rearden, but John did not allow him to continue. Perhaps he learned later why John Galt did not want Ragnar to speak about Henry Rearden in Dagny Taggart's presence just then.

The rescue

Ragnar continued his privateering activities throughout that summer and into the fall. His last mission to sink one of Francisco d'Anconia's cargoes probably came in the end of August, because on September 2 the People's States of Chile and Argentina tried to nationalize D'Anconia Copper, but Francisco destroyed every remaining asset that the company had on that date. One month later, Ragnar received word that Henry Rearden had at last agreed to quit and join the strike, and that a large number of Rearden's regular employees followed him to the Gulch.

Then on November 22, John Galt made his famous three-hour speech to the world. Ragnar never learned the full extent of the spontaneous strike activity that John Galt's speech inspired. But he did learn that John Galt himself was arrested by the American authorities, and that Dagny Taggart had somehow been involved in that arrest.

If Ragnar actually believed that Dagny Taggart had betrayed John Galt to the other side, his disappointment would be short-lived. Francisco d'Anconia definitely knew the truth of the matter—that John had encouraged Dagny to pretend to have sold him out in order to protect herself. Francisco even gave Dagny a direct telephone number to him, that she was to call when, as, and if she had information that John Galt was in danger of losing his life. Dagny ultimately made that call, after the abortive presentation of the obviously factitious "John Galt Plan for Peace and Prosperity," and then joined the strike herself, swearing the Oath of the Men of the Mind before Francisco:

I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Between Ragnar's spy network and the information Dagny had provided to Francisco, Ragnar learned that John Galt had been taken to the secret installation of "Project F" of the State Science Institute, located in New Hampshire, for "enhanced interrogation." (This installation might have been on or near the United States Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Lyme, New Hampshire.) Ragnar, Francisco, Dagny, and Henry Rearden all staged a commando raid on "Project F" and rescued John Galt before the authorities could do him any permanent injury. Ragnar had half the male population of the Gulch, in addition to his own ship's crew, to back him up. He held those forces in reserve, under the command of Ellis Wyatt, in case the smaller-scale raid failed. The raid succeeded, and Ragnar gave orders to evacuate to the valley.

The return

This marked the end of Ragnar's privateering activities. With John Galt set free, the American government and economy abruptly degenerated into anarchy and chaos. The one project that could have threatened a continuation of the United States government (Project X) was destroyed when the project's nominal inventor struggled with another factional leader who had seized control of it, and in the process triggered the destruction of the project and everything within a hundred miles of it. As Ragnar's rescue plane overflew the Eastern seaboard, it was plunged into darkness as the entire electrical grid failed.

Ragnar disbanded his crew and suggested that they settle in the Gulch. He beached his ship in another secluded cove, and planned eventually to strip it of most of its armament and convert it into a passenger liner. He himself looked forward to following the career he had intended to pursue before John Galt had called him to go on strike: to teach philosophy.

However, he would likely be called upon, once again, to act instead of teach. From the anarchy that followed the final collapse of the American government, came a loosely organized republic consisting mainly of regional militias, all of which had organized themselves after John Galt's three-hour speech. This republic would inevitably attempt a restoration of Constitutional government, but would also need to prosecute certain politicians and collaborators. Ragnar might well have received an appointment as either attorney general or as a special prosecutor.


Spoilers end here.


Typology

In his own words, Ragnar Danneskjold is simply carrying out a philosophical imperative. Because he pursues this imperative without regard to the good or bad opinions of others, he is an anti-villain rather than a true hero. He also is Ayn Rand's idea of a larger-than-life champion of justice. In fact, Rand specifically intended that Ragnar be the avenger, the one who strikes back at unjust people who are getting away with that injustice.[1]

Rand did provide a vital clue to Ragnar as an allegorical literary type. In his introduction of himself to Henry Rearden, Ragnar mentions Robin Hood, the legendary Saxon gentleman who stole from the rich allies of Prince John and shared his loot with the poor peasant farmers who labored under John's oppressive rule. Ragnar complains that the legend has been distorted. Robin Hood took money from a government that had robbed people and gave that money back to its victims. But as the legend survives, he simply stole from the rich because they were rich, and gave to the poor because they were poor. Ragnar decides to reverse the process, but in fact he is acting in a manner that recalls the original legend. Thus he seizes certain goods paid for by exorbitant taxes, and shares those goods, or at least the gold that he sells them for, with the payers of those taxes. If he then appears to "steal from the poor and give to the rich," that is only because the taxes in his day are progressive, whereas the taxes in the days of the original Robin Hood were regressive.

Ragnar Danneskjold's privateering activities illustrate another common libertarian theme: that "taxation is theft." In other essays published in The Objectivist and other magazines and newsletters that she published from time to time, Ayn Rand actually proposed that taxation be placed on a voluntary basis, and suggested that a government-run lottery might be one workable method of voluntary taxation.

Ragnar Danneskjold is a type of another sort of person whom Miss Rand did not describe in any great detail: a militiaman. In fact, his rescue of John Galt from the State Science Institute is a prize example of militia in action. The armed forest camps that the spontaneous "strikers" set up after John Galt makes his famous speech are another militia example.

Feasibility

The spectacle of a twentieth-century pirate struck many critics as preposterous at the time of the writing of this novel. To be sure, the novel provided few clues to how Ragnar Danneskjold was able to recruit and train a crew and then take possession of what effectively was a ship of war. The following discussion will consider each issue separately.

Recruitment and training

The first and foremost consideration is where Ragnar Danneskjold could have found his crew. The novel never says that Ragnar Danneskjold ever moved in the sort of circle that would bring him into contact with sailors, machinists, water tenders, boatswains, coxswains, and all the other specialists that a ship's crew requires. To complicate this issue further, Ragnar Danneskjold commanded a ship of war, so that he also needed gunners, which are not normally part of a merchant crew and are typically found only in naval services.

But in considering how Ragnar could find such a crew, one must not consider Ragnar in a vacuum. He did, after all, have a very close associate who knew exactly what he intended and indeed sympathized: Francisco d'Anconia. As head of D'Anconia Copper SA, Francisco had his own merchant marine, and thus knew where to recruit merchantman crews and have them trained. He therefore would be able to determine who, among the many men who sailed his ships, was willing not only to join John Galt's famous strike but also to join the only thing similar to a militant arm that the strike had. That out of thousands, or tens of thousands, of employees, Francisco d'Anconia would be able to select enough men to crew one large ship on the most secretive of missions and cruises, cannot be placed beyond the realm of possibility.

The recruitment of gunners and other naval specialists would be more difficult. But one must also consider the geo-political situation in which the novel must have taken place, in which all the nation-states of the world had become "People's States," i.e. Communist countries, with the single exception of the United States of America. And the United States might have downsized its Navy, a policy that would turn out to be disastrous (see below). Therefore, Francisco might well have been able to recruit all the specialists that Ragnar would need from the ranks of:

  1. Defectors from the various People's State Navies, and
  2. Demobilized seamen and petty officers from the United States Navy.

Finding officers would be the most difficult of all, but perhaps Ragnar did have enough good friends in his native Norway whom he could recruit for that purpose. He would, of course, need an executive officer and first lieutenant (either of whom could act as a navigator), a gunnery officer, a chief engineer, a communications officer, and an assistant for each. Any officer he could not find, presumably Francisco could find for him.

Acquisition and refit of a ship

The description of Ragnar Danneskjold's vessel, as mentioned, was sorely lacking. One can infer the type of vessel that Ragnar commanded only from his activities. His ship would have to be fast but also heavily armed. With regard to this last: armaments sufficient to stop another ship and take it as a prize are of one type. But armaments capable of shore bombardment are quite another. In one memorable episode, Ragnar Danneskjold fires shells at a factory and leaves not a brick standing, according to the accounts of the men who witness it. The minimum armament that could accomplish such an operation is that of a destroyer, or better still a cruiser.

The quickest method by which Ragnar Danneskjold could acquire such a ship would be to steal it from either the Brooklyn Navy Yard or the San Francisco Navy Yard. He could accomplish this most easily in the case of a ship brought into one of those yards for decommissioning. But he would have to accomplish this seizure before any of the armaments were removed from it. More to the point, he would have to train his crew specifically to seize a ship out of dock, a highly specialized mission that he would never have to run again.

Far more likely, he could rely on Francisco d'Anconia to commission a ship, ostensibly for his merchant marine, and then refit that ship as a ship of war. As easily as Ragnar would later find smugglers to buy his spoils, he or Francisco might find arms dealers seeking to profit from the demobilization of the world's navies through the sale of ship's armaments that had been ordered destroyed. The most formidable obstacle to such an operation would be security, and specifically how Francisco d'Anconia could hide this activity from other D'Anconia Copper employees, government officials, and the public. But this might not be much more difficult than the concealment of a deliberate campaign of financial and physical sabotage that Francisco d'Anconia carried out against his own company for twelve years.

Logistics

Ragnar Danneskjold would face two logistical challenges: refueling and rearmament. Fueling need not have been an issue, if Danneskjold decided to ask John Galt to help him by converting the existing ship's engines to an electrostatic powerplant. Ammunition would be a much more difficult challenge. The descriptions given of the industries in Galt's Gulch did not include an armaments industry. But the "black market" in armaments and ammunition, even for warships of destroyer size, exists today and, by all accounts, is thriving. Furthermore, corruption was a constant problem in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and other member nations of the Warsaw Pact, so perhaps Ragnar could keep himself in ammunition as easily as he could find men to buy his spoils (and pay in gold).

Intelligence and counterintelligence

Ragnar never revealed the nature of his spy system, or how he could determine not only how much income tax any given striker or prospect had been assessed, but even what amount of tax he paid on income derived from particular sources. This last became relevant as Ragnar considered the case of Dagny Taggart, who derived some of her income as a straight salary but derived other income from stock dividends. Ragnar considered the latter source of income tainted on account of James Taggart's policies as President of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, and therefore determined not to refund the income tax paid on those stock dividends. More to the point, Ragnar never revealed how he could search for, track, and locate any government "relief ship, subsidy ship, loan ship, gift ship," or other ship carrying a "humanitarian" cargo to one People's State or another.

Much of what Ragnar knew was, no doubt, public knowledge. The American news media would naturally trumpet the sending of any such cargo as a "nice gesture." In addition, the detailed intelligence could have come from Francisco d'Anconia's associates. Francisco definitely alerted Ragnar whenever he was shipping a load of copper, because he wanted Ragnar to send that cargo to the bottom of the sea. Perhaps Francisco provided a much more comprehensive intelligence product than merely the locations and schedules of his own shipments.

Eluding detection and capture

That Ragnar Danneskjold, or any other pirate, could elude the United States Navy for twelve years might seem incredible. But if the novel's action was supposed to take place during the years 1945-57 (as seems likely from various internal clues), this would be entirely plausible. The United States Navy would not become a force powerful enough to suppress piracy on the high seas on its own until during and after the Second World War. And in the alternate history of the novel, there might have been no Second World War. The only armed conflict after the First World War might have been between Germany and Russia, in which Russia would overthrow Germany early and turn it into a People's State. Indeed, all of the nation-states of the world except the United States had become People's States of This-or-that, and the United States supported those People's States with the handouts that became Ragnar Danneskjold's chief targets.[2] In this scenario, no nation would have any incentive to maintain a standing Navy. Thus if the United States Navy could not deal effectively with Ragnar Danneskjold, that was probably because the liberal clique in Washington, DC had downsized it almost to total disbanding, a thing that many liberal commentators would in fact like to do today.

Modern-day piracy

Piracy on the high seas does exist and in fact has seen a resurgence today, chiefly in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia. In fact, piracy has always existed, and very few navies, even superpower navies, have been able to deal with it effectively. Pompey the Great dealt with it by literally stationing troops in every cove or other inlet in the Mediterranean Sea, and then sweeping the sea clean from the Straits of Gibraltar all the way to ancient Judea and Syria. During the Age of Exploration, piracy was the favored means of surrogate warfare, and most pirates operated, if cynically, under privateering licenses. This is probably why today "letters of marque and reprisal," i.e. privateering licenses, are forbidden in international law.

Privateering v. piracy

Ragnar Danneskjold's activities are more properly described as privateering rather than piracy. Pirates typically seize ships and cargoes, and hold people for ransom, for their own gain. Privateers almost always operate in the service of some cause larger than themselves. All that a privateer is, is either a ship of war owned, outfitted, and maintained privately rather than at government expense, or the commander or other officer of such vessel, or a member of its crew.

Summary

Thus Ragnar Danneskjold's career and activities are in fact more feasible than one might suppose from a superficial scan of the text of Atlas Shrugged. Whether someone like Ragnar Danneskjold would be able in the actual geo-political context today to engage in such privateering is another question altogether.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 "History of Atlas Shrugged," The Ayn Rand Institute, n.d. Accessed May 5, 2009. <http://atlasshrugged.com/book/history.html>
  2. Also, in this version of history, the basic Russian world-domination imperative did not operate. Never in any scene in Atlas Shrugged did a Soviet agent, overt or covert, appear.