Mike Kueber's Blog

July 18, 2012

The Last Train Home and Ayn Rand

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 2:40 am
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The Last Train Home is a 2009 Chinese documentary that examines the migrant-worker problem in China, where approximately 130 million people leave their rural homes and children and travel great distances to find work in the nation’s urban metropolises, and then to return to their home and children only once a year for Chinese New Year’s, aka the Spring Festival. 

Like the 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil on the Catholic cover-up of priestly pedophilia, The Last Train Home received a perfect score of 100% from the Rotten Tomato critics (49 of them) and an even better 85% from its audience.  I think those scores are too generous because the movie focuses excessively on the dreary, congested lives of these migrant workers and touches only lightly on two Ayn Randian issues that perplex me:

  1. Capitalism and the exploitation of workers.
  2. Parents living their lives altruistically for the sake of their children, whom they will never know.

Ayn Rand was a staunch defender of capitalism because, in the documentary In Her Own Words, it didn’t rely on government coercion over the individual, but rather consisted of individuals freely bartering their capital and labor.  Capitalism is much easier to defend when labor is greatly valued because it is in short supply, as was with the case in America until the Bush/Obama Great Recession.  It is difficult to defend when labor is little valued because there is too much supply, as is the case since the flattened world made Chinese and Indian labor available worldwide to the capitalists.  Until I learn otherwise, I will believe (a) the world is going through a transition and (b) capital and labor will eventually come into a satisfactory equilibrium.  Heavy-handed government interference with this transition will do more harm than good, but some tinkering, such as unionization in developing countries, will smooth the transition.      

On issue #2, Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, and the migrant workers in The Last Train Home don’t appear to be living examined lives.  Ayn Rand said that she would not live her life for the sake of another person, yet the migrant workers in The Last Train Home seem to be living like animals who are sacrificing their entire existence for the prospect that their children will not have to live like they do.  But ironically and despite the parents’ best intentions, the kids in the movie, after being raised by grandparents while the parents are away working, seem to be drawn into the same type of migrant life. 

Maybe the moral of the story is that the best thing parents can do for children is to raise them.  And I don’t think Rand would consider that to be altruism.  To the contrary, Rand would consider the current conduct of the migrant workers to be an ugly form of altruism – i.e., living and wasting your life for the sake of others.  If an individual has the time and interest in having children, Rand would encourage that.  Indeed in one of her few references to children in Atlas Shrugged, Rand revealed the happiness in parenting:

  • The recaptured sense of her [Dagny’s] own childhood kept coming back to her whenever she met the two sons of the young woman who owned the bakery shop. . . . They did not have the look she had seen in the children of the outer world–a look of fear, half- secretive, half-sneering, the look of a child’s defense against an adult, the look of a being in the process of discovering that he is hearing lies and of learning to feel hatred. The two boys had the open, joyous, friendly confidence of kittens who do not expect to get hurt, they had an innocently natural, non-boastful sense of their own value and as innocent a trust in any stranger’s ability to recognize it, they had the eager curiosity that would venture anywhere with the certainty that life held nothing unworthy of or closed to discovery, and they looked as if, should they encounter malevolence, they would reject it contemptuously, not as dangerous, but as stupid, they would not accept it in bruised resignation as the law of existence.

If a person can’t afford to raise kids, or doesn’t have the interest (Rand didn’t have the interest), then Rand would argue that an individual can still have a highly satisfying life sans kids. 

That thinking may not be in our DNA, but I think that is where the world is heading.

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