“Who is John Galt?” are the first four words in Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged (Danish title “Og verden skælvede”). The expression is a cry of desparation in a world that seems to be stagnating for lack of brains and personal initiative. It has come to mean, “What good is it?” or “What can I do anyway?”.
Dagny Taggert, one of the few capable business people still around, and Chief of Operations at the Taggert Transcontinental railroad, is fighting this growing stagnation. She has realized that the real problem is a lack of individualism in an increasingly collectivist world, and she has noticed that the best brains of the land are giving up and vanishing. She begins to suspect that a “Destroyer” is at large, deliberately making the best men disappear and leave the world to its fate.
Dagny finds herself constantly fighting the political system and the board of her own employer, headed by her brother Jim Taggert, another collectivist with many “social” ideals, many “connections” in Washington but little actual talent for running a business without begging for “friendly services” from his connections.
Another businessman, the steel producer Hank Rearden, has introduced a new alloy on the market, called Rearden Metal. Rather than being hailed as a hero, he finds himself combating a political establishment, egged on by his competitors, trying to denounce his invention as dangerous, while in fact it is in every way superior to steel. The establishment is not only trying to protect his competitors (who may be worse businessmen but have more “friends” in the right places) but also their own State Institute of Science, which has not produced anything of value.
Dagny sets out to build a new railroad in Colorado, and in an act of defiance against the prevailing desparation, she decides to call it “The John Galt Line”. In another act of defiance she decides to build it with Rearden Metal instead of steel. The railroad turns out to be a huge success and in the process of building it, Dagny and Hank fall in love and start an affair, despite the fact that he is married.
Following the completion of the railroad they go on a holiday together, visiting some of the factories that have closed during the depression. In one of these factories, the 20th Century Motor Company of Starnesville, Wisconsin, they find the remains of a new motor that could revolutionize the world, being based on a new concept of energy that would essentially give mankind unlimited energy at virtually no cost. They find no hint of the man who invented the motor, or why it was left in a pile of junk, unfinished. Unfortunately they don’t find any hint on how to complete the motor, either.
Dagny starts the hunt for the originator of the motor but finds no clue of his whereabouts. Meanwhile, the political system in Washington passes more laws effectively punishing the state of Colorado for being successful. In response, the successful businessmen of that state walk out and disappear, leaving her John Galt Line without customers, and the country with little hope.
Dagny finds the former owners of the 20th Century factory, now living in powerty in Louisiana, and learns that the factory went bancrupt when they tried to run it on the socialistic principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. They have no clue where the originator of the motor is and never even knew about it. She gets a young scientist, Quentin Daniels, to try to complete the motor.
Meanwhile, more businesspeople continue to vanish and the government in desparation passes the infamous Directive 10-289, in practise turning everybody in the country into slaves. Dagny protests by leaving her job (thus breaking the new law) and goes to live in a cabin in the country. She returns when she learns of a terrible disaster killing hundreds of passengers and destroying the Taggert Tunnel through the Rocky Mountains. In her absense the railroad has deteriorated further and she quickly solves the problem of recreating a transcontinental route. She leaves on the next train to speak to Quentin Daniels who has written to her to say he will not complete the motor, as it will be considered a crime under Directive 10-289 and he does not wish to feed the looters in Washington and have them denounce him as a criminal besides.
On her journey she meets a bum, a former worker at the 20th Century factory, who tells her the story of what happened there during the four years under the plan. He also tells her that one of the first to walk out on the factory was a young engineer named John Galt, and that the expression “Who is John Galt” may have started right there.
Dagny arrives in Colorado just as Quentin Daniels is leaving, taken away by the “Destroyer”. She follows them in a plane, intent to catch the Destroyer, but crashes in an uncharted valley. Here she discovers that the businessmen and others who have disappeared – the “prime movers” are living in hiding, on strike against a world that holds them in contempt. She also finds that the strike leader is the young engineer who walked out on the 20th Century factory, leaving his motor to rot, and that (surprise surprise:-) his name is John Galt.
Dagny agrees with the strikers that the political system is wrong but disagrees with their method of walking out. She believes that if the system is allowed to run its course for just a while longer, the leaders will have to come to their senses and accept that their moral code is flawed. Besides, people want to live, and she can’t just leave and allow them to perish.
She returns to the world outside to find society in the final stages of collapse. In the end she has to accept that the strikers were right, and that the only way to fix the society of altruism is to allow it to self-destruct and then build a free society on the ruins. Dagny and John fall in love, and the book ends with them in the valley. Society has collapsed outside and John Galt declares that the road is cleared and the strikers can return to the world.