"John Galt is Prometheus who changed his mind. After centuries of being torn by vultures in payment for having brought to men the fire of the gods, he broke his chains -- and he withdrew his fire -- until the day when men withdraw their vultures."
Francisco D'Anconia to Dagny Taggart in Part II, Chapter V of Atlas Shrugged
In the post-industrial world that sweeps the landscape of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's masterful and climatic work, one question is on everybody's mind. One question is scrawled on walls and etched into tabletops. One question is asked in despair by cold faced strangers passing in ever colder streets; one question is hissed like a curse from the heroes of this world who try to lift it back to its tired feet.
Who is John Galt?
A main character in absentia for two thirds of the story, John Galt is an enigma: though his thoughts are present on every page and in the background of every scene. Representing the most distilled view of objectivism presented by Rand in the novel John Galt is, seemingly, the destructive foil to Dagny Taggart, the tale's heroine. The timeline of Taggart's world is picked up after a ten year period of relative decline for nearly all the world's industries. Great minds have been retiring from all careers and walks of life while the Government grows ever more aggressive in their alienation of the businessman. Greed is an amoral evil not to be tolerated, personal gains are not to be thought of; to live for your fellow man is the proper end of all.
As the atmosphere from the nation's capitol grows increasingly icy towards business and industry leaders those leaders refusing to retire find their jobs, and thereby their lives, becoming more difficult. The story proceeds to dive into its plot when it is revealed that the retirees, whose number is growing exponentially, are not giving up their livelihoods willingly. There is a Destroyer afoot roaming the countryside, stealing into homes and upon leaving taking the best minds of the nation with him. Even with Dagny racing from coast to coast, trying to save such leaders which may save her deteriorating railroad, the Destroyer is beating her, by scant hours in some cases, and stealing the most capable doers from her world.
Losing these races to the Destroyer, however damaging, does not leave Dagny in despair. She finds hope in the completion of a new track in the industrial renaissance of Colorado. Her hope springs forth again in the discovery of the fragments of a strange new motor found while vacationing with metallurgist Hank Rearden. Dagny finds a brilliant young physicist working as a janitor at a defunct university and thinks she may be able to win this battle against mediocrity and ineptitude after all; Dagny believes that she can overcome all the troubles the Destroyer can cause for her.
But her momentum is only temporary, as the efforts of this Destroyer has given new strength and aggression to the government groups who make new laws to "help the little guys" and punish the successful.
It is only then that Dagny begins to piece information together that allows her to learn of John Galt the person. She finally meets John Galt by chance, and then learns, much to her surprise, where John Galt has been living and under whom's employ. Over the next several months Dagny learns more of Galt's philosophies and beliefs. Namely, that no man should live as the servant to any other. That a man of ability has the right to trade the ends of his ability in any fashion he desires, for any price.
To make a modern day analogy, consider America's working class of which nearly 36% is a member of a Union, whether Local or National. The role of the union is to negotiate wages and benefits for its members as means of compensation for the time a Union member spends at work. When companies fail to negotiate with Union representation, the union members reserve the right to go out on strike until a new contract is in place. The point Galt makes, which may seem callous, is that a strike of the working class carries not the clout it is perceived to have. Consider the case of a fictional Widget factory. There are five different parts to each Wiget assembled by four different workers (for sake of argument we're ignoring both robotic assembly and seamless injection molding). Now, say that the workers were to go on strike for better benefits, or better wages, or longer lunch breaks; the managers of such a company would probably attempt to keep production moving.
The question John Galt raises is what would happen if the managers were to go on strike? What would happen to the companies if people behind the work, the researchers and designers, were to go on strike? What would happen if the great minds of the land refused to be held hostage by government regulations, and simply stopped producing the very wares they felt were being taken for granted?
And with a simple piece of rhetoric Galt shows just who holds the cards.
Galt illustrates through a lengthy radio address (commonly referred to as the most difficult chapter of the novel for first time readers) that the minds of America are what make it great. Should skills or services be demanded with no rightful compensation, the intellectual always have the option to not produce. Women in a relationship hold more sexual power because of the simple premise that they can say no. To that same tune, a mathematician need not work an equation to its end simple because he has the ability to do so. When Galt explains all this, and a bit more, to Dagny it represents the underlying theme of Atlas Shrugged. It represents the denial of "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs." It represents an acceptance of the motto at Galt's home. It represents a desire for everyone to live to one's own end in a pursuit of joy. In the end, John Galt is the personification of Rand's philosophies expressed throughout the novel; and that end he serves quite well.