Atlas Shrugged Part II is now in pre-production. This second installment of the film trilogy by Either-Or Productions (the production company formed by producer and movie-rights-owner John Aglialoro to produce Part 2) is scheduled to be in theaters next fall. Those who attend The Atlas Society’s Summer Seminar will get the first glimpse in early July.

The challenge for the film adaptation is to make a stand-alone story from what is, in the novel, the middle segment of a continuous narrative. But this segment does have a certain unity in plot and theme. In regard to the plot, here are the key events of Part II, in briefest outline:

At the end of Part I, government bureaucrats and their crony-capitalist allies have undermined the triumph of Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden in rebuilding the John Galt Line. New regulations cripple the Line and the Colorado businesses it serves—including Ellis Wyatt, who disappears after destroying his oil wells. 

Part II opens six months later. Wyatt’s departure has led to a collapse of the oil industry, depriving the economy of the energy that is its life-blood. The energy of the spirit is bleeding away, too, drained by the increase in political controls over production and the continuing disappearance of the best producers in one industry after another. Dagny works doggedly just to keep the railroad from going under; there will be no more triumphs like the John Galt Line. Indeed, the board of Taggart Transcontinental soon closes the Line (II,5).

The economy declines at an accelerating pace.

Dagny also struggles to solve the two mysteries posed in Part I. The first is the secret of the motor that she and Hank discovered in the ruins of the 20th Century Motor Company. Having failed to track down the inventor, she hires a young physicist, Quentin Daniels, to try to make the motor work. If he succeeds, she thinks, this new form of energy will be the salvation of her railroad. The second mystery is the disappearance of the producers, which she soon comes to believe is the deliberate work of some “destroyer.”

Hank, for his part, works heroically to keep his business running under the burden of regulations that limit how much he can produce and to whom he may sell Rearden Metal. When he is caught making deals that violate dictates from the economic czars in Washington, he is put on trial. When he gets off lightly, the looters in power redouble their efforts to control him, aided by his envious wife, Lillian, who has discovered his affair with Dagny. Blackmailing him with the threat to make the affair public, they get him to sign over the patent for Rearden Metal. 

The men in power become increasingly frantic as the economy declines at an accelerating pace and the disappearance of the best producers deprives them of victims to loot. They pass the draconian Directive 10-289 to freeze people in their jobs and businesses in their current state of operation. Dagny quits in protest against this new industrial serfdom, but returns when a Taggart train has a fatal crash in a tunnel. She is immediately faced with another emergency: in protest against the Directive, Quentin Daniels tells her he will quit working on the motor. Trying to get to him before he disappears, she crashes her plane into a remote valley in the Rockies.

Part II is the slow movement in the Atlas concerto, and certainly the darkest. The protagonists find their scope of action narrowing, their hope ebbing away. Their world is falling apart and they have not yet discovered the strike or the radiant alternative of Galt’s Gulch. 

The essential themes are indicated by the title, “Either-Or,” which refers to a series of stark alternatives that Rand brings to the fore. The primary dichotomy is the alternative of trade versus power. Every society has some mix of trade and power as operative principles for how people interact. Atlas Shrugged tracks the replacement of trade by power over the course of the story, up to the point of collapse caused by a purely power-based system. Part II, especially, highlights the sequence of disintegration in a systematic way, showing the interplay of factors such as: the decline of technology, innovation, and standards of living as talent is drained from society; the growth of government power and decline of individual freedom; the growth in the arbitrary exercise of power—rule by edict rather than law—and the increasingly overt and naked pursuit of power; the ascendancy of political entrepreneurs—businessmen who seek wealth through political connections and manipulation—over real entrepreneurs who gain wealth through production; the flight from responsibility, both as an individual vice and as a reaction to a social environment that penalizes success as well as failure; the proliferation of conflicts of interest and the breakdown of good will among otherwise decent people; and the increasingly chaotic, unpredictable pattern of events.

The clearest statement of this either-or dichotomy is Francisco’s “money speech” at the wedding of James and Cherryl Taggart (II,2). Money is the medium of voluntary trade among producers. “When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men. Blood, whips, and chains—or dollars. Take your choice—there is no other—and your time is running out.” Even the villains seem to grasp the issue, however dimly. At the same party, Orren Boyle says to James, “one’s got to trade something. If we don’t trade money—and the age of money is past—then we trade men.”

That chapter is entitled “The Aristocracy of Pull,” a phrase that perfectly captures the nature of political entrepreneurs, and Part II illustrates the point in myriad ways. James Taggart crows to Dagny that he has made more money for the railroad through his political maneuvers than she has. Despite the moratorium on repayment of the bonds Dagny sold to build the John Galt line, "defreezers" with political connections—specialists who help draft applications for getting bonds paid—are able to facilitate repayment (II,1: Note the similarity to lobbyists and lawyers in our world who can get exemptions from regulation). People with pull make more money off Rearden Metal than Rearden does (II,1). Floyd Ferris, trying to pressure Rearden to sell his Metal for the (as-yet mysterious) Project X, explains to Rearden that the purpose of proliferating economic crimes is precisely to create law-breakers (II,3).

As a consequence of political controls, the economy is in steep decline (accelerated by Galt’s strike operating in the background). Rearden can't deliver Taggart rails because a copper delivery he mistakenly ordered from D’Anconia Copper is sunk, and this time there is no recovery by heroic effort, as after the train wreck in Part I. A Taggart train is held up by a delay in coal delivery, with a chain of destructive consequences. Another train is trapped by snow in the Rockies. Meanwhile, goods are diverted to foreign aid; movies are banned to conserve fuel; bridges across Mississippi fail, leaving only the Taggart bridge; government edicts prohibit elevators from running above the 25th floor; and Rearden has to mine coal at night with hired gangs. The latter graphically illustrates the state of inversion in this world: one can do morally honest productive work only through legally criminal means (II,5). 

Up to this midway point in Part II, the economy in Atlas is a kind of advanced version of our own. Regulations controlling property and exchange are imposed for the usual rationales (public interest, fairness to the "little guy"), and have myriad unintended consequences that breed further controls. These regulations involve broad grants of authority to bureaucrats, leading to nonobjective law and pressure group jockeying. But there are no concentration camps or other extreme police state tactics. There are jail terms for economic crimes, but the state is reluctant to impose them for fear of public outrage; some degree of democratic control is left. The balance between power and trade is at the tipping point; it could go either way, and Dagny’s struggle against the looters has a semblance of plausibility. In this respect, the world of Part II offers the most relevant—and most foreboding—parallels to our own world.

Workers have become serfs, unless and until they rebel by walking off the job.

All of this changes in the next chapter. Directive 10-289 (II,6) represents a qualitative leap from the prior state of affairs. All remaining protections of the individual are gone. Workers have become serfs, unless and until they rebel by walking off the job, as many do, despite the threat of punishment by a Unification Board with unlimited arbitrary power. The effort to prevent decline by banning innovation and economic growth, freezing current levels of production and consumption, will obviously fail, as it must. The directive is, as the next chapter is titled, a “Moratorium on Brains” (II,7). By the end of Part II, the balance of power over trade has tipped and can only spiral downward, as it does in Part III, until the society collapses.

A second either-or dichotomy is the choice Dagny and Hank face between sanctioning the moral premises of the looters by continuing to work within the system, or withdrawing their sanction. Although this alternative does not become entirely clear until Part III, both Dagny and Hank acquire some awareness of the issue before then. Throughout Part II, Francisco courts both of them, gaining their confidence as he tries to recruit them for the strike; by the end of Part II, both Dagny and Hank understand that Francisco is on their side, and Dagny understands that he is somehow involved with the “destroyer.” Indeed, it is her conviction about the destroyer that leads her to chase Quentin Daniels and crash in the valley. On her way to that rendezvous with destiny, she learns the story of the Starnesville factory and the origin of the iconic phrase “Who is John Galt?” She is less than 24 hours away from solving both of her mysteries, the motor’s inventor and “the destroyer.”

Since we never see Galt in his meetings with the industrialists who disappear and never hear how he persuades them, Francisco’s conversations with Hank and with Dagny provide the only indication of the recruiters’ strategy. In those conversations, he is trying to persuade them of three points:

1)     That the regulations imposed on them are unjust, as is the expropriation of the wealth they have created.

2)     That the injustice is enabled by their willingness to continue producing under this regime of injustice and by their failure to reject the altruist morality used to justify the regime.

3)     That they should abandon their businesses—leaving the physical steel mills, rails, engines, and inventions to the looters, who are incapable of operating them.

The last point is the most difficult. Great producers like Hank and Dagny have achieved greatly because they love their work and are fiercely committed to their enterprises. The thought of leaving seems like suicide. Francisco must convince them that the true object of their love and commitment is not the physical shape of their achievements but their heart and soul, which lies within them. In Part II, neither Hank nor Dagny is ready for this step.

On the first two points, Francisco finds more fertile ground. Dagny already understands the first point. She also embraces the second when she quits after Directive 10-289, telling James that she “won’t work as a slave or as a slave-driver.” But she understands the sanction of the victim only at this surface level. Fundamentally she believes that by working a bit harder and a bit smarter, she can convince people that her way is the right one. Though she rejects altruism as a moral code, she does not yet see the deep and unalterable corruption at its root.

Hank has seen further than Dagny on that issue. Over the course of Part II, in struggling with the inner contradictions in his values, he comes to see that the code of productiveness, trade, and rational self-interest he lives by at work applies to all of life; and he rejects the code of altruistic duty he had accepted outside his work, especially with his family. When he is put on trial for the business deal with Ken Danagger that violates government dictates, he stands up for his own code and refuses to sanction his victimization (II,4). He has grasped “the sanction of the victim” (the title of this chapter, II,4).

Hank also comes to see that his desire for Dagny is not degrading to her, as he felt in Part I. When Lillian discovers that he is having an affair, her anti-material disdain for sex makes her assume that Hank is seeing some “tramp” just for sex. When she discovers that he is seeing Dagny, she is frightened that her assumptions were proved false, and that the guilt she had used to hold him was slipping away. It is partly through Lillian’s reaction that Hank sees the error in his own dichotomy of mind and body; he sees that his desire for Dagny is the fullest expression of his admiration for her spirit. He also sees that by indulging Lillian’s actions and attitudes, he has sanctioned her vicious hold over him.

The worst have risen to the top—those most skilled in manipulating others and least able or willing to take responsibility for real consequences.

These dichotomies come to a head in the climax of Part II, the Winston tunnel disaster. The Taggart Comet is halted in the Colorado mountains when its diesel engine breaks down. The only other engine available is an old coal-burning locomotive, but the smoke it produces makes it unsafe to send into the tunnel ahead. A Washington politico on board insists that the railroad crew and supervisors get the train moving so that he can make it on time for a political rally. He calls up the chain of command to James Taggart, who pushes the decision back down the chain, until it reaches the man at the bottom, a young night dispatcher, who gives the order to send the train through the tunnel—and the passengers to their deaths.

The disaster is a graphic illustration of the ascendancy of power over trade. The worst have risen to the top—those most skilled in manipulating others and least able or willing to take responsibility for real consequences—so it is no accident that the fate of the passengers was determined by a fearfully obedient underling. Actual conflicts of interest are created by the web of controls and the exercise of arbitrary power; the road foreman, for example, has to choose whether to sacrifice the passengers (by obeying the order to send the train through tunnel) or his children (by disobeying and being punished by the Unification Board). 

The disaster would not have happened if Dagny had not resigned in protest over Directive 10-289. But it does bring her back. She is not ready to leave the world to such a fate, despite Francisco’s effort to persuade her that she sanctions the regime of power by working within it. Meanwhile, on the ground in Colorado, several Taggart employees have the courage and honor to quit, despite the threat of punishment, rather than sanction this evil by taking part in it. Their action is a microcosm of Galt’s strike. These men may not grasp the ultimate philosophical foundation of the strike—the opposition between the morality of life and the morality of death, as Galt explains in Part III. But they do grasp the immediate, concrete life-and-death alternative that their superiors are evading.

Life vs. death is indeed a third either-or at work in Part II. Like the issue of sanction vs. withdrawal, it has not yet come all the way to the surface, but it is there as an undercurrent. In the tunnel disaster, Rand highlights this dichotomy not only by the withdrawal of the best railroad employees but also by the ideas she attributes to the passengers: a sociologist who taught that all achievement is collective, a publisher who believed men are too evil to be left free, a Marxist economist, and on and on. Rand makes it clear that she thinks these people deserved to die, their ideas are so evil. I cannot agree with that judgment. But there is another, larger, message here. The beliefs and values of the passengers are a cross-section of the ideas that dominate the culture of this society and have enabled the triumph of power over trade, which has led to this disaster. In this way Rand foreshadows the message of Galt’s speech. Ideas—ultimately, philosophical ideas—are a matter of life-and-death importance.



Robert Bidinotto, Atlas Shrugged Plot Synopsis ” 


David Kelley

About The Author:

Author: David Kelley
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

Donate to The Atlas Society

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please consider making a donation. Our digital channels garner over 1 million views per year. Your contribution will help us to achieve and maintain this impact.

× Close Window

logo cymk 400x200

Newsletter Signup

Sign up for our email newsletter to receive the most recent news and articles directly to your inbox.