The Iron Heel by Jack London
“This, then, is our answer. We have no words to waste on you. When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purpled ease, we will show you what strength is. In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched. We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain.”
When it comes to the world of dystopian fiction, I think that there has to be some element of realism in order for it to really be scary. Sure, that movie Maximum Overdrive about the comet flying over the planet and making all of the machines blood-thirsty killers had me think twice about walking in front of the Coke machine when I was a kid, but the horror and suspense is superficial. The thing that makes The Iron Heel such a bone-chilling book is that just about everything in the book is completely plausible and had some grounds in reality and/or historical precedent. Published in 1908, he circumstances of the novel are based on London’s perception of the world at that time and how he saw the course of things going.
First, the story is presented as a historical document that was found 600 years after the fact, with footnotes from a contemporary (or, uh, future?) historian. The story is written from the perspective of Avis, the daughter of a well-to-do intellectual. Avis becomes enamored with Earnest Everhard, an alpha-male socialist activist from the working class who her father brings around to political discussions. Earnest draws in Avis through intelligence, strength and charisma and then challenges her entire way of life. As Avis tries to research some of Earnests’ claims, she finds layers of corruption and brutality that she had been sheltered from in her upper-class existence. Avis eventually becomes involved in Earnest’s work and a good portion of the book is dedicated to Earnest expressing his social and political views through various venues.
The bad guys in the book are the “oligarchs” – or the “iron heel”. The ultra-rich capitalists than ran monopolies – to use Occupy Wall Street’s term, “the one percent”. This small group wielded their power over other lesser-elites in politics, business, media, finance, academia and religion in order to perpetuate their hold on the world. I don’t think it’s too outlandish to claim that there are some very rich and powerful people who have a lot of influence over what happens in the world of the above-mentioned fields. Earnest and the Socialists strive to break the oligarchy and usher in a society based on socialist principles.
As the book progresses, a revolution brews and eventually manifests itself in many different ways throughout the country (and world). This revolution sees American troops being used against the citizenry (sounds outlandish? Get out your ouija board and ask someone from Georgia in 1865), guerilla warfare throughout the country, draconian measures taken by the ruling class and widespread suffering. The revolution fails and ultimately ushers in a couple hundred years of virtual slavery by the proletariat. The oligarchs were said to have built a large city with this slave labor which very well may have been the inspiration for Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis. The fact that the revolution fails isn’t a spoiler as that is already made clear (along with a few other things) by the historian’s notes.
Even though this book was published in 1908, most of the book still seems eerily modern. We can still point to some of the same kinds of shadowy (and sometimes not-so-shadowy) figures with great wealth that seem to influence virtually every aspect of society, even/especially those who we trust to have altruistic motivations, like academia, democratically elected politicians, religion, organized labor, law and the media. At the end of the day, someone is signing their meal ticket and these people ultimately end up answering to them. Throughout the course of the book, Avis sees the work of the “iron heel” manifest itself through these fields and some of the stories seem just as timely today as they did then.
London challenges a lot of different belief systems over the course of the book and for this reason I think that anyone with any kind of belief system should look into this book for the gut check that you’ll undoubtedly get from it. Listing the examples would make enough material for a book in itself. I can see this book being in the same category as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as being a gritty work of reformist literature, but I wonder if the reason why The Iron Heel never got the same kind of mileage and notoriety as The Jungle is that it hits too close to home to too many people? It’s one thing to get people to squirm about their breakfast sausage and canned ham, but London manages to point a lot of fingers in a lot of directions in his book. I don’t mean this to belittle The Jungle – it is a good one too.
One chapter that hit close to home with me is the “Machine Breakers” chapter where he sits down with a group of petty capitalists, representing the middle class. Again, it seems eerily modern because if you tweak a few details this same conversation could be had in almost any Tea Party / Ron Paul / Libertarian circle. The gentlemen talk a lot about “returning back to the ways of the founding fathers”, which Earnest addresses.
In typical Jack London fashion, there’s a lot of references to the natural world and how cruel it can be sometimes. Men are reduced to animalistic reactions (see “the people of the abyss” and “the philomaths” chapters for the best examples) when civility starts to get some cracks in it. London expresses that we as a species have not evolved beyond a point to where our actions cannot be explained beyond natural impulses (i.e. acting in self-interest).
London’s brand of socialism has some different packaging than what we’re used to. “Socialist” is such a loaded word in our society, like “<insert Democrat here> is a socialist!”. When we hear the word, we usually think of over-educated and smelly trust fund kids rallying for some leftist cause, Latin American despots or limp-wristed Europeans. The hero in the book, Earnest, comes off as masculine, bold and aggressive with all of the traits of a leader. London (via Earnest) wasn’t asking for equality to be loftily handed out to everyone – he wanted to see the people that he believed were exploiting the sans culottes knocked down from their positions of power. London acknowledged and accepted inequality in ability as a fact of life – in fact, it has even been suggested that he was the writer for Ragnar Redbeard’s “Might Makes Right” which vehemently argues this (btw, I think he was eventually ruled out as the writer) and a big fan of Nietzsche. In other words, reading The Iron Heel isn’t quite the same as reading about female farm workers in Ecuador in The Militant.
Do check out the book if you haven’t. It’s one you’ll definitely remember as a lot of it probably sounds familiar if you’ve been paying attention.
So let’s relate this to preparedness…
Basically everyone that wasn’t part of the oligarchy had their life made miserable in one way or another. I would imagine that the people who fared the best financially were people that had skills and were able to sell themselves, such as independent contractors and tradesmen. The less dependence you had on “the system”, the better insulated you were from outside calamity. After reading it, I thought more about being able to ‘write my own ticket’ in various ways, like landlording or finding other ways to generate income outside of depending on the oligarchs that currently employ me.
The “people of the abyss” made me think of the kinds of people that you would have to worry about in the event of some kind of calamity – just a few meals away from being hungry and desperate. Might be a good idea to put some distance between yourself and the unwashed masses if you can and/or try to build a sound community around you…oh, and to find ways to defend yourself.