The Iron Heel and the Long-view

The Iron Heel is a 1908 novel by Jack London. It’s a novel which I think is safe to say is not read much today, which is a shame especially for an Americans, for the setting for what was the world’s first modern political dystopia, a novel written when Orwell and Huxley were just babes in the cradle was the United States itself.

Reading the novel as an American gives puts one in a kind of temporal vertigo. It’s not only like finding a long forgotten photograph of oneself and being stuck with the question “is that really me?”, it as if when one turned the photo over one found a note from scribbled n from yourself to yourself a kind of time capsule rich with the assumption that the past “you” knew who the “you” reading the note would be. It makes you start asking questions like “am I the person who I thought I would be?” and set to pondering on all the choices and events which have put you on, or diverted you from, your self-predicted path.

The Iron Heel tells the story of the rise of , “The Oligarchy”, a fascist state deftly laid in almost all of its details before fascism had even been invented. The fact that London pictures the rise of not only the world’s first fascist regime, but what might be considered the world’s first communist revolution not “out there” in the Old World, but on the familiar grounds of the United States where places like California, Idaho, “Indian Territory”, Chicago and Washington D.C. are the setting for events that are hauntingly similar to ones that would indeed happen in Europe decades later, turn the novel into a kind of alternative history.

The story itself is presented in the form of a kind of time capsule, a buried manuscript that has been discovered by a scholar, Anthony Meredith,  in the year 2,600 AD. Footnotes throughout the book are written from this very long view of the future when, after centuries of repression and false starts, a true Brotherhood of Man has been obtained.

The manuscript,  footnoted by Meredith,  contains the story of, Avis Everhard, the wife and fellow revolutionary of seminal figure in London’s fictional history, Ernest Everhard. Avis tells the tale of an early 20th century America racked by inequality, class divisions, and the most brutal forms of labor exploitation. These conditions set the stage for a looming socialist revolution, a political alliance between industrial labor in the form of a Socialist Party, and American farmers in the Grange Movement, that is preempted by the forces of capital. Ernest Everhard is elected as a socialist US Senator, one of many members of the Socialists and Grange Movement who have been swept into national and state office by the groundswell of support for revolutionary change.

The chance to change American  society through constitutional means does not last long. The Oligarchs use a feigned terrorist incident in the US Capitol to turn the American Constitution into a mere facade. Members of the Grange Movement are barred from taking their seats in state legislatures. Socialists are hounded from office pursued as potential terrorists and arrested. The Oligarchs create new mechanisms of social control.  London, writing before the US had a true and permanent standing Army, describes how The Oligarchs turn the state militias into a national army “The Mercenaries” with their own secret service tied to the police that will act against any perceived challenges to the social order.

Writing a generation before corporatism was even conceived, London describes how this oligarchic coup would manage to divide and conquer the forces of labor by essentially buying off and vesting in the system vital workers such as those in steel or railroads so that crippling general strikes became impossible, and all other unskilled labor was pushed into what we would understand as Third World conditions of bare survival. These wage slaves would be compelled to build the glittering new cities of the Oligarchs such as Ardis and Asgard.

The lower classes are robbed of that singularly American right- the right to bare arms, and only allowed to travel using an internal passport system similar to the one used in Czarist Russia.

Under these conditions, actual revolution brews, and the Oligarchs and the revolutionary forces engage in a protracted struggle of espionage and counter-espionage that for the revolutionaries is to culminate in a planned revolution- essentially a set of coordinated terrorists attacks on US communications and military infrastructure that the revolutionaries hope will spark a genuine revolution against the Oligarchs.

The Oligarchs again set out to short- circuit revolution, this time by staging a massive military assault on the heart of American labor, Chicago. The assault unleashes violent clashes between the well-armed Mercenaries and police forces and howling crowds of the poor armed only with household tools: knives, clubs, axes. In scenes far more gripping than those in Collin’s Catching Fire, London depicts urban warfare between security forces fighting raging crowds and bomb throwing insurgents who attack their targets from the heights of skyscrapers, in a way surely reminiscent of Fallujah, or even more so, what is going on right now in Syria.

Eventually, the oligarchic forces burn the poor sections of Chicago to the ground, and end all chance of successful revolution within the lifetime of the Everhard’s. In such conditions the effort at revolution becomes pure terrorism, the names of the terrorists groups no doubt reflective of the limited geographical area in which they operate and America’s history of resistance to the powers of the federal government such as the Mormon group the Danites or the Comanches.

The Oligarch’s suppression of revolutionary forces eventually reaches the Everhard’s. The novel ends abruptly with Avis’s narration stopping in mid-sentence.

The Iron Heel is a kind of warning, and the strange thing about this warning is that London, who was labeled a gloom obsessed pessimists by many of his fellow socialists, got so much of what would happen over the next 50 or so years eerily right, with the marked exception of where they were to occur.

Such prescience is hard to achieve even for someone as brilliant as the fellow novelist Anatole France the author of the introduction to the 1924 edition of the The Iron Heel I hold in my hand.

France, who was 80 at the time and would die the same year, thinks London was right, that the Iron Heel was coming, but doesn’t think it will arrive for quite some time.

“In France, as in Italy and Spain, Socialism, is for the moment, too feeble to have anything to fear from the Iron Heel., for extreme feebleness is the one safety of the feeble. No Heel of Iron will trouble itself to tread down this dust of a party”. (xiv)

1924 is the same year that the murder of socialist Giacomo Matteotti truly began the fascist dictatorship in Italy- a kind of corporate state that was certainly anticipated by London in The Iron Heel. Within 6 years “feeble” Spanish socialism would be locked in a civil war with fascism, within 9 years, the Nazis would rise to power on the backs of the same sort of fears of revolution, and using the same kinds of political machinations described in The Iron Heel. The bombing of the Reichstag ,which was blamed on the German communists but really committed by the Nazi’s, became the justification for an anti-revolutionary crackdown and the transformation of German democracy into a sham. It makes one wonder if Hitler himself had read The Iron Heel!

The Iron Heel throws up all sorts of historical questions and useful analogies for the current day. Why did neither revolutionary socialism or outright fascism emerge in the US in the 1930’s as it did elsewhere?

The Iron Heel should perhaps be read as part of a trilogy with Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 It can’t happen here! Which describes the transformation of America into a Nazi-like totalitarian state, or Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America which describes a similar fascists regime which comes about when the Nazi sympathizer and isolationist, Charles Lindberg, win the presidential race against Franklin Roosevelt. Full reviews of both will be found here at some point in the future the point for now being that there were figures and sentiments in American politics that might have added up to something quite different than American exceptionalism during this period. That what we ended up with was as much the consequence of historical luck as it was of any particularly American virtue.

Some, on both the right and the left would argue that what we have now is just a softer version of the tyranny portrayed by London, Lewis, and Roth, and they do indeed have something, but I do not as of now want to go there. The reason, I think, the kind of socialist revolution found in other countries never got legs in the United States the way it did elsewhere was that the US, which had been a hotbed of labor unrest and socialist sentiment and anticipation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, willingly adopted a whole series of reforms that made worker grievances against capitalism less acute.

  • Unemployment benefits- 1935
  • Eight-hour workday- 1936
  • Worker’s compensation in event of injury (widespread by 1949).
  • Government funded support for the poor that preserved a minimum standard of living- 1935
  • Minimum wage- 1938
  • Right to unionize and the adoption of a formal system to hold strikes- 1935

In addition controls were placed on financial markets so that the kinds of wild swings, financial panics, that periodically brought the nation’s economy to its knees would no longer occur.

Even when derided on the right as move towards socialism or on the left as delusional reformism, these changes followed by an unprecedented era of prosperity for the middle class from the 1940s through the 1970s, essentially ended the vicious circle presented in the Iron Heel of a political system unresponsive to worker grievances and exploitation that gave rise to forces of social revolution that in turn  engendered a move towards state violence and tyranny by the wealthy elites, which resulted in widespread terrorism by continually frustrated revolutionaries.

As a system for producing widespread prosperity faltered in the 1970s the American right, followed by increasingly centrist Democrats diagnosed the economic malaise as having originated from both the choke hold American unions had over the economy and the stifling effects of too much government interference.  Through the 1980s and 90s labor union power was dismantled, economic production globalized, capital markets freed up from earlier constraints, welfare reformed. Support for the lower classes was now to come not primarily through government programs, but through tax policy, such as the Earned Income Tax, that would free individuals to make their own choices and vest them in the capitalist economic system rather than view them as an opposition. Such reforms with their explicit claim that they would lead to universal prosperity collapsed with the 2008 financial crisis and neither the American right nor the American left has any clear understanding of where we go from here.

This history is what makes the recent video of Romney and his 47% comments so galling. His fellow oligarch’s who had paid more than the median income of an average American family- $50,000- to listen to his speech laugh and clink their silverware as he describes the sad state of American society where over half of the county either receive some government support or pay no taxes to the federal government. Romney and his audience forget how we got here: that the working class were granted their “privileges”  because the only way to otherwise sustain him and his fellow oligarchs would be through a regime of violence. That the fact that so many Americans don’t pay federal income tax was brought about by Republicans who hoped to entrench the idea that the system of free enterprise was for the good of rich, middle class and poor alike.

Romney and his listeners are oblivious to the long-view. In a way I wish I could send them all a copy of The Iron Heel.

Would I charge, or could it be a tax write-off?

*Jack London, The Iron Heel, McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie, 1924 (original 1907).


15 comments on “The Iron Heel and the Long-view

  1. Lindbergh to me is a fascinating character. I have a 1971 copy of his “Your Country at War.” From the first page of Chapter Two:

    “We—mankind, yes, that is it: this is our earth. There is no one else to claim it. If there were we should contest the claim. We even contest it as between each other. It is not exclusively my earth, but my rights are as great as those of any other, and their rights are equal to mine, and equal to each other. Thus we all come out in the same half bushel so far as our abstract rights are measured.”

    “Mankind—yes, if any one else, beast or whatever it might be, made a claim to the earth we would contest the claim. Why? Because we need it and we claim it for ourselves. No other body, however, has made a claim, and as to all other kinds, mankind is in the undisputed possession.
    My rights stop where your rights begin, and yours stop where mine begin. Everybody’s rights stop where the other body’s rights begin. Still there rages a frightful conflict— nothing so appalling in dealing death and destruction has occurred since the creation of man.”

    “Who is it then, that is claiming the other fellow’s rights? I see—it is mixed: Some claim the other fellow’s rights and are fighting to possess his advantages; some have trampled down the other fellow and already possess his belongings; some trespass; some defend— some claim the right to rule and dominate the others, and the others deny the right—all in this mighty conflict that threatens the destruction of the major portion of mankind, and if spared from that, be reduced to
    abject industrial slavery, unless we reason, rather than follow mere naked impulse to guide us.
    How did all this hell come about? Can it be crushed, so peace, good will and universal prosperity may be restored?”

    He also has some prescient things to say about the Federal Reserve System, as had his father in an earlier book. They both understood that despite the fact that the system had been touted as a trust-buster, that it had in fact created a money trust, but that also for a time favored speculators and appeared to help indebted farmers (it is worth mentioning that the farmers had been on the receiving end of the negative effects of the gold standard in an earlier era, whence the Grange Movement and the Populist Movement). You could almost say that an elastic currency was the original farm subsidy. And like todays more direct subsidies, whether it actually helped farmers in the long term is open for debate.

    London’s book was written in 1908, shortly after the banking panic of 1907, which was could easily be described as a Reichstag Fire type event used to create public opinion (the farmers were already in favor of busting the money trusts they saw, but as a result of the Panic, now the speculators were on board) in favor of a central bank.

    Lindbergh’s rhetoric seems to put him in the camp that monetary policy should be left to the Congress. In theory, it doesn’t matter who is in charge of monetary policy, as long as they don’t do the wrong thing. There’s the rub. While there is plenty of disagreement about what that wrong thing is, you can be certain that in time, because power tends to corrupt, it will be done.

    Some think that giving monetary policy to Congress today would be just as bad or worse than the way the Fed handles it. Perhaps they are right. You would still have one class of representatives keen on doing favors for Wall Street, and another looking to buy votes from Main Street. Sometimes their policy preferences would intersect, sometimes not.

    Here’s something I found by Ellen Brown (one of those greenbackers I like to argue with):

    “Big Brother” is the term used by George Orwell in his classic novel 1984 for the totalitarian state that would lock into place in the year of his title. Why he chose that particular year is unclear, but one theory is that he was echoing Jack London’s The Iron Heel, which chronicled the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States. In London’s book, the oligarchy’s fictional wonder-city, fueled by oppressed workers, was to be completed by 1984. Orwell also echoed London’s imagery when he described the future under Big Brother as “a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” In Secret Records Revealed: The Men, the Money, and the Methods Behind the New World Order (1999), Dr. Dennis Cuddy asked:

    “Could the ‘boot’ be the new eighteen-story Bank for International Settlements (BIS) which was completed in Basel, Switzerland, in 1977 in the shape of a boot, and became known as the‘Tower of Basel’?”

    I don’t necessarily buy into everything she wrote here, and before writing this comment I had never even heard of the BIS, but the things she is talking about relate both to your piece and the things I a brought up above.

    • What I mean by Reichstag Fire type event applies whether it was a manufactured crisis or not. The point remains: it was used as propaganda for creating the FRS.

    • My bad. The younger LIndbergh didn’t write the book. Lindbergh Sr. did.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hey Hank,

      I largely agree with many of the things you point out, but am leery when ever things border on conspiracy. This is certainly the case when it comes to questions such as central banking, or global institutions, and I am always nervous about any underlying anti-Semitism- something likely to be run into when a otherwise noble character like Lindenberg or Henry Ford start critiquing the “East coast banking establishment.”

      This is what I’ll say on the FED: whether it was established for just or unjust reasons, whether it has been run for the benefit of the financial elites or the wider public, central banks in general and the Federal Reserve more particularly,have become more and more of a factor in economic life. They have filled the policy vacuum in responding to the current economic crisis by paralyzed political elites in both the US and Europe, their current policy is to flood the economy with money in an attempt to kick-start the economy by creating another bubble in financial assets:

      This despite all the obvious risks of the bubble bursting and the potential for hyper-inflation- risks to the livelihood of all American citizens for which we should be responsible through our elected representatives. The continued reliance on central banks rather than reestablishing democratic control over the nation’s economic policies will indeed create an oligarchic cabal that truly does run the country like London warned of, but it will be us who put it in power, which is why, despite caveats, your fight against the FED is my fight too.

      • Absolutely. Sure I believe there is a power elite, but it can be in flux and break apart and reshape as much as any other group can, and is far from race-specific or all-encompassing. And there certainly is no one agenda. Some are ideological. Some are greedy. Some are just doing what they do best and who can fault them? I am loathe to call my anti-fed fellows kooky, but sometimes they really are.

  2. Thanks for introducing this book to me. I had thought until I read this post that Zamyatin’s “We” was the first modern-contemporary dystopian novel. I sit corrected! Just out of interest, how did this manage to pop up on your radar?

    • Rick Searle says:

      I’m not quite sure where I first came across The Iron Heel, though it was only quite recently. Purely in the literary sense, it has major weaknesses- and doesn’t really stand up in this sense to We, 1984, or BNW, which is perhaps the reason it’s not well known. Still, it’s certainly interesting to see these dystopian ideas dealt with in an American context.

      On another note, I’ve been thinking about starting these small discussion groups with fellow bloggers. I’ve been leery about asking you if you’d be interested given that you are a professional philosopher, but it may give you an alternate format to discuss some of your ideas.

      What do you think?

      • I’m not a professional philosopher yet! For now I am working in research and enterprise for a university (thus the interest in data and information of late), so a discussion group would be a welcome injection of philosophy back into life. Colour me interested!
        Also, I haven’t gotten around to responding to your recent comment due to not being able to sit down and properly formulate my thoughts, but hopefully this weekend.

  3. Hi Rick,

    Wow, I had read the Iron Heel when I was about 18, but I kinda forgot about it! Its a great book and fits in neatly with your previous discussions on the security state, 1984 and Brave New World.

    Its quite eerie the way in which he predicted much of what was to come … particularly as he writes about the same tactics used by fascist regimes in Italy, Spain and Germany to achieve power.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your point on how the social, political and economic conditions of pre-1970s US, actually distanced the country from what London had predicted. And, as you rightly point out, how 40 years of incremental de-regulation, privatization, securitization and globalization are proving London right today!

    Fantastic post!



    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks, Giulio.

      Its kind of amazing how a book a little over a century old can seem so relevant today. I hadn’t read London until fairly recently. He was a genius- amazingly prescient.

  4. […] century was coming into its own as a political force, you had socialist such as Edward Bellamy and Jack London surging in popularity. Anarchists were making their mark. though unfortunately, largely through […]

  5. […] its own as a political force.  You had writers of socialist fiction such as Edward Bellamy and Jack London surging in popularity. Anarchists were making their mark, though, unfortunately, largely through […]

  6. […] the US under the rule of a right wing dictatorship. Way back during the last presidential election I wrote about Jack London’s now largely forgotten novel, The Iron Heel. I think my analysis of how that novel applies to our own time still holds, and […]

  7. […] the US under the rule of a right wing dictatorship. Way back during the last presidential election I wrote about Jack London’s now largely forgotten novel, The Iron Heel. I think my analysis of how that novel applies to our own time still holds, and […]

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