The Dystopia Files: The Iron Heel
Jack London’s political dystopia, The Iron Heel, published in 1905, is not so fantastic as it is relevant, not so prophetic as it is cogent. The question the novel leaves you with, in this age of unprecedented income inequality, conservative-libertarian populism, corporate propaganda fronts and political puppetry, is why the country has not gone down the path that London took it almost a hundred years ago. Why, with our increasingly vast poverty, waning middle class, wealth stratification beyond levels since those seen before the Great Depression and legislators thrall to powerful corporate and industrial interests, hasn’t the republic degenerated into the modern oligarchy as portrayed in this book?
It could be that unforeseen events, such as wars and depressions, have absorbed and dissipated the energy and organizing power of labor. Or perhaps political and commercial propaganda has grown more sophisticated in its ability to camouflage its true agenda in sentimental prejudices, while serving the interests of those with wealth and power. No doubt a culture of immediacy and rapid technological advancement have made it difficult to compare past and present, to identify larger historical patterns, thus to understand, redress and avoid past errors. While The Iron Heel recognizes these distracting and mitigating forces, it is the story of the worst-case scenario: increased stratification until a cast system develops and the country lapses into revolution.
The narrative structure of the book is that of a memoir, presented as a historical document. “The Everhard Manuscript,” introduced and annotated seven centuries after it was written, is essentially Avis Everhard’s account of her life with socialist political leader Ernest Everhard. Anthony Meredith, the fictional historian who supplies the Foreward and notes, states his reason for publishing the document, thus Jack London’s for writing it: “Nowhere do we find more vividly portrayed the psychology of the persons that lived in the turbulent period between the years 1912 and 1932—their mistakes and ignorance, their doubts, fears and misapprehensions, their ethical delusions, their violent passions, their inconceivable sordidness and selfishness.” Thus The Iron Heel is a social and historical critique, told as a first-person autobiography and regarded by its annotator as the artifact of a brutal, ignorant and decadent civilization.
Avis Everhard begins her memoir with meeting her husband to be at a salon of academic and clerical elites hosted by her father, a renowned physicist, professor, and author of “Identification of Matter and Energy.” Her first impression of Ernest Everard is not so good: “…he made a rather incongruous appearance…out of place in the midst of the churchmen… He wore a ready-made suit of dark cloth that was ill-adjusted to his body…the cloth bulged with his muscles…” In short, what she initially sees is a burly misfit in a cheap suit. But, when Ernest delivers a shredding speech against clerics and metaphysicians, she’s excited by his boldness and eloquence and by the end of the evening “deeply interested in Ernest Everhard.” Although “almost in love,” she admits that were she never to see him again she could easily have forgotten him. Yet she learns what she can about him, reads his book, Working-class Philosophy, and her “fancies wantonly roved” until she considers him “as a lover, as a husband.” When they next meet she accuses him of fomenting class hatred in that sort of challenge a woman will present to a man to whom she is attracted, as if to test that attraction. And, in patiently refuting her claim, Ernest passes the test, courts and eventually marries her.
Thus The Iron Heel portrays love in the context of social and political struggle—the kind of love that can endure it. The author of the Introduction to my Penquin Classics 2006 edition, Jonathan Auerbach, characterizes Avis’s love story as “a maudlin account of idolization and conversion, mixing together the spiritual and sexual.” What I see in Jack London’s characterization of Avis, however, is not so maudlin as idealized. She has beauty, intelligence, spirit and loyalty, and falls in love completely, with all of herself, giving herself entirely to the cause, as the ideal women would. She’s romantically experienced: “No girl could live in a university town till she was twenty-four and not have love experiences. I had been made love to by beardless sophomores and gray professors, and by the athletes and football giants.” And her love is unabashedly sexual: “Before his earnestness conventional maiden dignity was ridiculous.” At the same time, her love is the vehicle of her spiritual and intellectual enlightenment: “He became my oracle.” So, yes, it is a mix of love, lust and enlightenment, but one fitting and necessary to the voice that drives the book. While Dr. Auerbach disparages London for being “constitutionally unable or unwilling to ironize his first-person narrator in any systematic way,” I don’t see how Avis cracking wise or waxing ironic would have served London’s purpose. That would have been an impertinent dissonance not worth satisfying Dr. Auerbach’s post-modern skepticism. Her love needs to be the way it is—serious, wholehearted and ardent—because it is the most important thing in her life, and London had to convince the reader of this.
Love, however, is not the The Iron Heel‘s predominant subject. Written just after the turn of the nineteenth century, an era coined by Mark Twain as “The Gilded Age,” the book takes the conditions of those times to their logical conclusion. The captains of industry, or monopoly trusts, accrue enough wealth and power to become a ruling class, an oligarchy, and the country degenerates into a caste society under their tyranny. Given that, at the time, eleven or so trusts had expanded their holdings to include every sector of the national economy and had the state and federal legislatures in their pockets, it was not an unforeseen conclusion, nor one of which the politically astute were not apprehensive. Meredith footnotes a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 letter to Colonel William F. Wilkings: “Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few and the Republic is destroyed.” Lincoln’s impressively concise and summary admonition is exactly what unfolds in the book.
What makes the transformation from republic to oligarchy possible, as stated by Ernest Everhard, is the fact that “the ownership of wealth constitutes essential power in the United States.” Though we never meet the “seven small and powerful groups of men” who, acting in unison, rise to control the country, Ernest Everhard, in one of the great speeches that make up most of this book, gives a good enough description of how it comes to pass, referring specifically to the railroad group: “It employs forty thousand lawyers to defeat the people in the courts. It issues countless thousands of free passes to judges, bankers, editors, ministers, university men, members of state legislatures, and of congress. It maintains luxurious state lobbies at every state capital; and in all the cities and towns of the land it employs an immense array of pettifoggers and small politicians whose business it is to attend primaries, pack conventions, get on juries, bribe judges, and in every way to work for its interests.”
You need only go to a campaign finance disclosure site like OpenSecrets.org, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, to see that these groups today are those of the insurance, pharmaceutical, oil, high-tech, banking, finance and media industries. An August 2010 New Yorker article titled “Covert Operations” accurately characterizes the second-largest private company in the United States, Koch Industries, as “the Standard Oil of our times.” Owners Charles and David Koch funded the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which has “worked closely with the Tea Party since the movement’s inception.” The plutocracy of today, as that portrayed in The Iron Heel, is very interested in promulgating a popular free-market movement, or should I say, freedom from taxation and regulation under the guise of reducing the size and power of government. Our contemporary oligarchs would very much like a vote to keep the government out of their pockets, but not at the expense of losing their tax cuts, government contracts, Federal Reserve guarantees and legislative influence. Here, as in The Iron Heel, the plutocracy’s real agenda is to abet the gush of wealth-power flowing into its coffers and away from those very populists whom it agitates with fear of government takeover.
The book identifies how this ascendant class co-opts academics, clerics, lawyers, journalists and celebrities—those who inform and culture the masses—to propagate only the ideas and sentiments that are in its interest. As Ernest Everhard puts it, “One and all, the professors, the preachers, and the editors, hold their jobs by serving the Plutocracy. Wherever they propagate ideas that menace the Plutocracy, they lose their jobs, in which case, if they have not provided for a rainy day, they descend into the proletariat and either perish or become working-class agitators. And don’t forget that it is the press, the pulpit, and the University that mould public opinion, set the thought-pace of the nation.” This thought-pace consists of negative characterizations as well; those not serving the interests of the Plutocracy are dubbed unpatriotic, socialist, foreign, criminal or idealistic. Phrases such as Utopian serve to package any attempted reform in impractical idealism. A footnote explains: “The peoples of that age were phrase slaves… So befuddled and chaotic were their minds that the utterance of a single word could negative the generalizations of a lifetime of serious research and thought. Such a word was the adjective Utopian. The mere utterance of it could damn any scheme, no matter how sanely conceived, of economic amelioration or regeneration.” Recently, republican representatives publicly employed this very term in attempting to derail health care reform. Here’s Rep. Devin Nunes ramping on the House floor, March 21, 2010: “Today Democrats in this House will finally lay the cornerstone of their socialist Utopia on the backs of the American people.”
The concentration of wealth-power to the nation’s industrialists and financiers, as portrayed in The Iron Heel, sadly turns out a century later to be a paradigm for the way wealth stratifies in this country whenever laissez-fair policies abide. By 1928, at the start of the Great Depression, the wealthiest 1% of the population were making 21% of the total national income. This stratification mirrors that which occurred between the years 1980 and 2007, when, again, people in the top 1% increased their share of the total national income from 10% to 24%, and the number of people below the poverty line went from 25 million to 43 million. The economic theory behind London’s explanation of this stratification, as explained by Ernest Everhard, runs thus: capital generates a surplus that labor can’t consume and, so, must be reinvested, which generates more capital, more surplus, etc. Therefore, the chief concern of those who hold capital is how to get rid of it, which they do by investing in new sectors and abroad, mostly in undeveloped countries.
Though accurate, London’s economic theory (patently Marxian), focuses primarily on capital, big business and labor. Timothy Noah, in his series for Slate, “The United States of Inequality,” surveys the possible causes of income inequality in our day and attributes it proportionately to five: immigrant labor, 5%; foreign trade and manufacturing abroad, 10%; the decline of organized labor and the unions, 20%; Wall Street and the corporate culture of “pampering the Stinking Rich,” 30%; and the decline of education to produce a competitive work force, 30%. To summarize, the U.S. is no longer an industrial but an information economy, with a market for goods mostly manufactured abroad, a blue-collar work force composed mostly of immigrants employed in services, and a white-collar work force in short supply due to historically stagnant education.
While The Iron Heel touches, more or less, on these various causes of wealth stratification, it does not foresee several things the government did during the Great Depression to offset them, which, for half a century, balanced national wealth among the classes and prevented the republic from becoming a banana republic. Under The New Deal, Roosevelt expanded K-through-12 national public schooling as part of the Public Works Administration (1933), especially public high schools outside the major cities. These schools provided skills in bookkeeping, billing, typing, stenography—white-collar skills—and created, by world standards, an educated labor force that eventually pushed the productivity of the U.S. to number one among nations. He supported and empowered organized labor under the Wagner Act (1935), establishing collective bargaining rights, thus the ability to negotiate productivity-based wage and cost-of-living increases and what the government has yet to provide: health care and retirement.
Another factor that took the country out of the Great Depression was war. The Iron Heel has the Oligarchy promoting war with Germany for several reasons: “In the juggling of events such a war would cause, in the reshuffling of the international cards and the making of new treaties and alliances, the Oligarchy had much to gain. And, furthermore, the war would consume many national surpluses, reduce the armies of unemployed that menaced all countries, and give the Oligarchy a breathing space in which to perfect its plans and carry them out. Such a war would virtually put the Oligarchy in possession of the world-market.” War, with its munitions and armament industries and absorption of surpluses and labor, is an engine of growth for industrialists. The Civil War stimulated the creation of a modern industrial economy, with railroad and electrical power expansion. World War I precipitated a boom in automobile manufacturing, oil and gas development, and the building of roads and highways. World War II brought the country out of the Great Depression and into the Golden Age of Capitalism, with booming consumer markets, middle-class prosperity, full employment and, of course, a permanent war economy with the advent of the Cold War.
After large, all-consuming wars, such as World Wars I and II, there is a surge in the civilian labor force as the troops return. Labor generally suffers a decline in wages and bargaining power, and industry gets it on the cheap. There are typically changes in fiscal policy, as well,—a drop in wartime taxes for industry as it retools to meet peacetime demands. Lastly, to the victor go the spoils of greater international leverage and access to resources and trade deals. Since the Cold War, however, all-consuming wars have not been justifiable, necessary, nor wanted for the risk they present of total annihilation by atomic weaponry. So, for the past half a century the U.S. has engaged in thirty or so semi-involving wars and “operations.” In 2001, with the collapse of the dot-com bubble, the foundering of energy-affiliated companies, the American economy headed into recession, a national surplus of $3 trillion to dispose of, and 9/11 to provide popular support, the time was ripe for a semi-involving war or two. The Bush Administration did a couple of things to ensure that these wars would unite the republic’s patriotic fervor and economic interests. It privatized war to a greater extent, contracting it out to companies, thus making it a greater stimulus of economic growth. It vested the Executive branch with greater war powers, which enabled it to wage war on demand. It created the United States Department of Homeland Security, the third largest Cabinet department, involving a massive government expenditure and reorganization. And it created a larger, umbrella war, the Global War on Terror, which, like the Cold War, would enable the U.S. to carry on unlimited operations all over the world with greater public support.
The Iron Heel aptly characterizes such military ventures as preceded by financial instability, caused, as we know too well, by the banks and Wall Street: “The banks, themselves constituting one of the most important forces of the Oligarchy, continued to call in credits. The Wall Street group turned the stock market into a maelstrom where the values of all the land crumbled away almost to nothingness. And out of the all the rack and ruin rose the form of the nascent Oligarchy, imperturbable, indifferent, and sure.” Unstable financial markets are mostly crushing to labor, small businesses, smaller to midsized manufacturers and middle-management. For the most powerful class, however, they can be a boon, a time to stake their bets and acquire greater holdings for a pittance. For example, take Bank of America’s record of acquisitions from the peak of the housing boom throughout the turbulent years of its deflation: FleetBoston Financial in 2004 for $47 billion, Maryland Bank, National Association in 2005 for $35 billion, The United States Trust Company in 2007 for $3.3 billion, the LaSalle Bank Corporation in 2007 for $21 billion, Countrywide Financial in 2008 for $2 billion, and Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc. in 2008 for $50 billion. Meanwhile, Bank of America received $25 billion in 2008, $20 billion in 2009, and a guarantee of $118 billion from the U.S. government under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which George Bush signed into law in 2008—his last great dump of taxpayer (public) money into the private sector. The consequence? Bank of America is now the largest bank holding company in the United States and the third-largest company in the world—in other words, surely and imperturbably “too big to fail.”
While the degree of the Oligarchy’s consolidation of power in The Iron Heel is dramatic, being, after all, driven by the dramatic demands of fiction, the features of this consolidation are so relevant and familiar that the book reads like an exhaustive catalog of the trends of the last two decades. Most importantly, it reveals the essential cause of these trends, which is, unfortunately, psychological and self-sustaining: “The Great driving force of the oligarchs is the belief that they are doing right. Never mind the exceptions, and never mind the oppression and injustice in which the Iron Heel was conceived. All is granted. The point is that the strength of the Oligarchy today lies in its satisfied conception of its own righteousness.”
© Copyright 2010, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.