Just finished The Iron Heel by Jack London this week. Spoiler alert!! I delve into quite a bit of the detail of the story. While I don’t ruin the ending – which is like, great and sucks at the same time – but I will give some amount of insight into much of the gist of the book.
Jack London lived from 1876-1916, and in a short life, he managed quite a bit of adventure. I had no idea what a socialist he was… else I’d have read him earlier! The Iron Heel is a lesson in history as much of what he references are actual facts and quotes from his era and U.S. History.
The story is ostensibly a memoir written by a wife (Avis) of her husband (Ernest Everhard), a revolutionist. However, it is presented with a background narrator providing footnotes throughout. Said narrator is looking back from seven centuries in the future on these happenings in the early 20th century memoir. With this frame of reference comes an ability to give interesting detail on some of the historical details of the story, including things learned through history, which dispel mystery on some events. And, as Mankind has progressed much in the centuries since its writing, there is much ridicule and commentary on the nature of humankind at this point in our evolution. More on that later…
The story begins on the first meeting of Avis and Ernest and describes how she, a wealthy, dividend-loving, young woman, is transformed by her interactions with him. He challenges her, noting that her fancy gown and roof-beams, even the food she eats, is tainted with the blood of the workingman (and child, for at that time, child labor was ubiquitous). Avis is incensed, but investigates Ernest’s charge of corruption of corporations against their workers, specifically looking into a case of man named Jackson who lost an arm near the end of his shift as he tried to protect the equipment. Along the way, she finds that everyone involved is a hostage to the wages paid by the corporation and, as such, they can do nothing to help Jackson secure payment for his injury or even ongoing employment as a Watchman with the company. From fellow workers who testify on behalf of the company, to the lawyer who represents Jackson but is also a working man at the company, to the lawyers who work for the company itself, all must abandon their sense of righteousness in order to assure ongoing wages with the company. None can defend what is right about the case, else they forfeit their livelihood. In the end she must admit that the roof-beams of her home and the beautiful gowns she wears DO drip with the blood of The Working Man.
Her next foray is to the press. In an effort to raise awareness of these issues of the working class and hopefully bring relief to their condition, she writes commentary for publication. But who will print her story? None. Everywhere she turns, she finds herself stonewalled. Her account of Jackson’s case is turned down by every editor of every local paper. Of course they too are beholden to the corporations who advertise on their pages.
”I was beginning to see through the appearances of the society in which I had always lived and to find the frightful realities that were beneath. There seemed a tacit conspiracy against Jackson, and I was aware of a thrill of sympathy for the whining lawyer who had ingloriously fought his case. But this tacit conspiracy grew large. Not alone was it aimed against Jackson. It was aimed against every workingman who was maimed in the mills. And if against every man in the mills, why not against every man in all the other mills and factories? In fact, was it not true of all the industries? And if this was so, then Society was a lie.” ~ Avis Everhard on realizing the plight of the working man
When meeting with the two men who held the most stock in the mill, Avis was talked to in a patronizing way and became hopeless as these two men were convinced that they were the saviors of society. In fact, they felt they were superior in all humankind, making happiness for the many as they offered the only hope of employment to the working class.
When the wives of these stockholders were asked for some recompense to Jackson for the loss of his arm, the response was that they would put no premium “on carelessness”, nor, “by paying for the accident, tempt the poor to hurt themselves in the machinery.” Regardless of the fact that injuries did not happen early in the shift but almost always in the last hour of an excessively long shift, the perception was of carelessness of the worker instead of fatigue or overwork. It was the worker’s own fault for being injured.
The subject of the memoir, Ernest Everhard, asserts that “one of the weaknesses of the human mind is that the wish is parent to the thought”. Once we have a desire for something, the sanction of this thing as “right” always comes. Thus, these high society people could justify themselves in such a way as Saints. Which makes me wonder how often I have found justification for my own wishes simply through the power of the mind. I mean, does simply wishing for something attune the mind to find evidence for why this thing is righteous or desirable? I am pondering this…
On being offered a prime position as the US Commissioner of Labor, Ernest promptly refuses this attempt to steal a “(captain) from the army of labor”. So many “leaders (had) been bought out in similar ways in the past”, but not Ernest. He will be true to the Cause to the end. Or so we are to believe.
Through chapter 13, this story reads as if current events. It is amazing to me the many similarities between early 20th century happenings and our own current events. I watched a Ted Talk recently that noted the headlines about the financial crisis in 2008 were quite reminiscent to those of the 1930’s… but we’re in too much of a state of denial to recognize it. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the Crash and what followed was referred to as “The Great Depression”. In another 10-15 years, perhaps we will know the name of our own financial crisis.
What follows in the latter chapters of the book, I surely hope is not foretelling of our own future events. With 700 years of hindsight, there is a report of the “Brotherhood of Man” era that sounds quite utopian and seems to have developed about three centuries after the annihilation in chapters 13 and beyond. However, the destruction prior to this era is hellish. I can only imagine 300 years of Oligarchy ruling with an Iron Heel. But, as London relates bits and pieces of our own U.S. history throughout his story, it does seem there’s a possibility that we will, at least some of us, survive it… as we have survived so much oppression through the centuries in the Grand Old US of A.
One aspect of the book that relates to our own times, and was common to the times during which the story was written, is the use of the terms “sedition” & “anarchist” to represent anyone in thought opposition to the Oligarchy. It is quite a convenient and powerful tool to be able to label your opposition so easily and negatively with a word, regardless of how righteous and just their cause. Another throwback referenced was the use of violence by operatives of the Oligarchy, which was then blamed on the Proletariat. This reminds me of Standing Rock, where the Water Protectors were claimed to have “pipe bombs” when in fact they were smoking peace pipes and the only ones with weapons were the police and sheriffs. These men, whose normal day job is supposedly to Protect and Serve the People, were instead operating in obedience and subservience to the oil company executives. If you read history in detail, or just the little in this story by London, you will hear reference to this practice of using government forces and local law enforcement to protect the assets and profits of the rich. From Pinkerton to the National Guard, forces are often called in to quell the masses and save the profits of the powerful.
One new concept for me in this story was a passport system “so perfect that no man, woman, or child and all the land was unregistered and unaccounted-for in his or her movements”. From the novel, it seems such a system was operating in Russia at the time of publication for this story. And it makes me wonder about the new IDs they are wanting for Minnesota… Seems like a Real ID would give the authorities enough data to track you anywhere. But, hey, no biggie, right? They already have this with our credit cards and cell phones. As my son often tells me, “Mom, just click the agreement box for online stuff – they already have all control anyway.”
Throughout the book are entertaining footnotes to define or explain words used in the memoir by Avis Everhard. One footnote defines Society as “a common usage of the times to denote the gilded drones that did no labor, but only glutted themselves at the honey-vats of the workers. Neither the businessmen nor the labors had time or opportunity for Society. Society was the creation of the idle rich who toiled not and who in this way played.”
Also defined were Grub (food), Bluff (lie) and, most interesting in today’s day of 45 tweets, Fake (false). Oddly, not defined was Gamin, which is a street urchin, likely a term familiar with readers at the time of publication.
One of my favorite footnotes regarded the term Watchman: “In those days thievery was incredibly prevalent. Everybody stole property from everybody else. The lords of society stole legally or else legalized their stealing, while the poorer classes stole illegally. Nothing was safe unless guarded. Enormous numbers of men were employed as Watchman to protect property. The houses of the well-to-do or a combination of safe deposit vault and fortress.” In discussing the homes of the day, the footnote states, ” in those days it was still the custom to fill the living rooms with bric-a-brac. They had not discovered simplicity of living. Such rooms or museums, entailing endless labor to keep clean. The dust demon was the lord of the household. There were a myriad devices for catching dust, and only a few devices for getting rid of it.”
London’s overseer footnotes also often reference the words of real life people. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s quote:
“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and 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 all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
I verified this quote as from U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864 in a letter to Col. William F. Elkins.
Or this one:
“The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for, not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country.” ~George Baer, President Anthracite Coal Trust
I urge people to take a look at this novel. It’s interesting to read a detailed account of how government can work along with the powerful to subvert those trying to protect the working class. It is quite familiar to current times with so many ties between wealthy business owners (think 45’s cabinet and advisers) and the top levels of government. I don’t know how they continue to convince working people that government is going to act in the best interests of the hard-working poor. They don’t support a $15 minimum wage, but wouldn’t that be good for working people? (It would actually be good for our entire economy as it would allow people who spend most every penny they earn to put more money into growing the economy.)
The book highlights tactics used by government, corporations, the press, the church, the university, and the wealthy. Those who walk or talk outside the needed ideology that assures ongoing success for those currently in power, anyone who sees the complex way that people find themselves down on their luck, anyone who wants to try to help these people find resolution for their plight, all of these are stymied and crushed out of existence. Watching 45’s tactics with the press are surely in line with preventing anything outside his own commentary from being expressed. Here’s an interesting commentary by Robert Reich, including a great short video: http://robertreich.org/post/154819980595.
I know that dystopian fiction is extremely popular now and I believe this is largely due to the fears people have regarding the current state of our country. There are many events, tweets, posts, stories that seem to be unbelievable as we hear, see, and experience them. I think we all need to be vigilant in finding truth, standing for our beliefs, expressing concerns to our government representatives, in our local newspapers, and by word of mouth with our friends and family.
We need to follow stories to their source. We need to check facts and evidence for things we believe. We need to THINK CRITICALLY. I highly recommend a short and good book by Robert Jensen Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog. If you don’t have time for or access to the full book, here are a couple great links to examine.
If we are not careful, we will find ourselves in a situation where we are adhering to and even espousing the false ideas and words of leaders who are concerned only for their own agendas.