Friday, November 14, 2008

Jack London's The Iron Heel

Jack London's novel The Iron Heel was published in 1908, which is much earlier than the other literary examples of dystopic fiction which I posted earlier. This novel deals more with societal changes through politics rather than through changing technologies. Specifically, The Iron Heel imagines an alternate history of America in which an oligarchical government takes control. An oligarchy is a government in which power is held by a small elite group. This group is distinguished by priviledged familial ties, such as royalty, but can also include families with established political or military power and wealth. Today, founding families of powerful corporations could constitute an oligarchy. Oligarchies tend to become tyrannical, as they do in London's novel. A recent example of an oligarchy would be the government of South Africa in the twentieth century, in which a small group of nonnative whites held governmental power over a much larger native African population, and instituted apartheid as a means to maintain control and limit opportunities to the population. In The Iron Heel, the oligarchy consists of monopolistic corporations who control a labor caste and a military caste, both of which are employed by the oligarchy. The oligarchy constructs a city called Asgard, in which a large population of the labor caste lives in poverty. Asgard is a reference to the Norse enclave of the Aesir, or gods, in which Valhalla is located. The oligarchy rules for three centuries until it is overturned by revolutions which lead to a new socialist society. In this novel, London demonstrates his Marxist belief that socialism will ineveitably triumph over capitalism.

Excerpt from Chapter 4, Slaves of the Machine:

"It seemed monstrous, impossible, that our whole society was based upon blood."

"`Really, this is fine. You are beginning to dig truth for yourself. It is your own empirical generalization, and it is correct. No man in the industrial machine is a free-will agent, except the large capitalist, and he isn't, if you'll pardon the Irishism. You see, the masters are quite sure that they are right in what they are doing. That is the crowning absurdity of the whole situation. They are so tied by their human nature that they can't do a thing unless they think it is right. They must have a sanction for their acts.

`When they want to do a thing, in business of course, they must wait till there arises in their brains, somehow, a religious, or ethical, or scientific, or philosophic, concept that the thing is right. And then they go ahead and do it, unwitting that one of the weaknesses of the human mind is that the wish is parent to the thought. No matter what they want to do, the sanction always comes. They are superficial casuists. They are Jesuitical. They even see their way to doing wrong that right may come of it. One of the pleasant and axiomatic fictions they have created is that they are superior to the rest of mankind in wisdom and efficiency. Therefrom comes their sanction to manage the bread and butter of the rest of mankind. They have even resurrected the theory of the divine right of kings--commercial kings in their case.

`The weakness in their position lies in that they are merely business men. They are not philosophers. They are not biologists nor sociologists. If they were, of course all would be well. A business man who was also a biologist and a sociologist would know, approximately, the right thing to do for humanity. But, outside the realm of business, these men are stupid. They know only business. They do not know mankind nor society, and yet they set themselves up as arbiters of the fates of the hungry millions and all the other millions thrown in. History, some day, will have an excruciating laugh at their expense.'"

Excerpt from Chapter 21, The Roaring Abysmal Beast:

"The condition of the people of the abyss was pitiable. Common school education, so far as they were concerned, had ceased. They lived like beasts in great squalid labor-ghettos, festering in misery and degradation. All their old liberties were gone. They were labor-slaves. Choice of work was denied them. Likewise was denied them the right to move from place to place, or the right to bear or possess arms. They were not land serfs like the farmers. They were machine-serfs and labor-serfs. When unusual needs arose for them, such as the building of the great highways and air-lines, of canals, tunnels, subways, and fortifications, levies were made on the labor-ghettos, and tens of thousands of serfs, willy-nilly, were transported to the scene of operations. Great armies of them are toiling now at the building of Ardis, housed in wretched barracks where family life cannot exist, and where decency is displaced by dull bestiality. In all truth, there in the labor-ghettos is the roaring abysmal beast the oligarchs fear so dreadfully--but it is the beast of their own making. In it they will not let the ape and tiger die."

The whole text of the novel can be found here.

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