I was surprised to learn recently that Jack London, like me a native of Oakland, California and, unlike me, the first person ever to become a millionaire by writing (and a million in 1900 was a fortune indeed) was an outspoken and dedicated socialist and that his name is known around the world for his socialist writings. I am not surprised that the American educational system has emasculated his literary reputation by teaching only his early works ("White Fang" and "Call of the Wild") and relegating him to the category of adventure writer. [You gotta love this guy: he is also responsible for introducing surfing to the U.S.]
In 1908 Jack London published "The Iron Heel," an odd little novel of the genre I would call Social-Science Fiction. Like Bellamy's "Looking Backward", it purports to be a future history in which events in our future are recounted from the perspective of an even more distant future. In London's book, the conceit is that an account of a socialist revolution begun in our time was written by one of the participants and that this account has come to light only in the 27th century. Thus we have a first-person narrative of a revolution with commentary and footnotes provided by a scholar 700 years from now.
What astonished me most about the book is that it so accurately describes the major geopolitical and economic events of the 20th century even though it was written before any of them happened. London seems to have foreseen the Stock Market Crash and ensuing Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the labor unrest of that period, the strategy by which FDR co-opted the union movement and saved capitalism, the economic basis of the two World Wars, a U.S. foreign policy intent on keeping the country permanently at war, the development of the suburbs, the creation of NAFTA, and even the rise of the Christian Right as a political power.
What lends weight to the remarkable similarity between events that London imagined and events as they played out over 100 years is that London presents all of these developments as the inevitable result of observable facts about capitalism in the United States. London does not argue for socialism on moral or political grounds: he argues that an empirical observation of the society in which he lived would necessarily lead one to conclude logically that a nascent revolution of the working class would be crushed by a capitalist class that co-opted the political institutions of democracy to establish its own plutocracy. London believed that the only possible outcome of conditions in his day would be that liberty and justice for the worker would be crushed under the Iron Heel of the oligarchy, and such is the story the novel tells.
The story revolves around a revolutionary leader who bears a striking resemblance to London himself. Early in the novel, this working-class hero, Ernest Everhard, addresses a meeting of a secretive group of the most powerful capitalists and politicians in the country, something like the Bohemian Club of San Francisco. Here is his indictment of capitalism:
"If modern man's producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the caveman, why then, in the United States today, are there fifteen million people who are not properly sheltered and not properly fed? Why then, in the United States today, are there three million child laborers? It is a true indictment. The capitalist class has mismanaged. . . . you have mismanaged, my masters, . . . you have selfishly and criminally mismanaged."
Everhard goes on to say that eventually the oligarchy will be overthrown by the power of the working class:
"There is a greater strength than wealth, and it is greater because it cannot be taken away. Our strength, the strength of the proletariat, is in our muscles, in our hands to cast ballots, in our fingers to pull triggers."
The working class revolution, London believed, would eventually establish a more just and peaceful social order. But before that resolution can come, we must pass through a period of increasing domination and oppression. The story describes the overwhelming power of the oligarchy, using as it does all the types of power available. Police and military, universities and intellectuals, the news media, publishers, the churches and the clergy all cooperate with the oligarchy, reinforcing the self-justifying ideas and values it formulates. Because the myths and propaganda of the oligarchy are so aggressively propagated, and the general population so relentlessly indoctrinated, only a prolonged suffering will awaken the proletariat to the true nature of the situation.
Simply put, The Establishment consisting of wealthy white males will not give up power easily. The workers may have history and justice on their side, but the oligarchy has the military, the courts, the banks, the media, and the police to support and enforce its hold on power. The oligarchy's dedication to the maintenance of its power is made clear when a member of the Capitalists' club answers the revolutionary hero thus:
"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 our 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 new book "Dark Money" by Jane Mayer reports in detail about the network established by the Koch brothers to take control of all levels of our government (municipal, state, and federal) and to control who is elected to all legislative and executive offices, from the small-town mayor to the President of the United States. I know that many scoff at the idea that this country is being taken over by the extremely wealthy elite (just as many of the characters in London's novel refuse to believe the hero.) Many will reject books such as "Dark Money", calling it alarmist and portraying its author as a "conspiracy theorist" who is not fully in touch with reality. Many will think such things about me. And they will say something to the effect that Jack London lived a long time ago and that things are surely much different now than they were then.
But before you dismiss all the talk of an oligarchy scheming to control our government at every level, consider what Jimmy Carter had to say in a speech he gave to a meeting of the Atlantik Bruecke ("Atlantic Bridge"), a non-profit that fosters better relations between Germans and Americans. The former President said in his speech that "America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy." Carter's remarks were not reported by a single mainstream news agency in the United States, but they were reported in Der Spiegel, the leading German news magazine. (The report, by the way, did not appear in the English language version of Der Spiegel either, but only in the German one.)
In the final chapters of "The Iron Heel," the oligarchy does indeed bring its Iron Heel down on the people. It walks on their faces. And all that the revolutionary hero can do is to repeat the following again and again as bloody events swirl around the revolutionaries:
"How many rifles have you got? Do you know where you can get plenty of lead? When it comes to powder, chemical mixtures are better than mechanical mixtures, you take my word."