The Iron Heel
The Iron Heel: Descending Upon and Crushing Humankind
Being a part of an independent worker’s union can risk one’s job; leading a union can often lead lead to worse. It can lead to losing that job, being threatened, or even murdered due to the rebellious views. Unions tend to arise when workers rights are being undermined. However, the social elite opposed to unions because they do not wish to loosen their grip on the workers. When composing The Iron Heel, Jack London took into the account the events around him and expressed his socialist views through the various characters. In The Iron Heel, Jack London criticizes the rise of the oligarchy and its suppression of justice as well as individuals who questioned its supremacy and legitimacy.
London was a socialist himself, he joined the Socialist Labor Party in 1896, and was inspired to write this book by what was happening around him at the time, the early 20th century. In the novel, Jack London portrays this through Philip Wickson who is described as an one-time oligarch. Mr. Wickson tells Ernest, “We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain (London 97)”. Jack London refers to the Russian Revolution of 1905 through this quote. The peaceful protesters and workers in Russia were in dire need of change and help, as it could be seen in their petition. The petition stated, “We are beggars, we are oppressed and overburdened with work, we are insulted, we are not looked on as human beings but as slaves. The moment has come for us when death would be better than the prolongation of our intolerable sufferings” (Johnstone). The workers were being worked beyond their breaking point, being brutally and unjustly treated as slaves. Their situation was so grim that many preferred death. In The Iron Heel, there is a story of a worker that lost his arm while trying to save a machine from breaking down so that he may save the company from incurring a huge loss. He did not lose his arm because he was irresponsible, but rather because he was being overworked and he was fatigued. The businessmen were taking advantage of his helplessness. When the worker, Jackson, asks for a compensation because he lost his job and only source of bread and butter, leaving him to fend for his wife and kids, he is ridiculed. Even the lawyers are afraid to fight his case, not wanting to lose their profession or reputation by fighting for a hopeless cause. The lawyers also know that the big businesses have already hired prominent lawyers that were the best in the business. London includes this story in the book to portray the cruel and ruthless attitude that the big businesses had towards its workers. It also shows that in such societies, money can buy even the most extreme items, such as justice.
Oligarchy is a form of government in which a small group has control over the country. The sanction tends to take over and gain almost to complete power and authority over the people. The oligarchy is usually comprised of people of the upper class. In the novel, an oligarchy rises to power, further widening the gap between the classes and unknowingly bringing the economy down. Although the working class makes up a much larger percentage of the population, it cannot easily defeat the oligarchy. This can be seen in the many failed revolts by socialists in history, including Ernest and Avery Everhard, the protagonists of the book that are revolutionary socialist leaders. The Everhards recognized that society needed more socialists because without different views, the society would crumble due to the ever-increasing gap among the classes. James Gray Pope, a recent representative for labor unions at a law firm, shed more light on this gap. Pope writes about the growing gap between the rich and the poor that is getting wider in the US and says that it is the outcome of the nation’s lack of social views. One of the primary reasons why the working class cannot defeat the upper class is that they are not united. American workers have failed to build a class-wide movement for economic redistribution and social welfare protections. The working class is too divided into their own unions to be united. The unions are too focused on negotiating for the immediate self-interest and improvement of living for their members (Pope). Sanctions and oppressing leaders tend to rise when the lower classes are disorganized; they become an easier target for suppression. History has repeatedly shown that citizens begin to take collective action against the government when the government is no longer responding to their needs. History also shows that it is easier to achieve success in an idea when it has a great number of supporters. The big numbers intimidate the employers because the demands are coming from a strong power. Citizens also unite when they see corruption taking place in the government (Yap). By uniting against a common cause, it’s easier to get work done and needs met. Whereas being disorganized makes one an easier victim as unjust attitudes are directed towards them.
When a need for justice, better wages, reasonable hours, and safer working conditions arises, labor unions form so that the workers can state their needs and negotiate them as a group. Being a union worker comes with many benefits. This can include having an organization that will represent a worker if they are being mistreated. The union also has the power to negotiate by acting as a mediator between the employer and the rest of the employees. However, labor unions can also be dangerous. Labor activism is often punishable by death and leaders are imprisoned by governments who view unions as a threat to the social and economic elite (Bacon). In The Iron Heel, Ernest is first reprimanded for his views by the philosophers and the owners of the corrupt businesses, before being killed. They were all threatened by his ideas and views, fearing that they will instigate the other workers and members of labor unions against them, knowing it will become impossible to control the mass amounts of revolutionaries. Union members are constantly seen as a threat to the upper class, especially corrupt big businesses and capitalists. A member of The Socialist Party himself, Jack London strongly opposed the capitalist system. The party made the following statement in 1912:The Socialist party declares that the capitalist system has outgrown its historical function, and has become utterly incapable of meeting the problems now confronting society. We denounce this outgrown system as incompetent and corrupt and the source of unspeakable misery and suffering to the whole working class (Platform of the Socialist Party).The Socialist Party wished for social reform to overtake the capitalist system. They recognized that the capitalist system was corrupt, thus, jeopardizing the rights of the working class. Incidents such as these dismantle the working class in all aspects. The Socialist Party believed that the capitalist concentration was mercilessly crushing the class of small businessmen. London writes, “They, as a class, believed that they alone maintained civilization.” (London 128). The capitalists saw themselves as the supreme class, the class that owned not just the workers, but also the revolutionists that arose from the class. They were under the illusion that without them humanity would drop and anarchy would reign.
Jack London was able to accurately hypothesize the dangers unions would face in the modern world, as it can be seen in Colombia’s history. Trade unions in Colombia were one of the most predominant in Latin America until the late 20th century. In the 1980s, many trade union members and leaders were assassinated and targeted, making Colombia the most dangerous country for unionist members for several decades. Thousands were killed and as result only 4% of workers were part of a union by 2009. This percentage had dropped from 1988 from an estimated 12%. The majority of the of the murders were committed by parliamentarians or the Colombian military (Bacon). In the book, Ernest Everhard is one of the leaders of the revolution and a representative for the workers, who is later executed for his views against the oligarchy. Initially, Everhard had a prominent group of supporters but as Everhard was killed alongside others, the number of revolutionaries dropped drastically.
London describes a government that imprisons outspoken opponents and critics, controls news and information. The capitalist class, though few in numbers, absolutely controls the government — legislative, executive and judicial (Platform of the Socialist Party). Similarly, many countries today have complete control over their citizens. China, for example, is a communist country that shares many traits with the oligarchy shown in the novel. China’s government uses the law to suppress anyone that challenges the communist party’s right to rule, directly or indirectly. In July 2015, nearly 300 civil lawyers, support staff, and activists were arrested and tortured. Yet whenever the Communist Party of China is accused of torturing the activists, it rejects all allegations by declaring it as fake news (“China is Torturing Civil-Rights Lawyer”s).This gives the citizens the illusion that the government is correct, unjustly controlling their views without them knowing. Many families of these activists were threatened as well just as Avis Everhard is later executed for preparing for the Second Revolt, just as her husband has helped with the First Revolt. Those that had close ties to Ernest were threatened and those that shared his views were killed.
China also controls and censors the media under their ruler President Xi Jinping. Professor Zhan Jiang, a Chinese media specialist, has described the current situation in China as “the worst time for media and Internet freedom since the start of the new century (Dimitrov).” In China, the Central Propaganda Department looks at censorship issues at a macro level, following the trends in society. They censor and monitor national-level media. In contrast, local level propaganda departments are in charge of censoring and monitoring sources of information that are deemed as non-classified sources, including advertising (Dimitrov 124). The Chinese government asserts that it has the legal right to be able to control the internet’s content and that their censorship does not take away from the citizen’s rights to freedom of speech. The government maintains censorship over all media that reaches a wide audience. This includes television, texting, film, print media, video games, literature and the Internet. Freedom House ranks China’s press as not free, giving it the worst ranking (“Freedom in the World 2017”). The absence of freedom leads to oppression.
When an oligarchy comes into power, many people start to feel oppressed. Many times the citizens begin to come together in groups and plan conspiracies against the the oppressive oligarchy. Soon they start to publicize their ideas through writing and speeches, taking advantage of what little freedom of press and speech that they have. That is when the elite and oligarchy start to feel endangered by the groups and the ideas that they put out into the public. In The Iron Heel, Ernest writes books that are looked down upon and later banned, speaks in speeches that are later criticized, and organizes a revolution, The First Revolt, that ultimately fails. In many countries there is a trend that can be seen: freedom of the press and oppression of journalists. Freedom of press is identified as a basic human right that includes the freedom of speech, assembly, thought and expression. It is a privilege because without it the citizens and society will be oblivious as to what is happening in the world they live in. Attacks and aggression can be seen towards the press as well as the journalists that put their life and career at stake in order to tell the citizens the truth. This can be seen in the increasing number of journalists that are losing their lives. Since 2008, 456 journalists have been forced into exile and 232 journalists were in jail in 2012 (Davidson). In most cases, government officials and the upper class are responsible for the jailing and torturing of the journalists because of the constant threat of getting exposed due to their misdeeds. Certain governments orchestrate the media as a pawns to make themselves seem righteous to the general public. They want them to stop writing critically about them and regime, often times threatening them.
Jack London was able to accurately predict a world that soon started to form a couple of years after his death. He was able to capture the essence of oligarchies and how they, unintentionally, create labor unions that they later oppress. As a member of The Socialist Party, Jack London was able to express his views through the two main writers of the Everhard manuscript, Avery Everhard herself and the man that annotated it a couple hundred years after Avery hid it. When writing this book not only was Jack London greatly influenced by the events taking place around him but Karl Marx as well. Alongside being known as the “Boy Socialist”, London was also known as the “American Karl Marx” because his views and opinions aligned very well with those of Karl Marx. Overall, London was able to defend the union workers in this novel by exposing the oppression they face and the aggression that journalists face when trying to reveal the truth.
Annotated Works Cited
Bacon, David. “U.S. Fuels Colombia’s Dirty War against Unions.” Canadian Dimension, vol. 33, no. 5, Sep/Oct2001, p. 27. EBSCOhost. I was able to use this source to connect the brutality that unions faced in Colombia to the brutality the unions faced in the book.
“China is torturing civil-rights lawyers” The Economist 15 June 2017: www.economist.com. Web. 30 June 2017. I used this source to portray how the members of revolutionaries are treated.
Davidson, Greg. “Freedom of Press Must Be Protected.” Editor & Publisher, vol. 150, no. 8, Aug. 2017, p. 6. EBSCOhost. I was able to use this source to discuss the oppression that the press faces even though they are supposed to have free will.
Dimitrov, Martin K. “The Political Logic of Media Control in China.” Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 64, no. 3/4, May-Aug2017, pp. 121-127. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10758216.2017.1318346. I was able to use this source to write about the censorship in China and how it was similar to the censorship used in the book.
“Freedom in the World 2017.” Freedom House, freedomhouse.org/report/ freedom-world/2017/china. Accessed 21 Nov. 2017. I used this source to show how little freedom China has statistically.
Gouldner, Alvin Ward. Against Fragmentation : the Origins of Marxism and the Sociology of Intellectuals. Oxford University Press, 1985. EBSCOhost. I will use this source to discuss Karl Marx, the man that influenced Jack London to write this book. I will also be comparing his views to those of Jack London.
Johnstone, Diana. “The Western Left and the Russian Revolution.” Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, vol. 69, no. 3, Jul/Aug2017, p. 77. EBSCOhost, doi:10.14452/MR-069-03-2017-07_6 I was able to use this source to gather information on the Russian Revolution that is known to have inspired Jack London to write this book.
London, Jack. The Iron Heel. United States, London Press, 2017. I will use this novel for the basis of my paper and quotes to use as examples for Jack London’s view on labor unions and socialists.
“Platform of the Socialist Party.” Platform of the Socialist Party, 8/1/2017, p. 1. EBSCOhost. I was able to use this source to obtain a party slogan essential to my argument.
Pope, James Gray. “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? Law and the Racial Divide in the American Working Class, 1676-1964.” Texas Law Review, vol. 94, no. 7, June 2016, pp. 1555-1590. EBSCOhost. I was able to use this source to discuss the divisions present in the working class.
Yap, O. Fiona. “When Do Citizens Take Costly Action against Government Corruption? Evidence from Experiments in Australia, Singapore, and the United States.” Journal of East Asian Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, Mar. 2017, pp. 119-136. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1017/jea.2017.1. I was able to use this source to enhance my argument on when the citizens find it necessary to unite against the government.