Typically, a dystopian novel describes a perfectly ordered society of the future. The Iron Heel (1908) is considered dystopian, but its author, Jack London, seems to have been concerned more than anything with the problems of his time. In the book, the true dystopia--complete control by the oligarchical Iron Heel--is still a thing of the future. Instead, The Iron Heel is mostly about the then-present, the recent past, and the very near future. (1) More nearly a political tract with some muckraking journalism thrown in, London's novel does not in fact fall easily into the category of dystopia. There is still opposition and violent resistance to the prevailing power. Rather than perfect order, there is still a distinctly un-dystopian disorder. The reader is left to wonder: Just what would an oligarchical dystopia look like? Is such a thing possible?
When The Iron Heel by Jack London was published, a future society in which wealthy capitalists band together to form an overarching Oligarchy or Plutocracy may have seemed plausible. Although the Progressive Era had begun, many of its reforms still lay in the future. Holdovers from the Gilded Age must have seemed at the time to have the upper hand. Time has shown, however, that the dystopian threat issues not from the capitalist boogeyman but from the ideological Statist or Leftist. In fact, many so-called Progressive ideals or programs--efficiency and scientific management; standardization and centralization; technocracy or reign by experts; the conversion of history, sociology, psychology, etc., to so-called social sciences; an emphasis on equality and democracy (in other words an emphasis on the masses vs. the individual); eugenics and forced sterilization; the intrusion of moralism, for example Prohibition, into politics--help form the foundation of the dystopian or totalitarian society. I am reminded here of a quote from C.S. Lewis:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. (2)
I have seen this quote in a book called What Liberals Believe: Thousands of Quotes on Why America Needs to be Rescued from Greedy Corporations, Homophobes, Racists, Imperialists, Xenophobes, and Religious Extremists edited by William Martin (2008). People who call themselves liberal--today's heirs to the Progressive Era--would like to think Lewis' quote to be one of their own. It clearly isn't. The irony is lost on them.
To be continued . . .
(1) Most of the action in the book takes place in the years 1912 to 1917 or so. The fictional footnotes are appended in the far future, after the Iron Heel has been overthrown and replaced with a socialist utopia. In short, we see the Iron Heel at its beginnings and look back upon it after its end, but we don't see it very well at the height of its power.
(2) From God in the Dock, a reprinting of essays originally published, I believe, in 1948. The title and publication history of the essays or book are not clear to me.
Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley