The Iron Heel

Suburbia and the Dual City in The Iron Heel

Mention Jack London and most of us think about adventures stories with large-than-life figures contending with the forces of nature. We all remember Buck, the Saint Bernard who is forced to confront the wilderness of the Far North in The Call of the Wild. We may think about White Fang, the wolf from the Yukon, or the human “sea-wolf” Wolf Larsen, captain of the seal-hunting ship Ghost.

Poke further into London’s massive output, however, and we find him anticipating something that looks a lot like the twenty-first century American city—perhaps even the American city California style, appropriate for the imagination of a native Californian.

The book is The Iron Heel, a painfully unreadable novel about the rise of American fascism. Published in 1908, it takes the form of a memoir/history written by eye-witness Avis Everhard, composed after the political disasters of the early twentieth century and rediscovered hundreds of years into the future. London’s dystopian story of his near future recounts how corporate capitalism seizes control of the state and presses its “Iron Heel” upon the working class. Much of the book is clunky set-piece dialogues in which labor leader Ernest Everhard (Avis’s husband) lectures the powerful about their iniquities and argues for socialist revolution, although it does end with a fast-paced description of the bloody suppression of the Chicago Commune after workers rise prematurely against the Oligarchy and are ground to dust.

What does London think that Chicago and other American cities will look like under corporate capitalism? The answer is abject poverty in the core and happily isolated suburbanites on the fringe.

The worker slaves, the people of the abyss, are confined to miserable lives in the “great ghetto” of old neighborhoods that compound the worst of lower Manhattan, East London, and immigrant Chicago. The workers live “like beasts in great squalid labour-ghettos, festering in misery and degradation.” Writing a decade before the large-scale migration of African Americans to northern cities, London was anticipating a white ghetto rather than a black ghetto, but the impacts of spatial confinement are the same.

If the surplus labor army is confined to big city ghettos, corporate prosperity now satisfies and buys off the more skilled workers. The book describes their new suburban communities in language that anticipates the great labor-management bargain of post-World War II America that created what historian Lizabeth Cohen has called the “consumer’s republic” and made possible the housing revolution that turned Ozzie and Harriet Nelson from traveling musicians to suburban householders.

Here is Jack London’s version, as channeled through Avis Everhard: “The members of the great labour castes were contented and worked on merrily. For the first time in their life they knew industrial peace. . . . They lived in more comfortable homes and in delightful cities of their own—delightful compared to the slums and ghettos in which they had formerly dwelt. They had better food to eat, less hours of labour, more holidays.”

The elite has also suburbanized in gated and protected communities. In the paroxysm of the Chicago Commune, the rebels can attack downtown office towers but “never once did they succeed in reaching the city of the oligarchs on the westside. The oligarchs had protected themselves well. No matter what destruction was wreaked in the heart of the city, they, and their womenkind and children, were to escape, unhurt. I am told [writes Avis Everhard] that their children played in the parks during those terrible days, and that their favorite game was an imitation of their elders stamping upon the proletariat.”

There are suburban new towns as well, the specialized homes of the Mercenaries, who are the enforcers when force is needed (a cross between a Praetorian guard and company goons). They live in “cities of their own which were practically self-governed, and they were granted many privileges.” Although there is luckily nothing quite like these towns today, there is an echo of both survivalist enclaves and politically independent suburbs that turn their cold shoulder to big city problems.

There will be, finally, two entirely new “wonder cities” built after the failure of proletarian revolution—Ardis, finished twenty years afterward in 1942, and Asgard, complete in 1984. These are throw-ins to the plot, so London doesn’t provide much detail, but with the timing, I’m envisioning the San Fernando Valley for Ardis and Las Vegas for Asgard—both wonder cities in my book.

A final point is London’s version of hegemony. Living in comfort, the oligarchy and their middle class minions accept the rightness of the bifurcated city. The oligarchy, “as a class, believed that they alone maintained civilization. . . . Without them anarchy would reign . . . . I cannot lay too great stress upon the high ethical righteousness of the whole oligarch class. This had been the strength of the Iron Heel.” So too, a critic might say, suburban Americans have internalized the premises that success justifies privilege and that suburban comfort is a natural manifestation of civilized order.

The Iron Heel is a political tract that is steeped in Jack London’s ardent socialism. It is not an exercise in urban theory, and the passages about the urban future are secondary to the plot. This said, their depiction of a horizontal metropolis is a homegrown vision. Contrast, for example, the sort of dual city that Fritz Lang (raised in Vienna and working in Berlin) imagined in Metropolis—vertically rather than horizontally divided. As a West Coast boy who already thought of Oakland and San Francisco as a single community. London anticipated a future metropolis with strikingly American characteristics.

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