I came to The Iron Heel from a list of “Dystopian Fiction” I found on the interweb, a list also including such classics as 1984 and A Handmaiden’s Tale. It was interesting then to later discover that The Iron Heel is cited as an influence on Orwell, because the similarity in the authoritarian nations that emerge in London’s alternate-history USA and the industrialised world of Oceania is obvious, despite the two authorities being respectively Fascist and Communist.
The similarity in the nature of the authoritarianism depicted by London and Orwell reinforces for me the ease with which any imaginer can foresee their own system of government slipping into a future distinguished most strongly by control, with the machinery of this control only differentiated by favoured contemporary political philosophies. The potential to garner authority (and its exercise by an oligarchy or plutocracy) imagined by these authors is also exhibited the recently-read Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things (1987).
Of course, it is nothing new to claim that all dystopia are marked by authority-masquerading-as-utopia. What is interesting to me is the manner in which dystopia is so readily imagined to emerge as a consequence of contemporary events, and the suggestion that the here and now may, by virtue of being the opposite of that dreaded future, in fact be the utopia we have long sought. This is especially the case when reading other contemporary fiction such as Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003, which I’m currently in the middle of) and by Marcel Theroux, Far North (2009), where the marvels of the C20th and early C21st are remembered as halcyon days.
The placement of utopia in the here and now, instead of placing it as a future to serve in contrast to a dystopia we need fear, a heaven and hell, is an idea in which I have become increasingly interested. In a manner of speaking, we do currently live in London’s “wonder-city of Asgard”, and our capitalists do operate an oligarchy in which a great many wonders are possible. It was strange therefore to be reading The Iron Heel as the Occupy Movement began to unfold across the US, and to see the authorities in Oakland begin to come down on protest. Part of me wondered if what London calls ‘standing on faces’ might not have continued and expanded had there been a different President in the White House.
While The Iron Heel degrades into a fantasy of class-, or caste-based warfare, the initial exposition of the failures of capitalism are very interesting, presenting as they do a critique of an economy in which monopoly and resource exploitation are rife, and in which competition to smother smaller players is both necessary and acceptable. While reading of absorption of the petite bourgeoisie by the corporations I was easily able to see the expansion of the mega-malls across the US, and the migration of the small-business-owner into minimum-wage jobs, and in the transformation of farmers to serfs I was reminded of the growth of gigantic monoculture industrial farming.
So does this mean that I think the US is slipping into authoritarianism, with London writing a vague script to a gathering revolution? No more than I think 1984 is likely. As it is The Iron Heel sits alongside the great dystopian works as a reminder of the paths on which no rational humanist would want to find themself. Moreover, what The Iron Heel and 1984 have in common is an imagined world in which resource-exploitation continues to be feasible. If you contrast those worlds to more recent works such as the aforementioned Oryx and Crake, Far North, or even Bruce Sterling The Caryatids (2009), all of which feature the collapse of the nation-state system under stress from resource shortages and environmental change, things start to get a little more real.