Occupy Oakland & Mercenaries of the Oligarchy: The 99% vs. The Iron Heel
“We are in power. Nobody will deny it. By virtue of that power we shall remain in power…We have no words to waste on you. When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purpled 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 world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain. As for the host of labor, it has been in the dirt since history began, and I read history aright. And in the dirt it shall remain so long as I and mine and those that come after us have the power. There is the word. It is the king of words–Power. Not God, not Mammon, but Power. Pour it over your tongue till it tingles with it. Power.”
- Mr. Wickson, The Iron Heel by Jack London (1908), chapter 4
Jack London didn’t just write tales of the Klondike Gold Rush and canine adventure stories. Sometimes he foretold the future. The above quote, written over a century ago and spoken by an aristocratic one-percenter in response to the rising tide of anti-plutocratic sentiment among the working class, is taken from London’s dystopic novel, The Iron Heel.
The novel depicts a society of unregulated and unrestrained capitalism; a society of the impoverished and disenfranchised, the unemployed and the unrepresented, at the mercy of a tiny but ruthlessly aggressive corporate elite that controls the government. London describes the perception of “the great mass of the people [who] still persisted in the belief that they ruled the country by virtue of their ballots,” when “[i]n reality, the country was ruled by what were called political machines. At first the machine bosses charged the master capitalists extortionate tolls for legislation; but in a short time the master capitalists found it cheaper to own the political machines themselves and to hire the machine bosses.”
Furthermore, London delves into the deluded arrogance of the wealthy, stock-holding plutocrats, explaining, “They believed absolutely that their conduct was right. There was no question about it, no discussion. They were convinced that they were the saviours of society, and that it was they who made happiness for the many. And they drew pathetic pictures of what would be the sufferings of the working class were it not for the employment that they, and they alone, by their wisdom, provided for it.” He defines a political lobby as “a peculiar institution for bribing, bulldozing, and corrupting the legislators who were supposed to represent the people’s interests.”
Journalists are excoriated for their willingness, for fear of losing their jobs, “to twist truth at the command of [their] employers, who, in turn, obey the behests of the corporations.” At one point, the “press in the United States” is described as “a parasitic growth that battens on the capitalist class. Its function is to serve the established by moulding public opinion, and right well it serves it.”
The revolutionary hero of the book, Ernest Everhard, at one point addresses an exclusive gathering of the local aristocracy known as The Philomath Club, consisting of “the wealthiest in the community, and the strongest-minded of the wealthy, with, of course, a sprinkling of scholars to give it intellectual tone.” Everhard tells the crowd,
“No other conclusion is possible than that the capitalist class has mismanaged, that you have mismanaged, my masters, that you have criminally and selfishly mismanaged…You have failed in your management. You have made a shambles of civilization. You have been blind and greedy.”
The Iron Heel preceded Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here by about two and a half decades and George Orwell’s 1984 by over 40 years. It anticipated the rise of totalitarianism in Europe over a decade before Mussolini’s Blackshirts marched on Rome. In his Introduction to the 1980 edition of the book, Rutgers professor H. Bruce Franklin explains that London essentially defined Fascism before it even officially existed as “the form that the capitalist state assumes when the oligarchy feels that its economic and political power is seriously threatened by working class revolution.”
Franklin proceeds to catalogue the brutal and authoritarian actions and abuses of The Iron Heel‘s ruling elite as envisioned by its prophetic author:
London foresees: the creation of attractive suburbs for the relatively privileged strata of the working class while the central cities are turned into what he calls “ghettoes” for the masses of unemployed and menial laborers, shoved into the darkest depths of human misery; the deliberate economic subversion of public education in order to spread illiteracy and ignorance; adequate food, health care, and housing priced above the reach of more and more people; the ubiquitous secret police infiltrating all organizations opposing the government; the establishment of a permanent mercenary army; the government conspiring in real and phony bomb plots, in the suppression of books and the destruction of printing presses, in witch hunts aimed at dissident labor leaders, professors, and authors, in destroying the reputations of some of its opponents, imprisoning many others and murdering the few it finds too formidable; spontaneous mass rebellions of the downtrodden people of the central cities; urban guerrillas battling the government’s army of mercenaries and police in the canyons of the cities.
Clearly, from historic income inequality and over 15% of Americans living in poverty (that’s 46.2 million people) to massive budget cuts for public education to FBI infiltration of peace groups to the ever-expanding surveillance state to the stifling of free speech to spooky terrorist plots allegedly thwarted by the very agencies that planned and funded them in the first place, Jack London was on to something. To say the least. The Occupy Wall Street movement around the globe is a testament to our new reality, as presaged by one of our renowned writers.
The Iron Heel is set primarily in California’s Bay Area, London’s home turf. Yesterday morning, Tuesday October 25, 2012, the non-violent, anti-corporatist protesters occupying two parks in Oakland met their own city’s iron heel, jackboots in full riot-gear.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, “Under cover of darkness early Tuesday, hundreds of police swept into Oakland’s Occupy Wall Street protest, firing tear gas and beanbag rounds before clearing out an encampment that demonstrators had hoped would stir a revolution,” continuing, “Officers and sheriff’s deputies from across the San Francisco Bay area surrounded the plaza in front of City Hall at around 5 a.m. and closed in. Eighty-five people were arrested, mostly on suspicion of misdemeanor unlawful assembly and illegal camping, police said.” Reflecting on the raid and arrests which were carried out at the behest of Oakland mayor Jean Quan, interim Police Chief Howard Jordan said, “I’m very pleased with the way things went.”
In response, thousands of protesters gathered later that same day and faced down a phalanx of Oakland’s Finest Fascist, who responded by repeatedly attacking the crowd with more tear gas, batons, rubber bullets, beanbags, concussion grenades, flashbombs, and sound cannons. At one point, Oakland authorities, claiming the protest was “an unlawful assembly,” issued this threat: “If you refuse to move now, you will be arrested. If you refuse to move now, chemical agents will be used” (see here) and later warned those peacefully standing their ground, “If you have respiratory problems now is the time to leave.” They weren’t kidding.
Despite protester’s solidarity appeals advancing riot police that “You are the 99%,” Oakland forces carried out the bidding of the government on behalf of its Wall Street donors. Just as the NYPD, which last year accepted a massive $4.6 million donation from J.P. Morgan Chase via the New York City Police Foundation, the OPD has demonstrated its willingness to become the private army of the wealthy, abrogating free speech, freedom of assembly, and civil rights in order to crack down on peaceful protests against an unfair system. As London wrote, “hired fighting men of the capitalists…ultimately developed into the Mercenaries of the Oligarchy.”
Meanwhile, as gas clouds wafted through the Oakland air, just across the bay in San Francisco, President Barack Obama was at a reelection fundraiser at the W Hotel for which guests shelled out at least $5,000 to attend. It was the latest stop on one of the president’s “busiest donor outreach trips of the season.” Last week, the Washington Post reported that “despite frosty relations with the titans of Wall Street, President Obama has still managed to raise far more money this year from the financial and banking sector than Mitt Romney or any other Republican presidential candidate.”
It remains to be seen whether Obama addresses the police brutality and stifling of dissent that occurred just a few miles from where he dined with his donors, especially in light of what he had to say about the post-election protests and police response in Iran in mid-2009: “We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.” Earlier this year, Obama recalled what he termed the “peaceful protests…in the streets of Tehran, where the government brutalized women and men, and threw innocent people into jail.”
In the speech he delivered upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Obama noted his apparent belief that “peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely” or “assemble without fear.” He affirmed his support of “the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran,” continuing, “It is telling that the leaders of these governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation. And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear to these movements that hope and history are on their side.”
Just last month, in front of the United Nations General Assembly, the president stated, “The Syrian people have shown dignity and courage in their pursuit of justice — protesting peacefully, standing silently in the streets, dying for the same values that this institution is supposed to stand for. And the question for us is clear: Will we stand with the Syrian people, or with their oppressors?”
One can only wonder if Obama will heed the words he spoke at the UN in September 2009, when he told world leaders, “The test of our leadership will not be the degree to which we feed the fears and old hatreds of our people. True leadership will not be measured by the ability to muzzle dissent, or to intimidate and harass political opponents at home. The people of the world want change. They will not long tolerate those who are on the wrong side of history.”
Will the president remember what he said at the same podium a year later? “The arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble and by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change and by free media that held the powerful accountable,” he declared.
Replying to Mr. Wickson’s threats of violence and repression in order to maintain the Oligarchy’s stranglehold on society, Ernest Everhard, noble protagonist of The Iron Heel, declares:
“We know, and well we know by bitter experience, that no appeal for the right, for justice, for humanity, can ever touch you. Your hearts are hard as your heels with which you tread upon the faces of the poor. So we have preached power. By the power of our ballots on election day will we take your government away from you.”
With the Occupy movement growing stronger, more determined, fearless and united with every tear gas canister launched and each protester beaten, pepper sprayed, and arrested, it is surely a movement that can no longer be silenced or suppressed.
As Ernest’s wife, fellow revolutionary, and narrator of The Iron Heel, Avis Cunningham Everhard asserts:
“The solidarity of labor is assured, and for the first time will there be an international revolution wide as the world is wide.”
UPDATE: On October 26, Bloomberg News reported on a dazzlingly self-unaware and absurd statement made by Bank of America Corp. Chief Executive Officer Brian T. Moynihan last week at “a global town hall meeting” with the bank’s employees.
“I, like you, get a little incensed when you think about how much good all of you do, whether it’s volunteer hours, charitable giving we do, serving clients and customers well,” Moynihan told the meeting, then addressing those protesting corporatocracy this way: “You ought to think a little about that before you start yelling at us.”
The ridiculous tone-deafness of Moynihan’s comments once again call attention to how prescient Jack London’s The Iron Heel was when published in 1908. When an inquiring young woman (the novel’s narrator Avis Everhard) asks two wealthy businessmen and primary stock-holders of an industrial mill about the company’s successful efforts to deny disability payments to an employee disfigured by heavy machinery, they dismiss her questions and instead sing their own praises. Avis describes their encounter (part of which was already quoted above) this way:
“I discovered that they had an ethic superior to that of the rest of society. It was what I may call the aristocratic ethic or the master ethic. They talked in large ways of policy, and they identified policy and right. And to me they talked in fatherly ways, patronizing my youth and inexperience. They were the most hopeless of all I had encountered in my quest. They believed absolutely that their conduct was right. There was no question about it, no discussion. They were convinced that they were the saviours of society, and that it was they who made happiness for the many. And they drew pathetic pictures of what would be the sufferings of the working class were it not for the employment that they, and they alone, by their wisdom, provided for it.”
London, in a footnote, also quotes British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill from On Liberty: “Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority.”
The patronizing sense of superiority oozing from Brian Moynihan’s statement couldn’t prove London and Mill more correct if they had written it themselves.
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