It’s a novel by Jack London. I’m told London had tremendously reactionary ideas on race and gender. The latter might be present in the book, though he doesn’t seem much different from what I’d expect of a guy from his era. The book is good. The early parts of the book are didactic, which I don’t mind but I can see how it’s a literary fault.

The Iron Heel is also the name for the despotic state that arises in the novel. I’ve read that the term later got taken up as a description of trusts and oligarchies in the world, but I haven’t found examples of that. One of the things that’s interesting the book is the relationship it has to progressivist doctrine, particularly within Marxism. One of the books protagonists, Everhard, repeatedly talks about the inevitability of social evolution from competition to cooperation, and its irreversibility. At the same time, the book comments on the growth of the Iron Heel (which stay in power for hundreds of years) as not being a historical advance and as occuring outside of the stream of advancing history – in an eddy, so to speak. That troubles the view of progressivism, then, since advance isn’t inevitable – stasis can result – and the forward motion of time can result in ‘backward’ social motion.

The book’s also interesting stylistically. The conceit is that it’s an unfinished manuscript that was discovered several hundred years after its writing and future historians have added footnotes and a brief introduction. The manuscrips was written by one character, Avis, detailing the life of another character, Ernest, and their lives together. The footnotes question the narrator on occasion or people she quotes, sometimes on trivial details (“this event occurred in June, not in July”). The novel ends with the ‘manuscript’ breaking off mid-sentence and a footnote speculating on why this is so.

Gender in the novel is something I’d like to come back to eventually. There’s discussion of male workers supporting families and how this limits (or rather, in the face of this, they limit) their freedom to act against their employer. Parts of this are highly problematic, but it makes gender and family an object for discussion in relation to waged work, which is valuable.

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