The Orris: A Cultural Journal

New Maps to American Hell: Dystopian Warnings Then and Now

It was a time of visions and miracles, while seers and prophetesses were legion”

– Jack London, The Iron Heel (1908)

Scrolling through an image search of the Occupy movement, my mind reels.  I’m half filled with optimism as I witness the potential for a great collective change that I believe is only at its beginning. Across race, gender, and age lines, people are coming together, united by the common struggle under capitalism. Occupy is an incredible moment of testimony; people across the globe are sharing their stories with one another.  We are becoming aware of global capital’s webs, its sinewy power mapped over each of our daily lives. Occupy is a hopeful movement of collective resistance. Though, we may not all agree on the tactics, we all have a common dream, for fairness, for equality.

 But there’s another part of me that is sunk with a real sense of dread and fear.   The tented Occupations were barely tolerated by the government bodies, and, in many cases, Occupy was met with police aggression and imprisonment.  There are the troubling, and now infamous, images of police pepper spraying crowds, the videos of rubber bullets and wailing batons, of blockades and military lines of riot gear.  These images are ones that international audiences in Russia, Burma, and the Middle East are well aware of, the familiar realities of an oppressive state.  But, for Americans, this feels violently new.  Our young country has not yet felt the dictator’s grip. But, how long will our still relatively naïve democracy survive the ubiquitous pressures of the corporate kings? How long will we be allowed to voice our discontent when our criticisms are against the financial powers that be?

We can no longer ignore how money and power collide in our systems of governance and industry.  The overlaps of capitalist and government enterprise seem too great to unweave as we increasingly learn how government powers are used in the service of corporate interests. Take the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill which makes possible the indefinite detention of Americans without trial if they are “engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.”   As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi writes about the NDAA, “If these laws are passed, we would be forced to rely upon the discretion of a demonstrably corrupt and consistently idiotic government to not use these awful powers to strike back at legitimate domestic unrest.”  How will “domestic unrest” be defined as Occupy gains momentum?   Could the same folks standing in our streets for economic justice and a fair chance be locked in Guantanamo Bay as terrorists to the state? There’s a tide turning in America as we begin to realize our collective state. We’ve joined this global wave of reform and resistance, but, what happens if we get caught in the violent undertow of repressive backlash? 

What I fear appears so vivid in front of me because I’ve seen it represented before. When we think of nightmarish repressive societies, we imagine the dystopian landscapes of 1984, A Brave New WorldFahrenheit 451 and A Clockwork Orange. Our fascination with these works is in their sometimes uncannily prophetic visions. These authors imagine a world of ‘what if.’ What if the NDAA was used to indefinitely detain Americans in the Occupy movement?  What if corporations hired out security task forces of police to stifle activism and public voice?  These very ‘what if’s’ have already been imagined in two American dystopian novels from the early 20th century.  Published in 1908 and 1935 respectively, Jack London’s The Iron Heel and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here are American dystopian novels that eerily depict our current political tensions and trends. Both Lewis and London foresaw the ruling class of rich oligarchs, the gradual stripping of American’s rights and freedoms, and the swelling tide of fascist-brand patriotism.

I read these novels over the summer.  Well, let me rephrase that. I read The Iron Heel in full, but I could only get through half of It Can’t Happen Here.  Not because of boredom or by any fault in Lewis’ writing; it’s a captivating novel. I had to stop because of the fear and anxiety that began to brew as I read. Lewis’ novel is the story of Doremus Jessup, a newspaper editor, persecuted for his views, as he witnesses the transformation of his country into a fascist and violent state. As I read, I saw fleeting resonances; a scene described here and there that felt familiar, like we find in the best writing. But, as the story turned dark and the threats to Jessup’s freedom were ever rising, I did not like the familiar feeling anymore.  I began to see my America represented too vividly. The dystopias that Lewis imagined seemed too close to our present reality.  And my anxiety continued to rise as I began to read present day news headlines through Lewis’ lens. Finally, for my own wellbeing, I had to put it back, half completed, on the shelf.

As I consider the brutal raids in New York, UC Davis and Oakland, as I read about the passage of NDAA, and worry about the future of digital free speech, I must return to these novels and share what I’ve read there. I am hopeful that this spring brings a new wave of global protest, and that we may all need to figure out our roles within these movements. Following are selections from The Iron Heel and It Can’t Happen Here, paired with images from 2011-2012 that I hope inspire you, not in fearful retreat, but in brave advance, so that Jack London and Sinclair Lewis’ nightmares indeed won’t happen here.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Alonso

“I was beginning to see through the appearances of the society in which I had always lived, and to find the frightful realities that were beneath”  – Jack London, The Iron Heel 

Photo Credit: Avi Saban

“They were taught, and later they in turn taught, that what they were doing was right. They assimilated the aristocratic idea from the moment they began, as children, to receive impressions of the world. The aristocratic idea was woven into the making of them until it became bone of them and flesh of them. They looked upon themselves as wild-animal trainers, rulers of beasts. From beneath their feet rose always the subterranean rumbles of revolt. Violent death ever stalked their midst; bomb and knife and bullet were looked upon as so many fangs of the roaring abysmal beast they must dominate if humanity were to persist” – Jack London, The Iron Heel 

Photo Credit: Avi Saban

“But you can’t break the machines,” Ernest replied. “You cannot make the tide of evolution flow backward. Opposed to you are two great forces, each of which is more powerful than you of the middle class. The large capitalists, the trusts, in short, will not let you turn back. They don’t want the machines destroyed. And greater than the trusts, and more powerful, is labor. It will not let you destroy the machines. The ownership of the world, along with the machines, lies between the trusts and labor. That is the battle alignment. Neither side wants the destruction of the machines. But each side wants to possess the machines. In this battle the middle class has no place. The middle class is a pygmy between two giants. Don’t you see, you poor perishing middle class, you are caught between the upper and nether millstones, and even now has the grinding begun.” –Jack London, The Iron Heel 

Photo Credit: Megan McCormick

“And through it all, with a serenity and certitude that was terrifying, continued to rise the form of that monster of the ages, the Oligarchy. With iron hand and iron heel it mastered the surging millions, out of confusion brought order, out of the very chaos wrought its own foundation and structure.” –Jack London, The Iron Heel

Photo Credit: David Shankbone

“Of course, Senator Windrip has to pretend publicly to bawl the banks out, but once he gets into power he’ll give the banks their proper influence in the administration and take our expert financial advice. Yes. Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word–just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours–not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini–like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days–and have ’em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. ‘Nother words, have a doctor who won’t take any back-chat, but really boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!”- Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

Photo Credit: Avi Saban

“Seventy thousand selected Minute Men, working in combination with town and state police officers, all under the chiefs of the government secret service, arrested every known or faintly suspected criminal in the country. They were tried under court-martial procedure; one in ten was shot immediately, four in ten were given prison sentences, three in ten released as innocent . . . and two in ten taken into the M.M.’s as inspectors.” -–Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

Photo Credit: David Shankbone

“It was not that he was afraid of the authorities. He simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure. It can’t happen here, said even Doremus–even now.” –Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

“Local M.M. officers had a splendid time making their own laws, and such congenital traitors and bellyachers as Jewish doctors, Jewish musicians, Negro journalists, socialistic college professors, young men who preferred reading or chemical research to manly service with the M.M.’s, women who complained when their men had been taken away by the M.M.’s and had disappeared, were increasingly beaten in the streets, or arrested on charges that would not have been very familiar to pre-Corpo jurists.” –Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

Photo Credit: Avi Saban

For the first time in America, except during the Civil War and the World War, people were afraid to say whatever came to their tongues. On the streets, on trains, at theaters, men looked about to see who might be listening before they dared so much as say there was a drought in the West” – Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

–Lana Cook


Both It Can’t Happen Here and The Iron Heel are available in full text online under the Australian public domain.


4 comments on “New Maps to American Hell: Dystopian Warnings Then and Now

  1. Genie
    April 3, 2012

    The Hunger Games ought to make a brief appearance here, as this seems to be one of the most significant dystopic events of the season. Not to mention all of the strangely coercive internet advertising that Lion’s Gate has been using to plug involvement with the film. Also I post about dystopia (in particular The Handmaid’s Tale) in my most recent blog post!

  2. The Orris
    April 4, 2012

    Genie, yes, you are very right. There’s a great resurgence in fantastic forms and themes in our culture today. The mass popularity of The Hunger Games is just one demonstration of that. The utopian / dystopian impulse is throughout the political rhetoric today, both used for activist movements like Occupy and by the far right’s apocalyptic outlook. I enjoyed your reading of The Handmaid’s Tale on your blog (which for those interested, can be found here:

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    October 5, 2012

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