The Economic Agendas of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors, Vol. 1 — Jack London

Note: I wanted to write a series of posts about the economic and political beliefs found in the science fiction and fantasy novels of China Meiville, Isaac Asimov, Terry Goodkind, Robert Heinlein, and a few others, but I found I was having a hard time doing it purely from memory. Unfortunately, most my books are back home in Atlanta, and Jack London was the only author outside of copyright protection and thus the only one whose works I could find online. So Jack London is first. For the rest, I’ll either settle for writing posts from memory, or wait until I’m back home for Thanksgiving to pick up the books. (Actually, Cory Doctorow will probably be next — thanks to the fact he’s happy to give up on restrictive copyright protections, his work is out there for free too.)

Jack London:

Although most famous for his Alaskan wilderness fiction, Jack London also wrote a fair collection of science fiction short stories and four scifi novels. I grew up on Call of the Wild and White Fang, and obsessed over his  short stories (it’s a good thing I didn’t end up naming my first dog Bâtard!), but it wasn’t until much later that I started paying attention to his non-wolfdog-based fiction.

And so I never realized as a kid that Jack London was very much a socialist. And not the fluffy kind, either. In his resignation from the socialist party, he wrote:

I am resigning from the Socialist Party, because of its lack of fire and fight, and its loss of emphasis upon the class struggle. I was originally a member of the old revolutionary up-on-its-hind legs, a fighting, Socialist Labor Party. Trained in the class struggle, as taught and practised by the Socialist Labor Party, my own highest judgment concurring, I believed that the working class, by fighting, by fusing, by never making terms with the enemy, could emancipate itself.

Since the whole trend of Socialism in the United States during recent years has been one of peaceableness and compromise, I find that my mind refuses further sanction of my remaining a party member. Hence, my resignation.

These views very much influenced his fiction. And although London is beyond a doubt one of my favorite authors of all time, my love for his stories is often tempered with uneasiness with the themes they are promoting.

Far less forgivable than his socialist views is his embracing of Social Darwinism and Rudyard Kipling-style racial paternalism.  (I’m being charitable here; at times, his racism was much more severe than that, and he was not opposed to eugenics.) His opinion of women was little better, and in London’s fiction, females are often very much fungible goods. If you lose one, just find another — or better yet, steal it. The number of instances of wife-stealing in his stories is staggering.  His tepid support for women’s rights was not based upon any belief in their equivalency to men, but rather as a way to bring about an end to alcohol. In John Barleycorn, the memoir opens with London announcing that he voted for women’s suffrage — not because he agrees particularly with the idea that women should vote,  but rather because “[w]hen the women get the ballot, they will vote for prohibition[.]”

But because discussing economics is more fun than detailing the moral failings of a historical figure I still have respect for, I’m going to ignore his social views and instead focus instead on two of his speculative fiction short stories with communist themes: Goliah and Strength of the Strong.

Goliah is one of the creepiest pieces of scifi communist propaganda I have ever read. The Strength of the Strong is much milder in comparison, a Marxist fairytale that explains the injustices of capitalism and great strength that lies in the collective class of the proletariat, if only they could see past the capitalist deceptions and band together.

Jack London had an extremely pessimistic view of human nature, and ultimately this contributed to his disillusionment with the socialist party. London lost faith in the ability of the working class to ever unite, and to use their collective strength to overthrow the capitalist society that fed off of their lives and labor—the proletariat were simply too petty, selfish, and easily deceived by the elite classes.  Socialist revolution could never be achieved by the collective action of the masses, because, on their own, they would never achieve working class solidarity.

Both Goliah and The Strength of the Strong show London’s pessimism about the ability of the proletariat revolution to come to pass. In The Strength of the Strong, he shows why a socialist revolution is necessary – and why it will never come to pass on its own. In Goliah, London tells of a socialist revolution accomplished not by a working class revolution but on the order of a single but powerful man. Once the revolution is accomplished, London delves into descriptions of the untold bounty that will be achieved once global socialism has been mandated from above.

The Strength of the Strong

The Strength of the Strong was one of the most popular pieces of London’s short fiction during his lifetime. In it, London uses cavemen to retell the Marxist accounting of history. The cavemen begin in a state of nature, but are forced to create society when they are attacked from outside. After creating a Law, they then establish a sort of primitive perfect democracy. However, after finding they were never able to search for food as they were always too busy arguing in the councils.

To resolve this, they then elect a chief. Life is good for a while, but when all the other cavemen move to join the tribe, scarcity sets in, and the strongest men lay claim to all the land — and hire others to farm it for them. Thus, feudalism is born.

Things only get worse once money is invented, however, and the strong men are able to enjoy receiving a greater percentage of the tribe’s GDP. Before, when everything was traded in fish, the strong men were limited in what they could seize — after all, if they receive 40 fish, they are only able to eat a few before the rest go bad. But once they invent  money, there is no longer a natural barrier to how much wealth they can accumulate, and begin to invent more and more ways to live off the labor of the working cavemen:

“So, also, did Little-Belly and Three-Legs and Pig-Jaw have other men to lie in the sun about their grass houses and carry messages for them and give commands. And more and more were men taken away from work, so that those that were left worked harder than ever before. It seemed that men desired to do no work and strove to seek out other ways whereby men should work for them. “

Although the industries and technologies created by the strong men  do result in the tribe gathering much more food than before, and in having the leisure to invent music , alcohol, and religion (all of which are used to further pacify the working classes), only the elite few benefit from the newfound wealth:

“But this was the strange thing: as the days went by we who were left worked harder and harder, and yet did we get less and less to eat.”

“But what of the goats and the corn and the fat roots and the fish-trap,” spoke up Afraid-of-the-Dark, “what of all this? Was there not more food to be gained by man’s work?”

“It is so,” Long-Beard agreed. “Three men on the fish-trap got more fish than the whole tribe before there was a fish-trap. But have not said we were fools? The more food we were able to get, the less food did we have to eat.”

“But was it not plain that the many men who did not work ate it all up?” Yellow-Head demanded.

Long-Beard nodded his head sadly. “Dog-Tooth’s dogs were stuffed with meat, and the men who lay in the sun and did no work were rolling in fat, and, at the same time, there were little children crying themselves to sleep with hunger biting them with every wail.”

Ultimately, thanks to monopolist producers who artificially decrease supply, the social order in the society is upended, as women — who are willing to work for cheap — replace the men.

“It was very strange. When Little-Belly caught too many fish, so that it took a great many to sell for a little money, he threw many of the fish back into the sea, so that more money would be paid for what was left. And Three-Legs often let many large fields lie idle so as to get more money for his corn. And the women, making so much money out of shell that much money was needed to buy with, Dog-Tooth stopped the making of money. And the women had no work, so they took the places of the men. I worked on the fish-trap, getting a string of money every five days. But my sister now did my work, getting a string of money for every ten days. The women worked cheaper, and there was less food, and Tiger-Face said for us to become guards. Only I could not become a guard because I was lame of one leg and Tiger-Face would not have me. And there were many like me. We were broken men and only fit to beg for work or to take care of the babies while the women worked.”

Alas, the socialist revolution never succeeds among the cavemen. Each time one of the tribe attempts to unite the workers to rise up against the capitalist parasites, the other workers — who have not yet obtained class consciousness — fall upon him, and destroy him. They mistakenly believe the call to overthrow the capitalist overclass is a call to return to a primitive live:

“[T]here was but one other man that dared rise up and speak his mind, and that man was Hair-Face. `Where is the strength of the strong?’ he asked. `We are the strong, all of us, and we are stronger than Dog-Tooth and Tiger-Face and Three-Legs and Pig-Jaw and all the rest who do nothing and eat much and weaken us by the hurt of their strength which is bad strength. …  Let us add our strength and [the strength of the working class of the neighboring tribes] together. Then will we be indeed strong. And then we will go out together… In that day we will be so strong that all the wild animals will flee before us and perish. And nothing will withstand us, for the strength of each man will be the strength of all men in the world.”

“So said Hair-Face, and they killed him, because, they said, he was a wild man and wanted to go back and live in a tree. It was very strange. Whenever a man arose and wanted to go forward all those that stood still said he went backward and should be killed. And the poor people helped stone him, and were fools. We were all fools, except those who were fat and did no work. The fools were called wise, and the wise were stoned. Men who worked did not get enough to eat, and the men who did not work ate too much.”

Goliah

Although a Marxist revolution remains elusive and forever out of reach in The Strength of the Strong, in Goliah, a communist utopia is successfully and near painlessly achieved, thanks to the help of science fiction technology and the abandonment of the working class-lead revolution.

If it were parody, Goliah would be clever satire– but it’s not. Instead, its bland acceptance of murder and slavery in pursuit of  the new world order is chilling, and the actual plot full of delusional wishful thinking.

The premise of Goliah is that a ship, the Energon, has appeared in San Francisco Bay. A man calling himself Goliah, on board the ship, announces the names of ten “captains of industry,” and insists if they do no board the ship by a certain date, they will die. They laugh it off as a joke — and are all found disintegrated in their sleep. Next, Goliah makes the same announcement, this time to ten politicians. Same result. After that, people begin to pay attention, and because everyone is terrified of Goliah’s ability to kill anyone at any time, Goliah’s will is obeyed.

Goliah decides not to wait for the ultimate uprising of the Proletarian Revolution, but instead takes charge himself and begins to command the dismantling of the capitalist superstructure. The working class may never rise up – but that will no longer be necessary, as Goliah can patiently and ruthlessly demonstrate to proletariat and capitalist alike why they must all enter into a global communist order.

“The incentive of material gain developed man from the savage to the semi-barbarian he is to-day. This incentive has been a useful device for the development of the human; but it has now fulfilled its function and is ready to be cast aside into the scrap-heap of rudimentary vestiges such as gills in the throat and belief in the divine right of kings. Of course you do not think so; but I do not see that that will prevent you from aiding me to fling the anachronism into the scrap-heap. For I tell you now that the time has come when mere food and shelter and similar sordid things shall be automatic, as free and easy and involuntary of access as the air. I shall make them automatic, what of my discovery and the power that discovery gives me. And with food and shelter automatic, the incentive of material gain passes away from the world forever. With food and shelter automatic, the higher incentives will universally obtain — the spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual incentives that will tend to develop and make beautiful and noble body, mind, and spirit. Then all the world will be dominated by happiness and laughter. It will be the reign of universal laughter.”

After ending child and female labor, Goliah orders the nationalization of industry:

“But we cannot make profits!” wailed the petty capitalists. “Fools!” was the retort of Goliah. “As if the meaning of life were profits. Give up your businesses and your profit-mongering.” “But there is nobody to buy our businesses!” they wailed. “Buy and sell – is that all the meaning life has for you?” replied Goliah. “You have nothing to sell. Turn over your little cut-throating, anarchistic businesses to the Government so that they may be rationally organised and operated.” And the next day, by decree, the Government began taking possession of all factories, shops, mines, ships, railroads, and producing lands.

In Goliah’s world, “going Galt” is apparently not an available option:

The captains of industry became heads of departments. It was found that civil engineers, for instance, worked just as well in government employ as, before, they had worked in private employ. It was found that men of high executive ability could not violate their nature. They couldn’t escape exercising their executive ability, any more than a crab could escape crawling or a bird could escape flying. And so it was that all the splendid force of the men who had previously worked for themselves was not put to work for the good of society. The half-dozen great railway chiefs co-operated in the organising of a national system of railways that was amazingly efficacious. Never again was there such as thing as a car shortage. These chiefs were not the Wall Street railway magnates, but they were the men who formerly had done the real work while in the employ of the Wall Street magnates.

The horrifying part of the story is the means by which Goliah’s communist utopia is achieved. To set up his base of opertions, he first must enslave thousand of workers to toil on his island. Then, to accomplish his global social agenda, he uses extortion and casual murder.

And yet Goliah becomes beloved by all the world, for ushering them into a golden age. He becomes a dottering grandfather figure.  Never once does anyone display any sort of revulsion at the means by which his aims were achieved.

Goliah (and London) very much accept the moral rightness of murder in the name of establishing global communism. Responding to criticism of his methods, Goliah says,

“Do not misunderstand me, when I tell you that I am one with a theory. I want to see that theory work, and therefore I call upon your cooperation. In this theory of mine, lives are but pawns; I deal with quantities of lives. I am after laughter, and those that stand in the way of laughter must perish. The game is big. There are fifteen hundred million human lives to-day on the planet. What is your single life against them ? It is as naught, in my theory. ” …

“What are a few paltry lives ? In your insane wars you destroy millions of lives and think nothing of it. In your fratricidal commercial struggle you kill countless babes, women, and men, and you triumphantly call the shambles ‘individualism.’ I call it anarchy. I am going to put a stop to your wholesale destruction of human beings. I want laughter, not slaughter. Those of you who stand in the way of laughter will get slaughter.

The world wide communist utopia that ultimately emerges is described as being as close to perfection as human society can get. Among the benefits enjoyed by mankind as a result of Goliah’s benevolent dictatorship, there is: a three hour work day, the end of warfare, a global brotherhood of mankind, a retirement age of 48, and the  disappearance of human dissatisfaction. In the new world order, Wall Street  stock traders and trust fund babies are taught the virtues of honest labor (well, for at least three hours a day), and all household chores are performed by machines.

Even  better, it turns out once you do away with private property, you also do away with all the criminals and lawyers:

“Ninety per cent. of the crimes against society had been crimes against private property. With the passing of private property, at least in the means of production, and with the organisation of industry that gave every man a chance, the crimes against private property practically ceased. The police forces everywhere were reduced repeatedly and again and again. Nearly all occasional and habitual criminals ceased voluntarily from their depredations. There was no longer any need for them to commit crime. … And the courts in all the countries were likewise decreased in number again and again. Ninety-five per cent. of all civil cases had been squabbles over property, conflicts of property-rights, lawsuits, contests of wills, breaches of contract, bankruptcies, etc. With the passing of private property, this ninety-five per cent. of the cases that cluttered the courts also passed. The courts became shadows, attenuated ghosts, rudimentary vestiges of the anarchistic times that had preceded the coming of Goliah.

In all, Jack London’s socialism, at least in Goliah, seems too fantastically naïve to be taken seriously. London’s just too enamored with the idea that humans do not need incentives to act, and that once basic material needs are provided for as a matter of right, mankind will no longer compete over any other sort of resources. In London’s world, government agencies are as efficient as the most streamlined corporation, racial strife is only  an artifact of private property, and humans only compare about absolute worth, not relative standing.

And ultimately that’s why Goliah is unsatisfying as a work of science fiction. Scifi just doesn’t operate like that – in scifi, you only get to completely make up the external world your characters encounter, you don’t get to make up the internal nature of humanity, too. Scifi explores how society-as-we-know-it might react and adapt in the face with radical technological innovations. Goliah’s invention of energon – a never ending source of energy derived from cosmic rays – is as equally implausible as Goliah’s conception of human nature, but you can make up completely impossible technology and still have a good story. But by also making the humans in Goliah totally unrecognizable, London’s story moves beyond the realm of scifi to something akin to a religious screed.

An additional note: Yes, this post was way too long. No, I do not expect anyone to have actually read through it all; it was mostly written for the purpose of organizing my own thoughts. And yes, for the love of god, somebody needs to hire me already before I waste any more time pretending to be an English major.

-Susan

See also: Vol. 2, Terry Goodkind, & Vol. 3, J.R.R. Tolkien.

2 thoughts on “The Economic Agendas of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors, Vol. 1 — Jack London

  1. Pingback: The Economic Agendas of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors, Vol. 3: The Economic Apathy of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Anarchic Anti-Industrialist « The View From LL2

  2. Pingback: The Economic Agendas of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors, Vol. 2 — Terry Goodkind « The View From LL2

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