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In An "Ownership Society", Love Is A Liability

Text for the moment is from Jack London's under-appreciated dystopian political thriller, The Iron Heel -- his narrator and heroine, sheltered young intellectual Avis Everhard, is trying to get to the bottom of a worker's injury claim:

"Why did you not call attention to the fact that Jackson was trying to save the machinery from being injured?" I asked Peter Donnelly, one of the foremen who had testified at the trial.

He pondered a long time before replying. Then he cast an anxious look about him and said:

"Because I've a good wife an' three of the sweetest children ye ever laid eyes on, that's why."

"I do not understand," I said.

"In other words, because it wouldn't a-ben healthy," he answered.

"You mean--" I began.

But he interrupted passionately.

"I mean what I said. It's long years I've worked in the mills. I began as a little lad on the spindles. I worked up ever since. It's by hard work I got to my present exalted position. I'm a foreman, if you please. An' I doubt me if there's a man in the mills that'd put out a hand to drag me from drownin'. I used to belong to the union. But I've stayed by the company through two strikes. They called me 'scab.' There's not a man among 'em today to take a drink with me if I asked him. D'ye see the scars on me head where I was struck with flying bricks? There ain't a child at the spindles but what would curse me name. Me only friend is the company. It's not me duty, but me bread an' butter an' the life of me children to stand by the mills. That's why."

"Was Jackson to blame?" I asked.

"He should a-got the damages. He was a good worker an' never made trouble."

"Then you were not at liberty to tell the whole truth, as you had sworn to do?"

He shook his head.

"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" I said solemnly.

Again his face became impassioned, and he lifted it, not to me, but to heaven.

"I'd let me soul an' body burn in everlastin' hell for them children of mine," was his answer.

Henry Dallas, the superintendent, was a vulpine-faced creature who regarded me insolently and refused to talk. Not a word could I get from him concerning the trial and his testimony. But with the other foreman I had better luck. James Smith was a hard-faced man, and my heart sank as I encountered him. He, too, gave me the impression that he was not a free agent, as we talked I began to see that he was mentally superior to the average of his kind. He agreed with Peter Donnelly that Jackson should have got damages, and he went farther and called the action heartless and cold-blooded that had turned the worker adrift after he had been made helpless by the accident. Also, he explained that there were many accidents in the mills, and that the company's policy was to fight to the bitter end all consequent damage suits.

"It means hundreds of thousands a year to the stockholders," he said; and as he spoke I remembered the last dividend that had been paid my father, and the pretty gown for me and the books for him that had been bought out of that dividend. I remembered Ernest's charge that my gown was stained with blood, and my flesh began to crawl underneath my garments.

"When you testified at the trial, you didn't point out that Jackson received his accident through trying to save the machinery from damage?" I said.

"No, I did not," was the answer, and his mouth set bitterly. "I testified to the effect that Jackson injured himself by neglect and carelessness, and that the company was not in any way to blame or liable."

"Was it carelessness?" I asked.

"Call it that, or anything you want to call it. The fact is, a man gets tired after he's been working for hours."

I was becoming interested in the man. He certainly was of a superior kind.

"You are better educated than most workingmen," I said.

"I went through high school," he replied. "I worked my way through doing janitor-work. I wanted to go through the university. But my father died, and I came to work in the mills.

"I wanted to become a naturalist," he explained shyly, as though confessing a weakness. "I love animals. But I came to work in the mills. When I was promoted to foreman I got married, then the family came, and . . . well, I wasn't my own boss any more."

"What do you mean by that?" I asked.

"I was explaining why I testified at the trial the way I did--why I followed instructions."

"Whose instructions?"

"Colonel Ingram. He outlined the evidence I was to give."

"And it lost Jackson's case for him."

He nodded, and the blood began to rise darkly in his face.

"And Jackson had a wife and two children dependent on him."

"I know," he said quietly, though his face was growing darker.

"Tell me," I went on, "was it easy to make yourself over from what you were, say in high school, to the man you must have become to do such a thing at the trial?"

The suddenness of his outburst startled and frightened me. He ripped* out a savage oath, and clenched his fist as though about to strike me.

"I beg your pardon," he said the next moment. "No, it was not easy. And now I guess you can go away. You've got all you wanted out of me. But let me tell you this before you go. It won't do you any good to repeat anything I've said. I'll deny it, and there are no witnesses. I'll deny every word of it; and if I have to, I'll do it under oath on the witness stand."

[full text at Gutenberg]


escoles, I read this excerpt, look at your blog title, and think to myself how â??Love Is A Liabilityâ? could take on variant meanings. The text depicts the liability of familial love and loyalty compromising ethical decisions. I wonder if these same men would answer any differently if they were single. Would an employee place his love of personal safety or love of job security in jeopardy by telling the truth?

For many, the die was cast once they stayed at the job, knowing the companyâ??s â??cold-bloodedâ? litigation policies, even before â??the family came.â? Family loyalty may have cemented the fear-driven slave attachment to the company master, but we donâ??t know in the end if these men's testimonies would have changed even if they were reclusive orphans with no family or friends to protect. And, this is not at all an indictment, but rather an observation of ethical challenges prevalent in this temporal existence. We canâ??t always easily change or escape thorny situations. We can just do our best, hope for improvement, and be aware of the consequences of our choices.

Now you've got me hooked and I'll have to find some time to read the whole book.

Yes, I think in the larger text, you're right -- there is an idea that you buy in through those first compromises. But that doesn't "damn" you -- Avis's dress is "stained with blood", but she goes on to become a heroine (and martyr) of the "First Revolt".

That said, there's a strong fatalist streak in the book. As I recall, it was published at about the same time that London broke with the Socialist Party over their lack of "fire in the belly." I've never figured out what he meant by that, by the way; if you're to judge his outlook from The Iron Heel, he didn't really think there was much hope of success through "direct action", and he makes his contempt for indirect action abundantly clear in the polemical passages. It's no spoiler to tell you that the revolt is a failure -- it's not a spoiler, because the book is presented as an annotated edition of an "ancient" text, from the distant future, and the Foreward clearly establishes that the revolt was a failure and the Oligarchs win.

I wonder if that may be one of the reasons people have had little respect for the book over the years; London displays a really strong grasp of economic theory, and especially Marxist theory of capital. That his "Oligarchs" are said to rule for a thousand years of outrageous prosperity could be seen as a strong critique of revolutionary Marxism. I think he sees himself as a realist, a pragmatist, and maybe that's what he means by his criticism of American socialism: Maybe he thinks they don't face reality.

BTW, if you can't stand reading online, there's a nice cheap paperback edition, probably avaialable at a nearby B&N or Borders. I gave mine away years ago, so I'd have to read it online. I'm really pretty fond of this book. As polemics go, it's pretty entertaining. It's been criticsed for having flowery language, but I think the critics forget that the narrator is an educated young woman of romantic ideals. Even the speechifying passages are a good read -- London would have made a fine speechwriter.

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