02 May 2009

Debout, les damnés de la terre

I celebrated May Day yesterday by finishing off Jack London's "The Iron Heel".

For some reason our national aversion to having to go to work on Mondays, made famous by the blessed St Geldof and his disciples, means that unlike almost evry other country in the world we do not celebrate the International Workers' holiday on May 1st itself, rather on the 1st Monday afterwards instead. This of course means that most workers actually use the three-day weekend for a bit of an aul break, grab a few extra scoops in the pub of a Sunday night and generally spend most of Monday in a hung-over fugue, disinclined to take to the streets and protest over the erosion of their rights and living standards.

As I watched the pictures from France, Germany and Turkey yesterday I was forced to shake my head somewhat in disbelief, we are sooooooo more screwed than any of those august nations, and yet our general populace are far more engrossed in a rugby game this weekend than in standing shoulder to shoulder with their global comrades or expressing their outrage and anger to the politicians and investing classes that have destroyed our once prosperous society*. Bread and Circuses indeed.

So in the absence of any great uprising or display of national anger on the streets of our fair city, I spent the day ensconced on a Buddha bag and finished off London's tale of a failed American socialist uprising instead. My only experience of London before had been "Call of the Wild" and his other doggy tale, "White Fang" as 6th grader in Northern California. While I do remember the teacher being inordinately proud of London's San Francisco roots I think she rather forgot to mention anything of his fiery socialist rhetoric and rabble rousing polemics.

"Iron Heel" is great**, first published in 1908 and taking the form of a manuscript written by a revolutionary in a (then) near-future failed socialist revolution, annotated by a historian some 700 years later from the glorious Brotherhood of Man, a global Marxist government in power for over 400 years. The "Iron Heel" of the title refers to the Oligarchy, the ruling elite of the capitalist US under whose boot all workers are mercilessly crushed, and the book itself is eerily prescient, charting the rise of fascism, a US/German war in the 1910's, the use of mercenary forces and conscripted militias by the US to augment its normal troops, the politicization of the scientific community and the use of the legal system to overturn the democratic elections of candidates viewed as unfavorable by the investing classes. In fact it is impossible to read it without the lens of the last eight years of the Bush administration sneaking in to obscure London's original targets.

This, I guess, is the scourge of ultra-capitalism, the system itself is the corruption and the politicians, businessmen and the media are just interchangeable pawns that come and go, called into play when useful and discarded when they have run their course.

I am ashamed to say that I did not know of this aspect of London's history, dismissing him as a children's writer, though of course neither 'Call of the Wild" nor "White Fang" were written as children's books, and again I continue to find that the more I read the more I am painfully aware of the depths of my own ignorance. A little knowledge may indeed be a dangerous thing, but a little more knowledge is a surefire path to maddening frustration.

I came across "Iron Heel" in a post by China Miéville, a solid Trot and modern fantasy writer, wherein he outlines fifty scifi/fantasy books that any good socialist should read. It's a great list, good to see a healthy representative sample of my bookshelf already there, and even better to see a lot more that isn't. I'm about half-way through Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita", and will probably move onto Bogdanov's "The Red Star" after that. Ursala Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" is also (obviously) on the list, which I coincidentally finished a week or two ago, and Tadhg has posted a good review of it as part of his "Triple Crown" program.

So all-in-all yesterday was a pleasant enough day filled with a suitable amount of revolutionary fervor, but definitely not leaving me with the same sense of smug satisfaction as a good aul march with a bit of slogan-chanting and the odd moment or two of uncomfortable gaze-avoiding while refusing to buy SWP papers from the scruffy-looking gentleman with a dog tied to a wee bit of twine for a leash.

Good times, good times.

* The above photo was taken at the national protest day back in February and is used here because a) the lack of any protests yesterday meant that I needed to find a suitable photo from somewhere else to grace this post, and b) I was just as surprised as the next person to discover that the Communist Party of Ireland still exists. Seriously old school, bless their little red hearts.

** If you can overcome the slight racist overtones. Not as prolific as in some of London's other works, but still quite jarring when you encounter it.

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