Monday, June 24, 2013

H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come: Eighty Years On

For much of his career H.G. Wells was a founding proponent of what Patrick Parrinder termed "the scientific world-view"--a sense that the nineteenth century liberal order (a balance of power among nation-states preserving the peace, a capitalist world economy) was dead, and that the way forward for the species lay in rationalism, socialism and international organization. Advanced in both his nonfiction and fiction, across a range of genres, Wells gave it its fullest treatment in 1933's book The Shape of Things to Come. Wells presents Shape as the "dream-book" of Philip Raven, a British civil servant who recorded dream visions he had of a twenty-second century history textbook which tells of the founding of a future "World State."

Its story is, in a way, the story of all human history, the book looking back to antiquity for the origin of the idea in the World-State, and finding it in the universalism of the religions which emerged in the first millennium BCE, and the dissent of prophets taken for insane or inspired, and always inconvenient (with Plato's Republic a crucial moment in its depiction of an elite committed to service rather than self-aggrandizement in implementing in a social order). These forces continued to develop, until by the seventeenth century an increasingly critical turn of mind was evident, and with it the beginnings of modern scientific rationality and criticism of existing institutions--monarchy, aristocracy, religion, even property.

Alongside these important cultural and intellectual changes, advancing technology and growing organization made what was previously an ideal into a practical possibility and necessity by the early twentieth century. By this point, Wells' textbook argued, capitalism was translating increases in productivity into unemployment, weakened consumption and slumps--a self-defeating pattern which appeared to have culminated in the Great Depression--while avoidable poverty continued to stunt human life. Meanwhile advancing military technology and the increasingly totalistic character of warfare (demonstrated in World War I) made armed conflict more costly and dangerous for human civilization, with the risk of such conflict exacerbated by nationalistic and militaristic ideas, by what we today call military-industrial complexes, by the worst of tradition and habit (religious beliefs, sexual attitudes, etc.), and even by the physically and psychologically unhealthful conditions of everyday life in the era (all the way down to bad hygiene and noise pollution).

Wells also pointed to widening recognition of the problems, and of the ways in which they could be redressed, in meaningful but flawed developments like Henry Ford's Peace Ship, the League of Nations, the London Economic Conference, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal--and the emergence of explicit alternatives to liberalism on the left in Soviet Communism, and the right in fascism in Italy, Germany and elsewhere.1 Nonetheless, the limitations of these initiatives and movements mean that the world fails to recover from the economic crisis. Instead the world's economy continues to fall into greater disarray, resulting in living standards, deteriorating public services, and rising crime and insecurity of all kinds, extending even to a resurgence of maritime piracy. Moreover, the worst in these new movements comes to the fore when Nazi Germany's dispute with Poland over Danzig escalates into shooting, sparking a general European war that, along with the ongoing conflict in east Asia, saps what remains of the world's economic vitality, and leaves the world wide open to a plague that kills off half the planet's population in the 1950s.2

This collapse of the old order creates a space in which a new one can emerge, the groundwork for which is laid by a practical-minded technical-administrative elite centered on the control of the world's long-distance communications. This "Air and Sea Control," the members of which recognize that the more traditional objects of such careers have been mooted by the new realities, works instead for the revival of the world economy and the building of a World State, a process formalized in a 1965 conference at Basra. This dictatorship, up against the remnants of the old order of capitalist enterprise and sovereign states (actually drawing strength from the revival of the world economy), manages to pragmatically, patiently and consistently outmaneuver its foes, only rarely having to employ any significant force to get its way. (Indeed, it manages to circumscribe privately owned business and let it fade away rather than outlawing it.)

Of course, after this point there are continued difficulties as the World-State goes about the immense practical work of achieving material plenty for all, eradicating disease, and educating its citizens for life in the new world, while still facing attempts at subversion from those opposed to it, resulting in thousands of political murders, and executions into the 2030s (during which the conduct of the security organs was not always unimpeachable). Later the World-State itself became a problem, under the administration of a stifling (if benevolent) "Puritan Tyranny" that was so "consumed by an overwhelming fear of leisure both for [itself] and others" in a world where so many of the old constraints on life had been eliminated that it bowdlerized literature and the arts, and "INVENTED work for the Fellowship and all the world."

Nonetheless, this too gives way as the World-State withers, the Central Council increasingly disregarded by the subordinate Controls overseeing various aspects of human life (education, health, etc.)--an administration of things rather than people. The process is formalized when the Council is officially retired in the 2059 Declaration of Mégève, which declares "the Martyrdom of Man . . . at an end" and "the sunrise of the hour" of united humanity in a world without superstition, tribalism and want, freer, happier--and saner--than the people of previous centuries had even dreamed it could be.

As might be expected from Wells' earlier success as a popular historian, his historiography is impressive--thorough and lucid and accessible. As might also be expected given his brand of science fiction, his interweaving of the events of the past, and his present, with his record of things to come, feels seamless even today, enough so that even someone well-read in the history of the time can have a hard time figuring out just when he stopped writing as a historian and started writing as a scenarist. A grand testament to both his vast imagination and underappreciated technical skill, it endows what he describes with an astonishing verisimilitude.

Nonetheless, we know that history did not take the turn he anticipated. Instead the Second World War proved to be a far more intense conflict than he anticipated, which led not to the dissolution of the nation-state system, but its reorganization at a higher level--the old circle of Great Powers mostly folded into the alliance systems of the U.S. and Soviet Union. Moreover, the Keynesian policies he underestimated helped lay the foundation for the American economic recovery that proved crucial to the Allied victory in World War II, and the unprecedented, global boom that followed the conflict.

Of course, that order, too, did not last, the world in the 1970s turning to neoliberalism. Since then the world economy has been increasingly crisis-ridden and anemic, prone to increasing inequality, and ecologically strained in ways he did not imagine, with the problem raised by nuclear weapons in the 1940s (sooner than he feared) unresolved. It is a perilous situation, leaving many once again convinced that this state of things cannot last, but there is little enthusiasm for the sorts of solutions he proposed, and the idea of a future remotely like the one he described seems as implausible now as it has ever been.

Even the attempt to imagine something like it reflects this sensibility, as W. Warren Wagar's A Short History of the Future demonstrates. Modeled on Wells' scenario, but updated for our times, it envisages the world's economic and political crises leading to strategic nuclear warfare on a far more crowded planet; a much more painful rebuilding process, up against far more violent resistance; and much more problematic consequences, full of survivals of the older irrationalism, with anything like a new humanistic consensus beyond reach--postmodernism apparently here to stay.

Some of this is an understandable reaction to what now appears Wells' overoptimism about some things, like his confidence in Science as well as the sciences, the idea that these have to be on the same side. (I think of George Orwell's response to this attitude with the charge that in comparison with Britain the Nazis were both more barbaric and more scientific.) Certainly his confidence in technocrats, and the "plasticity" of human consciousness and behavior, far exceed anything one is likely to encounter today. Indeed, it is all such that Wagar himself confesses that his version of events has a look of "Augustinian pessimism" about it, and that is the difference between our troubled times, and the period in which Wells wrote his classic book.

1. The Soviet Union, in his view, was a promising beginning distorted when the "infinitely practical" Lenin died and was succeeded by the dogmatic Stalin, and with him, the primacy of politics over technical rationality, and nationalism over internationalism, so that it failed to rise to the role it should have played.
2. Interestingly Wells made no direct reference to the influenza epidemic which followed World War I and took a far heavier toll of human lives than the actual fighting.


Anonymous said...

I read the many years ago. The start of the War of 1940 differes much war from our WW II, because its not really an open attack of Nazi-Germany on Poland, but more unrests in Danzig, which escalate to war. Actually Poland seems to be the more aggresive and superior part. I seems that Wells couldn´t forsee how fast Germany would rearm after 1933. He also didn´t seemed to like the Poles.


Nader said...

Hi Freivolk. It's good to hear from you again.

Yes, he definitely underestimated Germany--and incidentally, also the ability of the U.S. to recover from the Depression, which made World War II a very different thing from what he anticipated. (Incidentally, I discuss his treatment of World War II in more detail in another post that I hope to publish soon.)

And you're quite right about his feelings regarding Poland--or at least, the Polish government of the interwar period. His attitude was not all that unusual at the time, and is a reminder of just how much the war changed common perceptions of Poland's conduct in European politics between his time and ours.

Anonymous said...

I look forward for your treatment of Wells "WW II".


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