A Modern Utopia

Well, the H. G. Wells series continues.

We’re down to the second tier stuff novel-wise, stuff you probably haven’t heard of and usually with good reason.

Raw Feed (1996): A Modern Utopia, H. G. Wells, 1905.Modern Utopia

“Introduction”, Mark R. Hillegas — Hillegas, author of a critical study on Wells and the “anti-utopians”, relates the influence of A Modern Utopia on social, political, and literary thought. (George Orwell is quoted talking about Wells’ influence on him.) Hillegas also briefly talks about some of the most notable features of Wells’ work. Written in 1967, this introduction is confident that the world is moving closer to Wells’ vision of a socialist utopia.

A Modern Utopia  — This is the most pleasant to read of any utopia I’ve seen and also the most convincing and tempting utopia to actually live in. Still, its ideas are doomed to failure.

Fredrick Hayek demolished the theory behind Wells’ socialist World State, and the actual experience of socialist countries also points to its unworkability. [Younger Self is referring to purely socialist countries. The world’s advanced economies are capitalist-socialist mixes.]

Also, Wells exhibits once again his curious dual nature about the nature of man. As an avid student of evolution and probably (though I don’t know for sure) one of the earliest practioners of what is now called evolutionary psychology, he had a deep pessimism about man’s basic nature. (For instance, note the end of his The Island of Dr. Moreau which can be read as a metaphor for a state overcome by the inherent nature of its “citizens”.)

Yet his later science fiction novels seem determined to evoke largely unconvincing transformations in human nature and society. After explaining how racism and tribalism are inherent in man’s nature, Wells simply laments, at book’s end, that it only requires an act of will to bring about the World State. However, it is, I would argue, man’s very nature that makes that act of will improbable or doomed to fail. In Wells’ defense, the very end of the book has Wells admitting his vision is not the one that will triumph and is just one vision of a better world and calls for man to dream, in stolen moments from our trivial lives, of a better world.

Literarily, this book is interesting on several counts.

First, it is not really a novel. Wells presents his utopia wittily, tongue in cheek as a thought experiment, a world he and his companion are mystically transported to, but Wells constantly refers to the contemporary world too (as Utopians are wont) making this a dramatic essay more than novel.

Second, Wells is quite well versed in Utopian literature going all the way back to Plato’s The Republic. He spends time commenting on other utopian conceptions.

He argues that the Greek attitude towards slavery is simply explained not by a “Greek mind” but by the technological realities of the time: a certain level of civilization required slave labor; thus, classic writers had to come up with justifications why some had to be slaves.

Wells also notes that earlier Utopians were not concerned with maximizing human freedom but rather virtue. Wells’ World State tries to allow a great latitude of human freedom and individuality thus making it more palatable than his successors. He also notes that early Utopians present (with the possible exception of William Morris’ News from Nowhere) societies lacking any real individualities. Wells’ narrative doesn’t make that mistake.

One of the books comedic touches (I’ve come to the conclusion Wells’ had a flair for comedy) is the encounter with a dissatisfied, pretentious, nature-loving inhabitant of Utopia. The narrator is also accompanied by a botanist who seems unremittingly uninterested in his journey through the World State and given to babbling about his tortured romantic life.

William Morris also is specifically blasted for his hostility towards technology. Wells slyly notes that “If toil is a blessing, never was blessing so effectually disguised.” Wells, while noting that work is necessary to civilization, takes rightful exception to the idea that there is an inherent virtue in toiling all the time and that leisure is decadent. However, his World State has few who lead lives of pure leisure.

Third, Wells does not pretend – unlike other Utopians – to have created a stable, perfect world. There exist, in this world, the lazy, incompetent, and stupid. The violent and drug-addled create their own societies on prison islands. Wells, while showing a world of relatively healthy people, no war, no poverty, and little disease is careful to state at the opening that he postulates no change, as other Utopians do, in man’s basic nature.

He says the “Will to Live” is the cause of all good and evil. Rather, he postulates that by allowing humans the opportunity and freedom to satisfy basic drives like hunger and sex, other drives – like self-sacrifice and creativity – will build utopia. He rather unconvincingly thinks that most will choose to do something other than sate themselves on food and sex and entertainment. I think rather more people are lazy and uncurious than he supposed. On the other hand, like Wells, I think that circumstances and, especially, bad education do dull energy and curiosity. [I’m much less convinced now. Innate personality and abilities are more important than “bad education”.] To be fair, Wells still shows the lazy and uncurious in his Utopia. Wells’ own life of energetically, through education, lifting himself up from a life of mean beginnings certainly colored his ideas in this regard and caused him to overestimate how many others would and could imitate him.

Wells’ Utopia is based on his theory of uniqueness – right down to the notion – since supplanted by physics if it hadn’t already been invalidated in 1905 – that even no two atoms are identical. (This notion is expanded in an appendix which is a reprint of an earlier philosophical reprint.) Hence, Wells forsakes the logic of yes-no in his Utopia. His is a philosophy of quantitative and not qualitative difference thus Wells allows some personal property as an extension of an individual but allows for very limited inheritance and no right to own real property.

Sexual freedom is present, but evolutionist Wells controls reproduction by only allowing those men married and earning above the minimum wage to reproduce. However, he never really stipulates a penalty for those who don’t do this. Wells would be horrified at his political descendants advocating an American welfare state paying people to have illegitimate children while being poor.

Wells postulates, as a socialist, some limited free enterprise and world-wide, centralized control of labor and the ends it is to be channeled towards. He, predictably, supports a vast body of public scientific research while wryly noting that in our world inventors (this is less true now) are regarded as ignorant and foolish while the exploiters of their inventions are revered. Wells, supporter of women’s’ rights, surprisingly lists all sorts of physical, emotional, and intellectual reasons why women are inferior and less capable of supporting themselves than men hence the State helps them. A sort of multiple marriage is possible in marriage laws.

The rulers of Utopia are the “samurai”, a group of voluntary nobility (specifically likened to the Knights Templar) with their own, more restrictive code of behavior. They are quasi-hereditary since children tend to follow their parents into the samurai. Wells spends some time blasting contemporary society. Womens’ fashions are criticized, and Wells seems torn between ‘free-love” (a term I don’t recall actually seeing here) and the distraction that sex and romantic love provide. He criticizes public sports. (Wells’ would probably be somewhat displeased at our distracting, uncreative, unintellectual distractions of today.)

In fact, the samurai are forbidden to play public games because the aristocracy of Wells’ day were “athletic prostitute[s]”. Public games bred the “vanity, trickery, and self-assertion of the common actor”. (Actors are another profession Wells’ criticizes. It’s unclear if drama exists in his World State. As for “self-assertion”, I suspect Wells could be pretty self-assertive himself.) In his Utopia, sports are a private matter and people find it rather “puerile” to spend the time to become expert in sports. Wells, son of a professional cricketer, specifically mentions cricket in this passage.

Wells devotes a whole chapter to criticizing the contemporary passion for race theories and eugenics. Though a firm believer in what we would now term evolutionary psychology, he regards as nonsense the idea that a better race of man can be deliberately bred. His control of reproduction arises from population concerns and not allowing the economic burden of child raising to fall entirely on the state. However, his reproduction laws are designed to weed out possible genetic factors for laziness or idiocy as well. He also thinks they will bind children closer to parents. Wells takes the tack that all peoples probably having something unique to give the World State and that no race is genetically superior. However, he says that if it could be shown that a certain group is manifestly inferior in all counts that he would approve of genocide – though a kinder sort of not allowing them to produce. The state, to Wells, is there for the good of the species while allowing as much freedom as possible to the individual. Wells’ also says Utopia will “kill all deformed and monstrous and evilly diseased births”, so he is not adverse to practicing some of the worst eugenic ideas. In Wells’ defense, birth defects were not, of course, as easily alleviated via technology then.

This edition is annoying because it omits the pictures of the original, and, evidently, some of the text that appears on the same pages as those pictures.

This is probably one of the few utopias where the narrator has to go to work.


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