Thursday, August 21, 2008


Crowds, Utopia and the Most Great Revolution

By John Taylor; 2008 Aug 21, 02 Asma, 165 BE


I have finished "Men Like Gods" by H.G. Wells, and have gone over some of secondary literature about this lesser-known book of the pioneer of science fiction. The author himself complained that Men Like Gods was no money-maker; and after writing it, he concluded that this path of speculation about the future was unproductive. Most important for me, the novel has a message just for me. Speak up! This world is dystopic because good people do not stand up for what is right. We let bad, ambitious primitives set the agenda. Like the protagonist of the story, I have been too reticent and passive for too long. This, for me, is the biggest lesson from this novel. The protagonist, Mr. Barnstaple, concludes at the end of the novel:


 "Tens and hundred of thousands of men and women! And we achieve so little! Perhaps every young man and every young woman has had some dream at least of serving and bettering the world. And we are scattered and wasted, and the old things and the foul things, customs, delusions, habits, tolerated treasons, base immediacies, triumph over us!"


 An interesting aspect of Wells' Utopia in this novel is the intentional sparseness of the human population. He envisions a rational world government settling on a total world population of only 250 million, and these few spreading themselves out into rural areas. The utopians do not even congregate in villages, much less in cities. Their houses and farms are widely distributed around the earth, and they communicate rather than associate.


 I think the reverse, that if we design efficient, flexible urban neighbourhoods to encourage diversity, mobility and creativity in a small space, we would be a long ways closer to a real utopia.


 I admit though that my own utopian fantasies always agreed with Wells on this until a few years ago when I read Jane Jacobs. She makes a persuasive point that it is only when we jam ourselves together into cities that we ever attain the heights of creativity. Even in the earliest known settlements, thousands of years ago, it was the city that came up with great inventions, including that of agriculture. Rural areas follow. As a result of this discovery, it is clear that if a future civilization ever did spread out like they do in Men Like Gods, they would cease to innovate. They would atrophy and die in a few generations. We are inherently social beings. Isolating ourselves from one another would spell the end of civilization, not only literally but metaphorically as well. The virtues we call "civilized" are all forced upon us by the challenges of living close to one another. If we never meet, we cannot progress materially, emotionally or mentally. Humans desperately need to live in close proximity, to mix chaotically, before they can come up with fundamental innovation, especially in major things like infrastructure.


 Another advantage of high density living is that it has the smallest environmental footprint. Urban conditions, because of economies of scale and shared infrastructure, proportionately are the easiest lifestyle on the environment. Wealthy people imagine they are helping the environment by building homes in delicate ecosystems, but in reality they end up doing terrible harm to what they claim to value. Because of that, it is clear that any real-life utopias of the future will have to be highly urban in construction.


 An interesting aspect of this utopia is Wells' take on race and the race problem. He envisions love affairs among the races but little reproduction. The races do not associate, even after thousands of years of contact on a united planet. He does not anticipate the great genetic discovery of the Twentieth Century, that race does not even exist, that its differences are physically negligible. Nor does he regard what is fundamental in the mind of a Baha'i: that we need to encourage mixing and other forms of diversity, not only for its own sake but as proof that we have understood and applied the true fundamental of life: that Spirit comes first.


 Before, I talked about Wells' peculiar assumption that religion will atrophy as a united human race "outgrows" the needs that it addresses. Wells treats politics with similar distain. Life as separate, private individuals suffices the Utopians. To me it seems a lonely, solitary life that, after a few weeks, would become tedious. He does not see any form of government outlasting the dark "age of confusion." Families, cities, nations, world government, all fade away along with the confusion. The family fades away as an institution; children have little contact with adults for the first decade of their lives.


 Wells abhors the subversive, traitorous leanings of groups. They train members to bully "traitors" who show any care about society at all. They always put their own good before the general interest and they degrade into violent mobs and corrupt mafia. Crowds are inherently capricious, irrational and evil. As a member of England's lower-middle class in Victorian England, Wells also knew first hand the superiority and arrogance that class pride breeds. Clearly, Wells was bullied early on by at least one group. Although a socialist, he nurses in his breast a deep suspicion of all forms of collectivism. Dislike of cliquism kept him from being wholly sympathetic to Fabianism, socialism or Marxism, in spite of close sympathy with their goal of justice for all.


 I think it was Rousseau who said that if everybody were perfect, democracy would be the only viable form of government. Wells sees no need even for democracy. If we all got our heads straight there would not be any need to make decisions all the time, we could trust a small group to do the right thing on our behalf. It is true that this utopia has a sort of world government, but unlike anything we know. It is more like a SIG, an interest group, an aquarium society or stamp club than the awe inspiring monolith that we would call a government. The world government is small group of people with a specialized interest in world problems who get together, come to a consensus and move forward. No, I am wrong, they do not even meet in person, they discuss matters from a distance and decide based on common consensus. All emotional as well as physical needs that the machineries of government had addressed in the ages of confusion are gone with the wind; they all turned out not to be fundamental or permanent.


 The great merit of the Men Like Gods utopia is its realization that education has to be the foundation of all. The constant enquiry of the utopians seduces the hero of the story, as it did me. My utopia would be a lot more crowded and connected than Wells' utopia, but in this respect it would be identical.


 Although this novel was written when the evil of Bolshevism was barely crawling out of its cradle and had only partly devoured its parents, Wells sees its role in history with surprising clarity. Socialism is only a prelude, an ugly fit on the way to the real revolution, a revolution that can and must lead to utopia for the whole world. This is what Baha'is call the Kingdom of God.




 "We could do it."

 And suddenly it was borne in upon Mr. Barnstaple that he belonged now soul and body to the Revolution, to the Great Revolution that is afoot on earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until Old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein. He knew clearly that this Revolution is life, and that all other living is a trafficking of life with death. And as this crystallized out in his mind he knew instantly that so presently it would crystallize out in the minds of countless others of those hundreds of thousands of men and women on earth whom minds are set towards Utopia.

 He stood up. He began walking to and fro. "We shall do it," he said.

 Earthly thought was barely awakened as yet to the task and possibilities before mankind. All human history so far had been no more than the stirring of a sleeper, a gathering discontent, a rebellion against the limitations set upon life, the unintelligent protest of thwarted imaginations. All the conflicts and insurrections and revolutions that had ever been on earth were but indistinct preludes of the revolution that has still to come.

 When he had started out upon this fantastic holiday Mr. Barnstaple realized he had been in a mood of depression; earthly affairs had seemed utterly confused and hopeless to him; but now from the view-point of Utopia achieved, and with his health renewed, he could see plainly enough how steadily men on earth were feeling their way now, failure after failure, towards the opening drive of the final revolution. He could see how men in his own lifetime had been struggling out of such entanglements as the lie of monarchy, the lies of dogmatic religion and dogmatic morality towards public self-respect and cleanness of mind and body. They struggled now also towards international charity and the liberation of their common economic life from a network of pretences, dishonesties and impostures. There is confusion in all struggles; retractions and defeats; but the whole effect seen from the calm height of Utopia was one of steadfast advance....

 There were blunders, there were set-backs, because the forces of revolution still worked in the twilight. The great effort and the great failure of the socialist movement to create a new state in the world had been contemporaneous with Mr. Barnstaple's life; socialism had been the gospel of his boyhood; he had participated in its hopes, its doubts, its bitter internal conflicts.

 He had seen the movement losing sweetness and gathering force in the narrowness of the Marxist formulae. He had seen it sacrifice its constructive power for militant intensity. In Russia he had marked its ability to overthrow and its inability to plan or build. Like every liberal spirit in the world he had shared the chill of Bolshevik presumption and Bolshevik failure, and for a time it had seemed to him that this open bankruptcy of a great creative impulse was no less and no more than a victory for reaction, that it gave renewed life to all the shams, impostures, corruptions, traditional anarchies and ascendencies that restrain and cripple human life....

 But now from this high view-point in Utopia he saw clearly that the Phoenix of Revolution flames down to ashes only to be born again. While the noose is fitted round the Teacher's neck the youths are reading his teaching. Revolutions arise and die; the Great Revolution comes incessantly and inevitably.

 The time was near--and in what life was left to him, he himself might help to bring it nearer--when the forces of that last and real revolution would work no longer in the twilight but in the dawn, and a thousand sorts of men and women now far apart and unorganized and mutually antagonistic would be drawn together by the growth of a common vision of the world desired.

 The Marxist had wasted the forces of revolution for fifty years... He had estranged all scientific and able men by his pompous affectation of the scientific; he had terrified them by his intolerant orthodoxy; his delusion that all ideas are begotten by material circumstances had made him negligent of education and criticism. He had attempted to build social unity on hate and rejected every other driving force for the bitterness of a class war.

 But now, in its days of doubt and exhaustion, vision was returning to Socialism, and the dreary spectacle of a proletarian dictatorship gave way once more to Utopia, to the demand for a world fairly and righteously at peace, its resources husbanded and exploited for the common good, its every citizen freed not only from servitude but from ignorance, and its surplus energies directed steadfastly to the increase of knowledge and beauty.

 The attainment of that vision by more and more minds was a thing now no longer to be prevented. Earth would tread the path Utopia had trod. She too would weave law, duty and education into a larger sanity than man has ever known. Men also would presently laugh at the things they had feared, and brush aside the impostures that had overawed them and the absurdities that had tormented and crippled their lives. And as this great revolution was achieved and earth wheeled into daylight, the burthen of human miseries would lift, and courage oust sorrow from the hearts of men.

 Earth, which was now no more than a wilderness, sometimes horrible and at best picturesque, a wilderness interspersed with weedy scratchings for food and with hovels and slums and slag-heaps, earth too would grow rich with loveliness and fair as this great land was fair. The sons of earth also, purified from disease, sweet-minded and strong and beautiful, would go proudly about their conquered planet and lift their daring to the stars.

 "Given the will," said Mr. Barnstaple. "Given only the will."...

No comments: