Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Anticipations (1901)

This is where the problems begin. Or, to be a little more precise, since the problems don't so much ‘begin’ in this book as become for the first time ineludible, let's say: this is the hinge text, the surprise success of which saw Wells move away from developing visionary futures as fiction towards extrapolating possible futures as ideological fact. Not actual fact, of course, since Wells can only ever be best-guessing what will happen; but from this point onward Wells writes more and more in ‘Prophet and Politician’ mode, and produces far fewer masterpieces of the SFnal imagination. The free play of imaginative speculation is now replaced with a more rigid extrapolation from what are, inevitably, ideological bases. Bernard Bergonzi argues that what happened to Wells around this time was that ‘his acceptance of a collectivist ideology destroyed the autonomy of his imagination’. Since this was also the time that Wells became properly active as a Fabian socialist, this is tantamount to arguing that socialism destroyed Wells as an artist. That's not right, I think; but it is by way of asking the right sort of question, or at least of gesturing towards the problem that needs addressing. And by ‘problem’ I mean, really: fascism. Anachronistic of me to use that term, I know, but then again not so very anachronistic really; since Anticipations is one of the books that contributed directly to the larger sociopolitical debate that in turn lead to the rise of fascist movements in the 1920s and 1930s. Only one of many, of course; and I'm not laying the blame for this latter development at Wells's door. That would be foolish. But the politically authoritarian, eugenicist and racist elements here can't simply be wished-away. Looking back from the vantage-point of 1934's Experiment in Autobiography Wells talks rather grandly of Anticipations as ‘the keystone to the main arch of my work’, said arch being ‘the structural frame of my life’ and therefore ‘of supreme importance to me.’ Which is a very long way indeed from disowning it.


Anticipations began as nine separate articles, commissioned by the Fortnightly Review's new editor, W L Courtenay and appearing in that magazine April–December 1901. These were collected in book form in November 1901 under the rather ungainly title: Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought. Although the publisher, Chapman and Hall, initially thought sales would be modest, in fact they had to reprint almost straight away (indeed, eight reprints followed in short order). ‘Macmillan, my English publishers,’ Wells says in the Experiment in Autobiography, misremembering whom actually published the work, ‘were caught unawares by the demand and had sold out the first edition before they reprinted. It sold as well as a novel.’

The book is structured to, as it were, ease the reader in: moving from more neutral speculations about transportation and urban technologies through to more ideologically freighted speculation concerning political organisation and what I might as well, though in a pained way, call ‘social hygiene’. As Wells wrote to Elizabeth Healey [2 July 1901]: ‘one has to go quietly in the earlier papers, but the last will be a buster’. Buster it proved: widely-read and discussed, influential and effective, Anticipations was the book that made people start to treat Wells seriously as an intellectual heavyweight. Wells's friend Arnold Bennett—who poked the mildest of fun at the book by calling it ‘Uncle’s-dissipations’—wrote to him to say either he had mastered the journalist's trick of appearing omniscient, or else perhaps he just was ‘one of the most remarkable men alive’. Wells was only half-joking when he replied: ‘there is no illusion. I am great’. He also insisted that picking-and-choosing among the individual essays would give a reader ‘no inkling of the massive culminating effect of the book as a whole’.

One thing all this certainly does is give us a reason to resist the perfectly natural but fundamentally trivial desire to use our 21st-century hindsight to ‘score’ Wells for accuracy. The point of Anticipations is not, as it were, its prophetic epiphenomena; it is, to swap metaphors, the threads that bind together its various fasces. At what point in this book does bland supposition about technology morph into something more sinister?

Let's walk through. Chapter 1, ‘Locomotion in the Twentieth Century’ predicts a shift from collective mass-transit, such as is provided by railway companies, towards individual motility: ‘there will, first of all, be the motor truck for heavy traffic ... there will develop the hired or privately owned motor carriage ... And thirdly there will be the motor omnibus, attacking or developing out of the horse omnibus companies and the suburban lines. All this seems fairly safe prophesying.’ [Anticipations, 14-16]. These new cars will supersede horse traffic and require a whole new network of roads to be built (‘the road surface may be made a very different thing from what it is at present, better drained and admirably adapted for the soft-tired hackney vehicles and the torrent of cyclists’). All spot-on as prophecy, of course, although it was clear to most people, even by 1901, that this was the direction things were heading. Magazines like The Motor Car Journal (est. 1898) and Car Illustrated often ran articles imagining similar futures. This, from an editorial in Car, A Journal of Travel [2 (1902) 136] is indicative: ‘the swift motor-car is to be the welcome vehicle of the locomotion of the future. It is destined to achieve great things!’ And in one key respect Wells got it Quite Wrong:
I do not think it at all probable that aeronautics will ever come into play as a serious modification of transport and communication. Man is not, for example, an albatross, but a land biped, with a considerable disposition towards being made sick and giddy by unusual motions.
I'll come back, below, to this curious limitation in Wells's anticipatory vision (after all, it's not as if he disbelieved in the coming of heavy-than-air craft—a whole novel on this theme, The War in the Air, is only a few years from being written). Anyway: Chapter 2, ‘The Probable Diffusion of Great Cities’, develops the principle that ‘the general distribution of population in a country must always be directly dependent on transport facilities’. From the predicate that human beings will tolerate no more than a two hour commute (‘a maximum limit of two hours, one hour each way from sleeping place to council chamber, counter, workroom, or office stool’) Wells suggests that cities will grow as large as future technologies of transportation permit travellers to traverse from periphery to centre in an hour. Since he thinks this future tech will be very rapid, he predicts vast suburban spread, ‘town’ and ‘country’ will become obsolete terms and a new kind of ‘urban region’ (Wells's coinage) will come into being: ‘the London citizen of the year 2000 AD may have a choice of nearly all England and Wales south of Nottingham and east of Exeter as his suburb’. Which has turned out to be, pretty much, the case.

These two alterations, in transportation and urban topography, set the scene for the following three sections: Chapter 3, ‘Developing Social Elements’, Chapter 4, ‘Certain Social Reactions’ and Chapter 5, ‘The Life-History of Democracy’. The two-class social system of a small aristocracy ruling a large commons derived, Wells thinks, from the fact that the only property, before the 18th-century, was land, ‘real estate’, together with ‘live-stock, serfs, and the furnishings of real estate, the surface aspect of real estate, so to speak’. This had to be ‘held’ in person by the landowner, which, except in special circumstances like war, limited the aristocrat to how far he could travel easily in a day on horseback. What Wells calls ‘the Semitic invention of money’ changed all that; and he forecasts the explosion of what economists call ‘liquidity’ with some speculation on shares and dividends.
There is every indication that this element of irresponsible, independent, and wealthy people in the social body, people who feel the urgency of no exertion, the pressure of no specific positive duties, is still on the increase, and may still for a long time increasingly preponderate. It overshadows the responsible owner of real property or of real businesses altogether. It is a class with scarcely any specific characteristics beyond its defining one, of the possession of property and all the potentialities property entails, with a total lack of function with regard to that property. It is not even collected into a distinct mass. It graduates insensibly into every other class, it permeates society as threads and veins of gold permeate quartz. [Anticipations, 72-73]
The disruptions of this new mobility of wealth will, Wells predicts, result in a new system of four classes: (1) ‘the shareholding class’; (2) ‘the abyss’, at ‘the opposite pole of the social scale’: people ‘without either property or any evident function in the social organism’; (3) a productive middle-class of capable professionals, built around ‘a nucleus of engineers and skilled mechanics’ but encompassing much more than that: individuals defined by their education (‘a revolution in the common schools of the community will be a necessary part of the process’) who oversee the efficient production of food from automated farms, manage warmaking, advance science and generally deploy invincible know-how in actually getting things done. Finally there will be a class of, in effect, moochers: (4) ‘a great number of non-productive persons living in and by the social confusion’. Wells lists a few of these latter types: ‘business managers, public and private, the political organizers, brokers, commission agents, the varying grades of financier down to the mere greedy camp followers of finance, the gamblers pure and simple, and the great body of their dependent clerks, typewriters, and assistants’. Wells is quite explicit where his sympathies, and allegiances, lie so far as this arrangement is concerned. Chapter 3 ends with a smack at Parliamentary democracy (‘The House of Commons is the seat of a party conflict, a faction fight of initiated persons, that has long ceased to bear any real relation to current social processes’). Wells believes only one of the four new classes has any business governing. No prizes for guessing which:
The new mass of capable men, of which the engineers are typical, these capable men who must necessarily be the active principle of the new mechanically equipped social body, finds no representation save by accident in either assembly. The man who has concerned himself with the public health, with army organization, with educational improvement, or with the vital matters of transport and communication, if he enter the official councils of the kingdom at all, must enter ostensibly as the guardian of the interests of the free and independent electors of a specific district that has long ceased to have any sort of specific interests at all. [Anticipations, 100]
Chapter 4 explores how these different classes might live their lives, and Chapter 5 returns to the, as Wells sees it, inadequacies of democracy.
I know of no case for the elective Democratic government of modern States that cannot be knocked to pieces in five minutes. It is manifest that upon countless important public issues there is no collective will, and nothing in the mind of the average man except blank indifference; that an electional system simply places power in the hands of the most skilful electioneers ... The case against all the prolusions of ostensible Democracy is indeed so strong that it is impossible to consider the present wide establishment of Democratic institutions as being the outcome of any process of intellectual conviction. [Anticipations, 147]
All extant democracies, Wells says, are ‘based not on classes but upon a confusion; they are ... governments of the grey’. So, he thinks, not ‘the people’ but rather ‘a scientifically trained middle-class of an unprecedented sort’, says Wells, ‘will become, I believe, at last consciously the State.’

Chapter 6, ‘War’, speculates about the impact of new technologies of weaponry and efficiencies of organisation on human conflict. He thinks developments in the gun and cannon will completely change war, giving snipers new powers of dominating the battlefield and making battle itself a matter of ‘rapid movements of guns and men’. He speculates about an air force, although thinks this will be more a matter of observation and intelligence gathering than actual fighting (of heavier-than-air planes, he says: ‘it is difficult to see how such a contrivance could carry guns of any calibre unless they fired from the rear in the line of flight. The problem of recoil becomes a very difficult one in aerial tactics. It would probably have at most a small machine-gun or so, which might fire an explosive shell at the balloons of the enemy, or kill their aeronauts with distributed bullets. The thing would be a sort of air-shark’). Contrary to the prevailing speculation of his day concerning dreadnoughts, Wells thinks future warships will become smaller and quicker, although he refuses to believe in submarines:
I must confess that my imagination, in spite even of spurring, refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea. It must involve physical inconvenience of the most demoralizing sort simply to be in one for any length of time. A first-rate man who has been breathing carbonic acid and oil vapour under a pressure of four atmospheres becomes presently a second-rate man. Imagine yourself in a submarine that has ventured a few miles out of port, imagine that you have headache and nausea ... [Anticipations, 200]
These, though, are all technical speculations; touching base, as it were, with the opening sections of the book. The last three chapters return us to society: Chapter 7 ‘The Conflict of Language’, imagines a future in which English and Chinese are the two global languages, with perhaps either French or German as a third (Wells imagines the latter two fighting an actual war over mutual supremacy: ‘fight[ing] their battle for the linguistic conquest of Europe, and perhaps of the world’, which I think misunderstands how languages operate and spread). He also says, rather oddly: ‘Spanish and Russian are mighty languages, but without a reading public how can they prevail, and what prospect of a reading public has either?’ Say what? Then in Chapter 8, ‘The Larger Synthesis’, Wells finally names what is being anticipated: a ‘new Republic’, the ‘reorganization which it is the main object of these Anticipations to display.’
I have sought to show that in peace and war alike a process has been and is at work, a process with all the inevitableness and all the patience of a natural force, whereby the great swollen, shapeless, hypertrophied social mass of to-day must give birth at last to a naturally and informally organized, educated class, an unprecedented sort of people, a New Republic dominating the world. [Anticipations, 262]
Chapter 9, ‘The Faith, Morals, and Public Policy of the New Republic’ concludes the book. The first main issue the New Republic will face involves that group ‘which I have called the People of the Abyss’:
To the multiplying rejected of the white and yellow civilizations there will have been added a vast proportion of the black and brown races, and collectively those masses will propound the general question, “What will you do with us, we hundreds of millions, who cannot keep pace with you?” If the New Republic emerges at all it will emerge by grappling with this riddle. [Anticipations, 280]
The warning note chimes when Wells perpetrates what Gramsci somewhere calls the defining conceptual misprison of fascism as such, the deliberate confusion of political and aesthetic categories. The future rulers of the world ‘will all be artists in reality, with a passion for simplicity and directness and an impatience of confusion and inefficiency’. As such they will be ruthless where ‘the ugly’ is concerned:
The ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity—beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds, and a growing body of knowledge—and to check the procreation of base and servile types, of fear-driven and cowardly souls, of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men. To do the latter is to do the former; the two things are inseparable. And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness, and cowardice and feebleness were saved from the accomplishment of their desires, the method that has only one alternative, the method that must in some cases still be called in to the help of man, is death. In the new vision death is no inexplicable horror, no pointless terminal terror to the miseries of life, it is the end of all the pain of life, the end of the bitterness of failure, the merciful obliteration of weak and silly and pointless things.

The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully, and efficiently will be to die. For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonour, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence. To make life convenient for the breeding of such people will seem to them not the most virtuous and amiable thing in the world, as it is held to be now, but an exceedingly abominable proceeding. Procreation is an avoidable thing for sane persons of even the most furious passions, and the men of the New Republic will hold that the procreation of children who, by the circumstances of their parentage, must be diseased bodily or mentally—I do not think it will be difficult for the medical science of the coming time to define such circumstances—is absolutely the most loathsome of all conceivable sins. ...

The men of the New Republic will not be squeamish, either, in facing or inflicting death, because they will have a fuller sense of the possibilities of life than we possess. They will have an ideal that will make killing worth the while; like Abraham, they will have the faith to kill, and they will have no superstitions about death ... The idea that only those who are fit to live freely in an orderly world-state should be permitted to live, is entirely against the use of deterrent punishments at all. Against outrageous conduct to children or women, perhaps, or for very cowardly or brutal assaults of any sort, the men of the future may consider pain a salutary remedy, at least during the ages of transition while the brute is still at large. But since most acts of this sort done under conditions that neither torture nor exasperate, point to an essential vileness in the perpetrator, I am inclined to think that even in these cases the men of the coming time will be far less disposed to torture than to kill. They will have another aspect to consider. The conscious infliction of pain for the sake of the pain is against the better nature of man, and it is unsafe and demoralizing for any one to undertake this duty. To kill under the seemly conditions science will afford is a far less offensive thing. The rulers of the future will grudge making good people into jailers, warders, punishment-dealers, nurses, and attendants on the bad. People who cannot live happily and freely in the world without spoiling the lives of others are better out of it. That is a current sentiment even to-day, but the men of the New Republic will have the courage of their opinions. [Anticipations, 298-302]
I've quoted this at some length, because it seems to me important not to distort Wells's argument with selective citation. No topic in the whole range of Wellsian study is more fractiously argued-over than this one, after all, and it's not hard to see why. Still, what Wells is saying is clear enough. The ugly, the disabled and the inadequate will have no place in his New Republic. Where they exist they will do so on a sufferance that may very well be withdrawn; ‘withdrawal’ in this case meaning extermination. Parallel to this ruthless social ‘cleansing’, Wells says, will be a full-throated eugenicist programme to punish those who breed inferior humanity and to encourage the ‘best’ to breed ever stronger, more beautiful folk.

One final question remains: what is the relationship of all this to questions of race? It is not a question that Wells ducks. ‘And how,’ he asks, breezily, ‘will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? how will it deal with the yellow man? how will it tackle that alleged termite in the civilized woodwork, the Jew?’ And his answer is: by ruthlessly applying the yardstick of beautiful efficiency:
[The New Republic] will tolerate no dark corners where the people of the Abyss may fester, no vast diffused slums of peasant proprietors, no stagnant plague-preserves. Whatever men may come into its efficient citizenship it will let come—white, black, red, or brown; the efficiency will be the test. And the Jew also it will treat as any other man. It is said that the Jew is incurably a parasite on the apparatus of credit. If there are parasites on the apparatus of credit, that is a reason for the legislative cleaning of the apparatus of credit, but it is no reason for the special treatment of the Jew. If the Jew has a certain incurable tendency to social parasitism, and we make social parasitism impossible, we shall abolish the Jew, and if he has not, there is no need to abolish the Jew. [Anticipations, 316]
It’s the ‘we’ here that is so queasy. The ‘Jew’ is already defined as outsider even as Wells clubbishly promises that he is not going to exterminate him willy-nilly. Only should the need arise will that heart-sinkingly casual phrase ‘we shall abolish the Jew’ be actualised. The remainder of the twentieth century proved how very low the bar was set for such a criterion. And as this section goes on, Wells's specious even-handedness becomes, if anything, even more objectionable. ‘There is something very ugly about many Jewish faces,’ he airily announces, qualifying this libel with ‘but there are Gentile faces just as coarse and gross.’ The balance between the Jewish ‘many’ and the implied Gentile ‘some’ gets picked up a few lines later: ‘many Jews are intensely vulgar in dress and bearing, materialistic in thought, and cunning and base in method’. That Wells concedes there are also Gentiles who could also be so described hardly exonerates the nakedness of this anti-Semitism. ‘And for the rest,’ Wells concludes, ‘those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency?’
Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go. The whole tenor and meaning of the world, as I see it, is that they have to go. So far as they fail to develop sane, vigorous, and distinctive personalities for the great world of the future, it is their portion to die out and disappear.
They will have to go: a century of genocide summed-up in one devastatingly offhand slogan. When I read the final chapter of Anticipations I find the phrase ‘ugh!’ tends to come, forcefully, to mind.


So, yes, we've gone from patting Wells on the back for anticipating the dominance of private automobiles and motorway service stations to wincing at the enthusiasm of his endorsement of eugenicist authoritarianism and genocide. What happened there?

The soft response, I suppose, would be to suggest that after a decade of remarkable popular success as a writer, Wells had come to view not just society but the entire world with a writer's sensibility. It is easy to make the people in your stories do what you want them to do, and even easy, if you have an ambitious enough imagination, to reconfigure the whole of society and culture, as Wells had done with the world of Sleeper Wakes and the Selenite social harmony of First Men in the Moon. The passage from messy, unsatisfactory Now to the gleaming, callisthenic efficiencies of Anticipations' Future is actually only the wave of the authorial pen, after all. This might, just conceivably, excuse the murderous coldness of the books final chapter. All writers kill-off characters, and few are in any way morally troubled about doing so. We don't, after all, put Agatha Christie and Harold Shipman in the same ethical basket. So perhaps it's a sort of category error to react to Wells's moral myopia, in this book, with outrage. But this really doesn't strike me as a very convincing defence. Anticipations specifically does not sheathe itself in the decent prophylaxis of fiction. Wells meant for people to take him seriously, and was gratified (as well as rewarded, both financially and in terms of reputation and status) when they did.

And if we take it seriously, then what is unmistakable about this book, and immanent in every chapter of it, is the way it not only looks-forward to, but yearns for, the supercession of one mode of political authority (‘aristocracy’, or ‘tradition’) with another, more total one. It is a book that exemplifies, to a truly remarkable degree, everything Hannah Arendt lays out in her great study The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).

Arendt summarises a history of expansionist capitalism, which is to say, Imperialism, as grounded in ‘scientific racism’ (in order to justify the subjugation of other races) and therefore in the European prototype for such racism, anti-Semitism. She describes the emergence of ‘movements’ that propose themselves as the solution to corrupt political parties: movements that are hostile to the state, radically antidemocratic and antiparliamentarian, just as Wells's is. Arendt diagnoses the transformation of classes into masses, the role of propaganda and the use of terror, as essential to this form of government. Most crucially of all she makes the distinction between the new totalitarianisms and the earlier, merely autocratic or tyrannical regimes. Autocracy seeks only (‘only’!) to gain political power and to outlaw opposition; totalitarian regimes seek to dominate every aspect of everyone's life in the service of global domination. Arendt is talking about Hitler and Stalin, not about Wells (whom she doesn't discuss), but her book still figures as a pretty en pointe account of Anticipations, with this one difference: that everything Arendt deplores, Wells valorises. In her preface to the first, 1951 edition of the book Arendt says, mordantly enough:
It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organise masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.
It's rather striking that Wells, who remained emotionally and artistically so intimately in touch with what it felt like to have been defined by being young and powerlessness, came so wholeheartedly to identify with the believers in human omnipotence. If we wished to be charitable we might say that he was at least genuine in believing that the latter course was the way to solve the injustice that had put him, as a child and young man, in the former camp. Still, it is rather chilling to read Anticipations through an Arendtian lens. James Miller's summary of Arendt's political philosophy is on-the-nose about precisely those things concerning which Wells is so ingenuously enthusiastic:
She took quite seriously her own claim (often dismissed as hyperbole) that the forms of domination perfected by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union marked the final breakdown of the traditional authority of religion, natural law and human conscience. In her view, this was what made totalitarianism fundamentally different from mere tyranny. The key, for Arendt, lay in the fact that both Hitler and Stalin had convinced their peoples ‘to renounce their freedom and their right of action’, under the pretext that they were riding the wave of the future. Rather than trying to harness the power of the free will through laws, both had used terror to ‘“stabilise” men ... Practically speaking, this means that terror in all cases executes on the spot the death sentences which Nature has already pronounced on unfit races and individuals or which History has declared for dying classes.’ In this context of murderous mobilisation, old-fashioned notions of decency and goodness were turned upside down.
Biographers and critics sometimes describe Wells's summary of Anticipations, in his letter Elizabeth Healey [2 July 1901], as mere jocularity: a book ‘designed to undermine and destroy the monarch monogamy and respectability—and the British Empire, all under the guise of a speculation about motor cars and electrical heating.’ But maybe we should take that statement at face value.

It is true that Wells not only does not deploy the term ‘totalitarian’ or its cognates, he makes occasional argumentative sallies to insist that his New Republic will keep a place for all the idiosyncracies and individualities of life. So, yes, sexual reproduction will be legislated to ensure the increasing eugenic strength and beauty of the human species; but people (like Wells himself) for whom a non-generative amorist lifestyle is a pleasant hobby will still be able to pursue their sexual dalliances:
The question of sexual relationships would be entirely on all fours with, and probably very analogous to, the question of golf. In each case it would be for the medical man and the psychologist to decide how far the thing was wholesome and permissible, and how far it was an aggressive bad habit and an absorbing waste of time and energy. An able-bodied man continually addicted to love-making that had no result in offspring would be just as silly and morally objectionable as an able-bodied man who devoted his chief energies to hitting little balls over golf-links. But no more. [Anticipations, 304]
But worse than the notion of Wells himself gifting himself a philanderer's get-out-of-jail-free-card from his own earnestly purely-procreative future is the feebleness of imaginative extrapolation that characterises the gestures at variety—the sheer banality of his attempts to offset what is otherwise a pretty oppressively monolithic future conformity. Of the future mega-cities Wells insists that they will be ‘far less monotonous than our present English world’:
In many cases the houses may very probably be personal homes, built for themselves as much as the Tudor manor-houses were, and even, in some cases, as æsthetically right. Each district, I am inclined to think, will develop its own differences of type and style. As one travels through the urban region, one will traverse open, breezy, “horsey” suburbs, smart white gates and palings everywhere, good turf, a Grand Stand shining pleasantly; gardening districts all set with gables and roses, holly hedges, and emerald lawns; pleasant homes among heathery moorlands and golf links, and river districts with gaily painted boat-houses peeping from the osiers. Then presently a gathering of houses closer together, and a promenade and a whiff of band and dresses, and then, perhaps, a little island of agriculture, hops, or strawberry gardens, fields of grey-plumed artichokes, white-painted orchard, or brightly neat poultry farm. Through the varied country the new wide roads will run, here cutting through a crest and there running like some colossal aqueduct across a valley, swarming always with a multitudinous traffic of bright, swift (and not necessarily ugly) mechanisms; and everywhere amidst the fields and trees linking wires will stretch from pole to pole. [Anticipations, 61-62]
Golf again, you notice. It's all very ... well, bourgeois, isn't it? Rather at odds with the ideological mantra of systematic efficiency? Of course, Hitler's personal aesthetic taste was deeply middle-class and conventional: in public he endorsed Wagner, but in private he preferred Franz Lehár's whimsical operettas and his Berchtesgaden Kehlsteinhaus was decorated with every detail and freak of bourgeois platitude. Maybe there is some truth after all in that old Sartre line about the rebel being the one who works hardest to preserve the abuses from which he suffers so that he can go on rebelling against them. Or, to put it another way, maybe there's a more profound Žižekian point here about bourgeois banality being the secret perverse truth of radical totalitarianism. (In Defence of Lost Causes includes a passage arguing that Hitler's ‘grand gestures of despising bourgeois self-complacency’ were actually made ‘in the service of enabling this complacency to continue’; although he also reads Hitler's violence, ‘even as its most terrifying, the murder of millions of Jews’ as ‘an impotent passage à l'acte that revealed the Nazi's inability to question-confront-shatter the basic coordinates of bourgeois communal being’. [Žižek, In Defence of Lost Causes (Verso 2008), 152]  I don't know if this second point is right though: describing this violence as a passage à l'acte irrationalises it, rather; pathologises it. But what if, instead of a neurotic acting-out, this violence were actually both the point and the jouissance of bourgeois existence? But I'm starting to stray from my Wellsian point).

What this may mean is that the core argument of Anticipations can be taken as a kind of creative paradox: Wells wants to preserve all this nice little features of bourgeois respectable pleasure even as he proposes a system that will extirpate the entire social system out of which they grow. We might say that this shows up Wells's ‘New Republic’ as lacking depth, except that lacking depth may be a feature, rather than a bug. It is at this point that I recall the earlier observation about Wells's refusal to believe that airplanes might contribute to future transportation, or add anything to warmaking except surveillance, or his denial that submarines might have a place in his future-navy. A pair of symptomatic blindspots, perhaps. Anticipations forecasts the giganticism of the state, but limits that expansion to a horizontal topography: wider and wider are the borders of London set, faster transport systems linking everything into one flattened network, English and Chinese spreading over the entire surface of the world. All, to use the jargon from a rather different context, rhizomatic, not arboreal. His four-part class system is similarly flattened, with, of course, the exception of the en bas ‘people of the abyss’, whom the New Republic will exterminate. But those aside, the three ‘classes’ don't exist in a traditional hierarchical relationship, one over the other, the way out present-day classes do.

I think this ‘flatness’ speaks to a conceptual oddity in Anticipations, one it shares (not uncoincidentally of course) with Marxism. Marx took from Hegel the notion that he was uncovering the rules that govern historical process—not, that is, inventing a new cool idea, ‘revolution’, that might make workers' lives better, but rather disclosing what had always been true about history. Marx's argument is that revolution is inevitable because it is a necessary expression of the way the underlying forces of history and society interact. But if revolution is inevitable, then why do we need revolutionaries? Why agitate, educate, stand on street corners selling copies of the Socialist Worker and so on? Or, by the same token, why lock up agitators, sack communists from your schools or subpoena the vendors of the Socialist Worker before whatever body serves as your nation's version of the House Un-American Activities commission? Though it might appear, to the unwary as if the Communists and the Reactionaries are engaged in a battle over the future, in fact Marx is clear that the future will unfold dialectically irrespective of their shenanigans. Why get so het-up?

Anticipations has a similar unclarity at its heart. Wells's implicit boast is that he has uncovered (some of) the underlying laws that determine historical change: and that therefore his forecasts are not merely adventitious guesses but rigorous extrapolations of on-going underlying tendencies. In the Experiment in Autobiography he boasts that he was the first to grasp the law of ‘the reciprocal relationship between facilities of locomotion and community-size, and so a realization of what was happening to the world’.
I was, I think, the first to apply this relationship comprehensively to historical analysis. If I did not discover this principle I was certainly among the first to call attention to its far-reaching implications.
History is not at the whim of ‘Great Men’; it follows laws Wells is revealing to us. ‘In 1900,’ is his boast, ‘I had already grasped the inevitability of a World State.’ Inevitability is a pretty unambiguous word.

But here's the rub: if the New Republic is inevitable (arriving, as the book says, with ‘all the inevitableness and all the patience of a natural force’) then why, exactly, do we need to do anything to make it happen? It's going to happen anyway. And that casts a particular light over the exhortations to, or stern-faced celebrations of, the ruthlessness with which New Republicans will pursue eugenics, sterilisation and the extermination of the people of the Abyss. To say, as a Hitler might, ‘these Untermenschen are what stand between us and the coming of the Thousand Year Reich! We must remove this impediment, kill them all, in order to make the birth of that world possible’ is to say one kind of thing, cruel and evil but logical after its own lights. But if Wells's New Republic is inevitable, then it must be inevitable whether we gas all the People of the Abyss or not. Nonetheless, Wells copestones his vision with exhortations to be firm, to dispose of all these uncapables, these abyssal black, brown and yellow people, to abolish the Jew and purge the disabled and unfit. If doing so is obligatory despite the fact that such action is not necessary to the creation of the New Republic then might we be nudged towards the rather uncomfortable conclusion that such action is the secret truth of the New Republic itself? Maybe genocide is not a painful duty needful to bring about utopia, but rather the reason we are looking forward to utopia in the first place. The syllogism ‘if the story of Winston Smith is a dystopia, then a utopia must be the story of O'Brien’ is misleading in obvious ways, but it at least shines the light on one crucial thing: that these are fantasies, in the first instance as well as in the last, of power.

I'm not saying anything new here, of course. You might tell yourself you're joining the IRA to bring-about the utopian dream of a united Ireland when in fact you're joining for the thrill of blowing people up (or, if you prefer: you might might tell yourself you're joining the British Army to defend the realm when in fact you're joining for the thrill of shooting people down). There are, of course, a thousand varieties of that mode of human self-rationalisation. Indeed, if power-fantasies have the greatest purchase on those who have been shaped by a sense of individual powerlessness, then hypertrophic fantasies of total power presumably index some totalising sense of powerlessness. We're entitled to ask: what is the fantasy in play, here?

There's an interesting essay by Adam Phillips called ‘On Not Making It Up’ [it's in Side Effects (2006)] that sets parallels two dichotomous models of scientific and creative work: on the one hand that the scientist, or artist, or psychoanalytic patient discovers truths that were there all along, and on the other that that the scientist, or artist, or psychoanalytic patient invents or creates the truths with which they deal. Does Anticipations reveal the underlying truth of history, or invent a compelling (or horrifying) possible future? Do creative types disclose or concoct? This question sometimes gets caught-up in the debates about the differences between disciplines of ‘science’ and ‘art’ themselves, debates peculiarly relevant to a thinker (like Wells) who is so strongly associated with that straddling discourse ‘science fiction’. ‘Gravity was always there but the Mona Lisa wasn't’, is how Phillips puts it. ‘And yet of course we think of both so-called artists and scientists as creative. Are we making additions to the world as we find it, or are we revealing more and more of what's already there?' [Phillips, Side Effects, 79]. He goes on to discuss utopian writing (though not Wells himself):
In his recent Gifford lectures about Utopian socialists, [Jerry Cohen] suggested that they “prescribe a new form to reality. Contrast midwives, who deliver the form that develops within reality.” The familiar thing is once again at stake. Prescription of something new, or facilitation of something there already, and ready to happen. “The artist,” Adrian Stokes writes, “has seized upon a pose and almost painted the object out.” Whereas the artist as midwife allows the object its own shape. As in all such contrasts, the differences blur in the middle ... But the distinction I have been laboring over catches something of our sense of what selves might be like; and particularly creative selves, reminiscent as they often are of earlier representations of deities. There is the imperial (and imperious) self colonizing the world, or replacing the world with a world of his own: the artist who makes the world in his own image. And then there is the self as midwife, creating the optimal conditions for something other than the self to come to life; the artist as servant of a process. For the imperial self, the world needs to be improved. For the midwife self the world needs to be seen as it is. [Phillips, Side Effects, 83]
There's no question, when we put it like this, but that Wells was an Imperial Self. To much the same end Phillips quotes Denis Donoghue's distinction between the sculptor who addresses a block of stone with her chisel because she believes the statue is in there, somewhere, waiting to be delivered, and the modeller who starts with raw clay and builds what her imagination prompts her to build from nothing.
“In craving,” he writes, “the artist assumes that the block of stone contains within itself the form invented for it by nature; the artist's desire is merely to liberate that form, to disclose its hidden face. In modeling, on the other hand, the artist gives the stone his own truth, or what he insists is his own truth; the truth of the stone as a different truth is not acknowledged.”
Phillips adds that ‘the great American critic R. P. Blackmur makes, in a similar spirit, a distinction between the erotic and the sacramental poet who, respectively, foist themselves upon their objects in an act of virtual ravishment or cannibalism, or reveal and reverence an object by definition other than themselves.’ And this brings us back, forcefully enough, to Wells again. He was, clearly, an erotic rather than a sacramental sort of writer, as he was an erotic rather than a sacramental sort of man. And Anticipations is an erotic sort of book, one in which little islets of philandering pleasure are preserved, like golf links, in amongst a future-Britain transformed by prodigious mobility—immensely fast cars, hurtling down purpose-built freeways; vast reserves of capital made liquid to flow into the building of amazing infrastructure, or dazzling weapons of war. It's all thoroughly sensual, a major key restatement of a theme we've seen before in Wells whereby actual mobility (as, for example, on a bicycle) elides in his imagination with social mobility, and social freedom with sexual freedom. He was a modeller, not a sculptor, and Anticipations is a modular society, not a real one. How striking, then, that, as time chipped away the exterior of that monumental marble block called ‘the Twentieth Century’ it revealed the lineaments of a nightmare sculpture that so very closely resembled Wells's clay model. One might almost call it ‘synchronicity’.


  1. I've just read Wells' "Men Like Gods" (1923), a fictional utopia that draws upon much of the material you've discussed here: plenty of eugenics, the inevitable ascendancy of a scientific class to replace democracy, etc.

    However, I didn't see any racism in "Men Like Gods". Although eugenics and racism clearly have historic links, they're not quite the same thing. Here are the only two passages I remember as dealing with race:

    "In Utopia we found out long ago that no race of human beings was sufficiently great, subtle and powerful to think and act for any other race. Perhaps already you are finding out the same thing on earth as your races come into closer contact."

    "Utopians were in essence, he said, very much what their ancestors had been in the beginnings of the newer stone-age, fifteen thousand or twenty thousand years ago. They were still very much what Earthlings had been in the corresponding period. Since then there had been only six hundred or seven hundred generations and no time for any very fundamental changes in the race. There had not been even a general admixture of races. On Utopia as on earth there had been dusky and brown peoples, and they remained distinct. The various races mingled socially but did not interbreed very much; rather they purified and intensified their racial gifts and beauties. There was often very passionate love between people of contrasted race, but rarely did such love come to procreation. There had been a certain deliberate elimination of ugly, malignant, narrow, stupid and gloomy types during the past dozen centuries or so; but except for the fuller realization of his latent possibilities, the common man in Utopia was very little different from the ordinary energetic and able people of a later stone-age or early bronze-age community. They were infinitely better nourished, trained and educated, and mentally and physically their condition was clean and fit, but they were the same flesh and nature as we are."

    There's nothing here that asserts the superiority or inferiority of any particular race. (I suppose we might wonder exactly why love between races rarely reaches procreation, but in the absence of textual evidence, I don't think it's fair to assert a specifically racist rationale.)

    In your quotations from "Anticipations", I don't see quite as much racism as you suggest exists, but clearly you've read the whole book and I haven't.

    Yet if "Anticipations" is racist, then this raises the question of what changed between "Anticipations" in 1901 and "Men Like Gods" in 1923. Did Wells change his views? Did he remain racist but, for whatever reason, not convey it in the later book?

    In any case, I look forward to your discussion of "Men Like Gods" when you reach it.

    1. Thanks for this, Ian.

      You're quite right that Wells's attitude changed; and that when he was faced with regimes that began actually to put into practice ethnic cleansing he was vocal in his opposition. As I say in the post, there is no topic in Wells criticism as fractious as this one. At one end you have critics like Patrick Parrinder (an immensely respected Wellsian) or Michael Foot who think that Wells dallied with eugenics and so-called 'scientific' racism but only for a brief period, in 1901, maybe in 1902, but that almost immediately he changed his mind. At the other end are Wellsians like Michael Coren (not nearly so respected as Parrinder I must say) or the eminently respectable John Sutherland, who argue that Wells remained at the hard edge of the eugenics movement for years, certainly through 1905 and on, and that in key ways remained a believer all his life. This 1995 LRB article by Sutherland, and especially the angry letters it provoked (reprinted at the end of the article) show how polarised, and heated, the discussion can get (it may be behind a paywall though).

      My two cents: I tend to think Sutherland has more of the truth of Wells on this topic than Parrinder; but I certainly don't think it's clear cut, and it's certainly true that Wells's views did change over time. For this blog, though, I'm working chronologically through each book in turn, and am trying to assess them as they come, without hindsight. That can come later, when I get to those later books! And Anticipations is the most extreme expression of the eugenicist/quasi-genocidal Wells, I think. Indeed I'll confess to a modicum of surprise when you say "in your quotations from Anticipations, I don't see quite as much racism as you suggest exists." You don't see racism in statements like "as for those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white [that is, mixed-race], and yellow people ... I take it they will have to go ... it is their portion to die out and disappear"? That looks pretty racist to me, I must say.

    2. Thanks for your response. I admit I didn't realise that "dirty-white" means "mixed race". Although "Whatever men may come into its efficient citizenship it will let come—white, black, red, or brown; the efficiency will be the test" seems fair-minded enough, if there is a presumption that certain types of people are less likely to pass the test, then clearly that becomes racist. I'm happy to accept your verdict on the book, not least because you are much closer to the material than I am.

    3. I do take the force of what you're saying, certainly; and I may be overstating the racism angle. He certainly professes colour-blindness, in the passage you mention (and elsewhere in the book). I suppose it's just that these assertions strike me as radically compromised by the implicit 'if', the 'if they prove worthy of the high standards of the New Republic'. Take the section on 'the Jew': it lists pretty much every single offensive anti-Semitic stereotype, and then says 'of course, if the Jew is able to transcend all this then he will be welcome in my Future ...' If not, though, then it's 'abolish the Jew'. I'd say that has the appearance of a sort-of notional even-handedness, but the actual attitude is so steeped the immanent anti-Semitism of Wells's era that the even-handedness is never going to be anything except notional.

  2. Interestingly, five years on from 'Anticipations,' Wells published 'The Future in America: A Search After Realities' in which(amongst much else) Wells recounted his conversations with Booker T. Washington, praised the heroic resolve of black Americans -- there's a little passage where he talks up the decorum and manners of the black community in DC -- and warns that 'racial' segregation isn't a viable option for American society.

    So, perhaps an encounter with American racism -- and African Americans -- might have been educational for Wells. Who knows?

    However, I also suspect that the historical context of the turn of the 20th century has to be a little better appreciated. This isn't to condone Wells. But it's an insufficiently known fact that when he wrote... 'The whole tenor and meaning of the world, as I see it, is that they have to go. So far as they fail to develop sane, vigorous, and distinctive personalities for the great world of the future, it is their portion to die out and disappear.'

    ... mortality rates in what would later be called the Third World were much higher and populations in those territories were much lower, and 'white Europeans' were a far greater percentage of the global human population -- maybe even the majority. Seriously.

    Hence, given that demographic situation, it would have appeared to many of Wells's contemporaries that 'those people' _were_ going, _were_ dying and disappearing. Ironically, in large measure it was the dissemination of Western medical techniques and later agricultural technologies, like Norman Borlaug's 'Green Revolution' in the 1960s, that reversed that trend over the course of the 20th century.

    1. I think that's right. Or to be pernickerty, I'm not sure White Europeans have ever actually been in a global majority, but you're right that infant mortality, life-expectancy and so on were much worse in the Third World, and it's certainly the case that a great many people, not just Wells, assumed 'White European-ness' was the global future, and that what were thought of as 'inferior races' would die out. And as I say in my comment above, replying to Ian C., (I should probably have said this in the original post) Wells's views on these things are at their most extreme in Anticipations, and they do soften and moderate in later books.

  3. It was a surprisingly different world demographically in 1900, starting with a global population of 1.7 billion.


    Lagos in Nigeria was a small town, then, for example.

  4. Also, forex, in 1900 Europe’s population was 1.5x that of India, now it's not even 0.6x ....


  5. It is not even collected into a distinct mass. It graduates insensibly into every other class, it permeates society as threads and veins of gold permeate quartz.

    And you know who else is a property-owning minority present in every level of society... Polite bigotry often takes this kind of "if the cap fits" form - "all I'm saying is that we've got too many people who are rootless and cosmopolitan, I didn't say anything about any group in particular...". A sort of 'Find the Lady' racism - only the conjuror's affecting to be fooled as well as the mark. I think we'll be seeing a lot of this from Wells, unfortunately.

    The pseudo-Darwinism of "they will have to go" reminds me of a few things, not least the misguided idealists of the planet Krikkit. But also John Stuart Mill's remarks (in 1861) on how good it would be for minority cultures to dissolve into their larger neighbours - cultures rather than races, admittedly, but there's a definite family resemblance with Mill's liberal high-handedness.

    On the 'reading public' line, it's my impression that literacy rates in both Spain and Russia were around 20% when Wells was writing, so you can see where he was coming from.

    1. This is exactly right, I think. It's sometimes called 'dog whistle politics', but that's never seemed to me a good metaphor. It's more a kind of join-the-dots process.