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Tuesday 6 April 2021

A Mostly Modern Utopia (I)

One man's heaven...

The main thing I've learned during the pandemic is that I would easily be among the top ten candidates in the entire world for a long-duration space mission. Give me my creature comforts and comforting creatures, keep me at the right temperature, provide lots of snacks and a stable WiFi connection, and I'm set. A five year trip to Saturn ? Hah ! I laugh in the face of those thinking of such extended isolation as any kind of "adversity". Get the rocket, Elon, I'm ready.

Of course the flip side of this is that were I to be forced into the opposite, to actually have to continuously interact with large groups of people, I'd collapse in a spineless heap in about a week. Quite literally. I can survive pretty nearly endless amounts of "me" time but I rapidly decay into Grumpy Cat after a day or two without it. It's not that social interaction is itself unpleasant, but it is unavoidably draining.

Within these conflicting desires lies the central problem for Utopias. I've covered a few of them on this blog over the years : Plato's Republic, Magnesia, and the Federation of Star Trek in some detail. More recently, over at Decoherency I've been examining Jamie Bartlett's Radicals Chasing Utopia and Rutger Bregman's Utopia For Realists. And of course, on occasion I've gone into dystopias such as the future explored in H. G. Wells' The Time Machine.

Dystopias, though, I don't find terribly interesting as a rule. It's very easy to imagine just about any aspect of society, exaggerating it to something unpleasant, and bam - you've got yourself a dystopia. Literally any aspect : if for some reason all chairs were to become slightly too small, then society wouldn't collapse (a full-on chair-based apocalypse is even easier to imagine - just eliminate chairs entirely) but everyone would be miserable*. Well's genius was to use his futuristic dystopia to illustrate the problems of his own age, not just for the sake of depressing the reader** but, like Star Trek, as true sociological as well as science fiction.

* If anyone wants to make a web short about a dystopian future in which all chairs have shrunk by an irritating amount, I surrender unto you the copyright.
** This is the mistake of"bleakness porn" like Stargate Universe : it presents absolutely nothing interesting about why things have gone so badly wrong. Wells looked at underlying trends and extrapolated them, whereas more lazily-constructed dystopias only care about making the audience feel as miserable as possible and care not a jot for realism or analysis. Black Mirror is also generally an excellent dystopian vision that actually has a point to it besides misery.

So when I discovered Wells had also set forth a vision for a true Utopia, I knew it was a must-read. To imagine a harmonious whole in which everything just works is very much harder than one where everything is broken. Oh, it's easy for chairs, because we just give everyone the chair they like best and no-one's rights have any kind of conflict, but much harder for other issues - like my desire for everyone to leave me the hell alone, and everyone elses' desire not to. And though you can break society by breaking all the chairs, there's no way to use chairs to create a Utopia*.

* Unless you give everyone a solid gold rocket-propelled chair, maybe.

Prelude to Paradise

Well's A Modern Utopia is a rather overlooked work that is indeed, for the most part, strikingly modern in its visions. True, it is undeniably drenched in Victorian sensibilities - but it also has lashings of very modern ideas of social justice. More than a century on, the basic problems Wells sought to address haven't really changed as much as you might expect. This makes our present situation all the more damning : it's not as though we were unaware of the issues, and, in one breathtakingly prescient section, clearly warned of the dangers we were facing - if not their horrific magnitude.

Before we get to tackling Well's world, it's worth remembering what Utopias are for. Bregman's Utopia for Realists contains a nice overview of how different visions of Utopia reflect the needs of their time and their authors. Plato's fictitious states were concerned with justice and the ordering of society, with the absolute ideal being an omniscient benevolent despot. Medieval versions were all about food, including one mythical land that could only be reached by eating your way through three miles of rice pudding (yes, really). Some aspects of the past are certainly much better off being left there.

Modern Utopianists worry about everyone becoming fat and lazy. Medieval peasants, on the other hand, encouraged it.

But this doesn't mean that all past visions are therefore obsolete, of course. And being deep in the Utopian genre of late, I was somewhat bewildered to then read an article using the term in a disparaging sense. Having an idea of a better future is, to my mind, a fundamentally good thing and a serious intellectual challenge. Utopian thinking is something that I would greatly encourage, as does Bregman : we should put forth a variety of competing ideals*, and discuss how we best manage balance conflicting interests so that everyone can live satisfactorily. A good Utopia is not a magical fantasy land of unicorns and chocolate swimming pools and a Salma Hyek cloning facility**, but a serious attempt to ask how we can all live together in the greatest possible way. That's a commendable endeavour.

*  Wells agreed there is a need for multiple ideas, his own effort not intended as the definitive solution.
** Or rather, magical fantasy lands serve a different purpose.

AMU helps clarify in what sense "utopian" can be used as a genuine fallacy. First, when requiring a group of people to do a task that would always require good judgement, Wells explicitly acknowledges that this would only work because it's Utopia : that is, the people chosen will always be sensible and always judge correctly, which he's clearly aware just isn't realistic. Second, instead of solving foreign policy problems, he simply removes foreign policy altogether by imagining a global world state. Avoiding the need to address real-world problems by magically waving them away feels a little bit like cheating. And a third sense, though one which Wells avoids, is in thinking that there's some simple single solution to all the ills of the world.

Still, even this does not render the work any the less valuable. Instead, it serves to underline just how grandiose we should occasionally allow ourselves to be. After all, there's no point at all in a mediocre fantasy*. So what do Wells' wanderings in his imagination have to teach us ? 

* Such as a world of occasional ponies, free chocolate fondue kits and a Megan Markle cloning facility. Actually scratch that last one, it's taken us into dystopia already. Whoops.

Wait ! I forgot to warn you, the approach of AMU is appallingly unconventional. Wells basically just imagines himself and a botanist colleague spontaneously appearing inside his fantasy for absolutely no reason and then they spend a few days walking around. This has made it more difficult than usual to arrange things thematically. Roughly, what I've tried is to do first look at how individual Utopian citizens go about their day-to-day business, and then in part two I look at how the whole society is managed.

All Or Nothing : New World Order

By and large, Wells aimed at a vision for a true Utopia - not just a better place to live, but the ideal one. But his vision is tempered with realism : for the most part, he tries to accept human beings as they are, not as he would wish them to be.

Let us to the extent of our ability, if not answer that question, at any rate try to think ourselves within sight of the best thing possible. That, after all, is our purpose, to imagine our best and strive for it, and it is a worse folly and a worse sin than presumption, to abandon striving because the best of all our bests looks mean amidst the suns.

The first thing that Wells determines is that his Utopia must be a world state : an exclusive Utopia is an oxymoron. To that end, he gives it a universal language and full freedom of movement. It doesn't make sense to say you want restrictions on where you can go simply because it happens to be somewhere "foreign", and the same for communication. If you can't talk to everyone then it's hardly Utopia.

A state powerful enough to keep isolated under modern conditions would be powerful enough to rule the world, would be, indeed, if not actively ruling, yet passively acquiescent in all other human organisations, and so responsible for them altogether. World State, therefore, it must be. We need a planet.

I submit that to the modern-minded man it can be no sort of Utopia worth desiring that does not give the utmost freedom of going to and fro. Free movement is to many people one of the greatest of life's privileges - to go wherever the spirt moves them, to wander and see - and though they have every comfort, every security, every virtuous discipline, they will still be unhappy if that is denied them.

We need suppose no linguistic impediments to intercourse. The whole world will surely have a common language, that is quite elementary Utopian. Indeed, should we be in Utopia at all, if we could not talk to everyone ? 

Wells doesn't mean to say that customs and culture should be globally homogenous. Rather, there should be a global tolerance for a wide variety of social norms : wherever you go, you will be correctly understood. And while the world state should be universal over the Earth, Wells was repeatedly explicit that his vision was a mere snapshot in time : uniform but not constant; the best he could come up with, not the best that was ever possible. He acknowledges that it must be dynamic state, somehow stable in its progression, and the current state of affairs he describes only the best one available at the time. In particular, technological advance is to be actively encouraged, thus enforcing the need for constant adaptation.

The Modern Utopia must be not static but kinetic, must shape not as a permanent state but as a hopeful stage, leading to a long ascent of stages... To contrive a revolutionary movement that shall absorb all existing governments and fuse them with itself, and that must be rapidly progressive and adaptable, and yet coherent, persistent, powerful, and efficient.

The science of logic and the whole framework of philosophical thought men have kept since the days of Plato and Aristotle, has no more essential permanence as a final expression of the human mind, than the Scottish Longer Catechism.

The almost cataclysmal development of new machinery, the discovery of new materials, and the appearance of new social possibilities through the organised pursuit of material science, has given enormous and unprecedented facilities to the spirit of innovation. The old local order has been broken up or is now being broken up all over the earth, and everywhere societies deliquesce, everywhere men are afloat amidst the wreckage of their flooded conventions, and still tremendously unaware of the thing that has happened.

In marked contrast to Malthusian decline, he notes that scientific advancement has unleashed formidable new energies upon the world. The challenge for a Utopia is to maintain its own basic stability whilst continuously adapting itself to the ever-changing present : not, as Plato did, to design something which must fiercely guard against all but the most necessary changes or risk its own destruction. Wells, instead, wholeheartedly embraced the prospect of change.

Game of life simulation - ever-changing but always within certain limits. Or if you want a different analogy, Utopia must be like going to the pub. It presents perpetual novelty (because no two drunken discussions are ever quite the same) but also safety and stability, because you have a rough idea of what your friends are likely to say in most situations; you all generally agree on the acceptable boundaries of social interactions. Which is probably the most clinical description of friendship I can come up with.

Techtopia ?

This has given Utopia a marked advantage over the real world of Well's day. By harnessing the full power of everyone's intellect, it is considerably more technologically advanced, though not to the pseudo-magical levels of Star Trek. For instance, global transportation occurs not through aircraft but 200 mph electric trams. Society is still heavily industrial, but the industry has been set apart from habitation (Wells of course did not have any clue about man-made climate change).

The key is that he recognises that technology is not distinct from society. Anyone designing a modern utopia had better understand both science and society, and more importantly their relation to each other.

Now it is only in the last three hundred years that any human being seems to have anticipated this. It stimulates the imagination to remark how entirely it was overlooked as a modifying cause in human development. Plato clearly had no ideas about machines at all as a force affecting social organisation. There was nothing in his world to suggest them to him.

But this is no technocrat's vision of paradise in which a single magical development has solved everything. Rather, each technology postulated serves a specific, carefully chosen purpose for society. His trams enable freedom of movement, his industry permits an abundance of wealth : and yet while this would surely have been an interesting prospect a century ago, today, it's old hat. The actual technologies Wells proposes are, unusually for a science-fiction writer, pretty dull. There are no lightsabres or sonic screwdrivers anywhere, let alone any hint of a Salma Hyek cloning facility.

Much more interesting is how to arrange the benefits of technological progress : we have an even greater capability of movement than Wells' vision, but actively choose to restrict it and make it unpleasant to use, our fear of each other outweighing our own curiosity - to say nothing of the extreme wealth inequality that blights modern society. Wells, by contrast, views the prospect of mobility not merely as a nice bonus but something we should all desire, encourage and exploit to the hilt :

The population of Utopia will be a migratory population beyond any earthly precedent, not simply a travelling population, but migratory...
We are winning our freedom again once more, a freedom renewed and enlarged, and there is now neither necessity nor advantage in a permanent life servitude to this place or that. Men may settle down in our Modern Utopia for love and the family at last, but first and most abundantly they will see the world.

In this I think he was both right and wrong. If we ever yearn to see the world, we don't apply this symmetrically to others. We want that freedom only for ourselves. Or, perhaps, we want everyone to go on holiday but erect remarkably strict barriers against genuine migration, a word which in recent years has become all too synonymous with "escape". We have not embraced the ideal of mobility, and have even shrunk from it. Though in fairness this may well be because we've made our daily living conditions something to struggle with rather than enjoy, and so we presume that everyone else must be determined to escape their own symmetrical torment.

Still, I suspect that human beings are a good deal more sedentary than Wells believed. Given ease of travel then yes, they will visit other places, even work there for a time, but circumstances have to be quite extraordinarily different to persuade us to change our permanent residence. The barriers we enact to travel are largely, I believe, incredibly stupid, artificial... and pointless, because we don't naturally desire to live so far from familiar faces*. Tolkien said it best :

* As a postdoc I faced the prospect of moving countries twice, and though this is appealing to some, it definitely isn't for many others. A caveat is that if we could be guaranteed to end up at least in a specific country of our choosing, the reluctance to travel might be reduced. It's the commitment to many years of uncertainty which is a large part of the problem.

MOAAAR CHILDREN ! (less animals)

Anyway, what's it like to actually live in Wells' world ? For the most part, quite nice ! ...if a little strange though. All children, for instance, are to be raised in the mountains :

And by way of compensation there will be beautiful regions of the earth specially set apart and favoured for children; in them the presence of children will remit taxation, while in other less wholesome places the presence of children will be taxed; the lower passes and fore hills of these very Alps, for example, will be populous with homes, serving the vast arable levels of Upper Italy... By wise regulation the statesmen of Utopia will constantly adjust and readjust regulations and taxation to diminish the proportion of children reared in hot and stimulating conditions. These high mountains will, in the bright sweet summer, be populous with youth.
Except, as we'll see later, singing was strongly frowned upon. Soo... we need to replace Julie Andrews with Simon and Garfunkel ?

As I've said many times, the tropics are uninhabitable, and the fact that people happen to live there is but a minor detail. Even so, insisting that Utopia will formulate its tax policy such that all children be reared in the nice cool mountains is verging on, "and all ducks shall not quack too loudly !" level of weirdness.

Probably the strangest aspect of the work to modern eyes is its obsession with children. Like Plato, having children is seen as a key duty to the state. I suppose it reflects just how very much worse child mortality used to be*, when the requirements for child-rearing are so extreme (my emphasis) :

* In the UK, child mortality was 22% in 1900. Today it's 0.04%.

In Utopia a career of wholesome motherhood would be, under such conditions as I have suggested, the normal and remunerative calling for a woman, and a capable woman who has borne, bred, and begun the education of eight or nine well-built, intelligent, and successful sons and daughters would be an extremely prosperous woman, quite irrespective of the economic fortunes of the man she has married.

Umm... ouch ? Before we go on to Wells' downright weird views on women, it may be worth considering that his ideas do seem to stem from health concerns more than ideology - or at least, the weighting is heavily in favour of the former. Remember that fiftyfold higher mortality rate ! His views were hardly without foundation. Ultimately, there is a fundamental requirement for reproduction. And if you're so close to that level where a massive population crash feels like a very real possibility, then this is at least a credible reason for having ideas which are markedly different from today's standards.

But seriously... eight or nine ?!? See the Futurama episode The Cyber House Rules, in which the alcoholic chain-smoking robot Bender adopts twelve children as a money-making scheme, whereupon hilarity ensues.

Consider animals. In Wells' world, there are to be far fewer animals, and certainly no pets.... in order to prevent pandemics. Haaaaah. Yes, well.

Now to be fair, this solution does avoid any Trek-style technomagical solution, but it still feels damned heartless. Quite how far Wells intended this to be taken is unclear : the Martians in his War of the Worlds have eliminated diseased by exterminating all harmful bacteria and disease, which would seem to be both impossible, impractical, and unworkable : the evolution of new viruses and harmful bacteria would not stop*, and presumably leave us more vulnerable to new diseases that emerged. Wells did not have some pathological hatred of animals, but he did a) have limited science and b) place much greater value on human than animal life :

* I get the impression that Wells had a "linear no threshold" view of microbes, and no awareness that they can also be passive or beneficial.

Perhaps that makes me a little malicious. Indeed I do not hate dogs, but I care ten thousand times more for a man than for all the brutes on the earth, and I can see, what the botanist I think cannot, that a life spent in the delightful atmosphere of many pet animals may have too dear a price.

What I'm getting at is that if you genuinely think that dogs are a major vector of disease transmission... well, one can at least be more sympathetic to the conclusion, even if not going so far as to support it. But they aren't, so there's no need. This illustrates a fundamental danger of any science-based Utopia : that it might take irreversible decisions based on incomplete but compelling data. There is no easy answer to this. A certain degree of ruthlessness pervades all Utopias, which Wells expresses perfectly :

This pet dog's beautiful affection, I say, or this other sensuous or imaginative delight, is no doubt good, but it can be put aside if it is incompatible with some other and wider good. You cannot focus all good things together. All right action and all wise action is surely sound judgment and courageous abandonment in the matter of such incompatibilities.

Which is probably true. A Utopia that's actually possible without invoking magic probably does require difficult choices; even the ideal scenario is not perfect. It's just that reducing the animal population happens to be a damn silly idea.

Frankly, I'd rather have more animals and less children. I think a Wells raised in the modern world, with a much greater understanding of ecology and the dangers of meddling with the natural world, might even agree.

What's frustrating about this is that Wells draws on a huge number of different sources, both of past Utopian designs and the then-contemporary science. One would hope that would have been enough to avoid proposing ecological catastrophe, though I don't know nearly enough about the state of Victorian science to say for sure. Perhaps one lesson is that Utopias should be designed collaboratively as well as competitively. Wells tries earnestly to account for the different psychological natures his world will have to accommodate, but his science is, at least in part, woefully insufficient.

Wells' Weird Women

It does us the world of good to remember that even the uber-stuffy Victorians were also capable of being extremely silly.

I see more than a little of Plato's attitude to women here. Given the time and society in which he lived, Plato's advocation of full equal opportunity for women, including military and leadership positions, was enormously progressive - despite his view that most women were not the equal of most men. There's a very similar vibe from Wells. Sometimes he feels extremely backward, at other times almost... well, modern.

The modern ideal of a constitution of society [is one] in which, for all purposes of the individual, women are to be as free as men. This will certainly be realised in the Modern Utopia, if it can be realised at all — not only for woman's sake, but for man's.

 All well and good, pray continue...

But women may be free in theory and not in practice, and as long as they suffer from their economic inferiority, from the inability to produce as much value as a man for the same amount of work — and there can be no doubt of this inferiority — so long will their legal and technical equality be a mockery. It is a fact that almost every point in which a woman differs from a man is an economic disadvantage to her, her incapacity for great stresses of exertion, her frequent liability to slight illnesses, her weaker initiative, her inferior invention and resourcefulness, her relative incapacity for organisation and combination, and the possibilities of emotional complications whenever she is in economic dependence on men.

Err... no. To this I can only say :

Wells' solution to the economic disadvantage women face is to make motherhood profitable. Thus do we get the mother of nine mentioned earlier living comfortably as a single parent. However, before facepalming too hard, it needs also be acknowledged that he doesn't forbid anything much to women either : he doesn't stop them becoming rulers or scientists or artists or anything else. But he does view motherhood as being central to their existence in a way that is not at all symmetrical to fatherhood for men. And that leads to convoluted state interference in marriage licenses that could easily have been lifted straight out of Plato. We need not dwell on the tedious details, but one example is necessary :

From the first of the two points of view named above, that of parentage, it is obvious that one unavoidable condition will be the chastity of the wife. Her infidelity being demonstrated, must at once terminate the marriage and release both her husband and the State from any liability for the support of her illegitimate offspring... A reciprocal restraint on the part of the husband is clearly of no importance whatever, so far as the first end of matrimony goes, the protection of the community from inferior births. It is no wrong to the State.

Which is not even remotely self-consistent ! If the goal is to encourage child-rearing in certain state-sanctioned conditions (Wells says nothing is forbidden, but approved circumstances get tax relief), then infidelity on the part of the man has to be necessarily equal to that of a woman. And it's at odds with his laudable overall sentiment that the state should have no interference in matters which are purely personal :

For with religious belief and procedure the modern State has no concern... the adult's private life is the entirely private life into which the State may not intrude.

My guess is that Wells' was too deep in the standards of his day to think outside that particular box. There is no reason - none at all - to treat adultery differently for men and women, it is entirely a personal matter of no interest to the government. And making child-rearing profitable rather than simply, say, encouraging equal feckin' parental responsibilities is both torturously contrived and downright appalling, a clear manifestation of Wells' belief in the inferiority of women*. As to which sort of people are suitable parents, that I shall return to in part two. 

* Whether Wells ever really shifted his stance seems to be rather controversial.

Wells' Welfare

Our two (or, on rare occasions, more - Wells allows for group marriage) consenting adults need not have much concern if they're going to raise children. In part this is brought about by the overall conditions of the Utopian welfare state : there will be no worries whatever about raising a child in poverty, because poverty will be impossible. And if we should leave Wells behind on matters of gender, we might want to pay closer attention to his thoughts on worker's rights. It's here that Wells rises nearest to modern left-liberal ideals.

One could easily get some rather dark but mistaken impressions from Wells' introductory passages. For instance, when he describes the need to eliminate squalor, poverty and wretchedness, it verges on feeling like he's trying to say, "kill the poor !" but can't quite bring himself to actually say it. A fuller reading of the text, thankfully, reveals its only the conditions themselves he means to destroy, and most emphatically not the people. In Wells' world, everyone gets dignified treatment from birth to death. 

Utopia will insist upon every citizen being properly housed, well nourished, and in good health, reasonably clean and clothed healthily, and upon that insistence its labour laws will be founded. In a phrasing that will be familiar to everyone interested in social reform, it will maintain a standard of life.

The state's duty of care to its citizens is emphatically not communism (more in part two). Rather, the state acts in every way as a safety net. It does not explicitly use the simple expedient of universal basic income, though one could argue this is what it amounts to, perhaps in a more generalised form of state support beyond mere money :

It [the state] will find him work if he can and will work, it will take him to it, it will register him and lend him the money wherewith to lead a comely life until work can be found or made for him, and it will give him credit and shelter him and strengthen him if he is ill. In default of private enterprises it will provide inns for him and food, and it will - by itself acting as the reserve employer - maintain a minimum wage which will cover the cost of a decent life. The State will stand at the back of the economic struggle as the reserve employer of labour.

In this sentiment, if perhaps not in the specifics, I find myself in full agreement. The state's first duty should be to provide help for its citizens. It should ensure that no-one can fall into destitution not by nagging them or scolding them, but, when no other means can be found, by simply providing for them. I like very much this symbol of UBI :

I could not find the original or even a variant anywhere, so I had to make my own. In essence, everyone gets the minimum, but the great majority actually get considerably more - precisely because they've been given a sufficient minimum to start with.

In this model the state acts as the ultimate guarantor. It does not say much about how you should live your life. It does not say under which conditions you should or must live. It only says, "here are the minimum conditions you're entitled to, and it is our duty to ensure you have access to these should you choose". If you prefer your own resources to support yourself even at this minimum level, you're free to do so. If you're happy living on the state minimum conditions, that's fine - but those conditions must be such that you have a fair chance to earn more. You can't pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you haven't got any boots.

The State would provide these things for its citizens as though it was his right to require them; he would receive as a shareholder in the common enterprise and not with any insult of charity. The State will never press for its debt, it will not even grudge them temporary spells of good fortune when they may lift their earnings above the minimum wage. It will pension the age of everyone who cares to take a pension, and it will maintain special guest homes for the very old to which them may come as paying guests, spending their pensions there. By such obvious devices it will achieve the maximum elimination of its feeble and spiritless folk in every generation with the minimum of suffering and public disorder.

Work is seen as important, but so is leisure too. Wells goes on ad nauseum about the importance of employment and earning a crust, to the extent I had the impression that work should be central to one's very being. Yet when he eventually reveals the length of a typical working day in his personal Utopia, it's all of... five hours. So when he says that work shouldn't be a burden, he really means it. A twenty-five hour work week - well, it's hardly the workhouse, is it ?

The work publicly provided would have to be toilsome, but not cruel or incapacitating. Necessarily this employment by the State would be a relief of economic pressure, but it would not be considered a charity done to the individual, but a public service. It need not pay [profit], and more than the police need pay, but it could probably be done at a small margin of loss.

It should be noted that Wells is a little bit contradictory as to what he means by "toilsome". He imagines minimum work being tasks like carpentry, but earlier on he has a somewhat grander vision :

The new conditions that physical science is bringing about not only dispense with man as a source of energy, but supply the hope that all routine work may be made automatic; it is becoming conceivable that presently there may be no need for anyone to toil habitually at all, that a labouring class - that is to say, a class of workers without personal initiative - will become unnecessary to the world of men.

He elaborates. Then as now, the system of scientific investigation remains far superior to the political organisation, which deserves to be quoted at length :

The plain message physical science has for the world at large is that, that were our political and social and moral devices only as well contrived to their ends as a Linotype machine, an antiseptic operating plant, or an electric tramcar, there need now at the present moment be no appreciable toil in the world, and only the smallest fraction of the pain, the fear, and the anxiety that now make human life so doubtful in its value. There is more than enough for everyone alive. Science stands, a competent servant, behind her wrangling underbred masters, holding out resources, devices, and remedies they are too stupid to use. And on its material side a modern Utopia must needs present these gifts as taken, and show a world that is really abolishing the need of labour, abolishing the last base reason for anyone's servitude or inferiority.

I don't understand why this work isn't more well-known. Here he presages the famous quote of Buckminster Fuller that it is not necessary for everyone to work, as well as Bregman's assertion that it is over-work and poverty which lead to social ills rather than poor people not working hard enough, as well as my own notion that the political system should be organised more like a research project

... that general restlessness, that brooding stress that pursues the weekly worker on earth, that aching anxiety that drives him so often to stupid betting, stupid drinking, and violent and mean offences will have vanished out of mortal experience.

There's even an element of Star Trek's Federation here, with Utopia allowing you to win but not to lose :

The modern Utopia will give a universal security indeed, and exercise the minimum of compulsions to toil, but it will offer some acutely desirable prizes. The aim of all these devices, the minimum wage, the standard of life, provision for all the feeble and unemployed and so forth, is not to rob life of incentives but to change their nature, the make life not less energetic, but less panic-stricken and violent and base, to shift the incidence of the struggle from our lower to our higher emotions, so to anticipate and neutralise the motives of the cowardly and the bestial, that the ambitious and energetic imagination which is man's finest quality may become the incentive and determining factor in survival.

Surely the carrot is a better motivation than the stick. Those who want to drive themselves will do so of their own volition anyway; no-one does basic research for the hordes of fawning groupies and the fabulous wealth that is (alas not) the burden of the modern academic. Such people induce stress upon themselves which is more than sufficient to push them to excel. Conversely, placing everyone else under the threat of destitution is modern barbarism : to insist not merely that you must work, but that you must work long hours under poor conditions just to survive, giving no real opportunities to escape, is not incentive, not encouragement. It is threat. And a life lived under constant fear is hardly life at all. Couple that with a financial elite who view poor people with deranged contempt and... well, Marx hardly sprang from nothing, is all I'm saying.

Well's Wealth

So what are these oh-so-marvellous prizes ? Is there to be an upper limit on wealth, and what do Utopians do with their abundance of free time ? In The Time Machine, the post-scarcity Eloi were lazy, dull and stupid. Obviously that can't be the case in anything calling itself a Utopia.

Wells takes a dim view of contemporary economics, which he calls "infertile and unhelpful", depending on too many hidden assumptions :

The facts were ignored that trade is a by-product and not an essential factor in social life, that property is a plastic and fluctuating convention, that value is capable of impersonal treatment only in the case of the most generalised requirements. Wealth was measured by the standards of exchange. Society was regarded as a practically unlimited number of avaricious adult units incapable of any other subordinate groupings than business partnerships, and the sources of competition were assumed to be inexhaustible.

So much for the efficient market hypothesis ! Wells' economy is very much geared to ensuring the well-being of its citizens. There is money, there is private enterprise, there is certainly competition, but there is not, so far as I can tell, any real sort of market, free or otherwise. There is no consumerism - at least, certainly not to any appreciable degree. Wells reduces the economy to its fundamentals : the energy needed to extract resources and the mechanisms to distribute them fairly. Everything else is superfluous and artificial.

Economics in Utopia must be, it seems to me, physics applied to problems in the theory of sociology. The general problem of Utopian economics is to state the conditions of the most efficient application of the steadily increasing quantities of material energy the progress of science makes available for human service, to the general needs of mankind. Human labour and existing material are dealt with in relation to that.
...our commercial code practically prevents usury altogether... The idea of a man growing richer by mere inaction and at the expense of an impoverishing debtor, is profoundly distasteful to Utopian ideas, and our State insists pretty effectually now upon the participation of the lender in the borrower's risks.

Now, I profess to know very little indeed about real economics. But my crude impression is that the vast majority of it has very little connection at all even to which raw materials are available, and nothing whatsoever in relation to well-being. Again, Rutger Bregman (who laboured the point that GDP ought to be replaced with a better measurement) ought to be kicking himself for not mentioning this book.

Money, it seems to me, is almost entirely artificial. The financial crisis didn't happen because we started having problems producing enough copper or because we spontaneously forgot how to mine coal. The stock market doesn't usually fluctuate because we've got an unexpected abundance of spoons. Our day-to-day resources and energy supply are more or less stable, yet the value of a bitcoin (a thing which does not actually exist except in the imaginary sense*) or, for heaven's sake, a frickin' tweet, are subject to an enormous extent on hearsay and rumour. Travel tickets can be cheaper to pay for a return than a one-way trip. Enormous bonuses are awarded to people who leave banks than a worse state in which they found them, whilst daily salaries are out of all proportion to actual value and essential workers are treated with contempt. Yes, there is no doubt some connection between money and reality, but it's tenuous and convoluted in the extreme. Most economics seems to have as much connection with the real world as scuba diving does with third-wave feminism.

* Bitcoin are actually qualia. Change my mind.

Okay, that was a bit of a rant. But if there is some very good reason why our economy must be formulated in this arcane way, and not have some much more direct link between resources and wealth, I should like it carefully explained to me why this should be so.

Back to Wells. To elaborate, Utopia has a managed economy where the state has supreme power :

The State or these subordinates holds all the sources of energy, and either directly or through its tenants, farmers and agents, develops these sources, and renders the energy available for the work of life. It will maintain order, maintain roads, maintain a cheap and efficient administration of justice, maintain cheap and rapid locomotion and be the common carrier of the planet, convey and distribute labour, control, let, or administer all natural productions, coin money and sustain standards of measurement, subsidise research, and reward such commercially unprofitable undertakings as benefit the community as a whole.

But this is not to say that the state does everything. Again, it's a safety net, and an incredibly strong one, such that there is no need to accumulate ever-more wealth in order to have an insurance policy. Even the lowliest Utopian lives in comfort. This raises the question of maximum wealth : in Utopia, the poor do not get poorer, but if the rich get ever richer than social stratification and strife will surely follow.

It's inherently a bad thing to have so much money you can pay anyone to do anything. If you command such resources that you can crush your rivals without having to improve yourself, you've revealed a deep perversion at the heart of capitalism.

Here Wells is rather conflicted. He says that inheritance will be a thing, even allowing for special educational privileges, albeit with some time limit (presumably you can live of your parents' wealth but not your grandparents). And he denies that it's the love of money, and, by extension, wealth inequality, which is the problem :

Of course, money is not the root of any evil in the world; the root of all evil in the world, and the root of all good too, is the Will to Live, and money becomes harmful only when by bad laws and bad economic organisation it is more easily attained by bad men than good. In Utopia everyone will have had an education and a certain minimum of nutrition and training; everyone will be insured against ill-health and accidents; there will be the most efficient organisation for balancing the pressure of employment and the presence of disengaged labour, and so to be moneyless will be clear evidence of unworthiness. In Utopia, no one will dream of giving to a casual beggar, and no one will dream of begging.

There is nothing bad in gold. Making gold into vessels of dishonour and banishing it from the State is punishing the hatchet for the murderer's crime. It [money] is the reconciliation of human interdependence with liberty. What other device will give a man so great a freedom with so strong an inducement to effort ? The economic history of the world is very largely the record of the abuse, not so much of money as of credit devices to supplement money, to amplify the scope of this most precious invention.

Yet there is also a strong sentiment against excessive wealth, at least for its own sake. A key role of Utopian economics is, "to give a man every inducement to spend his surplus money in intensifying the quality of his surroundings" - you are not supposed to hoard your wealth, but to use it for the common good. And, crucially, wealth in Utopia is not power. While there are rich businessmen, besides that odd comment about giving one's children an advantage the mood is very much against wealth giving any kind of special privilege :

"Wealth," he said, "is no sort of power at all unless you make it one. If it is so in your world it is so by inadvertency. Wealth is a State-made thing, a convention, the most artificial of powers. You can, by subtle statesmanship, contrive what it shall buy and what it shall not. In your world it would seem you have made leisure, movement, any sort of freedom, life itself, purchasable. The more fools you ! A poor working man with you is a man in discomfort and fear. No wonder your rich have power. But here a reasonable leisure, a decent life, is to be had by every man on easier terms than by selling himself to the rich. And rich as men are here, there is no private fortune in the whole world that is more than a little thing beside the wealth of the State".

So if material goods are what you're after, you're free to set yourself up in a profit-making business. But that's about the only sort of benefit that financial wealth offers you, Oh, maybe you get first-class tickets in the trams, but you can't buy any more freedom of movement than the lowliest peasant. Everyone can afford to go everywhere, with, at best, some very minor restrictions on when and how often they can do so. Utopian government is much more than a safety net : the comfort of its citizens is as important as their base safety. Earning more gets you something, but not very much : from the bottom of the heap it is but a short stroll to the top. No-one is struggling to make ends meet; everyone is at liberty to advance should they choose.

Exactly how this is managed is left unsaid. I would still say that you're going to need some form of state intervention to prevent excessive inequality. That could be a maximum wage, a maximum limitation on wealth, or controls over how much property and land one is allowed to own. You also have to prevent the more vicious sorts of business practises, of attempts to crush rivals rather than compete with them - that states in reality are much wealthier than most individuals doesn't prevent this from happening. Wells also neglects corporations, which, collectively at least, can challenge state power. And while it's easy to assign the energy/material value of a product, it's far less obvious how you control what people are prepared to actually pay for it. All in all, I think Wells has the sentiment right but little to say of the practicalities. 

Let us suppose that all this has been achieved. What is it that the common people actually do with their time ?

Wells' Well-Being

As pointed out in a recent Existential Comics regarding Thomas Moore's Utopia, most such visions fall victim to "imagining that everyone lives drab, moralizing lives... people would be perfectly content to spend their time reading philosophy". 

Whereas in fact a great many more would prefer to watch Love Island. Frankly it's a miracle the apocalypse hasn't happened yet.

Wells does rather better. He does value people doing philosophy, but first and foremost leisure is necessary in and of itself. Hard work is not inherently virtuous :

From leisure, in a good moral and intellectual atmosphere, come experiments, come philosophy and the new departures. In any modern Utopia there must be many leisurely people. We are all too obsessed in the real world by the strenuous ideal, by the idea that the vehement incessant fool is the only righteous man. Nothing done in a hurry, nothing done under strain, is really well done. A State where all are working hard, where none go to and fro, easily and freely, loses touch with the purpose of freedom.

In Utopia there are all manner of alcoholic drinks (though public drunkenness is a crime). There is smoking. There are games and sports. By and large, "a man will be free to be just as idle or uselessly busy as it pleases him". There will be art, fashion, clubs, restaurants, theatres, libraries, and all the usual amenities. And of course there is travel, which seems to be something of a highlight of Utopian luxury :

In the Modern Utopia travel must be in the common texture of life. To go into fresh climates and fresh scenery, to meet a different complexion of humanity and a different type of home and food and apparatus, to mark unfamiliar trees and plants and flowers and beasts, to climb mountains, to see the snowy night of the North and the blaze of the tropical midday, to follow great rivers, to taste loneliness in desert places, to traverse the gloom of tropical forests and to cross the high seas, will be an essential part of the reward and adventure of life, even for the commonest people.... This is a bright and pleasant particular in which a modern Utopia must differ again, and differ diametrically, from its predecessors.

Ah, places... I remember those. Clearly Wells had never a) experienced a modern airport or b) watched Netflix.

We've got a mode of travel far superior to anything in Wells' day but made the whole experience as unpleasant as possible. Again, this tells you a lot about human civilisation.

Wells doesn't entirely escape a snooty tendency to look down on certain activities (we'll return to this next time), but by and large the very idea that people should do any sort of specific activity is quite the opposite of what Wells intends. The whole point of freedom is that people do with it what they will, and it isn't for Wells to comment much on exactly what that would be. At least, his idiotic comments on women and marriage notwithstanding.

Oh. That was easy. I suppose we'd better move on to the stuff our happy Utopians are forbidden from doing, then.


Plato said that justice is minding one's own business, which ironically led to his ideal society being run by an intellectual elite who told everyone what to do. In Wells, the conclusion is closer to the opposite, that you get to decide how to run your own life. 

In Wells' vision, we do need work. But we need leisure too, and by and large people are probably pretty good at judging for themselves at how much of each they need; they do not tend towards sloth all that easily. So instead of everyone living with the sword of starvation dangling over their heads, they were to be protected from poverty and squalor not as an act of charity, but as a fundamental right. Any money they earned would therefore constitute a pleasant bonus, with no-one working under undesirable conditions just to survive. There would be no real point in amassing enormous wealth because you could never buy that much more than the meanest citizen anyway. The energy of life, much as in Star Trek, would be fundamentally and naturally directed towards self-improvement. And though consumerism wouldn't exactly be dead, but it would certainly be rendered impotent. The rich would have little to do but employ their wealth towards the common good.

But Well's world doesn't rely on technomagical developments to bring this world into being. His postulated technologies were barely a few decades ahead of his time and we've long since surpassed them, and anyway there were hardly critical to the main goals. Yet he did insist upon change, development, and by extension freedom of choice, being integral to the project. And so the daily life that Wells proposes has much to commend it precisely because it's necessarily lacking in detail : those who can do a little work each day, then they bugger off to do whatever they want. In sharp contrast to Plato Wells doesn't insist that they should prefer to do one thing or another : Wells' Utopia is not for an elite but for everyone. Discussion and debate are encouraged. They are a desirable part of life, which although make a workable Utopia more difficult to design, cannot be avoided in any sane attempt.

The sentiment that Wells seems to be expressing is that people will naturally drive themselves forward because self-improvement, change, the desire for novelty, is fundamental to the human character. People need beneficial incentives, not scared into working - and certainly not punished so hard for failure that recovery is impossible.

I don't know if this is what Wells had in mind, but to me the extension of this is that competition is a virtue when it drives us to self-improvement. Where it goes wrong is when it causes us to adopt a different strategy - not of lifting ourselves up, but of pushing others down. That is the rot at the heart of capitalism. Not money or even so much the desire for more money, but the drive towards a relative difference rather than an absolute personal standard, a tendency to prefer to be king of the wasteland than a nobody in Eden. And that's why some form of wealth regulation is necessary, because the greater the relative difference, the easier this tendency asserts itself. When you can buy out your competition at the drop of a hat, and bribe officials to look the other way, what's to stop you ? 

Wells omits any clear discussion on wealth inequality, but to me a maximum wealth limit is every bit as important as a lower one. The underlying goal of Utopia is to provide the best solutions for the most people. To that end, relying on unrestricted competition is manifestly stupid in the extreme. Competition is no more immune to underhand dealings than collaboration is immune to corruption. Monopolies, or pseudo-monopolies where a corporation has excessive power through binding contracts over its clients, thus offering only the illusion of choice, are inherently undesirable. It makes no sense at all to sacrifice morality on the altar of freedom. Freedom is not a virtue when it means a license to kill or enslave (no, not even if you're James Bond).

The heart of the problem is that while people are good at ruling their own lives, in general they're pretty lousy at ruling others. So we cannot leave it to individuals to always decide their own freedoms; Well's vision is no libertarian or anarchist hell-hole. What we need is some system for deciding when the state must intervene, allowing it the means to decide which options must be forbidden for the sake of the general freedom and well-being of each and every individual. And that exciting prospect is what we'll look at in part two.

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