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Thursday 8 April 2021

A Mostly Modern Utopia (II)

Run, naked people, RUN !

Why don't we live in paradise ? I mean, accepting that the garden of Eden probably wasn't an actual thing, what with how talking snakes and magic fruit tend to be a pretty open declaration of symbolism. We weren't cast out by some big feathery dude with a flaming sword. Well, probably.

A more promising reason is other people. Plenty of people are jerks. Or at least, there are enough horrible people around to spoil it for the rest of us - or, to refine it even further, there are enough people behaving awfully in the wrong situations to cause everyone else to have a miserable time of it. Even worse, most people don't see themselves as behaving like jerks, so there's a fearful symmetry as to which side believes the other was in the wrong. If we could only realise when we were at fault, there'd probably be no problem.

Any Utopia must therefore have some way of dealing with this. Plato's solution was to put the philosophers in charge, either directly or by having them write the laws. Either way, through extraordinary effort and natural characteristics, an elite Philosophy Squad could be formed who would be genuinely fair and objective. A benevolent tyrannical oligarchy would, he thought, not only keep the arseholes in line, but to a considerable extent even stop them becoming arseholes in the first place, through the wise application of justice. 

The Star Trek solution is quite different. It says that first and foremost it's an abundance of resources which we need, that it's easy to be a saint in paradise. Granted there are important extenuating circumstances, like a massive world war and the kindly tutelage of experienced aliens, but that's the core of it.

What about the twentieth century's prophet par excellence, H.G. Wells ? Last time we saw how people live their lives in his A Modern Utopia (from 1904), which is to say : freely and largely equally. His powerful World State acts not so much as Plato's oligarchy, but more like a global welfare service. It's there as a safety net, providing work and money for all those who need it. It provides an explicit lower limit on poverty, and I've argued it implicitly applies some form of upper limit on excess. In this way everyone lives in comfort - no-one hoards excessive resources which could be better used to help those in need. Indeed, "help" is very much the name of the game, presuming that motivation should always be from the carrot and never the stick. An abundance of resources does play a role, but nowhere near the extent of Star Trek. Distribution, not sheer quantity, is what's most important.

This still leaves the problem of fantastic jerks and how to manage them. Wells has given his fictional citizens every possible opportunity and resource needed for success. How, though, does he propose to deal with those who abuse the bounties of his latter-day Eden ? And just as importantly, who's in charge of running this generally quite pleasant (if animal-deficient and child-abundant) world of welfare ? How does he suggest to stop the leaders from running amok ?

Trouble in Paradise

Oddly enough, beach holidays don't feature in AMU.

Let's start with everyday criminal activity. Wells has a distinct utilitarian streak, seeking to maximise the happiness and freedom of every member of the community. To this end, he notes that prohibiting certain actions is actually the best way to minimise the interference from the state - it is not a linear process whereby more law = less freedom. After all, the freedom to shoot everybody amounts to the "freedom" to get shot, i.e. idiocy.

Prohibition takes one definite thing from the indefinite liberty of a man, but it still leaves him an unbounded choice of actions. He remains free, and you have merely taken a bucketful from the sea of his freedom. But compulsion destroys freedom altogether. In this Utopia of ours there may be many prohibitions, but no indirect compulsions — if one may so contrive it — and few or no commands.

This is a bit simplistic, as there are some conditional obligations that people have to meet. But the intention to minimise this is clear. For this, certain prohibitions are essential. Importantly, he notes that this balancing act is a quantitative question, not a qualitative juggle between which rights are more important : you are always going to have to sacrifice some, the question is how many and to what degree, not whether you should do it at all.

In truth, a general prohibition in a state may increase the sum of liberty, and a general permission may diminish it. It does not follow that a man is more free where there is least law and more restricted where there is most law. A socialism or a communism is not necessarily a slavery, and there is no freedom under Anarchy. Consider how much liberty we gain by the loss of the common liberty to kill... Carried to the absolute pitch the right of free movement ceases to be distinguishable from the right of free intrusion... there are no absolute rights and wrongs, there are no qualitative questions at all, but only quantitative adjustments.

Which is perhaps better illustrated by a brief return to wealth inequality. Give a man opportunity for growth and things may get out of hand :

Very speedily, under terrestrial conditions, the property of a man may reach such proportions that his freedom oppresses the freedom of others. Here, again, is a quantitative question, an adjustment of conflicting freedoms, a quantitative question that too many people insist on making a qualitative one.

In essence, it's not, "should you be allowed your own house ?", which would be a qualitative question, it's only a matter of "how large a house should you be allowed ?", which is a quantitative one. There is no question that you have to prevent people from harming others. The goal is the greatest freedom explicitly for the greatest possible number, not to give extreme freedom to some at the expense of a few. Thus does Wells neatly avoid any utility monsters (it helps that freedom, unlike happiness, is objectively measurable).

Wells does allow people to have bigger, better housing that others... it's just that this level of luxury might be overdoing it. He also says that beyond a certain level you have to share - you can't have extensive private gardens, or at least they have to be open to the public most of the time.

Utopia, like virtually any civilisation, bans killing, theft, assault, and general violence (unlike Plato, who allowed citizens to beat each other up from time to time). While Utopia may have somewhat less personal privacy than Victorian England, still there is an undeniable need to prevent trespassing - to allow people to be alone when they want to be, and allow people to freely associate with those they choose. You can seclude yourself, yes - you just can't hide yourself away in a sprawling country estate with multiple houses and its own woodland, for example.

But the main reason for less privacy is not so much about wealth inequality but simply because there will be less need for it. Utopia will have a much greater tolerance and understanding of harmless individual quirks. No-one will judge you harshly for wearing a great big hat or for being a bit rude or routinely dressing up as a Wookie. There will be less need to shut yourself away, but nothing preventing you from doing so if you choose.

But while Utopia has infinitely more freedom than either of Plato's visions, it too has limits. The vast majority of the discontent of modern society, Wells hoped, would be dealt with given the extraordinarily greater living conditions on offer, coupled with the drastically lower levels of stress and fear. Even so, this does not account for every social problem :

There remain idiots and lunatics, there remain perverse and incompetent persons, there are people of weak character who become drunkards, drug takers, and the like. Then there are persons tainted with certain foul and transmissible diseases. And there are violent people, and those who will not respect the property of others, thieves and cheats... All these people spoil the world for others. They may become parents, and with most of them there is manifestly nothing to be done but to seclude them from the great body of the population. You must resort to a kind of social surgery. You cannot have social freedom in your public ways, your children cannot speak to whom they will, your girls and gentle women cannot go abroad while some sorts of people go free.

So soon as their nature is confirmed, must pass out of the free life of our ordered world. So soon as there can be no doubt of the disease or baseness of the individual, so soon as the insanity or other disease is assured, or the crime repeated a third time, or the drunkenness or misdemeanour past its seventh occasion (let us say), so soon must he or she pass out of the common ways of men.

Which is somewhat snobbish, and this description of people with diseases being undesirable is an example of Well's Victorian tendencies showing - which I've largely excised here. However, I highly doubt that Wells, if pressed, would say that diseased people ought really to be treated like criminals. There's a certain casual thoughtlessness throughout the text which I guess is more stylistic than any genuine hatred of sick people, though of course as to what bad character means... he definitely feels at his most Victorian about that.

In the TV show Brave New World (which I've just started watching and I never read the book), certain elements of society are condemned to run theme parks in the Savage Lands, where the locals run wild and free and tourists come to gawk at the unenlightened ways of their ancestors. At least Huxley thought of this as a dystopia - not so sure about Wells.

Yet in other ways Wells was clearly progressive. The state would allow abortions, but never capital punishment. The exile of the malcontents was intended to be genuinely compassionate and enormously better-minded than the prisons of his day. As with his views on feminism, it's worth accounting for just how different this was from the accepted standards :

You must seclude, but why should you torment ? All modern prisons are places of torture by restraint, and the habitual criminal plays the part of a damaged mouse at the mercy of the cat of our law. For my own part I can think of no crime, unless it is reckless begetting or the wilful transmission of contagious disease, for which the bleak terrors, the solitudes and ignominies of the modern prison do not seem outrageously cruel. If you want to go so far as that, then kill. Why, once you are rid of them, should you pester criminals to respect an uncongenial standard of conduct ? Into such islands of exile as this a modern Utopia will have to purge itself. There is no alternative that I can contrive.

And this is a thorny issue indeed. It does not matter how perfect a society you have, how much freedom and opportunity is given, there will always be the villainous, the powermongers, the bad actors, for whom this is never enough. There will be those who want to destroy the system - any system - for the sheer sake of it, not because they feel unfairly treated. Very occasionally, their skill will match their ambition : they will have the power of persuasion and the analytic intelligence needed bring forth their desires, but not the wisdom needed to realise that their idea is utter shite. Thankfully such people are rare indeed, but their propensity for damage is enormously disproportionate.

Actually plenty of people want really stupid things. Fortunately only a small fraction, but alas not zero, want stupid things and yet are somehow intelligent enough to actually get them. 

It's these people I think any Utopian system must take special care to guard against. The ordinary malcontent criminals are easily dealt with. We don't need to resort to literal islands as Wells proposed : our current system is, in fact, more than capable to restricting criminal activity to the point where we don't daily fret about it*. For my part I suspect that the much greater wealth, freedom and equality afforded to a Utopian citizen, coupled with a more reformist-mindset prison system, would be more than sufficient to reduce typical crimes to a virtually negligible level. It's a perfectly solvable problem.

* Of course, this is what makes it particularly awkward to reform. The current situation has serious flaws, but it is not so awful that the average citizen has any great desire or need to see it changed. I would suggest that any Utopia would necessarily be somewhere where these "broken toaster" problems are pro-actively fixed rather than waiting for the point of total failure.

No, crime is not the main issue. The real problems stems from people being generally very good at deciding how to live their own lives, but usually poor at making decisions that affect others : and yet they all too often desperately want to do so. They want to tell other people to live different lives despite their different choices having no impact, harmful or otherwise, on their fellow man. In the "moral matrix" parlance, it's the idea of purity that causes the most difficulties : that there are some behaviours which are inherently wrong, regardless of consequences. We shall return to this later.

It was the best of Wells, it was the worst of Wells

If Utopia is not for absolutely everyone, just who is Utopia for ? Given the era in which it was written, it would not be at all surprising if the answer wasn't "white people". Thankfully this isn't the case at all. As Utopia requires freedom of movement, freedom of communication, freedom of culture, and freedom of opportunity, so its freedoms must be extended to essentially everyone or they're worthless. Wells might have had a backward view of women, but he still gave them equality of opportunity. And though he said nothing whatever about sexual orientation, he was explicit in stating that said freedoms must be for all races.

As you've no doubt noticed by now, Wells was a eugenicist. He thought that desirable and undesirable traits could potentially be bred into or out of the human stock. This idea has been rightly tainted and despised through its association with the Nazis, but... wait ! Don't chuck out Wells just yet - there are some serious caveats to Well's interpretation. Wells hated Nazis and Nazis hated Wells, for good reasons.

While eugenics is a recurring theme in his Utopia, it is hardly a foundational principle, still less a cornerstone of its society. Wells was not equivalent to modern-day technocratic Utopians who see a single technomagical marvel as being The Solution. Indeed, there's one supreme exception to his eugenical tendencies (which we'll look at in the next section) which almost mocks the very idea. So while constantly present and generally annoying, it's not actually crucial, or even very important. A lot like Tesco or Piers Morgan, really.

Certain people do tend to make me... more sympathetic towards eugenics. Just sayin'.

And while Wells was clear that he didn't want undesirables to breed, he explicitly stopped far short of imposing any restrictions on such occurrences whatsoever, preferring tax breaks for the "right sort" of married couples to have children. But most importantly of all, Wells makes no link of any kind between heritable qualities and ethnic race. He thought there were good and bad characteristics, not that there were good and bad races.

However, there is one brutally shocking statement that Wells makes which I feel duty-bound not to shy away from :

There is only one sane and logical thing to be done with a really inferior race, and that is to exterminate it.

Not so very much later this was put into horrific practise. As with the reduction of animals, this highlights all too clearly the danger of a "rational" society becoming over-confident, of not realising that its "facts" are often more the result of subjective interpretation than pure objective analysis. Without careful guidance, science is easily perverted en masse into pseudoscience. And he also says that the worst thing about slavery is not what it does to the slaves (which is bad enough) but how it corrupts the masters. This is a distinctly Stoic leaning which I reject.

But if we were to decide here that Wells was just another racist Victorian, we'd be sorely mistaken. Wells was certainly no Wagner or Luther, foreshadowing the Nazi atrocities - in fact he spoke out strongly against them and they burned his books. And while this particular passage feels distinctly uncomfortable, I hasten to add that Wells elaborates that no such "inferior"* races exist : every people of the Earth would have a place in his Utopia, even if his descriptions of some of them are rather unpalatable to a modern audience. "Negroes are very clever at cricket", he says...  these days that alone would put him in the broom closet with everyone's racist uncle. 

*Which he does not properly define. What about, say, orcs or Daleks ? Some wholly irredeemable creature of pure malice ? Maybe. I for one don't wanna go there.

See, the rest of the chapter is a thoughtful and passionate  - often vitriolic - dismantling of the whole idea of racism. Wells shows not merely why the concept is immoral, but also how it arises and why it is so absolutely flawed.

The natural man does not feel he is aggregating at all, unless he aggregates against something. He refers himself to the tribe; he is loyal to the tribe, and quite inseparably he fears or dislikes those others outside the tribe... When we think of the class A as desirable, we think of Not-A as undesirable... It is part of the training of the philosopher to regard all such generalisations with suspicion; it is part of the training of the Utopist and statesman, and all good statesmen are Utopists, to mingle something very like animosity with that suspicion. For crude classifications and false generalisations are the curse of all organised human life.

Wells argues that such tribalistic generalisations are natural, generally unconscious, and pervade all walks of life - even, for example, botany. He even notes that he himself is not immune to this implicit bias, unable to prevent himself from quite wrongly believing that the English imagination is "in some mystic and impregnable way, the best" (but he is at least consciously aware that this is wrong). And he could see that the then-current state of affairs was to destructively exaggerate these natural tendencies. In his most prescient passage :

The natural tendency of every human being towards a stupid conceit in himself and his kind, a stupid depreciation of all unlikeness, is traded upon by this bastard science. With the weakening of national references, and with the pause before reconstruction in religious belief, these new arbitrary and unsubstantial race prejudices become daily more formidable. They are shaping policies and modifying laws, and they will certainly be responsible for a large proportion of the wars, hardships, and cruelties the immediate future holds in store for our earth.

Say what you will of him, his prophetic insights demand he be taken seriously.

His major line of attack against racism is that it confuses ethnicity with culture. He doesn't deny that some cultures are superior to others, even if he finds none entirely perfect or any entirely without merit. But he does deny, most vehemently, any racial superiority, even flirting with the idea that no real sort of race exists :

Save for a few isolated pools of savage humanity, there is probably no pure race in the whole world... Were the Jews to discontinue all intermarriage with "other races" henceforth for ever, it would depend upon quite unknown laws of fecundity, prepotency, and variability, what their final type would be, or, indeed, whether any particular type would ever prevail over diversity. 

Diversity among individual "races" dominates to the extent that there are no real averages. This comes very close to declaring race to be a societal construct :

The average Chinaman will never meet the average Englishman anywhere; only individual Chinamen will meet individual Englishmen. Now among Chinamen will be found a range of variety as extensive as among Englishmen, and there is no single trait presented by all Chinamen and no Englishman, or vice versa.

And furthermore, the openly racist bigots get short shrift from Wells. He rejects the pseudoscientific claims being bandied about, citing other studies the would-be "scientific" racist ought to read instead, concluding :

For my own part I am disposed to discount all adverse judgments and all statements of insurmountable differences between race and race. I talk upon racial qualities to all men who have had opportunities of close observation, and I find that their insistence upon these differences is usually in inverse proportion to their intelligence.

At most, racism may claim to be a self-fulfilling prophecy (as my grandmother once said she wouldn't want to be black because of the way she'd be treated) :

There is really not an atom of evidence an unprejudiced mind would accept to sustain any belief... that the children of racial admixture are, as a class, inherently either better or worse in any respect than either parent. It may be that most "half-breeds" are failures in life, but that proves nothing. They are, in an enormous number of cases, illegitimate and outcast from the normal education of either race; they are brought up in homes that are the battle-grounds of conflicting cultures; they labour under a heavy premium of disadvantage.

Wells gets positively angry about the whole deplorable edifice of racism, and, lest that "conflicting cultures" comment should disturb the modern reader, writes with conviction that so-called "intermarriage" in Utopia will be normal and unremarkable. He is acutely aware that many of his contemporaries will angrily reject this, thinking intermarriage a disgusting thing, but remains steadfast in his own conviction.

You would not like your daughter to marry the sort of negro who steals hens, but then you would also not like your daughter to marry a pure English hunchback with a squint, or a drunken cab tout of Norman blood. As a matter of fact, very few well-bred English girls do commit that sort of indiscretion. But you don't think it necessary to generalise against men of your own race because there are drunken cab touts, and why should you generalise against negroes?

If you are not prepared to regard a world-wide synthesis of all cultures and polities and races into one World State as the desirable end upon which all civilising efforts converge, what do you regard as the desirable end-? Synthesis, one may remark in passing, does not necessarily mean fusion, nor does it mean uniformity.

In spite of all the pageant of modern war, synthesis is in the trend of the world. Modern war, modern international hostility is, I believe, possible only through the stupid illiteracy of the mass of men and the conceit and intellectual indolence of rulers and those who feed the public mind. Were the will of the mass of men lit and conscious, I am firmly convinced it would now burn steadily for synthesis and peace.

The coarser conceptions of aggregation are at hand, the hostile, jealous patriotisms, the blare of trumpets and the pride of fools; they serve the daily need though they lead towards disaster. The real and the immediate has us in its grip, the accidental personal thing. The little effort of thought, the brief sustained effort of will, is too much for the contemporary mind*. Such treaties, such sympathetic international movements, are but dream stuff yet on earth, though Utopia has realised them long since and already passed them by.
*I do not understand why there is such a common trend to insist that any current bad thing is inevitably getting worse "these days". Perhaps it's just because we don't notice all the problems of the world when we're young, so as we grow up with labour under the unconscious assumption that the problems didn't previously exist. Always remember : stupid people existed in the past, and most trends wane as well as wax.

If eugenics is mentioned frequently but of little real import, the same cannot be said for racism. Eliminating it is absolutely fundamental to Wells' Utopia - not just for equality for its own sake, but also for the end of war and the necessity of peace. If Wells could hardly be called "woke" (a term I despise), he had at least managed to grasp many realities that his contemporaries simply refused to. While we might find many faults with some of what he had to say, that does not deny his valuable contributions also.

How to rule the world

Overall, I like Wells' vision a thousand times more than Plato's. It has great concern for personal liberty; citizens are genuinely free, not manipulated into being so. It uses the state as an agent almost entirely of help rather than hindrance. It gives everyone a fair start in life and a virtually equal means to enjoy the primary benefits that the world has to offer. But what we've seen little of so far is how the whole thing is run. What keeps Utopia well-governed ? What prevents ideologues from rising to power ? What keeps the rulers making sensible choices and not being held hostage to human frailty ?

Here I think Wells does quite well on theory but poor on implementation. I like very much his preference that you bloody well should ask what your country can do for you - that's the whole purpose of having a country. The whole point of a powerful state is not that it should exercise itself as a hive mind, as some demi-god to which individuals need sacrifice themselves for the greater good, but the exact opposite :

From our human point of view the mountains and sea are for the habitable lands that lie between. So likewise the State is for Individualities. The State is for Individuals, the law is for freedoms, the world is for experiment, experience, and change: these are the fundamental beliefs upon which a modern Utopia must go.

This is how state power can be successfully married to civil liberties, how patriotism does not go hand in hand with nationalism. A strong state does not require a weak people, as Lord Shang thought, not does a powerful government automatically mean Orwellian overreach. No ! A strong state exists only to serve individuals. If you do more for your country than your country does for you, then things have gone very wrong indeed.

Wells would surely disagree. Instead, help your country only insofar as helping the state helps the individuals within it. Never serve the state for its own sake : that way leads quickly to totalitarianism. But equally, existing as a parasite or attempting to damage the state for its own sake is no virtue either. 

Furthermore the state must be moderate. Again it is a quantitative not qualitative question : both socialism and individualism are useless in their extreme forms, but there is no doom upon us that we have to take either of those ideologies to such absurd levels.
The State is to be progressive, it is no longer to be static, and this alters the general condition of the Utopian problem profoundly; we have to provide not only for food and clothing, for order and health, but for initiative. 
As with Star Trek, a paradise that is static and dull, that satisfies all material wants but provides no ability to change and to grow, is no real paradise at all. The difficulty, of course, is how to allow progress and development without degenerating into chaos - or the risk of chaos, with all the fear that results and leads to a perversion of the ideals. Perception of a problem all too often begets a problem, just as perpetual pessimism leads to fatalism and a lack of attempt to change things that could actually be changed very easily.

I for one would quite like the pygmy tyrannosaurus of the first panel. It's both adorable and a useful deterrent to any would-be troublemakers. But let fear take over and Dino get bigger, and you've got problems.

At a very basic level, in Wells' world this desire for progress leads to the need for a greatly expanded University system. In his view, research in his own day was a thing that happened by lucky chance more than design :

In Utopia, however, they will conduct research by the army corps while we conduct it — we don't conduct it ! We let it happen. Fools make researches and wise men exploit them.

I think that last sentence would be better reversed, but no matter : 

In Utopia, a great multitude of selected men, chosen volunteers, will be collaborating upon this new step in man's struggle with the elements. Every university in the world will be urgently working for priority in this aspect of the problem or that. Reports of experiments, as full and as prompt as the telegraphic reports of cricket in our more sportive atmosphere, will go about the world...  a thousand men at a thousand glowing desks, a busy specialist press, will be perpetually sifting, criticising, condensing, and clearing the ground for further speculation.

This at least actually has come to pass, probably excessively so. Research is if anything now overly-competitive, to the point of recalling Wells' earlier quote that nothing done in a hurry is ever done well. We have become too reliant on crude metrics; a good dose of leisure would, I think, improve research quality quite considerably. Even so, overall the progress of research and development has unquestionably been on a massive upward streak for the last century, so if it is hardly optimal, then it's also still far above mere adequacy.

But research is quite a different arena from politics. Wells is implicit but unmistakable in the need for toleration, with the narrator in his story being accosted by an annoying chap who whines endlessly about nothing. You're definitely allowed to criticise the state. Criteria for punishment appears very much to be action, not speech. Wells omits any discussion as to how information is to be managed; we might draw reasonable inferences from his quantitative-not-qualitative philosophy, but nothing explicit is said about what the newspapers can and cannot say. I suppose that given the everyday state of affairs is supposed to be some damn pleasant, Wells presumes that no special precautions are needed.

AMU is written in a very strange style, featuring seemingly pointless interludes in which random characters appear just to whine pointlessly and loudly at the luckless reader, as well as a protagonist who's an obnoxious dickhead. Only towards the end did I realise that Wells is trying to be implicit, to say that Utopia must be able to tolerate and to some degree satisfy everyone, not just those who would voluntarily sign up to it. 

More disappointing is the system of government. Here Wells most closely aligns with Plato. While citizens are allowed enormous social freedoms, their political freedoms are severely regulated. Like Plato's Guardians, he firmly favours the rule of a wise elite. The major difference being that joining his "samurai" order is, unlike the state-assigned membership of the Republic, to be strictly voluntary. You have to pass entrance exams and, like the Guardians, obey far stricter rules than the general populace, designed to make power highly unappealing for its own sake. You have to want to be a ruler.

Typically, the samurai are engaged in administrative work. Practically the whole of the responsible rule of the world is in their hands; all our head teachers and disciplinary heads of colleges, our judges, barristers, employers of labour beyond a certain limit, practising medical men, legislators, must be samurai, and all the executive committees, and so forth, that play so large a part in our affairs are drawn by lot exclusively from them. The order is not hereditary  we know just enough of biology and the uncertainties of inheritance to know how silly that would be — and it does not require an early consecration or novitiate or ceremonies and initiations of that sort. The samurai are, in fact, volunteers. Any intelligent adult in a reasonably healthy and efficient state may, at any age after five-and-twenty, become one of the samurai, and take a hand in the universal control.

Practically all political power vests in the samurai. Not only are they the only administrators, lawyers, practising doctors, and public officials of almost all kinds, but they are the only voters. [Not quite true - Wells allows voting rights for everyone over the age of 15 when it comes to local building planning permissions, so that all locals get a say in the appearance of their area.]

If anything Well's samurai appear to be more extensive than Plato's Guardians. Yet Plato's system was very much a totalitarian meritocracy, with the state body politic having absolute control over its own membership (to which end it would interfere in its citizen's private lives from birth). And, unusually, Wells suppresses his eugenic tendencies here even further in favour of a pure meritocracy. The voluntary nature of membership is a significant difference from Plato's scheme.

There are further safeguards against totalitarianism. The one major exception to the political rule of the samurai is the "supreme legislative assembly" (I'm not sure if this means the court or the parliament), whose members must be at least 10% and at most 50% non-samurai. While membership of the samurai is to be for life, excepting cases of expulsion for deliberately breaking the rules, terms of individual offices are to be for three years, whereafter the local samurai vote to decide if there should be a new election to replace the current incumbent or not. This then blends democracy, meritocracy and sortition all together, even if democracy plays a rather distant fiddle to the others.

So while the state itself is supreme, the will of the state is not arbitrary or capricious. It is pseduo-totalitarianism at best, where civil liberties are guaranteed precisely because of the loss of political freedoms. Is that a price worth paying ? I think it just might be. If I could live my life however I chose and the only penalty was that I had limited political rights unless I chose a professional career in the voluntary nobility.... if the system really worked like that, if the admittance process only admitted those genuinely concerned for both welfare and freedoms, if it had strong guards against corruption... then it might be acceptable. For what else is the point of a political system but the guarantee of the freedom and contentment of its citizens ? What kind of tyranny is it if membership is voluntary ? So, if it works as intended...


But would this be the case in practise ? Not bloody likely. Where the samurai most resemble the Guardians is their puritanical rule of austere living :

The samurai control the State and the wealth of the State, and by their vows they may not avail themselves of any of the coarser pleasures wealth can still buy. Acting, singing, or reciting are forbidden them, though they may lecture authoritatively or debate. But professional mimicry is not only held to be undignified in a man or woman, but to weaken and corrupt the soul; the mind becomes foolishly dependent on applause, over-skilful in producing tawdry and momentary illusions of excellence; it is our experience that actors and actresses as a class are loud, ignoble, and insincere.
Hypothesis : Wells would have changed his mind had he ever met Brian Blessed.
Nor may the samurai do personal services, except in the matter of medicine or surgery; they may not be barbers, for example, nor inn waiters, nor boot cleaners. No samurai may bet. He [or she] may insure his life and his old age for the better equipment of his children, or for certain other specified ends, but that is all his dealings with chance. And he is also forbidden to play games in public or to watch them being played. Certain dangerous and hardy sports and exercises are prescribed for him, but not competitive sports between man and man or side and side. Alcohol, drugs, smoking, betting, and usury, games, trade, servants [are forbidden]. 
Our Founders made no peace with this organisation of public sports. They did not spend their lives to secure for all men and women on the earth freedom, health, and leisure, in order that they might waste lives in such folly.

Which is a taking a reasonable proposition to a silly extreme. Power corrupts, so allow it the additional trappings of wealth and pomp and you're on a slippery slope indeed. And the real-life system of allowing parties to choose their own candidates, with far more regard for who-knows-who than who-knows-what, produces some utterly preposterous choices. So making the conditions of power unappealing for the sake of personal material or other crude gains is not at all reasonable. Frank Herbert suggested much the same, saying that power acts as a magnet to the corruptible.

Yet... the more unattractive you make power to the ordinary people, the more extreme the ideologues you'll attract. Look, I hate sport. I think football is one of the most tedious ways of travelling very slowly forwards in time that has ever been devised. At least with watching paint dry you're not supposed to find it interesting, but football ? Some guy kicks a ball in a net and legions of fans get public orgasms. Doesn't make a lick of sense to me... but I wouldn't go so far as to say footballers can't do politics. That is plainly silly.

With Well's puritanical approach, sure, you'll get the dedicated servants. But I also think you'll equally get the diehard lunatic fringe. Much more worrying than the restrictions against personal wealth* are the rules forbidding perfectly normal pleasures. It would seem that - in effect - the samurai are only allowed to relax by solving Sudoku puzzles, making them peculiar in the extreme.

*In our own world, Isabel Hardman (and I agree) argues that such restrictions make a career in politics virtually impossible to ordinary people. Wells' system doesn't have such a concern, since everyone lives comfortably and has enormous protection thanks to strong worker's rights.

I mean... I'm sure this guy is a lovely chap, but is he likely to know anything about nightclub management or gynaecology ? I think not.

Wells' approach to preventing corruption is simplistic bordering on absent. Each year the Samurai are required to take a long holiday in the wilderness :

For seven consecutive days in the year, at least, each man or woman under the Rule must go right out of all the life of man into some wild and solitary place, must speak to no man or woman, and have no sort of intercourse with mankind. They must go bookless and weaponless, without pen or paper, or money. Provisions must be taken for the period of the journey, a rug or sleeping sack — for they must sleep under the open sky — but no means of making a fire. They may study maps beforehand to guide them, showing any difficulties and dangers in the journey, but they may not carry such helps.

This discipline, my double said, was invented to secure a certain stoutness of heart and body in the members of the order, which otherwise might have lain open to too many timorous, merely abstemious, men and women.

Sounds lovely, but the hell does wilderness survival have to do with political acumen ? Bugger all. I say give 'em a proper, relaxing holiday instead. Send 'em to Ibiza, or for a nice camping trip, or on a tour of European museums - something they might actually enjoy. 

Or get them to laugh at hilarious salad as stock photography suggests is apparently the most fun anyone can have by themselves. Just let 'em do something better than survival training.

The problem is that Wells is not cultivating a meritocratic elite, but a bunch of stuck-up snobs. Wells may have nicely avoided this particular trap for the general populace, but he's doubled-down on it for the rulers. They cannot possibly understand lives they have not lived, so how can they properly represent the people they claim to serve ? No, such a weirdly-selective bunch of high society will most likely serve only the interests of itself. The aim of utter dedication to the state is laudable, but the actual effect will be, I think, to create a powerfully insulting filter bubble. There's nothing wrong with choosing to relax by purely cerebral pleasures, but to enforce this for the rulers, who are supposed to feel as well as think... no, this won't work. If you think Tories who claim expenses for cleaning their moat were out of touch, well... things could be worse !

(Incidentally, I've had some very angry responses to this, including being called an arrogant, entitled fascist for daring to suggest we should have more ordinary people in politics. Another insisted I was obsessed with getting normal people into politics regardless of ability. Neither of these is even remotely true, and I'm genuinely baffled as to where the attitude comes from.)

The way I see it, diversity in politics is desirable for several reasons. It's inherently a good thing to understand the job you're supposed to manage, hence a purely political caste* is a mistake - this results in being proficient in useless rhetoric without the knowledge to back it up. It's also good to bring together different elements of background knowledge for the sake of the unexpected insights that can result. And it's also a solid indicator that you're genuinely hiring meritocratically : it matters not one whit if a candidate enjoys philosophy or prostitution so long as they're good at the job they're employed to do. If your entire team consists of straight white males aged 30-55, then it's a pretty decent warning sign that you're doing something wrong : not necessarily in the hiring process, but equally possibly in the educational process. For there is no reason to suppose - none whatsoever - that such a demographic would be uniquely skilled at anything very much.

* Which is to say, having some career politicians is hardly fatal, and probably beneficial. It's good to have people around with strong experience of the system. It's only being dominated by such a group that would be a mistake, just as much as if politics were to be run purely by scientists or yachtsmen or glamour models.

Because this point seems to get people awfully cross for some unfathomable reason, let me expound further. I'm all for ensuring that politicians don't get treated like royalty or amass vast amounts of personal wealth as a result of their tenure. I'm all for qualifications. Even restricting who can vote based on their knowledge of very basic political facts... sure. I don't see how you could have a Utopia in which people vote on issues on which they know absolutely nothing. 

But that's exactly the point. If this elite is so bizarre as to forbid singing, let alone alcohol, acting, hairdressing, smoking, watching sports... that's not going to result in a elite group of hardcore saints, but a bunch of loonies who favour their own raving ideologies above anything else. You aren't going to get better politicians by forbidding them from singing silly football songs (although for a very strong counter-argument, see Matt Hancock's karaoke). It is extraordinarily difficult for some to accept, but I don't think politicians are a uniquely awful brand of people. Rather they're relatively normal people in extraordinary circumstances, and if you or I were in their situation, I doubt we'd do all that much better. 

There but for the grace of god... what I'm getting at is that we sometimes judge politics in a very warped way. There are plenty of ways to find fault with Matt Hancock without going in to his personal life, just as there was plenty wrong with Ed Milliband besides the pointless bacon sandwich. 

An extreme view espoused by a professor of mine is that there are no true geniuses, only ordinary people with peculiar interest levels. This I think is not the case, but it does get at a fundamental point : most experts are basically normal people, not diehard ideologues. So if you want expertise-driven politics, forbidding ordinary pleasures is not the way to go about it. Take Jacob Ress Mogg*. I know a hell of a lot more about astrophysics than he does**, and I guarantee you I'm less of a snob. Expertise would benefit politics; snobbery harms it. And expertise comes from many sectors, including but certainly not limited to the academic arena. You want a mixture of high-minded political theoreticians and factory-floor workers - limiting the selection to one or the other is self-destructive.

* Literally. Grab hold of him and then please put him somewhere where he can't cause trouble.
** I'll go further. Boris Johnson may be able to quote the original Latin, but I'm pretty sure I have more understanding of what Cicero was actually talking about than he ever does.

Or to put it another way : pick any random dude off the street and there's a fair chance he'll have all the mental prowess of hamster that's jammed itself into a toaster. There's nothing noble about running a café or clothing outlet or a fish farm... but neither is there anything shameful either. You don't want literally totally ordinary people running the show - that's dumb - you want people of extraordinary abilities but of ordinary professions.

From another perspective, I recently heard an interesting left-liberal view defending the right of American politicians to appoint judges. It was quite rightly pointed out that the voluntary nature of joining the police has resulted in some very clear problems across the pond, which more oversight might well help with. In the UK, by contrast, having judges be self-selected by the judiciary has in my view done a bang-up job of avoiding the corruption which plagues Westminster, and I don't see how any sensible judicial system could possibly work with politicians appointing their own oversight. You don't have to presume that people are inevitably corrupt, but you do have to presume that the system may be abused.

The voluntary nature of the samurai then... well, maybe. But the methods Wells proposes to ensure they're of sound moral character - no, definitely not. Wilderness survival skills, abstinence from drunken football songs - these things are not guides to morality at all. Some much more direct test is required.

What's especially strange is that Wells does identify potential malevolence : the "base" class of people, as he puts it, who are prone to cruelty, concealment and bias (incidentally his personality classes are not hereditary, again making the eugenic tendencies prevalent elsewhere seem all the stranger). Yet while he designs a "research army" with a publication system basically identical to the one we actually have, in order to allow the flourishing of intellectual creativity, he says little at all about how the dangers of the "base" are to be avoided. I can only suppose he thought that such people would be really, really bad at camping trips, thereby letting natural selection work its magic.


Wells didn't have The Definitive Answer, no ultimate method by which a true Utopia could be brought about. But he did, I think, have several lesser answers, some valuable contributions to what would be necessary for a Utopian existence :

  • The state exists primarily to foster individuals. Its main purpose is a safety net to ensure distribution of resources such that no-one ever begins in or reaches hopeless squalor or poverty. There is more than enough for everyone, and it is stupid to insist that anyone should ever struggle to survive unless they actively choose to. 
  • The secondary purpose is to prevent individuals interfering with each other whereby they could cause each other financial or moral calamities. It does not forbid or discourage private enterprise, nor intrude on purely personal matters that do not affect the state in any way. But it does prevent outrageous levels of inequality, and it must restrict practises of attacking opponents rather than aiming for self-improvement of individuals (and presumably corporations). The Utopian capitalist must improve his product, never attack his competitors.
  • The state must be for everyone. It cannot discriminate on grounds of wealth, class, gender, race or any other extraneous factor. Everyone is entitled to a certain minimum level of dignity, no-one is allowed excessive personal hoarding, and the only discrimination is based on post-training merit : positive when determining roles, negative when employing unavoidable restrictions.
  • The world cannot be static. As novelty is a key part of personal life, so continuing research is a key factor in state success. It continually seeks better solutions, better distribution of resources, just as individuals are entitled to seek out new experiences and are so given tremendous freedom of self-determination.
The balancing act would seem to be that it needs to give everyone enough freedom that no-one (except the criminally malevolent) can complain of any restrictions, but not so much that they can interfere with each other. Self improvement is the key goal.

The system is then neither capitalist nor communist but has aspects of both, an admirable effort to blend cooperation with individualism. Your personal freedom to grow through your own efforts is very much of the capitalist, individualist mindset. By your own virtues and hard work you have the right to earn more, to find better ways of doing things that will improve your lot in life. But you don't have the right to use your resources or abilities to undermine your competitors : you must actually compete with them, not supress them. The simple maxim here is "no cheating". And you are free to fail. If you do so, you'll still end up in a situation from which recovery is eminently possible - a further and powerful encouragement to innovation. This deep concern for worker's rights and basic human dignity is strongly socialist, after the modern European fashion rather than that of Soviet Russia. In some ways it's both capitalism and socialism on steroids, a worthy attempt to blend the best of both worlds.

Personally, I like this very much. The details ? They're pretty shite, but as for the basics I think Wells was really on to something here. The daily life he describes (taking some modern liberties of interpretation) is so free and so comfortable that I cannot imagine anyone who actually lived it objecting to it. You're largely free to do as you will and so is everyone else. The state helps everyone and hinders only those seeking to harm others.

The organisation is what I find less than convincing. It's a good effort, but the voluntary nobility and shoddy character management offers little in the way of safeguards against corruption. The stated goal is all well and good, but the proposed method would, I think, lead instead to a truly Communist hell-hole. Wells describes the need for a vast database of citizens in order to properly manage the state, a reasonable enough proposition, but offers nothing to say how this wouldn't be abused besides, "because it's Utopia". And he says :
If we are to have any Utopia at all, we must have a clear common purpose, and a great and steadfast movement of will to override all these incurably egotistical dissentients. Something is needed wide and deep enough to float the worst of egotisms away. The world is not to be made right by acclamation and in a day, and then for ever more trusted to run alone. It is manifest this Utopia could not come about by chance and anarchy, but by co-ordinated effort and a community of design...
But he does not say what this common purpose would be. 

I think there are two key questions that remain unresolved. First, is our tendency to desire relative success a psychological universal, or is it only a cultural thing ? If for example we all have material success, will we simply shift our metrics to other areas, like prestige and power ? Or, worse, is avaricious greed such a part of our nature that people will always and relentlessly seek to to remove any limits imposed on them, even if they're there for their own good ? If either of these is true, then Wells' system is damned in the extreme.

Second, how do we ensure persuasion without stifling criticism ? Why are people sometimes so very easily led into abject stupidity, and at other times they furiously dig their heels in to prevent perfectly sensible, beneficial, intelligent change ? Much has been written about persuasion, but this particular point I don't think has been satisfactorily addressed. 

And there are thousands of other questions of course. How do we guarantee efficient organisation ? A state stifled by bureaucracy is useless. Are there some general trends as to when we should seek egalitarian networks and when we should prefer strict hierarchies ? What would be the effects of a true UBI ? And... how, given that working harder does give an advantage, do we prevent people from voluntarily working such long hours that few can compete with them ?

So my own Utopian design - the Grand Duchy of Rhysyland - will have to wait for another day. But Wells has made some important contributions : a vision far more liberal than Plato and less magical than the Federation. Not bad for someone with questionable views on cricket.

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.