Saturday, 20 January 2018

The Anatomy of Frustration (1936)

This is a manifest homage to Carlyle's famous 1836 work of philosophical-fiction Sartor Resartus. Carlyle's book purports to be a summary of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh's (made-up) masterwork, Clothes: Their Origin and Influence. Marking the centenary of that epochal, though rather strange, work is Wells's latest, purporting to be a summary of a ten-volume treatise called The Anatomy of Frustration, by one William Burroughs Steele. Where Carlyle's imaginary Professor claims inspiration from Montesquieu (‘“as Montesquieu wrote a Spirit of Laws,” observes our Professor, “so could I write a Spirit of Clothes”’ [Sartor Resartus, 1:5]), Wells's imaginary professor tags-in Robert Burton.
William Burroughs Steele, in his ambition to create a companion piece to The Anatomy of Melancholy, went so far in his imitation as to sketch out a schedule of frustrations closely similar to Burton's classification of the varieties and remedies of madness and melancholia. He was never altogether satisfied with these schedules he made; he was altering, adding to, rearranging them to the end of his life. There are several folders full of these revisions and there exists a copy of his first volume, black with corrections and plump with inserted pages, from which ultimately we may be able to reprint this, the opening, most labored, and least satisfactory of all his volumes. He was dissatisfied even with its title, Frustration through Confusions in Thought, but he never changed it. [Anatomy of Frustration, 1.1]
‘This big volume,’ according to Wells, ‘is a copious and searching attack upon the needless personifications, dramatizations, false classifications, tautologies, and mixed metaphors that at present, he holds, waste an enormous proportion of our mental energy’ [1.1]. Which is also what Sartor Resartus sets out to be, of course.

Anyway: Steele's argument is that, underlying all the various kinds of frustration in our life, are core existential frustrations we all have in common: and this book's task is to identify these and propose ways of addressing them. I say frustrations. I should, perhaps, say frustration, singular. Because Wells thinks it all boils down to one thing: our self-awareness of mortality. All religion is at root about this, he thinks:
Man alone of all animals looks beyond the lures of nature and becomes aware of death waiting for him at the end. All religions, all philosophies of conduct, stripped down to their bare essentials, express the consequent impulse to escape this inherent final frustration. And when you come to clear up the fog you find, says Steele, that the real attempt life is making in all these conscious processes, is an attempt to raise and extend the originally quite narrow and finite self-consciousness so as to lift it over this primary frustration, to enable it to turn at last upon the king of terrors and say:
O death, where is thy sting?
O grave, where is thy victory?
Bodily immortality, immortality of the soul, the oversoul, the overman, the superman, the mind of the species, Nirvana, return to the bosom of god, undying fame, progress, service, loyalties, are all expressions at various angles and levels of the same essential resolve—not to live so as to die. [Frustration, 1:2]
Humans being what they are, we don't generally try to face this dilemma alone: instead we band together, ‘something outside the individual life cycle is brought in, with which the individual motives can be blended and identified. It is a reaching out to greater entities’. Steele's project is an attempt to think systematically about this universal impulse.

The problem with existing creeds and religions is that they are, says Steele, ‘partial’. What's needed is a new, comprehensive mode of ‘merger-immortality’: the subsuming of our finite individuality not in family, or community, or caste, or country, or fellow-religionists, or fellow-proletarians, but the identification of ourselves with all humanity. It's achievable: ‘Man is the unending Beginner’ [1.4]. We all basically desire two main things now, peace and plenty (Steele/Wells considers such ‘desires for world unity and sane economics’ to be ‘conscious and intellectual desires’ [1.5]) and on main thing later, which is not to die.

Socialism was an instinct in the right direction which failed to follow-through, and Steele focuses a characteristically Wellsian contumely on Marx (‘after a few brief years of delusion, a whole world which overrated Marx is now finding him out—the essential snobbishness of his hatred of the bourgeoisie, the pretentious crudity of his social psychology, the hocus-pocus of his dialectic, and the phantasmal nature of his proletariat’ [2.3]). What's needed now is what Steele calls the Next Beginning:
The Next Beginning must be inevitably a world scheme. It must be a scheme for the production and distribution of all staple requirements throughout the whole earth. It must be a planetary economic plan with a universal theory of property and payment. It must involve one common monetary method because in an organized economic life there can be no general individual freedom without the method of cash payments, for these alone can liberate men from the slavery of payment in kind ... an understanding of the social life of the species must be the main objective of a universal education, and the service and protection of the world commonweal, the primary form of moral training. This primary unity must determine also the hygienic and biological organization of the world. Religious life must conform, on its social side, to the requirements of this world-civilization. [Frustration, 2.5]
We've heard all this before, of course; these ideas keep popping up in Wells's 1920s/1930s writing, fiction and nonfiction both. I'd say that this 1936 version of the Wellsian World State is less open to persuasion that any presently existing entity might be a useful halfway house: ‘Steele,’ says Wells, sternly, ‘puts himself into violent contrast with Communist or Fascist or Christian’. ‘No single organization can undertake such a fusion and reconstruction’ [2.5]. The book asks why world peace has proved so elusive, and concludes it's because ‘contention’ is ‘more natural’ to mankind than peace. Steele thinks this frustration should be addressed by getting mankind used to the idea of peace, in part by education but also through a rather alarming-sounding degree of force: ‘Peace must be imposed upon a weakly warring world. A World Pax must be a conquest, not an abdication’ [3.1]. Eek!

It's a short book, and quite readable. There are some nice paradoxes (‘the present enfeeblement of authoritative moral injunctions, he declares, is due to our increasingly urgent need for them’ [2.1]), although mostly the book is earnestly declarative The whole culminates with Steele's fundamental ‘Three Theses’. ‘They run as follows’:
First: that whatever the origins of the ideas and practices of ownership may be, ownership is now made, protected, and enforced by the laws of society; and there is no reason whatever except the collective welfare why any sort of ownership or any particular ownership should be enforced or permitted. This is plainly the sole basis for all modern law affecting property throughout the world.

Second: that whatever the distribution of sovereignties may have been in the past, All Mankind is now the ultimate owner of the natural resources of the planet, earth, sky, and sea ... Property is the quid pro quo by which the man of spirit surrenders to collective living and it is the common guarantee against intolerable usurpation. Men without sovereignty, ownership, or freedom—or the pride that comes with these things—are incurably careless with the goods of this world and spiritless in production. For that reason property must continue to exist. But property must be ‘kinetic.’ It must never ‘congeal.’ Modern property in land or any sort of natural resources can be at most only a ‘stimulating responsible leasehold.’

Third: ‘money exists to pay wages.’ Steele argues that the whole economic machine is essentially a process of work; that it can be presented as a spectacle of work; that the worker's instinct to render unrewarded services is practically negligible and that it is money that ‘works the worker.’ ... The money system has to be worked out to a final simplicity in which you will draw your pay as you earn it, keep it by you, bother no more about it, and be sure it will neither lose nor gain in "purchasing power" until you spend it. [Frustrations, 3.2]
The last part of Wells's work (a summary, supposedly, of ‘Steele's tenth book’) calls for educational reform, and includes some mockery of the present pedagogic system rather reminiscent of 1918's Joan and Peter: Steele asks ‘does one teacher in a hundred ever ask himself what he imagines he is doing to the learner and the world?’, and Wells glosses: ‘this educational survey becomes for a time an onslaught on dons and teachers’ [3.3]


I'm trying, in as good a conscience as I can muster, to see Wells's proposed World State as he saw it—trying, for instance, not to let my advantages of hindsight trip me into quasi-superior condescension. But it is hard. Take this bit of The Anatomy of Frustration:
Existing governments, [Steele] explains, have been evolved as militant directorates concerned primarily with the aggressive and defensive application of force. But in a world-pax the employment of force will be largely a reserve resource of the general police, and the main functions to be discharged by world-wide directive organizations will be economic, financial, and informative. [Anatomy, 2.5]
I daresay it says more about my preconceptions than it does about Wells's intentions if I say: this reads to me as proposing that (as it might be) the British Expeditionary Force should be replaced by (as it might be) a suitably beefed-up global KGB. Which is to say, it's hard to see the advantage and easy to see the disadvantage in such a scheme. More, I wonder whether the rest of this passage doesn't actually describe contemporary Neoliberalism—a slippery term, I know; but one that, if it means anything, is surely shorthand for the present-day global supremacy of economic, financial, and data/information forces over (say) the rule of law, environmental or humanitarian impulses. That's obviously not a very sympathetic reading of Wells, but I'm struggling to see how I'm actively misrepresenting him by advancing it.
Steele sees the Next Beginning taking the form of a multitude of political and organizing movements for the establishment of a number of world-wide or almost world-wide directorates and controls. These movements may go on almost independently, linked only by their planetary range. In spite of all contemporary appearances to the contrary, Steele believed that it is not merely possible but urgent that in the various fields of health, money, and credit, in the production and distribution of staple commodities, in transport, and particularly air transport, in standard of life, and police, cosmopolitan controls should come into existence. The stars in their courses fight against particularism in these matters. [Anatomy, 2.6]
But how would these independent and immensely powerful quangos not end up jockeying with one another, or actively fighting one another, for power? I honestly don't think the question is prompted by mere cynicism. And again: Steele proposes to
set very definite limits to the use of money. Only for very definite kinds of property should there be ‘free sale.’ For food, clothing, adornment, transportation, and shelter, Steele would allow practically ‘free purchase’; almost every other kind of acquisition from a pet dog to a mountain valley he would make conditional on a more or less completely defined ‘proper use.’ By a reorganization of distribution and a development of public stock-keeping—a colossal extension of the post office, so to speak—he would squeeze deliberate acquisition for resale, passive non-manufacturing ownership for monetary profit, that is, out of the category of permissible things. Appparently he wanted to tariff and control all distributors from the shipowner to the barrow man. He is very hostile to what he calls profit by ‘interception’—meaning very much what the Bolsheviks, in their age of virtue, used to mean by ‘speculation.’
So everybody gets free food, housing, clothing and a bus pass; but their access to literally everything else they might need or want will be controlled by a huge global bureaucracy, a ‘colossal extension of the post office’? Whose officers will get to determine whether citizens' requests meet a criterion of ‘proper use’? Wow. No potential for massive corruption, expropriation and misuse of powers there!

I mean: could Wells not see the potential for power-imbalance, corruption and misuse inherent in these structures? Or I am overplaying what seems to me so very obvious?

The book's parting shot, though, leads me to believe that Wells would have been very impressed with the whole Wikipedia/Google-Books side to Modernity. To facilitate not only the effectiveness but the global standardisation of education, says Wells, will be a ‘World Encyclopaedia’: ‘a central brain, an organization for the accumulation, concentration, sifting out, digestion, and rendering of knowledge; it is every museum, library, scientific society, poet and thinker and active intelligence brought into correlation. It is a synthesis of summaries. It is the New Atlantis on a twentieth-century instead of an Elizabethan scale’ [3.3]. Wells thinks the construction of such a resource would cost, in modern money, billions (he demands ‘scores of millions of pounds ... expenditure on the scale of war preparation’ and ‘the participation of hundreds of thousands of workers’ [3.3]) and he was wrong about that. But still: it's cool to have instant access to the world's knowledge. Wouldn't you say?

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