1: The Utopia itself
Another red book from Wells, as you can see from the first edition cover:—two men on a walking holiday in Switzerland (they're not named in the novel, but are versions of Wells and his friend Graham Wallas, who were on such a tour when Wells conceived the book) slip, somehow, through some kind of kink in space, to the far edge of the galaxy and onto an exact replica of the Earth, 1905, inhabited by exactly the same population as our Earth, but a Utopia. The eleven chapters follow the two as they explore this familiar-yet-utterly-different world and society, Wells layering elements of characterisation, backstory and plot with thick slabs of social explanation and infodumping, somewhat after the model, formally speaking, of a parfait. The main character, known only as ‘the Voice’, narrates; his companion, ‘the botanist’, contributes a little to the discussion, but spends much of the novel mooning after an unhappy love-affair back on our Earth, which ended when the woman he loved married another man.
The two stay in a Utopian inn in Switzerland (‘Switz-U-land’ as Wells, disappointingly, omits to call it) and learn about the Utopian conception of freedom, money and property. The whole planet is one State , and everywhere is connected with everywhere via an advanced infrastructure of electric trams, trains, boats and the like. Everyone is guaranteed a basic income, but is free to earn more if they want to. All land is owned by the State but individuals can lease it to build houses, factories and so on. They meet a Utopian dissenter who thinks society should give over and mankind return to a state of Nature, and thereby learn that the Utopian State is perfectly tolerant of recusants. Everyone is vegetarian. Nobody is forced to work, but inducements and rewards mean that productive people enjoy a finer quality of life. We discover what Utopia does with the hopeless cases, decadents and criminals—dumps them on an island somewhere and otherwise leaves them to their own devices—and how sex and having kids are handled (the former is much freer than in our world, the latter more tightly regulated). It's all very clean and sane and rational and it makes my teeth itch to contemplate it, to be honest. I'm sure that's just me.
Utopian society is divided into four ‘classes’: the Poietic, or makers; the Kinetic, or doers; the Dull and the Base (a different four-fold scheme to the one Wells anticipated in, uh, Anticipations). General global mobility of population has done away with nationalism, and Chapter 11, on ‘Race’, goes some way—though not as far as some critics perhaps suggest—towards repudiating the racism of the earlier Wells: all races are welcome provided they live-up to the Utopian ideal. Dig down into the specifics of Wells's ideal state and things get odder. There are, for instance, no pets: ‘the race of cats and dogs [provide] living fastnesses to which such diseases as plague, influenza, catarrhs and the like, can retreat to sally forth again—[and] must pass ...’ This upsets the botanist, who is fond of dogs. What else? Well, fatties are thin on the ground: the visitors clock ‘one or two fat people—they are all the more noticeable because they are rare’, and there are no baldies at all, since ‘the Utopians have brought a sounder physiological science than ours to bear upon regimen.’ I glance in the mirror at my own pot-belly and bald head, and grin nervously at my reflection. Uh-oh!
The Voice and the botanist travel to London, the former to meet his Utopian self, the latter to seek out the Utopian version of the woman who broke his heart back on Earth. Here, as a kind of conceptual climax to the narrative, Wells describes the ‘samurai’, perhaps the book's most famous invention:—Utopia's ruling caste, a form of ‘voluntary nobility’, ‘open to every physically and mentally healthy adult in the Utopian State who will observe its prescribed austere rule of living’. The person wishing to be a samurai ‘must be in sound health, free from certain foul, avoidable, and demoralising diseases, and in good training. We reject men who are fat, or thin and flabby, or whose nerves are shaky’. Members of this select band undertake to maintain themselves in ‘a state of moral and bodily health and efficiency’: no booze, no cigarettes, a compulsory annual one-week solitary trek through the wilderness. There are various, sometimes rather oddly specific interdictions: the samurai must forebear usury and salesmanship; they can't be actors or singers (‘professional mimicry is not only held to be undignified in a man or woman, but to weaken and corrupt the soul’) and they are not allowed to play cricket, of all things. The reason given for this last restriction is that they must represent the best of the best, and that it would be ‘undignified and unpleasant for the samurai to play conspicuously ill, and impossible for them to play so constantly as to keep hand and eye in training against the man who was fool enough and cheap enough to become an expert’. One can't help feeling that Wells's feelings about his own father, in his time a professional cricketer, are creeping-in here.
What else? Samurai need not be celibate, but they must be chaste, and may only marry other samurai; so if a female or male samurai falls in love with a non-samurai they must leave the order. Otherwise this reiterated stress on self-discipline, cold showers and no grubby beards for the men (‘the samurai must bathe in cold water, and the men must shave every day’) can hardly help but strike the modern reader as the very acme of the earnest socialist faux-ascetic lentil-eating fell-walking cliché. Presumably, it didn't strike contemporaries that way. Indeed the evidence on the latter point all runs the other way. Wells was upfront that he styled the samuari order in part to flatter his fellow Fabians, who liked to fantasise that they could becomes the timoniers of the future socialist world-state. When Beatrice Webb thanked him for giving her a copy of the book, he replied (she noted this in her diary): ‘the chapters on the Samurai will pander to all your worse instincts!’ Another Fabian, Sydney Olivier, reviewed the book gushingly in Fabian News, and also wrote to Wells privately ‘I recognise your trumpeting Angel of the Samurai as my desire for the League of Sane Men’. This ruling elite who, the book says, ‘look like Knights Templars, who bear a name that recalls the swordsmen of Japan’ are, to quote the Independent Review [October 1905] ‘in fact, the Platonic “guardians” born again into an age of electricity and statistics’. The frontispiece to the first edition, by Edmund J Sullivan, illustrates a representative member of ‘the Order of the Samurai’ haughtily spurning various allegorical dangers and temptations.
The judgement that this representation misses heroic dignity by a country mile and lands squarely on the ludicrousness of ill-judged cosplay belongs, of course, in the eye of the beholder.
I'll come back to the samurai in a bit, and in particular to the extent to which Wells addresses the very manifest dangers of concentrating so much power in such an elite (‘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’) with only the scantiest of checks and balances. Anyone who breaks the samurai's code is expelled, but expelled (of course) by the samurai. Likewise we're told that ‘every ruler and official is put on his trial every three years’, which sounds like a good idea; until we discover that this trial happens before a jury drawn ‘either from the samurai of his municipal area or from the general catalogue of the samurai’. Which is as if to say: your world will vest supreme political power in the SS, but don't worry! Every three years the SS will decide whether the SS is doing a good job!
Anyhow: the Voice discovers that his Utopian double, his better self, is, of course, a samurai, and the two have lengthy, infodumpy conversations. The botanist, meanwhile, tracks down Mary, the woman he loved and lost on our Earth, and discovers her just as she is getting married to ‘one of the samurai, a dark, strong-faced man.’ The botanist's grief and pique break out so strongly it destabilises the whole utopian vision.
He thrusts me weakly back with his long, white hand. “My God!” he says almost forcibly, “what nonsense all this is! All these dreams! All Utopias! There she is―! Oh, but I have dreamt of her! And now―”And we're home again. The novel ends with the narrator struck by the comparative ugliness, dirtiness and poverty of our world, although he has a sort of vision ‘a towering figure of flame and colour, standing between earth and sky, with a trumpet in his hands, over there above the Haymarket, against the October glow; and when he sounds, all the samurai, all who are samurai in Utopia, will know themselves and one another...’ Patrick Parrinder thinks this a specific allusion ‘to the ending of Book IX of Plato's Republic, which states that “[the city] is laid up as a pattern in heaven, which he who desires may behold, and beholding may set his own house in order”’ [Parrinder, ‘Utopia and Meta-Utopia in H. G. Wells’, Utopian Studies, 1 (1987), 93-4]. Which may well be true; and which brings me to—
A sob catches him. I am really frightened by this time. I still try to keep between him and these Utopians, and to hide his gestures from them.
“It's different here,” I persist. “It's different here. The emotion you feel has no place in it. It's a scar from the earth—the sore scar of your past―”
“And what are we all but scars? What is life but a scarring? It's you—you who don't understand! Of course we are covered with scars, we live to be scarred, we are scars! We are the scars of the past! These dreams, these childish dreams―!”
He does not need to finish his sentence, he waves an unteachable destructive arm.
My Utopia rocks about me.
For a moment the vision of that great courtyard hangs real. There the Utopians live real about me, going to and fro, and the great archway blazes with sunlight from the green gardens by the riverside. The man who is one of the samurai, and his lady, whom the botanist loved on earth, pass out of sight behind the marble flower-set Triton that spouts coolness in the middle of the place. For a moment I see two working men in green tunics sitting on a marble seat in the shadow of the colonnade, and a sweet little silver-haired old lady, clad all in violet, and carrying a book, comes towards us, and lifts a curious eye at the botanist's gestures. And then―
“Scars of the past! Scars of the past! These fanciful, useless dreams!”
There is no jerk, no sound, no hint of material shock. We are in London, and clothed in the fashion of the town. The sullen roar of London fills our ears. I see that I am standing beside an iron seat of poor design in that grey and gawky waste of asphalte—Trafalgar Square, and the botanist, with perplexity in his face, stares from me to a poor, shrivelled, dirt-lined old woman—my God! what a neglected thing she is!—who proffers a box of matches.... [Modern Utopia, 301]
2. The Plato's the Thing/Wherein I'll Catch the Conscience of the Utopian-ing
Wells himself thought pretty highly of his own book, all things considered. ‘Although it has never had any great popular sale,’ is how he puts it in the Experiment in Autobiography, ‘A Modern Utopia remains to this day one of the most vital and successful of my books. It is as alive to-day as Mankind in the Making is dead.’ Fair assessment of Mankind, perhaps a touch overgenerous to A Modern Utopia. Not that it's a bad novel, mind. Not at all:
It was the first approach I made to the dialogue form, and I am almost as satisfied with its literary quality as I am with that of The Undying Fire. The trend towards dialogue like the basal notion of the Samurai, marks my debt to Plato. A Modern Utopia, quite as much as that of More, derives frankly from the Republic. [Wells, Experiment in Autobiography (1934), 562]His contemporaries concurred. The Fabians all loved it. Henry James read it and described himself, with we presume a pinch of Jamesian playfulness, ‘prostrate with admiration’. His brother William was more ingenuous: ‘your virtues are unparalleled and transcendent’, he wrote from the ship that was taking him back to America. ‘In fact you are a jewel and a triumph’. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive: the Independent Review [October 1905] praised the book as an assemblage ‘which neither he nor anyone else had fitted together so ingeniously before’; The Outlook called it ‘a serious and ambitious work challenging comparisons with Plato's Republic [and] More's Utopia’ [29 April 1905]. [Krishan Kumar's excellent Everyman edition of the novel collects together a good spread of these reactions].
The most obviously Platonic feature of Wells's Utopia has been noted: he himself conceded that his samurai are effectively Plato's φύλακας, his ‘guardians’, the main difference being that Plato's ruling caste are selected and educated from youth onwards for their role, where Wells's samurai are self-selecting, provided they reach the exacting standards of the order. Still they fill the same role, and embody the same self-denying severity and absolutism. There are a great many other parallels, some of which may explain the choices Wells makes, as (for instance) the vegetarianism , which surely reflects the vegetarianism of Plato's Kallipolis [Republic 372a-e].
Now this, of course, leaves Wells's social vision open to the sorts of charges that Karl Popper laid at Plato's door in his The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Earlier I suggested Wells's select samurai were in effect an ur-Hitlerian ᛋᛋ (the Schutz in Schutzstaffel carries the, in this context, perfectly Platonic meaning ‘guardian’ or ‘protector’). We might also call them a sort of Jedi (without the ability to do the magical trickery, of course. A sort of Theist religious faith is part of their order, but they are not allowed High Church smells and bells: ‘the samurai will be forbidden the religion of dramatically lit altars, organ music, and incense,’ says Wells sternly, ‘as distinctly as they are forbidden the love of painted women, or the consolations of brandy.’) And as far as that goes, it really is hard to deny Popper's main point, that there's something profoundly authoritarian about Plato's Republic, and Wells's modern version barely conceals a distinct fault-line between its various perorations to freedom and its many apparatuses of absolute authoritarian control.
The meeting of the Voice and the botanist with the ‘man of Nature’ refusenik in chapter 4 stands as an attempt to inoculate Wells's vision against the notion that it is coercive unanimity. Yet both the Utopian heretic and the global polis from which he is reacting share a deeper ideological commitment to cleanness. They just pursue it in different ways. And cleanness is the book's most consistent fixed idea: actual cleanness of people and rooms and cities; metaphorical cleanness of the body politic. The unclean who are banished to islands—‘about such islands patrol boats will go, there will be no freedoms of boat building, and it may be necessary to have armed guards at the creeks and quays’—are not only the criminals, but the decadent, the cheats, the drunkards. And even as Wells is congratulating himself on his utopians' humane-ness by declaring ‘there would be no killing, no lethal chambers’ he adds ‘no doubt Utopia will kill all deformed and monstrous and evilly diseased births ...’ That's from Plato too, of course; Republic 460c announces briskly that the offspring of ‘inferior parents’ as well as the ανάπηρον, which is to say, the disabled or handicapped, will be disposed of to keep the larger body-politic whole and hale.
The real fault line in Wells's book has to do with mobility. Not for the first time in Wells's career, the ability to move freely about is the tacit index of utopian desire. His alt-world, with its globe-spanning networks of rapid electric trams and trains, and its happily nomadic population, is one vision of that possibility. Where Thomas More sequestered his utopia on an island against the hostility of the larger world, Wells inverts that model: his whole world is perfect except for ‘the Island of Incurable Cheats’, ‘Islands of Drink’ and so on. But this larger logic of inversion reveals itself as actually, of course, an ideological play. For just as Wells's Utopians zoom here and there with ideal and total mobility, so they are surveilled with an ideal and total surveillance. Every Utopian is assigned ‘a distinct formula, a number or “scientific name,” under which he or she could be docketed’, and every single citizen is included in this database: ‘the record of their movement hither and thither, the entry of various material facts, such as marriage, parentage, criminal convictions and the like’.
These index cards might conceivably be transparent and so contrived as to give a photographic copy promptly whenever it was needed, and they could have an attachment into which would slip a ticket bearing the name of the locality in which the individual was last reported. A little army of attendants would be at work upon this index day and night. From sub-stations constantly engaged in checking back thumb-marks and numbers, an incessant stream of information would come, of births, of deaths, of arrivals at inns, of applications to post-offices for letters, of tickets taken for long journeys, of criminal convictions, marriages, applications for public doles and the like. A filter of offices would sort the stream, and all day and all night for ever a swarm of clerks would go to and fro correcting this central register, and photographing copies of its entries for transmission to the subordinate local stations, in response to their inquiries. So the inventory of the State would watch its every man and the wide world write its history as the fabric of its destiny flowed on. At last, when the citizen died, would come the last entry of all, his age and the cause of his death and the date and place of his cremation, and his card would be taken out and passed on to the universal pedigree, to a place of greater quiet, to the ever-growing galleries of the records of the dead. [Modern Utopia, 180]Utopia, says Wells, ‘must square itself to the needs of a migratory population, to an endless coming and going, to a people as fluid and tidal as the sea’; and it's a point he clearly considered worth making more than once: ‘such a record is inevitable if a Modern Utopia is to be achieved.’ Inevitable! The mobilization of Utopian liberty is formally defined by the mobilization of the powers of surveillance to limit Utopian liberty. That's Platonic too: the guardians will, ‘by their surveillance forcibly restrain’ the Kallipolitians [Republic 552e], and Plato explicitly calls them ‘watchdogs’. And it might easily lead discussion down that Benthamite, Foucauldian line of the panopticon and its coercive powers. But instead of that I'm going to suggest a key as-it-were point of difference between Wells's novel and Plato's great work.
In Book 5 of The Republic, the discussion of particulars pauses for a moment whilst Glaucon asks Socrates whether all this chatter is pie-in-the-sky, or whether he believes his Republic will actually become a reality. It's a good question, and one of course relevant to Wells's novel too. Socrates answers by reminding his interlocutors that the purpose of their discussion has been not to establish a polis but to define justice [Republic 472b]. To do so requires describing not only the just man but the just state in which the just man might live, and as such, Socrates says, they are talking about the truth (αλήθεια), not merely about a theory (λέξις). We don't have to buy the full-on ‘Realm of Platonic Forms Of Which Our World Is But A Copy’ idea to see that Wells is doing something similar in his Modern Utopia—but with one vital shift of emphasis. This novel is not so much an attempt to define justice, as it is an attempt to actualise the imagination. It is an invitation to us, as readers, to imagine a better world, and it is to that specific end that it interleaves the strategies of the novel with the strategies of the Fabian tract.
And where the tract-portions of A Modern Utopia are stimulating in either suggestive or irritating ways, the novelistic passages are much better: beautifully written and accomplished and evocative. Perhaps my favourite thing about Wells's Modern Utopia is the way it insinuates the sorts of excitements attendant on a holiday, and especially a holiday in a attractively alien and unfamiliar place, into the drier speculative apprehension of utopian thought. The early chapters are the best on this: the Voice and the botanist walking down out of the alps into clean, well-ordered Utopian towns, and bedding-down in clean, comfortable Utopian inns, all the time thrilled at the myriad open-ended possibilities of the to-come, waiting to be explored on the morrow:
This strange mystery of a world of which I have seen so little as yet—a mountain slope, a twilit road, a traffic of ambiguous vehicles and dim shapes, the window lights of many homes—fills me with curiosities. Figures and incidents come and go, the people we have passed, our landlord, quietly attentive and yet, I feel, with the keenest curiosity peeping from his eyes, the unfamiliar forms of the house parts and furnishings, the unfamiliar courses of the meal. Outside this little bedroom is a world, a whole unimagined world. A thousand million things lie outside in the darkness beyond this lit inn of ours, unthought-of possibilities, overlooked considerations, surprises, riddles, incommensurables, a whole monstrous intricate universe of consequences that I have to do my best to unravel. [Modern Utopia, 41]It's an invitation to engage Platonic speculations about justice under the aegis of a glorious imaginative openness. And the crisis that propels the two men out of Utopia and back to mundane London is, consequently, an affective, not a rational or conceptual, crisis: a broken heart, a cri de passion, and the botanist's urgent complaint that the non-Utopian sensibility is too crisscrossed with scar-tissue to permit the access to that other imaginative possibility. Issues of social justice, Wells is saying, must come after issues of social affect and social imagination.
3. Money and Irony
So, a coda. Everything I have just said stands, in effect, as an argument against engaging too closely with the minutiae of Wells's Utopian blueprinting. And indeed all that sort of stuff is, by and large, the least interesting aspect of the book, not because Utopianizing is intrinsically uninteresting but because so much of this is simply not original to Wells. On the question of land ownership, A Modern Utopia treads the line between ‘Georgism’ on the one hand, a system, popular with some Radicals and Christian Socialists, in which land continues to be privately owned/managed but is taxed for the benefit of the community, and outright Communism on the other, where private property is abolished altogether. In Wells's book all land is owned by the State, but can be easily obtained by private citizens on 50-year leases. This idea, though, is taken directly from Wells's fellow Fabian Sydney Olivier, who argues for it in Capital and Land (1888). Similarly the Wellsian attitude to private property, which is roughly that ‘strictly personal possessions and shares in business adventures’ will be permitted, but all private property and all debts will end at death, and ‘all land or natural objects or products’, will ‘be the inalienable property of the World State’, has been adopted pretty much whole-cloth out of Graham Wallas (prototype for the novel's ‘botanist’) whose Property Under Socialism (1889) argues pretty-much that case.
Still, there is one specific detail that puzzles me, and that's Wells's Utopian money. Not his proposal for a Universal Basic Income—which seems remarkably timely, today, although in fact it goes back at least to Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice (1797). No: I mean the actual currency: his idea that the global currency should be tied not to reserves of gold, but to reserves of energy. The manufacture of energy would be nationalised, or (I suppose) globalised: ‘heating and lighting and the supply of power for domestic and industrial purposes and for urban and inter-urban communications will all be managed electrically from common generating stations’, run by local authorities but all owned by the World State. Wells proposes a currency in which ‘payment would be no longer be in coinage upon the gold basis, but in notes good for so many thousands or millions of units of energy at one or other of the generating stations.’
Every one of those giant local authorities was to be free to issue energy notes against the security of its surplus of saleable available energy, and to make all its contracts for payment in those notes up to a certain maximum defined by the amount of energy produced and disposed of in that locality in the previous year. This power of issue was to be renewed just as rapidly as the notes came in for redemption. In a world without boundaries, with a population largely migratory and emancipated from locality, the price of the energy notes of these various local bodies would constantly tend to be uniform, because employment would constantly shift into the areas where energy was cheap. Accordingly, the price of so many millions of units of energy at any particular moment in coins of the gold currency would be approximately the same throughout the world. [Modern Utopia, 89]I may be missing something, but I genuinely fail to see how this would be any kind of improvement. The gold standard already provides this form of stability, compared to those currencies which are not pegged to such a underlying value-system (Wells's anxiety that ‘an unexpected spate of gold production, the discovery of a single nugget as big as St. Paul's, let us say—a quite possible thing—would result in a financial earthquake’ seems, frankly, misplaced; surely interruptions in the power supply would be rather more likely than sudden superfluities of gold?)
As I await schooling on this matter from somebody more expert on questions of currency economics, I'll jot down a theory to be going on with: I don't think Wells has quite grasped the way money operates as a floating signifier, a medium of exchange and store of value as arbitrary as any semiological social construct. The utility of money resides purely in the conventions of its exchange. The fact that gold is (some trivial exceptions aside) perfectly useless has no effect upon that utility, and replacing tokens predicated upon a useless commodity with tokens predicated upon a useful commodity would have no effect upon the fungibility of the money itself.
I'm guessing here, and my guesswork leads into a segue below, that may not convince you, but I wonder if Wells, not entirely cognizant of theories of monetary exchange, just felt in his gut that backing token-money with a really valuable commodity rather than an arbitrarily scarce one would surely just be a good thing to do. I'm not sure the reasoning goes any deeper than that. Wells's instinct says that his Utopia has no room for the arbitrary, the merely conventional, the floating signifier as opposed to the solidly anchored signified. In a way that's a more worrying misprison of how society works than all the proto-SS samurai gubbins.
Which brings me to my conclusion. Critics bracket A Modern Utopia with 1901's Anticipations and 1903's Mankind in the Making as a sort of trilogy of practical blueprints for Utopia. Which makes sense. But although it is, clearly I think, the best of these three titles, A Modern Utopia still suffers from the wholly unironic manner in which Wells goes about his speculations. Irony is rarely welcome in the habitation of the true-hearted Utopian, of course. Some years ago I was invited to deliver a keynote at the peripatetic Utopiales conference; which was a great honour, and gave me the chance to meet some excellent people at the University of Tarragona, that beautiful city. For my lecture I argued for the BBC Children's TV show Teletubbies as a kind of perfection of the utopian ideal, by way of exploring the extent to which Utopia inevitably involves an element of conscious or unconscious infantilisation. At the wine reception after my lecture some of the attendees—mostly other academics, these—came over to chat with me about what I'd been saying, and I had some interesting discussions. But other attendees literally blanked me, in some cases turning their backs on me as I went about the room. These, I discovered, were the actual Utopians: people planning real in-the-world Utopian communities, retired businesspeople who had decided to spend their life savings buying up territory and establishing their preferred pantisocratic or neo-kaliflower or Robert-Owenish villages upon them and so on. They assumed I had been mocking them. I hadn't been, but you can see why they might look on me with injured contempt. And to broaden the point: of course irony is a destabilising quality that is bound to be mistrusted by anybody who wishes to establish absolutes and peg improvement to a steady tabulation. I stand by it, though: irony and its handmaiden laughter is very far from an inessential in this matter.
This is what makes A Modern Utopia stand so much taller, as it were, than either of its two predecessors. It is not ironic about its imagined utopia—on the contrary, it is often desperately earnest and micromanagerial about it—but the form of the novel itself is at least playful, almost (whisper it) postmodern, or at least pomo-avant-la-lettre. Wells addresses the reader directly because he wants to recruit her to his larger theme, the necessity of imagining Utopia, as a vivid and lived-in eventuality, before we theorise Utopia. And the positive upshot of that is that A Modern Utopia shimmers with something that bears at least a family resemblance to irony. And that's a good thing. Although I would say that, wouldn't I?