Monday, 27 November 2017

The Salvaging of Civilization: the Probable Future of Mankind (1921)

Probable. You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

So, yes: yet another collection of previously published Wellsian journalism (apart from chapter 2, which was written originally as a lecture to be delivered in America, and the Envoy, which is new), all on the topic of the future World State, how it is definitely coming, and how it will make everything in the garden rosy.

The chapter-titles on the contents page gives the drift of the argument:
Chapter I. The Probable Future of Mankind
Chapter II. The Project of a World State
Chapter III. The Enlargement of Patriotism to a World State
Chapter IV. The Bible of Civilization, Part I
Chapter V. The Bible of Civilization, Part II
Chapter VI. The Schooling of the World
Chapter VII. College, Newspaper and Book
Chapter VIII. The Envoy
The main thesis is one Wells has advanced many times: war has become so destructive that we must either put an end to war, or face species death.
The next well-organized war, we are assured, will be far more swift and extensive in its destruction—more particularly of the civilian population. Armies will advance no longer along roads but extended in line, with heavy tank transport which will plough up the entire surface of the land they traverse; aerial bombing, with bombs each capable of destroying a small town, will be practicable a thousand miles beyond the military front, and the seas will be swept clear of shipping by mines and submarine activities. There will be no distinction between combatants and non-combatants, because every able-bodied citizen, male or female, is a potential producer of food and munitions; and probably the safest, and certainly the best supplied shelters in the universal cataclysm, will be the carefully buried, sandbagged, and camouflaged general-headquarters of the contending armies. There military gentlemen of limited outlook and high professional training will, in comparative security, achieve destruction beyond their understanding. The hard logic of war which gives victory always to the most energetic and destructive combatant, will turn warfare more and more from mere operations for loot or conquest or predominance into operations for the conclusive destruction of the antagonists. A relentless thrust towards strenuousness is a characteristic of belligerent conditions. War is war, and vehemence is in its nature. You must hit always as hard as you can. Offensive and counter-offensive methods continue to prevail over merely defensive ones. The victor in the next great war will be bombed from the air, starved, and depleted almost as much as the loser. His victory will be no easy one; it will be a triumph of the exhausted and dying over the dead. [Salvaging, 8-9]
You can see why Wells thought this, and he wasn't alone in thinking it. But he wasn't right, either. We as a species did survive 1939-1945, after all. Still, believing this, Wells urges radical global changes upon us all. It must be a world state, collective ownership of wealth and resources, and a comprehensive drive to educate the whole population of the planet. Wells's disillusionment with the League of Nations has now bedded-in:
Because a world-wide political organ is needed, it does not follow that a so-called League of Nations without representative sanctions, military forces, or authority of any kind, a League from which large sections of the world are excluded altogether, is any contribution to that need. People have a way of saying it is better than nothing. But it may be worse than nothing. It may create a feeling of disillusionment about world-unifying efforts. If a mad elephant were loose in one's garden, it would be an excellent thing to give one's gardener a gun. But it would have to be an adequate gun, an elephant gun. To give him a small rook-rifle and tell him it was better than nothing, and encourage him to face the elephant with that in his hand, would be the directest way of getting rid not of the elephant but of the gardener. [Salvaging, 13]
Poor old Percy Thrower!

The logic here is a Wellsian ‘wars happen between nations; do away with nations and there will be no war’ syllogism (he repeatedly insists on ‘the plain necessity for a political reorganization of the world as a unity to save our race from the social disintegration and complete physical destruction which war, under modern conditions, must ultimately entail’ [21]). It seems to me that what the creation of a World State would actually do is convert all wars into civil wars; but Wells won't entertain that notion.

The task, he thinks, is to change human nature. ‘The spread of Christianity in the first four centuries A.D. or of the spread of Islam in the seventh century will, we believe, support a reasonable hope that such a change in the minds of men, whatever else it may be, is a practicable change’ [23].
So far it is only the trader who has made any effectual use of the vast facilities the modern world has produced for conveying a statement simultaneously to great numbers of people at a distance. The world of thought still hesitates to use the means of power that now exist for it. History and political philosophy in the modern world are like bashful dons at a dinner party; they crumble their bread and talk in undertones and clever allusions to their nearest neighbour, abashed at the thought of addressing the whole table. But in a world where Mars can reach out in a single night and smite a city a thousand miles away, we cannot suffer wisdom to hesitate in an inaudible gentility. The knowledge and vision that is good enough for the best of us is good enough for all. [Salvaging, 24]
If I look at what our present web-based global intwitterconnectedness has brought us I do not think our problem is that we're suffering from an excess of gentility.
I want to say that this civilization in which we are living is tumbling down, and I think tumbling down very fast; that I think rapid enormous efforts will be needed to save it; and that I see no such efforts being made at the present time. I do not know if these words convey any concrete ideas to the reader's mind. [Salvaging, 43-44]
To me they convey that you're comprehensively underestimating human civilisation's resilience, Bertie. But OK.
If we had the resources of the cinema it would be interesting to show a map of North America year by year from 1600 onward, with little dots to represent hundreds of people, each dot a hundred, and stars to represent cities of a hundred thousand people. For two hundred years you would see that stippling creeping slowly along the coastal districts and navigable waters, spreading still more gradually into Indiana, Kentucky, and so forth. Then somewhere about 1810 would come a change. Things would get more lively along the river courses. The dots would be multiplying and spreading. That would be the steamboat. The pioneer dots would be spreading soon from a number of jumping-off places along the great rivers over Kansas and Nebraska. Then from about 1830 onward would come the black lines of the railways, and after that the little black dots would not simply creep but run. [49-50]
I can go one better and show you dots animated globally (from 0.58 in the video). What it shows is that it's resources and access to food that count, long-term; not networks of travel. But that's probably a question of the timescales we are interested in.

Wells thinks patriotism is a necessary human thing (‘ do not think we want to get rid of patriotism, and I do not think we could, even if we wanted to do so. It seems to be necessary to his moral life, that a man should feel himself part of a community, belonging to it, and it belonging to him’). He also believes that patriotic attachment to the larger unit always trumps patriotic attachment to the smaller. As evidence for this curious belief he instances America, where, he says, Kentuckians are always Americans first and Kentuckians only second.
Suppose, for instance, there was a serious outbreak of local patriotism in Kentucky. Suppose you found the people of Kentucky starting a flag of their own and objecting to what they would probably call the ‘vague internationalism’ of the stars and stripes. Suppose you found them wanting to set up tariff barriers to the trade of the states round about them. Suppose you found they were preparing to annex considerable parts of the state of Virginia by force, in order to secure a proper strategic frontier among the mountains to the east, and that they were also talking darkly of their need for an outlet to the sea of their very own.

What would an American citizen think of such an outbreak? He would probably think that Kentucky had gone mad. But this, which seems such fantastic behaviour when we imagine it occurring in Kentucky, is exactly what is happening in Europe in the case of little states that are hardly any larger than Kentucky. They have always been so. They have not gone mad; if this sort of thing is madness then they were born mad. And they have never been cured. A state of affairs that is regarded in Europe as normal would be regarded in the United States as a grave case of local mental trouble. [70-71]
Yes indeed: there never has been and never could be such a thing as a civil war in America.
For the idea of Man, for human unity, for our common blood, for the one order of the world, I can imagine men living and dying, but not for a miscellaneous assembly that will not mix... The idea of the World State stands to the idea of the League of Nations much as the idea of the one God of Earth and Heaven stands to a Divine Committee composed of Wodin and Baal and Jupiter and Amon Ra and Mumbo Jumbo and all the other national and tribal gods. [76-77]
Yes indeed: there's no chance believers in One God (let's call them ‘Catholics’) would ever go to war with or perpetrate violence upon other believers in One God (let's call them ‘Protestants’, 'Muslims', ‘Jews’ ...)—or ... you know what? Maybe sarcasm isn't the best way of reacting to this book. So let's look instead at Wells's practical proposals:
And what will be the chief organs and organizations and works and methods with which this Council of the World State will be concerned?

There will be a Supreme Court determining not International Law, but World Law. There will be a growing Code of World Law.

There will be a world currency.

There will be a ministry of posts, transport and communications generally.

There will be a ministry of trade in staple products and for the conservation and development of the natural resources of the earth.

There will be a ministry of social and labour conditions.

There will be a ministry of world health.

There will be a ministry, the most important ministry of all, watching and supplementing national educational work and taking up the care and stimulation of backward communities.

And instead of a War Office and Naval and Military departments, there will be a Peace Ministry studying the belligerent possibilities of every new invention, watching for armed disturbances everywhere, and having complete control of every armed force that remains in the world. All these world ministries will be working in co-operation with local authorities who will apply world-wide general principles to local conditions.

These items probably comprehend everything that the government of a World State would have to do. [86-87]
So: the removal of all borders and the enforcement of a single currency would advantage those portions of the globe already wealthy against those that are poor, which would bed-in inequalities of opportunity and ownership. But perhaps a couple of generations of proper education, and the careful intervention of those various itemised ministries, would even things out eventually. The economic upheaval worries me less, actually, than the bald fact that whoever has control of this ‘Peace Ministry’ would aggregate into their hands more power than anybody else in the entire history of the globe. Wells is a Canute in the face of the tidal encroachment that power always corrupts. Checks? Balances? No need for them, it seems; or perhaps H.G. considers such items pettifogging details to be ironed out at a later stage. They're not, though: checks and balances, and copper-bottomed means by which people with power can be gotten rid of if (when) the need arises, should be central features of a project such as this.

I am sniping, I know. Wells's heart is in the right place, I suppose. But he seems wilful in the persistence with which he simply refuses to notice the most obvious possible flaws in his programme, a Nelson deliberately and repeatedly putting the telescope to his blank eye. Salvaging concludes with a lengthy discussion of Comenius's ideas for universal education and a universal ‘book’ of knowledge that everyone may consult and which will therefore put an end to dissension over what to do or what to believe. ‘You may say,’ Wells interjects, ‘that no such book exists—which is perfectly true—and that no such book could be written. But there I think you underrate the capacity of our English-speaking people’ [107]. But I don't say that no such book could be written. I say that having such a book will not put an end to human disagreement and dissension, yea verily, even unto the electing-idiots-to-the-White-House and making-war-upon-one-another thereof. Presenting people with facts does not stop them interpreting facts in ideologically overdetermined and belligerent ways.

Wells concludes with a series of chapters on how education will be conducted in the new regime, and here he is, I have to say, bizarrely overconfident about the possibilities of film. Education, he says, will be ‘revolutionized by the cinematograph’ [161]. Teachers will be made redundant at a stroke: simply get the ‘best and most dexterous teacher in the world’ to teach the lesson in front of a camera! Every subject and all education needs are thereby satisfied, ‘performed once for all—before a cinematograph. They can be done finally; they need never be done again’ [162]. This is such a bonkers idea it makes me wonder what Wells was doing all those years he was reading and researching on pedagogic and androgogic theory and practice. Not for the first time, Wells's prophesies are not so much falsified by subsequent events (although, you know: they are) as stymied by their own strange blindspots and limitations. Wells had one of the great speculative imaginations of his age: why did it fail him in this big matter?


  1. The last point is a bit ungenerous - surely Wells was simply prophesying MOOCs.

    The idea that putting all the knowledge together would eliminate controversy is the sister of the idea that a world government would eliminate war. Wells seems to have a curiously monistic imagination. You could even say that the idea of the world state was his one big idea, after which he never needed to have another one.

    The Peace Ministry sounds ridiculously scary. I wonder if Wells had read Kipling's "ABC" stories.

    1. Isn't that weird, though? That a writer with such an amazingly varied and inventive imagination should devolve into such a 'monist' (good word in this context) thinker in the 20s?