Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The Open Conspiracy (1928)

The Open Conspiracy, subtitled Blue Prints for a World Revolution was published in 1928; a revised and expanded edition came out in 1930 with the additional subtitle A Second Version of This Faith of a Modern Man Made More Explicit and Plain; further revisions and a new edition was published in 1931 under the title What Are We to To with Our Lives?, although the next resissue (in 1933) reverted to its original title.

‘The world,’ says Wells, ‘is undergoing immense changes’, which seems a fair assessment. Nor are these the sorts of changes SF predicted:
These changes have not come upon our world from without. No meteorite from outer space has struck our planet; there have been no overwhelming outbreaks of volcanic violence or strange epidemic diseases; the sun has not flared up to excessive heat or suddenly shrunken to plunge us into Arctic winter. The changes have come through men themselves. [Open Conspiracy, 1]
The main alterations, according to Wells, are (a) ‘the abolition of distance’ which has reconfigured both the actual landscape and the social landscape of work, concentrating economic power in fewer big-business hands; (b) the fact that ‘medical art has attained a new level of efficiency, so that in all the modernizing societies of the world the average life is prolonged, and there is a steady, alarming increase in the world's population’; and (c) alarming advances in military technology.‘War, which was once a comparative slow bickering upon a front, has become war in three dimensions; it gets at the “non-combatant” almost as searchingly as at the combatant, and has acquired weapons of a stupendous cruelty and destructiveness’. Taken together, these changes threaten collective disaster. What’s needed is the titular conspiracy:
… a sort of unpremeditated and unorganized conspiracy, against the fragmentary and insufficient governments and the wide-spread greed, appropriation, clumsiness, and waste that are now going on. But unlike conspiracies in general this widening protest and conspiracy against established things would, by its very nature, go on in the daylight, and it would be willing to accept participation and help from every quarter. It would, in fact, become an ‘Open Conspiracy,’ a necessary, naturally evolved conspiracy, to adjust our dislocated world. [Open Conspiracy, 2]
By the 1933 revision Wells was confidently announcing that his ‘open conspiracy’ was happening all around them: ‘hundreds of thousands of people everywhere are now thinking upon the lines foreshadowed by my Open Conspiracy, not because they had ever heard of the book or phrase, but because that was the way thought was going’. This seems a touch over-optimistic to me, I must say. But not to rain on the Wellsian parade.

The argument is: we must alter human mental attitudes, through persuasion, collective pressure, and most of all through education and activism. The phrase ‘the open conspiracy’, first floated in William Clissold, is here fleshed-out further. And it was a phrase that had some currency for a while (Gerald Heard, who had set up the H. G. Wells Society in 1934 to promote Wells's ideas, changed the society's name to ‘The Open Conspiracy’ in 1935, although by 1936 the society's name had changed again), but it has not worn well. In this old post I suggested that ‘there are four phrases in particular, out of all the many phrases and ideas Wells coined, that have enjoyed the most widespread and enduring afterlife: time machine, League of Nations, atom bomb and the war to end war’, and I think I stand by that. I certainly don't think that ‘The Open Conspiracy’, as a phrase, has any currency at all nowadays.

But phraseology aside, we need to decide whether we think the idea itself has merit: the notion that governments can't be trusted to take the world in the right direction and that people not only should but realistically can organise to steer history. At the end of the volume Wells sums-up:
At the utmost seven broad principles may be stated as defining the Open Conspiracy and holding it together. And it is possible even of these, one, the seventh, may be, if not too restrictive, at least unnecessary. To the writer it seems unavoidable because it is so intimately associated with that continual dying out of tradition upon which our hopes for an unencumbered and expanding human future rest.

(1) The complete assertion, practical as well as theoretical, of the provisional nature of existing governments and of our acquiescence in them;

(2) The resolve to minimize by all available means the conflicts of these governments, their militant use of individuals and property, and their interferences with the establishment of a world economic system;

(3) The determination to replace private, local or national ownership of at least credit, transport, and staple production by a responsible world directorate serving the common ends of the race;

(4) The practical recognition of the necessity for world biological controls, for example, of population and disease;

(5) The support of a minimum standard of individual freedom and welfare in the world; and

(6) The supreme duty of subordinating the personal career to the creation of a world directorate capable of these tasks and to the general advancement of human knowledge, capacity, and power;

(7) The admission therewith that our immortality is conditional and lies in the race and not in our individual selves. [Open Conspiracy, 14]
We might respond to this by saying: it did not happen. We might go further and say that it was na├»ve of Wells ever to think these were realistic aims. I certainly think it's problematic, looking at that wish-list, to take the line argued by Michael Sherborne [in H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (2010) 286] that Wells's campaign here provided ‘a boost for a civil society realized today by bodies such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International’. I don't say so to deny the importance of pressure groups in contemporary political life. On the contrary, there's a reasonable argument that such groups dominate the polity nowadays. But, surely, the most influential are not the ones that undertake the Wellsian (or Greenpacific, or Amnesty-Internationalist) line of publicity and education—(Wells considered ‘two of the main activities of the Open Conspiracy’ to be ‘its propaganda of confidence in the possible world commonweal’ and its organisation of systematic resistance to ‘to militant and competitive imperialism and nationalism’ [15]—publicity and rallies, in other words)—but rather the ones, like the NRA in America and the Arms Industries globally, who directly channel the largest quantities of cash, often clandestinely, to sitting government officials. And though that's clearly not what Wells has in mind here it's surely an eventuality a modicum of common sense might have anticipated.

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