A Modern Utopia

H. G. Wells
I was doing background for a continuing ed course — The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells: Darwin, Decadence, and the Macabre in the Late 19th Century. I have no idea yet if the course will be any good, but it’s a pretty nifty title, isn’t it?

Anyway, looking through the material at a local library branch, I happened upon Wells’s A Modern Utopia, a book with which I was totally unfamiliar. I’ve often found this kind of chance encounter to be serendipitous, so of course I had to read the book.

Like much of Wells’s science fiction — The Time MachineThe Island of Dr. MoreauThe Invisible Man and more — A Modern Utopia (1905) is informed by the emerging modern world in which he lived. The mechanization of labour, acceptance of natural selection as the means of evolution, and Malthusian population theory combine with the economics of both free-market capitalism and state socialism to justify Wells’s claim to a “modern” vision of an ideal society.

This is a curious kind of book, which Wells acknowledges at the start. Not quite a novel, not quite an essay, A Modern Utopia is the result of “a peculiar method,” one which Wells believes to be “the best way to a sort of lucid vagueness which has always been my intention in this matter.”

Wells identifies the key ways in which his utopia is meant to be different from the many classical and contemporary utopias to which he frequently refers. A Modern Utopia is to be a dynamic, not static society, one that is not a perfect and unchanging ideal but rather an evolving social organism, adjusting its character to maintain its purposes through changing times and circumstances. In one way or other, Wells’s utopia must account for everyone, not just the able and admirable citizens found in other utopias. It must offer everyone maximum freedom, not maximum uniformity.

A Modern Utopia is a single world state, using modern transportation and communication technologies to make a unified, fluid citizenry possible and practical. This world state is a combination of global socialism — everyone is provided with the means to live in modest comfort — and individual liberty — few restrictions on where or how one lives, on what or how much one works, with incentives for greater industry and for other meaningful contributions to society:

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 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, to make life not less energetic, but less panic-stricken and violent and base, to shift the incidence of the struggle for existence from our lower to our higher emotions, so to anticipate and neutralize the motives of the cowardly and bestial, that the ambitious and energetic imagination which is man’s finest quality may become the incentive and determining factor in survival.

Few restrictions, with one crucial exception. Following Malthus, Wells sees unchecked population growth as the greatest danger to society: “a State whose population continues to increase in obedience to unchecked instinct, can progress only from bad to worse.”

In A Modern Utopia, reproduction is strictly regulated, with the goal of improving the species by encouraging the best to have children, while keeping the worst childless:

A mere indiscriminating restriction of the birth-rate … involves not only the cessation of distresses but stagnation, and the minor good of a sort of comfort and social stability is won at too great a sacrifice. Progress depends on competitive selection, and that we may not escape.

But it is a conceivable and possible thing that this margin of futile struggling, pain and discomfort and death might be reduced to nearly nothing without checking physical and mental evolution, with indeed an acceleration of physical and mental evolution, by preventing the birth of those who would in the unrestricted interplay of natural forces be born to suffer and fail.

The detailed social mechanisms by which Wells proposes to achieve his population ends are beyond the scope of a short review, other than to note that they follow his understanding of Darwinian evolution. Wells would not attempt to engineer “compulsory pairing,” but he would set up conditions and rules that operate to restrict reproduction in ways that foster the “natural selection” of the individuals most fit for the future.

In a society without poverty, with free choice of occupation and interest, a meritocracy of “voluntary noblemen,” called samurai, assume the key leadership and administrative positions. Strictly non-hereditary, this nobility operates something like a combination of Plato’s “Guardians” and the imperial Chinese civil service.

The samurai are “noblemen” thanks to one area in which Wells’s vision doesn’t see the full future. While women in his utopia are free and officially equal, Wells can’t quite bring himself to discard the attitudes of his sex and his time. While he argues that women are inferior to men only because they are kept economically inferior, which he proposes to remediate by making motherhood a paid occupation, his reasons for that economic inferiority are pure Victorian sexism:

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 organization and combination ….

So much for an enlightened vision, at least on the feminist front!

On religion, the Utopians have repudiated “original sin,” believing instead that “man, on the whole, is good….This is their cardinal belief.” Individual freedom will reign here as it does in all other aspects of Utopian society:

The theology of the Utopian rules will be saturated with that same philosophy of uniqueness, that repudiation of anything beyond similarities and practical parallelisms, that saturates all their institutions…. [T]hey will have escaped the delusive simplification of God that vitiates all terrestrial theology. They will hold God to be complex and of an endless variety of aspects, to be expressed by no universal formula nor approved in any uniform manner. Just as the language of Utopia will be a synthesis, even so will its God be.

Too soon, our traveler narrator returns to his own world, where he is over-whelmed by the imperfection of its dirt and noise and unequal suffering. Yet, even here, he sees a hope for the future:

The face of a girl who is passing westward, a student girl, rather carelessly dressed,her books in a carrying-strap, comes across my field of vision. The westward sun ofLondon glows upon her face. She has eyes that dream, surely no sensuous nor personal dream.

After all, after all, dispersed, hidden, disorganized, undiscovered, unsuspected even by themselves, the samurai of Utopia are in this world, the motives that are developed and organized there stir dumbly here and stifle in ten thousand futile hearts.

In all, A Modern Utopia is  worth the investment of the short time it takes to read, even if its depiction of a world enlightened by science and led by an altruistic intellectual and creative elite strikes me more as a rather naive curiosity than as a prescription for a real future.

But then, a skeptic like Wells may imagine an ideal society, where the pessimist or cynic may not.


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