Crawl Across the Ocean

Friday, June 28, 2013

109. Wells, Hitler and the World State

Note: This post is the one hundred and ninth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

I'm still generally not posting to the blog, but I came across something this morning (via Paul Krugman) which was too on topic not to mention, an essay by George Orwell about H.G. Wells and Hitler. Orwell contrasts the world of emotions to the world of objective science in terms that will be familiar to anyone who has read Systems of Survival or this series of posts.

"What has Wells to set against [Hitler]? The usual rigmarole about a World State, plus the Sankey Declaration, which is an attempted definition of fundamental human rights, of anti-totalitarian tendency. Except that he is now especially concerned with federal world control of air power, it is the same gospel as he has been preaching almost without interruption for the past forty years, always with an air of angry surprise at the human beings who can fail to grasp anything so obvious.


Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood. Before you can even talk of world reconstruction, or even of peace, you have got to eliminate Hitler, which means bringing into being a dynamic not necessarily the same as that of the Nazis, but probably quite as unacceptable to ‘enlightened’ and hedonistic people. What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the S.S. men patrolling the London streets at this moment. Similarly, why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defence of Holy Russia (the ‘sacred soil of the Fatherland’, etc. etc.), which Stalin has revived in an only slightly altered from. The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action."

"Mr. Wells, like Dickens, belongs to the non-military middle class. The thunder of guns, the jingle of spurs, the catch in the throat when the old flag goes by, leave him manifestly cold. He has an invincible hatred of the fighting, hunting, swashbuckling side of life, symbolised in all his early books by a violent propaganda against horses. The principal villain of his Outline of History is the military adventurer, Napoleon. If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses."

I don't have much to add, the description of the commercial man of reason and progress vs. the guardian minded military man of god and country doesn't get much clearer. Orwell goes on to note the problems (systemic corruption, Jane Jacobs would have called it) that results when the tools of rationalism and progress (e.g. airplanes) are put into use by guardians for the purpose of warfare.

One thing I found interesting is that even though Orwell discounts Wells' 'optimism' about a rational future run by rational men in the near term, due to the presence of Hitler on the world stage, he seems to readily admit that, sooner or later, Wells' rational one world government will come to pass.  Looking at things now, some 70 years later, I find myself wondering instead if we have passed the highwater mark for rational men running a rational government along the lines envisioned by Wells and are now slowly turning in the opposite direction.


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