It is a bitter pill for middle-class baby boomers that their parents are dying without seeing the fabulous future which they once reasonably expected would emerge, certainly by now, from their years of collective sacrifice and toil….
No-one can deny that some marvels have been developed more or less as predicted fifty years ago. Consider, for example, the ease, speed and reliability with which one may join the global symposia on a newsgroup. Nevertheless, one need only peruse a few old magazines to see how very far today’s world falls short of the old prospective “World of Tomorrow” our parents and grandparents were living to see.
Pick up a 1968 edition of McCall’s magazine and you will find the entry form for a chance to win a voucher for an all-expense-paid trip to the moon with first-class lunar hotel accommodation, redeemable in 2001. Open a 1950s copy of Forbes and read John von Neumann predicting that by 1980 all “power” could be virtually costless, and that by 2000 the weather would be scientifically tamed for the benefit of farmers everywhere — not bothering to consider the use that international commodity speculators might make of such technology if they secretly got it first! Gaze at the fascinating cover art of an old issue of Popular Mechanics and read the caption: “Robots will be Waiting on You by 1970”. Finally — if the poignancy is not already too much — peer into a 1966 issue of American Home and find the following :
By the turn of the next century only 10 percent of us will be engaged in “work”. The computer and automation will relieve us of drudgery and allow 90 percent to spend time on whatever pleases them. The machines will do the work, create the wealth which will allow every family to follow the leisure path.
….the computer-financed economy will provide families with a guaranteed annual income, with cash to buy their own computer system.
….One expert has predicted, “With the machines taking on the tasks that now consume all but a fragment of our days, we will be free to undertake completely new tasks, most of them directed to perfecting ourselves, creating beauty, understanding one another better.”
Certainly opportunities for further education, development of talents in art, music, design, writing, will proliferate. The home-centered skills — gardening, cooking, sewing — will be approached not as make-work but as great works. … We will want to create our own art forms and become artists at home.
How tragic that the average American adult today has 30 percent less leisure time than the day those words were written; that at this moment millions of people, too tired and otherwise constrained to enjoy once-normal social lives, fill their spare minutes with autistic sexuality (catch the euphemism here) fanned by curvacious pattens flashing on cathode-ray tubes or by hot-button words carried over Alexander Graham Bell’s somewhat older invention, as the controlling few rake in the cash. The mind simply boggles at this and plentiful other evidence of the gigantic larceny that, blasting all dreams of futurity, has plunged the world’s middle classes into today’s debt-slavery backwash; the predictably non-utopian result of trying to tread standard-of-living water in foredoomed labor-service competition with the throw-away New Coolies of the billionaires’ “global plantation”.
How is it that we have inherited this world that we never wanted, a world more resembling C.M. Kornbluth’s vision in his 1953 novel The Syndic of a society shaped and directed by organized-crime and aimed only at affording maximum individual sovereignty to its “friends”?
“Individual sovereignty” is Lord Rees-Mogg’s honorific term for the liberty of billionaires no longer bridled by governments of the people, by the people,… etc….
Ironically enough, it was H.G. Wells, the twentieth century’s leading apostle of Mankind’s potential for a limitless future, who 50 years ago fully answered that question. During the first half of this century he assiduously championed the idea of “putting things in order” for the speedy attainment of a highly desirable worldwide scientific utopia. But Wells was also a well-connected and astute more-populist-than-Fabian social critic and the first popularizer of non-chauvinistic history from a species perspective, a vantage point from which he eventually came to see the darker fate overtaking his civilization. His last two books, are, unfortunately, his most prophetic.
In his 1939 book The Future of Man (the USA title; it was published as The Future of Homo Sapiens elsewhere) Wells explained how the Anglo-American elites had recently grabbed the reigns of the collapsing liberalized world order of his time — that great, good, but never fully perfected achievement of nineteenth-century optimism and good will — and did so for their own ‘self-serving and to hell with everyone else’ ends :
The disintegrating British Empire is now, one has to recognize, a system of government almost completely out of popular control. Practically it has undergone a reactionary revolution in the last decade, and a loose-knit combination of court, church, army and wealth, intensely class conscience, intensely self-protective, has resumed control of affairs. It is an oligarchy skillful in assimilation of useful or formidable individuals but without the slightest disposition to amalgamate with anything else on earth. Its ruling motive is fear of dispossession. Decisions of peace and war are made without consulting any surviving popular will, and the whole capitalist press, the cinema, the radio and indeed all possible means of influencing opinion, concentrate upon the assertion of the rightness and inevitableness of these decisions. Dissent is a muffled and ineffective squeaking, and any inconvenient facts are kept from the public by requests for suppression that are in effect commands.
Such a development spells death to any hope of the majority of mankind to live any kind of rewarding, personal-achievement oriented, ‘middle-class’ life. In his last book, Mind at the End of its Tether (1945), Wells signs off with these words :
Homo Sapiens in his present form is played out. The stars in their courses have turned against him and he has to give place to some other animal better adopted to face the fate that closes in more swiftly upon mankind. …The cinema sheet (ie. screen) stares us in the face… Our loves, our hates, our wars and battles are no more than phantasmagoria dancing on that fabric, themselves as unsubstantiated as a dream. ….There is no way through the impasse. It will be the Dark Ages over again, a planetary instead of a European Dark Ages.
The point of the present essay is not, as Wells’ final words might suggest, that we give up and trust in some fabled space aliens to genetically engineer mankind’s more-promising replacement! Nor is it that we must avenge our betrayed parents by killing off the billionaires, as no doubt a few today would privately contemplate. Rather, we must attack the root of why our future was lost, and do what must be done to get it back again. To that end I conclude with these words, written at about the same time as those of Wells, the creed of a little man who excelled even Wells as a true friend of mankind’s future :
Exploitation of the poor can be extinguished not by effecting the destruction of a few millionaires, but by removing the ignorance of the poor and teaching them to non-cooperate with their exploiters.
The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. He frees himself and shows the way to others. Freedom and slavery are mental states. Therefore the first thing is to say to yourself, “I shall no longer accept the role of a slave. I shall not obey orders as such but shall disobey when they are in conflict with my conscience.” The so-called master may lash you and try to force you to serve him. You may say, “No, I will not serve you for your money or under threat.” This may mean suffering. Your readiness to suffer will light the torch of freedom which will never be put out.
There certainly is unfailing hope for a future in that.
© Dick Eastman, Yakima, USA.