The Shape of Things to Come, by H. G. Wells

12. America in Liquidation

The preceding sections have given a general view of the course of history in the Old World during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Even in Europe certain regions, as we have noted, stand rather aloof from the essential drama, following a line of development of their own, less tragic and intense than that of the leading Powers. Spain, for example, the new Spain that was born in 1931, has the rôle of an onlooker, an onlooker much preoccupied with his own affairs. Still more noticeable is the non-participation of both Latin — and English-speaking America in these passionate and violent happenings. They suffered parallel economic, political and social stresses, but within their own limits. After the financial storms of the Early Thirties, the shocks that came to them from the European troubles affected them less and less. They took up their particular aspect of the decline and fall of private capitalism and worked it out in their own way.

Yet the fact they did share in that decline and fall brings out very clearly a fact that was sometimes disputed in the past: the immediate causes of the world collapse in the twentieth century were first monetary inadaptability, secondly the disorganization of society through increased productivity, and thirdly the great pestilence. War was not a direct cause. The everyday life of man is economic, not belligerent, and it was strangled by the creditor. Had the world been already one state in 1900, and had it still been an economy of private accumulation with a deflating currency, it would have collapsed in very much the same fashion that it did collapse. Had it been cut up into a hundred belligerent states at that time, but with a monetary system that restrained the creditor and allowed industrial development without limit, it might have released sufficient energy to have gone on with its wars for another century or so before it reached the goal of mutual extermination. The monetary collapse was the most immediate factor in the world’s disorganization, enfeeblement and famine. Without it man might have pursued a far longer and more strenuous career to massacre and suffocation. On the whole it was perhaps well for him that progress tumbled over finance in the nineteen-thirties.

The futility of all the early anti-war movements becomes understandable only when we grasp the essential importance of a sane monetary nexus. On this we have insisted throughout, we have elucidated the connexion of the creditor and traditional antagonisms from half a dozen angles, and nothing could emphasize and drive home the lesson more than the parallelism of the American and Old-World experiences.

From the days of their first political separation from the European system the American communities had gone through their own series of developmental phases, independent of and out of rhythm with the course of events in the Old-World. Independent — and yet not completely independent, because they were upon the same planet. Throughout the nineteenth century the American mind, in north and south alike, was saturated with the idea of ISOLATION. It was taught in the schools, in the Press, in every political utterance of a general import, that the New World was indeed a new world, an escape from the tyranny of ancient traditions to peace, liberty, opportunity and a fresh life for mankind. It had to avoid all “entangling alliances” with Old-World states and policies, forget the inveterate quarrels and hatreds of Europe even at the price of forgetting kinship and breaking with a common culture, and work out and set the example of a more generous way of living. From the days of George Washington to the days of Woodrow Wilson, in spite of the Civil War and much grave economic trouble, the American mind never abandoned its belief in its own exemplary quality and its conception that towards the rest of the world its attitude must be missionary and philanthropic. It realized that it knew many things very simply, but it had no doubt it knew better.

Throughout the nineteenth century both America and Europe expanded enormously, economically, biologically. America was profoundly impressed by her own growth and disposed to disregard the equal pace of European progress. Assisted by a tremendous immigration from Europe, the population of the United States increased by about 80 millions in a hundred years. But in spite of that tremendous emigration, Europe during that period added 240 millions to her multitudes. The American cherished a delusion that he had “got on” relatively to Europe. His life had in fact expanded, concurrently with the European’s, and through the working of ideas and inventions and the importation of human energy from the older centres. In his unimpeded continent the different elements in the expansion increased at rates that did not correspond with the European process. He was living in a similar progressive system, but he was more and more out of phase with Transatlantic developments.

And throughout that century inventions in transport and communications were “abolishing distance” and bringing points that had formerly been months apart into a few hours’ or a few moments’ distance from one another.

The resulting alternations of intimacy and remoteness across the Atlantic constitute one of the outstanding aspects of twentieth-century history. It is like two great and growing tops that spin side by side. They approach, they touch and clash, they wabble and fly apart. Or it is like two complexes of machinery, destined ultimately to combine into one world mechanism, whose spinning wheels attempt to mesh and fail to mesh and jar with a great shower of sparks and splinters and separate again. From the end of the nineteenth century onward the unifying forces of life were tending to gear America with Europe. By the middle of the twentieth century any observer might have been forgiven the conclusion that the intergearing had failed.

We have already given great prominence in this history to the figures of Henry Ford, Woodrow Wilson, and the second Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt. We have told of the magnificent advance upon Europe and the subsequent recoil of America within and about them. A brief but competent contemporary book by an American publicist, Frank H. Simonds, Can America stay at Home? (1933) surveys the question of isolation very illuminatingly as it appeared in the opening years of the great economic slump which closed down for good and all the wild freedoms of Acquisitive Private Capitalism. He shows how the phases of approach and repulsion succeeded one another from the first imperialist enterprises of Roosevelt I (Theodore Roosevelt, 1901-1909) onward; how impossible it seemed for America either to keep out of Old-World affairs or to mingle frankly in them. It expressed its virtuous opinions and would not back them. It insisted upon moral judgments and would not take responsibility. In European eyes, to quote Simonds’ new historical phrase, “American concern for peace appeared a transparent endeavour to combine the mission of John the Baptist with the method of Pontius Pilate.” The explanation lay in just that mixture of liberal modernity and naive crudity in the American intelligence on which we have laid stress.

From its beginning the American republic was a break with history, a new thing, far newer, having regard to its period, than the Soviet Republic of Lenin, and from its beginning it was failing to go on with its newness, failing to develop and intensify its ideas. It evolved a body of higher schools and cultivated men to think itself out only after more than a century of independence; in the interim it left its mass education to underpaid teachers and repetitive women. It grew bodily, immensely, and for more than a century it lived on imported brain-food. The result was this rawness, this immense sense of its mission and this want of any subtlety or vigour in its conduct. Wilson’s foolish preachments and arrangements, so foolish and yet so saturated with the wisdom of world peace, were perhaps the highest expression of the American mind of his time.

The American mind even in the nineteenth century was not an ignorant mind; it was an immensely uneducated mind. If it was clumsy, it was also free. Its religious “revivalism” was exactly parallel to its political fluctuations. We find in the stories and studies of authentic American life such features as camp-meetings and organized emotional campaigns for repentance and conversion. We think of firelit scenes, of harsh preaching and lusty chanting. These waves of popular feeling, these gatherings, often in the woods, with their hymn-singing, their exhortation, their shouts of penitence and exultant belief, the mindless exaltation and the subsequent mindless deflation of American spiritual life, were precisely reflected in these booms and slumps of the American world mission. Only with the shock of world economic disaster did the real social and political thinking of America rise to its full vigour. The retreat of the United States from the imbroglio of European affairs as the great depression intensified was marked by a new, more vigorous determination to grip the essentials of social life.

And certainly there was everything to stimulate thought in the internal situation. The dégringolade was at first more rapid even than in Europe. The industrial edifice had been reared to giddier heights of mass production and fell more heavily. In 1928 the United States of America still believed itself the most prosperous country in the world; in 1933 its unemployed were more hopeless and formidable than those of any other continent. But they made no organized effort of revolt; they had no revolutionary formula to bring them together. They revolted as individuals and gangs and became criminals. Society was not overthrown, but it crumbled rapidly to dust and disorder. The crime wave, the financial stress, the frantic efforts to economize, and all the consequent strangulation of popular education and the dissolution of confidence, order and intercommunication — that sequence which we have already traced in general terms manifested itself most severely and typically in this vast, comparatively unhistorical area. Roosevelt II struggled gallantly but he came too late to stop the rot.

In America as in Europe a phase of fragmentation set in. It was not a smash to which one can give a definite date, but every day there was something happening in the direction of dissolution. In America as in Europe State governments became insolvent phantoms making feebler and feebler efforts to collect taxes, and the Federal authority in Washington faded away, if not as completely as the League of Nations in Europe, at any rate in a comparable manner. We have the same phenomena of municipalities becoming autonomous, and provisional controls, Citizens’ Unions, Law and Order Societies, Workers’ Protection Associations and plain Workers’ Soviets (in New Mexico and Arizona) springing into activity here, there and everywhere. In the Blue Mountains and on the Pacific coast small republics had already isolated themselves in 1945 and were carrying out a strange blend of Methodism, “Technocracy” and the Douglas Plan, and Utah had become a practically autonomous Single-Tax State and had restored Mormonism of the original type as the State religion. But there had been no formal secession from the Federal Union anywhere.

There is in the Records a description of Washington in the year 1958, by a former attaché of the British Embassy there. (All the Ambassadors of the British Empire had been replaced by “consolidated consuls” in 1946.) He describes a visit to the White House, where he was entertained at lunch by President Benito Caruso. The President was carrying on although his term had expired because his successor elect had disappeared on his way to the capital in the Allegheny Mountains. There had been considerable confusion about the last election, and two Secession Presidents who were disputing possession of the State of New York after a conflict over the Yonkers Ballot Boxes had cut off communications with New England altogether.

The President received his visitor very cordially and asked many very sympathetic and intelligent questions about the European situation. He spoke very hopefully of the American outlook. The “return to Normalcy”, he said, was at last in sight. There had been a restoration of the steamboat traffic on the Mississippi, and cotton was going through to the north again in spite of the political unrest. A hundred and forty automobiles had been sent to South America alone in the year 1956-7 in the place of only seventy-two for the previous year. The new quinine-coffee barter system was working well. He looked forward now to a steady upward movement in business affairs. The Hoover Slump had, he admitted, lasted much longer and had gone much lower than had been expected, and it had tried the people to the utmost, but they had faced their trials in a manner worthy of the fathers of the republic. He concluded with the compliments usual then between the two great divisions of the English-speaking peoples.

The lunch was plain but ample. There was excellent pork and a variety of vegetables which the President with genuine democratic frankness boasted he had raised himself with the help of his negro “secretariat” in the pig-pens and garden at the back of the White House. The duties of the secretariat seem to have been in the household rather than the office. They had been appointed for abstruse political reasons, and several of them were unable to read. Mrs. Caruso, a very pleasant lady of Irish extraction, was disposed to dwell on the difficulties of housekeeping in Washington in view of the increasing unpunctuality in the collection of the Federal revenue, but the President checked her, evidently considering these domestic matters a reflection upon the solvency of the nation.

At that time only about a third of the States were actually represented by Congressmen in the Assembly. The rest had found it either too expensive or unnecessary to send delegates. A member was in possession of the house, a tattered individual, reciting some lengthy grievance; there were no reporters visible, and nobody was listening to him. Apparently this man was trying to “talk out” some legislative proposal, but the visitor could not find anyone who could explain the situation precisely.

The visitor dined on the following day with the eloquent, vital and venerable Senator Borah from Idaho (1865-1970). He was in excellent form, and talked throughout the meal. Indeed, he talked so ably that his visitor was unable to ask him several questions previously prepared for him. He too was extremely hopeful for his country. He admitted that there had been a marked decline in the grosser welfare of America during his lifetime. He would not quarrel with statistics. In tons of coal and steel, in miles of railway run, in the mass production of motor-cars and commodities generally, it was possible to institute unfavourable comparisons with the past. “But man does not live by bread alone,” said America’s Grand Old Man. “Let us look a little nearer the heart of things.”

That heart, it seemed, had never been sounder. The pestilence, like everything that came from God, had been “wholesome”. The standard of life was, he maintained, higher than it ever had been, having regard to the nobler aspects of things. Fewer bathrooms there might be, at least in working order, but there was far more purity of mind. In his younger days there had been a lamentable lapse into luxurious indulgence and carelessness on the part of the free people of the States, but all that was past. America was nearer now to the old Colonial simplicity, honesty and purity than she had ever been.

A little inconsecutively the Senator went on to denounce the dishonesty of Europe and the disingenuousness of European and particularly of British diplomacy. He seemed for a time to be repeating long-remembered speeches and to have forgotten how completely British diplomacy had lapsed. He had apparently heard the word “attaché” before he began to talk, and that had sent his mind back to old times. He returned to the present situation. The United States, he insisted, had gone through far blacker phases in its early history. A hundred and fifty-four years ago Washington had been burnt by a victorious British army. Nothing of the sort had occurred during the present depression — if it could still be spoken of as a depression. Even at the darkest hour in this great Hoover Slump nobody had ever thought of burning Washington.

Later on this same traveller visited the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Harvard and a number of other centres of intellectual activity. His comments are shrewd and intelligent, and fall in very conveniently with our examination of the mental reactions that even then were rapidly producing a new and more sinewy American consciousness amidst the ruins of its ancient laxity.

These institutions were naturally in a most varied state of adjustment to the new conditions. Not all were progressive. Harvard reminded him of what he had read of the ancient lamaseries of Tibet. There was practically no paper to be got for note-taking or exercises, and the teaching was entirely oral and the learning done by heart. The libraries were closely guarded against depredations, and the more important books were only to be inspected in locked glass cases. A page was turned daily. The teachers varied in prestige with the number of their following. They either sat in class-rooms and under trees and lectured, or they went for long walks discoursing as they went to a rabble of disciples. They varied not only in prestige but physical well-being, because it was the rôle of these students to cultivate food for their masters and themselves in the college grounds and produce woven clothing and sandals in the Technical and Art Buildings. Some literary production was going on. The more gifted students wrote verses on slates and these, if they were sufficiently esteemed by the teaching staff, were written up on the walls or ceilings of the building. The atmosphere was one of archaic simplicity and studied leisure. The visitor was entertained by President Eliot, a tall distinguished-looking elderly man in a toga, who had inherited his position from his grandfather. There was a large open fire in the room, which was lit by tallow candles which two undergraduates continually snuffed. The President talked very beautifully over his simple soup, his choice Maryland claret and a cornucopia of fruit and nuts, and the conversation went on until a late hour.

The impression of Nicholson, the visitor, was one of an elegant impracticability. The simple graciousness of the life he could not deny, but it seemed to him also profoundly futile. He seems, however, to have concealed this opinion from the President and allowed him to talk unchallenged of how Harvard had achieved the ultimate purification and refinement of the Anglican culture, that blend of classicism and refined Christianity, with a graceful monarchist devotion.

“There is a King here?” asked the visitor.

“Not actually a King,” said the President regretfully. “We have decided that the Declaration of Independence is inoperative, but we have been unable to locate the legitimate King of England, and so there has been no personal confirmation of our attitude. But we have an attitude of loyalty. We cherish that.”

The chief subjects of study seem to have been the Ptolemaic cosmogony, the Homeric poems, the authentic plays of Shakespeare and theology. The scanty leisure of the students did not admit of a very high standard of gymnastics, and they seem to have abandoned those typical American college sports of baseball and football altogether. The President spoke of these games as “late innovations”. One chief out-of-door employment seems to have been wood-cutting and felling.

This glimpse of graceful and idealistic pedantry is interesting because it left so few traces for later times. It depended very much on the personality of the President himself, and after his death at an advanced age, and the hard winters of 1981 and 1983, this ancient foundation seems to have been completely deserted and allowed to fall into ruin.

Both Columbia University and Chicago were in violent contrast to Harvard. Here the influence of the new De Windt school of thought was very evident, and the traditions of Dewey, Robinson, Harry Elmer Barnes, Raymond Fosdick, the Beard couple and their associates were still alive. Although New York City was already abandoned and dangerous because of the instability of its huge unoccupied skyscrapers, there was still considerable trading on the Hudson River and some manufacturing activity. The great iron bridges were still quite practicable for pack horses and mules, and, affording as they did a North and South line of communication of quite primary value, they gave the place a unique commercial importance. The industrial workers there and in Chicago were in close contact with the college staffs, and they were working with very great energy at what they called “The General Problem of Recovery”.

“They don’t”, writes Nicholson, “admit that civilization has broken down. They talk here just as they did in Washington, of the Hoover Slump. I never met people so confident that somehow and in some fashion things will pick up again. There is nothing like this at home. One night there was a tremendous crash and an earthquake. A huge pile called ‘Radio City’ had collapsed in the night. In the bright keen morning I went out to the Pantheon, and there a crowd of people was watching the clouds of dust that were still rising, and listening to the occasional concussions that marked minor fallings-in. Were they in the least downhearted? Not at all. ‘There’s a bit more liquidation,’ said a man near me. ‘We have to get these things off our hands somehow.’”

Nicholson gives a fairly full account of the curricula of both Columbia and Chicago. He is greatly struck by the equipment of the scientific laboratories and the relative importance of experimental work. “I felt almost as though I was back in 1930,” he says, “when I visited the Rockefeller chemical laboratory.” But still more was he struck by the advanced state of the sociological work. “They are producing a sort of lawyers who are not litigators,” he writes. “I think the new law stuff they are doing here is the most interesting thing about the place. It isn’t what my father would have recognized as law at all. It’s the physiology and pathology of society and social therapeutics arising therefrom. There are one or two men here, Hooper Hamilton and Rin Kay for instance, whose talk is a liberal education. They won’t hear any of the rot we deal out at home about the Sunset of Mankind.”

That was his key observation, so to speak. But it is interesting to note that the reduction of Basic English to practicable use was also being made. Spanish and English were already on their way to become the interchangeable languages they remained throughout all the earlier twenty-first century. The teaching of French had fallen off very greatly, and the old classical studies (Greek and Latin) to judge by his complete silence about them, had been completely abandoned.

Our tourist flew from Chicago to the Ford Aerodrome at Dearborn, saw the ruins of the main factories and the reconstructed settlement, and spent some days with the Technological School there and in the still very imperfectly arranged Museum of American Life. It was startling to see some scores of square miles of closely cultivated land round the open space of the Aerodrome and to learn that an old Ford idea of dividing the time of the staff between agricultural production and mechanical work was still in effective operation. There were associated textile and boot factories in Detroit. There was still an output of some thousand-odd automobiles a year and a “few hundred” (!) aeroplanes. And there was a small but healthy radio department.

“We keep in touch,” said the Director. “We don’t interfere with people, and we are not interfered with. We are running all that is left of the distance letter post. . . . Yes, Canada and Mexico as well. Nobody bothers us now about the boundaries, and we don’t bother. When trade was at its worst we sat tight, cultivated our farms, and did experiments.”

The Henry Ford, that “great original” whose adventure of the Peace Ship has been chosen to mark a turning-point in our history, had long since played out his part, but the Director mentioned in these papers seems to have been his son Edsel, carrying on the initiatives of his finely simple-minded parent.

That the place was able to “sit tight and carry on” was no empty boast. The visitor from a slovenly world dwells on the “tidiness” of everything. The Edison workshop was still in the original state as it had been re-erected by Henry Ford; there or in the Museum Nicholson was shown the first phonograph and the first telephone ever made, and the earliest experimental automobiles and aeroplanes.

“It is as recent as that,” he tells us he said. “In the lifetime of ourselves and our fathers we have seen the beginning, the triumph, and the collapse of the greatest civilization that the world has ever seen. We have spanned the whole history of mechanical mass production.”

“Not a bit of it,” said the Director. “It’s hardly begun.”

There followed a long conversation the gist of which the visitor seems to have written down immediately in dialogue form. Its interest for the student of history lies in the fact that here again we have evidence of the way in which amidst the world-wide collapse into misery, disorder and incoherent peasant life the vitality of the mechanical transport system was manifesting itself. We can put the talk of the Dearborn director side by side with that of the European aviator reported by Titus Cobbett. There is the same realization of the final death of the old order. “All that king business and congress business is as dead as mutton,” said the Dearborn director. “And the banking business is deader.”

“And what is coming?” asked the visitor.

“THAT,” said the director, and pointed to a mounting aeroplane inaudible and almost invisible in the blue.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30