Posts Tagged ‘Andy Sawyer’

H.G. Wells’ Prediction of Workfare

October 6, 2018

I’ve just finished reading H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, now re-published in Penguin Classics, edited and with an introduction by Patrick Parrinder and with notes by Andy Sawyer. The novel is Wells’ 1924 revised version of his earlier When the Sleeper Wakes, published in 1899. It’s the tale of Graham, an overworked insomniac, who falls into a deathlike trance in 1898 and remains sleeping in a state of suspended animation for over 200 years. When he finally awakes, in a transparent glass case constructed to show him to the masses, he finds himself at the centre of revolutionary ferment.

All the democratic hopes and aspirations of the 19th century have passed, and the new world in which he now finds himself is one immediately recognizable to SF fans and cinema buffs, who’ve seen Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. This is a world of vast, hive-like cities of soaring tower blocks. London now has a population of 30 million, and has sucked in the population of the other cities in the UK. Where they remain, they are themselves vast tower blocks. The metropolis is covered by a glass dome. The private house has all but vanished, and people eat as well as work in public, so that the cities resembled vast hotels rather than aggregates of homes. In this vast hive, babies and children are reared away from their parents in vast nurseries, creches and kindergartens, attended by mechanical wetnurses. People move to and fro around the city on moving walkways, bridges across the gulfs between blocks, as well as funicular railways and abseiling on thin wires. Ultra-tough Eadhamite roads have replaced the railways linking city to city. The aeroplane has finally been developed – Wells wrote it before the Wright Brothers finally showed heavier than air flight was possible – and there are regular passenger flights across the world. The world has been united, and there is a global government. News and entertainment is provided not only by the theatre, but also by television, including a form of video recording. Instead of newspapers, there are the babble machines installed in public places around London, which mechanically announce the news conveyed by the various news agencies.

It is also a ruthlessly capitalist society. In the centuries while he slept, the trust set up to provide for Graham’s support during his slumber has expanded massively, buying up every other company on the face of the Earth, absorbing governments and subverting religion. The ruling council are its directors. Adverts are ubiquitous, even on the faces of the mechanical wetnurses attending the babies in the nurseries. The ruling elite regards democracy as discredited and outmoded. The commercial ethos has affected established religion, so that the Christian churches off access to the quickest and best bishops around, and conversion without upsetting your job and place in the social structure. All this is shocking enough to Graham, but he is really shaken by the condition of the toiling masses at the bottom of the social hierarchy. One third of the population wear the blue canvas of the Labour Department. This has superseded the old workhouse, and is partly based on the Salvation Army, which the Trust bought out and then subverted. Its workers are treated as serfs, toiling underground in vast, dirty factories, for a pittance. It is the refuge of the poor, the homeless and the destitute, whom it ruthlessly exploits.

This is explained to Graham by Helen Wotton, one of the rebels.

‘Workhouse! Yes – there was something. In our history lessons. I remember now. The Labour Department ousted the workhouse. It grew – partly – out of something – you, perhaps, may remember it – an emotional religious organization called the Salvation army – that became a business company. In the first place it was almost a charity. To save people from workhouse rigours. There had been great agitation against the workhouse. Now I come to think of it, it was one of the earliest properties your Trustees acquired. They bought the Salvation Army and reconstructed it as this. The idea in the first place was to organize the Labour of starving homeless people.’

‘Yes.’

‘Nowadays there are no workhouses, no refuges and charities, nothing but that Department. Its offices are everywhere. That blue is its colour. And any man, woman or child who comes to be hungry and weary and with neither home nor friend nor resort, must go to the Department in the end – or seek some way of death. the Euthanasy is beyond their means – for the poor there is no easy death. And at any hour in the day or night there is food, shelter and a blue uniform for all comers – that is the first condition of the Department’s incorporation – and in return for a day’s shelter the Department extracts a day’s work, and then returns the visitor’s proper clothing and sends him or her out again.’

‘Yes?’

‘Perhaps that does not seem so terrible to you. In your time men starved in your streets. That was bad. But they died – men. These people in blue – The proverb runs: “Blue canvas once and ever.” The Department trades in their labour, and it has taken care to assure itself of the supply. People come to it starving and helpless – they eat and sleep for a night and day, they work for a day, and at the end of the day they go out again. If they have worked well they have a penny or so – enough for a theatre or a cheap dancing place, or a kinematograph story, or a dinner or a bet. They wander about after that is spent. Begging is prevented by the police of the ways. Besides, no one gives. They come back again the next day or the day after – brought back again by the same incapacity that brought them first. At last their proper clothing wears out, or their rags get so shabby that they are ashamed. Then they must work for months to get fresh. If they want fresh. A great number of children are born under the Department’s care. The mother owes them a month thereafter – the children they cherish and educated until they are fourteen, and they pay two years’ service. You may be sure these children are educated for the blue canvas. And so it is the Department works.’ (pp. 161-2).

Okay, so it’s not quite like the Tories’ wretched welfare to work industry, in that the DWP doesn’t provide housing for the destitute. And the Tories’, and Blairites’, for that matter, prefer throwing people off benefit or finding ways to stop them getting it in the first place, than actually giving anyone work and support. But it does have many of the characteristics of workfare.

The book’s also interesting as while Well’s depicts a Christianity infused with the commercial ethos, this is not an anti-religious, anti-Christian book. Graham is shocked by this new, capitalistic religion. And when he finally gives a speech to inspire the workers revolting against their exploitation, he urges them to give themselves, just as Christ gave Himself upon the cross.

It’s a fascinating book, which shows the influence it had on subsequent dystopian literature, from Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And while a piece of early Science Fiction that didn’t get the future quite right, it still contains surprising lessons for our own time.