Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Adventures in the Land of the (Imaginary) Empirical Working-Class

Alberto Toscano has pointed out the danger of possibilities of condescension built into the splitting of the ‘Idea of the Proletariat’ (Kantian in Lyotard) from the empirical working-class for the ultra-left. The failure of the latter to ‘measure up’ to the former can license snobbery and dismissal, a problem that can be dated to Engels's Condition of the Working Class in England (following Stathis Kouvelakis). I wanted to write of a classical instance of this risk I found in HG Wells The War of the Worlds. Of course, Wells’s socialism was ‘scientific’ and had its own ‘peculiarities’, which could account for the element of ‘condescension’, nevertheless the example is worth analysing.

The scene takes place in Chapter Seven, after the Martian occupation of colonisation of the area around London. The narrator, despairingly trying to return to his wife, encounters a ‘man on Putney hill’ – a soldier he had met earlier who had managed to survive a Martian attack.

At first the narrator is impressed with the soldier’s lucid analysis of the state of the situation, as it seems the Martians have developed flying machines - “Aren’t you satisfied it is up with humanity? I am. We’re down; we’re beat.” The soldier goes on to sketch the likely future:

‘So soon as they’ve settled all our guns and ships, and smashed our railways, and done all the things they are doing over there, they will begin catching us systematic, picking the best and storing us in cages and things. That’s what they will start doing in a bit. Lord! They haven’t begun on us yet.’

Of course, the implicit allegory is not just with the Martians as colonisers, but also as a form of class rule – after all they vampirically drain the blood of humans for food (‘Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’ Marx).

The soldier sketches a situation in which the upper- and middle-classes will form happy collaboration in this situation of subservience: ‘Well, the Martians will just be a godsend to these. Nice roomy cages, fattening food, careful breeding, no worry. After a week or so chasing about the fields and lands on empty stomachs, they'll come and be caught cheerful. They'll be quite glad after a bit.’

Instead, in the future resistance, ‘If you’ve got any drawing-room manners or a dislike to eating peas with a knife or dropping aitches, you'd better chuck ‘em away. They ain’t no further use.’ Hence, the working-class will lead the resistance to the Martians and to these 'happy collaborators' (ie the complacent middle class).

This is cast in eugenic terms as well, as the resistance will have to go literally underground: ‘We’re not going to pick up any rubbish that drifts in. Weaklings go out again.’ The ‘tame’, meanwhile, ‘in a few generations they'll be big, beautiful, rich-blooded, stupid – rubbish!’ (hence The Time-Machine). Eventually, one these ‘able-bodied, clean-minded men’ will gain control of one of the Martian machines and then ‘Fancy having one of them lovely things, with its Heat-Ray wide and free! Fancy having it in control! What would it matter if you smashed to smithereens at the end of the run, after a bust like that? … And swish, bang, rattle, swish! Just as they are fumbling over it, swish comes the Heat-Ray, and, behold! man has come back to his own."
Impressed as he is the narrator is soon disillusioned by the man’s actual behaviour. He is digging a pointless tunnel from the cellar of the house he is hiding in to the sewers, when he could just enter the sewers. Also, he has proceeded very slowly, and so the narrator ‘had my first inkling of the gulf between his dreams and his powers.’ In fact, the man is lazy – ‘Oh, one can’t always work’ – and taken-up with drinking champagne and Thames-side burgundy. The narrator ‘resolved to leave this strange undisciplined dreamer of great things to his drink and gluttony, and to go on into London.’

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