The Shape of Things to Come

Book the Second
The Days After Tomorrow: the Age of Frustration

3. Disintegration and Crystallization in the Social Magma. The Gangster and Militant Political Organizations

H.G. Wells

THE DISSOLUTIONS and regroupings of people that were going on through this period have always attracted the attention of the social philosopher. The common man had lost his faith in a friendly God, his confidence in social justice and his educational and social services. He was out of employment and stirred by unsatisfied appetites. The time-honoured life of work and family interests had become impossible for a growing majority.

What we now call social nucleation was failing; the grouping of human beings in families and working communities was not going on. They became restive and troublesome. The social confidence and discipline that had prevailed throughout the nineteenth century deteriorated very rapidly. There was a swift fall in social security.

Phases of fever have occurred time without number in human history, phases of unsettlement and confused motivation, clottings and drives and migrations of population. Periods of tranquil assurance are the exception throughout the ages. But in the past it has usually been the exhaustion of food supplies, pestilence or some cruel invasion that has broken up the social texture and made humanity lawless again. This new disintegration was of a different character. It was due in the first place to an increase rather than a diminution of material and energy in the social scheme. It was a process of expansion which went wrong through the inadequacy of traditional law and government.

The disintegrative forces were already evident in the eighteenth century; they became very conspicuous in the French Revolution and the subsequent social and political disturbances but they only rose to a plain domination of the controlling forces after the World War.

In the seventeenth century, when population was thin and hardly anyone moved about, it had been possible to keep order by means of a village constable, to try the malefactor by a local magistrate and jury which knew him thoroughly and understood his position and motives. Dogberry and Shallow sufficed. But the economic growth of the eighteenth century increased the size of towns and the traffic on the newly made roads between them without any corresponding increase in the forces of order. It produced, therefore, the urban mob, the footpad, the highwayman and the brigand. The local constable was unequal to these new demands; the local magistrate as inadequate. There was a phase of increasing crime.

After the failure of a régime of savage punishment uncertainly inflicted, after the excesses of the first French Revolution, after phases of mob violence in every European capital, and endless other manifestations of this outpacing of social control, the machinery of government did by an effort adjust itself to the new conditions. More or less modernized police forces appeared throughout the world and inaugurated a new phase of order and security, a phase which reached its maximum in the years before the Great War. For a time then the world, or at any rate very considerable areas of it, was almost as safe as it is today. An unarmed man could go about in reasonable security in most of Europe, India, China, America. Nobody offered him violence or attempted open robbery. Even the policeman in the English-speaking and Western European communities carried no weapon but a truncheon.

But the World War broke down many of the inhibitions of violence and bloodshed that had been built up during the progressive years of the nineteenth century and an accumulating number of intelligent, restless unemployed men, in a new world of motor-cars, telephones, plate-glass shop windows, unbarred country houses and trustful social habits, found themselves faced with illegal opportunities far more attractive than any legal behaviour-system now afforded them. And now after the world slump that insanity of public economy which runs like a disease through the story of the age prevented any prompt enlargement and modernization of the existing educational, legal or police organizations. The scale and prestige of the law-court and police-court dwindled as the problems presented to them by the vast irregular developments of that period of stress and perplexity increased.

So the stage was set for a lawless phase. The criminal was liberated from parochialism and reactionary economies long before his antagonist the policeman, and he experienced all the invigoration and enlargement of that release. The criminal grew big while the law, pot-bound in its traditional swathings, was unable to keep pace with him.

The criminal records of this disorderly interlude make strange reading today. Things that were terrible enough at the time appear to us now as they recede into the past through a thickening, highly retractile veil of grotesqueness and picturesque absurdity. We read about them, as we read about mediæval tortures or cannibal feasts or war atrocities or human sacrifice, with a startled incredulity. We laugh now; it is all so impossible. Few of us actually realize these were flesh-and-blood sufferings that living men and women went through only a century and a half ago.

The criminals of the more fortunate countries of the European system, during that First Age of General Prosperity before the World War, like the few cases of intolerable behaviour with which society deals today, had constituted a small abnormal and diminishing minority for the most part mental defectives or at best very inferior types. The majority of their offences were emotional or brutish offences. There was some stealing and a steady proportion of swindling in business, not sufficient to disturb the social order at all seriously. But as the morale of the old order dissolved, this ceased to be the case. Increasing numbers of intelligent and enterprising people found themselves in conflict with society because, as they argued very reasonably, society had cheated them. Patriotism too, they felt, had cheated them and given them nothing but poverty and war. They had never had a fair chance. They looked after themselves and left the community to look after itself. They fell back on the nearer loyalties of their immediate associates.

Your “pal” at any rate was close at hand. If he “let you down”, you had a fair chance to “get at” him. Little gang-nuclei came into existence, therefore, wherever unassimilated elements of the population were congested and humiliated or wherever intelligent men festered in unemployment and need.

In 1900 European society in particular was still nucleated about the family group in relation to a generally understood code of lawful behaviour. In 1950 its individuals were either nucleated into gangs, groups or societies or dissolved into crowds, and the influence and pretence of any universally valid standard of good conduct had disappeared.

Robbery is the first great division in the catalogue of anti-social offences. Every efficient government in the past reserved to itself the sole right of dispossession, and every intelligent government exercised the right with extreme discretion. In the past of unregulated private ownership the filching of portable objects and raids upon unguarded possessions were always going on. In Great Britain, in which country the highest levels of social order were attained during the First Age of General Prosperity, stealing (with which we may include various forms of embezzlement and fraud) remained the chief offence upon the list. Almost all the others had become exceptional. But whenever there was a dip in the common prosperity, more active methods of robbery appeared to supplement the ordinary theft. The snatcher began to take his chance with bags and watches. The enterprise of the burglar increased. Then came the simple hold-up under threats, or robbery with assault. In a world of general confidence, unarmed and unaccompanied people were going about everywhere wearing valuable jewellery and carrying considerable sums of money. But that atmosphere of confidence could be rapidly chilled. Even in later-nineteenth-century Britain there were epidemics of robbery by single men or by men in couples, the “garrotters” of the sixties, for example, who assaulted suddenly from behind and seized the watch and pocket-book. They would clap a pitch plaster over their victim’s mouth. There were brief phases when the suburban regions even of London and Paris became unsafe, and at no time were any but the more central regions of some of the great American cities secure. This kind of thing increased notably everywhere after the World War.

There were manifest limits to this hold-up business. It was something that extinguished itself. There had to be a general feeling of practical security for that type of robbery to prosper. There had to be people to rob. Robbery from the person is an acute and not a chronic disease of communities. So soon as the footpad became too prevalent people ceased to carry so many valuables, they shunned lonely or dark streets and roads, they went about in company and began to bear arms. The epidemic of hold-ups passed its maximum and declined.

The criminally disposed soon learnt the importance of association for the exploitation of new lines of effort. With a more alert and defensive and less solitary type of victim, the casual criminal developed into the planning criminal. In every country multiplying nuclei of crime began to work out the problems of that terroristic gang discipline which is imperative upon those who combine to defy the law. In Europe the intensifying tariff wars put an increasing premium upon the enterprise of the smuggler, and in smuggling enterprises men readily developed those furtive secret loyalties, those sub-laws of the underworld, which proved so readily applicable to more aggressive efforts. In America the repressive laws against alcohol had already created the necessary conditions for a similar morbid organization of gang systems, which had become readily confluent with the older associations for political corruption and terrorism. As the economic breakdown proceeded throughout the thirties and forties of the twentieth century, ordinary social security diminished even more rapidly in America than in Europe. But everywhere a parallel dégringolade was going on. Now it would be the criminal forces in one country and now those in another which were leading in novel attacks upon the law-abiding citizen of the decaying order.

The hold-up in force became bolder and more frequent. History repeated itself with variations. In the place of the highwayman of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came the motor-car bandit and the train-robber. Trains-de-luxe were successfully held up by armed bands, first of all in Eastern Europe and America and then very generally. These were operations involving the concerted action of a dozen men or more, who had to be sure of their “get away” and with a market for their loot. Country houses and country clubs full of wealthy guests presently began to be attacked—the telephones cut and the whole place systematically looted. Restaurants, gambling-clubs and other resorts of people with full pocket-books were also raided with increasing efficiency. Local banks and bank branches became insecure. Until the nineteen-thirties a town bank had a large open handsome office with swinging doors, low counters and glass partitions. Ten years later the face of the bank had changed: the clerks were protected by steel defences, they were armed with revolvers, and they parleyed with the customer through small pigeonholes that could be promptly closed.

This change in the scale and quality of aggressive crime was reflected in public manners and display. The wearing of jewellery, gold watch-chains, expensive studs and suchlike challenges to poverty declined, costume became more “buttoned up” and restrained. Hip-pocket weapons spread from America to Europe. Women’s dress and ornaments, though if anything they improved in their artistic quality, diminished in intrinsic value. Everywhere there was a diminution of social ostentation. Houses with narrow exterior windows and well equipped with steel doors, locks, bolts and bars, were preferred to those candidly exposed to sunlight and exterior observation. The window displays of the town shops became more guarded.

The need for protection and the dread of conspicuousness affected automobile design. The common automobile of the middle twentieth century was a sullen-looking pugnacious beast. And its occupants were in harmony with it. Before the World War the spectacle of a broken-down vehicle or any such trouble by the wayside would induce almost any passing car to stop and offer assistance. Under the new conditions people feared a decoy. They would refuse to stop after twilight, and even in the daytime they sometimes hurried on, though injured or apparently injured people might be lying by the roadside.

Travel diminished very rapidly under such conditions. There is some difficulty about the statistics, but between 1928 and 1938 the number of pleasure travellers upon the roads and railways of continental Europe fell by something over, rather than under, eighty per cent. There were, of course, other causes at work besides the general insecurity of movement in producing this decline; there was a general impoverishment also which disposed people to stay at home. But the major factor was insecurity.

The roads were less and less frequented as they became unsafe. Many fell out of repair, and the old road-signs and petrol pumps, now dear to our school-museum collectors, vanished one by one from the landscape.

Improvements in robbery were only one group of the criminal developments in progress. A much more distressful aspect was the organization of terroristic blackmail, at first directed against individuals and then against whole classes in the community. As people ceased to travel to be robbed, the robber had to pursue them to their homes. Here again American inventiveness and enterprise led the world. By imperceptible degrees the ordinary prosperous citizen found his life enmeshed in a tangle of threats and vague anxieties. Even during the prosperous period there had been an element of menace in the lives of the American well-to-do; their securities had never been quite secure and their positions never perfectly stable. But now over and above the ever increasing instability of possessions and income came the increasing need to buy off molestation. Breaking through the now inadequate protection of the police appeared silently and grimly and more and more openly the blackmailer, the kidnapper and the gang terrorist.

A particularly cruel form of attack upon unprotected private people was the threatening and kidnapping of young children. It had a minor grotesque side in the stealing and ransoming of pet animals. Many hundreds of children had been stolen, hidden away, and brought back for reward before the abduction and murder of the child of Colonel Lindbergh, a long-distance aviator very popular in America, called general attention to this increasing nuisance. Nothing effective, however, was done to control these practices, and in the bad years that followed 1930 kidnapping and the threat of kidnapping increased very greatly, and spread to the old world. It was organised. Men and women were spirited away, intimidated by threats of torture, held captive. If the pursuit was pressed too hard they disappeared and were heard of no more. Assassinations multiplied. Bodies of men set themselves up almost without concealment under such names as Citizens’ Protection Societies, or Civil Order Associations. The man who wanted to be left alone in peace, he and his household, was pressed to pay his tribute to the gang. Or he would not be left in peace. And even if his particular “protectors” left him in peace, there might still be other gangs about for whom they disavowed responsibility and with whom he had to make a separate deal.

It was not merely the well-to-do who were worried and levied upon in this fashion. An increasing proportion of minor workers and traders found it necessary to pay a percentage of their gains or earnings to escape systematic persecution. “Trouble” was the characteristic American word. “You don’t want to have trouble,” said the blackmailer, gently but insistently.

The new generation grew up into a world of secret compromises and underhand surrenders. The common man picked his way discreetly through a world of possible trouble. No one dared live who was not a member (and servant) of a Union of some kind. It was a return to very ancient conditions, conditions that had prevailed for ages in China, for instance, and in Sicily and Southern Italy. But it was a relapse from the freedom and confidence of the better days at the close of the nineteenth century. It was a contraction of everyday human happiness.

Kidnapping was not confined to kidnapping for ransom. There had always been a certain irrepressible trade in the beguiling and stealing of young persons for sexual prostitution, and this also increased again. Workers were kidnapped, and the intimidation of workers in factories became bolder and less formally legal. There was a great release of violence in personal quarrels, and in particular crimes of revenge multiplied. In a phase of dwindling confidence and happiness, people of spirit no longer recoiled from the tragic ending of oppressive situations. They took the law into their own hands. They began to fight and kill, and they were no longer inevitably overtaken by the law.

The remaining rich, the financial adventurers who still appeared, the prominent political leaders, the transitory “kings” of the underworld, all surrounded themselves with bodyguards. Types recalling the hired “bravos” of the Italian cities of the later Middle Ages and the Samurai of the Japanese noblemen reappeared as the hefty private attendants of the wealthier Americans. After the economic slump had fairly set in the posse of needy retainers became a universal practice with all who could afford it. They protected the person and the home. They supplemented the police.

The transition from a protective to an aggressive bodyguard was inevitable. Leading American bootleggers were the chief offenders, but the example was contagious. “Brawling” of retainers reappeared first in America, Germany and Ireland. These brawls were usually small street battles, or conflicts at race meetings and suchlike gatherings, or side issues to political meetings and processions. It was a courageous politician who would face an audience after 1938 unless he knew that his men were about him and posted at strategically important points in the meeting. And he would be wearing a mail undervest or suchlike protection of his more vital parts. There are hundreds of such garments in our museums.

No man, woman or child that “mattered” went about “unshadowed” after 1940. After the middle nineteenth century women had made great advances toward personal freedom. About 1912 a pretty girl in her teens might have taken a knapsack and marched off alone through the northern states of Europe or America in perfect safety, unmolested. All this freedom vanished during the age of insecurity. Women ceased to go about without an escort even in the towns. It was not until 2014 that there was any real return towards the former common liberties of the young and weak and gentle. There was on the part of women, as the novels of the time reveal, a survival of social fear in human life, the fear of going alone, until the middle of the twenty-first century.

After 1945 a fresh aspect of insecurity appears in the records. There is mention of unsafe roadside hotels, and a great increase not simply of streets, but of whole districts and villages where “things happened”, people disappeared, and it was inadvisable for strangers to go. Some of these criminally infected areas did not recover their reputations for three quarters of a century. The dangerous big hotel with its secret lifts, passages, ambushes and sinister private rooms is still the delight of our popular romancers; it loses nothing in elaboration as it recedes into the past.

The psychology of the twentieth-century policeman has been made the subject of a whole group of historical studies. There was no connection in those days between the policeman and either the educational or medical services. This association which appears so inevitable to us today would have seemed insane to the organizers of the first police forces in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The policeman, for them, was to be an animated barrier and signpost, capable of leaping into action at the sight of assault, petty larceny or unseemly behaviour. Beyond that very little initiative was expected from him. He took into custody people who were “given in charge”. Above him were officers, usually of a different class, and associated with the force was a group of criminal enquiry experts, who were quite capable of handling most of the offences against the law that prevailed in the era before the extensive introduction of rapid transit, power machinery and mass production. This pattern of police force worked fairly well up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Except in districts where sexual prostitution was rife it remained fairly honest. It maintained a fairly high level of liberty, security of property and social order for a century. Only when the control of morals or political intervention was thrust upon it did it prove unequal to the strain.

And then, as the greater community of the World State began to struggle clumsily and painfully out of traditional forms, we see police control again outpaced by its task. It gives way. “Why,” the student asks, “was this police organization unable to keep pace with the new stresses? Why were the ruling people of that time so incapable of fitting it to the new demands upon it?” We have already indicated the main lines of the answer. Just when the need for a fundamental refashioning of the police of the world was becoming urgent, came also, first that exacerbation of international hostilities, of “secret service” and espionage to render any broad international handling of the problem impossible, and secondly that desperately foolish sacrifice of life to the creditor which seems to be the inevitable conclusion of any social system based on acquisition.

The Profit-Capitalist System was absolutely incapable of controlling the unemployment it had evoked and the belligerence it stimulated. It stagnated on its hoards. It fought against inflation and it fought against taxation. It died frothing economies at the mouth. It killed the schools on which public acquiescence rested. Impartially it restricted employment and the relief of the unemployed. Even on this plain issue of its police protection it economized. Impossible, it said, to plan a new police when we cannot even pay for the police we have.

And so the desperate fight of an essentially nineteenth-century pattern of police organization, under-financed, inadequately equipped, divided up, controlled by small-scale, antiquated national or parochial authorities, in many cases rotten with corruption, against the monstrous forces of disorganization released by the irregular hypertrophies to social development was added to the other conflicts of that distressful age.

In spite of a notable amount of corruption and actual descents into criminality, the general will of most of the police forces seems to have remained sound. Most but not all. Most of these organizations did keep up a fight for order even when they were in a process of dissolution. They did keep up their traditional war against crime. But their methods underwent a considerable degeneration, which was shared, and shared for the same reason, by the criminal law of the period. Police and prosecutor both felt that the dice were loaded against them, that they were battling against unfair odds. Their war against crime became a feud. It grew less and less like a serene control, and more and more like a gang conflict. They were working in an atmosphere in which witnesses were easily intimidated and local sympathy more often than not against the law. This led to an increasing unscrupulousness on their part in the tendering and treatment of evidence. In many cases (see Aubrey Wilkinson’s The Natural History of the Police Frame-up, 1991) the police deliberately manufactured evidence against criminals they had good reason to believe guilty, and perjured themselves unhesitatingly. Wilkinson declares that in the early twentieth century hundreds of thousands of wrongdoers were “justly condemned on false evidence”, and that they could have been condemned in no other way.

But the apologetics of Wilkinson for the police break down when he comes to the next aspect of their degeneration under stress. We have all read with horror of the use of torture in mediæval practice and shuddered at the fact that there were even special machines and instruments in those days, the rack, the thumbscrew, the boot and so forth, for the infliction of pain. But there remains little doubt now that the police of the twentieth century, fighting with their backs to the wall against enormous odds, did go very far towards a revival of torture against those they believed to be social dangers. It is a difficult as well as an ugly task to disentangle this story now, but sufficient fact emerges to show us that in the general decay of behaviour that was going on, not merely casual blows and roughness of handling, but the systematic exhaustion, pestering, ill-treatment and actual torment of persons under arrest in order to extort confessions and incriminating statements, became prevalent.

There is no real distinction in nature between the processes that led up to this chaotic nucleation of human beings about gangs and organizations for frankly criminal purposes and those which led to protective associations for the illegal maintenance of security and order and again to those much wider allegiances within the state such as the nationalist Sokols in the Austrian provinces that became Szecho Slovakia, the Irish Republican organizations, the Ku Klux Klan in America, the multitudinous secret societies of India, China, and Japan, the Communist Party which captured Russia, the Fascist who captured Italy, the Nazis who captured Germany, all of which pursued on bolder and bolder scales large intimidatory and revolutionary economic and political ends. All these were structurally great gangster systems. Instead of specific immediate blackmail they sought larger satisfactions; that is all the difference. Even when the organisation as a whole had large conceptions of its function, it was apt to degenerate locally into a mere boss or bully rule. All these forms of recrystallization within the community, large and small, arose because of the inadaptability and want of vigour and cooperation in the formal governing, economically directive and educational systems. Because there was no foresight to ensure continuity in the growth of institutions, there were these unpremeditated and often morbid growths, expressive of the accumulating discomfort and discontent and of the need for a more intimate, energetic and fruitful form of human association.

It is paradoxical but true that the civilized human society of the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries broke up because of the imperative need of human beings to live in active combination. It was pulled to pieces by its own new cohesions. Until there was a complete, satisfactory and vigorous World-State organization potentially in being, the continuation of this breaking up and reassembling of social energy was inevitable. It was like the break-up of caterpillar organs in the cocoon to form the new structures of the imago.

Even the Modern State Fellowship itself, so far as many of its nuclei were concerned, was at first of this nature, a coalescence of all these varied technicians who realized that employment would vanish, that everything they valued in life would vanish, with the spread of social disorder. They constituted protective and aggressive gangs with an unexampled power of world-wide cooperation. Their confluence became the new world.


The demoralization of the world’s sea life, thanks to the surviving vestiges of naval power, was far less rapid and complete than the spread of disorder on the land. It was only after the series of naval mutinies towards the end of the last European war that the ancient practice of piracy was resumed. Even then ships could still be policed and a recalcitrant ship brought to book much more easily than the black streets of a town. One or two pleasure liners were boarded and held up in out-of-the-way ports in the thirties, but in no case did the assailants get away with their plunder. In 1933 the Chinese fleet had disintegrated into shipfuls of adventurers offering their services by wireless to the various governments who divided the country. But these stray warships did little mischief before they were bought, captured or sunk by the Japanese.

A Canadian pleasure liner, The King of the Atlantic, on one of the last holiday voyages to be made, was seized on the high seas by an armed gang in 1939, and an attempt was made to hold its passengers to ransom. They were all to be killed if the pursuit was pressed home. In the face, however, of a combined attack by American sea and air forces, at that time still efficient though greatly in arrears with their pay, the hearts of the gangsters failed them and they surrendered ignominiously.

No ship of over 9,000 tons was ever captured by pirates. This relative maintenance of orderliness at sea was due to special conditions—the then recent discovery of radio communications, for example. It outlasted the practical cessation of shipbuilding in the forties and an immense shrinkage in the world’s shipping.

Nor did new types of criminal appear in the air until after the third European conflict, and then not overwhelmingly. Here again was a field of human activity, essentially simple and controllable. For a time indeed the aeroplane was the safest as well as the swiftest method of getting about the world. For some years after the practical cessation of general land travel the infrequent aviator still hummed across the sky, over dangerous city and deserted highroad, over ruined country houses and abandoned cultivations, recalling the memory of former disciplines and the promise of an orderly future.

There were fewer aeroplanes just as there were fewer ships, and, because of the general discouragement of enterprise, there was little change of type, yet the skies, like the high seas, remained practically outside the range of the general social debacle until well past the middle of the century. The need for aerodromes, for repairing and fuelling, held the dwindling body of aviators together. Air outrages at the worst phase were still scattered and disconnected events. And it was in the air at last and along the air routes that the sword of a new order reappeared.

The Shape of Things to Come - Contents    |     Book 2 - 4. Changes in War Practice after the World War

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