The Shape of Things to Come

Book the Third
The World Renascence: the Birth of the Modern State

5. The First Conference at Basra: 1965

H.G. Wells

THE CONFERENCE of scientific and technical workers at Basra in 1965 is regarded by historians as a cardinal date in the emergence of the Modern State. It was organized by the Transport Union, which had begun as a loose association of the surviving aeroplane and shipping operators for mutual aid and protection. The ideas formulated at this conference—and even those were still formulated with a certain tentative or tactful incompleteness—had been gathering force and definition for some time. But this conference was the first to draw up a definite plan of the general human outlook and initiate an organization to carry it out. It marked the transition from thought to action in general affairs.

The idea of using air transport as the combining and directive force for a new synthesis of civilization was already an old and familiar one. It had been in men’s thoughts for at least thirty years. A popular story published in 1933, Man’s Mortality (by the English romancer Michael Arlen, 1895-1990), for instance, is an amusing fantasy of the world dominated by an air-transport syndicate. It is still a very readable book and interesting in showing the limitations of the educated imagination at that time. The belief in the possibilities of invention is unbounded; air velocities and air fighting are described on a scale that still seems preposterously exaggerated to-day; while on the other hand the inflated stock buying and selling of that period, although it had grown from the merest germ in about a century and a half, is represented as still going on unchanged, and the world’s air dictators are gambling dishonestly in stock, and at last “crash” financially and bolt as though they were just contemporary politicians and mystery men rather than lords of the whole power of the air. In a world of incredible metals, explosives and swiftness, the Stock Exchange, the Bourses, still survive. And there are still Powers and Foreign Policies! Nothing could illustrate better the inability of people at that time to realize the economic and political changes that were then actually tumbling upon them. For some obscure reason mental and moral progress and institutional invention seemed absolutely impossible to them.

An interesting little London periodical of the same time, Essential News, has recently been reprinted for graduate students of history in the Students’ Reprint Series. Its fourth issue (February 4th, 1933) contains a summary of contemporary thought about World Air Control. It cites a complete scheme for the “International” control of aviators, drawn up by a small French group at the suggestion of M. Henri de Jouvenal under the presidency of M. Pierre Denis. A Union Aéronautique Internationale is proposed, a cosmopolitan air transport company. Linked with this and controlled by the poor League of Nations, an “Air Force for Mutual Assistance” was to police the atmosphere. The proposals are so plainly Utopian and impracticable in the face of the sovereign state system as to seem insincere. It was only thirty years later, after the common suicide of the sovereign Powers of Europe, that the assembled technicians at Basra could revive the broad conception of this proposal.

This first conference at Basra was distinguished from its predecessors first by its universality and then by the extremely bold and comprehensive proposals for united action it accepted—proposals which were in effect, if not in form, the project for the modern World-State. It was the first of these gatherings attended by considerable American, Chinese and Japanese contingents, as well as the customary European representatives, and the Russian technicians were present in unprecedented strength and unexpectedly united and independent of the political controllers who accompanied them. New Zealand also had reappeared in the world’s affairs. There were even two representatives (two schoolmasters in the Social Psychology section) from Iceland, which for most practical purposes had been cut off from the world for over five years. And one has only to compare the agenda of this and previous assemblies to feel at once the stride forward in the scope and courage of scientific and technical thought that had occurred.

It was a young gathering; the average age is estimated by Amen Rihani as about thirty-three, and five or six women attended in the social and educational branches. A third but very significant feature was the extensive use of that simple and convenient lingua franca of the aviators, Basic English. Even the native English-speaking people present did their best to keep their speeches within the limitations of that ingenious idiom.

The master section was still that of General Transport. The body which had organized the gathering was, as has been said already, the Transport Union, originally a purely business body, but the inspiration was that of the Modern State movement, and technicians in medicine, education, agriculture and every main type of industrial production were present. There was much discussion of the upkeep of the world routes and the administrative tasks arising out of that. Nothing could give the student a more vivid sense of the derelict state of the world at that time than the boldness with which this Control took possession of things and pushed its activities into new fields. It was decided, for instance, that all existing aerodromes and landmarks, lights and lighting fields, should be directly under its management. There was no question of purchase; it took them over. Every aeroplane in the world was to be registered, was to carry a distinctive number, respect the common tariff of charges and pay a registration fee to the Control. Airships and aeroplanes which did not do this were to be treated as pirates, denied the use of aerodromes and filling stations, and “driven out of the air”. They were to be driven out of the air if necessary by an “air police” which the Control was to organize. Aerodromes or regions that harboured such recalcitrants were to be boycotted.

These proposals were not accepted without discussion. But there was very little protest against what was certainly, from the older point of view, an illegal usurpation of authority. The political members of the Russian contingent offered the chief resistance, and what other opposition appeared was not from aviators, engineers, chemists, biologists or men of that type, but from sociologists and economists of the less advanced schools. The main objection took the form of a question: “But what will governments say to this?” So far as the Westerners and Chinese were concerned there was a disposition to disregard the possibility of political intervention. “Wait till it comes,” they said cheerfully. But Soviet Russia and Soviet Japan were at that time much more rankly political than the rest of the world, and they at least had politicians as well as men of skill and science present at this gathering. A long speech was made by the commissar Vladimir Peshkoff, full of the menace of later trouble. He denounced the projected Control as an insidious attempt to restore a capitalist trust in the world. Its psychology would be bourgeois and capitalist. Moscow would never consent to the passage of controlled machines over the vast territories under Soviet control nor allow the exploitation of the resources of Russia in oil and minerals by any outside organization.

“And how will Moscow prevent it?” asked Ivan Englehart, a Russian aviator and aeroplane builder, rising as Peshkoff sat down. “Is it a nationalism of this sort that the Third International is to end?”

By way of reply Peshkoff leant towards him and spat out in Russian, “Wait until you return to Moscow.”

“I may have to wait a little time,” said Englehart. “I am a citizen of the world, and I shall go back to Russia in my own time and in my own fashion.”

“This is treason. Wait until Moscow hears of this!”

“And how and when will Moscow hear of this?”

“Very soon.”

Englehart was standing a few yards from Peshkoff. He shook his head with a sceptical smile. He spoke gently, like a man who had long prepared himself for such an occasion.

“You flew here, Tavarish Peshkoff, in my squadron. How do you propose to return?”

Peshkoff rose to his feet, realized the blank want of sympathy in the gathering, spluttered and sat down again in unconcealed dismay.

Englehart waited for a moment or so and then went on, choosing his words with quiet deliberation, to assure the meeting of the adhesion of the Russian technicians to the projected Control. “That phantom Proletarian of yours fades with all the other empires and kingdoms,” he said to the political delegates his colleagues. “We are only giving shape to a new world order that is already born.”

His speech set the key for most of the subsequent debate.

That establishment of the Control was the backbone discussion, but it was no more than the backbone of a plan that covered the whole future organization of society; upon it was articulated a whole framework of structural proposals. The central section dealt not only with the air network but with the organization of every type of communication. The lighthouses, lightships, sea marks, channels and harbours of the world were suffering from a decade of economy, a decade of wartime destruction and a decade of chaos and decay. The meteorological services were no longer operative. All this had to be restored. The definite abandonment of every type of railroad was accepted as a matter of course. Railways were buried at Basra forever. And the restoration and reconstruction of production in a hundred essential industries followed also as a necessary consequence of these primary resolutions.

The more the reader scrutinizes the agenda, the more is he impressed by the mildness of the official title of the gathering: “A Conference on Scientific and Mercantile Communications and Associated Questions”. It is clear that the conveners resolved to press on with their task of world reorganization as far as they possibly could, without rousing the enfeebled and moribund political organizations of the past to obstruction and interference. The language throughout is that of understatement; the shape of the projects is fearlessly bold. A committee of experts had prepared a very good general survey of the natural resources of the planet, including those of the already suspicious Russia, and the conference set itself unhesitatingly to work out the problems of a resumption of production generally, with an entire disregard of the various proprietary claims that might arise to challenge the realization of these schemes. There was no provocative discussion of these claims; they were ignored. The Sea and Air Ways Control evidently meant to take effective possession not only of all derelict ports, aerodromes, coal-mines, oil wells, power stations and mines, but to bring those in which a certain vitality still lingered into line with its schemes by hook or by crook, by persuasion or pressure. Its confidence in its solidarity with the skilled men working these latter establishments was absolute. Such a solidarity would have been inconceivable thirty years before. Financial adventure had been washed out of the minds of the new generation of technicians altogether. They simply wanted to “get things going again”. Ideas of personal enrichment were swamped in their universal conviction that their class must now either work together and master the world, or leave it.

So with a modest air of logical necessity, of being driven rather than driving, the Conference spread its planning far beyond the material and mechanism of world intercommunication.

What is this reconstructed transport to carry? How is it to be fed—and paid for? About the air-ports everywhere were tracts and regions sinking back to that primordial peasant cultivation which had been the basis of all the barbaric civilizations of the past. The question of the expropriation of the peasant and the modernization of agricultural production was taken up at Basra at the point where Lenin and Stalin had laid it down, defeated. The Conference was lucidly aware that upon the same planet at the same time you cannot have both an aviator and a starveling breeding peasantry, toiling endlessly and forever in debt. One or other has to go, and the fundamental objective of the Conference was to make the world safe for the former. The disappearance of the latter followed, not as a sought-after end but as a necessary consequence. And the disappearance of as much of the institutions of the past as were interwoven with it.

In the ideas of their relations to each other and to the world as a whole, these Basra technicians were all what the nineteenth century would have called socialistic. They were so fundamentally socialistic that they did not even raise the question of socialism. It is doubtful if the word was ever used before. They took it for granted that this Control that was growing like a limitless polyp in their minds would be the effectual owner and exploiter of all the aeroplanes, routes, industrial townships, factories, mines, cultivations that were falling into place in their Plan. It would have seemed as unnatural to them that a new Ford or a new Rockefeller should arise to own a factory or a mine personally, as that anyone should try to steal the ocean or the air. There it was for the common good, and just as much was industrial plant for the common good.

All these men it must be remembered, almost without exception, were men of the salaried type of mind. They had been born and brought up in a tradition in which money was a secondary matter. From the beginning of the mechanical age, the men of science, the technical experts, the inventors and discoverers, the foremen and managers and organizers, had been essentially of the salariat. Some few had dabbled in finance and grown rich, but they were exceptions. Before the World War indeed these sort of men had been accustomed to accept the acquisitive and gambling types, the powerful rich and owning people, as a necessary evil. Now they were manifestly a totally unnecessary evil, and without the least vindictiveness or animosity plans were made to do without them and prevent their return. The Basra Conference would as soon have considered a return of Foreign Offices or of Kings or Divinities.

But they had to consider—and this was the work of a powerful section upon which the Americans were exceptionally active—how the wealth of the world that they meant to restore had to be distributed for consumption, and how a close-knit world organization was to be reconciled with personal freedom and particularly with artistic and literary initiatives. This was entitled the Section of Wages, Charges and Supply.

There seems to have been the completest agreement that the only way of combining service with private liberty is by the use of money. Without money there is necessarily a dictation of consumption and a dictation of movement to the worker. He would be given “what was good for him”. But money generalized the claim of the worker as worker, and the claim of the citizen as shareholder in the commonweal, upon the goods, pleasures, facilities and liberties of life. You take your money and you buy this or that, or go here or there, or do whatever you please. But there were dangers in this invention; twice in history money had failed mankind and a money-linked order had crashed. This time, they thought, mankind had learnt its lesson, and a new money had to be devised that would be, in any large sense, fool-proof, sneak-proof and scoundrel-proof. So much lay beneath the intention of the Section of Wages, Charges and Supply.

This section carried the question of money into regions that would have seemed quite outside its scope thirty years before. In the Twenties and Thirties of the century, and indeed into the war troubles of the Forties, there had been a great volume of discussion about money. Men had realized its dangers and set themselves, with the energy born of a sense of crisis, to the analysis of its progresses and the invention of new methods that should prevent the gross accumulation of ownership, the mischievous manipulation of credit, the relative impoverishment of the worker and the strangulation of enterprise that had wrecked the second monetary civilization. Gradually it had been realized that there could be no Theory of Money that was not in fact a complete theory of social organization. The Conference set itself now to a prepared and simplified task.

The interdependence of monetary theory with the general theory of property and social structure, which had hardly been suspected by their fathers, was now universally recognized. There was a considerable contingent of young lawyers present, though it would have amazed the previous generation beyond measure to find them in the ranks of technologists and men of science. They knocked the dust of centuries off the idea of ownership in these very pregnant debates. We have already mentioned the surprise of Nicholson at the new sort of law schools he found in America. At Basra the products of these schools were very much to the fore, together with several older teachers from the London School of Economics, which flourished until the landslide of 1968. These new lawyers, with their fundamentally scientific habits of mind, were amazingly unlike their professional predecessors—those obstinate, cunning and terrible old sinners who played so large a part in the economic strangulation of the United States and the frustration of all the high hopes of their founders. They had completely abandoned the pretence that the business of the law was to protect private property, exact debts and maintain a false appearance of equity between man and man. They knew that justice without equality of status and opportunity can be nothing more than a sham, and their ideas were already completely based on our current conception of law as the regulative system in the network of relationships between the human commonweal and its subordinate corporations and individuals. They were entirely contemptuous of any claims, contracts, rules and precedents that impeded the free expansion of human welfare. Among all the various types that gathered at Basra, these younger lawyers, in close touch with the new economists on the one hand and the group psychologists on the other, and inspired by a political constructiveness of the boldest sort, were certainly the most remarkable.

It is chiefly to them that we owe the firm assertion by the Basra Conference of the principle that in a modern community there can be no individual property in anything but personal belongings and money. This was thrown out as something too obvious to discuss. Houses and lands were henceforth to be held on leases of a not too lengthy period, life tenure being the longest. All other tangible things, they assumed, belonged inalienably to the world commonweal—in the usufruct of which every human being was manifestly a shareholder. And it was these younger lawyers also who did the greater part of that task of disentanglement and simplification, which reduced money to its present and only proper use as a check for consumable goods and services, either paid out to the individual, or, in the case of minors and incapables, to the individual’s guardians, either as a part of the racial inheritance or else as wages for work in the common service. The world was to be reborn without usury or monetary speculation.

The monetary methods of the world at that time were in a state of such complete chaos that there was no effective system in working order anywhere to present an immediate resistance to the operation of the new ideas. Every region was running its own, often very arbitrary and primitive, system of tokens and checks. But the revival of communications that had made Basra possible was already giving an increasing prestige to what was known as the “air-dollar”. This was not a metallic coin at all; it was a series of paper notes, which represented distance, weight, bulk, and speed. Each note was good for so many kilograms in so much space, for so many kilometres at such a pace. The value of an air-dollar had settled down roughly to a cubic metre weighing ten kilograms and travelling two hundred kilometres at a hundred kilometres an hour.

This was already an energy unit and not a unit of substance, such as the old world standards had always been. It marked very definitely that the old static conceptions of human life with limited resources were giving place to kinetic ideas of a continually expanding life. The air-dollar was a unit of energy in terms of transport, and its transformation into the energy dollar of our daily life to-day was already sketched out clearly by the Basra experts, although the actual change over was not accomplished until ten years later.

It was the plain, if unformulated, intention of the new Air and Sea Control to gain possession and exploit all the available sources of energy in the world as soon as possible, to frame its human balance sheet, scale its wages and declare its dividends as the common trustee of mankind, but manifestly if the threat of Peshkoff materialized, and the Russian Soviet system (or indeed any other owning group) was able to remain in effective control of its territorial wealth, the energy dollar would afford a just unambiguous medium for whatever trade was necessary between the competing administrations.

The planning of a new political, industrial, and monetary world scheme still does not measure the full achievement of this First Basra Conference. There was also a strong and vigorous educational section working in close touch with the technicians and the social psychologists. It made plans not only for the coordination of the surviving colleges and technical schools in the world and for the revivification of those that had lapsed, but it set itself definitely to the task of that propaganda of the idea of the Modern State which is the substantial content of our existing fundamental education. This was dealt with by the Section of Training and Advertisement. Basic English was to lay the foundations of a world lingua franca. Evidently wherever the influence of the Air and Sea Control extended, a new propaganda, a new Press, and new common schools were to extend. There can be little doubt that most of the teachers at Basra already saw quite clearly ahead of them the world-wide mental and social order in which we live to-day. They knew what they were doing. They went back from this gathering encouraged and confirmed, to give themselves to the terrific and exalting adventure before them, to the evocation day by day, and idea by idea, of a new civilization amidst the distressful, slovenly, and still living wreckage of the old.

When the Conference at last dispersed two new realities had appeared in the world, so unobtrusively that it was only slowly that the mass of mankind realized their significance. One was the Central Board, known also as the Sea and Air Control, consolidating the Transport Union, linking with it the other Controls and sections, and having its permanent offices at Basra; the other was the Police of the Air and Sea Ways, at first a modest organization with about 3,000 aeroplanes, a handful of seaplanes, a hundred patrol ships, and a personnel of about 25,000 men. It was a small body judged by the standards either of preceding or subsequent times, but at that period it was by far the most powerful armed force in the world.

The Shape of Things to Come - Contents    |     Book 3 - 6. The Growth of Resistance to the Sea and Air Ways Control

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