The turn of the year and the return of class warfare—spearheaded by the telegenic class warrior Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—brings to mind that timeless tract, H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.
Superficially, of course, The Time Machine, published in 1895, is a work of science fiction. After all, it’s about the adventures of a man who time travels to the year 802,701. Most Americans are probably familiar with the novella only through various movie versions, as well as other pop culture exploitations.
Not surprisingly, these riffs on Wells don’t have much to do with what he actually wrote. Of course, Wells did write to be entertaining, and The Time Machine has plenty of pulpy entertainment value, including grisly monsters, abandoned temples, and waifish damsels in distress. It’s this romantic adventuring that’s captured movie-makers’ imaginations—and Hollywood stopped there.
However, Wells also wrote to make a point, in keeping with his own socialist opinions. The Time Machine is a fantastic extrapolation of trends visible to him in his own time.
In his telling, in the far-distant future, the tribe known as the Eloi live a simple life; they are the fey descendants of England’s upper class, enervated by wealth and idleness. Meanwhile, the Morlocks, dwelling underground, are the fearsome descendants of the English working class, coarsened by eons of brutality. And so at night, the hungry Morlocks get their revenge, emerging from their caves to prey on the Eloi.
Thus we see Wells’ stark political message: if the rich aren’t careful, the poor will eat them—literally. Wells’ protagonist, known only as the Time Traveller, explains the bifurcated future:
Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals: that my graceful children of the Upper World were not the sole descendants of our generation, but that this bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to all the ages.
To Wells, this exaggerated class-cleavage was an epochal tragedy—a lose-lose. That is, the Eloi had been comfortable for so long that they had forgotten how to do anything. The Time Traveller explains the value of work and tribulation: “We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity.” And so, in the prolonged absence of any pain and necessity, “Upper-world man had drifted towards his feeble prettiness…I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide.”
The Morlocks had suffered even more. In keeping with their industrial origins, they had once been skilled with tools, yet over time, they’d lost their mechanical abilities, descending into barbarism and cannibalism.
So we can see that, even though Wells was firmly on the left, he was no knee-jerk champion of the proletariat. For one thing, he was also a staunch Darwinian, a strong believer in the necessity of biological dynamism as the prerequisite to survival, let alone progress. To that end, Wells believed that continued evolution required the leadership of technocratic authority; anything less, in his view, would ultimately lead to the grim devolution of all the classes. As Wells also wrote, “There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change.”
So now, 124 years of change later, what should we make of The Time Machine?
One thing we can say for sure is that Wells’ vision of class conflict is back—on the left, as well as on the right.
This recrudescence of the class struggle is still being processed by the political, financial, and cultural elites. After all, just a few years ago it seemed as though class issues had faded into sepia, like an old book from the Victorian era.
That is, in the late 20th and early 21st century, the globalism associated with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—with assists from Tony Blair, Angela Merkel, and Emmanuel Macron—seemed to many to be an enduring political model, a new and perhaps permanent status quo.
We might add that this globalism was a deft synthesis of the capitalist right and the multicultural left; that is, corporations were somewhat deregulated—especially in the areas of trade and outsourcing—so long as they were diverse and woke. In the meantime, populations could move around as they pleased, finding work as either software coders—or toilet cleaners.
As we also know, this left-right synthesis was annealed by the occasional military intervention. Such undertakings, preferably multilateral, seemed to be useful international confidence builders for Davos Men and Women.
And yes, to put it in Wellsian terms, there was something Eloi-like about this new globalist crew. After all, the defining experiences of leaders in recent decades have been decidedly mercantile and pacific. At least, compared to the harsh experiences of previous generations, few leaders today have been kept keen by the grindstone of pain and necessity.
Notably, America’s presidents have come a long way—in terms of evolution or devolution, your choice—since 1961, when John F. Kennedy spoke in his inaugural address about Americans having been “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” The last president to be keened by actual combat, of course, was George H.W. Bush, and he left office in 1993.
America’s more recent leaders all grew up comfortably, enjoying the sweet fruits of peace—at least for themselves, their families, and their peers. And perhaps that’s why the political class has been so ill-equipped to deal with the onset of stormier times.
Over the last decade, just in the U.S., we have seen the Great Recession, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the rise of Bernie Sanders, and, most importantly, the ascendancy of Donald Trump.
All of that has made for plenty of sturm und drang, and yet then came still more: the 2018 elections brought a new set of radicals to the fore, led by, but hardly limited to, Ocasio-Cortez.
So now the once-regnant neoliberalism finds itself surrounded by enemies, from the nationalism of the nativist right to the redistributionism of the socialist left.
Indeed, there’s even been something of a convergence of anti-neoliberals. For instance, Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a 70 percent top tax rate found support, at least of a kind, from conservative pundit Ann Coulter, who tweeted on January 4:
The rich thought they could import 30 million immigrant servants without ever paying a price. Working class paid. Middle class paid. Rich are about to start paying. Hahahaha!
It remains to be seen, of course, just how many right-wingers Coulter is speaking for as she climbs aboard the soak-the-rich bandwagon. Yet she has proven, more than once, that she has her finger on the pulse of her people—including those conservatives who are actually sort of radical. So it’s possible that Republican thinking on tax policy could be headed toward at least something of a change.
Needless to say, nobody is so politically incorrect as to compare these rising angry people to Wells’ Morlocks—and Wells himself wrote that Morlock-ization was thousands of years in the future.
And so, maybe the Eloi—oops, I mean the elite—are in the process of discovering that they face the grindstone of pain after all.
Will they be made keen as a result? Perhaps that’s a question that can be answered only by some 21st-century Wells.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.