During a recent attempt at mindless escapism I recently downloaded some collections of popular novels from roughly 1900-1920. As a supply of reading material it’s worked out excellently (as long as I give myself permission to skip nine out of ten books). The escapism, though, failed with the very first book I read, by Mary Cholmondeley (Nope, never heard of her, and thought it had to be a pen name until I looked her up. Sic transit gloria mundi.) It featured people being very earnest about social issues in a very recognizably contemporary way.
Early in the book our heroine and designated Good Person muses on the injustice of life: “‘If anyone had told me,’ she said to herself, ‘when I was rich, that I lived on the flesh and blood of my fellow-creatures, that my virtue and ease and pleasure were bought by their degradation and toil and pain, I should not have believed it, and I should have been angry. If I had been told that the clothes I wore, the food I ate, the pen I wrote with, the ink I used, the paper I wrote on- all these, and everything I touched… was the result of sweated labor, I should not have believed it, I should have laughed. But yet it is so.”
Right! The size of the pie is immutably fixed, and the only way anyone can have a little more is by taking it from somebody else. I’ve lived through the usual diatribes to this effect from today’s social justice warriors; the only difference is that they’re usually not sufficiently consistent to feel guilty about their iPhones (most likely assembled in Shenzen by people who don’t belong to a trade union) while raving about the evils of globalism.
Later in the book the designated Unsympathetic Character says of socialism, “People don’t see that if everything were divided up today, and everybody was given a shilling, by next week the thrifty man would have a sovereign, and the spendthrift would be penniless. Community of goods is impossible as long as human nature remains what it is.”
And I felt very tired. Haven’t people been making that argument for a very long time? And hasn’t it been proved by the misery that inevitably follows the imposition of socialism?
There’s some excuse for my idealistic, socialist lady novelist of 1900. The Industrial Revolution had already vastly increased the size of the pie, but most people in England still weren’t getting enough to eat. And not only could she not have prefigured the amazing advances in human well-being in the century to come, she also couldn’t have known about the mountain of corpses that Karl Marx’s ideology created in that same century.
But how is it that a hundred and twenty years later, in a country where health, height and lifespan are all vastly improved by that nasty industrialization and ‘sweated labor’, our would-be-good people still think that “behind every great fortune is a great crime?” (And I’ll spare you the rant on that misquotation of Balzac. What he actually said was both wittier and closer to truth, dammit!) And how is it that after the bloodshed and mass immiseration of Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela, the Wouldbegoods are still touting socialism as though it were a bright new shiny idea that had yet to be tried?
We complain a lot about the “long march through the institutions,” but as writers, we have more power to counter that march than ever before. We don’t have to sneak unpopular ideas past an editor determined to preserve the virtue-signaling purity of the publisher. Since 1700 all of humanity has been made immeasurably richer by what Mary Cholmondeley characterized as “sweated labor.” Even with the weight of powerful totalitarian regimes against them, the people of the entire world suffer less from poverty and hunger than at any time in the past. Isn’t this a story worth telling?
No, I’m not saying write “message fiction,” or asking for yet more dystopian novels about the horrors of totalitarian rule. But is it too much to ask that our fictional worlds be informed by some understanding of how an economy actually works? That the societies we show with pre-industrial technology cannot enjoy the material abundance we are used to in modern America? That a society where your character can just go out and get a job at a decent wage will not be as socially rigid as Regency England? That our “poor” in America live better than kings and queens of the twelfth century? That a future society imagined to enjoy such wealth that every material good is available to everybody will have to find some other way of motivating people to work?
Taking the first society you find off the shelf is not only intellectually lazy, it’s poor writing practice (if I’m not interested enough to think out my premises, why do I think the reader won’t be equally bored?) and, in today’s intellectual climate, it leaves us open to the very real danger of taking a society designed by our enemies to tell the false story they are pushing.
Let’s tell our own stories.