On The Present Crisis in Human Affairs

On The Present Crisis in Human Affairs
A sense of things © Nikolaos Kastrinos

The first chapter of the  Open Conspiracy book

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.  The Open Conspiracy was written at a time when the First World War had not managed to quell the bloodthirstiness of European nationalisms and the world was about to enter the Great Depression.  It was a time of change, innovation and excitement.  As Wells describes:

“We have been carried along …(and).. we are only now beginning to realize the force and strength of the force of change that has come upon us.  These changes have not come upon our world from without… (They) have come from .. quite a small number of people… have made discoveries … inventions that have changed all the conditions of social life… And now we are beginning to see how these changes are connected together and to get the measure of their consequences” (pp 1-2).

He tells of people creating big business that bring abundant energy and material possessions. With modern medicine “the tragedy of lives cut short… is passing out of general experience” (p5). Amidst all the excitement, the crisis is, more than anything, a feeling. A lurking feeling of impending doom.

Wells does not describe the great depression or the second world war.  Instead he describes this feeling of schizophrenia between the understood needs and possibilities and the everyday realities of people’s lives.

“There is a sense of profound instability about these achievements of our race. .. Over everything human hangs a threat of such war as man has never known before, war armed and reinforced by all the powers and discoveries of modern science.  When we demand why the achievement of power turns to distress and danger in our hands, we get some very unsatisfactory replies.   We … see more and more plainly that certain established traditions are … positively injurious and dangerous. And yet ... we do not know how to shake off these traditions … …. Still less are we able to state, and ... bring into operation the new conceptions of conduct and obligation that must replace them” (pp 5-6).

He goes on to argue that the “abolition of distance” and the increasing exchange and interdependence amongst people is in paradoxical contrast with the nationalist traditions and the antagonisms between nations.

“We are all trained to distrust and hate foreigners, salute our flag, stiffen-up .. at our national anthem and prepare to follow the … heads of our states into the most horrible common destruction.  Our political and economic ideas of living are out of date and we find great difficulty in adjusting them and reconstructing them to meet the … huge demands of the new times. …  Though none of us are yet clear as to the precise way in which this great change-over is to be effected, there is a worldwide feeling now that change-over or a vast catastrophe is before us.”(pp 7-8)

Wells’s description of the “present crisis” in the 1920s sounds eerily familiar to those who understand the magnitude and potential of human achievements and the warnings about the planetary emergency and the destructive potential of advanced weaponry and technology.   There are now more travelling and displaced people in the world than ever before.  There are now more wars around the planet than ever before.  There is more technology employed in those wars than ever before.  And while we are all connected in what Al Gore called the global brain [1], there are now more “us” and “them” than ever before.   

The feeling that we are drawn into crises by external forces should not be taken to mean that things happen unwittingly and that people are not responsible for the course of events.  Science and technology are not independent from human will. And despite Wells’s optimism, we can still not appreciate their future impacts [2].  But this does not mean that we are not responsible for those future situations resulting from our current actions.  Searching for ways to take responsibility for the effects of our actions is at the heart of the open conspiracy.  This first chapter ends with the words:

“Our lives are part of one another. We cannot get away from it.  We are items in a social mass. What are we  to do with our lives?” (p9)

Crises, determinism and ethics

While Wells is very careful in explaining that the crisis results from things done by people, people are often portrayed as acting unwittingly, swept by change. Harari [3] explains that people love determinisms – the idea that what happens is somehow determined by something else – for determinisms do  away with people’s responsibility for the consequences of their actions.  In fact one can see how religions – systems of values that make reference to some higher order power – have been very convenient solution to the problem of responsibility for personal choices made under uncertainty. 

There is a lot of personal choice in whether to act with personal responsibility or just “carry-on as normal” and do what parents, educators, state and other authorities say.  Incongruent authorities, whose personal interest trumps ethical behaviour, have been a problem for religions and value systems. Not so for capitalism, Harari explains:

“The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum…. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money…. “ (p 353).

Technological determinism is the idea that technology develops along its own internal logic of development over and beyond the will of humans.  In the 1970’s Alvin Toffler [4] portrayed people in in shock, caused by  rapid technological progress, being through no fault of their own, pushed into new social structures and practices.  Toffler, was one of many adherents of technological determinism, who described how waves of technology shape society, from agrarian to industrial, and how the wave of 50 years ago was leading to a modernist dream future [5]– a post-industrial paradise . 

Crises discourse and reality

The idea of a psychological shock taking responsibility away from people is found in many theories of crisis.   In politics, crises provide justifications for the rights of citizens to be curtailed and states of emergency to be declared that reduce the accountability of those making decisions.  Drazen and Grilli [6] two economists who worked with the International Monetary Fund, argue that crises provide opportunities for unpopular reforms.  Naomi Klein [7] shows how crises were instigated by dictatorial regimes to quash resistance to their evil indents.   These theories  emphasise psychological aspects of crises independently from any material substantive aspects.   In a way they are not about causes but about effects, although the two are more difficult to disentangle than meets the eye.

In my youth the most prominent discussion on crises was about the crisis of capitalism.  In post-junta Greece democratic euphoria was highlighting the ever intensifying ideological competition between the crisis of capitalism and the crisis of “real” socialism. The crisis was something of weight and importance. It was not ephemeral or incidental – as were recessions. It was systemic and structural.   The discussion about crisis was never about symptoms alone. It was always about causes.  

Freeman and Louca [6] drew attention to the debate about reversibility in the work of Nikolai Kondratiev, who sought to distinguish between the “irreversible” trend of long economic cycles – the true laws of history - and “reversible” cyclical economic phenomena, which were nothing but ephemeral noise.  At the time Trotsky criticized Kondratiev arguing that political change can reverse even the trends seen as irreversible.  The cause, he argued, is political will – the will of people - and the rest are all symptoms, no matter how structural they may seem.  Somewhat ironically both parties to the conversation were ordered dead by Joseff Stalin.  Kondratiev was executed in prison in 1938 while Trotsky was murdered while in exile in Spain in 1940.

While a crisis is a discursive phenomenon, a story someone tells, a sense of unease, it should not be dismissed as a figment of imagination.  Mahatma Gandhi famously said that the only devils in the world are those running around in our hearts.  Through the acts of those devils, Wells’s predictions about the impending war and its new technologies were fulfilled. Wells lived just long enough to witness the Hiroshima bombing.



[1] Gore, A ( 2013 ) The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, Random House, , New York,

[2]  See Collingridge, D (1980) The Social Control of Technology, Pinter, London, also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collingridge_dilemma

[3]  Harari, Y N (2015). Sapiens, Harper, New York

[4] Toffler, A (1970) Future Shock, Random House, New York

[5]  Toffler, A (1980) The Third Wave, Morrow,. New York

[6] Drazen, A and V Grilli (1993) ‘The benefit of crises for economic reforms’, American Economic Review, 83: 598–607

[7] Klein, N (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, New York

[8] Freeman, C and F Louca (2001) As Time Goes By: From the Industrial Revolutions to the Information Revolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford