I am providence the life.., p.137

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 137


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  “Some Repetitions on the Times” survives only in an autograph manuscript, and Lovecraft appears to have made no effort whatever to prepare it for publication. Perhaps he felt that he was not enough of an authority on the subject, but in that case why write the treatise at all? There is no evidence that he even showed it to any of his colleagues, with whom he conducted long debates in letters about the economic situation. In any case, Lovecraft had by this time landed wholly in the (moderate) socialist camp—economically, at least.

  In this essay Lovecraft finally realised that business leaders—and, for that matter, the ordinary run of politicians—were simply not going to deal with economic realities with the vigour and radicalism they required; only direct government intervention could solve the immediate problem. “It is by this time virtually clear to everyone save self-blinded capitalists and politicians that the old relation of the individual to the needs of the community has utterly broken down under the impact of intensively productive machinery.” What is the solution? In purely economic terms Lovecraft advocated the following proposals:

  1. Governmental control of large accumulations of resources (including utilities) and their operation not on a basis of profit but strictly on need;

  2. Fewer working hours (but at higher pay) so that all who were capable of working could work at a livable wage;

  3. Unemployment insurance and old age pensions.

  None of these ideas was, of course, Lovecraft’s original contribution—they had been talked about for years or decades, and the very title of Lovecraft’s essay, “Some Repetitions on the Times,” makes it clear that he is simply echoing what others had said over and over again. Let us consider the history of these proposals in greater detail.

  The least problematical was the last. Old age pensions had been instituted in Germany as early as 1889, in Australia in 1903, and in England tentatively in 1908 and definitively by 1925. In 1911–14 unemployment insurance came to England. In the United States, the Social Security Act was signed by Roosevelt on August 14, 1935, although disbursement of money did not begun until 1940.

  Government control of large accumulations of wealth has always been a pipe-dream in this country—plutocrats will always be plutocrats—but government control (or at least supervision) of utilities and other institutions was by no means a radical conception in the 1930s. The Roosevelt administration did not undertake such an action until 1934, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was formed to regulate interstate telephone and telegraph rates. By 1935 the Federal Power Commission was governing interstate sale of electric power (natural gas came under control in 1938), the Public Utility Holding Company Act had authorised the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to curb abuses by holding companies (specifically those governing utilities), banks came under federal regulation, and higher taxes were imposed on the wealthy. This was certainly not socialism—although reactionary politicians and businessmen constantly bandied that word about to frighten the electorate and to preserve their own wealth—but it was at least a step in that direction. Of course, many foreign countries exercised actual governmental ownership of public utilities, whereas the United States continues to this day to settle only for governmental supervision. As for what Lovecraft in “Some Repetitions on the Times” calls “bald assertion of governmental control over large accumulations of resources [and] a potential limitation of private property beyond certain liberal limits”—I have trouble imagining that he believed this to be a political reality even during the depression; but evidently he did so.

  The most striking of Lovecraft’s proposals is the limitation of working hours so that all who were capable of working could work. This idea enjoyed a brief popularity among political theorists and reformers, but in the end the rabid opposition of business doomed it. In April 1933 Senator Hugo Black of Alabama and William Connery, chairman of the House Labor Committee, proposed a bill for a thirty-hour week so that more people could be employed. Roosevelt did not favour it and countered with the NIRA (National Industrial Recovery Act), which ultimately created the NRA (National Recovery Administration). This established a minimum wage of $12 a week for a forty-hour week. But, although hailed initially as a landmark in cooperation between government, labour, and business, the NRA quickly ran into trouble because its director, General Hugh Samuel Johnson, believed that businesses would of their own accord adopt codes of fair competition and fair labour practice, something that naturally did not happen. The NRA became the object of criticism from all sides, especially among labour unions and small businesses. Less than two years after it was enacted, on May 27, 1935, it was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional and was officially abolished on January 1, 1936. Many of its labour provisions, however, were ultimately reestablished by other legislation.

  Although the movement for shorter working hours continued to the end of the depression, it never regained the momentum it had had in the early 1930s, prior to its coopting by the NRA.[16] The forty-hour work week has now been enshrined as a sacrosanct tenet of business, and there is not much likelihood that shorter hours—the chief component of Lovecraft’s (and others’) plans for full employment—will ever be carried out.

  Roosevelt, of course, realised that unemployment was the major problem to be dealt with in the short term (at least 12,000,000 were unemployed in 1932—nearly a quarter of the work force), and one of the first things he did upon gaining office was to establish various emergency measures in an attempt to relieve it. Among these was the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), which would enlist young men from the ages of seventeen to twenty-four for the reforestation of parks, flood control, power development, and the like. Incredibly, Lovecraft’s friend Bernard Austin Dwyer, although thirty-eight at the time, was accepted for the CCC and in late 1934 went to Camp 25 in Peekskill, New York, where he eventually became editor of the camp newsletter.

  Some have wondered why Lovecraft himself never made an attempt to sign on to some such program. But he was never strictly speaking unemployed: he always had revision work and very sporadic sales of original fiction, and perhaps he feared that he would lose even these modest sources of income if he joined a government-sponsored work program. What of the WPA (Works Progress Administration), instituted in the summer of 1935? This mostly generated blue-collar construction jobs obviously unsuited for Lovecraft, but the Federal Writers’ Project was an important subdivision of the WPA and resulted in the production of a number of significant works of art and scholarship. Lovecraft could perhaps have worked on the guide to Rhode Island published in 1937, but he never made any effort to do so.

  Once Lovecraft had jumped on the New Deal bandwagon, he defended its policies, at least privately, from attacks on both sides of the political spectrum. Attacks from the right were, of course, the more vociferous, and Lovecraft faced a good deal of it in his own hometown. In the spring of 1934 the conservative Providence Journal wrote a series of editorials hostile to the new administration, and Lovecraft responded with a lengthy letter to the editor, titled “The Journal and the New Deal,” dated April 13, 1934. As with “Some Repetitions on the Times,” I wonder what compelled Lovecraft to write this treatise; or, rather, how he expected the newspaper to publish even a fraction of this 4000-word screed. The piece does, however, begin to evince that scornful sarcasm which enters into much of Lovecraft’s later political writing (mostly in letters) as he found himself becoming increasingly exasperated with the slowness of reform and the ferocity of right-wing sniping:

  And so, though a sincere admirer of the Journal and Bulletin’s news and literary standards, a third-generation subscriber without other daily informative pabulum, and a product of an hereditarily Republican and conservative background, the writer must register dissent from the heated periods of the editorial genius whose alarm for the public liberties is so touching. It is impossible not to see in such an alarm the blind defensive gesture of vested capital and its spokesmen as distinguished from the longer-range thought which
recogises historic change, values the essence instead of the surface forms of human quality, and tests its appraisals by standards deeper than those of mere convention and recent custom.

  One perhaps unintended effect of the economic crisis was to deflect Lovecraft’s attention from other social evils. The 18th Amendment was repealed on December 6, 1933. A year and a half earlier Lovecraft had already announced that his enthusiasm for prohibition was a thing of the past,[17] but he made it clear that this was only because he realised that the law against liquor was essentially unenforceable:

  As for prohibition, I was originally in favour of it, & would still be in favour of anything which could make intoxicating liquor actually difficult to get or retain. I see absolutely no good, & a vast amount of social harm, in the practice of alcohol drinking. It is clear, however, that under the existing governmental attitude (i.e., in the absence of a strong fascistic policy) prohibition can scarcely be enforced, & can scarcely be even imperfectly half-enforced, without an altogether disproportionate concentration of energy & resources—so that the repeal of the 18th amendment at this trying historic period was hardly worth fighting. In other words, the burden of fighting the alcohol evil was so heavy as to form a new evil greater than the original one—like getting crippled from the recoil of a huge musket shot off at a relatively insignificant rat. The present age is so full of perils & evils—principally economic—infinitely worse than alcohol, that we cannot spare the strength just now for a fight against this minor enemy.[18]

  Lovecraft was surely not pleased at the repeal, but this reference to alcoholism as a “relatively insignificant rat” certainly contrasts with his fulminations against drinking a decade and a half earlier.

  Where Lovecraft departed most radically from the Roosevelt administration itself as well as from the main stream of American opinion was in his suggestions for political reform. In effect, he saw economics and politics as quite separate phenomena requiring separate solutions. While proposing the spreading of economic wealth to the many, he concurrently advocated the restricting of political power to the few. This should come as no surprise, given Lovecraft’s early (and romanticised) support for the English aristocracy and monarchy, his later readings in Nietzsche, and his own intellectual superiority. And yet, because Lovecraft enunciated his view somewhat misleadingly—or, perhaps, in a deliberately provocative way—he has taken some criticism from later commentators.

  In the first place, Lovecraft’s “oligarchy of intelligence and education” (as he termed it in “Some Repetitions on the Times”) was not actually an aristocracy or even an oligarchy in the strictest sense. It was indeed a democracy—but merely a democracy that recognised the ill effects of universal suffrage if the electorate consisted (as in fact it does) largely of the uneducated or the politically naive. Lovecraft’s argument was a very simple one, and was again an outgrowth of his realisation of the socioeconomic complexities brought on by the machine age: governmental decisions are now too complex for anyone other than a sophisticated specialist to understand.

  Today all government involves the most abstruse & complicated technology, so that the average citizen is absolutely without power to form any intelligent estimate of the value of any proposed measure. Only the most highly trained technicians can have any real idea of what any governmental policy or operation is about—hence the so-called “will of the people” is merely a superfluity without the least trace of value in meeting & dealing with specific problems.[19]

  He discussed the matter with pungent cynicism to Robert E. Howard:

  Democracy—as distinguished from universal opportunity and good treatment—is today a fallacy and impossibility so great that any serious attempt to apply it cannot be considered as other than a mockery and a jest. . . . Government “by popular vote” means merely the nomination of doubtfully qualified men by doubtfully authorised and seldom competent cliques of professional politicians representing hidden interests, followed by a sardonic farce of emotional persuasion in which the orators with the glibbest tongues and flashiest catch-words herd on their side a numerical majority of blindly impressionable dolts and gulls who have for the most part no idea of what the whole circus is about.[20]

  How little things have changed.

  The first thing that should be done about this situation, in Lovecraft’s view, was to restrict the vote “to those able to pass rigorous educational examinations (emphasising civic and economic subjects) and scientific intelligence tests” (“Some Repetitions on the Times”). It need not be assumed that Lovecraft automatically included himself in this number; in “Some Repetitions on the Times” he declared himself a “rank layman” and went on to say: “No non-technician, be he artist, philosopher, or scientist, can even begin to judge the labyrinthine governmental problems with which these administrators must deal.” Lovecraft did not seem entirely aware of the difficulty of ensuring that these tests be fair to all (although I suspect he would have little patience with modern complaints that many intelligence tests are culturally biased), but he maintained that such a restriction of the vote would indeed be fair because—as we shall see presently—educational opportunities would be vastly broadened under his political scheme.

  This whole idea—that the common people in the United States are not intelligent enough for democracy to work—was not nearly as radical in Lovecraft’s time as it now seems. In the early 1920s Charles Evans Hughes, Harding’s secretary of state, had already proposed the notion of a meritocracy in government—even though the thoroughly corrupt and inept Harding administration was about as far from putting that notion into practice as any could have been. Walter Lippmann in Public Opinion (1922) and its sequel, The Phantom Public (1925), had come close to this idea also. Lippmann’s very complex views are difficult to summarise in brief compass, but essentially he felt that the common person was no longer able to make intelligent decisions on specific courses of action relating to public policy, as had been possible in earlier stages of democracy in the United States, when political, social, and economic decisions were less complex. Lippmann did not renounce democracy or even majority rule; rather, he believed that a democratic elite of administrators and technicians should have a relatively free hand in actual decision-making, with the public to act as a kind of umpire over them. There is no evidence that Lovecraft read Lippmann: I have found only one mention of him in letters, and that is an admission of his ignorance of Lippmann’s work. In any case, Lovecraft’s distrust of democracy had already emerged much earlier, first perhaps from readings in Nietzsche, and then by plain observation.

  And yet, Lovecraft’s elitism on this point (if indeed it is such), although it might now be associated with various conservative thinkers with whom he would otherwise have little in common, has recently been echoed by the unimpeachably liberal Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, who in a discussion of George F. Kennan writes:

  More nonsense has been uttered in this country over the perils of elitism than on almost any other subject. All government known to history has been government by minorities, and it is in the interests of everyone, most especially the poor and powerless, to have the governing minority composed of able, intelligent, responsive, and decent persons with a large view of the general welfare. There is a vast difference between an elite of conscience and an elite of privilege—the difference that Thomas Jefferson drew between the “natural aristocracy” founded on “virtue and talents” and the “artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth,” adding that the natural aristocracy is “the most precious gift of nature” for the government of society.[21]

  It is unfortunate that Lovecraft occasionally used the term fascism to denote this conception; it does not help much that he says on one occasion, “Do not judge the sort of fascism I advocate by any form now existing.”[22] Lovecraft never actually renounced Mussolini, but his support of him in the 1930s does not seem quite as ardent as it was when Mussolini first rose to power in 1922. The problem was, however, that by the 1930s the term fascism
connoted not only Mussolini but various English and American extremists with whom Lovecraft had no intention of aligning himself. It is true that he rather discouragingly says on one occasion that “I have my eye on Sir Oswald Moseley [sic] & his element of British fascists,”[23] since Mosley—who had founded the British Union of Fascists in 1932—quickly revealed himself to be an anti-Semite and pro-Hitlerian who spent much of World War II in a British prison for subversive activities. But the American fascists of the middle to late thirties were a very different proposition, and Lovecraft regarded them on the whole not so much as dangerous radicals as mere buffoons who could do little harm to the political fabric. They were not by any means a coordinated group, but even individually they represented various threats to the government with which both the administration and political thinkers (even armchair ones like Lovecraft) had to come to terms.

  The first was the redoubtable Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana. Elected governor in 1928, Long quickly achieved popularity by appealing for a radical redistribution of wealth. Then, in 1934, as a senator he formed the Share Our Wealth Society in an attempt to put his theories into practice. If it be thought that Long’s political vision was actually similar to Lovecraft’s in its union of economic socialism and political fascism, it should be made very clear that Long was not a socialist by any means—he did not believe in collectivism but instead yearned nostalgically for a small-town America in which everyone would be an individualistic small business person—and his fascism was of an utterly ruthless sort that rode roughshod over his opponents and in the end led to his being shot on September 8, 1935, and his death two days later.

  Then there was the Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, who in his weekly radio programme (“The Golden Hour of the Little Flower”) had, since 1930, fulminated against both communism and capitalism, attacking bankers specifically. In late 1934 he conceived of a wealth distribution scheme by forming the National Union for Social Justice.

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