Labor Day as seen through The Time Machine

This post is dedicated to the blogger Driftglass, the head of the Science Fiction University segment on the Professional Left Podcast, which has re-kindled my love of science fiction.    

There are a lot of people writing about the history of Labor Day, including this excellent column by Paul Krugman called Love for Labor Lost.

The purpose of this post is to look at Labor Day through the lens of science fiction, in particular, the movie The Time Machine based on the science fiction novella written by H. G. Wells in 1895.    I saw the 1960 version of the movie directed by George Pal on Friday evening, just because it was a movie that I hadn’t seen for a long time and wanted to watch again for nostalgia’s sake.

However, yesterday I reflected on the fact that it was Labor Day weekend and thought back on the movie I had seen earlier that weekend.    In the movie, the book’s protagonist, a British inventor, invents a time machine and uses it to explore the future.    He visits the year 802,701 A.D. , where he meets the Eloi, a society of child-like adults that live an idyllic existence without apparently having to do any work.    This first positive appraisal of the society is followed by the realization on the part of the protagonist that these people also do not seem to have any curiosity or any ambition.    But where does their clothing come from?   Where does their food come from?    They seem too unambitious to have produced it themselves …

Despite these questions about how their society functions, he decides to leave them in disgust at the degenerate state of mankind, when he finds that his time travel machine is missing.    It had apparently been dragged inside of a building whose facade resembled that of a Sphinx.     In trying to recover his time machine, he encounters a race of ape-like troglodytes called Morlocks.   The building he found is the entrance to an underground lair where the Morlocks live.    There he finds the machinery which apparently manufactures the clothing and produces the food upon which the Eloi depend.    What do the Morlocks get in return for this service to the Eloi.    There, he finds that the Eloi ARE the food upon which the Morlocks depend.    They exist not as enemies but in a symbiotic relationship, where one group depends on the other for its existence.

They both are descendants of the human race, where the middle class has disappeared, and the capitalist system we have now has devolved in a feudal system where there is only an upper class, an elite, and the working class.    These groups have then evolved, or devolved I should say, to the point where the two classes have become, in fact, two different species.

In this science fiction story, H. G. Wells posits the question through the lens of science fiction, “what are the ultimate consequences to a society when its middle class starts to disappear?”   It is a question that some modern movies of science fiction are exploring, in the October 2012 movie Cloud Atlas, which looks at the question of the interplay between economic, social, and political inequality in six interlocked stories that take place in different time periods, and the recent release of the movie Elysium, about a future where the elite 1% live in luxury aboard a space station while the other 99% of humanity lives on a polluted, overcrowded Earth.

Another exploration of what might happen if the middle class disappears comes from the popularity of the fantasy series on HBO called Game of Thrones, based on the series of high-fantasy series of novels by George R. R. Martin.   It describes the intrigue between a series of kingdoms that are locked into a struggle for supremacy.    Fantasy novels usually portray some sort of variation on a feudal order of society and often include the harnessing of elemental forces by means of magic rather than by science.

In that wildly popular series, we may be looking not at a romanticized past, but at a possible future just as dystopic as the one portrayed in Elysium, where the middle class disappears and the only two classes left are the 1% elite, the equivalent of the medieval aristocracy, and the 99%, the equivalent of the medieval lower classes.    This is why Labor Day is important, because the modern middle class in the United States after World War II is the creation of many historical forces, one of which is the gains won by the labor movement in the first half of the 20th century.

Forgetting that past is dangerous, as Paul Krugman insists, and the reason why comes from an even stronger warning by the science-fiction visionaries of the past, such as H. G. Wells in The Time Machine, and those of today who continue in that tradition.

But will we listen?    That is truly an open-ended question …


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