The chief theme of my book The Year of Our Lord 1943 is that, in the midst of World War II, a series of Christian writers and thinkers discerned that the Allied victory over the Axis powers would be perceived not as a victory of democracy over tyranny but rather as a victory of technology. They sought to recommend humanistic models of education that would counterbalance the coming Novus Ordo Seculorum. But they were not successful, at least on their own terms; technocracy arrived, and dominated. Today’s surveillance capitalism is the product, in quite direct ways, of the particular form taken by the Allied victory in World War II.
I have just been re-reading some books that I first read almost fifty years ago — Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End — and am struck by how much they have in common, and how strongly they echo the themes of my story. Asimov’s three novels were originally published as stories between 1942 and 1950, then stitched together into novels; Childhood’s End was written in 1952. Clarke’s book is far, far more technically accomplished than Asimov’s creaky contraptions, and they differ dramatically in scale and setting: Clarke’s story treats of events that span a century on near-future Earth, while Asimov’s trilogy covers several hundred years and ranges around the entire galaxy. But their core concerns are remarkably similar, and are the product of the same historical moment to which my five Christian intellectuals in YOOL1943 were responding.
In the Foundation books a man comes to understand the historical development of humanity, past and future, and implements a plan for directing it; in Childhood’s End aliens who understand the historical development of humanity, past and future, come to Earth to implement a plan for directing it.
In both cases the new planned order successfully displaces an existing political structure quite like our own: unequal, decadent, sclerotic, tired.
In both cases satisfaction with the new order gives way eventually to a kind of complacency. In Asimov’s fictional world, the planet Terminus, guided by the science of the Foundation, comes to dominate its sector of the galaxy, but perhaps at the cost of its soul; in Childhood’s End, “The end of strife and conflict of all kinds had also meant the virtual end of creative art. There were myriads of performers, amateur and professional, yet there had been no really outstanding new works of literature, music, painting, or sculpture for a generation. … It was a much fairer, but a much smaller, planet than it had been a century before. When the Overlords had abolished war and hunger and disease, they had also abolished adventure.” Technocracy is powerful, and once a society experiences its blessings a return to an earlier status quo is unthinkable; yet as time goes by thoughtful people, knowing what technocracy enables, can’t help reflecting on what it inhibits or flatly disables.
The parallels eventually give way to significant divergences: Clarke is interested in imagining new and strange evolutionary pathways for humanity; Asimov wants to suggest that all empires follow the path Gibbon traced for Rome, energetic success giving way to decadence. But it’s noteworthy that both of them are so deeply invested in thinking about the ways old political orders give way to self-proclaimed Utopias; and both, also, see that the technocratic Utopia — as distinguished, I think, from the more traditional Utopias of authoritarian and totalitarian states — is a new thing in the world.