Monday, April 2, 2012
From the shelves of the Paco library
Taking a break from writing his comical Kai Lung yarns, Ernest Bramah penned a curious novel in 1907 entitled The Secret of the League. The book is a work of futuristic fiction that envisions a socialist England, and a successful revolt by the upper and middle classes against a government that looks too painfully similar to much of what prevails today (or, at least, to what prevailed in the years leading up to Margaret Thatcher’s accession to power). Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book is its uncanny foreshadowing of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: the rebels launch an “insurrection” in which the primary weapon is their withdrawal from the economy – specifically, a consumer strike against the purchase of coal. Even the alias used by the prime mover of the anti-socialist movement – “George Salt” - is strangely suggestive of the hero in Atlas Shrugged (John Galt).
The action of the novel, which presumably takes place a decade or so after the year of publication, is set in an England in which a succession of labor victories (greatly assisted by a rapid expansion of the voting franchise) culminates in a powerful socialist party, which introduces a profusion of new taxes aimed at the middle and upper classes (Bramah, incidentally, asserts an early version of the Laffer Curve, in which the increase in taxes actually results in a fall in government revenues). The inevitable consequences of the Socialist Party’s policies include a growing sense of entitlement among the working classes and a fall-off in productivity, as well as a general decline in the standard of living – not to mention the erosion of British military power, as the unfortunate country now sees its once peerless navy being pushed around by that of France(!)
Out of nowhere, a man calling himself George Salt materializes, and proposes a plan for the overthrow of the socialist government to Sir John Hampden, a Tory politician who has retired from public life. Sir John, impressed with the plan and its prospects, establishes an organization called the Unity League, which publicly proclaims its opposition to the present government, and pledges to dislodge it by peaceful means. After two years of preparation – notably, securing vast supplies of oil which it stores at a well-guarded rural compound – the League announces a strike against coal consumption. Gradually, the consumer strike weakens the economic foundations of the country, as the League’s members – five million strong – substitute oil for coal. Privation eventually edges toward starvation for the working classes, who increasingly blame their own government. A socialist paramilitary force, supported by the government, launches an attack on the League’s oil-storage facility, but is repulsed. George Salt, trapped in London before a mob of starving, desperate laborers, finally reveals his true identity – he is a highly-regarded naval hero – and succeeds in pacifying the crowd. Socialist representatives, now seeing no future for either their government or their cause, agree to a national-unity government, in which members of the League will assume leadership. Thus, socialism is handed a critical defeat - but not, as the author underscores, a necessarily permanent defeat, as several key labor leaders remain defiant and promise to fight on another day.
The Secret of the League is a literary curio, an early example of the futuristic fiction that was beginning to come into its own in the Edwardian era. Beyond that, however, it is also an indication of Bramah’s prescience in seeing so clearly the theoretical fallacies of socialism that have been borne out innumerable times since the author’s day in one practical failure after another.