"Every Crowd Is Crazy"
Kipling's Political Theme in "As Easy as A.B.C."
  

Essay by
William H. Stoddard
January 2012

  

Rudyard Kipling's story "As Easy as A.B.C." (published in 1912), set in the year 2065 A.D. in his "airship utopia" future history (which also includes "With the Night Mail"), has been a recurring nominee for the Libertarian Futurist Society's Hall of Fame award since short fiction was made eligible. But understanding its political themes can be challenging. Kipling's political thought is complex and not always libertarian; the political landscape before the Great War was profoundly different from ours. Kipling combines a sympathetic view of individualism, privacy, property, and entrepreneurship with devotion to the British Empire and a belief in the virtues of royalty and aristocracy alien to American ideas of freedom. In his poetry these attitudes often find expression in slogans; in his best fiction they are often submerged in the narrative, sometimes to the point where it's hard to puzzle them out — as it is in "As Easy as A.B.C."

Two misunderstandings of Kipling are worth clearing up at the outset. The first is the idea that he is a simple authoritarian. I have heard "As Easy as A.B.C." read, for example, as a story about a world dictatorship crushing a revolt against its power. But the Aerial Board of Control would be an unusual sort of "dictatorship". Their biggest concern when Chicago falls into civil disorder is to do their best to avoid having to take control of it; one of their members complains to Chicago's mayor, "You talk as if executive capacity could be snatched out of the air like so much horse-power. Can't you manage yourselves on any terms?" Their fleet of airships comes to Chicago armed not with bombs or guns or rays, but with lights and sirens that do no permanent harm. Earlier in the story, when a farm girl paralyzes the Board members with an electric field and nearly runs a tractor over them, they do no worse that blow out her fuses and warn her to take refuge in the cellar before they reach Chicago. Even so mild a despot as Napoleon, let alone Hitler or Stalin, would have strewn the scene with corpses and had the young woman in prison.

Kipling is also thought of, thanks to such phrases as "the white man's burden", as a racist — and by the standards of the early 21st Century, there's much truth in that. But by the standards of his own time, he was unusually respectful of other races and religions. And one of the key themes of "As Easy as A.B.C." is a bitter condemnation of racism, through the voices of people in a future that has abandoned it and remembers it with horror. A central symbol in the story is a statue in the Chicago town square, "The Nigger in Flames", showing a lynching victim, and inscribed "To the Eternal Memory of the Justice of the People"; and one of Kipling's characters, Takahira, says that Chicago still unveils it once a year, on Thanksgiving Day.

This image is one of Kipling's strongest fictional condemnations of democracy — a recurrent theme found in such varied stories as "Kaa's Hunting" (where the monkey folk, the Bandar-Log, are Kipling's portrait of democratic politics) and "The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat", and in a number of his poems, such as ""he Gods of the Copy-Book Headings" or "MacDonough's Song" (which accompanies "As Easy as A.B.C."). Kipling's narrator in this story can scarcely believe what he hears from one of Chicago's advocates of democracy:

Next he demanded that every matter of daily life, including most of the physical functions, should be submitted for decision at any time of the week, month, or year to, I gathered, anybody who happened to be passing by or residing within a certain radius, and that everybody should forthwith abandon his concerns to settle the matter, first by crowd-making, next by talking to the crowds made, and lastly by describing crosses on pieces of paper, which rubbish should later be counted with certain mystic ceremonies and oaths. Out of this amazing play, he assured us, would automatically arise a higher, nobler, and kinder world, based — he demonstrated this with the awful lucidity of the insane — based on the sanctity of the Crowd and the villainy of the single person.

In Kipling's view, the truest manifestation of democracy, of the principle of majority rule, is the lynch mob, in which a majority agrees to the use of deadly force against an unpopular minority. And the story's central irony is that the potential victims of Chicago's incipient mob are its small population of democrats, or "Serviles", and that the people who want them dead fear the return of lynching and the mob mentality, so passionately that they embody it.

But what are the positive political values that Kipling wants, in place of democracy? Our time is so accustomed to the idea that democracy and dictatorship are polar opposites, that when Kipling condemns democracy, it's natural to suppose that he must favor dictatorship, and difficult to envision what else he could want, or to judge how desirable it might be.
  

Help in this can be found, though, in another of Kipling's stories, written years later, and not science fiction, but historical fiction: "The Church That Was at Antioch". Its starting point is an incident in the early Christian church, recorded in the New Testament. But Kipling adds a great deal of detail, based on his knowledge of Roman history. And while "The Church That Was at Antioch" is memorable for far more than its political content, it has surprising parallels to "As Easy as A.B.C." that allow a kind of parallax in which certain things jump out into the reader's perspective.

In the first place, both stories focus on official representatives of a large and powerful organization with military capabilities. Obviously this is true of the Roman Empire, personified by the Prefect of Police for Syria and his nephew, a Roman officer. But the Board members of the A.B.C. represent "all that remains to the planet of that odd old word authority"; and they are accompanied by an aerial fleet of 250 keels. The A.B.C. is officially simply an administrative body charged with keeping the traffic going, but its charter adds "and all that that implies," and Kipling's plot shows that local communities can always demand A.B.C. intervention by shutting down traffic. So in a sense the A.B.C. is an empire, the farthest reaching ever created. And it should be remembered that keeping the traffic flowing, and all that that implies, was one of the main concerns of the Roman Empire as well, and that Romans were among history's great road builders.

In the second place, both stories place their officials in remote and somewhat backward communities: Antioch, in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Chicago, in North America. (After his humiliating departure from Vermont in 1896, Kipling must have enjoyed writing about the provincial Americans of 2065!)

In the third place, each community has a minority who are seen as peculiar by the people around them. In Antioch it's the Christians, described by the Prefect as "a College here of stiff-necked Hebrews"; in Chicago it's the Serviles, "a few men and women who can't live without listening to themselves, and who prefer drinking out of pipes they don't own both ends of. They inhabit flats and hotels all the year round. They say it saves 'em trouble. Anyway, it gives 'em more time to make trouble for their neighbours." The Christians, of course, are destined to become the rulers of the Empire, though to the Romans this seems an obvious absurdity; but the democracy that the Serviles advocate has been swept aside, and by 2065 is scarcely even remembered.

In the fourth place, both communities are under a threat of mob violence against their dissident minorities. The hostility in Antioch has multiple sources: disputes among Christians over clean and unclean food, pagan temple butchers not wanting to lose sales of altar scraps, kosher butchers wanting the business of Hebrew Christians, and Jewish fears of losing their special legal status in the Empire, played on by agitators from Jerusalem. The Serviles, in contrast, bring the mob down on themselves, by holding a meeting in the public market, advocating the return of democracy in a world that has turned against "The People" as a political idea — that is, return to the rule of exactly the sort of crowd that is ready to murder them, as a member of the A.B.C. points out to their leaders. In both stories, the threat that has to be guarded against is the spirit of the mob.

The actual plots of the stories are different: Similar situations lead to different conclusions that resolve the conflicts in different ways. And the conflicts themselves, though parallel, are not identical. Each story has a single (unnamed) female character, whose voice makes its key emotional point, but the two points, and the two characters, are utterly different. "The Church That Was at Antioch" puts that point at the very end, but "As Easy as A.B.C." ends with its fading into irony.

But the underlying conceptual structure is strikingly parallel: the opposition between a civilized, cosmopolitan power whose goal is to ensure that conflicts are resolved by law rather than violence, and a local population divided into factions that are all too ready to set law aside. Civilization, for Kipling, is on the side of the empires, whether Rome in the Near East, Britain in India, or the Aerial Board of Control (seemingly also based on London) in North America. Given the record of past empires, that estimate may seem optimistic! But in his imagined future, Kipling has envisioned an "empire" that is strikingly less murderous and more libertarian than its precursors, one for which, "as a matter of policy, any complaint of invasion of privacy needs immediate investigation, lest worse follow." If we should ever have a world government, one with the values of the A.B.C. would have its attractions for libertarians.

  

© 2012 William H. Stoddard


  
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