Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887

After Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, journalist Edward Bellamy's speculative novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 was the third best-selling novel of the 19th century. Published in 1888, this utopian tale created an unheard of sensation in socio-political circles. Marxist writers and labour unions mentioned the book by name as picturing an ideal society. Within ten years, over 165 "Bellamy Clubs" had formed in the United States to propagate the book's ideas, but they were all defunct by the end of the century. Bellamy's utopian vision resonated with a troubled late Victorian society struggling with the transformations of the Industrial Age. Written as a "future history", it provided a hopeful vision that the vexing problems of how to balance industry with humanity had been solved, were solvable. There has been nothing quite like Looking Backward before or since in the annals of Science Fiction writing.   

The main issue addressed in Looking Backward is the question of labour. Late Victorian society in the United States was rapidly succumbing to the ills of unregulated industrial capitalism. From 1873 to 1896, the US and Europe dealt with what they then called the "Great Depression" (losing that title to an even greater one in 1929). Known now as the "Long Depression", it was touched off by a financial crisis in 1873 that lead to the bankruptcy of 18,000 businesses, hundreds of banks, and ten US states, as well as the closure of 89 railroads. This depression was exacerbated by further recessions in the 1880's, the consolidation of major industries in monopolies, oligopolies, and trusts, and the development of unionization and growing labour unrest. 1886 saw the Haymarket affair, in which a labour demonstration escalated - through an anarchist agitator throwing a stick of dynamite - into a full-blown riot claiming the lives of four civilians and seven policemen, and injuring scores of others. The cause of labour has essentially been cast aside by the modern "progressive" Left, but it was perhaps the dominant socio-political concern of the late 19th century.

Bellamy begins his book with a novel allegory for this fermenting unrest and the inhumanity that such a system encourages from top to bottom:
By way of attempting to give the reader some general impression of the way people lived together in those days, and especially of the relations of the rich and poor to one another, perhaps I cannot do better than to compare society as it then was to a prodigious coach which the masses of humanity were harnessed to and dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road. The driver was hunger, and permitted no lagging, though the pace was necessarily very slow. Despite the difficulty of drawing the coach at all along so hard a road, the top was covered with passengers who never got down, even at the steepest ascents. These seats on top were very breezy and comfortable. Well up out of the dust, their occupants could enjoy the scenery at their leisure, or critically discuss the merits of the straining team. Naturally such places were in great demand and the competition for them was keen, every one seeking as the first end in life to secure a seat on the coach for himself and to leave it to his child after him. By the rule of the coach a man could leave his seat to whom he wished, but on the other hand there were many accidents by which it might at any time be wholly lost. For all that they were so easy, the seats were very insecure, and at every sudden jolt of the coach persons were slipping out of them and falling to the ground, where they were instantly compelled to take hold of the rope and help to drag the coach on which they had before ridden so pleasantly. It was naturally regarded as a terrible misfortune to lose one's seat, and the apprehension that this might happen to them or their friends was a constant cloud upon the happiness of those who rode. 
But did they think only of themselves? you ask. Was not their very luxury rendered intolerable to them by comparison with the lot of their brothers and sisters in the harness, and the knowledge that their own weight added to their toil? Had they no compassion for fellow beings from whom fortune only distinguished them? Oh, yes; commiseration was frequently expressed by those who rode for those who had to pull the coach, especially when the vehicle came to a bad place in the road, as it was constantly doing, or to a particularly steep hill. At such times, the desperate straining of the team, their agonized leaping and plunging under the pitiless lashing of hunger, the many who fainted at the rope and were trampled in the mire, made a very distressing spectacle, which often called forth highly creditable displays of feeling on the top of the coach. At such times the passengers would call down encouragingly to the toilers of the rope, exhorting them to patience, and holding out hopes of possible compensation in another world for the hardness of their lot, while others contributed to buy salves and liniments for the crippled and injured. It was agreed that it was a great pity that the coach should be so hard to pull, and there was a sense of general relief when the specially bad piece of road was gotten over. This relief was not, indeed, wholly on account of the team, for there was always some danger at these bad places of a general overturn in which all would lose their seats. 
It must in truth be admitted that the main effect of the spectacle of the misery of the toilers at the rope was to enhance the passengers' sense of the value of their seats upon the coach, and to cause them to hold on to them more desperately than before. If the passengers could only have felt assured that neither they nor their friends would ever fall from the top, it is probable that, beyond contributing to the funds for liniments and bandages, they would have troubled themselves extremely little about those who dragged the coach. 
I am well aware that this will appear to the men and women of the twentieth century an incredible inhumanity, but there are two facts, both very curious, which partly explain it. In the first place, it was firmly and sincerely believed that there was no other way in which Society could get along, except the many pulled at the rope and the few rode, and not only this, but that no very radical improvement even was possible, either in the harness, the coach, the roadway, or the distribution of the toil. It had always been as it was, and it always would be so. It was a pity, but it could not be helped, and philosophy forbade wasting compassion on what was beyond remedy.  
This description was provided by Julian West, the protagonist of Bellamy's tale. Looking Backward has an almost bizarre rabbit-hole of a premise, neither wholly "future history" nor wholly a "sleeper wakes" story. It is framed as a textbook, written in the 21st century, using a fictional story of a man cast from the 19th century to the 20th, in order to explain to children in a dramatic matter the changes between the two centuries ("The object of this volume is to assist persons who, while desiring to gain a more definite idea of the social contrasts between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are daunted by the formal aspect of the histories which treat the subject. Warned by a teacher's experience that learning is accounted a weariness to the flesh, the author has sought to alleviate the instructive quality of the book by casting it in the form of a romantic narrative, which he would be glad to fancy not wholly devoid of interest on its own account."). West, the fictional protagonist of this fictional story written in a fictional textbook, is a man of wealth with a nearly incurable insomnia. To get a night's rest, he must repose in a secret, soundproof, hermetically-sealed chamber in his basement and be put to sleep by a hypnotist. The premise of the "romantic narrative" has his house burned down and butler dead the very evening he was last put to bed, and his chamber rediscovered a century later by a family building their own new house on the vacant lot. 

Finding himself in Boston in the year 2000, West becomes a guest of the family and is treated to a string of explanations of how life has changed so dramatically. Each chapter of Looking Backward addresses in a different topic in labour, industry, commerce, and politics, according to Bellamy's vision. At the root of his prescriptions for society is the consolidation of all capital into a single nationalized monopoly. Rather than fight against the increasing evolution towards monopolies, oligopolies, and the like, Bellamy's society embraced them:
"Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust. In a word, the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had then organized for political purposes. At last, strangely late in the world's history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people's livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification."
In this system, labour no longer became a competition for jobs, but something akin to universal military service. Every person, male and female, from the ages of 24-45 was obligated to serve, based on the industry of their preference, aptitude, and education. Promotions were granted on a military rank-like system. Each labourer received equal credits, and the freedom to spend those credits as they saw fit. Labour itself is as honoured as it is ranked, so that there is no concept of "menial" work. Distribution of goods was organized statistically, based on consumption of those goods in different regions, with price fixed by production. The ability of this system to provide for the needs of everyone was a product of efficiencies gained through centralization. 
Supposing the system of private enterprise in industry were without any of the great leaks I have mentioned; that there were no waste on account of misdirected effort growing out of mistakes as to the demand, and inability to command a general view of the industrial field. Suppose, also, there were no neutralizing and duplicating of effort from competition. Suppose, also, there were no waste from business panics and crises through bankruptcy and long interruptions of industry, and also none from the idleness of capital and labor. Supposing these evils, which are essential to the conduct of industry by capital in private hands, could all be miraculously prevented, and the system yet retained; even then the superiority of the results attained by the modern industrial system of national control would remain overwhelming.  
Innovations and the arts are paid for out of pocket from the credits of the creator, and an author or artist may get leave from their industrial duties if their work makes enough credit to cover the cost of their labour. Yet most prefer to hold off until they are 45, at which age they retire from the labour force to a life dedicated to the cultivation of the self and all that makes life worth living. Crime has been essentially abolished along with poverty, the remainder being seen as an atavistic illness to be treated. International relations are based on trade, not war. The entire world has become a gigantic cooperative consumer entity, replacing the old order of competition.

Looking backward on Looking Backward, it is easy to judge the successes and failures of Bellamy's vision. As in many futurist visions, it is oddly the most mundane things that they get most right. He did accurately predict, for example, the centralization of music. Homes in Looking Backward are outfitted with what we would recognize as radios, which play different musical programs on different channels, performed in centralized facilities. He also roughly predicted the rise of the City Beautiful movement, which sought to elevate the human mind by turning cities into beautiful places that could elevate the spirit.  

Some of his prognostications only seem such from their timelessness. Bellamy accuses the anarchist agitators of Haymarket as being paid by the capitalists to make reform look bad: "The subsidizing of those fellows was one of the shrewdest moves of the opponents of reform... No historical authority nowadays doubts that they were paid by the great monopolies to wave the red flag and talk about burning, sacking, and blowing people up, in order, by alarming the timid, to head off any real reforms. What astonishes me most is that you should have fallen into the trap so unsuspectingly." It certainly recalls the practical function of identity politics and modern Anarcho-Communist agitators, masquerading as "anti-fascists," to escalate political conflict while alienating the Democrats from their traditional support among labour.   

For as ideal as his system may seem on first blush, any utopian vision is limited by the person writing it. They are rarely as utopian as they may seem. We know from sad historical experience that the collectivization and nationalization of all industries under Communist regimes has resulted in untold suffering.  Contrary to what Bellamy suggests, this extreme centralization seems, in practice, to compound inefficiencies and create systems that are entirely unresponsive to market demands or even basic needs. Tens of millions of people died in the 20th century simply from Communist regimes' inability to organize food production and distribution, and tens of millions more died from overt political violence and imprisonment. It doesn't commend Bellamy's case that he also abolished democracy. The President of the 21st century United States in Looking Backward is essentially a CEO elected from only the highest ranks of industrial officers, exclusively by the highest ranks of industrial officers. His concern for efficiency risks denying the diversity implicit to human societies, which a robust social democracy is better suited to organize.  

Do any of Bellamy's ideas hold up otherwise? His system of universal credits reflects many recent calls for a universal income, but the rationale behind them are quite different. From his vantage point, Bellamy seems incapable of grasping the full impact that automation would have. Looking Backward envisions a society where everyone works, not one in which no one could work because anything that could be replaced by automation has been. Modern universal income is a reaction against the simple inability of people to find work. He may get his wish of absolute centralization though. If one did project it onto the actual 21st century, what would happen when Google owns everything? Does everybody get a job then?

At least the future society of Looking Backward is bloodless. The same could not be said of an H.G. Wells, whose utopian ideals were predicated on mass slaughter and overt tyranny. Even Star Trek required an intervening nuclear war to clear the slate and usher humanity into a new golden age. Bellamy harnesses the unbridled optimism of the Victorian Era which, despite its challenges, conceived of the "chain of being" as one great, steadily marching progress towards the absolute betterment of humanity. The costs of industrialized warfare and post-colonialism were but dim possibilities. For Bellamy's system to work requires a complete transformation of human nature, including a multi-generational faith in a single system, which we know to be a naive expectation today (well, most of us do) but was entirely in keeping with Victorian ambitions towards perfectibility.

That bloodlessness and response to the Victorian faith in progress was no doubt a compelling feature that could inspire a genuine political movement. The first Bellamy Clubs formed in 1888, espousing his views under the label of "Nationalism", as in the nationalizing of industrial capital. These were originally groups in the fashion of "ethical societies" which avoided overt politics and instead lectured and published on the topics covered by Looking Backward. In 1889, a newsletter called The Nation began publication, as an extension of these societies.

Before long, Bellamy Clubs moved into proper politics. Bellamy himself founded another magazine, The New Nation, to support this motion. As a political party, the Nationalists allied themselves with another new political movement, called the Populists, which reflected the concerns of farmers throughout the US South, West, and Mid-West. These alliances, however, ended up stripping the Bellamy Clubs of support, as most members drifted towards the Populists. The New Nation published its last volume in 1894. 

Assuming such immediate notoriety, Looking Backward provoked volumes of endorsements and rebuttals in the form of proper essays and works of fiction. One of the most famous dissenting novels was News from Nowhere (1890) by British artist-craftsman William Morris, another utopian novel which challenged the entire industrial paradigm. Another was the rebuttal, also published in 1890, Looking Further Forward: An Answer to "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy by R.C. Michaelis, which in turn prompted L.A. Geisller's Looking Beyond: A Sequel to 'Looking Backward' by Edward Bellamy and an Answer to 'Looking Forward' by Richard Michaelis (1891). Amidst the dozens of these, Bellamy published Equality (1897), an official sequel which dealt with outstanding questions of women's status and other issues left over from Looking Backward.  Unfortunately, he died the following year from an unexpected bout of tuberculosis.

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