The BOOKPRESS December 2000

Janus Dreams

Jason Cons

Looking Backward 2000-1887
by Edward Bellamy
Viking, 2000.
$11.95, Softcover.

That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contain all possibilities. In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do. In this one, which the favouring hand of chance has dealt me, you have come to my home; in another, when you come through my garden you find me dead; in another, I say these same words, but I am an error, a ghost.

                                    ——Jorge Luis Borges "The Garden of the Forking Paths"

    As the political rhetoric of the presidential campaign dissolves into Florida’s post-election disaster it is tempting to imagine an alternate vision of the year 2000. What alternate threads of time would lead to a messianic 21st century? An almost infinite number of possibilities present themselves. What if either of the two major parties was able to nominate a candidate who could have better galvanized the issues in this election? What if Gore had been more able to run on Clinton’s record? What if Nader had been a more (or less) viable candidate. While such simple questions are inevitable, the most appealing imaginations are of America with an entirely different political and social landscape. It is an interesting time to re-visit Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialist vision of the year 2000.
    Re-reading Looking Backward toward the end of the year it takes as its subject is a somewhat strange experience. While texts written in the past about the present are always suggestive of comparison–How clear was the author’s vision? What imagined technologies have come into being? Is the social landscape recognizable in any way?—Bellamy’s novel still leaves the reader with an eerie sense of pullulation and possibility. Looking Backward feels—against the backdrop of partisan maneuvers that determine this country’s future, a cooling information-based economy, a landscape of environmental degradation, and the ever-increasing economic stratification of our population—like a seductive reminder of the promise of American democracy.
    Looking Backward is more manifesto than novel. It has minimal plot and is primarily a vehicle for Bellamy to dialogically air his plans for social reform. In short, it is the story of an upper-class Rip Van Winkle, Edward West, who falls asleep in 1887 in the midst of the "labor wars" of the late 19th century and wakes up in the remarkably changed world of the early 21st. There he discusses at length with his benevolent host, Dr. Leete, the foundational and ethical policies that are the basis of a new American socialist-democratic paradise. West falls in love with Leete’s daughter who, it turns out, is the great-granddaughter of West’s nineteenth-century fiancée. After a climactic scene of revelation and declared love, West goes to bed only to awaken back in his proper century, utterly changed in the way he views his contemporaries and the privileges afforded his class.
    Bellamy uses this simple canvas to argue his visions for reform in great detail. The society in the year 2000 that West discovers has apparently solved all of the worst problems and injustices of 19th-century industrial capitalism. There is no poverty, crime, or gender inequality (well, in fact, there is some gender inequality). The world is in a state of perfect social democracy, with the means of production entirely owned by a benevolent state. There is bountiful surplus and everyone has such equitable access to cash and commodities that the social drive toward consumption, with all of its concomitant class distinctions, has died.
    Hugely influential when it was published—Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Edward Weeks all independently ranked Looking Backward next to Capital as the most important work published since 1885–Bellamy’s novel influenced the likes of William Allen White, Eugene Debs, and Thorstein Veblen, as well as inspiring the foundation of numerous "Bellamy Clubs" devoted to discussing the propagation of Bellamy’s ideas. And while Bellamy certainly cannot lay claim to the kind of influence Marx has had on the 20th century, the novel did go far toward providing a platform and popular base for the Populist Party.
    Looking Backward is not a novel of prescient technological vision. In an economy increasing focused on information, Bellamy’s idea of hot meals delivered to the house by "tube" seems rather quaint. In fact, the only technological innovations recognizable to the reader are the gradual disappearance of cash in favor of "credit cards" and the popularization (although not the eclipse) of radio. Yet Bellamy’s failure to focus on technological advancements makes Looking Backward all the more compelling. The reader is not distracted by fantastical visions of space travel, time machines, or journeys to the center of the earth, but is left to focus on Bellamy’s social arguments.
    Looking Backward is a simultaneous critique of the industrial society in which Bellamy lived and a dream for a better future. Bellamy’s vision, like Marx’s, is rooted in the belief that the demise of capitalism is rooted in the very injustices and contradictions inherent in its constant struggle for accumulation. In fact, his version of utopian socialism is based on the tendency of capitalist industry toward monopoly, a reality that was already apparent in Boston in 1888. In Bellamy’s version of the future, an ongoing series of mergers finally results in the formation of a single, monolithic company. This ur-corporation is subsequently taken over by (or becomes) the government which, for some unclear reason, undertakes a series of social programs that lead to the eradication of, among other things, child labor, economic disparity, conspicuous consumption, bankers, lawyers, and many of the other "evils" of capitalist society.
    Against the backdrop of the Haymarket riots and numerous other labor conflicts of Bellamy’s day, he paints a rather placid picture of the transformation from capitalism to socialism. Where, for Marx, the translation from capitalism to socialism is imagined as an explosive, violent revolution–the inevitable product of a society that can no longer bear its own contradictions and disparities—for Bellamy the utopia of the year 2000 evolves gradually, peacefully, and equitably. Looking Backward’s 21st-century America isn’t a post-apocalyptic vision of class warfare, but rather a simple fulfillment of the promises of democratic society.
    The new system guarantees equal education for all, with additional training available for those who choose such fields as medicine. Tenure in "the industrial army"–Bellamy suggestively organizes his social system around recognizably military metaphors–is limited to the ages of 21-45. All citizens are encouraged to find the career that they are most "suited" for. Universal respect is held for all professions and none incur special favors, privileges, or rights. There is no such thing as an unskilled, under-paid workforce (all citizens serve a mandatory three years as menial laborers at the beginning of their service). Higher-level administrative offices, such as judges and government officials, are voluntary positions democratically chosen from a group of volunteers who willingly serve beyond their 45th year. Citizens are paid annual allowances that they can spend in whatever way they choose. These allowances are so ample that unused portions are often re-absorbed into a general surplus. While not all countries have adopted this system of government, most have and soon all will. Governments freely and easily share resources and trade without barriers (Bellamy doesn’t anticipate any of the more insidious side-effects of neo-Liberalism or the imperfections in capital, trade, and labor flows inherent in the new "global" economy).
    While it’s extremely hard to imagine a social system for the common good growing out of absolute monopoly control (especially a non-hierarchical, socialist utopia), Bellamy’s vision takes the form of a critique of society which, despite the shift from an industrial to a service-based economy, still rings true. Take, as a simple example, Bellamy’s critique of shopping. In response to a query regarding how the women of the 19th-century leisure class navigated through thousands of shops, all containing the same basic commodities, West is forced to admit:

This class had made a science of the specialties of the shops, and bought at advantage, always getting the most and best for the least money. It required, however, long experience to acquire this knowledge. Those who were too busy, or bought too little to gain it, took their chances and were generally unfortunate, getting the least and worst for the most money. It was the merest chance if persons not experienced in shopping received the value of their money.

    When questioned why 19th-century society was willing to tolerate such inconveniences West concedes, "It was like all our social arrangements.... You can see their faults scarcely more plainly than we did, but we saw no remedy for it."
    Looking Backward is more than a fictional portrait of an abstract utopia. In great detail, Bellamy describes the checks and balances necessary to ensure social democracy. For example, when West raises the concern that the state-owned media must necessarily be an ideological tool of government, Dr. Leete explains the system whereby a newspaper’s (and logically a periodical’s, television station’s, or Internet content provider’s) editors are elected by subscribers who bear the full costs of publishing, production, and distribution. No new periodical is founded unless it has a broad enough popular base to pay for its own expenses.
    Similarly, publishing houses are required to publish any manuscript submitted to them. They do this under the agreement that the author foots the initial expenses of publication. Royalties are paid to authors in the form of time allotments excusing them from service in the industrial army. The more successful the author, the larger the royalties and the more time he or she has to write.
    What makes reading Looking Backward such an eerie experience, is ultimately the similarity between Bellamy’s vision and the political promises and rhetoric of our own time. As Dr. Leete observes toward the end of Looking Backward, "If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity." The power of such a statement is clear, but, as a quick look at the campaign rhetoric of both major party campaigns will show, this is the fundamental promise of politics in America. For all its differences, the argument of Looking Backward is most powerful in its easy recognizability and appeal to our basic political instincts.
    As the aftermath of the 2000 elections grows more and more absurd, it is tempting to view Looking Backward in all its utopian possibility as a model, a goal for a society infinitely more equitable than our own. It’s useful to remember, however, that the world of Looking Backward and the political landscape it portrays as an inevitability is only one possible version of late capitalism. In most versions, such a utopian state is an
impossible fantasy; in others it remains a bright hope; in still other’s Bellamy’s vision is warped into a repressive police state; but today it remains an unfortunate, hopeful ghost.


Jason Cons is a former editor at The Bookpress. He lives in Somerville, MA.

Return to Front Page