Looking Backward

Looking BackwardFinished Looking Backward as the year ended. It has a fun romantic twist ending, but for the most part, it’s one of those books that has me slapping my head at how much I disagree with its sentiments.

An upper class man is mesmerized (hypnotized) in order to get some sleep in 1887, because he is upset that the labor unrest will force him to cancel his wedding. He wakes up in the year 2000.

All strife is gone. The trusts have all been absorbed into one massive trust, which becomes the government.

All citizens are conscripted into the “great industrial army” and must work from the age of 21 until 45; then they are free to do what they want. The gross domestic product is divided up equally among all citizens, regardless of whether they are currently working or not. No more money, perfect equality, no social problems. People who refuse to work are imprisoned and fed bread and water till they agree to go along; this is not considered to be a problem. Housework and cooking have been done away with, though he never really explains how! Everyone is happy as an industrial soldier.

“Know, O child of another race and yet the same that the labor we have to render as our part in securing for the nation the means of a comfortable physical existence is by no means regarded as the most important, the most interesting, or the most dignified employment of our powers. We look upon it as a necessary duty to be discharged before we can fully devote ourselves to the higher exercise of our faculties, the intellectual and spiritual enjoyments and pursuits which alone mean life. Everything possible is indeed done by the just distribution of burdens, and by all manner of special attractions and incentives to relieve our labor of the irksomeness, and, except in a comparative sense, is not usually irksome, and is often inspiring. But it is not our labor, but the higher and larger activities which the performance of our task will leave us free to enter upon, that are considered the main business of of existence.

“Of course not all, nor the majority, have those scientific, artistic, literary, or scholarly interests which make leisure the one thing valuable to their possessors. Many look upon the last half of life chiefly as a period for enjoyment of other sorts; for travel, for social relaxation in the company of their lifetime friends; a time for the cultivation of all maner of personal idiosyncrasies and special tastes, and the unperturbed appreciation of the good things of the world which they have helped create.

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888) Penguin ed. 1986 p. 148-9

Morris disliked the book because it was an exposition about “state communism”; Bellamy calls it “nationalism”. I dislike it primarily because of his idea that things like cooking, cleaning and such are dismissed as being pretty much meaningless, and no thought whatsoever is given to the idea that work might be fun and an essential part of life.  The Nearings really got that part right, I think. Bread labor (as they called it) was part of the core of what it means to be alive. We have to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Why shouldn’t that be as rewarding as other more “valuable” pursuits? It seems as if Bellamy has anticipated the mystification of these things which we currently accept as “normal.”

To be fair, Bellamy anticipates things like credit cards (as a payment system instead of money), and places music as a central part of day to day life. It seems that each house as a device on the wall where you can turn screws and fill the house with music, chosen from a variety of programs performed live. No need to go the the concert hall, it is brought to you. He also anticipates radio preachers, because on Sunday you can tune into the services.

There were Bellamy societies  that sought to make this utopia real at the turn of the twentieth century. There are fascinating predictions the book, if you can get past its embrace of National Socialism. Many of Bellamy’s contemporaries didn’t see any problems with that; time has given most of us a different perception.

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