Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378
Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward envisions an optimistic form of national-socialism. Nationalism refers to an all-inclusive state, a father-land who cares for its people. Socialism refers to liberation of the individual potential. This form of government seeks to represent the will of the people writ large. In place of laws, banks, and artificial customs, an individual in this new age is directly represented by the state. As with More's Utopia, even the family is merely a temporary liaison between individual and state.
Bellamy, of course, died long before the most horrifying implications of his idealized public life came to pass. Twentieth century experiments with fascism, communism, and other forms of collectivism, seem eerily similar to Bellamy's optimistic text. In his forward to the Signet Classic edition of Looking Backward, Erich Fromm outlines three common critiques of Bellamy's utopia - it is undemocratic, mechanized, and static. As we will see, these critiques are not just philosophically grounded; they reside in history as well.
Looking Backward is Undemocratic
In a manner similar to Plato's Republic, Edward Bellamy rejected what he saw as rampant individualism - the selfish impulse of people, companies, and governments to pursue their own interests to the detriment of human happiness. Universal suffrage, by extension, was merely institutionalized mob rule in Bellamy's eyes. The United States of the idealized future has dispensed with most legal and political offices - even as it has retained many of the names of its former self. Thus, a president may be found in the year 2000, but he does not answer to public whims. Rather, the president emerges as a general from the industrial army, selected from its retired ranks. All voting is limited to retired citizens who, like college alumni, have no vested interest in the impact of their decisions save the overall benefit to their alma mater. After all, as Dr. Leete explains, discipline would be ruined "if the workers had any suffrage to exercise, or anything to say about the choice. But they have nothing" (p. 133). To contemporary ears, this dimension of Looking Backward may seem troubling. However, the vote has been replaced by a much more enticing reward: the assurance that government is run by experts.
Looking Backward is too Mechanized
This notion of government-by-experts assumes a perfected form of bureaucracy in which all decisions are made with efficiency and precision. Consider Bellamy's description of central government: "The machine which they direct is indeed a vast one, but so logical in its principles and direct and simple in its workings, that it all but runs itself" (p. 129). To some critics, the result is a system in which human beings act as machines. Throughout the book, references to the efficiency of scientific government compare perfected human institutions to machines: "Supply is geared to demand like an engine to the governor which regulates its speed" (p. 162).
Certainly, this vision would have appealed to nineteenth century readers who grew tired of continual financial and political strife that followed the seemingly inept leadership of their public officials. The question, however, remains about the role of ethics and humanism within the mechanical government. One answer found in the twentieth century was fascism - a political system strangely foreshadowed by Bellamy:
As we see merely less than four decades after Bellamy's utopia is published, Europeans who have grown tired of economic misery will adopt the same mechanized response and pay a terrible price.
Looking Backward is too Static
The underlying paradox of Bellamy's novel is his desire to envision perpetual improvement within a stable society. To be sure, Dr. Leete depicts an age of innovation after the supremacy of the Nationalist party:
Such a new age naturally follows the scientific socialist notion of a utopia of progress. This utopia posits an individual who has been freed of the Great Chain of Being and the vicious cycles of hunger and human depravity. Yet, upon realizing this worker's paradise, what change may follow? One may find significant insight in Dr. Leete's discussion of Congress in the year 2000.
The Nationalized United States, leading a world of utopian nations toward the inevitable path of human improvement, has not yet mastered nature. Dr. Leete speaks of occasional natural disasters that may slow production. He accounts of changes in popular taste and even the rare occurrence of crime (generally blamed on genetically deficient families). But the future of his world looks pretty much the same as its present: "the material prosperity of the nation flows on uninterruptedly from generation to generation, like an ever broadening and deepening river" (pp. 162-163).
This organic metaphor may seem strange, given the mechanistic proclivities of Ballemy's Looking Backward. However, as we will explore later in the course, most idealized forms of public life hide a machine under their well-tended gardens. In this utopia: "Let but the famine-stricken nation assume the function it had neglected, and regulate for the common good the course of the life-giving stream, and the earth would bloom like one garden, and none of its children lack any good thing" (pp. 216-217). Looking Backward offers a compelling vision, one that was adopted by millions of Americans and a host of utopian movements prior to the First World War. However, even as we long to stroll Bellamy's wide boulevards and look upon his grand buildings, we must also look backward unto the world that actually followed the path envisioned by the utopian's fanciful dream.