Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887
A novel written 136 years ago is as brilliant and compulsively readable as it was when Grover Cleveland was president...
Ralph Nader told me about this novel, first published in 1888, and how it was one of the major inspirations for the Progressive movement of the late 19th century. It positively inspired Bernie Sanders’ hero Eugene Debs, for example, Nader told me.
At the time, I was also reading Dan Brown’s book, ”The Lost Symbol,” an excellent novel in the classic, formula-adventure-fiction of this century that’s so much fun to read. But once I started reading Bellamy’s book, I had to suspend Brown’s: Bellamy’s book totally captured me, even though it was written more than 100 years ago.
The plot device of Bellamy’s novel is that the hero is “Mesmerized” — hypnotized — and the trance is so deep that he wakes up in the year 2000, his bodily functions having been so dramatically slowed that he’s still a young man in his twenties and in fine physical health (albeit a bit hungry and weak).
(For those interested in Mesmerism, one of the best histories of this practice — and how it was used by Freud and then fell into disrepute, and is now making a comeback in the form of EMDR and other anti-trauma therapies — is my book Walking Your Blues Away. I don't mean this as a plug for my book— although I think it's an excellent guide both for self-help and for therapists — but because the topic has been so largely ignored since the 1890s and is deserving of a comeback.)
In the novel, the world of 2000 has managed to solve one of the most vexing problems, arguably the biggest problem of the last few decades of the 19th century: the “problem of labor.” How to keep “capital” (rich people, and in most cases the corporations they run) from exploiting ”labor,” mostly the working poor.
It’s important to remember that while there was a strong middle-class in America at the time of our founding (mostly because of slavery and “free” land stolen from Native Americans), that middle class had largely vanished by Reconstruction after the Civil War. From that time until FDR's New Deal reorganized the American economic landscape in the 1930s, the only middle class were the very few members of the professional and mercantile classes: the doctor, lawyer, and shop-owner.
In Bellamy’s time the vast majority of workers were dirt poor and they worked for a very small 1 percent of the population who controlled more than 90 percent of the nation’s wealth (a situation we’re again approaching).
The result was constant strife, strikes, and the murder of labor leaders; entire towns were in arms (and sometimes ablaze) with labor conflict. The “problem of labor"”was the number one issue of the day. As President Grover Cleveland — the only Democrat elected during that period — said in his 1887 State of the Union address:
“As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people's masters.”
And yet nobody knew what to do about it.
In the year 2000, a friend of Bellamy's first-person hero describes to him the world that evolved while he was asleep. Turns out America had gone through a terrible time in the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
“The individual laborer, who had been relatively important to the small employer, was reduced to insignificance and powerlessness over against the great corporation, while at the same time the way upward to the grade of employer was closed to him.
“The records of the period show that the outcry against the concentration of capital was furious. Men believed that it threatened society with a form of tyranny more abhorrent than it had ever endured. They believed that the great corporations were preparing for them the yoke of a baser servitude than had ever been imposed on the race, servitude not to men but to soulless machines incapable of any motive but insatiable greed. Looking back, we cannot wonder at their desperation, for certainly humanity was never confronted with a fate more sordid and hideous than would have been the era of corporate tyranny which they anticipated.
“Meanwhile, without being in the smallest degree checked by the clamor against it, the absorption of business by ever larger monopolies continued. In the United States there was not, after the beginning of the last quarter of the century [1875-1900], any opportunity whatever for individual enterprise in any important field of industry, unless backed by a great capital. During the last decade of the century [1890s], such small businesses as remained were fast-failing survivals of a past epoch, or mere parasites on the great corporations, or else existed in fields too small to attract the great capitalists.
“Small businesses, as far as they still remained, were reduced to the condition of rats and mice, and counting on evading notice for the enjoyment of existence. The railroads had gone on combining till a few great syndicates controlled every rail in the land. In manufactories, every important staple was controlled by a syndicate. These syndicates, pools, trusts, or whatever their name, fixed prices and crushed all competition except when combinations as vast as themselves arose. Then a struggle, resulting in a still greater consolidation, ensued. The great city bazaar [Wal-Mart?] crushed its country rivals with branch stores, and in the city itself absorbed its smaller rivals till the business of a whole quarter was concentrated under one roof with a hundred former proprietors of shops serving as clerks….”
This was a good description of what was happening in the 1870s, and also the era in which Karl Marx was writing Das Kapital, his opus on capitalism and its problems. Many philosophers, economists, politicians, and great thinkers were grappling with what to do about the huge trusts (mostly railroad, steel, oil, and banking) that were, in that day, emerging and consuming everything in their paths.
Which brings us to Looking Backward, Bellamy’s brilliant novel. His view of life in 2000 is positively captivating. There is no “labor problem;” life is egalitarian in all respects. With the backward eye of the history of modern Communism, it’s a world that you and I would probably not be too excited to live in, but the lessons are really startling archetypal.
Although the book doesn't describe it this way, this is its basic premise. Most human cultures historically have been what are sometimes referred to as obligation, potlatch, or hospitality cultures. People who gather and hoard wealth are seen as mentally ill; the best way to obtain prestige and status in society is to work hard for the benefit of the group; and the way to gain the highest level of social esteem is to give away as much as you can.
This is the origin of the Potlatch in Native American cultures, a practice seen in aboriginal and indigenous cultures worldwide for over 60,000 years, and found in the Bible in the story of the Jubilee, practiced in ancient Israel, where every seven times seven (49) years, a 50th year is set aside for everybody to put everything they own (including land) into one large pot to then be evenly redistributed among all members of society.
In the 100+ years that Bellamy’s hero has spent mesmerized, the entire world has become a Potlatch culture. People work for the benefit of society, and get great pleasure from it. They only work until the age 45, and then enjoy a rich and fulfilling retirement. All needs are met, all wants can be satisfied. As an economic and cultural work — despite its obvious anachronisms, it being written more than a century ago — Looking Backward is a compelling, thought-provoking, and fascinating read.
The only challenge in reading it is the style in which people wrote — and talked! — back in that day. You may find it useful to just lightly skim the introduction, as it’s the most complex and turgid of the writing in the entire book, and jump directly to Chapter One. It’s also particularly fascinating to consider how complex people's thought processes — and thus language — were 100 years ago. Bellamy assumed we’d still be that way in 2000: comparing the 2000-era prose in Looking Backward with, say, the dialogue in a modern-day Robert Parker novel is jarring — and fascinating.
Looking Backward is a wonderful bit of escapist literature, and, more importantly, gives us an insight into the minds of progressives of the 19th century. And some possible solutions — or at least threads to pull on to find solutions — to today's “problem” of labor and capital.
As the year-2000 tour guide notes:
“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.”
A perfect bookend to Michael Moore’s movie on capitalism (which no longer exists in Bellamy’s novel, at least not in a form we’d recognize today), Looking Backward: 2000 is a wonderful read for a quiet weekend or a long airplane ride.
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