Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Looking Backward


Before the saga of the Barack Obama election unfolded, and before the cry of Socialist! started being shouted in the reddest portions of the redder states, I began reading a rather tatty copy of a 219-page novel by American Edward Bellamy (pictured above).

In Looking Backward, Bellamy describes the journey of Julian West, a Boston socialite who falls asleep in a hypnotic trance in 1887 and awakes in the year 2000 in a society where incomes are equal, men and women are “drafted” into an “industrial army” which produces everything from socks and underwear to music and Sunday sermons. Guided through this new society by his hosts Dr. Leete and his daughter Edith (Edith? Do such names still exist in the 21st century?), West becomes absorbed in a world where neither jails nor lawyers exist, where competition among shopkeepers is made obsolete because the government runs the only shops in town and where medical doctors are paid just as much as those who serve them dinner in the city’s dining houses – also government-run.

Right now I know most of the readers of this blog are going nuts. “Socialism is baaaad, folks! Baaaaaaaaaaad!” I can hear them saying, braying like Al Gore. Hang with me. I’m discussing a book.

Bellamy believed that 1890s America – where people lived in luxury only blocks from families living in abject poverty – could use more application of the Golden Rule than the churches and society in general saw fit to apply. He was a devoutly religious man who wrote a book not extolling any political stripe or action, but a vision of what he thought America could become if its Christian citizens didn’t wait for the Second Coming of Christ to make the improvements that millennial reign was to bring in, as in Micah 4:3-5:

“And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; And none shall make them afraid: For the mouth of the Lord of Hosts has spoken it. For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.”
(So, conservatives: Now you'll see the left go nuts, because although Bellamy's Christian rhetoric is muted in his novel, he certainly does not believe in a separation between God and State, so there's enough umbrage to go around for everyone. Enjoy!)

Bellamy envisioned a society in which everything was held in equality, where people worked as what they enjoyed doing without fear of starvation, where those who worked at difficult jobs worked less hours than those at easy jobs, but for the same pay. He denounces very much the same thing Dickens denounces when, through Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens voices the prevailing view of treatment of the poor:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up
a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight
provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.
Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in
want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I'm very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” replied Scrooge.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

"I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas, and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can't go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. ... It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

As Erich Fromm points out in his introduction to Looking Backward, critics say Bellamy’s views are completely na├»ve, insisting for his envisioned utopia to come to pass that all humanity would have to be like him – unselfish, submissive, and, in Bellamy’s own words, a believer that “there is no stronger attribute to human nature than this hunger for comradeship and mutual trust.” It’s easy, then, to see how the trend of utopian novels Bellamy’s work inspired in America – more than 40 such novels were written after his appeared – devolved into the cynical view of the most famous of the 20th century’s dystopian novels, namely George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Are we that cynical about human nature, then, to believe that a world like Bellamy's is impossible to bring about? I hope not.

“What happened to socialism?” Fromm asks in his introduction – asking the same question Bellamy might ask today of the 1890s optimism that America would overcome its societal difficulties and create a more perfect union. Fromm’s answer, which I think is apt:

“It succumbed to the spirit of capitalism which it had wanted to replace. Instead of understanding socialism as a movement for the liberation of man, many of its adherents and its enemies alike understood it as being exclusively a movement for the economic improvement of the working class. The humanistic aims of socialism were forgotten, or only paid lip service to, while, as in capitalism, all the emphasis was laid on the aims of economic gain. Just as the ideals of democracy have lost their spiritual roots, the idea of socialism lost its deepest root – the prophetic-Messianic faith in peace, justice, and the brotherhood of man.”

What I’m getting at (and what Bellamy hints at throughout his book) is that we need to stop thinking of each other as things to be manipulated, things to be acted upon, but as fellow citizens, fellow humans. That points all of us, myself included, down a rough road, with cynics at every turn. Because, like Scrooge, we take the view that we're already doing our part to take care of "the poor" through faceless programs that insulate us from the misery of others, a situation which allows us to sit back mightily and complain about the state of our taxes and the "returns" we see from those investments. Once again, we see people as things, rather than as people. That's much to our detriment.

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