Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes|
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LOOKING BACKWARD BY EDWARD BELLAMY: FREE BOOK SUMMARY / LIT NOTES
Bellamy makes this work a novel, rather than merely a social commentary,
by giving Julian West emotional attachments right away. The Leete family
is a perfect substitute for the Bartlett family, except for the fact that
the Bartletts sat over dinner discussing the evils of the workers, while
the Leetes sit over dinner discussing the equal distribution of wealth.
Julian West’s heartbreak over the loss of his betrothed is suspended by
his fascination with the twentieth century. His attraction to Edith Leete
is clear from the beginning.
The women go to bed and Julian West and Doctor Leete stay up to talk. Julian West’s first question is what solution they have found to the labor question. Doctor Leete says that the solution came as a result of industrial evolution. Society had to “recognize and cooperate with that evolution.” Doctor Leete cannot get over the blindness of people in the nineteenth century as to what was happening. He wonders what the people of the nineteenth century thought was happening to their world. Julian West tells him they thought everything was falling apart. Doctor Leete says that most people of the twentieth century believe the reports of nineteenth-century pessimism to be exaggerated because they can see in hindsight that things were actually on the road to improvement.
Doctor Leete asks Julian West what the most prominent feature of the labor troubles was. Julian immediately replies, “strikes.” When he asks what made the strikes so dreadful, the answer is the huge labor unions. Then he says that the main motive of these organizations was to give the workers rights in relation to the large corporations. Doctor Leete explains that whenever capital becomes concentrated in one sector of the population, it is difficult for the average worker to better his position. As the corporate entity grows, power is taken from the workers, and the way out of the working class is closed. Therefore, the workers of Julian West’s time joined the unions out of self-defense.
Doctor Leete notes that the people of the nineteenth century were horrified at the idea of becoming slaves to machines and to corporate tyranny. Meanwhile, monopolies continued to take over the smaller businesses to the extent that, by a certain time, small businesses were no longer viable. Everyone recognized that the concentration of wealth in a few hands increased the gap between the rich and the poor, but it also increased efficiency greatly. When people finally asked whether there was a way to keep the services of this huge consolidation of capital, without giving all the power over to a few people, the answer was not long in coming. The move toward larger and larger concentrations of capital was finally recognized as a process that needed to reach its logical conclusion in order to “open a golden future to humanity.”
This evolution was completed early in the last century (the twentieth). The nation turned the concentration of capital over to a “single syndicate representing the people,” and everything was run for the “common profit.” The people of the nation modernized the economic system, just as they had modernized the political system years earlier. Doctor Leete compares the old system of capitalism to monarchy, which was replaced by democracy. He sees the industry and commerce on which people’s livelihood depends to be too important to be entrusted to private individuals concerned with private profit, just as the affairs of the state are too important to be entrusted to a few nobles who run it for their own private glorification.
Julian West imagines that there must have been great bloodshed for such
a change to have taken place, but Doctor Leete tells him that there was
no violence, because people had foreseen the change coming for so long
that they were ready for it when it happened. People started recognizing
the idea that “the larger the business, the simpler the principles that
can be applied to it.” When the state finally took over as the sole corporation,
people were ready for it and recognized that it would solve the problems
the corporations had experienced.
In this chapter, Bellamy propounds his theory of the evolution of capital. In this theory, the Darwinian theory of the evolution of the species is a metaphor for the operations of the economy. The economy is regarded as a natural force with an internal logic all its own, rather than as a highly changeable set of power negotiations among people. For Bellamy, capital has moved from small concerns that allowed workers some power to larger and larger concerns that enslaved them to machines and corporations. Instead of going backward to an idealized, pastoral pre-capitalist past, he advocates moving through capitalism as if it were a logical phase on the way to a more humane and more efficient system.
Throughout this conversation, which occurs in Chapters V-VII, Julian asks the questions that help to clarify the workings of this new world. In this respect Julian is like the reader, who is on the receiving end of much important information. Julian verbalizes the same confusion and concerns that would have preoccupied Bellamy’s readers.
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. 09 May 2017