Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes|
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LOOKING BACKWARD: FREE NOTES / PLOT ANALYSIS
At breakfast, Julian West asks Doctor and Mrs. Leete about the absence of banks and stores. They tell him there is no money, so there is no need for banks, and that the distribution of goods is carried out in a different way. Doctor Leete takes Julian West back up to the roof of the house after breakfast, and they resume the conversation. Doctor Leete tells him that when the government took over the means of production, there was no longer any need for exchanges among individuals, or trade. Now a system of direct distribution takes the place of trade and money is not necessary.
At the beginning of every year, every citizen is given a credit that corresponds to his or her share of the annual product of the nation. The citizen gets a credit card and uses it to obtain what s/he needs. This credit, however, is not transferable, but is strictly personal. People exchange gifts, but, “buying and selling is considered absolutely inconsistent with the mutual benevolence and disinterestedness which should prevail between citizens.” If a person spends more on her or his card in a given year, s/he is given an advance on the next year’s card, with a heavy discount charged to discourage the practice. If s/he is a spendthrift, s/he is then given a monthly or weekly allowance, or perhaps not permitted to handle all of her or his credit. The accumulation of credit is only allowed if it is for a special outlay. Otherwise, that which is not spent in a given year goes back to the common fund.
Julian West objects that such a system discourages saving. Doctor Leete assures him that the government does not want people to save money. It is a wealthy state and does not want people to deny themselves anything that is good. The nation guarantees that everyone will be taken care of from the cradle to the grave.
Julian West returns to his question of the distribution of wages. He adds that in his time, the employer paid as little as possible and the worker took what he or she got. Doctor Leete agrees that this was the only way to work out pay in a “system which made the interests of every individual antagonistic to those of every other.” In other words, “your necessity is my opportunity.” Doctor Leete adds that it would have been very sad if no one had ever thought of a better plan. Julian West agrees that such a system had its faults, but he cannot think of a better one than setting prices by the market.
Doctor Leete finally tells him that there is no idea in the present time that corresponds to the nineteenth-century idea of wages. Julian West pushes the point, asking “By what title does the individual claim his particular share?” Doctor Leete replies simply, “His title is his humanity. The basis of his claim is the fact that he is a man.” Julian West cannot believe his ears when he hears that everyone gets the same share. Doctor Leete adds that there is no room for people to say that the distribution of wages is unfair because this society requires “the same measure of service from all.” Ideally, everyone makes the same effort, and each person gives “the best service it is in his power to give.”
Julian West cannot accept the idea that some people produce more than others without being able to claim a greater reward. Doctor Leete corrects him, saying that what people deserve is a moral question, whereas the amount of the product is a material quantity. If someone is naturally more productive than most people, that person should produce more out of duty, and not out of a wish to be rewarded. Doctor Leete gives the whimsical illustration of a horse and a goat. He wonders if the nineteenth century gave the horse more than the goat because it was stronger. Julian West answers that they acknowledged the difference between people and animals: animals would naturally do their best while people had to be given an incentive. Doctor Leete agrees that incentives are important for motivating people. Julian West wonders what kind of incentive could make a person fulfill his potential when he knows that his income will be the same no matter what. Doctor Leete is amazed that Julian West considers the fear of poverty and the love of luxury as the only possible human motivations.
He gives examples of other motives that were used to inspire people of the nineteenth century. The military always used honor and patriotism to inspire men to strive as soldiers. The pursuit of money in the nineteenth century also had to do with a desire for power, social position and reputation. In the twentieth century, working hard in the national service is the only way to gain a good reputation, social distinction and official power. Now, the threat of poverty as an incentive for making people work is considered barbaric.
Their conversation is “charmingly interrupted” by Edith Leete, who is
about to go on an errand for her father. Doctor Leete asks her to take
Julian West with her to the stores, telling him that since she is an “indefatigable
shopper,” she will be able to show him around better than the doctor can.
The details of the economic system are described further, especially the idea that “wages” have been replaced by honor and duty. Bellamy has set up a useful dialogue here for the rhetorical purpose of convincing his nineteenth-century readers to consider his critique of their dearly held ideas. Julian West stubbornly argues with all his nineteenth-century biases intact. He asks all the questions the reader would ask. Doctor Leete, a man of respect and reason, answers these questions with the measured tone of someone secure in his truth. It is very seldom that Bellamy abandons rhetoric for the expression of emotion. When he does, it has a notable effect, as when he uses the word, “barbaric,” to describe the things which once motivated people to work.
With the entrance of Edith Leete, the reader may wonder what the position of women is in this society. They do not seem to participate in any serious discourse; the men have their deepest conversations when the women retire to bed, or when they themselves leave the women below and go up to talk on the balcony. Edith is said to be quite a shopper, certainly not an impressive goal for an intelligent young woman in the utopia of the future.
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. 09 May 2017