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Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes

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Doctor Leete takes Julian West to visit the warehouse and to see how products are distributed. He is amazed at the “perfect organization” that all this efficiency can give to labor. They walk home, and on the way Julian West raises the question of how all these products are produced efficiently and without waste. Doctor Leete explains that the process is very simple. Under capitalism, the business owner always had to worry about a fluctuating market and the machinations of competitors, but the new industrial army knows exactly what the demand is at any point and can therefore keep supplies in tact. The distributive department estimates staples as much as a year in advance, but most products can be estimated based on the weekly state of demand.

Doctor Leete adds that all of production and construction is divided into ten huge departments. The distributive department sends estimates to these ten departments. Each level inspects the products carefully and is able to send a faulty product back to a particular worker. Julian West wonders if items that are not in great demand are accounted for. Doctor Leete assures him that great pains are taken to keep products in circulation even when they have a very small consumer base. He adds that control over production is much more directly exercised by the citizens than it was under capitalism.

Doctor Leete then explains that the “general” of the industrial army is the president of the United States. He is chosen by the alumni members of the various industries, that is, by those men who have retired from service at forty-five years of age, but who keep an active interest in their industry. In this way, no one can vie for the votes of his fellow workers. The voters are those who have no personal interest in the presidency. The president is a person who begins in the industrial army and rises to the level of head of one of the ten departments. After holding that position, he has to have been retired for five years, gaining an identification with the whole nation, as opposed to identifying exclusively with his own guild. Julian West also finds out that no one who has not gone through the industrial army can become president. That means that no one in the professions or the arts can become president. The president, for his own part, cannot exercise control over these fields, but he does sit on the boards of directors.

Julian West informs Doctor Leete that this system of voting seems to derive from the institutions of higher education in the nineteenth century, when alumni ran the universities and colleges. Doctor Leete is happy to learn this fact because historians have not been able to discover the origin of this practice.


Chapter XVII is one of the more complicated chapters, despite Doctor Leete’s repeated assurance that “nothing could be simpler.” It describes the political system that runs the industrial army. Despite the fact that the population is highly educated, it does not exercise universal voting rights. Only retired men can vote. (Bellamy has still not addressed women’s positions in this society). The military metaphor continues with the president being the general of the army, not too unlike the nineteenth (and twentieth) century position of the president as commander-in-chief of the armed services.



That evening Doctor Leete and Julian West have another talk. Julian West is surprised at the early age of retirement. He thinks it seems too early to put people out of work when they have plenty of good years ahead of them. Doctor Leete answers that people work only for duty, but they all look forward to the age of forty five as the best time of their life because it begins the time of “the higher and larger activities.” If they are not interested in independent scholarship or art, they can simply travel and live a leisurely existence. They also discuss the sports of the twentieth century. The prizes are never monetary. The various guilds compete against one another with a healthy rivalry.


Chapter XVIII is a very short chapter focusing mostly on leisure in the twentieth century. The other interesting point, that of the proper age for retirement, reinforces the differences between the two cultures represented in the novel. In Doctor Leete’s world, youth and old age are considered in very different terms from what Julian West is accustomed to. Doctor Leete proposes age forty five as the time when people are just beginning to reach their prime.


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