Looking Back at Looking Backward

Edward Bellamy's famous utopian novel is set in today's America. Are we living his crazy dream?

On Memorial Day in 1887, Julian West, one of the best-known Americans of his day and a notorious insomniac, sought help for his chronic sleep problems. In the course of his treatment by a Boston doctor, however, West was "mesmerized" so effectively that he never regained consciousness; he has remained in a state of suspended animation for more than 100 years.

This September, it is all but certain that West will awaken from his slumber and be brought back to life. To be sure, this amazing triumph is not a scientific marvel but a literary one: West is the protagonist of Edward Bellamy's best-selling utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887. In the book, September 10, 2000, is the precise day West rouses from his long nap. Perhaps the most famous time traveler in literary history, West has had a powerful and enduring effect on the terms of American political debate.

Published in 1888, Looking Backward crystallized that combination of suspicion of markets and love of centralized planning that has in various forms persisted to this day. As West starts to rustle in his bed, it is well worth revisiting Looking Backward and teasing out the ways in which it continues to influence contemporary times.

Bellamy's vision of a future without capitalism proved immensely appealing. It took the massive hit novel Ben-Hur (1880) seven years to rack up the sales that Looking Backward tallied in just two. By the early 1890s, more than 150 "Bellamy Clubs," devoted to discussing and implementing the ideas in Looking Backward, had sprung up in cities across the United States. Translated into 20 foreign languages, the novel was a hot topic among the intelligentsia in pre-revolutionary Russia (Lenin's wife gave it a mixed review) and the architects of the New Deal (Arthur Morgan, the first head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, wrote a gushing 400-page biography of Bellamy). By the early '30s, Bellamy's fans had been absorbed into American socialist circles and Franklin Roosevelt's brain trust; both John Dewey and the historian Charles Beard announced that, among books published in the preceding 50 years, Looking Backward was matched in influence only by Das Kapital. They meant it as a compliment.

The basic structure of the society Bellamy imagined is easily summarized: The state runs everything and has converted the nation into a sumptuous barracks. An embittered West Point reject, Bellamy (1850-1898) cultivated a lifelong passion for the Prussian military. On his deathbed, he wiled away the hours by arranging tin soldiers along the folds of his coverlet. As enlistees in the state's "industrial army," all citizens in his utopia draw the same annual salary in the form of a "credit card" in which holes are punched to register purchases. The men march in mass rallies designed to encourage solidarity with the nation as a whole, which has become "a family, a vital union, a common life," or more succinctly, "truly a fatherland." Meanwhile the women carefully determine which men are the best workers, with an eye to bestowing their persons upon the diligent. Everyone is rich. Everyone is happy. And why shouldn't they be? Instead of "wasteful" market competition--which also encouraged each man to think of his brother as a potential enemy--a small group of bureaucrats regulates the whole economy, which is "so direct and simple in its working" that "the functionaries at Washington to whom it is trusted require to be nothing more than men of fair abilities."

As this summary makes obvious, in many respects the novel is a period piece, the distillation of what may have been the golden age of American crackpots, whose theories still get treated with respect by many noneconomists. This was a time when the likes of Henry George could be widely hailed as something like a messiah for his astonishing notion that income deriving from rent should be taxed at a rate of 100 percent. (Last fall's scandalously bad PBS documentary on New York City, where George ran unsuccessfully for mayor, declared him a "brilliant" social theorist.)

Bellamy's legacy is surprisingly robust. His novel gave socialism a new audience among America's middle classes. Before the novel was published, the educated and elite in America tended to associate the word socialism with a word like tuberculosis; both rippled with sinister hints of strange sexual liberties. Well aware of such prejudices, Bellamy concocted a future that is in every respect socialist but from which the word socialism has been banned. While Americans still tend not to like the sound of this word, Bellamy's readers discovered that they were very fond of the thing. More than any other book, Looking Backward made it respectable for a time to talk about implementing straightforwardly socialist schemes in the United States.

Today, of course, few in the mainstream are attracted to Bellamy's kind of authoritarian socialism. What, then, survives today of Looking Backward's outmoded vision? Bellamy's chief legacy relates to his emotional attachment to planning as a good in and of itself. Irrational devotion to the inherent rightness of large-scale planning is one of the chief features of the 20th-century mind, and although Bellamy certainly was not the first to feel this devotion--it is an ancient faith--he was one of those who helped to give this faith its recognizably modern form.

Along with many others, Bellamy laid the foundations for what could be called our planning culture. Of course, to say that a preference for planning, like a preference for curry or baseball, has something to do with culture is already to resist the ideology of the plan. The plan must almost of necessity present itself as something beyond culture; the plan is rational, whereas culture is a messy, unorganized (because unplanned) tangle of prejudices. The idea that a firewall insulates the plan from anything like a cultural prejudice is perhaps the fundamental fallacy trumpeted by the planners.

Thus that exemplary planner, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, proclaimed the following on the title page of The Radiant City, his 1933 magnum opus laying out an ideal city that would create all the conditions necessary for human happiness: "Plans are the rational and poetic monument set up in the midst of contingencies. Contingencies are the environment: places, peoples, cultures, topographies, climates." Lumping culture with the weather as just one of those things against which the plan must contend, "Le Corbu" assures us that the desire to control every last detail of life in the city is itself untainted by anything irrational--that is, by anything cultural. Skeptics, on the other hand, might wonder if it is entirely by chance that a man given to such views should emerge from the homeland of the watch.

It might be well to ask just what aspects of the prejudice in favor of planning are most immune to counterarguments based upon reason. Bellamy's Looking Backward is a good place to look for clues, since it is not clear that the book appealed to readers because of its passages laying out Bellamy's bizarre economic pensées. (At one point, for instance, he suggests that competitive entrepreneurship hinders innovation, while bureaucracy fosters it.) Indeed, when Bellamy brought out a fat sequel that laid out his economic musings in a more apparently systematic form, it laid an egg.

It may be, in fact, that the appeal of Looking Backward depended more on aesthetics than economics. Bellamy, in common with other planners, justifies his plans at least partially on aesthetic grounds. Utopian planners concern themselves with wholes--whole societies or, for the more humble, just whole cities--that are far too complex to be fully present in all of their details to an individual mind. In other words, no matter how full an account of such a society or city is given, it cannot constitute a unified object of knowledge. Such wholes can, however, be grasped aesthetically, just as one can experience aesthetic satisfaction when contemplating, say, the whole of Middlemarch without having all its details before one's mind at the same time.

Since such plans are inevitably package deals, requiring the total implementation of a comprehensive order whose details cannot be grasped all at once by the intellect, utopians often present us with aesthetically satisfying vistas. These vistas are supposed to make palpable the harmonious coordination of all human action that the planner may expound upon elsewhere in more technical and abstract, but less immediately appealing, ways.

Thus Julian West passes through an important stage in his conversion to socialist principles when he ascends a rooftop to survey the city as a whole: "At my feet lay a great city. Miles of broad streets, shaded by trees and lined with fine buildings, for the most part not in continuous blocks but set in larger inclosures, stretched in every direction. Every quarter contained large open squares filled with trees, among which statues glistened and fountains flashed in the late afternoon sun. Public buildings of a colossal size and an architectural grandeur unparalleled in my day raised their stately piles on every side." Reading passages like this, one realizes that what Bellamy didn't know about government building projects would fill the one that has actually come to dominate Boston in 2000, the Big Dig.

Although the eye can compose an aesthetic whole even out of cities that do not betray any sign of having been systematically designed--Wordsworth's "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" and El Greco's "View of Toledo" are two famous instances--what is being sold by Bellamy is the pleasure of coordinated design itself, the kind of experience offered by communities like Seaside, Florida, where much of Peter Weir's 1998 movie The Truman Show was filmed. The fact that everything is plural--"fine buildings," "open squares," "broad streets"--draws our attention to the managed rhythms made possible only by the plan, and not to any particular streets, squares, or buildings. When West dreams that he has returned to 19th-century Boston, one is not surprised to find him almost retching when confronted with the uncoordinated hubbub and "malodorousness" of the town.

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