Dissatisfied with the socioeconomic conditions of the nineteenth century, Edward Bellamy wrote Looking Backward to address the flaws and offer solutions for a better society. The author lived during the peak of the Industrial Revolution, which increased the efficiency of the economy, but also widened the gap between social classes. Innovative machinery was able to produce more output per capita and also raise the average standard of living, but the majority of the wealth was possessed by a direct minority of the population.
Bellamy, observing the social injustices of having an aristocratic class believing that they were superior to the masses, blamed this result on the infrastructure of urbanization, industrialization, and capitalism. Using Julian West as a character that the educated and wealthy elite could relate to at that time, Bellamy introduces his ideas of radical social and economic reform through the character of Doctor Leete. Although Bellamy’s intentions were benevolent, his proposals were inconceivable as they rely on an evolution of morals and ethics to a level that is still nonexistent today.
Looking Backward was effective for Bellamy’s purpose of having his audience recognize that the industrialized society required changes, but his actual proposals were too Utopian to succeed. Bellamy sees industrialized America as an inefficient economy of competitive markets, a society misusing its technological advancements, and an uneven distribution of income to different social classes. In an industrialized economy, private capital gain and the weeding out of inefficient industries characterized the infrastructure of the society. Dr.
Leete says, “Their misery came, with all your other miseries, from that incapacity for cooperation which followed from the individualism on which your social system was founded, and from your inability to perceive that you could make times more profit out of your fellow men by uniting with them…” (page 58) By emphasizing the role of competition upon the economy, the more efficient industries and employees survived while inefficient productions facilities were extinguished and less skilled workers were forced to suffer from unemployment.
However, Bellamy saw this occurrence as being a waste to society, as many resources were being pulled toward industries that were eventually eliminated and there was a supply of human labor that was not being utilized optimally. The author’s main concern was that the machinery of the industrial economy was an easy means of accumulating wealth for only a select few of the population and that the resources were not being efficiently distributed to the entire population. For that reason, he wrote Looking Backward to have these issues be recognized through radical ideas by those that were causing them at the time, the ruling aristocrats.
The level of success that Bellamy brought awareness to the socioeconomic issues of his time period matched the unsuccessfulness of his proposals from being implemented. He was a proponent of shifting the economy from one of private capital to one of publicly-owned capital where the members of society would work in mutual cooperation with one another. Although there are problems with his system such as free-riding and lack of incentive to work optimally, he hoped that the morals of society would be able to evolve to a point where fulfilling one’s honor and duty to society would be enough of a motivation to maximize productivity.
Unfortunately, this situation is still too idealistic for even contemporary times, as the top 5% of wealth holders possess more than half of the country’s wealth even today. There are individuals such as Bill Gates and Donald Trump that have been able to accumulate wealth by means of using innovative technologies and entrepreneurial abilities. The average standard of living has certainly increased, but it falls well short of Bellamy’s hopes of having a mutually cooperative and fully educated society.
Society has changed minimally to the time when Bellamy wrote his story. Although the disparities between classes are not as apparent since the average standard of living has certainly increased, the infrastructure is consistent in having a free-market society dictate the efficiency and the distribution of wealth to the employees of the society. Bellamy’s ideas of having only one producer and supplier to more efficiently meet the levels of supply and demand have not been reached and international economic relations are not at an equal level.
The author’s ideas are far too Utopian to succeed until a complete moral transformation occurs, as there are extraneous factors such as religion, racism, and personal ambitions that will not make his proposals feasible in the distant future. His work was successful in instigating the thought of change in his audience, but ineffective in its implementation. However, Bellamy’s Looking Backward is a novel that provokes thought and offers optimism for a utopian society in the future.