“Looking Backward 2000-1887” by Edward Bellamy is a socialist utopian science fiction story published in 1888. The story consists of a Bostonian man who falls into a deep sleep and then awakens 113 years later in the year 2000 to find the United States has become a socialist utopia. It’s assumptions laid the groundwork for nearly every socialist perspective and assumption.
One of the most common socialist assumptions is that it is possible to perfect society. They believe that enough humans are sufficiently altruistic that, if only they were put in positions of power and control, they would be able to guide the rest of mankind to a similar state of near perfection.
On Tuesday, July 9, 2019, David John Marotta appeared on Radio 1070 WINA’s Schilling Show to take a closer look at socialism’s view of human nature.
Listen to the audio here:
Your opinions about nearly every political or philosophical issue depends, at least tangentially, on your view of humanity. Evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker has named the two primary perspectives, the Utopian Vision and the Tragic Vision, in his book “The Blank Slate.”
These two views correlate with two-party political systems, but they are more than political ideology. They are the lens we use to view the world. Those with the Utopian Vision are the ones predisposed to sympathize with socialism, and the Utopian Vision is one of Bellamy’s primary assumptions in his book Looking Backward.
Those with the Utopian Vision believe humans have endless potential. They perceive faulty social arrangements or institutions as the source of the world’s woes. If these obstacles were lifted, Utopians expect to see the problems of society largely resolved. Finding and removing these social barriers is the challenge of all their political reform. This process may be arduous, but Utopians are confident it can be accomplished if we all participate.
If we can just find the right solution, Utopians believe we can exterminate any great societal problem.
Oftentimes this so-called solution though will cost society a great deal. Many may need to impoverish themselves for the good of others. The government may implement temporary measures which are unpleasant, unfair, or even seem immoral. Reeducation, imprisonment, or violence may be employed to encourage naysayers into submission.
Utopians will say that these costs are worth paying to attempt to solve this great societal problem. The ends justifying the means, they argue. Once the problem is solved, they say, virtue will be easy.
In Looking Backward, all economic problems are solved by a benevolent government seizing control of the entire U.S. economy and infrastructure. As Dr. Leete, the tour guide of the book, says in a large monologue in Chapter 5:
“The movement toward the conduct of business by larger and larger aggregations of capital, the tendency toward monopolies, which had been so desperately and vainly resisted, was recognized at last, in its true significance, as a process which only needed to complete its logical evolution to open a golden future to humanity.
“Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust.”
In Bellamy’s simplistic view of the world, if “the people” had complete control of the capital and commerce of the nation, then they would have the power to solve any and every economic problem. The unemployed would be given jobs. The poor would be given goods.
To someone with the Utopian Vision, corporations and individuals in the private sector are “irresponsible” and working “capriciously” for “their own profit.” Meanwhile a centralized solution “represents the people” and works for “the common interests.”
In a nirvana fallacy, the actual economy with all of its faults is compared against an idealized version of centralized planners.
To someone with the Utopian Vision, the very presence of evils implies that there is work to be done. With the appropriate “solution,” Utopians believe it will require minimal effort to maintain a perfected state. It is on account of these beliefs that socialists ultimately turn to the use of force to bring about their utopia. If mankind isn’t perfect yet, then they still need to be perfected. This cost to individual freedoms is rarely acknowledged.
In response to Dr. Leete’s monologue, Julian West, the main character of the book, responds in Chapter 5 a little later:
“Such a stupendous change as you describe,” said I, “did not, of course, take place without great bloodshed and terrible convulsions.”
“On the contrary,” replied Dr. Leete, “there was absolutely no violence. The change had been long foreseen. Public opinion had become fully ripe for it, and the whole mass of the people was behind it. There was no more possibility of opposing it by force than by argument.
Bellamy assumes that everyone except a few will see the wisdom of his vision of the world. Nothing could be further from human nature. The only way to get the “whole mass of people” behind something is to either intimidate them or to eliminate those who disagree.
Interestingly though, this is exactly what many socialist governments do as they slide into eugenics, genocide, or other horrors. The politicians see the “problem” that there are imperfect people among them. They assume that the “solution” of purging these sinful from their ranks will enable society to live onward as perfect. The ends justify the horrific means in their minds.
In this way, what is important to Utopians is that people have good intentions. Education for profit’s sake is viewed as evil whereas their own indoctrination to produce a submissive populace is viewed as well-intentioned.
It does not matter if the well-intentioned efforts produce undesirable outcomes. If the efforts are well-intentioned, then Utopians want to continue their attempts to perfect society with them, ignoring the sacrifices as temporary and necessary costs.
In Chapter 6 of the book, after a moment’s pause to reflect, Julian West describes a bit about how things were in his day (meaning modern times), to which Dr. Leete responds:
“We have no parties or politicians, and as for demagoguery and corruption, they are words having only an historical significance.”
“Human nature itself must’ve changed very much,” I said.
“Not at all,” was Dr. Leete’s reply, “but the conditions of human life have changed, and with them the motives of human action. The organization of society with you was such that officials were under a constant temptation to misuse their power for the private profit of themselves or others. Under such circumstances it seems almost strange that you dared in trust them with any of your affairs. Nowadays, on the contrary, society is so constituted that there is absolutely no way in which an official, however ill-disposed, could possibly make any profit for himself or anyone else by misuse of his power. Let him be as bad an official as you please, he cannot be a corrupt one. There is no motive to be. The social system no longer offers a premium on dishonesty.”
Dr. Leete says that in the old days, officials were constantly tempted to misuse their power for profit, but that now in the socialist utopia, officials have no capability to be corrupt. Bellamy makes statements like these — no government official could possibly be corrupted — alongside evidence that they could be.
In Bellamy’s utopia, officials have control over what vocations people are allowed to work in. Officials decide where people are allowed to live within the country. Officials decide what hours people are required to work in their vocations. And unlike the free market, none of this coercive power and control can be avoided. It is backed by the threat of bodily harm from the full force of the government.
Bellamy ignores that the power given to the state is a great opportunity for corruption. Bellamy imagines that officials will execute their responsibilities with near perfect knowledge, wisdom, and altruism. He imagines they will be well-intentioned.
This sort of hand-waving is really common throughout Bellamy’s book. Here are just a few examples:
- “The coarser motives, which no longer move us, have been replaced by higher motives wholly unknown to the mere wage earners of your age.”
- “That it was equally the duty of every citizen to contribute his quota of industrial or intellectual services to the maintenance of the nature was equally evident.”
- “It is rather of course than of compulsion.”
- “Not higher wages, but honor and the hope of men’s gratitude, patriotism and the inspiration of duty, were the motives.”
- “Our young men are very greedy of honor, and do not let slip such [voluntary] opportunities.”
Upon assumptions like these, the idealistic structure of socialist utopia is built.
But these structures and assumptions are not compatible with the real nature of humans. It is like building a bridge out of an alloy without regard to its tensile strength. In theory the bridge may be beautiful, but it cannot even hold its own weight.
Bellamy idealizes the relationship that a family has for one of its own. He especially admires mothers who are filled with so much unconditional love that they are inspired to sacrifice for their own children. In his socialist utopia, Bellamy imagines that we can all be trained to have the affection and self-sacrifice of family for random strangers.
In one passage of Looking Backward, Bellamy’s main character discusses self-sacrifice with Dr. Leete. The passage goes like this:
“If you had a sick brother at home,” replied Dr. Leete, “unable to work, would you feed him on less dainty food, and lodge and clothe him more poorly, than yourself? More likely far, you would give him the preference; nor would you think of calling it charity. Would not the word, in that connection, fill you with indignation?”
“Of course,” I replied; “but the cases are not parallel. There is a sense, no doubt, in which all men are brothers; but this general sort of brotherhood is not to be compared, except for rhetorical purposes, to the brotherhood of blood, either as to its sentiment or its obligations.”
“There speaks the nineteenth century!” exclaimed Dr. Leete. “Ah, Mr. West, there is no doubt as to the length of time that you slept. If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.”
Dr. Leete makes the point that if your brother were in need, you’d give him whatever he needed — the best food, the best clothes — without even thinking about it as charitable. With all of man as a brotherhood, Dr. Leete argues that you would, of course, extend everyone this honor.
While it seems foreign to the main character to be self-sacrificing in the extreme to everyone you meet, Dr. Leete claims that their utopian society has just been fully awoken to the brotherhood of all mankind. As a result, the self-denial or self sacrifice of denying yourself what is better so you can give the best to another is simply what they do.
Such lofty altruistic ideals are admirable but they cannot be the norm of life. Perhaps mothers know this best.
Mothers often live for years with an all-consuming responsibility for meeting the needs of their very young children. But being consistently and perfectly altruistic without any regard for themselves is impossible. Mothers are only human. They have limitations of knowledge, character, and especially energy. They also have a deep need to take care of themselves in addition to taking care of their children.
Not only does Looking Backward disregard a mother’s limits, but the socialistic utopia of the story asks mothers to treat all children with the same priority as their own. This is impossible. It breaks the limits of human capability. It defies laws of human nature.
Each person has her own cares and concerns. Beyond that, she has her own passions in life. Although many of those passions stir them toward endeavors that benefit others, forcing or even just expecting mothers to care for other people’s children with the same care and responsibility that they care about their own is both impossible and harmful. Everyone cannot fulfill the role of being a child’s mother. Everyone cannot love that child best of all. And yet children need the nurture of someone who loves them best of all.
By imagining that everyone can extend parental love to everyone without selfishness, burnout, or other evils entering society, Bellamy describes a world that does not and cannot exist.
Those with the Tragic Vision believe humans have inherent shortcomings. No person is free from human failings. All of us are not as capable as we would like to be. In the Tragic Vision, the world’s woes stem from these limitations inherent in human nature. The most common Tragic Vision belief is that, no matter how much effort we expend, we humans cannot achieve anything close to perfection. Our own shortcomings will cause us to fall short. To achieve better, we each must make better decisions. It is extremely difficult and may not even be possible for everyone. Perhaps the best we can hope for is incremental changes in each individual with the aid of mentors or with the painful but inspiring motivation of hitting bottom. Any level of success is deemed amazing because those with the Tragic Vision judge the success of our present by comparing it with our past. If we are better now than we were, we are doing surprisingly well.
David Foster Wallace describes the Tragic Vision in a commencement address given in 2005 at Kenyon College where he says:
Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self…
That is the Tragic Vision. Mankind is inherently self-centered. One individual can choose, through work and effort, to free himself temporarily from this hard-wired setting, but those few people’s struggles cannot change the tide of mankind. Mankind as a whole is flawed.
Robert Greene, author of the book The Laws of Human Nature, described one of the first laws of human nature this way:
The primary law of human nature is to deny that we have human nature, to deny that we are subject to these forces. We think, ‘I’m not irrational, I’m not aggressive, I don’t feel envy, I am not a narcissist.’ It’s always the other side. …
Our natural assumption is to feel that we’re superior. We separate ourselves from others. We think, ‘I’m more intelligent, I’m more moral, I’m more rational, I’m better looking, I’m more intelligent, I vote for the right person.’ It’s so ingrained and it’s so nefarious and I’m guilty of it myself, but it’s a major block towards that higher self that I’m talking about.
This assumption that you are superior is viewed as a flaw by the Tragic Vision. However, the same belief that you are superior leads to the Utopian belief that, even if not everyone will be perfect, sufficient people will be if given the right environment so as to perfect society. In this way the flaw witnessed by one Vision becomes the driving force of the other.
This moral superiority can be seen throughout Looking Backward. Here is one example from Chapter 22:
“I suppose,” observed Dr. Leete, as we strolled homeward from the dining hall, “that no reflection would have cut the men of your wealth-worshiping century more keenly than the suggestion that they did not know how to make money. Nevertheless that is just the verdict history has passed on them. Their system of unorganized and antagonistic industries was as absurd economically as it was morally abominable. Selfishness was their only science, and in industrial production selfishness is suicide. Competition, which is the instinct of selfishness, is another word for dissipation of energy.”
In Bellamy’s socialist utopia, there is neither selfishness nor competition. In his morality, competition is evil because if one person does something better we should use their method and then everyone can do it better. Like many socialists, Bellamy believes that a government organization should be able to determine what “better” means and reward those workers with nothing other than honor and recognition.
Alas, government is rarely able to recognize innovation. More often than not, innovation is stifled and squashed. Most innovators have to go out on their own in order to have the freedom to try their ideas and let the market decide. After a great amount of “unorganized and antagonistic industry,” some ideas wildly succeed. This creative destruction is what produces most of the progress in society.
Because those who lean toward the Utopian view of the world believe that human nature is perfectible, they do not accept any constrained views of human nature. Bellamy’s Utopia expects workers to gradually be promoted from first to second to third grades, as though promotion would always be based on discipline, industry, and expertise. Dr. Leete describes the method of motivating the industrial army in Looking Backwards:
“It is not even necessary that a worker should win promotion to a higher grade to have at least a taste of glory. While promotion requires a general excellence of record as a worker, honorable mention and various sorts of prizes are awarded for excellence less than sufficient for promotion, and also for special feats and single performances in the various industries. There are many minor distinctions of standing, not only within the grades but within the classes, each of which acts as a spur to the efforts of a group. It is intended that no form of merit shall wholly fail of recognition.
“As for actual neglect of work positively bad work, or other overt remissness on the part of men incapable of generous motives, the discipline of the industrial army is far too strict to allow anything whatever of the sort. A man able to do duty, and persistently refusing, is sentenced to solitary imprisonment on bread and water till he consents.
Bellamy’s glib assumptions that no form of merit shall fail to be recognized is amazingly naive. Similarly the idea that no motivation is needed seems incompatible with the idea that his slave army needs to be threatened with solitary confinement with nothing but bread and water in order to maintain discipline. Perhaps freedom from bureaucratic overseers and the ability not to be part of his industrial army would be much better options for those of us who believe that such omnipotent coercive power will inevitably be corrupted.
Politicians with the Tragic Vision, on the other hand, often seek to structure society to work around man’s shortcomings. In response, a Utopian might cry, “Why would you create a society that runs on greed and profit?!” Or as one current presidential candidate with a Utopian outlook lamented, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
The answer, of course, is because understanding human failings and limitations is essential to building a government that doesn’t continually fail in its endeavors.
Those with a tragic view of human nature want to build societal structures that encourage virtue, but they start with the principle that we are at heart self-absorbed creatures. This flaw cannot be changed; it must be accepted.
Alas, it seems as though every generation is doomed to try socialism for itself. The term “perfectible” has fallen out of favor, but the concept that humans are basically good if they have a good environment and are able to be molded into virtue and altruism are still core tenants. Dr. Leete describes this perfectibility as the agent of change to bring about the socialist utopia from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth.
“But all men, even in the last year of the twentieth century, are not of this high order, and the incentives to endeavor requisite for those who are not must be of a sort adapted to their inferior natures. For these, then, emulation of the keenest edge is provided as a constant spur. Those who need this motive will feel it. Those who are above its influence do not need it.
Only this “higher order” caliber of men with superior natures are free of compulsion. Those lower creature with inferior natures require a constant spur, provided by the government, to motivate them.
But such systems built on a requirement of wise and altruistic humans to direct society without bias are fragile systems doomed to failure. Humanity is limited in its wisdom, ability, and moral character. There is an ironic difference between human aspiration and human achievement.
Those who lean toward the Utopian view of the world may be mystified by all of this talk about human nature. “Of course man is a brutish and oppressive beast,” they might say, “that’s what socialists have been saying for decades.” Why then put them in positions of absolute government power over their fellow citizens?
Marxists often take a Tragic view of the past or of traditional social structures such as the family, society, religion, and the free markets and a Utopian view of the future. The past, they would say, may have been hopelessly corrupted by egocentric views, but the future can still be molded and shaped unsullied by the biases and bigotries of the past.
However, even these Utopians, though they are perhaps more sobered about mankind’s past, believe that human nature is perfectible in the glorious future.
If mankind is not perfectible though, then all the systems built by Utopians are filled with harmful unintended consequences which will never end as they continue to try and support a fragile and unstable system intended for perfect people.
Photo by Jonathan Hoxmark on Unsplash