Anyone for Utopia?
MARCH 01, 1977 by LOIS H. SARGENT
Mrs. Sargent is a free-lance writer from Springfield, Missouri.
Numerous writers, pained by what they considered the faults of the social-economic life of their times devised what they believed was an ideal society: Utopia. Among them was Edward Bellamy, who presented his theories in a novel, Looking Backward, published in 1888. The book made quite a stir in literary circles and was praised enthusiastically by the Fabian Socialists of that day.
Today’s readers would find the novel slow and prosaic. So for those who have never read it, herewith is a brief resume of the story. The hero, a Mr. West, falls into a sleep induced by hypnotism, in a subterranean room in the home he is building. The date is May 30, 1887. He wakes up in September, 2000 A.D., when the room, with the still sleeping occupant, is discovered by builders working in the area. (Mr. West’s house was destroyed by fire shortly after he began his long nap.) He is revived by a doctor who has built a home on the site. The doctor, his wife and daughter accept Mr. West as a guest and proceed to show him the changes that have taken place since 1887. The differences between life in the two eras is compared in considerable detail, with "Utopia" always adjudged superior.
The reader might be impressed by the limpid prose until he compares Mr. Bellamy’s ideas for the year 2000 with the realities of 1977. Then, anyone with a sense of humor will find the romantic fantasy more a farce than a prophecy to be taken seriously.
Since Mr. Bellamy was not a psychic, his imagination to some degree was limited. He could comment with confidence on the telegraph and railroad, known in 1887, and even mention electricity to be used as heating and lighting. This was a good guess. Thomas Edison had already created the light bulb, though it was not yet perfected for home use. Not until 1892 when Steinmetz developed alternating current was electricity made available as a public utility. Mr. Bellamy described artificial lighting, but did not connect it with electricity or explain its source. Casual reference was made to labor saving inventions, but these were not described.
So the author’s picture of life in 2000 lacked most of the achievements of industry now taken for granted in 1977. There was no electric refrigeration, air conditioning, radio, television, moving pictures, phonographs, electrical household appliances. Nor were there calculators or computers which surely would have simplified the technical processes of conducting the intricate labor and production system of that imagined future. There was no hint of such practical items. Utopians seem never to give thought to the mechanics of management and operation of their imagined systems.
No Radios, Cars or Planes
The author did envision a transmission of music by telephone, but failed to conceive the radio which evolved from already known telegraphy. And, there were no motor cars or airplanes in Mr. Bellamy’s Utopia.
There was one unique device that intrigued me. He told of a waterproof covering which let down high above the sidewalks when it rained, to protect pedestrians. Apparently it descended like a benediction from Heaven, for the author failed to describe the machanism that operated this feature. An observation that provoked a laugh was that there had been little change in fashions of dress and home furnishings during the century. The idea of pants suits for women probably would have horrified Mr. Bellamy.
If the author, no doubt proud of his vision for the year 2000, were to come alive today and see the amazing inventions and innovations of modern living, developed since his time, he surely would be flabbergasted, non-plussed, and utterly confounded. If shown movies of the flights to the Moon and men walking on that lunar orb, he probably would not believe it.
Now, we should remember that the discoveries and inventions which have produced material improvements and refinements of living in the United States since 1887 were made possible because people were free to explore, experiment, invent, produce, trade and transport. In other words, people were, and still are, blessed with free enterprise. Mr. Bellamy’s world of 1887 had free enterprise, too. In fact, it was freer then than it is today. But he evidently was so obsessed by the urge to rectify the social inequalities of his day—and there were many—that he failed to see how that same free enterprise could correct those ills, as it has a great many of them. Unfortunately, our modern Utopians are just as blind. Discords and imbalances of social and economic life still confront us, true, but this is natural. Human beings will always find something that needs correction and improvement.
Edward Bellamy envisioned what he thought would be a perfect society. But, stripped of its glowing sentimentality, his Utopia is revealed as pure Statism. It is even more regulated than Russian Socialism.
There is no private enterprise or private ownership. The state owns, controls, manages, and regulates everything: resources, production, distribution, education, and anything else you might name. The state supplies everything from cradle to grave. Labor is described as an industrial army. Workers are conscripted as in the military, though there is no military in Utopia. Everyone starts at the bottom and works up according to his or her efforts and abilities. There is no competition for jobs or higher positions. The same income is paid to everyone. There are no banks or money. All business transactions, buying and paying of wages and obligations is conducted by a credit card system. Unusual achievements of authors, artists, engineers, inventors and physicians are rewarded with a pretty red ribbon, and the recipients are expected to be enraptured by the glory of it.
There are other compartments in this Utopian picture, but this is enough, I think, to
show how preposterous Utopia could be.
Would He Have Liked It?
Mr. Bellamy was serious about all this. He wrote, in a postscript, that "Looking Backward, although in form a fanciful romance, is intended as a forecast . . . of the next stage in the industrial and social development of humanity." But I wonder why he thought it so desirable. Would he have wanted to live in it himself? Would he have been satisfied with a pretty red ribbon for the writing of his book? (I assume he received royalties or some remuneration.) I’ve asked the same question of other Utopian dreamers: Would you really enjoy living in the world you create in your imagination and wish to thrust on everyone?
Mr. Bellamy, like all socialists, failed to take into consideration human nature, which thrives on change and challenge. It is freedom that provides the incentive to human endeavor and progress. The achievements of the United States under capitalism have proved that. Most people would be bored by an eternal status quo, no matter how charming, peaceful and secure. (The provider states of Russia and Sweden have their dissidents.) Utopia, the ideal society, defined in my dictionary as "an impracticable scheme of social regeneration," would never be endured for long. Some restless and disgruntled individualist would find something wrong with it, and, attracting to himself others of like mind, would promote a rebellion.