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Reading Looking Backwards: Reflecting on Utopia


The word utopia has been much soiled. Utopias rarely exist in fiction, and much more common is the dystopia: the utopia gone awry, built upon well meaning intentions yet which has utterly failed and plunged humanity into a misery far worse than that which it knew before. We have a bitter perspective on utopia, a societal cynicism which doesn’t believe in them.

In some respects, this is astounding. After all, industrial society is built upon, legitimized by, ordered by, the belief in a secular utopia. We believe that life can be made better, more prosperous, richer, and to a certain extent that this is inevitable. The cult of GDP inherently posits a world where our main focus is on constantly expanding the material wealth of the population, and that although it might be ill distributed, that at heart we believe the proceeds will spill over to everyone. And yet utopias are a subject of mockery, the product of eggheads, hippies, and liberals, who in their well-meaning gullibility will destroy the basis of society and give rise to a host of new social evils: authoritarianism, totalitarianism, universal surveillance, false equality, stagnation, economic collapse.

What does this combination mean for us? Is it complacency? Pessimism? A lack of imagination? A mixture of all three? I’d be inclined to believe in pessimism among them as the strongest: that we belong to a moment in history that has seen project after project for utopia fail, and who have fundamentally had our own confidence in ourselves and our destiny undermined. Utopia and plans for change have been sharply circumscribed, within acceptable limits. The most emotionally charged and pressing social movement to recreate society which exists today is social justice, most strongly represented by movements such as Black Lives Matter, and for the most part are willing to leave society as it is intact, provided that it achieves a greater degree of diversity. Fundamental social transformations are not in the cards. A utopia has been, for the present moment, tacitly abandoned. So reading a book such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, from 1888 an inspiring piece: a book about a utopia which really believes in its own possibility

Bellamy’s Looking Backwards is a work of such fame, which has been so much analyzed, that it’s worthless to try to write a review about it: certainly not for myself. What’s fascinating about it in retrospect is the way that it captures a moment in time, that it shows the competing cultural movements and developments of the late 19th century, torn between agonizing despair and anxiety about the fate of society and optimism for a future grounded in scientific progress and the perfectibility of mankind.

You can find belief in the coming destruction of society, the darkness which stalks the exterior of the flickering fire that is human civilization, in book after book. Perhaps the most poignant, the most representative of it, comes in the astronomical knowledge of the time. The War of the Worlds might end with human victory, but it presents an immediately depressing specter for technological civilization, in rotation around a star that will cool and cool, with dwindling reserves of energy, who in order to survive must attempt a genocidal war against Earth to continue their very existence. It comes in later works too, like in The Magician's Nephew of the Narnia series as Digory and Polly flit from pool to pool, from world to world, the saddest of all is the world around a red giant, a once great civilization crumbling to ruin. All of these present a belief in the inevitable collapse of human civilization, that the end of the universe is not merely unavoidable, but in historical terms close

But even in purely human terms, this fin-de-siecle belief in the volcanic force underlying human life and the potential collapse of civilization, is a deeply striking and widespread one. An excellent example of some of this can be found in quotations throughout The Fatal Environment, a book on 19th century American culture and its relationship to the frontier which shows at length the comparison of Indians, blacks, and non-Anglo-Saxon proletarian immigrants to each other and the belief that they were a destabilizing influence upon the United States and that they would, if not firmly handled, overthrow society. It gives a brilliant perspective on the “labor question,” that is mentioned again and again by Bellamy: you don’t realize just how strong, vicious, hateful are the opinions of proper society about the workers of the 19th century until you read a book like Fatal Environment by Richard Slotkin and see them compared to savages alien to civilization, who needed to be tightly controlled to prevent industrial civilization from being destroyed.

The greatest utopian project of the late 19th and of the 20th century, the century of reason and project, was Communism: a messiahnistic project with Marx as a god and Lenin as his prophet, which believed that the travails of the faithful upon the earth could create an earthly paradise. In some regards Bellamy has much in common with Communism: an industrial army where everyone is equal, where the capitalist tendencies of society have been purged, where life is reglemented and precisely ordered according to industrial discipline. There is certainly a great dose of science present within, but Bellamy is a deeply religious man, and this shines through deeply: an entire chapter is devoted to a preacher’s sermon about humanity overcoming its past sins and the new spirit of Christ which reigns upon the Earth. And there are other elements which are less in keeping with the Communist states: women work too, but the end of capitalism has served to liberate women from their bonds and to enable them to become more feminine, to sharpen the distinctions between the sexes in society. Bellamy’s utopia is less conservative or progressive than it is a religious, messiahnic project of a just, Christian, society.

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A vital element of the book is that the transformation of humanity is something which we are not ourselves witness to: it is rather almost a blessing, bestowed upon us. Certainly, it is mentioned that there was violence and war, heroic deeds and actions which led to the creation of the industrial utopia of Bellamy's vision, but our vantage point is merely Bellamy awakening from his long slumber and the transformations wrought upon the world being explained to him. It's a reassuring ideal: that the future is inevitable, that the time will come, by historical laws perhaps, when there will be a better, more rational, and just world will emerge. Religious conviction or the 19th century's obsession with a rationalistic structure of rules, à la Marxism? Or both?

Looking Backwards unarguably doesn’t have much of a story. It is a book which merely exists to preach to you, to tell you about how great and wonderful the future will be, and even for the well-intentioned reader, who beliefs in the possibility of this utopian world: the cringing position of absolute inferiority adopted by Julian West, the hero of Looking Backwards, rankling: show some spine, don’t continually debase yourself with this self-flagellation! But it’s inspiring to see a real belief in the possibility of a utopia, the changeability, the perfectionability, of human nature, the faith in human goodness married with science to produce a better world. It isn’t often that you see such unbounded optimism: not a wild, starry eyed optimism, but a real and genuine one. I would compare it to writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, who too have their stories in the end as canvases to project their dream of the future. Certainly, KSR is a writer who in the world he conceives and the array of characters he has, is much more ambitious and developed than Bellingham, but their fundamental union, their lack of cynicism and belief in a better world, unites them.

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