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Free Study Guide-Looking Backward: 2000 - 1887 by Edward Bellamy-Summary
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ONLINE NOTES FOR LOOKING BACKWARD: 2000 - 1887 BY EDWARD BELLAMY

CHAPTER XII

Summary

Julian West’s next questions center around the notion of incentives to work. As usual, after the women leave, he and Doctor Leete continue their conversation. The doctor describes the organization of men at work as an army with several grades of rank achieved by merit. The most superior men are the captains of the force, and they keep the men under their charge from lagging. The first grade is that of common workers. It is like a school where young men are taught “habits of obedience, subordination, and devotion to duty.” Records are kept on each man. Each industry is divided into first, second and third grades, and often these grades are subdivided into first and second classes. The advantage of achieving a high grade is the privilege of election; that is, each man gets to join the trade of his first choice. The lowest grade men often must go with their second or third choice of a trade. Those who receive promotion receive the nation’s thanks, and their names are printed in the newspaper. They get a badge of their new rank. These badges are graded also: grade one is gilt, grade two is silver, and grade three is iron.

Aside from the incentive of the high ranks, these men also enjoy special privileges and immunities from discipline. It is also regarded as very important that the majority of men, even those of lesser abilities, aspire to rise in rank. Many ways of recognizing merit are therefore devised. In the case of a person who is able to work and refuses, he is sentenced to solitary confinement on bread and water until he changes his mind.

Doctor Leete asks Julian West if he now understands that incentive is provided in this new system without the idea of varying wages. Julian West thinks the incentives are too strong. He tells his readers, in fact, that he still thinks so after having learned many things about this system. Doctor Leete explains that there is so much leisure in the life of a worker, that the pace is never too much for him. He also reminds Julian West about the fundamental precept that “all who do their best are equally deserving, whether the best be great or small.”


Doctor Leete then explains that there is a separate corps for those who are infirm, called the invalid corps. All those who are physically, mentally, or emotionally handicapped are assigned to duties that fit their abilities. When Julian West calls this admirable charity, since they are incapable of self-support, Doctor Leete objects to the term. He asserts that no one in an advanced civilization is capable of self-support. The whole system operates on “a complex mutual dependence” within which the tasks are specialized. He adds that the fact that the nineteenth century did not recognize this constituted its “essential cruelty and unreason.” Julian West continues to object on the basis that such people (the invalid corps) do not produce anything. Doctor Leete reiterates the point that all people have a right to be maintained by virtue of their humanity, not according to their abilities. Julian West is astounded that the handicapped receive the same income as the others. Doctor Leete draws the analogy of taking care of a sick brother. Instead of feeding and clothing him with lesser care, people would be more likely to give him even better care than the norm. Julian West again objects, saying that the analogy is not sound because a brother is not the same as a fellow citizen. Doctor Leete tells him that it is in this kind of thinking that Julian West shows himself to be of the nineteenth century. He adds that the solidarity of the race is the same as physical kinship in this twentieth-century society. For Doctor Leete, if a solution leaves a group of people unaccounted for, it is not really a solution.

Doctor Leete explains his logic in another way. He says that the advances that led to the industrial revolution were a long time in the making. They had been produced by previous generations and were therefore like an inheritance for the nineteenth century. When the able-bodied took this inheritance and kept it to themselves, leaving nothing for the sickly, they were stealing the birthright of their fellow citizens. Julian West is unable to reply to this idea. Doctor Leete sighs, saying he can never understand what motivated the workers of the nineteenth century to work, since it was so clear that their children could easily be cast outside and starved.

Julian West adds a note to this chapter on the idea of giving everyone an opportunity to choose the field that best suits his abilities and inclinations. He notes that this was one of the great wastes of his own age. Most people of the nineteenth century were forced by circumstances to enter a trade and were never given a choice in the matter. Even the wealthy were kept from finding work that suited their natural aptitude, because class prejudice ruled out certain crafts and labor. With the habit of forcing people to do things they did not like based on the incentive of money alone, most people chose a trade that did not suit their abilities and were therefore not very productive.

Notes

Although it has been implied in earlier chapters, this is the first time Bellamy articulates the metaphor of the military. This society is described essentially as an industrial army. Rank is the primary means of incentive. The duty of the officers is to encourage the men below them. Those who refuse service are placed in solitary confinement indefinitely. With the exception of this punishment, Bellamy proposes a humane military model, one that works unceasingly to make sure everyone gets enough recognition for a job well done, but this is a military model nonetheless. It is not surprising that Bellamy would choose such a model, since the military is run on principles that can be described as socialist. Military men do not usually join the forces for money. They do it for the good of the nation or for their own distinction. They are fed and clothed by the nation. They work presumably for the common good.

Bellamy continues the technique of pitting a naive nineteenth-century man against a sophisticated twentieth-century man. Julian West speaks for the nineteenth-century reader, making as many objections as his contemporaries would, and earnestly trying to understand his limitations. His primary flaw as a representative of the nineteenth century seems to be a lack of sympathy for others. He often expresses the sentiment that people do not have a basic right to sustenance, but must earn that right through productive labor. Doctor Leete’s barely disguised shock at such non-humanitarian thinking would likely have jolted the nineteenth-century reader into a moral awareness. In an age of individualism, when there was no social safety net for those who could not produce, such a charge of barbarity would certainly have struck a chord.

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