Looking Backward | Study Guide

Edward Bellamy

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Looking Backward | Chapter 12 | Summary

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Summary

Julian West and Dr. Leete sit up late again to talk about Julian's questions about motivations for workers when their wages are not based on effort or skill. Dr. Leete explains the other incentives for excelling at one's work, which include a system of grading, promotion, class, rank, and badges. Certain positions within various trades are earned through performance, as workers may be promoted to foreman or other leadership positions. Such ranks are indicated by a small badge worn like a military insignia or medal. All workers have the opportunity to advance.

Julian is surprised to learn that even those who do not have the ability to work, including the infirm or mentally ill, earn the same number of credits. He thinks it is charity to those "incapable of self-support." Dr. Leete explains that "the worker is not a citizen because he works, but works because he is a citizen." He reminds Julian that citizens' humanity is what makes them worthy of the nation's provision, and he insists that no person in a civilized society is truly self-supporting. Rather, "as men grow more civilized ... a complex mutual dependence becomes the universal rule." There also exists light work for individuals in "a sort of invalid corps" that is assigned according to their abilities.

In a footnote in the chapter, Julian reflects that giving all citizens the same credit for all jobs truly frees men to choose the profession to which they are best suited. It does not preclude upper-class men from taking on a manual trade or a lower-class man from getting the education needed for an intellectual job, as the system had done in his day. Rather, the new social industrial system encourages each man to select the field in which he can best contribute his skills.

Analysis

In Chapter 12, the author counters the common criticism of socialism that people lack motivation to work hard when pay is not tied to work product. Edward Bellamy has created an elaborate system of rankings, evaluations, and promotion to illustrate that advancement and pride of workmanship remain motivating forces in the new social order. Leadership positions are still staffed by the most capable, although care is taken that rewards are offered even to those who do not merit such promotions. Although trade-specific badges or medals do recall military medals, readers may not be as convinced as Julian seems to be about how motivated workers would be to excel by the prospect of such rewards.

The author reemphasizes that citizens are not taken care of by the state because of the work they contribute but because of their status as citizens. A side effect is a willingness of all workers, even the "insane," to contribute their best efforts.

In the capitalist system of Julian's day, the needs and desires of individuals formed the engine to move the economy forward. In contrast, Dr. Leete insists that the new economy works because it acknowledges the interdependence of its members. This implies that self-sufficiency is an illusion, and the author's claims about civilized society suggest it has always been so.

In the note at the end of the chapter, Julian reflects on the freedom the social system creates for individuals to choose their own profession. The new order frees men from the limitations of class. Any man may pursue education to become a doctor, for example, not just those with social standing and money for school. Nor is there any restriction to prevent a man from pursuing a job involving manual labor.

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