Looking Backward | Study Guide

Edward Bellamy

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Looking Backward | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

After dinner, Julian West takes Dr. Leete up on his offer to stay up for a while to talk. He dreads being alone with his thoughts, and worries his insomnia will return. The doctor assures him there is medicine that will help him sleep. Julian first asks Dr. Leete how society has answered "the labor question." Dr. Leete explains that the solution was quite simple, a logical "process of industrial evolution." He asks Julian to recall "the most prominent feature of the labor troubles" of the 19th century. "Why, the strikes, of course," Julian answers. Dr. Leete reflects on the causes of the strikes, including consolidation of capital, huge gaps between the classes, monopolies, and the powerlessness of workers. He calls the strikes self-defense on the part of workers in the face of corporate tyranny. He explains that as increasingly more industries were consolidated into monopolies, shutting out any possibility of competition, even small capitalists became beholden to corporations as the only places for investment. The doctor admits the changes in the scale of businesses in the economy had made production more efficient and created unprecedented wealth—for some. He says further that there was no practical way to go back to the way the economy had been before.

Dr. Leete describes how society then evolved into a new fair one through the total "consolidation of the entire capital of the nation." He points to the creation of the Great Trust in which "the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business." The nation, he says, controls industry and is the sole employer, working in the interest of the people. It was similar to the creation of the American nation in which the people "assumed the conduct of their own government." Julian guesses that such a change came only at a cost of many lives, but the doctor insists it was peaceful. Everyone knew it was necessary. It had been, he says, a long time coming. The owners of the great monopolies saw it as their duty to use their expertise to ease the transition.

Analysis

Readers may find Dr. Leete's account of the transition period hard to swallow. Like Julian West, they may be incredulous that monopolies would simply hand over ownership of their engines of wealth production to the government without bloodshed. Here, readers see Edward Bellamy's great optimism about human nature of the future. The doctor insists that everyone recognized the necessity of the change, that they agreed it had to be done. The owners of the corporations recognized their duty to use their experience in their various fields to instruct others on how to run things efficiently, thus smoothing the transition from private to public ownership. Such a peaceful transition depends on the assumption that people are logical, altruistic, dutiful, and capable of agreeing peacefully to a single solution to a national problem. Modern readers may not be inclined to accept such assumptions, but perhaps people in the fictional year 2000 are different. The author will speak to this in coming chapters.

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