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Looking Backward | Themes

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Individualism versus Community

The author contrasts the individualism that characterized the capitalist system of the 19th century with the focus on community and common good in the utopia of the year 2000. The contrast is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the allegory of the umbrella in Chapter 14. Each person in the 19th century had to purchase and carry his or her own umbrella to be protected from the rain. When a downpour came, people put up their umbrella to keep the precipitation off his or her own head. Their concern was for themselves alone, as they knew no one else was going to do it for them. Conversely, the sheltered walkways and intersections of 20th-century Boston act as a single umbrella over the head of all citizens. No one worries about getting wet in the rain because the umbrella is supplied for all by the nation.

Dr. Leete criticizes the industry of the 19th century for its

incapacity for cooperation which followed from the individualism on which [its] social system was founded, from [the] inability to perceive that you could make ten times more profit out of your fellow men by uniting with them than by contending with them.

In a capitalist system many businesses, each individually seeking to provide a service or sell a product, compete with one another. The result is financial success for some and much redundancy and waste, according to Dr. Leete. Under the new social system, the entire community benefits from production, rather than an individual business or owner. There is no waste from competition, as production is organized to meet the needs of the community, not those of a single business. In the new social order, industry is "conducted in the common interest for the common profit" rather than "conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit."

People are put at odds with each other in an individualistic society, while they are united into a brotherhood in a community-minded one. Individualism places self at the center, with each person working for his or her own good, often at the expense of those around them. Community places the good of humanity at the heart of society. Dr. Leete claims "individualism ... was fatal to any vital sentiment of brotherhood and common interest among living men." The concern in a community such as the nation is for the welfare of all citizens, which gives rise in this instance to universal education and equal pay for all citizens.

Wealth

The gap between rich and poor in the United States widened during the Gilded Age, and the author emphasizes that corporations and trusts held enormous wealth, while the workers who made the businesses successful suffered in poverty. Wealth was enjoyed by business owners and by those who came into it through inheritance. Comparatively few were secure in their wealth, as famously illustrated in the allegory of the coach. The wealthy few enjoy the seats on the top of the coach for a time, while the vast number of poor below labor to pull the wealthy along. The "unequal distribution of wealth ... divided society" according to Dr. Leete. In contrast, in the new social order of 2000, "the nation [is] the sole trustee of the wealth of the people." The equal distribution of wealth leads to equality among citizens.

Wealth serves very different purposes in the two centuries. In the 19th century under a capitalist system, wealth was "lavished in private luxury." Individuals amassed wealth for themselves and for their children. In contrast, in the new social order of the year 2000, wealth is used to provide "an abundant maintenance" for all citizens. Any extra money is spent on things everyone in the community can enjoy. Dr. Leete claims "there is no destination of the surplus wealth so popular as the adornment of the city, which all enjoy in equal degree." Spaces used by the community are lavish and decorative. Even Julian, who was a member of the upper class in his time, is impressed with the luxury of the public buildings of the year 2000.

While wealth was once hoarded and inherited, in the new social order there is no reason to hoard or any way to pass wealth down to succeeding generations. Every citizen is guaranteed equal provision for life, and any personal possessions they may acquire may be left to their children. There is no motive to hoard because items cannot be sold.

Rationality

The author emphasizes the rationality of what he prefers to call nationalism, rather than socialism, in contrast to the irrationality of capitalism. Speaking through Dr. Leete, the author claims the new social order is simply "the logical outcome of the operation of human nature under rational conditions." He contrasts it with what he views as the "imbecility" of capitalism that works against the welfare of its people, creating poverty and misery in the creation of wealth. Capitalism was the very picture of irrationality, according to Dr. Leete. He urges Julian West to consider that "in an age of general poverty and want of everything, capitalists had to throttle one another to find a safe chance to invest their capital and workmen rioted and burned because they could find no work to do." The new nation, in contrast, avoids waste, inefficiency, and inequality of all kinds by using logical organization. Although this government is a complex organization, Dr. Leete describes it as a "machine ... vast ... but so logical in its principles and direct and simple in its workings, that it all but runs itself; and nobody but a fool could derange it." In contrast to the social system under capitalism, which he characterizes as "the social traditions and practices of barbarians," the new nation is "a social order worthy of rational and human beings."

Industrialization

Industrialization in the 19th century made possible notable increases in production, wealth, and urbanization. The author argues that the organization applied to industry so effectively in the 19th century can be applied to all of society for far greater benefit. In the new nation, every citizen is a part of the industrial army in some way. Every aspect of the economy, from production to distribution to consumption, is intricately and efficiently organized. With the nation as the sole organizer of the industrialized society, "all its processes interlock, [which] has multiplied the total product." Like cogs in a factory machine, every citizen has a function within the army that is uniquely suited to his own skills and desires, ensuring the nation gets the best from every citizen. And like identical products coming off a factory line, each citizen knows just what to expect at any point in his or her life. The nation itself is "organized as one great business ... The Great Trust."

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