“Denial of particularity and avoidance of human messiness is all too often part of the philanthropic impulse”… Thoughts on philanthropy in Edward Bellamy’s utopian 18th century novel Looking Backward, an important intellectual progenitor of the Progressive movement.
Of late 19th century American novels only Uncle Tom's Cabin outsold and outpaced in significance Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, the story of Julian West, who falls asleep in 1887 amidst the chaos of late capitalism and awakes to the socialist utopia of the year 2000. Bellamy's story sparked the formation of "Bellamy Societies" across America and was an important intellectual progenitor of the Progressive movement.
Bellamy dreamed of "systems so perfect that no one will need to be good." The dissolution of competitive enterprises, material inequality, and concerns of status would lead inexorably to a transformation of human nature that would thrive in its new environment. By altering social structures we could see for the first time "what unperverted human nature was really like."
Questions of virtue and vice were rendered irrelevant. Virtue, Bellamy believed, emerged from utility or need, while vice derived from bad distributions that led to division. Both problems could be solved in one elegant solution: the development of a national community that provided for all our needs. In language redolent of the Sermon on the Mount, Bellamy observed that "no man has any more care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.” Tocqueville’s despotic nightmare was Bellamy’s utopia.
All now cared for, charity becomes a relic of the pre-salvific period. Charity may begin at home, but it ends when the household ends (in Bellamy's world there is no longer a household economy or household chores). A "universal brotherhood" binds humans together in deeper and more substantial ways than mere kinship. It is "a vast industrial partnership as large as the nation, as large as humanity."
While the logic of traditional charity is particular, direct, non-utopian in its acceptance of human messiness, the impulse of modern philanthropy is all too often, like that of Bellamy, to create perfect systems that resolve “root causes” and thus makes irrelevant the need to help others.
And what Julian West discovers is a world without charity, it having been replaced by a philanthropy administered by the state. The negation of private virtue represented the rearrangement of life "on a higher ethical basis" whose purpose was "to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived" as a "heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people.”
The character of the futuristic preacher, Mr. Barton, is inspired to deliver a homily about the great improvements of modern society as he explains in his sermon to the nation:
“The fear of want and the lust of gain became extinct motives when abundance was assured to all and immoderate possessions made impossible of attainment. There were no more beggars nor almoners. Equity left charity without an occupation. The ten commandments became well nigh obsolete in a world where there was no temptation to theft, no occasion to lie either for fear or favor, no room for envy where all were equal, and little provocation to violence where men were disarmed of power to injure one another.”
Bellamy believed that he had uncovered the secret for bringing in the millennium, the Christian dream of when time shall be no more and perfect justice and peace shall reign in the world. Julian West had "seen the world's salvation" unfold once humanity discovered its own divine capacities and organized social life accordingly.
While Looking Backward clearly secularizes the Christian salvation-history narrative, one effect of which is to treat the nation as a corpus mysticum and provide forward movement to secular time, and thus shape key progressive assumptions, it also draws our attention to tensions inherent in any Christian notion of charity.
On the one hand Christian writers sacramentalized the highly preferential relationship of marriage and the apostles enjoined special care of the household, and on the other stressed obligations for strangers and encouraged a non-preferential love of all men. The more you expand the scale of political organization, the greater the tension becomes. In some ways the modern nation-state is an alternative form of political representation left after the destruction of the polis and the empire as legitimate symbols, and it tries to resolve the problems inherent in Christian distinctions.
Bellamy handles the tension through the negation of one of its poles: namely, preferential relationships of Eros. While the central discovery of Looking Backward is mankind's realization that it is the proper object of its own love, the problem remains as to how humanity achieves such realization, and the hermeneutical key to this is in the fictional characters of the two Ediths – the first, Edith Bartlett, is Julian West’s 19th century aristocratic fiancé and the second, Edith Leete, is his 21st century guide to worker's paradise.
While the young Julian West eagerly plots how to bed the first Edith, the second one is desexualized. Scrubbed of all distinctiveness and particularity, she's a stand-in for humanity itself. The substitution of abstract humanity for the passion of individualized and preferential love is further indicated in Bellamy's plan of selective breeding, another theme picked up by the Progressives.
The key to the philanthropic move, then, is the stripping of human love of its preferential particularity, and thus its messiness. One thing true of Bellamy's mind is that it can't stand complexity and messiness. It seeks to impose order through a "rational" and central plan that denies the variety and distinctiveness of things and the limitations of responses. But then, denial of particularity and avoidance of human messiness is all too often part of the philanthropic impulse.
IMAGE: "Le Sortie de l'opéra en l'an 2000," by Albert Robida, 1848-1926. Library of Congress.