I admit to being a bit of an old book freak. Stick me in a corner with a falling apart copy of some 19th century book and I’ll be happy – and occasionally it produces the odd gem. Recently I came across the science fiction classic ‘Looking Backward: Going Forward: 2000 – 1887’ by Edward Bellamy which was written in 1887. It was the third-largest bestseller of its time and influenced many intellectuals, appearing by title in many major Marxist writings of the day. About a man who falls asleep in the year 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000 it describes how, while the man slept, the United States transformed into a socialist utopia and covers Bellamy’s ideas such as the dangers of the stock market, the use of credit cards and the use of an “industrial army”. A fascinating read in general one section in particular caught my eye.
A discussion takes place between a man (Dr Leete) from the year 2000 and the narrator (Dr. West) from the year 1887. They talk about the impact of the Industrial Revolution in 1887 and how those at that time viewed its social implications. Here are just a couple of segments:
Dr Leete: ”And you tell me that even then (1887) there was no general recognition of the nature of the crisis which society was nearing?…. The singular blindness of your contemporaries to the signs of the times is a phenomenon commented on by many of our historians (0f 2000), but few facts of history are more difficult for us to realize, so obvious and unmistakable as we look back seem the indications, which must also have come under your eyes, of the transformation about to come to pass… You must, at least, have realized that the widespread industrial and social troubles, and the underlying dissatisfaction of all classes with the inequalities of society, and the general misery of mankind, were portents of great changes of some sort.”
Mr West: “We did, indeed, fully realize that… We felt that society was dragging anchor and in danger of going adrift. Whither it would drift nobody could say, but all feared the rocks…”
Now this of course rings so many bells in relation to our current state of affairs. No one then knew the true impact that the Industrial Revolution would have on society – and as we appear now to be emerging from a period during which we have relied on an economy driven on what was the output of the Industrial Revolution we too are questioning where we are drifting – and many do fear it will be towards the rocks.
Dr Leete continues to describe how many workers went on strike in 1887 due to the effects of the concentration of capital by a small number of concerns with vast capital – something which had never been experienced before:
“Before this concentration began… the individual workman was relatively important and independent in his relations to the employer…. a little capital or a new idea was enough to start a man in business for himself, workingmen were constantly becoming employers and there was no hard and fast line between the two classes….. The individual laborer, who had been relatively important to the small employer, was reduced to insignificance and powerlessness over against the great corporation, while at the same time the way upward to the grade of employer was closed to him. Self-defense drove him to union with his fellows.”
Clearly at that point the loss of control of the individual’s ability to be independent as the large corporates of the Industrial Revolution swooped in was of deep concern. There was a huge outcry against the great corporations which threatened society with a ‘form of tyranny more abhorrent that it had ever endured’. Men believed that:
“the great corporations were preparing for them the yoke of a baser servitude than had ever been imposed on the race, servitude not to men but to soulless machines incapable of any motive but insatiable greed…. humanity was never confronted with a fate more sordid and hideous than would have been the era of corporate tyranny which they anticipated”
Since 1887 we in the West have been living in a society in which large corporations have ruled. Many would agree that the predictions of those in 1887 did come to pass and that we did indeed find ourselves ‘bowing down to a yoke of servitude’. Yet it should be remembered that this ‘servitude’ allowed many over the long term to lead lives of relative wealth, comfort, stability and security. But now, as those large corporations are no longer able to provide us with that stability many (46% in the US alone) are having to refind our feet as true independents. As we emerge from an age in which we have had energy resources on tap to keep the large industrial fires burning we are grappling with what this means for society and where we are really heading.
In Part 2: Commutinies¡ – The Quiet Revolution I will be exploring the quiet revolution – how independent workers are joining forces and turning their backs on the traditional capitalist models and what some of our visionaries of today see as being the new way forward. Part 3: Myth of the Machine will explore our relationship with machines. Will we really end up living much of our lives in a global virtual bazaar – or will the future find us living more akin to those in 1887 – leading a village life in real life?