Thursday, May 8, 2014

Allegory of the Carriage by Edward Bellamy (1888)

But how could anyone live without service to the world, you ask? Why should the world support in utter idleness anyone who is able to render service? The answer is that their great-grandfathers accumulated a sum of money on which their descendants now live. The sum, you will naturally infer, must have been very large not to have been exhausted in supporting three generations in idleness. This, however, was not the fact. The sum had been originally by no means large. It is, in fact, much larger now that three generations have been supported upon it in idleness, than it was at first. This mystery of use without consumption, of warmth without combustion, seems like magic, but is merely an ingenious application of the art of shifting the burden of one's support on the shoulders of others. The man who has accomplished this, and it is the end all seek, is said to live on the income of his investments. To explain at this point how the methods of industry make this possible would delay us too much. I shall only stop now to say that interest on investments is a species of tax in perpetuity upon the product of those engaged in industry which a person possessing or inheriting money is able to levy. It must not be supposed that an arrangement which seems so unnatural and preposterous is never criticized. It has been the effort of lawgivers and prophets from the earliest ages to abolish interest, or at least to limit it to the smallest possible rate. All these efforts have, however, failed, as they necessarily must so long as the social organizations prevail. At this time, the latter part of the nineteenth century, governments have generally given up trying to regulate the subject at all.
By way of attempting to give some general impression of the relations of the rich and poor to one another, perhaps I cannot do better than to compare society to a prodigious coach which the masses of humanity are harnessed to and is dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road. The driver is hunger, and no lagging is permitted, though the pace is necessarily very slow. Despite the difficulty of drawing the coach at all along so hard a road, the top is covered with passengers who never get down, even at the steepest ascents. These seats on top are very breezy and comfortable. Well up out of the dust, their occupants enjoy the scenery at their leisure, or critically discuss the merits of the straining team. Naturally such places are in great demand and the competition for them is keen, every one seeking as the first end in life to secure a seat on the coach for himself and to leave it to his child after him. By the rule of the coach a man can leave his seat to whom he wishes, but on the other hand there are many accidents by which it might at any time be wholly lost. For all that they are so easy, the seats are very insecure, and at every sudden jolt of the coach persons slip out of them and fall to the ground, where they are instantly compelled to take hold of the rope and help to drag the coach on which they had before ridden so pleasantly. It is naturally regarded as a terrible misfortune to lose one's seat, and the apprehension that this might happen to them or their friends is a constant cloud upon the happiness of those who ride.
But do they think only of themselves, you ask? Is not their very luxury rendered intolerable to them by comparison with the lot of their brothers and sisters in the harness, and the knowledge that their own weight adds to their toil? Have they no compassion for fellow beings from whom fortune only distinguished them? Oh, yes; commiseration is frequently expressed by those who ride for those who have to pull the coach, especially when the vehicle comes to a bad place in the road, as it is constantly doing, or to a particularly steep hill. At such times, the desperate straining of the team, their agonized leaping and plunging under the pitiless lashing of hunger, the many who faint at the rope and are trampled in the mire, make a very distressing spectacle, which often calls forth highly creditable displays of feeling on the top of the coach. At such times the passengers call down encouragingly to the toilers of the rope, exhorting them to patience, and holding out hopes of possible compensation in another world for the hardness of their lot, while others contribute to buy salves and liniments for the crippled and injured. It is agreed that it is a great pity that the coach is so hard to pull, and there is a sense of general relief when the specially bad piece of road is gotten over. This relief is not, indeed, wholly on account of the team, for there is always some danger at these bad places of a general overturn in which all will lose their seats.
It must in truth be admitted that the main effect of the spectacle of the misery of the toilers at the rope is to enhance the passengers' sense of the value of their seats upon the coach, and to cause them to hold on to them more desperately than before. If the passengers can only feel assured that neither they nor their friends will ever fall from the top, it is probable that, beyond contributing to the funds for liniments and bandages, they will trouble themselves extremely little about those who drag the coach.
I am well aware that this appears to be incredibly inhumane, but there are two facts, both very curious, which partly explain it. In the first place, it is firmly and sincerely believed that there is no other way in which Society can get along, except the many pull at the rope and the few ride, and not only this, but that no very radical improvement is even possible, either in the harness, the coach, the roadway, or the distribution of the toil. It has always been as it is, and it always will be so. It is a pity, but it can not be helped, and philosophy forbids wasting compassion on what is beyond remedy.
The other fact is yet more curious, consisting in a singular hallucination which those on the top of the coach generally share, that they are not exactly like their brothers and sisters who pull at the rope, but of finer clay, in some way belonging to a higher order of beings who might justly expect to be drawn. This seems unaccountable, but, those who ride on this coach share this hallucination. The strangest thing about the hallucination is that those who have but just climbed up from the ground, before they have outgrown the marks of the rope upon their hands, begin to fall under its influence. As for those whose parents and grand-parents before them have been so fortunate as to keep their seats on the top, the conviction they cherish of the essential difference between their sort of humanity and the common article is absolute. The effect of such a delusion in moderating fellow feeling for the sufferings of the mass of men into a distant and philosophical compassion is obvious. To it I refer as the only extenuation I can offer for the indifference which, at this period of time, marks their attitude toward the misery of their brothers.


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NOTE: “Allegory of the Carriage” is extracted from “Looking Backward: 2000-1887” written by Edward Bellamy and published in 1888. The text has been edited to be read in the present tense and to be read outside the context of the book.