Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” tells of a utopian city of complete peace and joy and harmony. Everything in Omelas is beautiful, everyone is happy. The catch is that the whole society’s happiness rests on the intense suffering of a scapegoat –a young child who must be kept locked up, living in darkness and filth, never to know the joys of living in Omelas.
I’ve been reminded of this short story by the ongoing discussions regarding feminism and capitalism. As an economic system, capitalism generates different levels of benefits for different privileged sectors of the world population. But these benefits are built on the suffering of a great many others.
But it’s knowledge that we fail to absorb. Or maybe it’s knowledge that we continually suppress.
Do we really not know about this catch? That capitalism may benefit a small percentage of people, such as those already born into a socioeconomic elite or in a developed country. But the continued generation of those benefits rests on the suffering of scapegoated people outside Omelas. On women and children, on brown bodies in countries in Southeast Asia. In South America and Africa. And even right here in California.
When they are first shown the immiserated child, young Omelas residents “go home in tears, or in a tearless rage.” They brood for days, weeks. But they eventually make rationalizations, compromises. There is nothing they could do for the child. Perhaps the child is better off in there, at least it gets food and its basic needs taken care of. Perhaps it lacks the faculties for higher levels of joy. They could not destroy a system that benefits a lot of people.
Most young residents of Omelas eventually come to terms with the terrible paradox on which their social happiness and order rests.
People rationalize capitalism in very similar ways. That it’s better than other repressive social orders. That women at the export processing zones or children in sweatshops get comparatively higher salaries. That there is no other system would even be possible, given human nature’s natural propensity for individualism. (angry post about this to follow)
Then there’s the Horatio Alger argument, that capitalism does help some people. And I do agree that money and other forms of capital have given people leverage to better their own lives and the lives of others. But that “bettering” should be uncoupled from the possession of capital. Things like access to good schools and healthcare, the ability to leave abusive relationships, the ability to care for children or the elderly should certainly not depend on one’s possession of capital. The goal is to work towards an economic system where these options are available to everyone.
Le Guin’s short story ends on a sort-of hopeful note. Upon learning about the suffering child, some residents do not attempt to rationalize her suffering. They don’t even go back home. Instead, they walk out of town, they walk away, and they seem to know where they’re going.
Right now, there’s no full way to opt out of the global capitalist order. Perhaps the best we can do now is to work towards minimizing the harm that this system generates now.
But I do believe that it’s important to keep seeing the inequity and suffering on which capitalism is built, to keep working towards a system where one’s life options are not tied to the possession of capital. At the very least, we can help lay the foundations that will eventually make it possible to walk away.