In her short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula K. Le Guin describes a near perfect society built on happiness and equality. Everyone is well fed, there are no soldiers in the streets, no secret police, no bombs. Technology advanced to the point that only what was non-destructive, what was useful, abounded. Public transit, sexual freedom, an end to barbaric wars over religion, even an end to rule by the powerful and the rich:
…there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians.
Omelas should be recognizable by any in the Capitalist, Democratic West. This land of peace and happiness, of wealth and security, this utopia of enlightenment, of progress–it’s the dream of Liberal Democracy.
And like Liberal Democracy, it has a dark secret:
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room….
In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.
…The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes-the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes…
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.
Like those in Omelas, we in Liberal Democratic societies depend upon a miserable child in a basement. Miserable children, actually–many of them, human and non-human, literal and metaphoric. Many of these ‘children’ have been discussed in previous essays in this series, but let’s open the door to that basement and look in again.
The rights and benefits guaranteed by Liberal Democratic governments have never really been extended to all, even within their own borders. In the United States, access to property and other wealth, freedom of movement and speech, the right to bear arms or to due process has always been, first and foremost, reserved for the dominant (white) majority. For Blacks, for First Nations, and for other non-dominant peoples within America, the Progress of Liberal Democracy has never been Progress at all.
The wealth enjoyed by the dominant classes actually comes at the expense of those minorities who were dominated as part of the process Marx called primitive accumulation. People from the continent of Africa were hauled over in chains to serve as (enslaved) labour for European Capitalists. Much of the wealth these slaves produced for their owners created the Capitalist class in the first place.
Slavery wasn’t the only way they got their wealth, though–the land these Capitalists control was seized violently from First Nations and indigenous people who then, landless, fell into abject poverty and misery. And while the former British colonies bear much of the weight of this guilt, Europe is hardly innocent. In fact, without all this stolen wealth, European societies could never afford the social programs they give to their people.
Liberal Democracies are violent societies, though the more you resemble the dominant class, the less likely you are to see the violence. Business owners, tech-workers, lawyers, politicians–we don’t read of them being gunned down or beaten up by police for looking suspicious, especially if they’re white. Instead, it’s those with darker skin, be they Arabs and Africans in Europe, aborigines in Australia, or Blacks and First Nations people in the United States and Canada.
Those on the outside of Liberal Democracy suffer even worse fates, as they continue to be part of the process of primitive accumulation. The resources of their land stripped, their attempts at self-determination crushed by superior foreign militaries, their local economies destroyed by brutal trade deals–the rest of the world find themselves not only with fewer rights and less wealth, but no chance to gain them.
In no discussion of freedom in the period since the Enlightenment was there ever any awareness of the geological agency that human beings were acquiring at the same time as and through processes closely linked to their acquisition of freedom.
Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History
All the advances of Capitalist societies have another child in the basement we do not like to look at–environmental destruction. The climate is changing rapidly, species are going extinct at frightening rates, and the resources we rely on to have our Enlightened societies are dwindling quickly.
All our technological advances rely on easy and abundant access to petroleum and coal. Our need for energy to power our lives and have our ‘free societies’ not only destroys the environment but causes wars, starvation, and destruction of human lives as well.
Walking Away From Empire
Liberal Democracy must be called what it actually is: Empire. We in Europe and the Anglophone world sit within the gates of imperial cities; even the poorest and most oppressed amongst us become complicit in the oppression of those outside our walled gardens.
Liberal Democracy is not worth saving. While may of us in ‘the West,’ in so-called civilized Capitalist societies, have enjoyed great wealth, comfort, and apparent freedoms, these have come at great cost to others. We have all seen the child in the basement, starved, imprisoned, treated horribly, beaten.
The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!”
They never answer.
We within Liberal Democracies–whether we benefit most or little–have been too long content with staring at the horror upon which are societies are built and giving no answer. Now, as Liberal Democracy is shattering around us, abandoning its own illusions about equality and sustainability, we must answer.
Le Guin ends her story on a note of hope, though a strange one, an ambiguous one.
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home.
…They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
In the previous four essays of this series, I discussed the current crisis of Liberal Democracy, and its apparent end. In this essay, which ends the series on Liberal Democracy and also begins a new series, we’ll look at how to walk away from Omelas, and where we might go next.
While the dissolution of Empire brings with it chaos and the threat of Fascism, while the journey to build new societies may seem daunting, and our histories littered with crushed rebellions and failed revolutions, we shouldn’t fear.
In fact, the crisis of Liberal Democracy we’ve discussed opens much more ground for new ways of being, new modes of existence, and new attempts at resistance and revolution. The States who rule over us are in danger of falling into ruins, and Capitalism is threatened with the mortality that faces every thing that has ever lived. Rather than prop them up, rather than try to save them, we should let them die, compost what remains and garden in those ruins.
“What Should We Do Instead?”
Every anti-capitalist has heard these words, usually uttered by someone quite Liberal, quite concerned about the state of the world. Perhaps the conversation started with a discussion about child labor in Asia, or about the relationship between Capitalist technology and the rising oceans. Maybe it was about the systematic violence against Black people in the United States, about the causes of the refugee crises sweeping Europe. Maybe coal was discussed, or the way laws in Liberal Democracies protect the rich and ensure the rest of us have no choice but to sell our time for wages
At some point, they answer with an exasperated, frustrated question. “What’s your plan?” or “But how will we feed 7 billion people?” or even angry retorts about failed revolutions, or the horrors of State Communism. And sometimes they’ll just throw their hands up in the air, or shrug, and say, “we can’t change this.”
This demand for one perfect solution is actually one of the first problems we’ll need to overcome if we’re to transform our societies into something more equal, more sustainable, less violent and less destructive. There cannot be one solution that can fit 7 billion people.
In fact, it’s precisely the idea that any one solution must apply to everyone that gives Liberal Democracy so much power. As discussed in my first essay, Liberal Democratic societies see themselves as the end-point of history, the final evolution of political forms, as close to utopia as humanity can ever get. And it;s through this idea that Capitalism and the State remained unquestioned: the only resistance most of us ever engage merely tries to make Liberal Democracy work a little better.
The demand for one, universal solution probably comes from the authoritarian elements of Christian monotheism anyway, which was just as much a form of governance as it was a form of belief. The same totalitarian urges which arose when distant peoples adapted Christianity to their own culture (say, in Ireland and Wales, or the egalitarian cults in mainland Europe), repeated themselves in the Soviet Republics and today through Liberal Democratic institutions (like the IMF, World Bank, United Nations, European Union, and World Trade Organization).
The ‘one true way’ is a trick of Authority. We must resist this at every turn. No ideology can apply to every situation, no solution can ever be final.
And anyway, there’s an even bigger problem that comes with demanding a perfect answer or a grand program of revolution. We abdicate our own responsibility and our own power, either refusing to act until such a plan comes along or demanding others tell us what to do. The first functions as an excuse never to change, and the second is an invitation to Fascist and other eager Totalitarian leaders.
“But How Will We Still…”
Many of the problems we encounter already have multiple and obvious solutions anyway, but they involve apparently losing something we currently value or think we really need. And thus, any attempt to radically address the problem becomes abandoned or fiercely fought because it will result in a major change to society.
The murder of Black people by police in the United States is a good example of this. The most obvious solution to stop this is to get rid of the police. Police exist within Liberal Democracy as agents of State violence, and getting rid of the police takes away the power of the State to perform that violence.
This solution is almost always met with protest. “We need the police,” most say. “How will we enforce laws? How will we keep criminals from killing innocent people? How will we stop thieves?”
Do we really need police, though? The majority of laws in Liberal Democracies protect property (theft, burglary, shoplifting) and disproportionately punish the poor, while laws against rape, domestic assault, molestation and murder are often not fully enforced against the rich or whites. The police protect that inequality, as well as murdering Blacks, First Nations, and other minorities at shocking rates. Why keep them around?
Worse, when we insist that the police must exist, we are like those in Omelas, staring at the humiliated and abused child in a basement. We know that the protection of property and the security we get from the police is impossible to have without those murders. But then we try to convince ourselves otherwise, buying in to the utopic dream of Liberal Democracy, assuring ourselves that one day no more poor will be imprisoned, no more Blacks will be murdered. Like evangelical Christians hoping one day for the return of Jesus, we tell ourselves things shall eventually get better, and so the suffering the police cause now is a tolerable sacrifice for our own comfort.
The same is true for solutions to stop global warming and extinction. We know that burning fossil fuels is changing the climate, polluting the air and water and land, melting the ice caps and drowning the villages of indigenous people. The obvious answer is to stop burning them, but then the question is asked, “how will I get to work? How will we transport food and consumer goods? How we power our smartphones and light our homes at night?”
Why would we think the destruction of the environment is less important than the apparent benefits we gain from fossil fuels? What we (that is, those of us in Liberal Democracies) gain–private, personal transportation, strawberries in winter, cities illuminated at night, mass-produced disposable goods, cheap and abundant electricity, quick global flights, Pokemon Go and internet porn–comes not just at the cost of our environment, but at the cost of everyone else trying to live within it.
Nature’s Lessons, Nature’s Revolt
There are important questions we ought to ask ourselves in all these cases, though. Because Liberal Democracy has been the dominant form of government for the last two centuries, because Capitalism has been the primary mode of exchange for the last three hundred years, and because the State has become so pervasive and powerful in the last century, we’ve had a long time to forget how to live without certain things, and very little experience on how to come up with new ways of living.
But for that, we fortunately have Nature to teach us.
There are five metaphors from Nature that provide a good framework for a revolutionary strategy. Each of them can unfold for us methods of resistance and teach us how to approach the problems we face as Liberal Democracy collapses. They are ways that nature renews itself, sometimes with human help, sometimes against human effort. Rather than forming a program of revolution, they instead offer a framework for revolutionary action.
They are as follows:
- Wildfires: Forests and grasslands sometimes burn. Dry, desiccated scrub and undergrowth fuel vast conflagrations, setting alight and destroying towering trees that seemed likely to last forever. Yet soon after, new life takes root, the ashes of the old fertilizing the new. In fact, some plants and trees can only germinate after the extreme heat of forest fires. But oftentimes we stop these fires to protect property. Our radical strategies must keep in mind that things just sometimes need to burn down, that creation is born from destruction, and violent uprisings by oppressed people will be part of any revolution.
- Brambles: In North America, Blackberries are an invasive species and choke out other life. But removing them wholesale from an area can cause even worse damage: since they often take root where the land was already damaged, they provide protection and food for small animals and birds, as well as erosion control. Just as some things need to burn down, our radical strategies must also acknowledge that some problems are deeply rooted, thorny, and uprooting them too quickly can lead to great–and unnecessary–suffering.
- Seed bombs: A seed bomb (or seed ball) is a form of guerilla gardening. Mixing clay, compost, and a diverse variety of seeds, they are dried and then thrown onto impoverished or wasted land. When it rains, the clay soaks up and holds enough water to let the seeds sprout, and from these balls, land that was forsaken and even poisoned can be revitalized. Individual actions can make a massive difference, and any revolutionary strategy must acknowledge this. It must also acknowledge that for small, local actions to matter, they’ll fail without diversity, intention, and the resources to survive on their own.
- Rooted upheaval: In many urban environments in Europe and North America, chamomile and other tiny flowers grow in the cracks and gaps in pavement. Tree roots degrade and destroy concrete and asphalt. None of these plants require human effort to sprout there; in fact, it’s exactly the lack of human intervention which gives them the space to grow. While many environmental movements have seen cities and ‘civilization’ as a thing to be fought, the urban is also a primary site of resistance to Capitalism. Any revolutionary strategy must acknowledge that the poor, the immigrants, and all those seen as enemies of Liberal Democracy have the power to crack, degrade, and finally overthrow the structures which bury them, and this upheaval might not look like what we think it should.
- Nurse Logs: In the temperate rainforests along the Salish Sea are a phenomenon called Nurse Logs. When a tree falls, many of them hundreds and thousands of years old, it begins to decompose quickly in the relentless rain. Very soon after, mosses, mushrooms, lichens, and other small plants and fungi grow in the rotting wood, followed not long after by the saplings of other trees. These nurse logs, sometimes hundreds of feet long and many yards in diameter, become the foundation for new life. While much of the infrastructure, the institutions, distribution networks and technologies that we have now were created through Liberal Democracy, some of them can serve as foundations of new ways of being.
In the next essays in this new series, we’ll use these processes from Nature to understand the immediate problems caused by Liberal Democracy’s crisis, and we’ll examine how we might be able to use them to build the sort of world we want to live in. Again, no one strategy will fit, and the worst thing we could possibly do–besides try to save Liberal Democracy–would be to demand one solution to all these symptoms.
It’s time to walk away from Omelas. Staring one last time at the horror upon which our rights, privileges, technologies, wealth, and security is built, it’s time we say ‘enough.’ We may not know what the future will be, or even be certain there’s a better world past the world we know.
But that does not matter. And anyway, humans have walked away from horrible things before, overthrown tyrants, endured famines and plagues and wars, and tried over and over again to create something new.
It’s what we do. If there’s anything truly unique to humans, it’s that we know how to conceive new worlds, to change the conditions of our existence, to dream new ways of being. It’s our magic, our witchcraft.
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s been trekking about Europe for the last two months, with more to go. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.
A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here has a lot more essays, poems, and art like what you see on Gods&Radicals. Order it here.