Sunday, April 26, 2020

Coronavirus, Capitalism, and the Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Content warning: this post gets a little dark by moments, so if you're not in the right frame of mind, maybe read it later, or don't read it at all.

The pandemic crisis is prompting a lot of reflection about the dysfunctions of a capitalist system, which I guess is a good thing, though I'm pessimistic about much in the way of positive change. The richer classes are finally like -- "wait -- my food and well-being depends on these people! Are they OK? What if something happens to them?!"

Often when I think about the dysfunction of capitalism, I think about the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," by Ursula Le Guin. The story describes a beautiful well-functioning town in which almost everyone is well and happy, but in which all the good things depend on the utter misery of one small child -- a child who is forever locked in small basement room in squalid conditions and constant suffering.

People talk about the various justifications and injustices of capitalism in many ways, but one common one has to do with overall prosperity: more wealth is created by capitalism than in alternative systems, it is argued, and this wealth improves people's lives. Here the details get a little fuzzy, about whether that wealth has to improve everyone's lives or what exactly.

From a practical point of view, I think it's fair to say that if actual contemporary western capitalism creates wealth, it is doing so in a system that relies on horrible and exploitative conditions for many. It's never been a secret that agricultural workers, people who work elsewhere in the food supply chain, cleaners, gig economy workers, and others work long, long hours in sometimes brutal conditions for little pay -- often working multiple jobs. One of the wake-up calls of the pandemic has been that carers in nursing homes are working multiple jobs at various homes, just to make ends meet, thus increasing the likely spread of disease. And we've written on this blog of the way that modern electronics production relies on getting minerals in exploitative and violent conditions.

How the denizens of modern capitalism frame their faith in overall prosperity with the existence of this suffering and violation of rights has always interested me. The situation is obviously complex, but I think one possibility has to do with the ways that various values create small shifting zones of coherence and acceptability. Inside these little zones things seem to work OK, which makes us forget that things are really not OK at a deeper level.

For example, with respect to the social contract in modern capitalism, I expect that many people who believe in the importance of prosperity/overall GDP/economic growth also endorse some informal version of the following: those who work hard at a full-time job should be able to support themselves or maybe even a family; those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder should be able to improve their situation with care and hard work; wages should reflect a fair wage for the work involved. Put more abstractly: people care not only about prosperity but also about fairness, equality, and expressions of mutual respect.

One thing that happens in everyday capitalism, I think, is that in certain small zones and in the experience of certain people, the system seems to make these values come together. If your parent came to the US from a life of poverty in Europe in the early 20th century and worked hard to send you to good schools, and you prospered from the contingencies of the 1950s to rise up to the middle-class, then from one perspective it looks like it all comes together: the society's prosperity goes along with the opportunities that the individual takes advantage of; rewards follow.

As is often discussed, this little zone of coherence is just that -- a little zone. For many people, it doesn't work this way at all. They work harder and harder and wages drop; ill health brings catastrophe despite best efforts; racism and discrimination radically diminish options and possibilities.

In this sense, the middle class and those who are even more well-off are somewhat like the denizens of Omelas: we're in a good situation made possible by someone else's horrible situation. Some defenders of capitalism are even kind of explicit about it, arguing against universal basic income on grounds that poor people will then be less motivated to do the crappy jobs that society needs someone to do.

When I talk about capitalism being morally dysfunctional in this way, sometimes my interlocutors are shocked, and they point out to me the horrors of alternative systems. But I think the one doesn't exclude the other. Even if capitalism is the best system out there, it can still be radically unethical. Sometimes in life you have no good options. And even if it is the case that other systems are worse -- then it's even more important for us to talk about the wrongnesses of our system so we can at least try to mitigate them or something.

In the Le Guin story, the residents all learn about the existence of the child in misery during their adolescence, and some go to see the child in person. Most weep and rage but realize they can't do anything about it and go back to normal life. Others, though, do not go back to normal life. What they do is walk away. Le Guin says, "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."

Like Le Guin, I can't imagine what it would mean to walk away from modern capitalism. In most basic literal terms, an alternative physical space would either be engaging in more capitalism, by buying up land, or infringing on the rights of other people whose land it is. In my darker moments, I fear that to walk away from Omelas would require ending my existence altogether.

But I try to remind myself: we're not in a fictional story land where the fates have decreed that our well-being and our failings are locked together forever, with our happiness inherently resting on others' suffering. We're in the real world, where things are complicated and confusing and can often be changed.

As the pandemic forces people to confront the situation of essential and vulnerable workers, let's remember that there are a lot of people for whom capitalism leads not to opportunity but to misery. Let's keep in mind that caring about overall economic growth and prosperity means facing up to this fact rather than getting to ignore it.

I fear that keeping these things in mind is going to get harder and not easier in the near future, as economies contract, business close, and times get tough. But we have to do it -- because unlike the people in the story, we don't have the option of walking away.

1 comment:

Katy said...

Thank you for reminding us of the power of LeGuin's story!

Most days I share your skepticism about how our experiences now will cause us to shift our economic system when the pandemic ends. But I am hopeful that we (will not accept budget cuts to health care and other social services that we all benefit from (albeit "benefit" still inequitably). This is in Canada, of course.

I'm not sure what will happen in the States. I found the rhetoric around the Democratic primary disappointing. If there was ever a time to demand universal health care coverage, protections like paid sick leave, and the cancellation of student debt, it's now. (Lots of caveats about how difficult it's been to handle primary elections during a pandemic, etc. Perhaps these voices are there but facing more barriers than usual to being heard by me up here in Canada).