The Price of Utopia: Abundance & Injustice

Dr. Nicholas Partyka I Society & Culture I Analysis I June 22nd, 2016

This is the third part of a multi-part series on "The Value of Utopia."

Part One: The American Tradition of Radical Utopianism

Part Two: The Bosses' Utopia: Dystopia and the American Company Town

On The Value of Utopia

For many centuries persons, peoples, and civilizations, have dreamed about what an ideal society (utopia) would look like, and worried about ways in which society could be much worse (dystopia). Utopian dreams and dystopian worries are powerful tools for thinking about what sorts of changes a society should pursue or avoid, and what underlying dynamics these proposed changes expose. This series examines the tradition of utopian and dystopian thought in western culture, beginning with the ancient Greeks, but continuing on into the modern period. Our focus in this series will be on the important social, political, and economic ideas and issues raised in different utopian stories. When we look into utopian stories, and their historical times, what we'll see reflected in the stories of utopia are the social, political, and economic concerns of the authors, their societies, and or their particular social class.

The meaning of the word 'utopia' comes to us from ancient Greece. In our modern world the word takes its current form because of Thomas More's 1516 book of the same name. Indeed, it is this book from which most of the modern western European utopian tradition takes its origin; or at least, this work inaugurates it most common trope. Where we have in our lexicon one 'utopia', the Greeks had two. The difference, even confusion, between them marks an essential cleavage. For the Greeks, there was both Eu- topia, and Ou-topia. Both are derived in part from the Greek word topos, which means "place", and the suffix 'ia' meaning land. Translated into English, 'Ou-topia' means something like, " No-place land", whereas 'Eu-topia' translates as "good-place land". More succinctly, the difference is between the idea of the best place, and an impossible place. It is the difference between a place which does not exist, because it has not yet been realized, and a place which cannot, and could not, ever exist.

Our modern word is pronounced as the Greeks pronounced 'Eutopia'. However, the meanings of these Greek words were confused by modern writers, who ended up with the spelling 'utopia', from the old English 'Utopie' as opposed to "Eutopia", as meaning "good place". This basic confusion about utopias, between "good place" and "no place", inserts an important ambiguity directly in the center of thinking about utopias. This ambiguity forces one to wonder of utopian writers, Are their visions supposed to be dreams of possible futures meant to incite us to action, or are they impossible dreams meant as reminders that the world is not easily re-shaped by human effort? Is a utopia supposed to be a good place or a no-place, is the author supporting or condemning the practices of the fictional societies they describe?

One qualification must be made right away. A utopia is not a paradise. There is a colloquial usage of 'utopia' and 'utopian' that seem to suggest that it is a paradise. And compared to the societies in which actual humans lives, many of the fictional utopias would have indeed been seen as paradises, relatively speaking. However, we must draw a technical distinction between a paradise or a golden-age, and a utopia. In a paradise or golden-age no work and no effort are required by humans to obtain the things they want and need. Perhaps the most famous golden-age many are familiar with would be the Biblical Garden of Eden. Another well-known paradise is described in the mid-14th century poem The Land of Cockaigne, where fully cooked turkey legs literally fly through the air and into one's mouth. In this place the only effort on need put in is to chew.

The whole idea of a Cockaigne, or a paradise, is that everything one would ever need is abundantly supplied without any effort. The natural world is just so constructed - either at random or by design - that there springs forth automatically an abundance of everything necessary for everyone, all the time, always. In this kind of society, or world, there never arises anything resembling what we - or most societies in the history of our world - a political problem. Everyone has enough of everything. So there is no cause for argument. There is no inequality, because everyone has everything everyone else has. Or at least, everyone has access to just as much of what others have whenever they would like it. In this kind of world what causes could there be for strife, or for civil war? A paradise, or a golden-age, is thus totally non-political, and not terribly interesting.

What this means is that utopias are enough like our own condition, our own world, that we can take inspiration from them. They are enough like the social conditions we know that we can learn lessons for and about ourselves and our societies by examining at them. This is exactly what makes utopias so interesting. As we will see, utopian literature has a long, very long, history with human beings. The enduring appeal of and, interest in utopias testifies to their relevance. This is the reason that we too are looking at utopias. We are all concerned with, or at least we are all effected by, the way our society is organized. By looking at how other ideal societies might be organized we can explore the merits, and demerits of various kinds of social institutions, and of the various ways of structuring those institutions. We are concerned to change our own society, and utopias allow us to think about the direction of that change.

We have a colloquial usage of the word 'utopia' and 'utopian' in contemporary society that works to prohibit much creative thought, and dismisses utopian thought as feckless, and as such, worthless. Part of the aims of this series is to demonstrate the value of this "worthless" endeavor. Dreaming, far from idle, far from impotent, is essential. Without wonder, without questions, the human imagination will atrophy. What is so valuable about thinking about utopias is that it allows us to both critique present societies, but also to articulate a vision of how we'd like our societies to be different. The deeper value of utopian thinking is that it sets us free, free to speculate and more importantly to give expression to our striving, to our desire for a better world. Everything human beings can be must be first be dreamed by human beings. This is the value of utopia and dystopia. Thus, the first pre-requisite for this series is the rejection of this colloquial notion of utopia and the utopian. Dismissed from the start, it will not be a surprise if we fail to learn anything from our utopian traditions.


One important value of utopian thinking is that it permits one to think about themselves in relation to society, their place in the social order, to reflect on basic commitments and values of their societies, to consider the proper aims of their society. Few take time to consider the basic structure of the societies they live in, few notice the myriad of inter-connected systems of coordinated behavior, sometimes voluntary sometimes coerced, that create the often seamless appearance of the regularity and orderliness of society. In order for society to reproduce itself, certain kinds of work must be performed, and the more complex the society, the more sophisticated the system of internal coordination required to successfully reproduce the necessary elements of that reproduction. It is the duty of citizens to confront this basic structure, this way that society re-creates itself, and once confronted, one cannot help but adopt a moral attitude toward this basic structure. Utopian thinking allows us to think about our most basic moral orientations toward society and its mode of reproduction.

Ursula Le Guin's short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, offers an excellent opportunity for such reflection. [1] The main point of describing this utopian society as she does is to pose to the reader the questions, Would you stay or go? The point is to make the reader confront a moral dilemma, and test their moral intuitions, to see what kind of a person the reader is. The analogy to the dominant capitalist world economy is very clear. And the question posed in each case is very stark, How comfortable is one with enjoying a prosperity predicated on the intentional creation of suffering and injustice? This question is a kind of test, wherein one's answer reveals s deeper elements of one's character. In some ways the moral dilemma Le Guin constructs is similar to that in Robert Nozick's famous experience machine thought example. Nozick imagines a virtual reality machine that could be programmed to give you any set of experiences you wanted. You could live your ideal life in a virtual space that is identical to the real world in all sensory respects, one might think of the popular film The Matrix. Every five years or so, you would be woken up, so to speak, and asked if you wished to continue. Nozick asks, would you choose to stay in the machine, or not. If you choose not, the implication is that this must be because you value things other than hedonistic physical pleasures. One's response to this dilemma reveals something about one's underlying character, and in this case, what one values.

The Ones Who Walk Away

When Le Guin first introduces the reader to the town of Omelas an ostensibly important festival is set to begin. And people from a network of communities are making the journey to Omelas to participate in this festival, such is its importance to the community. The town is full of dancing, music, and gaiety. Young and old, everyone is joyful, thankful for the prosperity of the community, and everyone indulges in delicious food, festive music and dancing, as well as amiable conversation with family, friends, and neighbors. The residents are described as amiably conversing with each other, while various processions move through the city towards a field outside of town. In this field a kind of ceremonial horse race is to take place as a key part of the festival being celebrated. Le Guin describes a quaint, well-kept town by a bay, and with bountiful fields stretching out beyond. The general impression of this festival, and of the town celebrating it, is unmistakably one of universal joy and celebration of prosperity and abundance. What comes to mind is the New England, or Pacific Northwest fishing town on the coast. Indeed, 'Omelas' in reverse is 'salem O', and the town of Salem, Oregon is where Le Guin resides. In one's mind, one conjures the image of the kind of bucolic small town, the aesthetic of which many Americans continue to crave and to drape themselves in, and which loom so large in the American cultural imagination. The image conjured here is of the kind of place many Americans would associate with a "simpler" time, with a more virtuous and un-corrupted country both physically and morally.

And indeed, Omelas has many characteristics which have been typical of utopian communities since the time of Thomas More. The reader is given the impression of Omelas as an egalitarian, and democratic community, one that eschews violence, hierarchy, luxury, and avarice. The reader is told that in Omelas there are no police, no military, no wars, no civil conflict, there are only a few simple laws and so there is no need for lawyers, and there is full gender equality. The citizens of Omelas reject significant aspects of the capitalist economy, its structural imperative towards endless growth; its self-destructive pursuit of extreme luxury and decadence; its relentless exhortations to consume; its rationing of access to consumption goods by income. In Omelas, in contrast to the dominant characteristics of capitalist societies, there is no poverty, no homelessness, no one goes hungry, no one lacks medical care, access to education, or to productive employment. Everyone enjoys enough leisure time to be able to cultivate their talents, so that the arts, and other cultural productions, thrive in Omelas. The people of Omelas are rational people, spiritual without being rigidly moralistic, e.g. they seem to be less obsessed with guilt and shame the same way the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic traditions are, or about the same things. The prevalence and acceptability of public nudity, at least during the important festival, is a sign of a less repressive, more enlightened attitude towards body image and sexual morality.

Early on in Republic Glaucon and Adiemantus disagree with Socrates about his initial characterization of the best kind of community. Socrates describes a simple society with few needs, and Spartan sensibilities about décor, utensils, diet, et cetera. This kind of life, where virtuous people subsist on their "honest cakes and loaves" fails to appeal to Socrates' younger interlocutors, who insist on adding important elements to the ideal city, elements necessary for living the best kind of life. Yet, introducing these elements of luxury creates all the social and political problems that the Philosopher-Kings have to be created to solve. So too does Le Guin understand that when it comes to utopia, tastes will differ. Thus, while she offers important details, and creates a vivid impression of the life of the community at Omelas, she leaves much of it open ended, so as to suit individual tastes. She can do this since, what she wants is to get the reader to imagine Omelas in whatever way they need so as to think of it as the ideal kind of life, and the ideal kind of community. If an orgy would be necessary to make Omelas appealing enough to attract some, then add one in is Le Guin's attitude. Prefer less technology, less urban hustle-&-bustle, a more abstemious community, then so it is. Prefer the opposite of these, then that's fine too. For those who like intoxication, Le Guin describes Drooz, a kind of wonder-drug that offers all the appeal of psychotropic substances without being habit-forming or destructive to the body. She is also happy to have beer in Omelas. Omelas is to be the home of all good things, in whatever measure one thinks appropriate.

Yet, Omelas is not the place that many will have imagined it to be thus far. There is a dark side to the prosperity of Omelas. In the basement of one of the buildings in the town there is certain room. It is small, dark, and dank. The room has a bare dirt floor, a small window covered in grime and filth, and a couple of rusted buckets and old mops fouled by rot and mold. This is a room most do not visit, but that everyone in town knows about and thinks about. All things being equal the dilapidated condition, and lack of maintenance for this room would be unremarkable. Yet, all other things are not equal in this case. This is because a child lives in this room behind a locked door, and has lived in this room all its life, and will live the entirety of its life in this squalid little room. Periodically someone comes to empty the buckets filled with the child's excrement, and re-fill the child's water and food bowls. As one might imagine, as any child raised in such conditions, the child in this room in Omelas is malnourished, intellectually stunted, cannot read, write, has no conception of the world beyond that basement room. In short, the child lives a horrible and degrading life, full of deprivation, fear, and isolation. And to top it all off this child is as innocent as any, there are no circumstances that might be adduced to mitigate the sympathy the reader very likely naturally has for the child.

When each citizen of Omelas comes of age, between eight and twelve years old, they are told about the room, some even go to see the room. All are fully aware that there is a causal relationship between the child's suffering and the town's prosperity. Le Guin never specifies what this mechanism is, and does not need to. First, this is a work of utopian fiction, so it is not essential to include this, and second, the point of the story is to pose the reader a moral dilemma, not to describe how this mechanism could work. She is content to leave it to the reader's imagination as to how this causal connection works. Perhaps it is a kind of sacrifice to whatever god exists, or whatever, the details on this point are not essential. Without the suffering imposed on this child the town would not, indeed could not, be the place of joy and abundance that it is.

Some people are unable to live in Omelas, to enjoy its prosperity and abundance, knowing what the true cost of it is. These are the titular 'ones who walk away'. Sometimes the young children who go to see the child do not adapt to the necessity of its suffering, and they leave the town. Other times older adults, as Le Guin tells us, will suddenly become quiet for a couple days and then walk right out of town. All these people could not reconcile the joy and abundance enjoyed by all but one in Omelas, and the suffering of that one, when the latter is the pre-condition of the former. These people leave Omelas, and never return. Where these people go, the citizens of Omelas do not know. Le Guin tells us it is a place that would be even less imaginable for us than Omelas, a place that might not even exist. Are the ones who walk away going to their deaths? Are they going to a place where they can live without imposing suffering? All Le Guin tells us is that those who walk away seem to know where they are going.

An Omelas in the Modern World?

What makes Omelas unique is that everyone who lives there is acutely aware of the price of their prosperity. And each has made a deliberate and conscious choice to stay. Our modern world is very different from Omelas in this regard. Though not secret, the source of and true price of the material prosperity of those in the so-called "first" world, are usually hidden. Few Western consumers see behind the neatly arranged items on the shelves of their local stores, to the often long and sophisticated chains of interconnected operations that unite the production of raw materials and the consumption of finished goods. This is because many people do not care to know, others do not care how much others have to suffer for them to enjoy the things they want, and also because the large firms which produce these goods deliberately try to obscure the morally dubious origins of the ingredients that make their products possible. If we look at only a couple of some basic products that many people consume on a routine basis will expose the immense quantities of suffering that is produced in order to furnish these products to consumers. We can look to the basic cotton t-shirt, the cellular telephone, and the chocolate bar, for ample evidence of the outsized costs of 'simple' luxuries.

Consider the common t-shirt. They appear ready-made on store shelves, but in fact have a complex history. At every step in the production-process of a simple t-shirt involves many kinds of hidden costs, both human and ecological. Ecologically, cotton is a very greedy crop in terms of water requirements. Devoting vast tracts of land to cultivation of cotton can have serious effects on water supplies. In an era of climate change, when large-scale drought is quickly becoming a significant problem, this strain on water resources will become increasingly problematic. As with other kinds of farming, the use of pesticides and other chemicals to increase crop yields causes problems as it leeches into the water supply. Turning picked cotton into fabric involves a series of complex operations, many dispersed by thousands of miles geographically, and linked by the ability to cheaply ship bulk commodities using fossil fuels. Many of these operations are largely automated. The environmental costs of burning fossil fuels, the main source of energy for the machines that produce yarns and fabric, as well as the ships and trucks that transport the semi-finished product as is progresses through the production process, are well known.

The disaster at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh 2013 brought many in the world face to face with some of the most morally troubling aspects of the production of their clothing. The use of young children in sweatshops, the unsafe and unhealthy conditions in most factories, the low wages, long hours, and abuses by supervisors that workers experience were brought to the attention of a public that is all too eager to look away. The sub-contracting relationships that dominate the garment trade, that large retailers use to shed responsibility for the wages and work conditions of the workers who produce their products, enable a culture of don't ask, don't tell on the part of the retailers and the suppliers. These kinds of abuses have been documented over and over again by NGOs, human rights groups, investigative journalists, et cetera, in the third world countries where most of the world's garment production takes place. And despite the high-sounding pledges made by retailers, the kinds of abuses that lead directly to the Rana Plaza disaster, and many other tragically similar incidents, are still routine practices.

Think about your cell phone. It is probably in your pocket or purse right now, or maybe on a table or desk within one's reach. This item has become so ubiquitous in the last few years that we now taken them for granted. The so-called "smart" phone has established itself with the same ubiquity even faster. Yet, some of the basic components that make these devices work have rather problematic histories from a moral perspective. Most people use their cell phones every day, and hardly ever, if at all, think about the Rare Earth Minerals (REMs) that make them work. The production of these essential components causes much ecological and human damage, in both their mining and refining, as well as their recycling. Elements like Neodymium, Terbium, Cerium, Lanthanum, and Yttrium are all essential materials for making the components that make our "smart" phones work. And they all must be dug out of the earth, and processed into a form useable by industry.

Mining, for rare earths, or merely for gold and silver, is an inherently a physically destructive endeavor, and whole landscapes can be, and have been, wiped away in the quest for what lies underneath. In many poorer countries around the world, where the agents of trans-national capital extract much of the raw materials for their products, regulation is lax and corruption high. This combination leads quite naturally to wholesale environmental degradation through unrestrained avarice, as well as often crude technologies. These same conditions lead to large human costs, as mining techniques are both inherently dangerous, carried out with dilapidated and inadequate equipment, with no safety regulation or precaution, miles from medical help, and undertaken by desperate people willing to take risks others would deem unacceptable; in all too many instances mining work is done by slave labor, child labor, or child-slave labor. Mining is, of course, done differently in different places, and yet even in America mining is a dangerous occupation. Moreover, the use of toxic chemicals, especially mercury for gold mining, also contributes to both ecological damage and ill-health in humans. Once mined, these mineral must be transported, the same way cotton had to be, to the locations where they are to undergo the next stage of their transformation into products one will find in a store. This transportation process, as one that relies on burning fossil fuels, adds to the burden being placed on the earth's ecosystem.

Refining rare earth minerals is not only highly energy intensive, but also causes widespread harm to human beings, as the rare earths are toxic, as they are always found in nature next to radioactive elements. Exposure to radiation effects workers in, as well as the communities surrounding refining facilities. Moreover, irresponsible, if not in all cases illegal, dumping of the radioactive waste products of refining rare earths causes a myriad of health effects on the human beings exposed. In one community in Malaysia near a rare earth refining facility run by an Australian company, residents exposed suffered from a range of ill effects ranging from skin disorders, to high rates of miscarriages and birth defects including blindness, severe retardation, and leukemia.

Most rare earths are mined and refined in China and other Asian countries. Most are then sent to other Asian countries to construct sub-components, which are in turn shipped to another production facility, where they are fitted in larger sub-components, and so on, until all the sub-components reach the final assembly facility, from which the final product is shipped again, and not for the last time, on its way to the final destination on the shelves of local retail outlets. The human costs exacted during the assembly of the various sub-components of the myriad of electronic gadgets and gizmos that dominate our lives are appalling, and the rash of worker suicides at Foxconn factories testifies to the draconian nature of the work regime there. The companies, now notorious, response was to place nets around the factory buildings to prevent workers who successfully made it out the window from dying. Workers in China, and other low-wage, low regulation Asian countries are routinely subjected to brutal treatment, long hours, low wages, unsafe and unhealthy conditions, not to mention predatory behavior by the company in the form of mandatory residence in company housing -often cramped, ill maintained, and lacking basic amenities- the rent for which is automatically deducted from workers' pay.

One might think that the troubles involved in mining and refining could be mitigated if only we all recycled more of our electronics. Yet, even recycling has a nasty after-taste, once one looks into. The net flow of new products is into the developed world, but there is also a reverse flow of obsolete products back to the Asian countries, again predominantly China, from which the rare earths originated. The unfortunate reality is that the recycling process of obsolete electronic from the first world is very crude. Most "e-waste" is shipped, again using fossil fuels, to small Chinese villages where elderly people break down the components by hand, often using little but their bare hands, an open flame, and toxic chemicals, especially acids. This is how the people involved in this recycling work are exposed to the chemicals that result in detrimental health effects, including much higher rates of cancer. The link between the recycling work and the cancers is so strong that the places where this work is done have come to be called " cancer villages".

Even the unassuming, seemingly innocent, and above all delicious, chocolate bar has a decidedly bitter side, and a morally problematic history. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the production of chocolate is the apparent pervasiveness of child-slave labor on cocoa plantations in the West African countries where most of the world's cocoa is cultivated. Making the matter worse is that many of the child-slaves on these plantations have been kidnapped or hoodwinked by middle men and trafficked from neighboring countries for exactly this purpose. The world's major chocolate companies are aware of the presence of child-slave labor on these plantations, and continue to buy from wholesalers in these countries. Much like the garment industry, sub-contracting relationships allow the chocolate giants, like Nestle, to evade responsibility for and scrutiny about the nature of the labor practices of the producers.

These three examples are by no means the only products which most Western consumers use on a daily basis, taking entirely for granted, but which have a morally dubious origin and history. The amount of harm caused to both the environment, and to other people during the process of producing the goods we consume is hardly ever considered, let alone factored into the price of those items. From the frozen veggies in our freezers, to the coffee makers and sugar packets on our countertops, to the cleaning agents we use, to the paper products we over-utilize, we find that the production process that ends with our individual usage contains significant abuse of both the environment, and of the human workers at every stage. It is clear now that the modern world is an Omelas of sorts. The prosperity of the developed world is intrinsically linked with the under-development and poverty of the rest of the world, the latter being the pre-condition of the former. Our world has the equivalent of the dank, dark, neglected basement in Omelas. It is the sweatshop, the maquiladora, the Export Processing Zone factory, the illegal mining or logging camp, the plantation, the company town, the cancer village, the ghetto, and the favela.

What Does it Mean to Walk Away?

In Omelas, the ones who stay are able to rationalize the suffering of the child, those who cannot walk away. For the ones who stay, their rationale, as reconstructed by Le Guin, is very similar to the 'There Is No Alternative' (TINA) style argument. Indeed, Le Guin says that the place those who walk away go is almost unimaginable. Those who decide to stay, even if they recognize the child's condition as a bad thing, as deeply regrettable, as morally troubling, seem to eventually accept that there is nothing to be done. To let the child out now would do it no good, so they reason, since it is so stunted and maladjusted it could not possibly live anything like a flourishing life. This child has simply been too abused and neglected, too maligned and degraded, to live a decent life even in more comfortable circumstances. No one individual possess the power to abolish the mechanism linking the child's suffering to the communities' prosperity. So it is that after a period of days, or maybe weeks, those who stay come to reconcile the enjoyment of abundance with the price paid for that abundance. We have here another parallel with our modern capitalist world economy. Many Western consumers feel powerless to change the capitalist-imperialist system that delivers them the necessities and luxuries they require, even if they see this system as morally problematic. They feel that since there is no alternative to capitalist-imperialism, there is no choice but to just accept it.

The ones who walk away from Omelas are not able to reconcile the child's suffering with their own individual prosperity. But, What does it mean to walk away? Le Guin tells us that those who walk away seem to know where they are headed, but is very cryptic about the place they go. Clearly, if those who walk away are not simply going off to die, then wherever they are going it must be a place where the relationship between suffering and prosperity in Omelas no longer obtains. Perhaps the ones who walk away are going nowhere, as they would rather die than live a morally corrupted life. This would of course imply that there is indeed no alternative to the rule linking suffering and prosperity, and that the only real choice individuals have in deciding whether or not to walk away from Omelas is one between life and death. Thus, it seems terribly pertinent to ask, Is there an alternative? If there is another way of life possible, that severs the connection in Omelas, and in capitalist-imperialism, between the suffering of some and the prosperity of others.

The TINA argument that supports the decision of some to stay in Omelas, as well as the decision of people in our world to accept capitalist hegemony, simply does not hold up. One has little reason to think that there is no alternative, or that the only alternative is death. There is another way to live, and because there is an alternative, the choice to stay becomes less a bit of Stoic equipoise, or the British stiff upper lip, and more a self-serving excuse for complicity in imposing suffering. What is this alternative? How can we live, but at the same time, not depend on impoverishment, degradation, and oppression to furnish a standard of living most contemporary Westerners would consider minimally decent? The answer, in short, is socialism. In particular, a non-market participatory socialism centered on a scheme of de-centralized, participatory, democratic economic planning. One such model is called Participatory Economics, or Parecon, and has been developed by Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert.[2]

Many will still wonder whether such an economy is feasible. It is, of course, not possible here to fully describe and defend this model. Let me offer then a few words on feasibility. First, "free" markets are not only not free at all, but are much less efficient than is often supposed. [3] Even the notion of "efficiency" is not what it seems on its surface. The technical meaning of efficiency in a competitive, capitalist economy differs importantly from the colloquial usage most are familiar with. Markets are in fact rather inefficient. Not only are markets inefficient, but the achievements of planned economies have been consistently, and significantly distorted or ignored entirely. Today, the historical example of the former Soviet Union is massively misunderstood in America; the example of Yugoslavia all but forgotten in the wake of the wars of the early 1990s; and the example of Cuba has been so thoroughly ignored, it is as if maintaining the blockade erased its existence for most Americans. If the technical challenges to send human beings safely to, and then return from, the Moon, can be overcome, then constructing a economic system that meets at least the basic subsistence needs of everyone in terms of food, clothing, shelter, education, and healthcare can be overcome.

What may perhaps come as a real surprise to many is how close we are already to a planned economy. The oligopolistic firms which have increasingly dominated, through mergers and "creative destruction", the U.S. economy since the end of the Second World War already engage in large-scale economic planning; mostly it is a product of co-respective behavior, and long-term planning for the management of capital assets in the interest of shareholders. During the period from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the First World War, the U.S. economy was entirely re-made, and in the interests of capital and capitalists. Between the exigencies of fighting two World Wars sandwiched around the greatest economic crisis of the 20th century, forced the government and the private sector to come to terms with each other and cooperate to save liberalism and capitalism. Coming out of the Second World War the stature achieved by these firms was immense, and their ability to control, regulate, and manipulate all markets was unprecedented. Most importantly for today, the data these firms have accumulated over decades, on everything from production rates to consumer habits, et cetera, makes the technical challenges of economic planning much less daunting. Moreover, the kinds of inventory tracking systems that make retailers like Wal-Mart so efficient, are exactly the kinds of systems that will also make the technical challenges associated with production and distribution easier to manage. For now, all this data is propriety information, that is, it is the private property of the various firms themselves.

At present, the economic planning that occurs is planning for the enrichment of capitalists. That is indeed the raison d'être for firms in keeping records, and collecting data on consumers, and engaging in long-term planning. When this data is nationalized, when it all can be collected, the problems that many still see in the idea of a planned economy become far less formidable. Indeed, many of these problems become more issues of calculation rather than issues of conceiving how a solution could even be possible; as was the case in the 1930s, when the original socialist calculations debates took place.


Our world, like Omelas, is a place where prosperity and abundance co-exist with horrific and structural injustice. Indeed, things are much worse in the real world, as injustice here is not confined to a single individual in a single room. Quite the opposite, the majority experience toil and deprivation so that a minority may indulge in opulence. Even in Omelas, where brutal and unjustified suffering is imposed on only one individual, some cannot bear the price of their abundance and must walk away. Now let us revisit the question implied by the story, Would you (the reader) walk away from Omelas? Could you stay and live a utopian life, all the while knowing its true cost? If yes, if the thought of the child in the basement, abused, alone, half starved, and naked, makes you unable to enjoy the cornucopia on offer, then the same moral intuition applies a fortiori in the case of our modern capitalist economy.

The dark basement of contemporary capitalism can be found in the sweatshops, the favelas, and the factories of the so-called "developing" world. Only because the commodity chains, whose final link are the shelves of the local stores of Western consumers, are so internationally dispersed, that they are largely hidden from consumers. The moral imperative felt in the case of Omelas is in fact only more intense in the real world. We face a moral crisis many times the scale of the hypothetical choice in Omelas every single day. Every day one chooses to uncritically accept and consumer the goods on offer from capitalist imperialism, then one too become complicit in abuses far worse than anything described in Le Guin's story.

If yes, if one would walk away from Omelas, What then? Where would you go, and How would you get there? Walking away from Omelas, walking away from capitalism, does not mean choosing death, it does not mean refusing to eat because everything you can buy is tainted by association with the capitalist mode of production. Walking away from capitalism does not mean forsaking technology, or innovation, or even incentive. What is clear already is that the productive forces that nineteenth and early twentieth century socialists worried about not being insufficiently developed, are now quite ripe. The main question is no longer about production, that is, how to make enough, but rather, it is about distribution, or how to make sure everyone has enough. What is also very clear is that markets are a lot less efficient than they are alleged to be, and that the alternatives to markets are much more practicable than is commonly supposed. Given that markets fail in many important respects, and that more democratic alternatives are feasible, the destination of those walking away should be a form of participatory socialism incorporating democratic economic planning. Knowing that there is a place to walk away to, might hopefully give some the courage needed to leave Omelas, to reject capitalism.


[1] Le Guin, Ursula. "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas". The Wind's Twelve Quarters. 1975. William Morrow Paperbacks; 2004.

[2] See, Albert, Michael. Parecon: Life After Capitalism. Verso; 2004. Also see, Albert, Michael & Robin Hahnel. The Political-Economy of Participatory Economics. Princeton University Press; 1991.

[3] See Donnaruma, Colin & Nicholas Partyka. "Challenging the Presumption in Favor of Markets". Review of Radical Political Economics. Vol.44 no.1 (2012):40-61.