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Civilization and the Democratic Impulse (Possibly Part 1)

with 4 comments

So it is Sunday, and I have had what I think of as a very good Sunday morning:  Mozart’s 40 and 41 (the Jupiter), and a great big book.

I’ve also had that thing I wanted to talk about last week–remember the Sui dynasty and the Grand Canal?–and I came up with a connection I hadn’t thought of before.

So let me start with the connection, and go from there.

There is a short story out there called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin.

I know this short story because it was included among the readings in a book we used for several years for teaching composition.  That book had almost no fiction of any kind, so any fiction that was included in it was noticeable just for being there.

The little biographical sketch of LeGuin called her a science fiction writer, and after I’d used the story a couple of times I saw her referred to that way again in several other places. 

I have no idea whether science fiction writers and fans would agree with that assessment, and I’ll leave it to you.

It’s the story I was to talk about and the way it connects with the Grand Canal, and Athens in the time of Socrates and and company.

The story is relatively simple: there is a country that is the most wonderful place to live.  Its citizens are happy and prosperous and content.  No other place anywhere affords its citizens greater freedom, greater prosperity, greater spiritual satisfaction.

If you are born a citizen of Omelas, you need to do only one thing to keep that citizenship.  In your early adolescence, you must be taken down to a deep place.  There, you will find a small child in excruciating pain and misery, with no hope of ever escaping his fate.

You will be informed that the great happiness and prosperity of the citizens of Omelas depends on the misery of this child.  If Omelas is to continue in happiness and prosperity, then this child and others like him to come must hurt, day after day, year after year, without any hope of release, until he dies.

Most of the citizens of Omelas who see this spectacle go back to their everyday lives and think nothing more about it.   If this is the price of their happiness, then it is.  And since they have no intention of giving that up, there’s no more to be said about it.

Every once in a while, though, there is someone who will not accept this state of affairs, who refuses to be happy and prosperous at the cost of this pain. 

Those are the people who walk away from Omelas, who leave and take their chances in the harsher world outside.

This story used to annoy me a little when I was teaching it, because the symbolism was so hamfisted, and because I suspected that the writer was doing an anti-Capitalism rag.  Knowing what I know now about Le Guin’s politics, I’d expect this was true.

But over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, and something keeps coming up.

It is remarkable how often civilization everywhere–not just in the West, but everywhere–is a story of Omelas.

Which is how we get to the Grand Canal.  In China.

Somewhere in the late sixth to early seventh century, the emperor Sui Wendi had constructed what was called the Grand Canal, which was actually a series of canals connecting two rivers in the middle of the Sui territory.

This construction brought many benefits to the Sui empire–greater agricultural production, more efficient trade routes between parts of the empire.  I could go on at length.

The only problem was that the Grand Canal could only be constructed by coercion.  Sui Wendi drafted tens of thousands of ordinary people into the construction.  Working conditions were brutal and mortality was very high.  Many thousands of people died and even more were broken in health by the time they were released from their sentence in the project.

For the many millions more who were not drafted into the project, though, life was demonstrably better. 

And what’s more, life was also demonstrably better for their descendants, and for the descendants of the people who had died or been broken in the project, too.

And Sui Wendi was hardly alone.  You can find similar stories concerning kings in the South Asian peninsula, about the pre-Conquest (and post-Conquest, for that matter) South American civilizations, about…just about anybody.

Even the Greek city-states had their versions.  Athens, most notoriously, was only able to have a golden age because the wealth of the city was being hewed out of silver mines by a slave class that was whipped and starved and who died by the score to bring the metal out of the ground.

Civilization is spread by conquest, and it’s also spread by coercion.

All the time.

We have, of course, come to a place where we find such conquest and conversion unacceptable, and where brutality on that scale is rarely necessary.

But the question remains that we only got to this place–where such brutality is rarely necessary for progress to happen–because when it was necessary, rulers decided to go ahead with the coercion.

These days, people are less informed than the people of Omelas.  They don’t worry about their own complicity in a history of conquest and coercion because they largely don’t know about it.

For them, conquest and coercion started with “capitalism,” and only continues because capitalism continues.

And in the cases where they are happy to apply coercion, the coercion is of a kind that seems so different they think it ought to be classed entirely separately from Sui Wendi’s drafting farmers or Athens brutalizing its slaves in the silver mines.

Most of them know nothing at all about the human costs of five year plans or great leap forwards.

But that’s something else, isn’t it–sometimes conquest and coercion brings tangible benefits, and sometimes it’s just wrongheaded, and all that carnage is for nothing.

But I think I’ll leave that, and the kind of coercion that is requiring all children to attend school whether their parents want it or not, and other things like that, to another day.

I’m making a pile of Greek food for dinner.

Written by janeh

April 6th, 2014 at 9:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Civilization and the Democratic Impulse (Possibly Part 1)'

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  1. LeGuin’s novels have won 5 Locus Awards, 4 Nebula Awards and 2 Hugos. I think we can call her a science fiction writer, though she also writes fantasy.

    And yes, the average Western graduate student has a view of pre-modern rural life which would have shocked illiterate peasants of Homer’s day, or Mallory’s, and which, of course, shapes their attitude toward “capitalism.” Those students have been very selectively educated.

    I think we all know that we pay the price first and, sometimes, receive the benefits later. It’s called deferred gratification, and it works for societies as well as families and individuals. A fellow by the name of Tolkien did some writing on the subject.

    The question is who decides. We built the transcontinental railroads without slavery or conscription by paying the laborers and letting the people who paid them make a profit on the railroads. It never seems to have occurred to the Athenians to mine their silver the way the United States mined the Comstock Lode–nor, for that matter, to tell young Athenian males that the price of citizenship was six months in the mines. It was always easier to send someone who couldn’t vote and wasn’t family. It often is. Could the Grand Canal have been built with free labor, or just without destructive labor? Most canals were.

    As for the economic projects which consume lives and have no benefits–or even leave the world worse as a result–they are the most brutal and effective demolition of Marx’s labor theory of value one could ask for. So it’s only fair that three generations of Marxists and counting are providing them. It would be nice if our ruling class learned something from the mountain of bodies, but I see no sign of it.


    6 Apr 14 at 1:24 pm

  2. I remember reading the “EarthSea Trilogy” many years ago. That was fantasy Ursula Leguin as a very talented writer.

    Coal and iron ore mining are major industries in Australia and the miners are very well paid. We also export beef and wheat and I doubt if most city dwellers realize how hard it is to make money as a farmer.

    And I agree with Robert about Marxism. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot should have convinced anyone of the danger of that philosophy in action.


    6 Apr 14 at 10:06 pm

  3. “Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot should have convinced anyone of the danger of that philosophy in action.”

    I’m sure they did, John, except their modern adherents and their fellow travellers see them, and Marxism, as the ideal political guides. After all, What’s not to like about rabid anti-capitalism and totalitarianism?


    6 Apr 14 at 11:04 pm

  4. I must confess that after all these years, I still don’t know what “capitalism” means. If it means trying to get a profit, then I suspect that Egyptian peasant farmers 3000 years ago were trying to do that.


    7 Apr 14 at 1:21 am

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