When Ursula K. LeGuin died earlier this week, a friend of mine shared a quote of hers:
“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.”
I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot over the past few days, but not in an analytical way. The beginning of it just keeps coming back to me, over and over again, like a song I can’t get out of my head: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”
Capitalism is the water that surrounds us (“What’s water?” said the fish). It’s imbued in every decision we imagine is available to us, in every relationship we think we have. It drives our health and well being, regardless of how fit or fat we are, how dumb or how smart, how stable or insane. We live in — live within — capitalism, our bits and directives channeled and funneled within the confines of its system, the capitalist system.
LeGuin compares living within capitalism to living within the seemingly inescapable power of the divine right of kings. In both instances, men and women are subject to an almighty, a dollar or a prince.
And in both instances, LeGuin recognizes the need to escape. She sees in both the repression of our humanity, and prophesizes resistance and change.
LeGuin spent the better part of her writing life imagining an alternative to the system she found herself in. Her intelligence and her compassion caused her imagination to soar above us all, seeking out (and reporting back on) the bright spots in the futures before us.
But she was not a doe-eyed optimist. Her novels don’t shy from the darker drives of our humanity, particularly the masculine greeds for power and dominion, and she investigated the effects of those drives in the forms of her characters’ weaknesses. Her investigations provided readers with alternative ways to cope, survive, and thrive.
More than anything, LeGuin seemed (as she once called herself) “an anthropologist of the future,” and she revealed to us possible pathways for humanity, or in different times and places, the results of paths we may have once taken.
LeGuin was a master of speculative fiction. She did not write the best sentences, but her rich, sometimes four- or five-dimensional characters existed in structurally sound systematized worlds that were, through her characters’ actions and feelings, themselves going through a wholesale change.
Like all of us, LeGuin lived in capitalism. But through the art of her words, she was able to not only escape its capitalist thinking, but to bring the rest of us with her, showing us without telling us the real meaning of resistance and change. Her artform challenged us to imagine our possible futures, resist our darker drives, and transform our weaknesses to strengths.
She was an anthropologist of the future, yes; but also, a prophet of what futures might come.
We’d do well to listen.