Spiraling Toward the Future


Ursula K. Le Guin’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards last month has been widely broadcast and commented on, particularly her remarks about publishers and distributors controlling books (subject matter, contents, price) in order to reap even greater profits. In speaking out, Le Guin showed courage.

She exhibited even greater courage in naming capitalism as the root cause of the commodification of all things, art included.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. 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.

For people who lived under monarchies, questioning the divine right of kings was dangerous. But when hunger, wars, and imprisonment proved too much, people did more than question: when conditions became unbearable, people rebelled. First the American Revolution and then the French Revolution showed that the oppressed could and would rise up against that self-serving fiction, “divine right of kings.”

The masters of capitalism — which enriches the few and impoverishes the many, which produces unemployment, depressions, ever-more destructive and aggressive wars, and which, yes, seeks to turn every piece of art, every drop of water, even the air we breathe, into commodities to be bought and sold — the masters of this system, like monarchs, do not want their rule questioned. Certainly in the US to even name the system of capitalism is to be ignored (pretend she never said that word) or attacked (unAmerican!). But as a science fiction writer, Ursula Le Guin has the understanding to imagine different economic systems, with different means of production, distribution of goods, and welfare of the people. And as a writer, she has the courage to name the system that oppresses us. Writers, after all, are responsible for using the right words.

Heraclitus, by Johannes Morels

Heraclitus, by Johannes Morels

In reading Le Guin’s speech, I was reminded that several years ago I wrote a poem in response to an incident (I’ve forgotten the details) in which a public figure who questioned capitalism was vilified for not “understanding” that capitalism was the culmination of all economic systems, here forever. My poem was published in Struggle magazine, Spring/Summer 2011. (Although the poem isn’t included in my collection, Crossing the Skyway, other poems like it are.) The title refers to the writings of Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who taught that all things are constantly changing.

Nothing Permanent Except Change

Roman imperialism, perfect candidate
     for perpetuity, except for
               and the veni-vidi-vici drive
which weakened it so severely
     that Goths and Vandals
          it thought conquered
                         and destroyed it.

Feudalism, set to last forever,
     its stability resting on inequality
          of weapons,
               swords and crossbows
                         for the lords,
                              clubs and pitchforks
                              for the serfs,
and on a deep numbness
     due to ignorance,
               and superstition.
Breached from the middle,
     it fell.

Capitalism tramples all suggestions
     it won’t last forever,
          declares itself the paradigm
               of economic systems,
but it’s not the landing,
     it’s just another stair
          on the spiral rising
               toward the future,
and it, too, will be destroyed
     by the very conditions it creates —
          canyons of unemployment,
               devastating depressions,
                    and willful destruction
                         of the world.

Nothing lives forever,
     not even
          economic systems.

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