The Only Political Theory You Will Ever Need

Ursula K. LeGuin, who left us on Monday, once wrote a very short story that contains all the political theory you will ever need. The puzzle it presents is the moral puzzle of “civilization,” which means it’s a puzzle that’s most acute in the city. Personally, it captures much of what motivates me, and confuses me.

It’s a parable, but it doesn’t lecture you. It opens space to think, as all of her best work did.

It’s very short. It’s very funny. There’s nudity and (optional) sex. You can read it in five minutes. You have time. Don’t skim. Read every sentence. It’s here.

(If for any reason that link doesn’t work, it’s called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and it’s in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. My understanding is that the online versions exist with her permission, but if the link vanishes, then maybe they didn’t.)

Pass it on.


17 Responses to The Only Political Theory You Will Ever Need

    • Jarrett Walker January 26, 2018 at 9:59 am #

      I’ve edited to use the Berkeley Law School link, which seems to be the easiest to read. And I trust law schools not to violate copyright!

  1. Clicky Freewheel January 26, 2018 at 10:24 am #

    I don’t get it.

    • Asher January 26, 2018 at 3:47 pm #

      It’s my first encounter with her work, but I took it as a reductio ad absurdum of a view that is common, but rarely explicitly stated: that for society to be rich and accomplished, some must suffer, and to alleviate suffering would impoverish us all.

      Of course, Walker strives to show the falsity of such a view (successfully, in my view 🙂 ), that the suffering of the least fortunate or outright oppressed can be assuaged, while also enriching the rest of society.

      “planning a city or transport network around the preferences of a minority routinely yields an outcome that doesn’t work for the majority. Even the elite minority won’t like the result in the end.”

      “Cities do not work for anyone unless they makes room for transportation that works for everyone. “

      • Peter L January 30, 2018 at 10:27 am #

        Like Mr Freewheel, I was left with “huh?” but turning it over in my head I sort-of came to the same conclusion as you.

        The piece is 40 years old, though, and there are a hell of a lot more of us in the cellar now. :-/

        • Sean Gillis January 31, 2018 at 5:51 am #

          ” … that for society to be rich and accomplished, some must suffer, and to alleviate suffering would impoverish us all.”

          “.. that the suffering of the least fortunate or outright oppressed can be assuaged” Key word – assuaged. Not removed.

          I think this is one layer of the onion. Another layer (the same layer?) is that when we make decisions, even in good faith and with fairness as a goal, there are winners and losers. I route an express bus past your home, and you are the loser in that there are now more fumes and more noise near your home. Is your suffering acceptable? Who decides? How? How many ‘winners’ and how much does it take to make up for your ‘loss’?

          The child in the basement is an extreme (and heinously criminal) example, but I have had arguments with (otherwise?) kind and compassionate folk who have said they would make a similar call.

  2. Jeff Wegerson January 26, 2018 at 12:24 pm #

    My own personal influential LeGuin work was her novel The Dispossessed. Maybe less that it influenced and more that it spoke to me for who I was at the time when I read it.

    And yes her style of presentation was very much one of creating spaces for one to fill for themselves. Sort of here’s a question, you fill in the answers, where there is no actual “right” answer.

    A loss one hopes is more than replaced by all the bits and pieces of her within the many of us.

  3. BJ January 27, 2018 at 8:26 am #

    Possibly interesting tidbit: There’s a Korean pop group called BTS with a huge international following that referenced Omelas in a music video last year, and overnight that collection of stories starting shooting up the Amazon charts.

  4. Christine January 27, 2018 at 2:56 pm #

    Thank you Jarrett.

    As they reach an appropriate age I give each of my nephews a copy of an Ursula Le Guin novel, an essential part of a young person’s journey into adulthood.

  5. Georg January 28, 2018 at 8:42 am #

    Thank you for this

    I’ve recently used “Always Coming Home” in a class i taught, because like few others, Le Guin akcnowledged the price of utopian thought, the limits and complexities of any model of society, and managed, as in this here story I hadn’t known previously, to package all of that into the form of narration.

  6. Barb Chamberlain January 28, 2018 at 10:53 am #

    “Very funny” is never how I would describe this story. Of all LeGuin’s works this is the one that has haunted me ever since I first read it decades ago.

    • Jarrett January 29, 2018 at 9:10 am #

      Much great literature has very funny passages even as it drives toward other things. The point is to get people started reading.

      • Sean Gillis January 31, 2018 at 5:57 am #

        The story reminds me greatly of the best of John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, In Dubious Battle) in how it shocks you into deep thinking.

      • reader February 12, 2018 at 7:05 am #

        Wtf? I’m with Ms. Chamberlain on this. Are you OK Jarrett?

  7. JHBW February 1, 2018 at 12:40 pm #

    I wish I could walk away from Omelas from time to time. But the fact remains that not everyone can, or will, so we have important work to do here.

    • Ged February 10, 2018 at 1:32 pm #

      Omelas isn’t a place- it’s exploitation. Walking away from it isn’t a physical journey, but a spiritual one that begins when a person chooses to reject exploitation and work to make all people free.