The Divine Right of Kings

The DispossessedWe live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.                                                   – Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve been thinking about those sentences a lot over the last couple of months.

Last year I read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and right now I’m working on Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Piketty makes it clear that the current system will expand income and wealth inequities unless we take action; Klein is arguing that we need to rein in corporate power to make the changes necessary to keep climate change from rendering the planet uninhabitable.

There was a depressing story available from Pacific Standard this week, a review of three books on the serious inequity of our time headlined “All of Us Worried, None of Us Angry.” According to the article, even the poor blame themselves for poverty and even the rich are worried that they don’t have enough to take care of themselves. It suggests that people don’t get angry because they’ve bought into the conventional wisdom that everything is the result of individual choice. That is, the game is rigged, but even those who are losing due to the unfair rules think it’s their fault.

It’s a powerful system and those running it have a vested interest in keeping it in place and plenty of resources for that fight. But as Le Guin says, that was also true of the divine right of kings.

Here’s another thing that was true of the divine right of kings: they didn’t give up all that power and authority without a fight. And it was a nasty, bloody fight and lasted for hundreds of years.

Which is to say, yes, we can change things, but it isn’t going to be easy. There is a reason why major changes don’t come about until people get really desperate: on an individual level, the chaos of the change can be worse than the oppression even if the end result is a better society for most people.

Though as the human race grows slightly more civilized, the push for change has become less bloody. The union organizing of the early 20th Century was not as violent as the French Revolution, though many lives were lost. Lives were also lost in the Civil Rights Movement, but history shows that more people died from the lynching and oppression of an unopposed Jim Crow system.

There are signs that people are growing restive in the U.S. as well as in the rest of the world. The recent #blacklivesmatter protests and the strikes by fast food workers demonstrate that some of us have decided to take the risks of pushing for change. And if Klein is right, perhaps the necessity posed by climate change will force us to change the rules that give corporations so much power.

So what kind of system should we be developing? Will it be enough to tax wealth, as Piketty advocates, or to increase corporate regulation and oversight, as liberals in the U.S. Congress suggest? Or do we need something more revolutionary?

This, I think, is where art comes into the discussion, which is why I illustrated this post with the cover of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a book that contrasts a society run on principles of anarchism with one of capitalism run wild. To be sure, the anarchists have their shortcomings, but there are many reasons to prefer their world.

In her speech, Le Guin also said:

Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

There’s a challenge to us all: to include ideas of resistance and change in our art. It’s easy to write a dystopian story in which the inequitable excesses of the present cause harm way into the future. All of us can imagine that, all too easily.

But let’s try coming up with worlds in which that isn’t the case. They don’t have to be saccharine stories of sweetness and light – The Dispossessed certainly isn’t. Nor do they have to be ultimate failures, utopias overrun by evil regimes (Huxley’s Island comes to mind). Life is complex, and even a better society is unlikely to be a perfect one.

Le Guin has set a challenge for us all. As artists, let’s bring our creativity to bear on the problems of the day. And as people, let’s pull together and work for constructive change.



The Divine Right of Kings — 4 Comments

  1. Well said, Nancy Jane! And what a terrific novel of LeGuin’s that stands up to the test of time. These days, it’s hard to be optimistic about governments, but there are always people pulling for positive change and shift of paradigms. And now China recognizing the need to combat climate change! Way to throw down the gauntlet to gridlocked U.S. Congress….