I'm reading a recently-published Ursula K. LeGuin book (No Time To Spare: Thinking About What Matters), a collection of essays from her blog.* It's interesting reading. She and I are poles apart on many things, but closer than either of us might think at first. The years have left her not exactly disillusioned, but well aware of the illusory nature of things -- especially politics. I have always admired someone who could build her personal-ideal anarcosocialist utopia (The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia) and proceed to tell a story that poked holes in all the weak points,† and she remains as willing to examine what she perceives. Our axioms differ and our lexicons are not entirely congruent, yet I find we agree on important things, central things: the need to treat people decently, to use the planet like it's the only habitable planet we have, and to have an eye to the long term.
We're also both quite fond of cats.
LeGuin identifies all capitalism as "growth capitalism," and is concerned that, like cancer, it requires endless growth to survive. By her definition, she's right. I'd point out that government efforts to regulate it, to channel it, have resulted in many of the deleterious effects she lays at its door: corporations are actively discouraged from looking much past quarters, or single years at best -- "What's good for General Motors is good for the county" once carried the implicit assumption that GM was in it for the long haul, century after century, in the kind of way that we now call "sustainable." It no longer does, and has not for quite some time. Other regulations encourage rent-seeking, regulatory capture and the use of regulations to stymie new entrants and thwart competitors. And vast defense budgets ensure many corporations have a vested interest in war. This does not strike me as a wise long-term strategy.
A mess like that, is that "capitalism?" Karl Marx said it was -- but he was defining an enemy. When I go to a hamfest, a farmer's market, an antique mall, a gun show or the Feast Of The Hunter's Moon, what is that selling of things you've got plenty of for tokens that will let you buy what you need and want, if not capitalism? And does it not manage to achieve an equitable -- or at least mutually-acceptable -- distribution of goods and services? To limit "capitalism" to the goons of Wall Street, to a game best played by those with money to gamble that doesn't risk their physical survival, is to ignore all those regular people, getting by selling loose cigarettes for a penny profit each, selling excess honey from their backyard hive to buy Christmas presents (or, like my Mom, simply giving the honey as gifts -- how she missed her hive when she and Dad moved to a subdivision that was shocked, shocked at the notion of a tiny home apiary, and forced her to rehome it) and a jillion small businesses and minor exchanges.
So, sure, I've got my disagreements with LeGuin -- and that makes her more worth reading, not less. She's not a politician; she's not scoring points in some verbal game -- she's 88, what would she win? -- she actually thinks things through. In a time of so much shouting and so little listening and thinking, it's a rarity. A gem, a flower. If for no other reason than to note points of difference and ponder how they might be reconciled or buffered, it is worthwhile reading.
We're all in this together, all stuck on this same rock, at least for now. There's a vast universe out there but as a species, we need to stick around here if we're ever going to get there. Some of us have been around longer than others -- and some of those elders just may have have picked up a useful notion or two.
* A word she finds ugly but, uncharacteristically, does not know the derivation. These odd combinations of op-ed page and public diary were once a collection of links and things one had found on the World Wide Web: a "web log." We blog.
† She goes after, and correctly for the purposes of story-telling, the functional weak points of Odonianism-as-practiced. In hindsight, I think the world-building can be faulted for an excessive reliance on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a miscasting of mercantilism as capitalism and a fundamental misreading of the idea of property -- but as an example of world-building per se, it is among the best.
11 months ago