When Science Fiction and Fantasy Envisions Life Beyond Capitalism

From Counter Craft:

In 2014, the legend Ursula K. Le Guin was given a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation and delivered what I’ve heard (accurately) described as a barn burner of a speech. Perhaps the most memorable part was her call for imaginative literature that envisions other ways of living:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.


We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, 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. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I know I’m not the only writer who has had these lines stuck in their head ever since. How can we create new ways of living in this world if we can’t imagine them on the page? Literature has many goals, of course, but one of them—especially in science fiction—has always been imagining new possibilities. Le Guin devoted her work to this, perhaps most notably in the 1974 novel The Dispossessed that imagines an anarcho-syndicalist society on the moon. But it is a theme throughout her oeuvre.

And a theme throughout all of science fiction. Star Trek is an obvious model, a show that pushed boundaries in progressive ways while imagining a more noble future. Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels famously take place in a post-scarcity anarchist utopia. The examples are really limitless.

And I think it is fair to combine the utopian impulse with the dystopian one. The writer of dystopias (which Le Guin was as well) is looking to display the cracks in the system. Certainly this was a goal of my novel The Body Scout, which imagines our current system running full steam ahead until the whole machine is at the point of bursting with steam shooting out of the seams and the gears beginning to break.

Utopia and dystopia are two sides of the same coin in this way. The flaws in the system and the possible ways forward. They are complimentary impulses that are often combined in the same work. See Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven for example. Of course, a novel is never going to bring down a system. Fiction is not activism really. Or at least not only that. Still, a first step to creating new society is being able to imagine it. “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings,” as Le Guin said.

Link to the rest at Counter Craft

PG has always been a big fan of capitalism, mostly because it seems to work and continues to work over a long period of time. He would argue that this economic system has generated more material well-being for more people than any alternate system he is aware of.

When a good friend told PG a long time ago that “Socialism always fails,” he didn’t believe it but has come to regard that statement as accurate.

Some point to Sweden as an exception, but Sweden is a relatively small, culturally cohesive society. Yes, it has had socialized medicine for a long time, but it also has capitalist wealth-producing businesses like Volvo, Ericsson, and Skanska. According to Wikipedia, Sweden has 41 billionaires.

Out of a population of 10.5 million, that doesn’t sound a lot like, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” the slogan Karl Marx was so please with.

PG also suggests that during the 20th Century, socialism had a certain habit of turning into communism, which has not only generated great income inequality, but also widespread poverty in a great many segments of its populations.

For PG, the biggest problem with socialism is that somebody has to enforce it, impose it on people who don’t necessarily like the idea. Suppose everybody is given the same amount of land. In that case, somebody will get the idea of planting tomatoes instead of potatoes and swapping them for some of his neighbors’ potatoes. Given enough plots of land, someone will discover gold, either actually or metaphorically.

Absent strict political or social controls, somebody will start hiring others to do things or purchase his neighbor’s potatoes and sell them for a profit before the next crop ripens. Then somebody else will figure out how to make vodka from potatoes and refuse to tell his neighbors how he did it but offer to sell them vodka for their celebrations.

Human beings are just so non-standard in their propensities, abilities, behavior and desires that treating them like machines is pretty dumb. It’s way easier to create identical machines, using some individual’s unique mechanical ability and rewarding them for their ingenuity.

40 thoughts on “When Science Fiction and Fantasy Envisions Life Beyond Capitalism”

  1. Le Guin asks authors to dream up a system. This implies that some author is so smart, he can fashion a system that performs better than capitalism. It implies he can come up with a system that works better than any other in history.

    That’s not what happened in capitalism. Capitalism is the result of trial and error over the last thousand years, and has antecedents going back even further. It wasn’t created by some guy sitting in his chambers.

    The people who think they can do it can’t. The best that authors can do resembles the Underwear Gnomes from Southpark.

    1. Collect underpants
    3. Profit

        • Splitting hairs, are we? 😉
          Individual capitalists vs capitalist groups?

          The approach evolved but the underlying principle remains: those that create get paid by those that don’t.

          Basic enough for the caves, no?

          Over the years lots of subtleties and variations have been sought but in the end there are but two human camps: those that create and those that take.

          No change there since the caves.

          • We are not splitting hairs. If you don’t know what we are talking about, that is your fault, not mine.

            The essential feature of capitalism is the joint-stock enterprise which is able to undertake contracts in its own name. This did not exist before the Middle Ages, and actually first appeared in monasteries.

            • You seem to be assuming corporate enterprises are the only form of capitalism possible.

              I counter: are the self-employed not capitalists? Do they not own the means of production, themselves?
              Are farmers not capitalists who own the means of production, their land? Both classes pre-date corporations by as much as 9000 years.
              They also predate serfdom and slavery and other taker collectivist schemes.

              The merchants that travelled the silk road in roman times were capitalists but not corporations. Whatever one may or not think of corporations they are not and never have been the sole form of capitalism. Their excesses are not intrinsic to capitalism any more that the excesses of the soviets are intrinsic to communism, as proven by the Kibbutzim.

              The extreme does not define the whole.

              Just ask any indie author who eschew serfdom to the BPHs to be their own enterprise.

              There is far more to entrepreneurialism than corporations and it is more primal. Railing against the latter says nothing about the individuals who practice it globally by the billion.

              Joe the plumber rules.

              • Agree. Sole proprietors, partnerships, and corporations are methods of financing and organizing. All are quite robust in our capitalist economy.

                The Silk Road and most of the rest of the trade in the Age of Exploration was financed by partnerships organized for a specific venture. Finish the voyage , either at a profit or at the bottom of the sea, and the partnership dissolved.

                Corporations gave the whole system a huge kick when ownership could be transferred without interfering in the business activities. That’s when the business horizon went beyond the single venture. (Yes, I’m not mentioning all the steps involved.)

                One can make a case that mutual funds and sovereign funds have once again changed the nature of ownership. Could be. Note how the West just hobbled the Russian Sovereign Fund.

                • Between the pandemic supply chain effects and the economic war on Russia the global economic system is being recast.

                  At a minimum, global supply chains are done for and will be replaced by regional chains.

                  At the extreme, global currency flows will be fractured and replaced by regional, independent “Market States” to protect from becoming targetted like Russia. Note who is enthusiastically sanctioning Russia, who is paying lip service, and who is actively propping them up.

                  A new epoch.
                  And new epochs are born of war.

                  The old rule book just hit the trashbin.
                  The new one remains to be written:


  2. SF has come up with a lot of alternative socio/economic systems over the decades.
    Around the time LeGuin was promoting her ideas, others were showing us their visions, some good, some bad, some amusing.

    Off the top of my head:

    Damon Knight A FOR ANYTHING
    Mack Reynolds THE TOWERS OF UTOPIA (part of a trilogy)
    Niven&Pournelle OATH OF FEALTY (Highly recommended. Has a lot to say about the real world.)
    F.M. Busby RISSA KERGUELEN (An Omnibus. Specifically, YOUNG RISSA, volume one.)

    A lot of anarchies of different stripes, various welfare states, a true neo-feudalism, and an advanced productivity based economic system (Heinlein, of course).

    Many more with different levels of credibility but not one truly credible human non-utopian socialism. A few human dystopias, though, and a few non-human societies.

    SF is all about exploring ideas but unlike fantasy, it has restrictions about plausibility. 😉

    • Have you noticed the all the authors ‘off the top of your head’ are male. There is no female writer in your list. I don’t know why. Maybe because female writers in general are more concerned with personal and emotional problems than with the abstract concepts of a new society.
      Le Guin was female, of course.

      • I know but do note that I was listing LeGuin contemporaries. 😉

        Not too many fems openly active in the field in those days. The ones who were were excellent but as you said they tended to focus on other concerns. Things have changed in more recent times, fortunately.

        Also several of those authors had background/connections with the military and most lived through WWII. It informed their concerns. Most also assembled Future Histories as a framework for their stories (Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, Pournelle, Anderson prominently so.)

        For years there has been a recurring plaint that SF is “too militaristic” yet what might one expect from folks looking at the future from a WWII/Cold War era base? Or the turmoil of the late 60’s?

        Finally, I’ll openly admit to a bias towards narratives (fact and fiction) about the rise and fall of societies so stories like OATH OF FEALTY and RISSA KERGUELEN will always be near the top of my mind alongside books like Diamond’s GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL and COLLAPSE, and Bobbit’s SHIELD OF ACHILLES. The latter in particular I found to be very persuasive.


        We are, I fear, on the cusp of one of Bobbit’s epochal transitions and those always come with massive wars. So looking at the big picture comes natural to me. Nothing better to do. 😀

        • Hmm. For a contemporary female, there is Andre Norton, who also postulated very different societies in many of her books. Like RAH, and Pournelle too, you picked up her “strange” more by osmosis than by clue bat.

          I particularly fondly recall the Pax Astra and Crosstime books from the library. (Note made to get those on Kindle ASAP.)

  3. Among the problems with unfettered capitalism are first, that it is always has to run faster and faster and eventually it runs out of resources, second, that it is focused on giving people what they want, when that may not be what they need, third, it assumes that market outcomes are moral outcomes by definition, and fourth, that over time it promotes extreme income inequality. Fettered capitalism has a chance of working better, but regulatory capture and rent seeking make it a very difficult thing to pull off in the long run.

    One of the cartoons that I think symbolizes our most likely futures has a man in a tattered business suit sitting around a campfire talking to children who are also tagged in rags. A ruined city is vaguely visible in the background. The caption says “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.”

    • Ask the Club of Rome about “running out of resources”.
      By that hoary old tale we should already be fighting for the last barrel of oil and gallon of water.

      What they missed is the bread and butter of SF: human creativity.
      Try this:


      So far, instead of running out of resources, capitalism has found more and better ways of using and recycling what we have. Ignore techies at yiur peril: they change the rules while you sleep.

      Humans are generally smarter than the average doom and gloom anti-capitalist academic.

    • What do “the people” need? Who decides? Obviously, not “the people,” since they apparently don’t want what they need. Inevitably, under unfettered socialism, the deciders are those who decide that they need a dacha in the country, along with the best food and unlimited access to beautiful young women (or handsome young men, or pretty children).

      For the results of unfettered socialism, take a look at Venezuela, North Korea, Red China, etc. Don’t give me the example of Sweden’s health system, either – where one in ten, those who can afford it, have private insurance to avoid the long delays for anything but urgent care.

    • And the problems with the primary alternative to capitalism, socialism, are as follows: first, it must run faster and faster until it eventually runs out of resources; second, it gives the people what government bureaucrats want them to have, which is almost never what they need; third, it assumes that political outcomes are moral outcomes; and fourth, that over time you get extreme income inequality.

      The problems you cite are less the result of capitalism being bad and more the result of human beings being self-centered.

  4. Sweden only has 10 million people? I keep forgetting how small some countries are. But for years I’ve heard some people claim we should model our economy on Sweden’s, but these same people would never dream of insisting all of the country should be modeled after Georgia, or North Carolina, or Michigan, who have similar population sizes to Sweden.

    • Capitalism depends on strong individual property rights. It took quite a while for property rights to become established, accepted, and enforced in Europe.

      The attached shows the property rights index for European countries. Sweden is #3.

      Anti-capitalists generally do not favor strong property rights, and socialists oppose them. Both will point to Sweden as a country that is not capitalist. But, there is little evidence to support the calls we regularly hear for the US move away from capitalism by following Sweden.


      • Yes, I know, property rights and the rule of law, high trust society, etc. I just think it’s hilarious that people who want us to model ourselves on Sweden “for the socialism” don’t appreciate how crazy the idea is.

        But taking the desire at face value, if someone proposed that the Great Lakes State should have the same rules for water management as Nevada, a state so dry that people can’t have real grass for their lawns, the idea would be spotted for the foolishness that it is. One assumes, anyway. So a nation of 300 million adopting a one-size-fits-all approached based on a nation o f 10 million *should* suggest even greater trip hazards, but it doesn’t.

        • Crazy indeed.
          Magical thinking at work.

          Functional systems simply do not scale endlessly.
          (And all of Sweden in closer to 9m. About the same population as NYC alone, never mind the tri-sate metro area. And it is a culturaly homogeneous society, not a hodge podge of ethnicities and cultures from the world over.)

          As for property rights, they are essential to any remotely free society since the absolute minimum any sane society must accept is the right of self-ownership. Everything else flows from that right which is why it is so strongly opposed by authoritarians. People who own themselves get to own their actions and what those actions bring them, i.e., property, physical and intellectual.

          Even pre-school kids know that much. 😀

          Fwiw, self-ownership is the core principle of philosophical Libertarianism:

          “Classical liberalism rests on a presumption of liberty—that is, on the presumption that the exercise of liberty does not require justification but that all restraints on liberty do. Libertarians have attempted to define the proper extent of individual liberty in terms of the notion of property in one’s person, or self-ownership, which entails that each individual is entitled to exclusive control of his choices, his actions, and his body. Because no individual has the right to control the peaceful activities of other self-owning individuals—e.g., their religious practices, their occupations, or their pastimes—no such power can be properly delegated to government. Legitimate governments are therefore severely limited in their authority.”

          Anathema to authoritarians.
          But common to the best SF writers.

  5. The real enemy is not “socialism” or “capitalism” or any other system — it’s monomania. Monomaniacal systems (whether formally “economic” or not) don’t adapt to change very well, and typically result in negative externalities being ignored until they become crises. Unfettered strong property rights lead to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce… and the heirs of James Joyce and Arthus Conan Doyle, and in the future we’ve got the potential heirs of Joanne Rowling to look forward to (“potential” because she’s not dead yet).

    Ideological purity. It’s what’s for Monday mornings.

    • Anything taken to extreme ends up at bad places.
      But it matters where you start from. It is a lot harder to run roughshod over folks used to owning themselves than those used to being wards of the state.

      • The hard question is always “What qualifies as proper property, and what may not be owned?” Less than two hundred years ago in this nation, “people” qualified as “property” and “the right to reproduce musical scores and works of art” did not. The very concept of a “commons” (the purported antidote to private property) depends upon a social acceptance of the right to exclude outsiders. And so on.

        And then, if you really want to freak yourself out, consider not just “property” but how it is transferred — an essential component of any system involving private ownership of property. (I promise not to mention the Rule Against Perpetuities or the Rule in Shelley’s Case. At least, not very often.) And more to the point, what control can still be exerted either after death or just after a transfer.

        My point is that just saying “property rights rulz” just changes the question to “what is property?”

        • Beats arguing over “what is capitalism”. 😀

          At least its more basic, no?
          And more useful.

        • My point is that just saying “property rights rulz” just changes the question to “what is property?”

          Not a hard question. We certainly can discuss what circles in the margins, but for thousands of years, it has started with land. Then food, then tools, then structures. Set theory helps.

          We can indeed agree we can’t come up with a perfect definition. OK. Zillions of us don’t need that to proceed. It has been demonstrated. It’s not theory. But we are blessed to have much smarter folks who will stay back and instruct the rest of us on how misguided we are.

  6. Had a conversation with my millennial daughter who is something of a Bernie Sanders fan. She said she believed in something called “democratic socialism”. I told her that most people just do not understand socialism. For lots of folks, to them, these days, socialism means, our system is exactly the same, but the government forces a “living wage” – and that the government just gives out a lot more stuff, and “who pays for it” – isn’t really something worth worrying about.

    But, if you go look up exactly what socialism MEANS – it’s obviously very different from that. The only difference between socialism and communism, is that communism attempts to make the sharing equivalent for everyone. (So everyone is equivalently poor.)

    From Wiki: Socialism is a political, social, and economic philosophy encompassing a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production, as opposed to private ownership.

    From Wiki: Communism is a philosophical, social, political, and economic ideology and movement whose goal is the establishment of a communist society, namely a socioeconomic order structured upon the ideas of common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state. Communism is a specific, yet distinct, form of socialism.

    When you throw stuff like “means of production” in there, it seems that the lay person (or senator) tends to get glassy-eyed, and shrugs, figuring it’s not important.

    But it’s absolutely important. Socialism and communism (in their truest forms) means that the STATE owns ALL forms of wealth creation. It means that every citizen is 100% dependent (at least by law) on the government for EVERYTHING.

    Of course, no country has really implemented 100% pure socialism or communism. Nor, capitalism, for that matter.

    So, not only do people speak ignorantly about the benefits of socialism – they also try to put a straw man argument in there and talk about “unfettered capitalism” as if that actually exists anywhere. The United States has things like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Veteran’s Benefits, and a host of other “social” programs, to say nothing about tariffs and taxes which would not exist in a “pure capitalist” environment.

    TL;DR: Most people arguing for socialism are expressing a desire for something that doesn’t exist (pure socialism), and decrying something else that doesn’t exist (“unfettered capitalism”).

    I will end with this: Wiki’s definition of Capitalism: Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit.

    When the government owns everything, they effectively own YOU.

    • Whenever I have asked someone what Democratic Socialism is, they seem at a loss. Most talk a bit about rich people, universal medical care, free universities, and forgiving student debt. When I mention that forgiving car loans would be much more egalitarian, they get angry.

      • LOL – Yes, forgiving student debt seems incredibly selfish and narrow-minded of today’s generation. You could also ask them about just making tuition free from here on out. To benefit future generations of students, since this generation has already been educated (or not).

        It also, as you note, applies more benefit the more education one has – such as lawyers and doctors.

        Democratic Socialism, as she attempted to describe it to me, was socialism where the workers get a lot more say. I don’t think these Democratic Socialists fundamentally understand that private citizens lose ALL ownership of production. Even if it affords private ownership of property and housing, it eliminates the “small businessman” though they don’t recognize the fact.

        I believe they think it’s some status where every business is union based, and that everyone gets a living wage and that we’d enter a new shangri-la, as soon as we moved all those greedy capitalists and billionaires out of the way.

        And, in some ways, we’ve had that a few times – like Britain in the 70s. And as Thatcher famously said, eventually you run out of other people’s money. It’s what the US is starting to realize now, as inflation is starting to hit. (I’ll shut up now, to avoid veering further into politics.)

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