The discussion on the relations between the first world and the third, the prosperous and the unprivileged, the capitalists and the exploited, has been going for years (Collins, 1990). These discussions are necessarily driven by the consensus that the imbalance in wealth is unideal, reprehensible, and should be overcome. Yet, these decades-long conversations have not led to much fruition (Starmans, Sheskin & Bloom, 2017). Why have our efforts in discussing and alleviating inequity not been effective, or at best marginally effective, in achieving a better balance in our world? Perhaps it is because the people discussing may not actually want to achieve an equilibrium in wealth (Boyce, Brown & Moore, 2010). At the core of our struggle against inequity lies a dilemma.
This dilemma sits between what is morally right and what we want. What is morally right is to be rid of capitalist exploitation and wealth inequality. Conversely, what we want is precisely the status quo, the imbalance, the inarguably immoral.
As such, there is a dichotomy between our rhetoric and our inclinations. We say that we want to achieve income equality but neither can we afford to pay the price, nor will we like what we have paid for. We are too comfortable where we are now, in first world countries, in middle and upper classes.
Here I present two texts that address this dilemma: Ursula Le Guin’s 1973 short story, The Ones who walk away from Omelas and Bong Joon-Ho’s 2013 film Snowpiercer. Omelas is a fictional, prosperous city that parallels America, but can be extended to capitalist societies at large. Central to the story is a perverse tradeoff that all Omelians are aware of: all prosperity enjoyed is contingent on the misery of a single child. Should the plight of this child be alleviated even in the slightest, all prosperity will be immediately effaced. The moral dilemma manifests as such: what Omelians want is to maintain the status quo, yet the morally right choice is to renounce the tradeoff. In a similar vein, Snowpiercer is an allegory of our world. Snowpiercer is a train that carries the last of humanity in a post-apocalyptic world. The engine symbolizes capitalism, while the poor are treated as commodities. Enraged by the persistent oppression, a revolution is staged by the poor and led by Curtis, the film’s protagonist.
Upon learning that the engine needed young children from the poor to service as extinct train parts, Curtis gives up the chance to take over the engine to discontinue the status quo of exploitation. This exploitation mirrors the inhumane yet pragmatic exploitation inherent in capitalism in our world. The moral dilemma is hence answered in Snowpiercer when Curtis made the morally right choice to overhaul capitalism by derailing the train. Besides the similar representation of the moral dilemma, both texts condemn those whose answer to the moral dilemma is to stick with the status quo. Thus, both texts agree that the status quo – class inequality and the exploitation of the lowest class – is reprehensible and morally wrong.
However, tension arises between the texts on their attitudes towards the morally right choice of changing the system. The story of Omelas was meant to be a nudge towards the morally right course of action of ending capitalist exploitation, a wake-up call to the American conscience. From a deontological perspective, which is a view that there are moral duties that everyone should fulfill, no character carries out what is morally right (Wyman, 2012). Even those who walk away from Omelas are wrong as they do not attenuate the plight of the exploited. Le Guin’s condemnation of inaction implies a prescription of change. Interestingly, while Le Guin espouses change, Snowpiercer focuses on the futility of it. As mentioned above, Curtis answers the moral dilemma by overhauling capitalism, something Le Guin would possibly commend. Yet in doing what is morally right, Curtis causes the total destruction of the train and annihilates his society. Although Snowpiercer is in essence fictional, its portrayal of the irony of mass devastation as a result of the morally right choice is logical and convincing. Why do two fictional texts that portray the same moral dilemma, with the same disdain for the status quo, have diverging attitudes towards the morally right choice of renouncing capitalism?
I posit that the divergence in attitudes towards the dilemma from Omelas (1973) to Snowpiercer (2013) reflects the diminished hope for change in capitalism over time. While Omelas still has hope for change in capitalism, snowpiercer is written at a time when capitalism has been largely accepted as the end. While the story of Omelas urges readers to do what is morally right, to effect a change in the capitalist system and help the exploited, Snowpiercer adopts a more resigned stance, embodying an acceptance towards the unchanging reality of capitalism. Snowpiercer conveys that we can neither walk away from capitalism, nor can we walk down the morally right path of renouncing it as doing so will ironically, lead to worse consequences. Ultimately, we will realise that this path is a circular one that leads us back to the status quo. Snowpiercer teaches us that the futility of doing the morally right leaves us with no choice but to live out the morally wrong in guilty awareness.
To argue for the divergence in attitudes towards the moral dilemma between The Ones who walk away from Omelas and Snowpiercer, I will first expound Le Guin’s strong stance towards renouncing the status quo. The story of Omelas implicitly urges us to effect change by condemning inaction. This condemnation is done on two levels, of those who stay, and those who walk away.
On the first level, condemnation is communicated by letting readers recognize the immorality of those who stay. Le Guin counts on the basic humanity of readers to evoke sympathy and injustice towards the child. Vivid descriptions – “foul-smelling”, “(a) little light”, “rattles terribly”, “sits in its own excrement continually” – paint an unforgivingly clear picture of the squalid conditions the child is forced to live in, conditions that are contrasted to the previously established beauty and splendor of the rest of Omelas. A sense of injustice is heightened by the knowledge of the defenseless child being condemned to loneliness and misery by the consensus of many – “They all know that is has to be there”. Omelians delude themselves and keep guilt out of their walls by providing unconvincing reasons such as the child being “too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy”, that the child would benefit more to stay in its “abominable misery”. These reasons are clearly false because the narrator has informed readers that the child “has not always lived in the tool room” and “can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice”. The child does indeed have a family, an identity and every right to live as Omelians do. Yet, Omelians deny truth and morality because it is easier to maintain this perverse tradeoff than to reform it. That none of these people feel a tinge of guilt for the inhumane treatment of the child they are responsible for infuriates and disconcerts the average reader. Finally, that even the narrator appears ambivalent towards the child, conveyed through the lack of care placed on the child’s gender and identity, casts the impression that the child is utterly vulnerable and uncared for. Readers are vested with the urge to protect this weak child, yet they are confined to serving justice through condemnation of those who choose to uphold their side of a hideous bargain and stay in Omelas.
On the second level, those who walk away from Omelas are also condemned for their inaction. Wyman observes that Le Guin is very likely to follow Kantian ethics (2012), a form of deontological ethics, and would vehemently agree the child is also a sentient being who should not be damned as it is in Omelas (Wyman, 2012). This is especially so when there is no apparent reason for the child’s damnation. The child is merely an unfortunate scapegoat for Omelas. Having explicitly stated that her work was a presentation of the “dilemma of the American conscience” (Collins, 1990), those who choose to leave Omelas are at best utilitarians who prioritise the benefit of the majority of Omelians over the welfare of the single child, and at worst (or more accurately), cowards who do not want to face the moral dilemma. Perhaps they are in less fault than those who choose to stay as they are aware of the immorality of staying, but by leaving they are also ignoring the plight of the child to avoid guilt, abdicating their basic responsibility to the child as a fellow human and city-dweller.
On both levels, Omelians see the tradeoff as a fixed one, believing they can only work within the confines of this perverse bargain by choosing to either stay or leave. Le Guin certainly feels otherwise. The main thrust of Le Guin’s plea to act on the morally right lies in her use of rhetorical tactics that hold the reader as a virtual Omelian. Le Guin alternates between lucid descriptions of Omelas and gaps which require readers to fill with their imagination – “Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids…I cannot suit you all” – allowing readers to construct the utopian Omelas. This forces readers to wrestle with the moral dilemma and implicates the readers in the decisions made by the characters. As the anti-utopian narrative of Omelas unfolds, readers are made aware of the parallels between Omelas and the real world, making clear that the dilemma presented in Omelas exists in reality as well.
Le Guin espouses the morally right, the renunciation of capitalist exploitation, as the answer to the moral dilemma. Yet her story does not demonstrate how this change might occur, neither does it show any possibility of it. The author might have hinted at the possibility of an alternative system by alluding to “darkness” beyond Omelas, “a place less imaginable to most of us”. The lexical ambiguity reflects the academic and political reality of the lack of a substitute system for capitalism. Perhaps Le Guin conveys hope for one, perhaps those who leave Omelas may conceive a new system. However, Le Guin proceeds to qualify the possibility of a new system by conceding that “(i)t is possible that it does not exist”. Without showing how a fundamental change in capitalism might occur, the text simply conveys a strong desire for it, as if willing the possibility of resisting and overhauling capitalism to reality.
Snowpiercer fills this gap by living out what Le Guin hoped for. Snowpiercer portrays what the story of Omelas failed to portray, the destruction of capitalism through Curtis’ morally right choice of derailing the train. Where no Omelian helped the poor child out of the basement it was damned to, Curtis gave up the chance at being at the top of the capitalist system to rescue young Timmy, who represented the poor, stuck below the floorboards, servicing the engine as a substitute for extinct parts. Snowpiercer goes beyond mere presentation of answering the moral dilemma with what we believe to be the morally right answer. It pictures a world without capitalism – a world of destruction. The film compares the end of capitalism with the end of the world. This comparison espouses the futility of removing capitalism, conveying the permanence of it instead. This view on the permanence of capitalism lies at the core of Snowpiercer’s resigned take on the morally right choice as the answer to the moral dilemma.
Optimists may argue that the final scene where two children, Yona and Timmy, survive the explosion hints at the birth of a new system. However, a rational reading of this scene proves otherwise. Contextually, both are ill-equipped to survive the harsh cold. As the last male and female on Earth, it is unlikely that they alone can repopulate and rebuild a civilization. Thus, even this falsely hopeful ending remains “an inability (or unwillingness) to imagine any alternative” to the status quo (Clark, 2016). Even in our world, the inability of academics and politicians to conceive a viable alternative to capitalism is proof of its immutability. Fukuyama famously declared capitalism as the end point for states, a conclusion he arrived at through the systematic elimination of Fascism and communism as alternatives (1989). Zizek noted that “the only solution to a failure of capitalism is more capitalism” (2012), lending strength to Snowpiercer’s portrayal of the unfeasibility of removing capitalism, and by extension, the unfeasibility of the morally right choice.
Snowpiercer’s demonstration of the futility and unattainability of living out the morally right choice of eliminating capitalist exploitation functions as a resigned reply to Le Guin, forty years after the story of Omelas was written. In forty years, most traces of communism were obliterated, technology advanced and capitalism became more pervasive. This pervasiveness has reached a point that the option to resist capitalism no longer exists, assuming this option had ever been open, during the time of Omelas. Perhaps the option to live out the morally right still exists in the illusion of hope for change. However, Snowpiercer makes this futility of resistance transparent by portraying ground-up revolutions and then revealing, at the end, that they are all orchestrated and instigated. Snowpiercer’s message is clear: we are unable to live out the morally right.
It is disconcerting to know that the option to do what is right is unavailable. Perhaps a consolation is that this uneasiness indicates a sensitivity and morality towards the wrong, the exploitation of the poor. On a scale of those who choose to stay in Omelas and Snowpiercer’s Curtis, living in guilty awareness places us at a better position than the former. To end on a more optimistic note, what Snowpiercer portrays may be a critical and accurate reflection of our contemporary reality. Just as Omelas is no longer a true mirror for us today, Snowpiercer is a reflection, not a prophecy. Perhaps the future will be a different one, where the possibility to enact fundamental changes to capitalism will resurface.
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