And then, many years later, I read “The Day Before the Revolution,” the prequel short story to The Dispossessed, and found in it the practical application of the novel’s revolutionary ideas. The story is beautifully quiet. It follows Odo, the founder of the radical movement at the heart of The Dispossessed, as she goes through her day and remembers important moments in her political and personal journey. Le Guin prefaced “The Day Before the Revolution” with a brief definition of the Odonian belief system: “Odonianism is anarchism … its principal and moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.”
To be clear, the Odonians are not perfect. They are resistant to change and have allowed other forms of institutional privilege to develop and calcify in their society. But, because they believe in their utopia and have lived their lives in accordance with that belief, they’ve managed to build a reasonably just and equitable society.
And this is where, in life just as in science fiction, a distinction must be made. A just and equitable society is not the same as a perfect one. I’d argue that everyone would benefit if we defined utopia as a move toward justice and equity, and not just the state of perfection. But in America, especially in discussions about social justice, “just” and “perfect” are treated as synonymous objectives. And because perfect is never attainable, justice, too, becomes out of reach. Under this framing, injustice becomes normal, oppression is realistic, and any move towards justice and equity must come from struggle. A disturbing unspoken belief is born from this framing, that marginalized people will never receive full humanity because a just society is not possible. By failing to recognize the dystopia, and dismissing the possibility of a utopia, America has resigned itself to its current, dark narrative.
As a result, in America, universal social welfare is too costly and politically unfeasible, while trillion-dollar corporate bailouts and endless wars go unquestioned. Police and prison reform are aimed towards harm reduction for marginalized communities, instead of daring to imagine a society where these institutions are mostly unnecessary. In American discourse, a society can’t take care of all its citizens or remedy the causes of crime.
In a society where injustice is normalized, justice becomes a goal that can only be achieved through sacrifice—tragedy becomes currency, a thing to be used, not prevented. It takes decades of confirmed police brutality before America considers even the most minor reforms. This is not by accident. Black and brown bodies have been the fuel used to drive this society towards slightly lesser states of injustice since the very beginning. The oppressed have always paid the price for progress.
And yet, Americans have never shown this kind of defeatism when it comes to technological advancements. When this nation decided to go to the moon, it was framed in terms of “How do we get there?” not “Is this possible?” And no one ever said, “This rocket may only get half-way to the moon, but first many must die.”
Americans once oblivious to the utopia are waking up. That’s good. But the price of waking up should be considered, and the lives sacrificed to incrementalism must be mourned. It is easy for a pragmatist to ask for incremental change when the current reality favors them. But pragmatism hits differently when it is forced at gunpoint. Every loss on the way to justice is a collective sin, because it was decided that the road must be long and the oppressed must struggle for every inch.
Do not normalize the losses happening right now because of the gains. Assume where America has always been is a tragedy. What is done in hell isn’t romantic; sacrificing bodies to dystopia isn’t beautiful. As I write this, people protesting brutality are dying at the hands of law enforcement. No one should pay for progress with their life. And it isn’t naive to believe every member of society should have a healthy, empowering, and fulfilling time on earth. The ones that have suffered deserve nothing less than faith in that possibility. This moment may provide a way out of dystopia, but there has to be a collective reckoning with the dystopian aspects of American society as well as the cruel price of progress repeatedly placed on the backs of the oppressed. Through solidarity there is a way out of these bitter realities, but the way there must be just if the destination is to be just.