Saturday, November 19, 2011

The dispossessed

The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin is a tale
of future worlds. One is Anarres and clearly
labelled "anarchist". The other, Urras, is less
clearly described as "propertarian" and
"archist". The plot is briefly but dramatically
outlined in the blurb.

"Shevek, a brilliant physicist...single-
handedly attempts to re-unite two planets cut
off from each other by centuries of distrust.
Anarres, Shevek's homeland, is a bleak moon
settled by an anarchic utopian civilization;
Urras, the mother planet, is a world very
similar to Earth, with its warring nations,
great poverty, and immense wealth. Shevek
risks everything in a courageous visit to
Urras - to learn, to teach, to share. But his
gift becomes a threat... and in the profound
conflict which ensues, Shevek must re-
examine his philosophy of life."

The book's thirteen chapters alternate
between Anarres and Urras.

Invited to dislike

LeGuin tells us much that we seem to be
invited to dislike about Urras, and just a few
things that we are invited to approve
(although, depending on your point of view,
you may have a different ratio of approval to

Urras is an "incredibly complex
society with all its nations, classes, castes,
cults, customs and its magnificent, appalling
and interminable history". It is organized
"hierarchically, from the top down". In
education there is an examination system that
involves "cramming in information and
disgorging it at demand" . "The state
recognizes no coinage but power: and it
issues the coins itself" . 50 there are secret
police. And the state uses force, with police
helicopters and machine guns, to put down
demonstrations that threaten the status quo.

Life on Urras closely resembles, and
somewhat exaggerates, life in the USA in the
1970s, when the author was writing (in two
decades the general picture has changed
little). They burn dirty clothes because new
cheap ones cost less than cleaning. There are
private cars, "splendid machines of bizarre
elegance". Everything is "either useless to
begin with or ornamented so as to disguise its

Rats and asylums

There are three competing mail companies.
Everything comes "inside layers and layers of
wrappings". The basic function of the radio
"was advertising things for sale". Other
delights on Urras included rats, army
barracks, insane asylums, poorhouses,
pawnshops, executions, thieves, tenements,
rent collectors, the unemployed, and "a dead
baby in a ditch".

In the realm of thought and ideas there
is also much to dislike about Urras. There is
religious bigotry ("He's a strict-interpretation
Epiphanist. Recites the Primes every night. A
totally rigid mind.") There are "birdseed papers",
"written by semiliterates for serniliterates"
which manufacture news.
Shevek observes that Urrasti people always
look anxious: "Was it because, no matter how
much money they had, they always had to
worry about making more, lest they die

Now to Anarres, the "anarchist
country". It, too, has a system and has people
doing things and thinking thoughts. Anarres
is "an experiment in nonauthoritarian
communism ... (the people) are not only
socialists, they are anarchists" .

No law, no police

There are no laws, no governments, no
police, no money. Or, to add a bit of positive
qualification, there is "no law but the single
principle of mutual aid between individuals ..
. no government but the single principle of
free association". While "nominally there' s
no government on Anarres ... obviously
there's administration ... " The network of
administration and management is called
PDC, Production and Distribution
Coordination. They are a coordinating system
for all syndicates, federatives and individuals
who do productive work. They do not govern
persons; they administer production".
Nobody is ever punished for anything
though sometimes "they make you go away
by yourself for a while".

There is no distinction between men's
work and women's work: "A person chooses
work according to interest, talent, strength -
what has sex to do with that?" The "dirty
work" is done by everyone on one day out of
ten on a basis of choice from "rotating lists''.
"People take the dangerous, hard jobs
because they take pride in doing them".


Most of what we learn that is positive about
Anarres is in terms of thoughts, ideas, even
moral precepts. At a personal level, members
of a community were not moved by mass
feeling but "there were as many emotions as
there were people". The status of religion on
Anarres is ambiguous. There is no
established religion in the sense of churches
and creeds, but "you could not seriously
believe that we had no religious capacity?"
Takver "had always known that all lives are
in common, rejoicing in her kinship to the
fish in the tanks of her laboratories, seeking
the experience of existences outside the
human boundary". One character offers a
moralistic judgement: "Having' s wrong,
Sharings right." Shevek is described as
having been brought up "in a culture that
relied deliberately and constantly on human
solidarity, mutual aid".

Anarres has a population of only 20
million compared with a 1,000 million on
Urras. It was given to the Odonians
(theoretical anarchists) as a means of "buying
them off with a world, before they totally
undermined the authority of law and national
sovereignty on Urras". There was trade
between the two worlds, but in practice
Anarres was a mining colony of Urras. For an
anarchist society, Anarres is remarkably
centralized. Abbenay is the capital, "the mind
and center of Anarres ... There had to be a
center. The computers that coordinated the
administration of things, the division of labor
and the distribution of goods, and the central
federatives of most of the work syndicates
were in Abbenay, right from the start".

Despite this the people of Anarres
have to put up with many shortages and
deprivations. Printing had to cover the whole
page because paper was short. The economy would not support the building and upkeep of individual houses and apartments. People had to save up their daily allowances for a party, and had to fetch their letters from the mail depot because there were no postmen. However, the general picture is one of high morale despite the shortages and deprivations.

Clear aim

LeGuin had an aim in writing The
Dispossessed. Fortunately, we have her own
account of this. Responding to a question by
Lynn McCaffery, she says:

" ... The only trouble with an anarchist
country is going to come from its neighbors.
Anarchism is like Christianity - it 's never
really been practised - so you can 't say
it 's a practical proposal. Still, it 's a
necessary idea. We have followed the state far
enough - too far, in fact. The state is leading us to
World War Ill. The whole idea of the state
has got to be rethought from the beginning
and then dismantled. One way to do this is to
propose the most extreme solution
imaginable: you don't proceed little by little;
you go to the extreme and say, "Let 's have no
government, no state at all" Then you try to
figure out what you have without it, which is
essentially what I was trying to do in 'The
Dispossessed'. This kind of thinking is not
idealistic, it 's a practical necessity these
days. We must begin to think in different
terms, because if we just continue to follow
the state, we've had it. So, yes, 'The
Dispossessed' is very much in earnest about
trying to rethink our assumptions about the
relationships between human beings."
(Across the Wounded Galaxies)

Then McCaffery asked LeGuin why
she had set her anarchist utopia in such a
bleak environment:

"The way I created Anarres was probably an
unconscious economy of means: these people
are going to be leading a very barren life, so
I gave them a barren landscape. Anarres is a
metaphor for the austere life, but I wasn 't
trying to make a general proposal that a
utopia has to be that way."

For LeGuin what seems to be preventing people
making a better fist of life
on contemporary Earth is not so much
capitalism as government and the state.

It follows that what she believes desirable is
not so much socialism, a system to replace
capitalism, as anarchism, a system to replace
"archism". That last term isn't actually in the
dictionary, not even in a large one. But so
much of what LeGuin writes about Urras is
also a fair description of capitalism that
perhaps we shouldn't be too concerned about
her choice of words for its alternative.

The important difference between
LeGuin's view and the socialist view is
surely about the means of changing from one
type of society to the other. LeGuin is vague
about these means. Like most anarchists, she
doesn't think in terms of democratic political
organization for the overthrow of capitalism
and its replacement by socialism. She is right
to "see the folly of reformism ('you don't
proceed little by little ')". But organization is
important - indeed it is vital. By allowing the
"archists" to be well-organized in a
favourable environment, and the anarchists to
be a minority shipped off to a barren planet,
she is not only giving the devil the best tunes:
she is allowing him to take over the whole
music profession.

One serious criticism of The
Dispossessed is that we aren't told enough
about the Urras "working c1ass", and what
little we are told is derogatory and
disillusioning. We know they read "birdseed"
papers and get massacred when they revolt,
but that's about all. LeGuin sketches them in
as semiliterates, as a kind of ancient Roman
"bread and circuses" mob. There is something
deeply pessimistic about a scenario that
envisages the intellectual, material and
political degradation of over 90 percent of the

This remarkable book stimulates the
imagination and paints a picture of a future
world that has a good many socialist features
even jf it doesn't deal at all adequately with
the politics of how we can get to that world.

(Socialist Standard, May 1994)

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