I read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a science fiction novel set in an anarchist utopia on the fictional planet of Anarres, which has no government, corporations, private property, money, buying and selling, police, criminal law or prisons.
I have questions about whether such a society is feasible, but the more interesting and important question for me is whether I would want to live in such a society. I was undecided when I reviewed the book in an earlier post.
The moral atmosphere of Ursula Le Guin’s Anarres is like the church and volunteer groups to which I belong. Everybody picks the job they like the best or feel best suited for, the work nobody wants to do is divided up, most people do their share and a vital few do much more than their share, without any reward except respect. The work gets done, maybe not in the most efficient way, but without anybody being bossed around or made miserable and frustrated.
This is highly appealing. I have been retired for nearly 15 years, and spent a fair amount of time in retirement doing church work, volunteer work and helping people out. What I do has no monetary value, but I think what I do has some usefulness to society. I expect to continue as long as I can.
But I would hate to go back to doing paid work, even though I have been much luckier in my work life than most people. I’ve been able to do work that I wanted to do, and get paid for it. As a newspaper reporter, I had much greater freedom than most wage earners to act on my own initiative and use my own judgment, although this diminished in the last few years before I retired. If I had a guaranteed income and were young, I think I would work as a journalist without pay, and I think I would do as good a job as if I were dependent on an employer for my income.
The other aspect of life on Anarres, no private property and no laws, has less appeal for me. I like owning my own house, free and clear, from which nobody has the power to turn me out. I like thinking that I am free to speak and act as I wish, so long as I stay within the bounds of statutory law. If my sense of security is an illusion, it is an illusion to which I cling.
If there is no private property and no Bill of Rights, then the freedom and security of the individual depends on public opinion. I do not want my well-being and freedom to depend on public opinion. As Adlai Stevenson once said, “A free society is a society in which it is safe to be unpopular.” On Anarres, I would be an “individualist” and a “propertarian,” both unpopular things to be. On the other hand it is not exactly safe to be unpopular in the contemporary USA.
Now it is true that I am highly fortunate, even by American standards, and this shapes my judgment. My new anarchist acquaintances point out that my thinking reflects the assumptions of the capitalist society in which I was born and grew up. This is true. The value of a book like The Dispossessed is that it helped me to re-examine my assumptions and think of new possibilities.
Click on Ursula Le Guin’s anarchist utopia for my original post.
Click on Planets of the Hainish Cycle for a Wikipedia guide to Ursula Le Guin’s fictional universe.
Click on Takver’s Anarres – Comments on Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed and Anarchism for an admirer’s thoughts.
Click on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: Anarres as Description of the Communist Future for a thoughtful review from a Marxist perspective by Karlo Mikhail Mongaya.