Would I take a spaceship to Anarres?


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.

anarres1The 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.

leguin-the-dispossessedThe 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 The Dispossessed for the full text of the novel in The Anarchist Library.

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.

perspectiveGeorge Orwell thought pacifists and anarchists, just because they renounced the use of force, might feel entitled to use subtle means to force their ideas on other people.  As he wrote once: –

There are families in which the father will say to the child, “You’ll get a thick ear if you do that again,” while the mother, her eyes brimming over with tears, will take the child in her arms and murmur lovingly, “Now, darling, is it kind to Mummy to do that?”  And who would maintain that the second method is less tyrannous than the first?

The distinction that really matters is not between violence and nonviolence, but between having and not having the appetite for power.  There are people who are convinced of the wickedness both of armies and police forces, but who are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the normal person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances.  They will not say to somebody else, “Do this, that or the other or you will go to prison,” but they will, if they can, get inside his brain and dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars.

Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage that habit of mind.  For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics—a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to draw any material advantage—surely that proves you are in the right?  And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.

I don’t think, based on my own limited experience, that anarchists and pacifists are less tolerant than other people, but I do think Orwell describes a pitfall into which people can fall when they lack skepticism about the purity of their own motives.  One of the things I admire about The Dispossessed is that the population of Le Guin’s ambiguous anarchist utopia have all the weaknesses to which human nature is prone, and yet their society is justifiably an inspiration to the exploited people of the twin planet of Urras.

Click on Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool for Orwell’s complete essay.  He was not writing of pacifists and anarchist in general, but of the mental limitations of a particular pacifist and anarchist, Leo Tolstoy, in his old age.   Orwell in fact greatly admired the Spanish anarchists and the anarcho-syndicalist brigades with whom he fought against General Franco’s fascists in 1936.  Click on George Orwell for a complete guide to his writing.

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2 Responses to “Would I take a spaceship to Anarres?”

  1. karlo mikhail Says:

    Thanks for the link. This is a great discussion of Anarres and The Dispossessed. Amidst the gravest crisis since the Great Depression it is inspiring to see many people all over the world busy thinking about alternatives to a system hopelessly marred by social inequality and injustices. More power!


  2. The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin | Rafferty's Rules Says:

    […] Would I take a spaceship to Anarres? (philebersole.wordpress.com) […]


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