THE DISPOSSESSED: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula LeGuin is a thought experiment on how an anarchist society would work. I read this science fiction novel when it first came out in 1974 and I re-read it a few weeks ago because of a new-found interest in anarchism.
The novel begins with the journey of the physicist Shevek from the hardscrabble planet Anarres, which was settled by anarchists a century and a half previously, to the lush planet Urras, a caricature of our own world in the 1970s.
In alternating chapters, it tells the story of Shevek’s life on Annares and its discontents, leading up to his decision to leave, and his adventures on Urras and how grotesque a society based on power and profit seems in his eyes.
The Dispossessed is worth reading as a novel, but in addition it gives an idea of how a possible anarchist society could function and, more importantly, the moral foundations of such a society. Anarres is flawed and falls short of its ideals of individual freedom, mutual aid and voluntary cooperation, but is still infinitely preferable to the money-hungry, power-hungry nations of Urras.
I think LeGuin was realistic in putting her anarchist society on a separate planet. Utopian societies, anarchist and otherwise, have sometimes flourished in the United States, but they have all been pulled apart by the gravitational pull of the larger society around them. By this SF device, she was able to show the normal functioning of a hypothetic anarchist society rather than its battles with external enemies.
Ursula Le Guin
Anarres is a society without government, laws, police, courts, corporations, money, salaries, profit, organized religion or private property, except for a few hand-carried personal possessions. Its people speak an artificial language, a kind of benign Orwellian Newspeak which lacks words for concepts such as “debt” or “winner.”
The society is organized to forestall any possibility of hereditary privilege. There are no family names. Everybody has a unique two-syllable, four- or five-letter name assigned by computer. Couples may stay together or not, as the choose. Some are bonded for life, but there are no laws pertaining to marriage or divorce. Children may be raised by both parents, either one or public nurseries. People live in dormitory rooms. Nobody lives in an free-standing house.
Productive work on Anarres is done by syndicates of workers, who produce what is needed and receive what they need without monetary payment. Every local community strives to be self-sufficient in food and energy, but there is some exchange and specialization among the communities.
Although there is no government, there is a coordinating agency called the PDC. It is guided by policy debates and consensus developed in public meetings in which anyone can take part. Advanced computer technology substitutes for central planning or the working of the law of supply and demand. The PDC advises the syndicates on what is needed, and keeps postings of jobs that need to be done. People volunteer for difficult and dangerous jobs, mostly when young, because of the challenge and because their work is honored.
In the individual syndicates, unpleasant work is done in rotation. People who shirk their duties are subject to social pressure, then to public reprimand and possibly summary justice with fists and then, in extreme cases, to expulsion. There are no police and no courts, but there are mental institutions.
By locating her society on a world where living is difficult, Le Guin avoided the easy path of saying that people in the new utopian society would live a life of ease simply because of the absence of exploitation and unnecessary work.
In the course of the novel, there is a near-famine on Anarres which strains the social fabric. Shevek in one chapter is on a food train which is raided by hungry villagers when it stops. But the ethic of mutual aid is strong enough to keep things from falling apart.
The people of Anarres possess the full range of human impulses and desires, but as in any society, they suppress some impulses and foster others. Children are taught to share and not to compete. They are taught to not be “egoists,” but also not to be altruists. Nobody, in theory, is asked to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Instead they are asked to cooperate with others for their mutual benefit.
In the novel, it is hard to maintain the ideal of the free and equal society. Power-seeking, privilege and envy creep in, and conformity to the group becomes oppressive.
I might have thought that she was depicting her anarchist society as a failure if it were not for the contrast with Urras, with its wars, power structures, privileged rich and oppressed poor. Conformity on Urras is enforced not by social pressure, but by helicopter gunships firing on rioting mobs.
I confess that I don’t completely understand how Le Guin’s hypothetical society would work. For example, Shevek and his wife Takvar decide Anarres has become too conformist and they form a Syndicate of Initiative which, among other things, publishes works that can’t otherwise find a printer.
My question is: Who supplies the Syndicate of Initiative with paper? There is no money, so they can’t buy paper. They can ask the paper syndicate to allocate paper, but since they are unpopular and paper is scarce, they would be unlikely to get an allocation. There are no laws that would give them a right to claim a share of paper, or of anything else.
The great merit of the novel, aside from being a good story and a good science fiction story, is that it shows a set of moral values in action that are different from the values that guided the United States of 1974 or of today. The challenge to the reader is whether the reader would want to live according to those values.
For some people, a society without competition, private property or structures of authority might be the opposite of a utopia. For myself, I’m not sure. I rewrote this last paragraph several times, and may rewrite it again.
Click on The Dispossessed for the full text of the novel in The Anarchist Library.
Click on The Dispossessed Quotes for 61 quotations that give the essence of Ursula Le Guin’s novel.
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. [Added 5/27/13]
Click on Takver’s Anarres – Comments on Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed and Anarchism for thoughtful comment from an admirer. [Added 5/31/13]
Click on And Then There Were None for Eric Frank Russell’s classic 1951 anarchist SF satire.