Friday, 24 November 2006

Anarchism in outer space

Ursula Le Guin's 1974 book "The Dispossessed" has been re-released as part of a series of "Science Fiction Masterworks." And thank goodness for that, or I might never have picked it up. Thank goodness too for my mate Manos whose recommendation was sufficient to over-rule my instinctive aversion to all things Sci-Fi.

For this is a GOOD book. Its narrative structure, characterisation and wonderfully evocative description all combine to make a well-balanced, engrossing whole. More than this though this is an ideas book and it is the ideas behind the book that turn it from being just a good novel to being a really necessary book for our time.

Le Guin takes up the challenge frequently directed towards those on the dissident margins: If you don't like this world what would you have instead? Using the freedom which the science fiction genre allows her, she imagines twin planets circling some distant sun. One, Urras, is reminiscent of our own world in its hierarchy, wealth disparities and rich environment; the other, Anarres, is a dustbowl world home to people who have fled Urras in search of something different: Odonianism. Or, as we would call it, anarchism.

The environmental poverty of the planet Annares is a crucial feature of this set-up. Its very poverty is the basis of the social system which it (only marginally) supports, for there is no incentive for the rich, militaristic world of Urras to come and take over. Le Guin avoids the taxing problem of how truly horizontal societies defend themselves effectively against hierarchical competitors; in her scenario Annares survives by having nothing worth competing for.

The poverty of Annares also helps to reinforce the social cohesion which a horizontal society might otherwise lack. Annares is a world without compulsion - children are not forced into school, adults are not forced to work. Yet all can eat at the common refectories and help themselves to goods from the workshops of various syndicates throughout the land. The little wealth which Annares generates is freely available to all, regardless of the part they played in generating this wealth.

How does such a system maintain itself? A number of mechanisms are at work. Firstly, as mentioned, the poverty of the place helps. On Annares survival is marginal and people understand that all hands are required on deck if existence is to be maintained. Secondly the simple good heartedness of the human species is evoked. Perhaps this is the most idealistic part of anarchism; it is certainly an element entirely missing from our current system. "Can human solidarity really motivate people to any meaningful level?" say the sceptical, wealth-driven profiteers of our current system. (Well if you're reading this article on IndyMedia, you have one small yes-answer staring you in the face....)

Le Guin says "Yes" too. Perhaps the wisest aspect of this whole book though is Le Guin's understanding of the need for a mechanism to back this up. Human solidarity does not necessarily happen spontaneously, it needs to be nurtured and reinforced. So Le Guin sets up a popular culture on Annares in which the heroes are the willing participants, those in solidarity while the villains are the profiteers, those who seek to gain power and use it for their individual ends. There are any number of practical social phenomena which further reinforce these ideas - the undermining of the nuclear family, sexual freedom, even the naming of children which is by computer etc etc.

Did you flinch though at the words "popular culture"? You were meant to! For the weakness of Annares lies in the very mechanisms which reinforce solidarity. The "tyranny of public opinion" is a danger in every society, perhaps especially an anarchist one. A standard criticism of the great anarchist thinker, Proudhon, is his failure to properly understand this fact: In an anarchist society "social pressures are better hidden, but this does not make them any the less coercive of either action or will." (Alan Ritter) So it is on Annares; people's distrust of change, of innovation is the same in this anarchist near-Utopia as in our own world. Although the popular culture on Annares embodies a great deal which is good and admirable, if people cling to it by reaction, without thought, then the potential for tyranny is great...

Into this imperfect anarchist society is born our hero, Shevek. In a very astute move, Le Guin chooses the career of theoretical physicist for Shevek. He is by nature an innovator, a thinker, a source of new ideas; ideas which will inevitably conflict with the conservative anarchist (!) culture of Annares. The story of this conflict is the story of this book and I will not spoil it. A few comments though about Shevek are in order...

The choice of theoretical physics as the field of Shevek's study is astute for a number of reasons. Firstly because it lies at the juncture of science, of philosophy and of art. In a sense these are the three arms of what we understand by the word 'civilisation'. For a society to call itself civilised it must have a place for these aspects of human life. As Anarres does; it is not a primitive troglodyte world but a culturally rich, sophisticated and complex civilisation. Le Guin does not wish to embody the anarchism of the great apes, or of Marx's primitive communism, but a civilised, humanising anarchism. Shevek's work is incredibly esoteric but it has a place on Anarres, despite the poverty of the place:

"Do you consider the work you've done here functional?"
"Yes. `The more that is organised, the more central the organism: centrality here implying the field of real function.' Tomar's DEFINITIONS. Since temporal physics attempts to organise everything comprehensible to the human mind, it is by definition a centrally functional activity."
"It doesn't get bread into people's mouths."
"I just spent six decads helping to do that. When I'm called again I'll go again. Meanwhile I stick by my trade. If there's physics to be done I claim the right to do it." (p219)

The final strength of Le Guin's career choice for Shevek is the content of the physics he studies. This is a completely made-up branch of physics called the Theory of Simultaneity and it conerns the nature of time. Shevek supposedly rejigs scientific thinking about the nature of time from that of a linear process with 'befores' and 'afters' to a phenomenon existing in entirety, simultaneously. We can think of the past, present and future as co-existent, rather than sequential.

Why is this interesting? Because it pertains to the idea of REVOLUTION. Shevek lives, supposedly, in a post-revolutionary society. Annares has had its revolution and achieved its Utopia. Except of course that this utopia, as we have seen, is flawed. Annares' anarchism, for all its strengths, has become conservative. But how does one revolt against the revolution? Especially if, like Shevek, you believe in that original revolution for all that you can see its flaws.

The answer is that the revolution never happened. And it never will. It can only BE HAPPENING. It is a continuous unfolding of events in which we can choose to play our part or not. In some ways the residents of Annares have ceased to play their part; it will be Shevek's role to remind them of their lines and get them back on the stage.

That lesson is for us also. Notionally we are in a pre-revolutionary society but perhaps this is flawed thinking. The revolution must be happening now if it is to happen at all. It is a process in which we can play our part in particular portions of time and space, if we so choose. We will not find the revolution elsewhere, we must make it here. Now.


1. An alternative review of THE DISPOSSESSED (with much more detail about the plot):
The website of Ursula Le Guin:

2. Ursula Le Guin has an anthropological background which clearly informs much of her work. As an Australian I couldn't help but draw parallels between her description of the twin worlds of Urras and Annares and the Western and aboriginal worlds which coexist so uneasily in my own country.

Whilst Australian aboriginal societies are very diverse in structure, certainly at least some of them could be characterised as basically anarchist. I am most familiar with the Mardu people of Western Australia whose lifestyle bears a great deal of comparison with that of the people of Annares.

3. In the review above you may have felt a little frustrated by the lack of attention given to how horizontal societies defend themselves against hierarchies. This stimulated me to think about such phenomena in real life. The idea of guerilla warfare is certainly relevant here but it doesn't just need to apply to military conflict.

Indeed the example that first sprang to my mind was the conflict that the Free Software community is currently waging with that ultimate hierarchy, Microsoft. How that war is being waged and how the horizontalness of Free Software is working to its advantage in some respects has been the subject of much discussion. More information is here:
A couple of slightly random but interesting articles:

The other obvious example pertains to my previous point - how aboriginal people have defended themselves against Western invasion. Certainly for the Mardu people this invasion has been a catastropic event. What is striking about their situation is that, like the people of Annares, the Mardu people survived for a long time because they had nothing that the Western people wanted (some Mardu people only met white people for the first time in the 1970's).

Since contact however this survival has been greatly compromised. Indeed the West has actively sought to undermine Mardu society through missions, through forcible removal of children, etc etc, despite the fact that the Mardu pose no material threat to Western society. Perhaps though the threat is a perceived one - and this is something which Le Guin manages to convey very effectively with respect to Annares. The governing class of Urras speak with some unease of Annares; they dread the Odonian (anarchist) creed gaining currency in their own world. For this reason they insist that the isolation of Annares be absolute, for fear that the example of a successful anarchist society will prove a seduction which the people of their own society cannot (do not want to) resist.

So, anarchists, get seducing! Power fears you!

1 comment:

Jim Jay said...


I really liked this and so I've stolen it - posting it on the Socialist Unity Network website - with links to blog etc. of course

I hope that's ok - if not email me from the contact us button to let me know - ta