Re-reading The Dispossessed

As with many other people, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was both a gateway into science fiction for me as a child, as well as a very early political textbook. The bleak egalitarianism of Anarres, the striking contrasts with Urras, the scenes of the general strike, and the character of Shevek himself – all these stayed with me for many years, even as the details grew hazy in memory. Earlier this year, I returned to the book, after the passage of a decade and a half. It was a fascinating experience to come back to such a formative piece of work as an adult, and now with a long-standing interest in philosophical anarchism. Of course, The Dispossessed is canon; it’s been analysed extensively over the last fifty years. I don’t intend to add more words to that corpus, so this post is essentially a set of reflections upon re-reading the book.

For me, the most striking part of The Dispossessed is the level of detail with which Le Guin constructs the anarchist society upon Anarres, much of which – I think – has held up particularly well over the decades. At various points in the book – whether as vehicles for advancing the plot, or just as passing mentions in conversations or through the narrative voice – the spheres of production, reproduction, and distribution are all touched upon: from urban infrastructure to art, from supply chains to the naming of children – it’s all there. Much of the discussion, indeed, speaks to radical political texts and arguments that (at least in some cases) were contemporaneous with – or written after – The Dispossessed.

For example, in one of the first descriptions of the urban centre of Abennay, we are told that: “Abennay was poisonless: a bare city, bright, the colours light and hard, the air pure. It was quiet. You could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt. Nothing was hidden.” (p. 84) This reminded me powerfully of Pablo Sendra and Richard Sennett’s book, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City. Sendra and Sennett speak of “publicising infrastructure” as an element of radical urban design, or to “unblackbox infrastructure through architectural design.” (Sendra & Sennett, p. 65) The basic idea is to mitigate differences in power that arise out of urban infrastructure being kept out of sight – and opaque – to those who actually live in the city, and to provide the collective with a measure of control over where the resources are coming from and how they are used. Le Guin does not, of course, get into the technicalities of the urban architecture of Abennay, but the novelist’s task is suggestion, and in that sense, the words “you could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt … nothing was hidden” indicate how the anarchist foundations of Anarres also constitute the – literal – foundation of its cities. While Verso has published Designing Disorder in 2020, the original – solely authored by Sennett – was published in 1970 – four years before The Dispossessed. I can’t but help wondering if Le Guin was inspired in some way by the Sennett’s radical infrastructural proposals.

The art of Anarres is equally interesting. Shevek’s intense reaction upon attending his first concerts in Abennay sets in motion a chain of thought that leads us to this observation: “Thus, architecture had developed, early and freely, a consistent style, pure and plain, subtle in proportion. Painting and sculpture served largely as elements of architecture and town planning. As for the arts of words, poetry and story-telling tended to be ephemeral, to be linked with song and dancing; only the theatre stood wholly alone, and only the theatre was ever called “the Art” – a thing complete in itself.” (p. 131) This reminded me immediately of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s book, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology – also, coincidentally, published in 1970! While that book is primarily about science, its core point – that the division (and hierarchy) between “intellectual” and “manual” labour, where the former is sought to be abstracted from social relations – is a construction of capitalism, applies equally to the distinction between artistic and manual labour. Sohn-Rethel’s proposal for a world in which intellectual labour is “re-embedded” – so to say – within the social relations of production appears to have been accomplished with respect to art on Anarres, as the quoted passage shows (although there is some chafing about it). Once again, I wonder if these ideas – then in wide circulation among leftists and radicals – formed part of the base upon which Le Guin built Anarres.

A third feature of Anarres is that de-growth is very evidently a part of material life – and not just something determined by the harshness of the terrain. The origins of the term “de-growth” are, of course, much more recent (in SF, the idea has been most recently articulated in Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built). We are told this early on when the complex organicism of Anarres is described, as well as its apparent liberation from the commodity form and the capitalist imperative of ceaseless growth. There is, therefore, a strong political economy thread running through The Dispossessed, and I thought it made a particularly vivid re-appearance later on, after the protest marches on Urras: “.. the revolutionists in Nio, they come from the same tradition. They weren’t just striking for better wages or protesting the draft. They are not only socialists, they are anarchists; they were striking against Power” (282) Now, there is of course an open question about whether “power” has been abolished on Anarres (and evidently, insofar as public opinion constitutes a power structure, The Dispossessed is quite clear that it has not), but Le Guin’s clarity here about the distinction between reforms within capitalism (better wages etc) that have historically been the end-goal of mainstream trade unionism on the one hand, and the quest to transform social relations altogether, which has been part of the tradition of more radical unionism, is fascinating (needless to say, socialists would disagree with the accusation that their own manifestos are limited to better wages and having the draft abolished).

The Dispossessed also deals with questions around the institutionalisation – and putrefaction – of revolution. Shevek-the-rebel is always in an ambiguous position because of who – or what – he is rebelling against. In one of the most moving passages in the book, he thinks to himself that “he could not rebel against his society because his society, properly conceived, was a revolution – a permanent one, an ongoing process” (p. 147). I had a somewhat funny mental association while reading this: I found myself thinking of the Mexican political party, PRI – Partido Revolucionario Institucional – whose name literally translates to “the Institutional Revolutionary Party”. But somehow, it fits perfectly – Anarres has become an institutional revolution which formally denies to its citizens the moral authority to revolt, because how do you rebel against the Revolution, how do you question power when your interlocutor has disavowed power itself? Indeed, I think that The Dispossessed’s sub-title – “An Ambiguous Utopia” – has to do not so much with the harshness of life on Anarres, as it has to do with the tension between the idea of freedom upon which Anarres is built, and the freedom to rebel that it nonetheless denies to is citizens.

My final point is a mildly critical one: there is one respect in which I think that The Dispossessed is not particularly convincing, and that is in its treatment of gender relations. I mean, in particular, the gender relations on Urras: Urras is an advanced capitalist society – I’d put them at around 2050/2100 in earth equivalent – but the gender relations there are borderline feudal, and feel almost caricatured at times. We have known, of course, that one of the features of the 20th century was that discrimination – whether gender-based, racial, or otherwise – moved from being formal and direct to being structural, institutional, and indirect. Urras, I think, would have been a far more convincing foil to Anarres had gender relations been treated with the same subtlety that the rest of the world-building was.

But overall, I think it’s striking how much of The Dispossessed continues to hold up, how well it has aged, and how much of it continues to feel relevant – a true sign of a classic. Its highlight-reel of lines is truly memorable: “Men always have theories and things always have to fit them” (179); “… separation is educational alright, but your presence is all the education I want” (210); “We make justice here or nowhere” (243); “If you evade suffering, you also evade the chance of joy” (275); and of course, the devastating “Weigh it in the balance with the freedom of one single human spirit,” he said, turning to her, “and which will weigh heavier? Can you tell? I cannot.” (289)

I can think of no other writer whose finest line also doubles up as a comprehensive critique of methodological utilitarianism!

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