Ursula Le Guin and The Dispossessed


“The State recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself.” (272)

                                                 The Dispossessed 

The great science-fiction writer, poet, environmentalist and feminist Ursula Le Guin died last week at the age of 88 at a time when wisdom like hers was needed more than ever. Her last piece of advice, written in light of the panic and despondency triggered by the presidential election was to urge us to calm resistance to become like water, the perfect form to counteract the inflexible hardness of violence and force. It was a wisdom she took straight from the Taoist Lao Tzu whom she had beautifully translated and whose cyclical view of the world as birth and growth followed by inevitable decay and death followed by rebirth had for decades had resonance with her own.

Only a few years before she had seen the decay coming. In an interview with fellow science-fiction writer Naomi Alderman she noted that:

My country where I live is currently in this curious regressive mood. Apparently people are frightened and so they want to go back to what they perceive as the old certainties, and, of course among this is putting women back in their place. And it worries me when I see young women who aren’t worried about this who think they’ve sort of got it made, you know.

She also observed that the time for her to engage in our perpetual struggles for justice had now passed and the torch passed to the young:

But I really have to say, Naomi, at my age- 85- I don’t think it’s particularly my job to look ahead. I think the perspective from where I am in really extreme old age is… how much of the future can it include, or should it include. It’s really not my business anymore. It’s your business and the young-ins.”

Certainly she would have seen in the resistance to Trumpism so far, in the Women’s March, and the #MeToo movement the end to complacency and the basis for something new. The seeds Le Guin and other feminists of her generation had sown have apparently taken deeper root than she feared. Even if this reinvigorated call for equality came with questions and possible dangers as have all sharp moves towards justice before.

I myself had discovered Le Guin quite late in life and what brought me to her was the hope that she could reveal something deep about the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which in one sense, helped give birth to this blog. Below is one of the first post I ever published here on her anarchist version of Utopia. It is not my best work. Yet I still believe, and now more than ever, that The Dispossessed is a book no one who hopes for a better future that does not repeat the error of Utopias of the past should fail to read.    ___________________________

I just finished The Dispossessed, a 1974 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. This wonderful book tells the story of an “ambiguous” anarchist utopia. Though written during a period much different from our own, The Dispossessed  might have lessons for us today, especially for those in the OWS movement whose political philosophy and hopes represent what might be seen as a triumph of anarchism.

The novel is set on the anarchist colony on the moon of Anarres, founded as a breakaway settlement of a movement called Odonianism- a moral and political philosophy created by Odo a woman who railed against the capitalist system of Urras, the rich and beautiful mother planet.  The two worlds under “The Terms of the Closure of the Settlement of Anarres” have interactions limited to a space freighter that exchanges necessities between them 8 times a year. There is a “wall” between Anarres and Urras, and it is the efforts of the protagonist of The Dispossessed,  a brilliant physicist named Shevek to break down this wall between worlds that form the essence of the story.

Without doubt, Odonianism has created a moral utopia. The inhabitants of Anarres, constantly subject to a harsh climate, and in constant danger of scarcity and famine, are bound together tightly and suffer continuously for one another. The needs of the whole community come before all others, even those of family. As is the case with Shevek and his beloved partner Takver who separate in the name of the needs of the community.  Anarres is an organic community that in the words of Shevek arguing with a Urratzi social Darwinist:

Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species are those who are the most social. In human terms the most ethical.” (195)

The people of Anarres have no real government, though it can not really be said that they have politics either. Like Saint-Simon had suggested, without the class war endemic to the state, politics would become the mere “administration of things”.  A series of councils/syndicis make important decisions such as the allocation of work (though an individual is always free to refuse to go where a work syndic requests.  To my ears, these councils sound much like the “working groups” of the OWSM each tasked with a very particular need or goal of the movement. On Anarres they are a place where rotation and openness to debate mask the fact that they can be manipulated for political ends such as the machinations of the scientist Sabul who uses his ability to control the flow of information between Anarres and Urras, and even to control the publication of scientific papers to use the brilliance of Shevek for his own advantage, and take credit for what is mostly Shevek’s work.

It is this ability and desire to control the flow of knowledge and insight (including the insight brought by travelers from other worlds) whether stemming from the flawed human condition of someone like Sabul, or the tyranny of the majority implicit in an egalitarian society, that is the sin of Anarres. For, when combined with an internalized moral code that commands them not to be egoist, the Anarrresti are unable to express their own individual genius. Whether that be in a case like Shevek’s where he is constantly thwarted from constructing a theory that would allow faster- than- light communication, and therefore the enable the strong connection of interstellar peoples to become possible, or the comedy of a non-conformist playwright, such as Tirin, who writes a play about a comic character coming from Urras to Anarres. This suffocation of the spirit of the soul is the primary, and growing, flaw of Odo’s utopia.  As Shevek says:

That the social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience instead of striking a balance with it. We don’t cooperate –we obey. (291)

In an effort to break free from the control of knowledge, Shevek and those around him set up a printing syndicate of their own. This syndicate eventually starts communicating with the outside, with the Urratzi, which ultimately results in the ultimate attempt to breakdown walls- Shevek’s visit to Urras itself.

The capitalist nation of A-Io invites Shevek out of the belief that he is on the verge of discovering a unified theory of time which they will profit from.  Shevek’s journey is a disaster. What he discovers on Urras is a beautiful yet superficial world built on the oppression of the poor by the rich. Not surprising for the time period the novel was written, a Cold War rages between capitalist A-Io and the authoritarian communist nation of Thu. The two-powers fight proxy wars in less developed nations. When the poor rise up to protest the rich in A-Io they are brutally massacred, and Shevek flees to the embassy of the planet Earth. The ambassador of earth shelters Shevek, but expresses her admiration for Urras, with the civilization on earth having almost destroyed itself. Explains the ambassador:

My world, my earth is a ruin.  A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left and then we died…

But we destroyed the world first. There are no forest left on my earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot.” (347)

She admires Urras for it’s  beauty and material abundance, which has somehow avoided environmental catastrophe. She does not understand the moral criticism of Shevek- a man from a desert world of scarcity, and famine.

Earthlings were ultimately saved by an ancient, sage like people the Hainish. They return Shevek to Anarres, along with a member of the Hainish that wants to see the world anarchist have built. The walls Shevek sought to tear down continue to fall…

What might some of the lessons of this brilliant novel be for our own times? Here are my ideas:

1) For the OWSM itself: that the “administration of things” always has a political aspect. That even groups open to periodic, democratic debate are prone to capture by the politically savvy, and steps make sure they remain democratic need to be constant.

2) One of the flaws of Le Guin’s view of utopia is that it seems to leave no room for democratic politics itself.  Politics, therefore can only be in the form of manipulation (Sabul) or rebellion (Shevek) there is no space, it seems, for consensual decision making as opposed to a mere right to debate and be heard.

3) There is a conflict between the individual (the need for creativity, love of family) and the needs of the community that is existential and cannot be eliminated by any imaginable political system. The key is to strike the right balance between the individual and the community.

4) That the tyranny of the majority or groupthink is a real danger for any community and not just a mere bogeyman of conservative forces.

5) The most important thing we can do to preserve the freedom of the individual and health of the community is to keep the lines of communication and connection open. That includes openness to the viewpoints of ideological rivals.


The deep compassion of Ursula Le Guin is something all of us will miss.



Forgotten October

Soviet Train poster

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. This stupendous event, which  so shaped the history of the last century has, like few events of similar magnitude that continue to haunt the present, suffered the sad fate of being either being absent mindedly or deliberately forgotten. The lessons of October have been forgotten and brushed aside as a tragic cul de sac of of history for those who believe capitalism’s current reign to have been the  preordained “end of history” and even by Russia’s current autocrats themselves who see in the revolution a dangerous object lesson for those who might be encouraged to throw off the yoke of the vile.

When the weird fiction author and Marxist China Mieville published his vorticose, short history of the Russian Revolution bluntly titled October he did not expect to have the market almost all to himself. But he did. Publishers and historians seemed to doubt whether this century old event could garner any widespread interest. Who cares about what happened in a backward country a century ago? What’s the point engaging with communist revolution when we know how the story turned out? Gulags or Stalin’s demonic psyche are more dramatic material. And besides, communism was a failure, capitalism won the cold war. Even the Russians with their luxury apartments in London and their goldplated candidate in the White House admit the truth of capital’s triumph.

As anyone who has had the good fortune to read his novel The City and the City knows, Mieville is a freaking brilliant fiction writer. His demonstrated artistic skill in fleshing out characters, and more importantly, conveying reality in a new register came across in October, but sadly not enough. If his goal as an admitted partisan for Marxism was to convey the brilliance and courage of the major figures of the Russian Revolution- Lenin, Trotsky- it was only partially achieved for the revolution seemed less characterized by human agency than it was by factionalism and chaos. The Bolsheviks, almost in spite of themselves, ended up the last man standing after the accumulated simple mindedness of Russian czars and above everything the pain and devastation wrought by the First World War built up to the point of causing complete social collapse.

Lenin was without doubt a brave man, but his brilliance as a revolutionary consisted mainly in seeing the impossibility of coalitions between various factions holding while centripetal forces were tearing the Russian empire apart. A society incapable of coalitions between its strongest social forces is forced to chose between the Scylla of anarchy and the Charybdis of tyranny. We know how Lenin chose.

One catches a glimpse of Mieville’s brilliance only in October’s epilogue when he reflects on the legacy of the Russian Revolution. After, with brutal honesty, admitting the crimes of Soviet Communism in the decades following the revolution, Mieville grapples with what the revolution meant. What the revolution revealed was that other futures were possible.

The revolution of 1917 is a revolution of trains. History proceeds in screams of cold metal. The tsar’s wheeled palace, shunted into sidings forever; Lenin’s sealed stateless carriage; Guchkov and Shulgin’s meandering abdication express…. “

Revolutions, Marx said, are the locomotives of history. ‘Put the locomotive into top gear’, Lenin exhorted himself in a private note, scant weeks after the October revolution, ‘and keep it on the rails.’ But how could you keep it there if there really was only one true way and it was blocked?

Mieville quotes Bruno Schulz’ story ‘The Age of Genius’:

Have you ever heard of parallel streams of time within a two-track time? Yes, there are such branch lines of time, somewhat illegal and suspect, but when, like us, one is burdened with contraband of supernumerary events that cannot be registered, one cannot be two fussy. Let us try to find at some point of history such a branch line, a blind track onto which we can shunt these illegal events. There is nothing to fear. (319)

Mieville’s point, I take it, is that the Russian Revolution offers up to us an attempt to breach an alternative future from the junction of 1917. The failure to actually constitute an alternative to the capitalist order that is our own doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and the opportunity remains to diverge again in the direction of the future that was lost.

That is certainly true, but there is something else, something even more poignant and beyond his own authorial fetishes, to  Mieville’s choice of railroads and switchmen as images for lost and alternative futures.

Perhaps the greatest novelist during the most brutal phase of Soviet history was Andrei Platonov. The son of a railway worker Platonov too saw in the locomotive a potent analogy for the world brought forth by the revolution. Early in the revolution Platonov had written to his wife:

Even though I had not yet completed technical school, I was hurriedly put on a locomotive to help the driver. The remark about the revolution being the locomotive of history was transformed inside me into a feeling that was strange and good: remembering this sentence, I worked very diligently on the locomotive . . . ‘

Platonov never lost his faith in Marxism or his affection for the revolution, but the deep humanity on display in his novels ultimately allowed him to grasp the cruelty and absurdity of the Soviet system. He would turn his experience on the locomotive into a harrowing scene in his novel Chevengur a frightened engineer drives his train to collision:

The locomotive was quivering with tension and swaying its entire body, searching for a chance to hurl itself down the embankment and escape the power and pent-up speed that were suffocating it. Sometimes Dvanov felt that the locomotive had already left the rails and the coaches were about to follow and he was dying in the quiet dust of soft soil, and Aleksandr put his hands to his chest to keep his heart from terror.”

Platonov would compose an even more powerful metaphor in what became his most well-known novel The Foundation Pit. There, instead of revolutionaries driving trains off their tracks, Platonov imagined them digging a giant hole, the first step in laying the foundation of a longed for utopian arcology that would house the dispossessed. It is a hilarious, absurdist tale the likes of Kafka or Samuel Beckett and perhaps the best reflection on the cruelties of bureaucracy ever written.

Andrei had a real example to go on when writing The Foundation Pit. The planned Palace of the Soviets that was to tower 1,362 feet which would be topped by a 6,000 ton statue of Lenin, so large that there was to be a library in his head. With the ravages of World War II the colossus was never built although the Cathedral of Christ the Savior had been leveled to make room for the imagined temple to the new gods.

The point Platonov, who remained a Marxist until the end of his days, seemed to be making with his fiction was to remind the world what the revolution was for. The why of the revolution was to find an alternative to the human crushing nature of both autocracy and capitalism. What it appeared to be doing instead was to combine the worst aspects of both.

There is a history to how this happened, how the revolution went from being a moment of revolution to one of subjugation under far worse chains. At it’s root lie the sweeping aside of real human beings in the quest for an idol of technological and economic progress.

You can see the revolution go off the rails, the humanism Platonov clung to die in an interview of Lenin by none other than H.G. Wells. The model for the Soviet future that Lenin put forward in that interview was drawn from the apparent power of the planned economy that had been wielded by all the capitalist countries during the First World War. Lenin seconded the irrationality of capitalism which cannibalized the productive forces of its own societies a reality he had learned from reading Chiozza Money’s book The Triumph of Nationalization which told the story of the success of economic planning during the war, and its dissolution in the war’s aftermath as capitalism reasserted itself.  In Lenin’s vision, the Soviet Union would be the first nation modernized and ran from above, the harbinger of the post-revolutionary society that would soon overthrow capitalism and run the globe. It was an argument dear to Well’s cold technocratic heart, even if he had little interest in Marxism or social justice.

The seeds for this dictatorship of the experts could be traced well before the Russian Revolution in the dispute between the anarchist Bakunin and Marx. Bakuin opposed Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” because as he predicted in his Statism and Anarchy it would leave the oppressive nature of the state intact:

… no state, however democratic – not even the reddest republic – can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves…

Dictatorship of the proletariat would inevitably mean a despotism under the technocrats:

If science were to dictate the laws, the overwhelming majority, many millions of men, would be ruled by one or two hundred experts. Actually it would be even fewer than that, because not all of science is concerned with the administration of society. This would be the task of sociology – the science of sciences – which presupposes in the case of a well-trained sociologist that he have an adequate knowledge of all the other sciences. How many such people are there in Russia – in all Europe? Twenty or thirty – and these twenty or thirty would rule the world? Can anyone imagine a more absurd and abject despotism?

Lenin’s experiment with “war communism”, technocratic management of the economy, ended in starvation, social collapse and rebellion. Yet if the man’s true genius lie anywhere it was in his flexibility in the face of events.

With the New Economic Policy he reversed course and adopted a limited form of capitalism. He also, in the face of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion that grew out of the failure of war communism, put an end to the “soviets” the councils of average citizens and workers who arose out of the revolution to take control of their fate and he imposed the centralized control of society by the Bolsheviks. For a time the nascent Soviet Union would have the worse of both worlds: an economy based on capitalist economics with all political power concentrated in the hands of one party. A world not all that dissimilar to the one found in China today. The NEP itself would be killed by Stalin who returned to Lenin’s idea of modernization from above only this time with a cruelty and speed Lenin could never have imagined.

It’s with the lost opportunity of the soviets that I so wish Mieville would have focused his considerable talents and attention. For a time, the collapse of the old autocratic regime during the revolution really did open up new spaces of freedom where citizens took control over their own economic and political affairs through the soviets and enabled rapid progressive reforms that would take decades elsewhere to unfold. In October Mieville does draw our attention to these human possibilities opened up by the revolution.

October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ protections and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalization of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the flourishing of adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory. And though these moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise. (317)

Who were the people who occupied this temporary space of freedom, and how was their freedom gained and lost? What does this real freedom look like? It is into their utopias I wish Mieville would have taken us rather than focus on the “great men” of history who ultimately drove the revolution to its doom.

The source of the lost and now forgotten freedom of the October Revolution Mieville seems to find in the hopeless and besieged revolutionaries in a world where the expected communists revolutions in Europe failed to arrive and the capitalist powers remained implacably hostile to the revolutionary society.

There’s certainly much too that, when Stalin abandoned the NEP in 1928 and began the forced, rapid modernization of the Soviet Union he did so in large part for geopolitical reasons. All of the big powers at this time understood that power of a unified, fully industrialized, continental state; namely, the then isolationist United States. Multiple powers during the 1930’s: Japan, Germany, the USSR, the British Empire would struggle with how to configure themselves into something on par with the US, both to protect themselves and to project power. This was how the Nazi jurists Carl Schmitt understood German expansionism.

And yet, all the pieces for the type of totalitarian society the Soviet Union became were already in place before these imperatives became apparent. On the left, Bakunin had warned of the potential for technocratic despotism within Marxism itself just as on the right Dostoyevsky had predicted something similar with his parable of The Grand Inquisitor and warned us that the quest after material prosperity might ultimately mean the death of our humanity.

In light of the seeming success of systems where ruling elites took control of both economics and information during the First World War Lenin had tried to move the Soviet Union in the direction of a centrally controlled economy. Coupled with the collapse of capitalism in the depression in the 1930’s Stalin’s economics of “the five year plan” didn’t appear retrograde but a glimpse of the future. His iteration of the theme particularly brutal- collectivization resulting in perhaps 12 million deaths- because of the speed at which Soviet society be industrialized relied on the corpse of its overwhelmingly larger agricultural sector. Nevertheless, the idea that the society of the future would be technocratically managed was nearly universal from the 1930’s onward with H.G. Wells being a particularly vocal proponent of this view.

We know how this idea began to unravel in Western countries with revolts against “the establishment” starting in the 1960’s, how the Chinese in the late 1970’s adopted a version of Lenin’s NEP, and how the sclerotic bureaucracy that the Soviet Union had become imploded a decade later. Still, one might legitimately wonder given the rise and spectacular success of behemoth companies that are essentially planning algorithms; most notably Amazon and Wal Mart, whether the types of command economics dreamed up in the early 20th century were just computationally premature. Thanks to Moore’s Law might we have the capacity to rationally manage our economies in a way previously impossible? Might this be done in a way that retained the humanism of figures like Platonov? Those are big questions that will have to wait for another day.