Ursula Le Guin and The Dispossessed

leguin-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.

 

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The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

If as mentioned previously the First Opium War opened China to British drug pushers, it also opened up China to the cultural influence of the West, and one of these influences stemmed from the flood of Christian missionaries who thereafter inundated the country.Obviously there was a lot lost in translation between these Christian missionaries and the Chinese, for after Hong Xiuquan, a member of the Hakka ethnic group in southern China, encountered Christianity he became convinced that he was the brother of Jesus who had been sent to China to rid the country of “devils”.

The devils Hong Xiuquan was talking about included the Confucian meritocracy, themselves the heirs of a practical variant of utopianism.  This resentment towards Confucians was not surprising given that he had failed the civil service exams, based on the Confucian classics numerous time, and thus found himself  barred from a government post that would have granted him a stable income and place in society.

This is one of the stupendous what-ifs of history, like Hitler not getting into art school in Vienna, and going on to almost destroy Europe.  Would the Taiping Rebellion have never happened, would 20-30 million people not be killed if one man was better at taking standardized tests? Can the gods be so cruel in their irony?

As it was,  Hong Xiuquan set to preaching and soon had himself a sect.  In part, the attraction of the sect was a reflection of the dystopian environment around him. Bandits robbed seemingly at will, the Hakka people fought incessantly over sparsequality farmland,  natural disasters rocked the country . The civil and population pressures gave rise to a pernicious practice of female infanticide that overtime caused the natural ratio of males to females to become all out of whack.  Young hot-bloods had too much testosterone in their veins and too little food in their stomachs, and were thus a volatile mix in which  Hong Xiuquan served as a match.  Much of the popularity of the Taiping movement, like the modern day Taliban, stemmed from their ability to bring a semblance of order and security to this otherwise chaotic and dangerous world .

Yet the the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, established in modern day Nanjing, was something much different than the Taliban.  It was a strange hybrid form of utopia, a kind of marriage between what we in the West would understand as Puritanism, abolitionism, feminism, Spartan or  pseudo-totalitarian military organization, and perhaps even a version of Malthusian environmentalism.

The Taiping replaced the Confucian classic that had served as the gateway to government office with the Bible, vice laws were passed  and came down hard on opium users, gamblers, consumers of alcohol, and prostitutes.  The sexes were strictly separated, and, in one of those classic examples of utopian overreach, sex, even by married couples, was discouraged.

At the same time, the Taiping launched a program of radical egalitarianism that gave the rebellion characteristics somewhere between the French Revolution and the American Civil War.  In a stroke, they abolished private property, banned the barbaric practice of foot- binding women, and declared the sexes equal, permitting women to take exams and serve in government.   They also, before the Emancipation Proclamation was even conceived, abolished slavery (of the Chinese variety).

It was their tight military structure and totalitarian organization of society that made the Taiping so hard to defeat.  They proved as effective at mobilizing society as the civic-republicanism of the French people mobilized against Europe only a few decades before. The degenerating Qing Dynasty that ostensibly ruled China had a much harder time putting down the Taiping separatist than the Union armies had bringing down the Confederacy almost simultaneously.  And unlike with the American war, the British took sides in the conflict and supported the Qing, which may have been a decisive element in their eventual victory.

Many of the policies of the Taping Heavenly Kingdom might be understood as utilitarian responses to a Malthusian environment.  Their prohibitions on sex were efforts to drive the population down,  and sexual equality offered an answer to the distortions of female infanticide.  Women in the kingdom were just as valued as men.

This weird mash-up of different, and contradictory, forms of utopia to Western eyes seems not to make sense.  Yet, when seen from the perspective of what was happening elsewhere in the first half of the 19th century, the strangeness of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom becomes less bewildering.

The Taiping Rebellion occurs in the historical space between the French  Revolution and American Civil War and contains aspects of both.  Perhaps revolutionary concepts blew like pollen across the Central Asia and the Pacific and cross-fertilized with native Chinese elements to create the strange hybrid of the Taiping Heavenly kingdom.

What the French Revolution, American Civil War and Taiping Rebellion all shared is that they were attempts to create what we now understand to be a modern, sovereign state.   What the founding fathers of modern China, Sun Yat Sen and Mao saw in the Taiping utopia was a hopeful harbinger of this new form of the state in China, and therefore, despite their differences in vision from it, admired the rebellion as a failed attempt at necessary transformation.

The current plutocrats ruling China, however, see in the Taiping a dangerous historical precedent that must be guarded against at all costs. What was once the source of partially irrational utopian hopes of the Chinese leadership has become the source of equally irrational dystopian fears. Anyone wondering today about China’s often cruel and  seemingly paranoid treatment of Christians, Tibetans, or fringe religious sects such as the Falun Gong needs to keep the historical experience of the Taiping Rebellion in mind in order to understand the root of Chinese fears.

What relevance does any of this have today? Some have suggested that we keep the experience of the Taiping Rebellion at the forefront of our minds when we think any future large scale disruptions to Chinese society.   One might wonder out-loud how China is going to deal with its massive demographic, environmental and political challenges. One might also wonder how China, now the “workshop of the world”, like the British who cleaned their clock in the Opium Wars, might deal with another tectonic shift coming from automation and localized production that challenges that status.

Given how purely speculative all this is, what interests me most is what kinds of strange cross-fertilizations, like that between the Taiping Rebellion and intellectual flora that originated in the West,  are going on today, and, more important may occur in the near future.

As I wrote in a recent post, it might be a good idea for people in the West to start looking for novel ideas about politics, culture, technology, art to start emerging from the more dynamic developing world, and that would include China, even though it is rapidly aging and therefore probably missing something of the natural utopianism and innovation of youth.

When the history of the Occupy Wall Street Movement is written one of its most interesting aspects might be that it was inspired by a similar movement in the developing world- the Arab Spring.  (Though it might be more accurately called a Mediterranean Spring and have its origin in Greece).   One can only imagine, should China ever bloom into its own spring, what strange and interesting ways of thinking and being in the world might emerge there.  What bloomed in China might eventually make its way to our shores to combine with Western traditions giving rise to something we have not seen before, perhaps for ill, but let us hope, for good.