In The Dispossessed Ursula K. Le Guin portrays an ‘ambiguous utopia’[i] that is anarchist or, more accurately, anarchist communist (22). A degree of centralisation and so a proto-state is seemingly made inevitable by the hostile geography of Anarres, the fictional moon on which Le Guin situated her utopia. Anarres is a participatory democracy, acutely aware of the potential threat of centralisation to that politics. Anarres is contrasted with Urras, another moon which is a fairly straight-forward projection into the future of the capitalism pertaining on the Earth that Le Guin actually inhabited as she wrote. According to Avery Plaws, Le Guin’s novel ‘persistently portrays private property and political power as interfering with human self-realisation by disrupting genuine community, undermining equality, and constraining freedom’ (23, p. 299). Davis suggests that the novel’s view is that markets and governments are antithetic to the sort communicative human relations necessary for self-realisation (24). The value Le Guin’s comparative societies invest in material objects is diametrically different. On Anarres objects and their possession are alienating; and identity and sociability are the product of their absence. Private ownership, money, markets and profit are antithetic to Anarresti well-being and happiness, and economic distribution is based on need. Meanwhile, material objects on Urras are sources of identity and sociability (24, p. xiii). Echoing William Morris, Le Guin moots the possibility of reconceptualising material objects as art thereby changing the basis of their evaluation (25). Indeed, Davis considers that Le Guin’s paramount contribution to the radical utopian project is to propose a view of art that is democratised but not reduced to a solely social function (20, p.241).
Anarresti society features communal child rearing, public housing, public transport, communal meals, and public service days, the latter at least resonating with the civic republican tradition of citizenship. The Dispossessed also includes an ecoptopian imagining, all be that limited to resource use and waste recycling in conditions of scarcity. Although Anarres is certainly no rural idyll, its philosophical founder, Odo, had proposed a ‘natural limit’ to the size of urban settlements, dictated by bioregionalism[ii]. On Anarres, marriage and the nuclear family have been rejected as part of the project to encourage more egalitarian social relations. Laurence Davis notes that the gender and sexual politics of The Dispossessed is worthy of more analysis (24). Leadership and other roles within local and vocational organisations are rotated, and Anarres thoroughly embraces technology with, as a prime instance, computers being employed to allocate resources and match people’s skills to job vacancies.
Without naming care, Dan Sabia records that: ‘Individuals are on the account of the anarcho-communist radically social. They need one another not only when they are in pain…. True in all societies, the need for others as a condition of self-development and well-being is especially true in anarcho-communist society, because there the absence of a state, or of a centralized authority, entails the viability of all social institutions and practices depends entirely on voluntary cooperation and sharing’ (27, p.114). ‘Trusting others is the basis of mutual aid – of reciprocity and collective action’ (27, p.115). An ethic of mutual aid and solidarity, Sabia contends, would stress a few basic values: the particularity and autonomy of the individual; individual freedom; understanding all persons as moral equals, deserving of equal respect and concern; helping those in need; not intentionally doing harm or taking advantage; contributing to society by doing the work that you’re best at; and cooperating when cooperation is mutually beneficial. Sabia writes that ‘Communal living does not only embody communal practices, norms and values, it normalises and promotes them’ (27, p.117). We note that this only perpetuates utopia’s chicken and egg problem: caring society creates caring people but caring people construct caring society… Sabia’s point is, though, that: ‘The ethic of solidarity and mutual aid must be practiced to be efficacious’ (27, p.117, our emphasis).
The central drama of The Dispossessed as a novel stems from the tension between individuality and community. Countering a deterministic view of history, Le Guin ‘reminds us of the indispensable part played in historical change by individual choice and personal creativity’ (24, p.x). So, this tension around personal freedom is also the novel’s most compelling political theme: ‘Put another way, the problem is how to reconcile individual autonomy and agency with the inevitable rules and demands of social units, and inevitable duties and responsibilities that individuals incur as social beings’ (27, p.113). A view of humans as subjects and not objects determines that inter-relations are ethical rather than political. This reciprocity underpins the mutual aid and egalitarianism of Anarres’ society. We might also say that it constitutes Anarres as a society premised primarily on care rather than justice. The values that individual freedom demands from a society include the exercise of free will, diversity and dissent. Sabia observes that the anarcho-communism of Anarres does not depend on altruism but on enlightened self-interest, which may have the potential to reconcile the individual and community. Paradoxically, the utopian weakness of The Dispossessed, in relating how personal autonomy and social solidarity can never be fully reconciled, is also the novel’s ultimate strength when read as political theory. Although Le Guin keeps alive the possibility of such a reconciliation, she is wise enough not to foreclose her utopia but to leave it ambiguous, defined by always being a work in progress.
The potential of Anarres is as ‘a dynamic and revolutionary utopia premised on acceptance of the enduring reality of social conflict and historical change’ (24, p. x). ‘Anarres is no Pollyanna picture of unblemished perfection. It is a recognisably human world with famine, violence and suffering. What makes it utopian (and so a potential spur to radical change in the unwritten world of present Earth) is the efforts of its inhabitants to uphold the principle that one cannot justify the happiness of some by the degradation of others’ (24, p. xxi). Dan Sabia notes that the survival of both community and the individual depends on a willingness to value and practice change, to continually adapt, not least to each other. ‘The commitment to individual autonomy and liberty which defines anarchist communism as much as the commitment to solidarity and cooperation does, guarantees the proliferation of difference – of different characters and personalities, values and attitudes, beliefs and perspectives, interests and ambitions’ (27, p.123). The novel’s protagonist, Shevek, is actually struggling for the anarcho-communist goals that more conservative elements in his Anarresti society believe will risk all they have attained. These goals include not only personal freedom but also openness to the continual change in their own society and spreading revolution to other societies via communicating ideas. Such an ambiguous utopia, Sabia observes, will inevitably and perpetually involve a degree of conflict and instability. As a counterpart, though it is antithetic to freedom, harmony nevertheless persists as an ideal for society to strive for. Claire Curtis views The Dispossessed as philosophical foundation for a different sort of utopia, one premised on scepticism rather than perfection (28).
20. Davis, Laurence. “Morris, Wilde, and Le Guin on Art, Work, and Utopia. Utopian Studies 20, 2 (2009): 213-248.
22. Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. London: Millennium, 1999.
23. Plaws, Avery. “Empty Hands: Communication, Pluralism,and Community in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.” In The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, edited by Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman, 283-305. Oxford: Lexington Books, 2005.
24. Davis, Laurence and Peter Stillman (Eds). The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Oxford: Lexington Books, 2005.
27. Sabia, Dan. “individual and Community in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.” In The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, edited by Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman, 111-128. Oxford: Lexington Books, 2005.
28. Curtis, Claire P. “Ambiguous Choices: Skepticism as a Grounding for Utopia. In The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, edited by Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman, 265-282 . Oxford: Lexington Books, 2005.
[i] The subtitle of The Dispossessed, which does not feature on some editions of the novel
[ii] Bioregionalism is the belief that, by and large, human activity should be determined by ecological or geographical factors rather than political ones.