Ursula K. LeGuin, 1974
The Enterprise travels to a planet called Omega IV, which is
divided between two factions called the "Yangs" and the "Kohms," who
turn out to be—
Wait, no. That's something else. Never mind.
Shevek, a physicist, travels to a planet called Urras, which is
divided between two factions, the
capitalist state of A-Io and the totalitarian state of Thu. Urras
orbits Tau Ceti and is part of a double-planet system with Shevek's
world, Anarres. Anarres is home to the descendents of a group of
anarchists ("Odonians") who accepted exile in exchange for a promise
of non-interference. What keeps Anarres from dissolving into
chaos in the absence of a formal government is an ideology that
simultaneously insists that individuals are free and subjects them
to the will of the group; you can do whatever you want and there is
no legal authority to stop you, but at the same time people can
beat you up and there is no legal authority to stop them. At this
point, the Anarrestis believe in communes not as a response to
capitalism and totalitarianism — they are generations
removed from the experience of either — but simply because
they've had this ideology drummed into them as children. Social
custom has calcified into a de facto power structure, one that
first tries to prevent Shevek from publishing his work and then
threatens him with ostracism or worse when he strikes out on his
own. But is asylum in Urras any kind of solution?
I got assigned this book because in certain respects it resembled
a plot thread I came up with for the project I've been working on
lately. I was told that while the ending was a fiasco, the novel
did a good job on the yin-yang front, highlighting the flaws in the
society toward which the author was basically sympathetic and finding
some redeeming facets of the society toward which the author was
basically hostile. That's fine so far as it goes, I suppose —
stories that boil down to "everyone adopted my politics and the world
became perfect" are lame — but my chief concern with this sort
of sociological fiction isn't the extent to which it is or isn't
balanced. It's that society, while a marvelous setting, is a crappy
I've written about this before, so I might as
well just copy and paste: "Mike D'Angelo has pointed out that there's
a serious problem with movies like Good Will Hunting which
revolve around psychotherapy. To a great extent, the purpose of narrative
is to explore people's psychological makeup. We follow characters around
and watch what they do, what decisions they make, and come to understand
what makes them tick. This process is entirely short-circuited by having
a character sit down in a chair and say, 'Here's what makes me tick, doc.'
Similarly, if you have a theory [...] you'd like to propound, the way to
do so narratively is to illustrate it." To be fair, LeGuin
spends more time illustrating her theories about society than most of her
colleagues seem to, but nevertheless, an awful lot of The Dispossessed
consists of people sitting around talking about society. It's too "on the
nose," as the Hollywood types say. Far more elegant to let the reader
infer the properties of the water from the motions of the fish.
The idea of an anarchist society developing an unspoken power structure
is interesting to me because it dovetails with my usual point about
libertarianism. To wit: what would anarchy look like? No need to
speculate. Just look around. This is it. There is no government, not
in the way that there's a table or a crow. Government is a fiction, a
word that gets applied to a set of behaviors. We claim to have one,
Anarres claims not to. But are we really that different?
LeGuin has one of the Anarrestis note that one of the things that allows
the planetwide commune to work is its poverty — it's hard to be
acquisitive when there's so little to acquire. But even on Anarres,
people need stuff. Say you want a guitar. What do you do? As the title
of the book indicates, the Odonians who populated Anarres defined
themselves largely by their rejection of property. That means you can't
have a guitar, not to buy and keep forever and call yours. But it also
means that you can just head on down to the supply depot, take one, and
bring it back when you're done. What's stopping you from keeping it
forever? Or, for that matter, piling everything in the depot into a
cart and bringing it back to the community domicile you've signed into?
- Internalized ideology. People are raised to honestly believe
that they should only take what they need, and only for as long as they
- External ideology. Anyone who acted like this would immediately
be viewed by everyone else in the community as an asshole. It violates
social custom. Even those who don't have qualms about grabbing everything
they can get their hands on at the supply depot don't want to poison their
standing in the community.
- The threat of violence. Probably other people in the community
would be sufficiently pissed off that they'd attack or at least apprehend
anyone who did this.
Now, unlike the Anarrestis, we live in a society that believes in property.
But ownership is a fiction. I "own" a guitar, but there's no physical
attribute of the guitar that marks it as "mine." I believe I own it. The
people at Guitar Center were willing to adopt that belief when I gave them
a piece of plastic with a magnetic strip that shuffled some numbers in a
couple of bank computers. But my ownership of the guitar has no objective
existence, merely an intersubjective one. What's keeping my neighbors
from breaking down my door while I'm out and swiping it? Three things:
- Internalized ideology. People are raised to honestly believe
that objects are owned by people and that they shouldn't take what they
- External ideology. Anyone who acted like this would likely
be viewed by most people in the community as a criminal. It violates the
law — that is, the set of social customs we have formulated into
words and written down.
- The threat of violence. There are usually groups of people
in the community who are on record saying that they will attempt to
attack or at least apprehend anyone who does this. Depending on where
you live and the types of people whose property your local group vows
to protect, it might be called a police force, a Committee of
Vigilance, or a street gang.
Anarres and Urras are planets. Planets don't just come out of nowhere;
they coalesce out of clouds of gas and dust, just as stars do. Some
parts of a cloud of gas are denser than others. They contain more
matter than the less dense areas, exert more gravitational force, draw
in more matter, exert even more gravitational force, and soon where you
once had a wispy cloud you now have a huge, solid sphere of metal and
States work the same way. They don't just come out of nowhere; they
coalesce out of anarchies. In that human cloud, some people have more
power than others. How? I have no idea. But some people simply have
the ability to aggregate and direct the wills of others. (See the
anecdote at the bottom of this article.)
Gravity wells develop. Power concentrates in a few hands. Unregulated
economies become monopolies, and history shows that revolutions almost
invariably lead to dictatorship. The only thing keeping Anarres from
coalescing in this manner is an ideology that more closely resembles a
religion — a personality cult, even — than a philosophy,
just as it is only ideology that keeps republics from becoming tyrannies
(and the data is still inconclusive on how long any of them can resist).
The moment people start aggregating and directing the wills of others,
as Shevek finds his fellow Anarrestis beginning to do, you have the
beginnings of a state, like it or not.
And there are reasons to like it. Part of what prompts Shevek to go
to Urras is the realization that any positive social change has to begin,
by definition, with a person or small group of people going against
social custom. A moment ago I wrote that law is codified social custom,
but it's also a vehicle for a progressive minority to change social
custom. Sometimes it doesn't work (the classic example being Prohibition).
But sometimes it does! When states began to adopt restaurant smoking bans
they were controversial, and clearly at least a little ways ahead of the
curve. It seems unlikely that restaurants would have banned it on their
own — Oklahoma doesn't have one, and when I make the mistake of
stepping into a Denny's there in 2005 the air was unbearable. And yet
in places where the bans were enacted, social custom swiftly followed.
In 1995 I was waiting in line at a burrito shop when a British tourist
lit up — and from the way people reacted you'd have thought he'd
dropped his pants and taken a dump in the salsa bar. It was awesome.
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