The Dispossessed
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 orientalized 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 character.

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? Three things:

  • Internalized ideology. People are raised to honestly believe that they should only take what they need, and only for as long as they need it.

  • 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 don't own.

  • 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 rock.

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.

Return to the Calendar page!