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Ambiguous Utopias

April 15, 2011

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[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Ambiguous Utopias"]

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

The mid-1970s — meaning, let us say, the five-year period encompassing the years 1973, '74, '75, '76, and '77 — was a heady time for the modern American libertarian movement. To those of us who were involved back then, it seemed we were on the verge of a major breakthrough. The first book on the libertarian movement to be brought out by a major mainstream publisher, Jerome Tuccille's Radical Libertarianism, had appeared in 1970. In 1973, it was joined by two more such books — David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom and Murray Rothbard's For a New Liberty. That same year, Harry Browne's How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World became a major national bestseller. A year later, in 1974, Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia became a major national bestseller and the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction.

Also in 1974, an American science-fiction novel was published that was recognized almost at once as a major classic of libertarian science fiction. This novel was The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula K. Le Guin. Now, I should acknowledge immediately that Le Guin is not "our" kind of libertarian. And this isn't just the way I see it; this is the way she sees it, too. Or, at least, it's the way she saw it in 1975, a year after the original publication of The Dispossessed. A great many people in the world of The Dispossessed, you see, are followers of a political philosopher called Odo, who died many years before the time of the novel. As followers of Odo they are Odonians and practitioners of Odonianism.

"Odonianism," Le Guin wrote in 1975,

is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with; not the social-Darwinist economic 'libertarianism' of the far right; but anarchism as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by [Percy] Shelley and [Peter] Kropotkin, [Emma] Goldman and [Paul] Goodman. Anarchism's principal target is the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.

You did catch that reference to "the social-Darwinist economic 'libertarianism' of the far right," didn't you? That's us. Oh, I know it's not really us. We're not social Darwinists, our libertarianism is more than "just" economic and doesn't need any scare quotes, and we're not on the right at all, much less the "far right." But "social-Darwinist economic 'libertarians' of the far right" is how Ursula K. Le Guin sees us — or, at least, how she saw us 35 years ago, when she herself was 46 years old and at the height of her long and distinguished career.

Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber on October 21, 1929 in Berkeley, the daughter of an anthropology professor at the University of California and his writer wife. She was in the same graduating class at Berkeley High School with Philip K. Dick — the class of '47 — though they never knew each other during those years. She went off to Radcliffe, then Columbia, where she studied French and Italian and Renaissance history and literature and earned a BA and an MA. After a couple of semesters of taking classes toward a PhD, she won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Europe for an academic year. On the trip over aboard ship, she met another Fulbright Fellow bound for France, a young historian named Charles Le Guin. They were married a few months later in Paris. Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was 24 years old.

In 1958, Charles Le Guin accepted a teaching job at Portland State College (now Portland State University) in Oregon, and he and Ursula K. Le Guin settled down into a home life that must have seemed very comfortable and familiar to her — a home life in which Dad went off to teach at the local college every day while Mom stayed home and wrote. There were four kids knocking around the house when she was a girl growing up in Berkeley; there were three knocking around the Portland house during the 1960s. Otherwise the situations were pretty similar.

There was another difference, though, and a crucial one. The difference was in what Mom stayed home and wrote. In Berkeley it was nonfiction, mostly on topics in psychology or anthropology. In Portland, it was fiction — some fantasy, some science fiction, some realistic fiction set in an imaginary Central European country called Orsinia. At least one of her works set in Orsinia would probably be of at least passing interest to libertarian readers. The novel Malafrena, published in 1979, tells the tragic tale of a passionate young liberal in early 19th-century Orsinia who is too early with his revolutionary message and sees his hopes and dreams crushed by a state not much inclined to put up with his propagandizing in favor of limits on its power.

But it was her science fiction and fantasy that ultimately made Ursula Le Guin's reputation as a fiction writer, and it is her 1974 science-fiction novel, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, that is, to this day, not only one of her two most famous works, but the work of hers most likely to interest a modern libertarian of "our" sort.

In The Dispossessed, the action takes place in a two-planet system — each planet is, in effect, the other planet's moon. The larger of these two planets, Urras, is a world much like the Earth we know — divided among a number of competing governments, the best of which permit private property ownership and a relatively free market, though subject to heavy taxation. The smaller planet, Anarres, is a desert world, rich in minerals and well worth mining but a harsh environment for human habitation. For the past 200-plus years, Anarres has, however, been populated by humans — Odonian colonists from Urras and their descendants, people who were, in effect, expelled from Urras by governments afraid they might be undermined by the Odonian revolution.

As the novel opens there are some 20 million humans living on Anarres. One of them is a physicist, Shevek, who starts out as conventional, even priggish, in his thinking as any individual reared on either of the two planets. When an adolescent friend suggests that perhaps what they hear about Urras on Anarres is not necessarily the whole truth — that perhaps they are being propagandized by the bureaucracy called the PDC (Production and Distribution Coordination), the bureaucracy that serves as the government any resident of Anarres would assure you doesn't exist there — Shevek is shocked. He indignantly defends the PDC. But his mind has been opened a crack, against his better judgment. And the rest of the novel is, in a sense, the story of the further opening of Shevek's mind.

Ultimately it opens so far that it lets in not only the truth about the PDC and "anarchism" on his home planet, but also the truth about Urras, which he discovers for himself when he becomes the first resident of Anarres to set foot on its sister planet in more than 150 years. In the end, Shevek learns that the truth is more ambiguous and nuanced than he had ever realized and that choosing between the utopian society in which he grew up and the evil "propertarian" society on Urras is, after all, not so easy as he had always supposed it would be.

Le Guin fearlessly and accurately depicts the poverty that any libertarian of our sort knows must be the prevailing condition in any society at all resembling the one on Anarres — a society that has to struggle along without private property ownership and without money to facilitate productive exchange. Le Guin, of course, gives no sign that she sees anything in the social system on Anarres that might account for the poverty there.

She seems to think that this poverty is caused by poor soil, brutal weather, lack of easily accessible fresh water, and so forth. She seems to think that Urras is rich and Anarres is poor because Urras is rich in certain natural resources that Anarres lacks. Of course, the opposite is true, as well, though Le Guin never seems to see certain of the implications of this fact. Similarly, she never seems to see how anomalous it is that the bureaucrats in the PDC on Anarres should choose among proposed engineering projects on the basis of their cost. How can they possibly know what anything costs? They have no medium of exchange. They have no markets, no prices.

The same cannot be said for the society depicted in another classic libertarian science-fiction novel published in the mid-1970s, Samuel R. Delany's Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, which first appeared in print in February 1976. Delany said to an interviewer ten years later that "I believe I read The Dispossessed somewhere either between the first draft of Triton and the second, or perhaps between the second and the third … was I halfway through the second when a copy of Le Guin's book from Harper & Row reached me in London by mail?" Having read The Dispossessed, Delany conceived the idea of "changing a few things here and there" in his own partially finished novel and "clarifying a few things here and there that Le Guin's book directed me to think about. When I first looked through The Dispossessed, it occurred to me that the two books generated an interesting dialogue with each other. My added subtitle was an attempt to put the two novels clearly into a dialogue I felt was already implied."

The action in Triton takes place mainly on Triton, a satellite of Neptune that has been populated for several generations by colonists from Earth and their descendants, as have a number of other satellites of the outer planets of our solar system. At one point, a resident of Earth falls into conversation with Sam and Bron, residents of Tethys, Triton's biggest city. "They're always telling on the news about all those hundreds of political parties you have on each satellite, out where you guys are from," the Earthling says.

"There're not hundreds," Sam said, sipping his broth. "Only about thirty to thirty-seven, depending on which satellite you're on."

"And when you have an election, none of them ever wins?"

Bron watched Sam decide to laugh.

"No. They all win. You're governed for the term by the governor of whichever party you vote for. They all serve office simultaneously. And you get the various benefits of the platform your party has been running on. It makes for competition between the parties, which, in our sort of system, is both individuating and stabilizing."

At another point in the novel, another Tethys resident, Charo, expresses a view of taxation any libertarian of our sort would love to read. "Well," she says, "we were brought up to think of taxes as simply a matter of extortion by the biggest crooks who happen to live nearest to you. Even if they turn around and say, all right, we'll spend the money on things you can use, like an army or roads, that just turns it into glorified protection money, as far as we're concerned."

And then there's the section of Tethys that is officially known as "the unlicensed sector" or, colloquially, "the u-l." As Delany explains the concept,

At founding, each Outer Satellite city had set aside a city sector where no law officially held — since, as the Mars sociologist who first advocated it had pointed out, most cities develop, of necessity, such neighborhoods anyway. These sectors fulfilled a complex range of functions in the cities' psychological, political, and economic ecology. Problems a few conservative, Earthbound thinkers feared must come, didn't: the interface between official law and official lawlessness produced some remarkably stable unofficial laws throughout the no-law sector. Minor criminals were not likely to retreat there: enforcement agents could enter the u-l sector as could anyone else; and in the u-l there were no legal curbs on apprehension methods, use of weapons, or technological battery. Those major criminals whose crimes — through the contractual freedom of the place — existed mainly on paper, found it convenient, while there, to keep life on the streets fairly safe and minor crimes at a minimum.

Samuel R. Delany was born 69 years ago on April Fool's Day, 1942, in Harlem. He grew up there, the son of a prosperous funeral director and a clerk at the New York Public Library. He attended the exclusive Dalton School and the Bronx High School of Science, then spent a brief time at City College before leaving without a degree. He began publishing science fiction and fantasy in the early 1960s, expanding into memoirs, literary criticism, and mainstream fiction as the years went by. He began teaching in the late '60s, took his first full-time faculty position at a university in the 1980s, and since 2001 has been a professor of English and creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

His "ambiguous heterotopia" is a "heterotopia" because, like heterosexual lovemaking, it embraces opposites. Opposite sexes, opposite political preferences. Tethys, on Triton, is a place — a "topia" — in which the unlicensed sector exists, where anyone can do business in any way he or she prefers, and in which services like protection and justice must be provided by each individual as he or she sees fit and to the extent that he or she can do so. On the other hand, outside the unlicensed sector in Tethys, money and marriage are illegal, and the state provides all desired goods and services to whomever requests them. A union of opposites.

As for the ambiguity in Delany's fictional society, that seems to lie in the inability of either of Triton's opposite social systems to bring happiness to its members, its participants. Indeed, the overarching theme of Delany's novel seems to be the proposition that individuals must find their own happiness and understand that no social system, however anarchistic or paternalistic, will provide it for them.

Ursula Le Guin seems to have looked at her two societies in The Dispossessed in much the same way — the nominally anarchistic one that is inexorably drifting toward authoritarianism and the "propertarian" one that her protagonist, Shevek, finds so unexpectedly luxurious and comfortable and inviting. Shevek's dilemma, at the end of The Dispossessed, is brought about by the need to look within himself to discover what will best please him, what social arrangements will best comport with his own personal happiness — something neither social system, no social system, can possibly provide on its own.

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