by Ewan Cameron
The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction novel set on Anarres, a breakaway moon colony populated by anarchists, told more than one generation that “you cannot buy the revolution”. For many, the book would become much more than another over-the-counter-culture purchase, as it was a text that clearly engaged and expanded the realms of political possibility.
The syndicalist society of Anarres isn’t an ideal. It’s clear from the story that it’s not without its problems, social hierarchies persist and the phrase “don’t egoize” is occasionally employed as a thought-terminating cliché. It was a jumping off point, an alternative vision that still needed further vision. When Shevek, the novel’s protagonist, comes to the realisation that even in this society of anarchists, he is a revolutionary, he acknowledges that it was Anarres that made him one and so “[h]e could not rebel against his society, because his society, properly conceived, was a revolution – a permanent one.”
It may have been an ambiguous utopia, but Le Guin’s description of it was precise. The worldbuilding, which took in language, social outliers, work, play and family, did what generations of leftists had struggled to do and articulate a vision of a non-capitalist society that made sense. Le Guin’s clear prose convincingly answered the doubters: in a world without currency or hierarchical compulsion to work, it is not law or greed that forges social bonds, but humankind’s tendency towards the social and their need to be recognised socially.
In the 21st century, with neoliberalism seemingly victorious without challenge, it’s easy to see how reading The Dispossessed might be a bittersweet experience: escapism as a temporary reverie rather than liberation. A decade ago, there were media reports of an apparent malaise felt by cinema-goers who were so enthralled by the depiction of life on Pandora, the main planet in the film Avatar (whose space colonisation of space story draws strong parallels with Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest), that the realisation they couldn’t live there led to depression. While the story may have been hyperbole, readers of The Dispossessed who, if not wanting to live on the moon, find Annaresti society attractive, might have felt empathy with the Avatar fans when they put the book down and realised that they live in a society where nation states and capitalism are so entrenched that is impossible to conceive of life without them.
These were themes in Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism, in which he describes the “reflexive impotence” of society in the face neoliberalism as TINA (There is no alternative) becomes not just a partisan political slogan but an all-encompassing “reality”, one that we know to be bogus, but must accept, as we cannot imagine any other way of living. As part of his thesis, Fisher brought in Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven as a metaphor for this era. The novel tells the story of a man whose dreams become manifest in new realities, and yet it is not just the protagonist who is cognizant of the shifts but everyone else on earth too. Despite this awareness that what was is no longer what is, they are powerless to change it and so accept the present and its newly existing history as real. Fisher saw this as applicable to late capitalism’s “ontological precarity”, where individuals recognise the fiction of bureaucracy and political narratives and yet simultaneously acknowledge it as a reality they must accept in order to thrive (and stay sane). Adam Curtis’s 2016 film HyperNormalisation explored similar themes of imprisonment, looking at how individuals in the West know that the system is corrupt, failing and unreal, but cannot envision anything outside of it.
Plato’s allegory of the cave, describes a scene where men chained in a cave perceive shadows on the walls as reality. It is only when the men are unchained and leave the cave, that they realise they have been tricked. The Lathe of Heaven, Capitalist Realism, and Hypernormalisation describe a world where the men are unchained and recognise the shadows on the wall as illusions, but remain in the cave, as there is no passage out.
The term hypernormalisation was coined by Alexei Yurchak in his 2006 book Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, which described the feelings of political and social confinement in the latter days of the Soviet Union. It’s a rousing thought, that if the hypernormalisation of the Soviet Union could collapse, then so might the capitalist realism of our own time. If fiction can become reality in the sense that capitalism’s recognisably inconsistent narratives are so encompassing that they invade our sense of self, then might other forms of fiction help to re-invent reality? Kahlil Gibran wrote in Sand and Foam that “we are all prisoners but some of us are in cells with windows and some without”, a sentiment that Le Guin’s Shevek, whose attempt to account for the existence of dukkha is a key theme of The Dispossessed, would have found useful. Gibran, who like Le Guin wrote romantically and critically, was a window maker, as was Le Guin.
Of course, imagination and escapism does not only belong to the left. David Forbes, in his book The Old Iron Dream, illuminates the deep vein of right wing and reactionary politics that runs through much of science fiction, from the plutocrat-supporting editor of Astounding Science Fiction, John Campbell, who also subscribed to the idea that some people were genetically “barbarians”, to the martial bard, Robert Heinlein. Starship Troopers, Heinlein’s militaristic account of a war of human against alien bugs was satirized in Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film of the same name, in which he employed Riefenstahlian imagery to let us know that our gung-ho protagonists were also fascists.
Another fictional book that seems to beg for satirical treatment is Oath of Fealty, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1981 novel set in a futuristic Los Angeles. The book is perhaps the antithesis to The Dispossessed – instead of the sprawling ecological society of Anarres, the ambiguous utopia described here is a gated community on a mega scale. This community lives in Todos Santos, a massive skyscraper populated by the wealthy who trade their loyalty and privacy for security and luxury, and while the city is not without its problems, it remains the hero of the story. The antagonists are not the technocratic lords of the structure, but the liberal protesters who wish to burn it down, seeing it as representing all that is immoral in the world.
Niven and Pournelle, who also collaborated on Lucifer’s Hammer, a post-apocalyptic tale that gives conservative libertarians the role of heroes, were not just content to write speculative screeds, they also attempted to ingratiate themselves with the United States government. “To save civilization,” Larry Niven was quoted as saying, “we do it in fiction. Why wouldn’t we want to do it in fact?”. It’s unclear whether SIGMA, the “science fiction think tank” that Niven and Pournelle joined has had much influence on policy – hopefully not, given that Niven, representing the group at Department for Homeland Security conference outlined a public health strategy that involved discouraging Latino use of public services by spreading rumours that the hospitals were killing patients for organ transplants.
“Think of it as evolution in action” is the catchphrase of the Todos Santos residents in Oath of Fealty. A strange one, perhaps, for a society that is consciously modelled on feudalism. It’s a quirk in the history of science that the word “evolution” could come to be used to justify inequality. Indeed the term “Darwinism” refers most often not to evolutionary studies but to “survival of the fittest”, a phrase used by social eugenicists on the right.
Pyotr Kropotkin, who was one of Le Guin’s key muses for the society of The Dispossessed and for the anarchism that grew to define much of her work, was among many Russian thinkers to challenge the assumption that nature was a Hobbesian battle of “all against all”. In Mutual Aid, Kropotkin would expound the idea that although competition was natural, so to was cooperation. Kropotkin saw that Western Darwinists such as Thomas Huxley, who emphasised the competitive aspect of nature, were a product of their society. Far from sterile objectivity, the British school of Darwin and Huxley owed much of their conclusions to their reverence of Malthusian philosophy, which saw society in terms of competition over resources. On the other hand, Kropotkin, who had studied nature in the more sparse lands of Siberia, saw solidarity and sociability as the key mechanisms for survival.
In the English speaking world, historian and sociologist Daniel P Todes, writing over a century later, would help rehabilitate Kropotkin in the scientific mainstream, noting that mutual aid was not simply a pet theory of Kropotkin, but represented a wide Russian school of evolutionary thought. Following this, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould would mostly affirm Kropotkin’s ideas in a 1988 essay, while cautioning against either side using scientific discovery as a means of making rules for human society:
And this is where Le Guin, in her role as an artist, played and plays her part. Le Guin, like all great speculative writers, uses fiction of the faraway as a means to reveal our own societies to us. One of her most famous works, The Left Hand of Darkness, imagines a world without gender and this absence provides the catalyst for readers to contemplate social constructions on planet Earth.
Yet where Le Guin stands above her peers is her ability to hold up the mirror to not just our societies but our hearts.“We read books to find out who we are.” she once wrote. The Flyers of Gy, a short story that captures the essence of Le Guin’s science fiction, concerns a world where one in a thousand grow wings but risk losing everything if they use them. Le Guin plays the role of anthropologist, and the matter of fact study of Gyr feels like nothing more than an intriguing thought experiment – until the final interview with a winged inhabitant who chooses not to fly. They claim it is irresponsible, but nevertheless wistfully admit that everyone wants to in an ending that both accosts and inspires the reader. A more famous piece, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, is similarly confrontational. The story is a rebuke of utilitarianism in a setting vague enough for the reader to apply the analogy to their own contexts and ask themselves if they would be one of The Ones.
If human society is balanced precariously between Darwinism and mutual aid, then Le Guin saw that while the former defined present society it was the latter that defined humankind. Technology, like the mind reading instrument in The Diary of the Rose or the universe spanning ansible communicator in Rocannon’s World could be an instrument of emancipation or repression. Instead, Le Guin’s work was built on a foundation: that the human soul’s capacity for stoic and principled resistance to oppression was inextinguishable. Le Guin’s revolution is one that resides in all of us, a call for freedom both primordial and lost, and despite everything that tries to delay its arrival, is always coming home.
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words. -Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018)
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