‘The Dispossessed’ By Ursula K. Le Guin: An Embodiment of Postmodern Anarchism ?

Marc Barham
Sep 18, 2020 · 9 min read
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Cover illustration by David Upton from Folio Society’s new edition of ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula K. Le Guin.

You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin has claimed that ‘The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia’ is an attempt to embody anarchism, which, in her words, is “the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.” But this was not the first novel she wrote that sought to express and discuss anarchist themes. Her critique of capitalism and of state power have placed her firmly in the anarchist tradition. She had, in her three remarkable novels over a five year period between 1969 and 1974 taken classical anarchy and modern anarchy into a new era of postmodern anarchy.

Like classical Marxism, modern anarchism developed within the specific political, economic and intellectual environment of the nineteenth century. In that context, it made perfect sense for anarchists to focus their critical powers upon the twin sources of oppressive power in the age of the Industrial Revolution: capital and the state. Yet power relations were everywhere. Michel Foucault identified the disciplinary power inherent in every aspect of society and Jean Baudrillard revealed the semiotic system that dominated the human world. And it was Guy Debord who brilliantly exposed the power of mass media and consumerism upon peoples will to act in a political manner.

The modern enlightenment anarchism of William Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin and Michael Bakunin was an intellectual and social challenge to the world of the Industrial Revolution along with Marxism but was not equipped to critique a modern, fluid, fast-changing, 21st century world. Anarchism needed to evolve. Adapt or become irrelevant. In her three books Le Guin rose to the challenge and presented us with an embodied postmodern anarchism more relevant now (and tomorrow) then it was when she actually wrote them. She was way ahead of her time conceptually. In both structure and content, Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness is a postmodern masterpiece.

In The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Le Guin subverted the traditional binary concept of gender identity, to promote an anarchy of gender. In The Lathe of Heaven (1971), she told the story of a psychiatric patient whose dreams literally redesigned the world, thus creating the possibility of an ontological anarchy. And in her 1974 masterpiece The Dispossessed, Le Guin made two major contributions to the philosophy of postmodern anarchism. She created a fictional anarchist language called Pravic, which underscores the importance of linguistics for any contemporary anarchist project and she developed an equally radical concept of time, creating the possibility of a chronosophic anarchy.

The existence of an explicitly anarchist society on the moon of Anarres has led many critics of The Dispossessed to focus only on the traditional anarchist themes of this novel. Yet the truly radical legacy of this novel (and of Le Guin’s other major works from the late 1960's and early 1970's) is that these works transgress the boundaries of conventional anarchist thinking to create new forms of anarchism that are entirely relevant to life in the postmodern condition. Le Guin updates the conventional anarchist project and positions anarchism to move into the third millennium.

The strongest and most direct statement of Le Guin’s anarchist vision appears in her 1974 novel The Dispossessed. In her attempt to embody anarchism, Le Guin constructs a highly traditional anarchist society on the planet Anarres. Drawing on the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century anarchist writers Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, she imagines a society without the three great enemies of freedom: the state, organized religion, and private property. The most important functions usually performed by these hierarchical institutions continue on Anarres. The Production and Distribution Coordination (PDC) runs the economy of the planet.

Religion continues to exist — although not as an institution but as a mode, that is, as a way of viewing or experiencing the world. People have food, clothing, and shelter as well as a modest number of personal possessions they pick up or create along the way. But no government, church, or ruling class coerces people into acting against their will. Social and political power is seen as inherently repressive and so is reduced to a minimum. Apart from her gender, the founder of Anarres, Odo, is largely indistinguishable from the nineteenth-century Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. Le Guin’s creation of Anarres provides a clear, concise and accessible account of the major theoretical features of classical anarchism.

Yet her portrayal also creates concerns with the limits that are structurally inherent within modern anarchism and that are now considered to be the very essence of postmodern anarchist thought. When Shevek visits Urras the home-world from where Odo was imprisoned for her political views and the anarchist/Odonian revolution began, he is surprised to find that he is not censored when talking about his anarchism. Shevek realises after various interactions with characters on Urras that the dominant culture has been so internalised by people on Urras that his words that create his (anarchist) reality are meaningless for the Urrasti. As Michel Foucault and Herbert Marcuse had discovered, power is to be found not only in the political and economic structures of the external world, but also internally, in the psychological structure of the individual. This is now at the very heart of postmodern anarchist praxis.

Furthermore, Le Guin’s novel offers a remarkable form of linguistic anarchy. Building upon the postmodern insight that language is equivalent to power, Le Guin imagines what a truly anarchistic language might look like. The result is Pravic, the language of Anarres. Pravic is a fundamentally egalitarian language, and this is true at the deepest level of structure and grammar. Pravic avoids the possessive pronouns:

The singular forms of the possessive pronouns in Pravic were used mostly for emphasis; idiom avoided them. Little children might say ‘my mother,’ but very soon they learned to say ‘the mother’”

Pravic has no way to speak about property, unsurprisingly, perhaps. When Anarresti wish to speak of the “propertied class,” the must use the Iotic language of Urras to do so, for Pravic has no equivalent term. This means that ideas regarding the accumulation of private wealth or class divisions based upon such accumulation are unknown in Pravic and any such concepts literally unthinkable for the Anarresti.

Pravic is a fair language and a just one. It encourages egalitarian thinking and actively works against the establishment of hierarchy. Yet it remains dry and sterile and more importantly, reductive. One could argue that this is a very insipid form of censorship that psychologically changes the subject for a designated political outcome and has been undoubtedly very successful upon Anarresti. But is it not just the extreme inverse of the normalisation obtained on Urras where the terminology of anarchism is meaningless because there is nothing real signified?

Is the end (an anarchist society) justified by the means? Anarchism is much preoccupied with the means and the ends. For it sees the means just as important as the end product (an anarchist society). The means create the end but they also are an end in itself. They complement each other. Yet the end result is never achieved. For an anarchist society must be in permanent transition. For once it stops it will not be an anarchist state. The subject (the anarchist and the anarchist state) must simultaneously be, both becoming, and being. Yet if the language of becoming and being is restricted or formalized as with Pravic, then, does not that invalidate the concept of real freedom to be, and threaten the continuing transition of the anarchist society that has been created? Just regurgitating the wisdom of Odo isn't going to cut it for any true anarchist society:

Kids learn to parrot Odo’s words as if they were laws — the ultimate blasphemy!

declares the Anarresti subversive Bedap.

It just becomes dogma and leads inevitably to a world of form over substance. For form and substance are essential to the anarchist. Just regurgitating the form (words/litany) of Odo on Anarres is causing Shevek to question the substance of the revolution. Shevek needs to return to where it all began to remind himself and the others of what Odo experienced and why the exodus to Anarres took place, the substance.

This brings us back to the message of postmodern anarchism: the world cannot be saved through the articulation of a rational revolutionary philosophy, even if that philosophy does contain admirable elements. To be an anarchist you must surely have to understand what class division and wealth accumulation must be and not be denied that knowledge and experience. For Shevek his journey to Urras only affirms his anarchism and makes him more aware of what it really means as he understands exactly what Odo rejected and why.

He is also now aware partly due to his trip to Urras that his own anarchist world has become highly rigid in its bureaucracy (almost hierarchical) and sterile like its language, Pravic. It needs to be reinvigorated via a remembrance of the original message of Odo forged upon Urras and by a reinvigorated Shevek forged upon Urras, right here, right now. It as if Shevek is repeating a cycle that began with Odo. An eternal recurrence? The Nietzschean eternal recurrence is perfect as an existential philosophy through which the anarchist revolution can be made both permanent, and then, not permanent, in an ever-changing, transitional movement of being and becoming.

Nietzsche is even more relevant now, as Shevek has been working on a General Temporal Theory, that will itself, be, revolutionary. Shevek’s objective is to bring together two apparently contradictory fields of physics, known as Sequency and Simultaneity. Sequency deals with the linear concept of time, which has dominated the perception of history in the West. Simultaneity acknowledges and endorses the nonlinear, including in particular those philosophies that see time as cyclical or recursive. Shevek describes the two concepts of time:

So then time has two aspects. There is the arrow, the running river, without which there is no change, no progress, or direction, or creation. And there is the circle or the cycle, without which there is chaos, meaningless succession of instants, a world without clocks or seasons or promises

This is as postmodern as it gets. For this is a revolutionary new philosophy of time that encompasses both the eternal return of Nietzsche with the abandonment of restrictive rationalism, and with it the humanism that dominated the intellectual history of the West. But Shevek is able to (in himself) combine both the sequential and simultaneous nature of time. He is the living embodiment. He is both the means and the end. This is the answer to an issue first raised by Rousseau regarding the seeming incompatibility of individual freedom and social responsibility within any society that would class itself as anarchist, in the sense of being without hierarchy. The Odonian premise of an anarchist society is profoundly simple, “any rule is tyranny’’ which we have seen is absent from Anarres although an increasing level of bureaucracy is causing disquiet.

However, we have seen through Shevek’s eyes that there is still a serious issue on Anarres which a supposed computerised and impartial bureaucracy is meant to solve: how does an anarchist society negotiate the needs both of the individual and of the group? Shevek is the answer to that. It is his journey back to the beginning where the revolution began that will challenge the status quo now operating on Anarres. This budding hierarchy must be challenged otherwise the Odonian revolution will fail. Shevek has become a second Odo and must challenge his own anarchist world with his postmodern anarchism.

Shevek has both completed a Nietzschean eternal recurrence of the Odonian cycle and moved sequentially in the river of time, simultaneously. He is now about to begin another cycle of revolution upon Anarres and perhaps, more importantly, in the whole universe. As an Odonian, Shevek has already internalized the basic principles of modern anarchism. When he moves beyond rationalism and humanism to grasp a radically new concept of time, he takes his anarchism a step further into postmodern anarchist praxis.

Furthermore, a tangible result of Shevek’s General Temporal Theory is the ‘ansible’ device which will allow instantaneous communication throughout the universe which must bring momentous change to all and in particular, Anarres. An anarchist society must be in permanent revolution. An eternal recurrence of cycles along the straight line of time? This is constant movement and constant challenge, a symbiosis of deep complementarity and contradiction.

This surely is the very essence of postmodern anarchism and a solution to the moral and political anarchist dilemma of individual freedom versus social responsibility: both contradictory and complementary obligations will be fulfilled, simultaneously, just as if they were communications using the ‘ansible’ built upon the theory provided by Shevek’s contradictory and complementary philosophy of time. For Shevek has become the living embodiment of a postmodern anarchism and nothing on Anarres, nor in the universe, can ever be the same again.

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Marc Barham

Written by

Column @ timetravelnexus.com on iconic books, TV shows/films: Time Travel Peregrinations. Reviewed all episodes of ‘Dark’ @ site. https://linktr.ee/marcbarham64

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Marc Barham

Written by

Column @ timetravelnexus.com on iconic books, TV shows/films: Time Travel Peregrinations. Reviewed all episodes of ‘Dark’ @ site. https://linktr.ee/marcbarham64

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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