1990s >> 1994 >> no-1077-may-1994

The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin is a tale of future worlds. One is Anarres and clearly labelled “anarchist”. The other, Urras, is less clearly described as “propertarian” and “archist”. The plot is briefly but dramatically outlined in the blurb.

“Shevek, a brilliant physicist. . . single-handedly attempts to re-unite two planets cut off from each other by centuries of distrust. Anarres, Shevek’s homeland, is a bleak moon settled by an anarchic Utopian civilization; Urras, the mother planet, is a world very similar to Earth, with its warring nations, great poverty, and immense wealth. Shevek risks everything in a courageous visit to Urras  to learn, to teach, to share. But his gift becomes a threat. . . and in the profound conflict which ensues, Shevek must re-examine his philosophy of life.”

The book’s thirteen chapters alternate between Anarres and Urras.

Invited to dislike

LeGuin tells us much that we seem to be invited to dislike about Urras, and just a few things that we are invited to approve (although, depending on your point of view, you may have a different ratio of approval to disapproval).

Urras is an “incredibly complex society with all its nations, classes, castes, cults, customs and its magnificent, appalling and interminable history”. It is organized “hierarchically, from the top down”. In education there is an examination system that involves “cramming in information and disgorging it at demand”. “The state recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself.” So there are secret police. And the state uses force, with police helicopters and machine guns, to put down demonstrations that threaten the status quo.

Life on Urras closely resembles, and somewhat exaggerates, life in the USA in the 1970s, when the author was writing (in two decades the general picture has changed little). They burn dirty clothes because new cheap ones cost less than cleaning. There are private cars, “splendid machines of bizarre elegance”. Everything is “either useless to begin with or ornamented so as to disguise its use.”

Rats and asylums

There are three competing mail companies. Everything comes “inside layers and layers of wrappings”. The basic function of the radio “was advertising things for sale”. Other delights on Urras included rats, army barracks, insane asylums, poorhouses, pawnshops, executions, thieves, tenements, rent collectors, the unemployed, and “a dead baby in a ditch”.

In the realm of thought and ideas there is also much to dislike about Urras. There is religious bigotry (“He’s a strict-interpretation Epiphanist. Recites the Primes every night. A totally rigid mind.”) There are “birdseed papers”, “written by semiliterates for semiliterates” which manufacture news. Shevek observes that Urrasti people always look anxious: “Was it because, no matter how much money they had. they always had to worry about making more, lest they die poor?”

Now to Anarres. the “anarchist country”. It, too, has a system and has people doing things and thinking thoughts. Anarres is “an experiment in nonauthoritarian communism. . . (the people) are not only socialists, they are anarchists”.

No law, no police

There are no laws, no governments, no police, no money. Or, to add a bit of positive qualification, there is “no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. . . no government but the single principle of free association”. While “nominally there’s no government on Anarres. . . obviously there’s administration. . .” The network of administration and management is called PDC, Production and Distribution Coordination. “They are a coordinating system for all syndicates, federatives and individuals who do productive work. They do not govern persons; they administer production”. Nobody is ever punished for anything, though sometimes “they make you go away by yourself for a while”.

There is no distinction between men’s work and women’s work: “A person chooses work according to interest, talent, strength -what has sex to do with that?” The “dirty work” is done by everyone on one day out of ten on a basis of choice from “rotating lists” “People take the dangerous, hard jobs because they take pride in doing them”.


Most of what we learn that is positive about Anarres is in terms of thoughts, ideas, even moral precepts. At a personal level, members of a community were not moved by mass feeling but “there were as many emotions as there were people”. The status of religion on Anarres is ambiguous. There is no established religion in the sense of churches and creeds, but “you could not seriously believe that we had no religious capacity?” Takver “had always known that all lives are in common, rejoicing in her kinship to the fish in the tanks of her laboratories, seeking the experience of existences outside the human boundary”. One character offers a moralistic judgment: “Having’s wrong, Sharing’s right.” Shevek is described as having been brought up “in a culture that relied deliberately and constantly on human solidarity, mutual aid”.

Anarres has a population of only 20 million compared with a 1,000 million on Urras. It was given to the Odonians (theoretical anarchists) as a means of “buying them off with a world, before they totally undermined the authority of law and national sovereignty on Urras”. There was trade between the two worlds, but in practice Anarres was a mining colony of Urras. For an anarchist society, Anarres is remarkably centralized. Abbenay is the capital, “the mind and center of Anarres. . . There had to be a center. The computers that coordinated the administration of things, the division of labor and the distribution of goods, and the central federatives of most of the work syndicates were in Abbenay, right from the start”.

Despite this the people of Anarres have to put up with many shortages and deprivations. Printing had to cover the whole page because paper was short. The economy would not support the building and upkeep of individual houses and apartments. People had to save up their daily allowances for a party. and had to fetch their letters from the mail depot because there were no postmen. However, the general picture is one of high morale despite the shortages and deprivations.

Clear aim

LeGuin had an aim in writing The Dispossessed. Fortunately, we have her own account of this. Responding to a question by Lynn McCaffery, she says:

“… The only trouble with an anarchist country is going to come from its neighbors. Anarchism is like Christianity – it’s never really been practised – so you can ‘t say it’s a practical proposal. Still, it’s a necessary idea. We have followed the state far enough – too far, in fact. The state is leading us to World War III. The whole idea of the state has got to be rethought from the beginning and then dismantled. One way to do this is to propose the most extreme solution imaginable: you don ‘t proceed little by little; you go to the extreme and say, “Let’s have no government, no state at all.” Then you try to figure out what you have without it, which is essentially what I was trying to do in ‘The Dispossessed’. This kind of thinking is not idealistic, it’s a practical necessity these days. We must begin to think in different terms, because if we just continue to follow the state, we’ve had it. So, yes, ‘The Dispossessed’ is very much in earnest about trying to rethink our assumptions about the relationships between human beings.” (Across the Wounded Galaxies)

Then McCaffery asked LeGuin why-she had set her anarchist Utopia in such a bleak environment:

“The way I created Anarres was probably an unconscious economy of means: these people are going to be leading a very barren life, so I gave them a barren landscape. Anarres is a metaphor for the austere life, but I wasn’t trying to make a general proposal that a Utopia has to be that way.”

For LeGuin what seems to be preventing people making a better fist of life on contemporary Earth is not so much capitalism as government and the state.

It follows that what she believes desirable is not so much socialism, a system to replace capitalism, as anarchism, a system to replace “archism”. That last term isn’t actually in the dictionary, not even in a large one. But so much of what LeGuin writes about Urras is also a fair description of capitalism that perhaps we shouldn’t be too concerned about her choice of words for its alternative.

The important difference between LeGuin’s view and the socialist view is surely about the means of changing from one type of society to the other. LeGuin is vague about these means. Like most anarchists, she doesn’t think in terms of democratic political organization for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. She is right to “see the folly of reformism (‘you don’t proceed little by little’)”. But organization is important – indeed it is vital. By allowing the “archists” to be well-organized in a favourable environment, and the anarchists to be a minority shipped off to a barren planet, she is not only giving the devil the best tunes: she is allowing him to take over the whole music profession.

One serious criticism of The Dispossessed is that we aren’t told enough about the Urras “working class”, and what little we are told is derogatory and disillusioning. We know they read “birdseed” papers and get massacred when they revolt, but that’s about all. LeGuin sketches them in as semiliterates, as a kind of ancient Roman “bread and circuses” mob. There is something deeply pessimistic about a scenario that envisages the intellectual, material and political degradation of over 90 percent of the population.

This remarkable book stimulates the imagination and paints a picture of a future world that has a good many socialist features even if it doesn’t deal at all adequately with the politics of how we can get to that world.


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