Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel is an admirable work. I really wanted to like it. It mines some rich veins of philosophical thought which include individualism versus collectivism, gender equality, the difference between intellectual property and ideas as well as the moral and ethical dilemmas of a speculative anarchist society. Unfortunately, the novel is ultimately derailed by some fallacious notions and stale, toxic ideas couched in a pretense of edgy progressivism. Sadly, despite Le Guin’s recognition of the scarcity, insularity, and conformity bred by the allegedly revolutionary values she espouses, she doubles down and limps to the conclusion waving the flag of communist ideals in a cloud of unearned triumphalism.
The Dispossessed tells the story of a physicist named Shevek from the anarchist world of Anarres. Shevek develops a groundbreaking theory which has the potential to unite humanity throughout the universe. Though the Anarrestri profess revolutionary values, they are unreceptive to his work. He sets out to the sister world of Urras, the civilization from which the Anarrestri fled, in hopes of bridging the divide between the two societies.
Le Guin makes a courageous attempt at tackling the questions of morality and ethics in the absence of state or religious institutions, but she ultimately succumbs to some really dumb and deeply clichéd antipathy towards market economics. This includes an equally rote denigration of property rights and, by extension, their inextricable link to human freedom. She is apparently on record crediting the blatherings of post-Marxist anarcho-collectivist wankers, Peter Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin, as the philosophical underpinnings of this book. The anarchist society of Anarres is essentially her conception of anarcho-syndicalism. In other words, it is a society in which there is no private property and no system of prices, competition or currency. Everything is “shared” and used for the “common good”. All economic activity is centrally coordinated by bureaucratic “syndics” and the division of labor is determined by computers. Subsequently, her philosophical commentary bears some unfortunate remnants of Marx, Rousseau and even the poisonous proto-fascist drivel of Georges Sorel. Le Guin’s Anarres is probably best described as a fantastical vision of a world envisioned by feminists, social justice warriors, utopian eco-socialists and anarcho-communists.
To her credit, she addresses the limitations of the collectivist worldview in this novel. This puts her work in philosophical proximity to another notable female writer who tackled very similar themes but arrived at very different conclusions. Contrary to her professed disdain for Ayn Rand, the themes of this novel are very similar to those contained in The Fountainhead . The two books share more than a few similarities. Each book presents a brilliant male protagonist who seeks to contribute his unique talent to society and each is called upon to adhere to principle in the face of demands from authority or perceived authority. Le Guin appears to take direct aim at Randian ideas of “egoism” and “altruism” at various points in the book. Though when she does, she ultimately misrepresents both.
Le Guin is widely lauded for tackling gender and sexual politics in her work, but I personally found this aspect of the novel the most grating. All of the editorial around gender carried the sanctimonious stink of contemporary feminism. Her perverse obsession with equality of outcomes can be traced to an obvious refusal to accept biological differences and individual choices within the paradigm of market economics. True to standard progressive form, she also heaps piles of scorn on those who hold religious beliefs. She holds people of faith in contempt for promulgating a sexist and patriarchal belief in the inherent superiority of men over women. I absolutely concede that most religious faiths affirm the traditional role of male breadwinner and female caregiver, but this line of argument feels tiresome. If she were referring specifically to the manner in which Islamic societies rigidly enforce a subordinate role for women, it might have more bite. I’m doubtful that was her intent. It’s particularly dubious hearing this petty nonsense from an author in the Western world who presently enjoys numerous freedoms that are hallmarks of the market economy and liberal society. Le Guin can be an atheist without fear of violent reprisal. She can compete in the marketplace with men. She can and does claim property rights and has achieved fame and notoriety for the merit of her creative work within the context of a free market.
She wastes no time carving out the contours of her main character and the central ideas of the book. The opening passages describe the wall which cordons off the spaceport of Anarres from the rest of the planet. Right away, Le Guin is telling us that this is a story of walls; walls that stand between societies, genders, and ideologies.
As a character, Shevek is kind of dull. Just as modern writers pander to feminists by writing female characters which are divorced from any conventional femininity, Shevek is the result of Le Guin doing the same thing in reverse. Shevek is arguably Le Guin’s beta analogue to Rand’s alpha Roark. He’s sensitive, vegan, and lives a monk-like life of the mind. As Anarrestri custom dictates, he holds womyn in reverence. Since her editorial point of view is so rife with dumb and confused ideas, it’s difficult to view him as a heroic archetype of any set of virtuous attributes.
The first chapter is devoted to Shevek’s arrival on Urras. Shevek struggles to understand the customs and culture of the Urrastri. He simply cannot fathom a world that holds religious beliefs, has state institutions and operates under a market economy. Having constructed a framework for a dramatic clash of ideas, the reader is guided through Shevek’s quest as events alternate between Anarres and Urras.
After this exposition, Le Guin takes us back to Anarres and Shevek’s childhood where the cornerstones of his development were built and the values he acquired from his culture are fleshed out. Here and in every other subsequent chapter, Le Guin’s muddy logic and dubious editorial comes into sharper focus.
Groan inducing commentary abounds in The Dispossessed, but Le Guin’s disdain for property rights is highest on the list. True to the authoritarian and quasi-religious nature of all collectivist political thought, Shevek’s indoctrination to Odonian values begins at childhood. As most children are wont to do, young Shevek is naturally inclined to view possessions as his property. He is hastily scolded for entertaining this notion by his caretaker. Like Rousseau, Le Guin regards property rights as infantile and the source of human sin. That’s so very progressive and original, Ursula. Throughout the remainder of the book the words “profiteer” and “propertarian” are used as pejoratives. Her disdain for capitalistic property ownership is expressed very clearly through Shevek during his tenure on Urras.
Le Guin considers the ownership of property all by itself as an expression of power. It’s an idea that’s tired and nonsensical in equal measures. She attributes Shevek’s sense of unease on Urras to his perception that a society which affirms property rights is one of “mutual aggression”. This stands in contrast to the feeling of “mutual cooperation” that is the guiding principle of the self-abnegating hippies on Anarres. It’s more than a little ironic that Le Guin venerates this alleged utopia devoid of private property and denigrates the statist aggression of Urras. In real life, she’s more than happy to advocate for state aggression to enforce copyright law.
This moral confusion and sophistry extends further with respect to acts of actual aggression. Le Guin gets the fundamentals of the argument for anarchism right, but at the same time, she fails to present a coherent Odonian theory of morality with respect to the initiation of violence. This also happens to be the one area where, even if inadvertently, she veers a little too closely to the Sorellian belief in revolutionary violence. In a conversation with an Urrastri woman named Vea, he explains that Odonians are striving for actual morality by abolishing institutional power. That way, Odonians are free to choose morality instead of having it forced upon them by their alleged betters. So far, so good. However, when Shevek is beaten up arbitrarily as a teenager, he accepts it as a “gift”. This suggests a lack of appreciation of the inviolability of negative rights and perhaps illuminates her apparent inability to distinguish the state monopoly on the application of force versus private and voluntary exchange. At the same time, she engages in some typical moralistic handwringing over the usage of defensive force to protect property. Since she’s already established the ownership of property as an expression of power and a moral wrong, then anyone who uses force to defend against theft or violent expropriation is possessing “power no one should have”. Make up your goddamn mind, Ursula.
The Odonian credo of self-sacrifice is equally moronic and cringeworthy. It also tips the scale towards a Sorellian concept of “myth”. For Odonians, the experience of “shared pain” is the principle that binds Anarrestri to one another and to which they must consistently subordinate themselves. It bears more than a passing resemblance to a religious article of faith or any of the collectivist fantasies promulgated by politicians.
The one idea which truly torpedoes her book is the centrally planned nature of the Anarrestri economy. She concedes a bureaucratization of Odonian life, but her failure to recognize the inherently preposterous nature of the idea cannot be overlooked. For a SF novel, The Dispossessed is remarkably short of speculative science or any fantastical leaps of imagination. Aside from Shevek’s theory, the DivLab computer is actually one of the wildest speculations in the whole book. Le Guin spends no time discussing it or how Odonians developed such a thing in the first place. Odonians live a life of self-imposed poverty and austerity, and yet, a really sophisticated computer determines how labor resources will be allocated. There’s no regard for the individual, purposeful human action which drives skill specialization and gives rise to supply and demand. Not only is it wildly preposterous that Odonians could develop such a sophisticated piece of technology, the remainder of society is utterly devoid of any other comparably sophisticated technology. Nor is there any other labor saving machinery. Her description of Shevek’s feelings of “brotherhood, adventurousness, and hope” while waiting to receive instructions during the Anarres famine sounds like dumb, nationalistic propaganda. For all of the realism she brings to every other aspect of the book, Le Guin apparently spent no time examining why central planning was a failure. I can’t help but fault her for her intellectual blindness on this front.
Her actual grasp of physics and science is equally questionable. For all of Le Guin’s emphasis on the Odonian passion for scientific knowledge, she manages to smuggle in some dubious notions which sound like applications of scientific theory derived from feminist epistemology. Apparently, Shevek arrives at his big breakthrough because he was able to extend beyond pure scientific theory and include the realms of “philosophy and ethics”. Good science is philosophy, and is the product of sound ethics. For a woman so apparently keen on equal gender representation in STEM fields, she starts to sound like Luce Irigaray here. As a cheerleader for women in STEM, Le Guin is doing a great job. As someone who earns a living telling stories built from scientific speculation, this is kind of laughable.
Le Guin also attempts to counter Randian ideas, but her conception of both “egoism” and “altruism” are both straw men. By her reasoning, “egoism” can either be Shevek’s desire to assert his ideas in the face of ostracism or it can be overtly public displays of sexual affection. As a young child, Shevek is accused of “egoism” when he attempts to formulate his own ideas separate from the tightly controlled confines of the Anarres public school system. To use contemporary parlance, Shevek would have been accused of using microaggressions. Here, she suggests an upside to “egoism” which more or less maps to Rand’s conception. However, she ends up diluting her editorial when describing Shevek’s revulsion at the “egoism” of an Urrastri couple getting hot and heavy in full view of a group of people. Apparently, immodest displays of sexual attraction are on par with individual displays of independent thought. Got it, Ursula.
Her notions of altruism are equally daft and run afoul of Rand’s actual position. Shevek and his friends conduct their own Stanford Prison Experiment on one another just to feel what’s it’s like to deny freedom to another and to experience an absence of freedom. When Shevek expresses concern for their captive friend, he is chided by his compatriot not to get “altruistic”. Le Guin is clearly trying to highlight the monstrosity of imprisonment, but she completely mischaracterizes Rand’s view of altruism. Rand consistently argued that altruism was a toxic and debilitating worldview because it ultimately fueled a pointless and narcissistic sense of self-abnegation. Most importantly, she abhorred the ceaseless desire to petition an authority to adjudicate the parameters of the alleged altruism. To be fair, Le Guin’s usage of the term alternates between pejorative and complimentary, and it’s difficult to tell where she ultimately stands.
The major intersection between Rand and Le Guin occurs in Shevek’s development of the Theory of Simultanaiety; the theory which would allow the development of an intergalactic internet. Not only does Le Guin use this to distinguish the importance of asserting individualism, but she uses it to make a worthwhile point about sharing ideas even if she misrepresents the nature of intellectual property in the process. Just like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, Shevek risked ostracism and reproach from fellow Odonians in order to develop the idea. According to Le Guin, intellectual property belongs to the State, and subsequently, is just another form of dominion over others. This is partially true, but fundamentally false. Intellectual property is a monopoly right conferred by the State to the holder of the property claim. It confers state power to the holder of the right. Ursula Le Guin would know. She’s a huge advocate for it.
Though her commentary on gender is rife with progressive clichés around “equality”, it is noteworthy that she appears to be a forerunner of the whole neutral/non-binary view of gender that’s all the rage nowadays. Unfortunately, her views hew very closely to the pretentious postmodern ramblings of Judith Butler. In the Odonian tongue, “brother” and “sister” share the same noun. Odonians have sex with males and females as adolescents and there is no stigma associated with this activity. She also anticipated the current trend of subverting gender stereotypes by casting females in roles traditionally perceived as male. The entire book seems like the blueprint for the now omnipresent push for women in STEM. Like most contemporary feminists, Le Guin seems to dismiss equality of opportunity and focuses obsessively on equality of outcomes. She seems to relate to inequity of outcome as evidence of retrograde attitudes all by themselves. She also disregards the gender imbalance in science as a product of natural choices or differences in skill levels. While on Urras, Shevek expresses total surprise at the complete absence of women in science. Naturally, she portrays the scientists of Urras as sexist oafs who are somehow keeping women subservient and subordinate.
She goes so far out of her way to create female heroes and invert every gendered convention, that it feels overly calculated. At times, it suggests a subtle contempt for motherhood. In this respect, Le Guin’s thought seems to anticipate the broader trend in feminism which all too often reduces to a singleminded focus on terminating pregnancy. This Orwellian attempt to erase any semblance of women as caregivers in art is now commonplace. In other words, it comes across like propaganda. Odo, the matriarch of the revolution was female and her teachings formed the foundation of Odonian society. What a coincidence. The foundations of a revolutionary anarchist matriarchy were written by a woman. How totally meta, Ursula. Shevek’s mother leaves his father when he was a baby to devote herself to her engineering career because her Duty to the People® took priority over her own child. The physicist who inspired Shevek’s work was a woman, too. We don’t know anything about her except that she’s got a uterus and she had theories which weren’t taken seriously even in the matriarchal utopia of Anarres. To Ursula Le Guin, women just don’t get taken seriously in this capitalist patriarchy and motherhood and biology are no big deal.
Le Guin betrays a smug, repressive elitism towards women who flaunt their sexuality by wearing makeup or provocative clothing. It’s an attitude that’s sadly endemic to a significant segment of the contemporary feminist “movement”. Vea is portrayed as an attractive woman, and yet, for Odonians and Le Guin she’s a “body propertarian” whose humanity is absent simply because she’s provocatively dressed and made up. Who’s the one objectifying and dehumanizing, Ursula? You or that evil patriarchy?
And what feminist novel would be complete without a scene of sexual assault? Apparently, we just can’t talk about gender politics without some rape editorial. The assault scene between Vea and Shevek stands in sharp contrast to the scene between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon portrayed in The Fountainhead. Here, Le Guin betrays a pretty obviously low opinion of men’s capacity for self-control. Once Shevek gets a little bit to drink and is in the presence of a woman who’s made up and wearing sexy clothes, he is seemingly unable to stop himself from committing assault. His monk-like existence amongst the joyless, preachy pro-feminism communists of Anarres just couldn’t contain those toxic male urges.
The Dispossessed is book that’s moderately engaging and asks the right philosophical questions, but mostly arrives at the wrong conclusions. In science fiction, I expect some flights of imagination, and in this respect, Le Guin borders on a sort of pedantic realism that feels slightly inappropriate for the genre. It’s almost as though she’s disconnected from the things that make science fiction fun and engaging. It’s burdened by a certain overly earnest preachiness and stoicism. As a work of philosophy, it gets a few things right, but misses the mark more often than not. Kropotkin, Bookchin and Le Guin were completely correct about state power. Unfortunately, she and her intellectual forebears were incorrect about property rights, market economics and the proper application of violent force. I would be inclined to disregard all of the gender politics, but the collection of ideas presented are so prevalent nowadays, it demands a vigorous rebuttal. The stranglehold of Marxist and post-Marxist ideals remains as strong as ever. The eco-communist ideas of Murray Bookchin are even getting a second wind in the alleged “anarchist” feminist utopia of Rojava. Naturally, it was dutifully reported by the progressives at the New York Times. I hope Le Guin is happy that a real life version of Anarres is being attempted right before our eyes.
The argument for anarchism is the definitive argument of our times and Ursula Le Guin is to be commended for making an earnest contribution to this debate through science fiction. It’s too bad she’s on the wrong side of the argument.