October 19

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The Strange World of “The Dispossessed”: Should You Move There?

Having just finished reading “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin, I can’t stop thinking about it.

What would happen if there was a revolution and if those in favor of it were given their own planet to create an anarchist society?

Because, yeah, that's what happened in "The Dispossessed" about 170 years ago on a planet called Urras.


The Urrastian Revolution that created the Dispossessed

For a moment, let's imagine this happening right now. Throughout the novel, we only catch glimpses of that history so we will need to fill in some gaps.

Personally, I'm picturing it less like a negotiation and more like a Sex Pistols concert gone sideways:

Crowd of Urrastian Revolutionaries: "Anarchy in the..." 
Head of Urrastian Government: "Oh for f***'s sake, just give them their own damn planet!" *checks notes* "Oh good, we have a spare one." *waves around* "Just give it to them. Whatever it takes to make this stop." (pause) "Also, can I get some aspirin, please?"
(Five minutes later)
The long-suffering Speaker of the Urrastian Head of Government (addressing the crowds): "You can all go to he-, I mean, the moon. Go to the moon. Build an anarchist utopia. Go in peace but go."
Live footage of the crowd's reaction:

🤯

I'm just kidding. That's probably not how it happened. But yeah, there was a revolution and now people live on the moon.

If that blew your mind, please recall that that's just the setup for this novel. Before pondering whether you should also move to the moon, let's explore how this novel gets even more fascinating:


Two sister planets on completely different paths

What if these two societies (the old one and the new) had no contact with each other for hundreds of years… until a brilliant scientist from the rebel planet decides to come back to Urras? 

The brilliant scientist is called Shevek and yes, the novel's premise is that fascinating. To describe it succinctly: 

Two planets, both alike in dignity,
In fair Tau Ceti, where we set our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

"The Dispossessed" by @ursulaleguin meets #shakespeare.
#ursulakleguin

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(Sorry, I couldn’t resist misquoting Romeo and Juliet in this context.)

But to be serious, this is pretty much the scene of "The Dispossessed": two sister planets with radically different systems of governance, mutual distrust… and, well, civil blood that gets spilled.

Le Guin, perhaps the most brilliant writer of her generation, does a spectacular job at describing these worlds. I'm not at all surprised that the book won the Nebula Award for Best Novel, as well as the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1975.

But let's leave our world's accolades aside and instead turn our attention to the two main worlds we get to explore in "The Dispossessed":

The Main Worlds in "The Dispossessed":

The sister planets Urras and Anarres are the two inhabited worlds of the aforementioned Tau Ceti.

Urras

Urras, the one most alike to our earth, is “the old world.” It’s a place where the rich have much and the poor have nothing.

Anarres

Anarres, the rebel planet, is “the new world.” It’s a place where nobody has anything—a place beyond or without things (res).

So much for the location. Now, on to the civil blood. 

In the very first scene, protestors on Anarres throw stones that end up killing a worker... without any consequences. When I read this, I felt uneasy that there were no consequences for that act. Does this confirm fears people have about what would happen in an anarchist world? 

Of course, later on in the book and on the anti-anarchist planet of Urras, a large number of peaceful protestors is gunned down by the government. This violence—which seems painfully familiar, given the history and politics of our own Earth—doesn’t lead to any consequences or punishment, either. 

Clearly, things are not quite as easy as they seem. Let's compare these world in more detail:


A comparison of Urras and Anarres: which world is better? 

Just to be clear, Urras is divided into different nation states and dominated by two of those (A-Io and Thu). Since the novel's protagonist, Shevek, never visits Thu, the following comparison is based on his stay in A-lo.  

Urras

  • The rich have a lot, everyone else doesn't. 
  • Some starve while others have enough. 
  • Has a hierarchical structure. 
  • Wages war.
  • Women are treated as second-class citizens.
  • Has unemployment and people who are underpaid for their work.
  • Has rules and law. 
  • Rules get enforced through the use of force.
  • The rich and the elites get special treatment all the time.

Anarres

  • Nobody owns anything.
  • Nobody starves while others have enough.
  • Doesn't have a real hierarchical structure.
  • Doesn't wage war.
  • Women are treated equal to men.  
  • Everyone who wants to work can do so and there is no payment for their service.
  • Has social customs.
  • Customs get enforced through social pressure.
  • During famines, vulnerable groups get special treatment.

So, should you pack up your things and move to the Moon?

I mean, this sounds like a shoe-in for Anarres, doesn't it?

However, it's not quite as simple.

There's a scene where someone explains how his daughter died in a Urrastian hospital for the disadvantaged (with the clear implication that she wouldn't have died in one of the elite hospitals).

On Anarres, the child would have gotten the same treatment everyone else received... but in a world that doesn't know possessions, her father wouldn't have been "her" father. Family ties are discouraged. Thus, it is seen as less problematic to move away and leave "your" children behind (cared for by the community) than it is to live together with them. 


In addition to this flagrant disregard for, well, human family bonds, there are other things that I found problematic about the Anarrestian society (such as always placing the collective above the individual).

I guess there is a reason Le Guin called the book: "The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia." The protagonist Shevek himself doesn't quite belong to the world he lives in.


Final verdict: should you move to Anarres?

While I can't answer the question for you if you would love living in Anarres, I think you should definitely move there. At least temporarily and in your imagination.

It's as simple as reading "The Dispossessed" and experiencing a world that is so different from the one we live in. 

Why should you do that?

Well, when I shared that I was writing an article about "The Dispossessed," my husband quipped: "Oh, is this for people who are no longer possessed by demons?"

He was joking but curiously enough, it has been suggested that Le Guin's work is a reference to Dostoyevsky's novel about anarchists, Demons.

We're all possessed by cultural "demons." In the world we live in, these "demons" include the idea that everything is for sale and that everything can be possessed.

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By reading Le Guin's work, you can explore a fictional, different culture... and with it, different ways of seeing the world.

And that matters because, as the protagonist Shevek so succinctly put it to a crowd of protestors:

"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

P.S.: If you decide that you do want to move to Anarres, don't bother packing your bags. Bring nothing. 

As Shevek put it: “I come with empty hands and the desire to unbuild walls.” 

P.P.S.: You can't buy the Revolution but you can buy my book "The Work You Love Revolution" that will show you how you can start a revolution by doing what you love.

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