Anarres and The Dispossessed: Le Guin’s Model for a Socialist Future
The Washington Socialist <> Labor Day 2019
By Jason S-F
My first introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed came when a couple of fellow troublemakers-for-good recommended that I read the book for its portrayal of a society structured on socialist lines. It provides a blueprint for communal living based on an anarcho-syndicalist political economy.
As a student of language and the human experience, and first experiencing it as an audiobook, I was immediately enthralled by Le Guin’s fictional world, Anarres, and the language, Pravic, that was created to “intentionally embod[y] the principles of the new society.” Instead of the constructed languages, though, I want to focus on the principles of socialism, especially the aspects of cooperation, solidarity, and sharing that is at the heart of Anarres and its people.
Why write this piece?
While I have previously suggested this book to friends and family members curious about socialism, all of them reported giving up listening to it (and not wanting to read it) mainly due to their disinterest in sci-fi or the audiobook reader’s delivery. It would be a shame if Le Guin’s socialist society were to go unread/unheard because “the narrator is too monotone.“ Luckily, this isn’t the case with the YouTube version. So try that.
This paper is a call to adopt anti-capitalist and more socialist ways of constructing our present for a better future in which we all could have more through cooperation, solidarity, and a sharing economy. Le Guin’s depiction of Anarres is a great place to start.
So, this piece is for you, my loved ones. May my generalization (in the map-making sense) of Anarres bring you as much inspiration for socialist future-making as it has done for me. And may my interpretations of Le Guin’s work inspire you to read her for yourself and move beyond what may be your bias against sci-fi as literature. After all, Le Guin wrote much more than sci-fi; she wrote what Walidah Imarisha has called visionary fiction.
Socialism is essential, especially when you have little.
Imagine that you live in a society where you have everything you need and don’t have to rely on your (or someone else’s) paycheck to access those needs because cooperation and sharing are enshrined. Although Anarres exists on its eponymous barren planet and boasts few usable natural resources compared to our Earth, the inhabitants make use of what little they do have around them. While there are some native Hollum trees/shrubs, which are used for food and clothing, imported fruit trees must be hand-pollinated — there are no insects or birds on Anarres. That’s a lot of labor! Now, I want you to imagine the everyday workings of Anarres as if they were taking place on Earth, with all of its abundances. While this thought experiment strays greatly from Le Guin’s Anarres, it lets us see what Anarres might look like if its more Earth-like twin planet, Urras, had an anti-capitalist economy and socialist political system.
Can I have a job and a home on Anarres? What about a family?
Yes. You have a job (but you probably don’t call it work) and may even have a hobby as well. You may even have what could be considered a “family.” That family may even live under the same roof. The “dispossessed” roof doesn’t belong to you, not that Pravic uses possessive pronouns. But, no one can take it away from you. There are no banks. Thus, there are no mortgages to default on. There are no landlords. There are no police to evict you.
What might a typical day look like on Anarres?
It’s 5:30 AM. The alarm goes off. It’s time for work. (Can you call it work? You’re doing what you love, after all.) Your stomach tells you that you’re hungry. Since you showered the night before (you prefer to go to bed freshly cleaned), you just put on your clothes (standard issue, nothing fancy) and head to the cafeteria. You see your neighbor at the elevator and you chat about the new baby on the floor and the occasional crying session that reverberated across the floor last night. You exit the elevator at the main floor and greet several other neighbors who are grabbing their breakfast.
The kitchen staff has been up since 4 AM preparing breakfast for the folx on the first shift and dinner for those who are leaving third shift. Their day looks a bit different than yours. But like you, they are doing what they love, which, in their case, means providing essential nourishment for the residents of their building. Some of the kitchen staff that morning have other jobs and are there to take part in their extra communal duties like washing the dishes or helping the full-time kitchen staff prep cook or doing maintenance on the various machines that operate in that building itself.
After a brief, relaxing breakfast (for which you didn’t pay one cent), you hop on the people mover (that doesn’t cost you anything either). The mover is tram-like and uses green energy to operate. As you board, you wave to your friend, Sabela, who happens to be part of the tram maintenance crew. On the mover, you greet a few more neighbors and coworkers. Several of you get off at the same stop.
Your job post happens to be at the headquarters of a particular organization that provides some vital functions for the greater society. (You are but one small, although significant, cog in the greater proverbial machine of life.) You pass a few people in the corridor that you know and others that you don’t. Entering your workspace, you stop and chat with the receptionist (who just had a new baby) before heading to your desk. You do what you do for a few hours, and then it’s lunchtime. You message your friend, Hsuan, to see if they want to accompany you for lunch. The two of you meet and enjoy a nice lunch in the central cafeteria of the building in which you work. After lunch, you go back to your desk to wrap up your five-hour workday. Now you have plenty of time to enjoy other things that interest you.
The job you do is not what David Graeber would call a bullshit job. Maybe you’re a scientist exploring new ways of mapping the ocean floors from space in order to keep the waterways safe for essential transportation of goods imported into your region. It’s important work, because your region of Earth doesn’t produce all those goods that are essential for the local economy.
The work you do is also self-managed and you are part of a federation of workers who adopt principles of collective decision-making. There is no hierarchy, and thus, no authoritarian relationships in the workplace. One of your coworkers, Bob down the hall for example, may try to tell you how to do your job (and he might every chance he can get) but he has no power or control over you. Decisions that affect other fellow associates must be agreed upon by all, which means your ideas need to be sound enough to convince your syndicate to agree on them.
After your five-hour shift at work, you check your messaging device to see what communal maintenance shift the central planning algorithm has assigned you. After your dishwashing shift is over, you head back to your dorm, opting to commute along one of the many green paths that interweave throughout the city. You get there in 25 minutes — right around average. Sometimes, when you’re in a rush, you’ll get there in fifteen minutes by bike or eight minutes by tram.
Most people elect to live in a dorm close to their place of work, or partner, or group of friends. You don’t worry about paying rent, and clean sheets and towels are just downstairs at the laundry station. Most of the time you spend inside your dorm room is when you are sleeping or enjoying copulation. If you are a person who enjoys spending time alone in your room, you may choose a dorm that has a modest workstation or a comfortable place to relax. There is even a dorm where children can stay and learn to socialize with other children of similar ages. Children can also choose to sleep in the same dorm as their families, or both.
It’s dinner time when you get back to your dorm’s building, but you aren’t hungry. Instead, you opt for a stroll in the park and a workout session at the gym ($0 down, $0 monthly fee!). After your workout, you get a message from your partner asking to meet at the cafeteria before sneaking back upstairs. You grab a bowl of your favorite veggie medley and some soup for the road. Your partner takes the extra, forgone portion of cherry cobbler.
You follow the sweet treat with a passionate copulation session (or two, or with a friend). It’s 7 PM when you scramble to get dressed for a syndicate meeting with your fellow associates at the office.
It’s summer and the evenings are beautiful so your syndicate decides to meet at the local park where you can all enjoy the fresh air while proposing your important ideas and sharing your project successes and failures. Oh, and Ashanti, your project partner, made a batch of honey mead that she’s been wanting to share with the group. You all enjoy a cool glass while discussing the important work you’re all passionate about.
Tom, the cartographer from a few desks away from yours, gets a little too drunk and a bit belligerent. A group of fellow scientists closest to him intervene when he gets into Bob’s face and starts to tell him off; you aren’t the only one that Bob tries to micromanage, after all. A few of Tom’s closest associates take it upon themselves to convince him that it’s time to go back to his dorm, and they accompany him; Tom is not made to do anything against his will. No one is forced into doing anything they don’t want to do.
Another of the beautiful aspects of Anarres is that there is no hierarchical value assigned to the roles carried out in society. The jobs of the kitchen staff are just as essential as the jobs of the scientists. This is because Anarres is founded on principles of anti-authoritarianism and non-hierarchicalism.
You, the reader, the imaginer, are probably left with many questions. Are there crime or mental illness on Anarres? Are there prisons? What happens to the rapists? How does the society function without monetary exchange? Le Guin does briefly address these issues in The Dispossessed as well as other writings. For those questions to be answered, you’ll have to get past your doubts about the value of the sci-fi genre and read the book for yourself. The socialism on Anarres is bound to inspire you as you seek out models for that better, brighter future for humankind that you so badly desire.