As a long-time reader of Ursula K. Le Guin, I was saddened to hear of her passing. The following essay, originally written in 2001 for the literary magazine BigCityLit, examines Ms. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed in conjunction with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. The ideas expressed and implied in these works continue to be highly relevant for activists wishing to find a path toward a better world.
History has proven it hasn’t ended. The concept should have been too laughable to even been contemplated; the very fact that ever shriller cacophonies of propaganda are hurled at us ought to prove the point, if it needed to be proved at all.
No matter how many times Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” is pompously declared; no matter how many times Francis Fukuyama is invoked to declare the end of history — a quote sure to be one of the 21st century’s reliable laugh lines — much of the world persists in refusing its assigned role. Unless we’re paying close attention, most of this is yet under the radar, save for the occasional spectacle when the World Bank or International Monetary Fund or a hemispheric “free trade” conference convenes, and we are shown a backdrop of protesters while a befuddled television talking head scratches his head and says “I don’t get it.” If the talking head is planning on a nice career as a media personality, he’d better not get it.
There is a subset of the “no alternative” grouping. Well, yes, maybe capitalism isn’t all wonderful, but look at how socialism failed. Actually, “socialism” did not fail; one distorted version did. The story of how that distortion, solidifying the incredible twists and turns taken by one country weighed down by the horrors of its absolutist history and further bent out of recognition by a single-minded dictator, is fascinating for those with much patience. That country, if we care to be precise, was never close to achieving socialism. Nonetheless, that country, which also faced relentless pressures from the West, including an invasion by 14 countries as soon as they could stop fighting World War I, had its uses. Western anti-Marxists didn’t want people to think there could be an alternative to capitalism. They still don’t.
We’ve begun the 21st century. Stalinism is dead. It will remain dead. Still, the desire for a better life remains. But what? It’s too easy to say “we don’t know.” We don’t. But whatever is next, it’ll have to be built on top of present-day society. It’ll have to be built, at least in some part, on a critique of capitalist society. We already possess that critique, and so it is bound to be at least a starting point. It is therefore not surprising that when we cross from the real world into the world of fiction, those starting points come with us.
There are as many socialisms, or potential future societies if socialism is too scary a word, as our imagination will allow us. It would be natural for those fiction writers of the future, science fiction specialists, to explore many of these potential futures. Oddly, despite the countless dystopian novels out there, this is actually highly rare. Science fiction is actually a genre that, when we take an overall sampling, is parched for ideas. I say this as a regular reader of science fiction. So much of the genre consists of fetishized military engagements and thinly veiled technology manuals masquerading as stories. Even the dystopias usually consist of the author taking a single idea and seeing how far she can run with it.
The rare exceptions, then, tower above the field. Rarer still are those who attempt to create a truly different society based on recognizable characters. Two of these authors are Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Both winningly attempt to work out new worlds, but in very different ways. Ms. Le Guin is an anarchist who sketches out societies either in the far future or someplace far from Earth. Mr. Robinson, who writes from a Marxist perspective, sets his stories on Earth or elsewhere in the solar system and in the near future. Whether or not it is agreed that the societies sketched out are plausible, these stories are the works of authors realistically wrestling with the full range of human emotion and human interaction with huge, impersonal forces, forces that nonetheless are human created. Both do this with a variety of vivid characters and subtle interplay that make much of their body of work flow well outside of the usual confines of science fiction.
Contrary to orthodox Soviet myopia that shrilly proclaimed the creation of a “workers’ paradise,” real life comes fully equipped with contradictions. If it is not a full-blown contradiction it is certainly an irony that an anarchist, Ms. Le Guin, understands this basic Marxist assumption while Soviet political leaders were unable. Ms. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, published in 1974, wears this right on the cover; the novel’s subtitle calls it an “ambiguous utopia.”
An “ambiguous utopia”
The ambiguous utopia is the world of Anarres, the marginally habitable moon of the Earth-like planet Urras. Although Urras is not Earth and is not inhabited by humans (although they are very much like humans), its political, social and economic systems are very recognizable to the humans of present-day Earth. This “coincidence,” however, is quite forgivable. Urras is dominated by two countries, one an United States-style capitalist state consumed by greed and the other a secretive Soviet Union-style state. Urras is a world with technology and environmental awareness far beyond Earth’s 20th century, political development at the level of Earth’s 20th century and a social system of the 18th or early 19th century rooted in profound sexism; it is an utterly male-dominated society.
Urras’ hounded anarchists of the past were allowed to leave Urras and settle on the moon Anarres, used as a mining colony. Life on Anarres is life on the margins. A dry world that is desert except for small areas of moderate rainfall, the anarchists continually are on the verge of disaster. Only by being a completely collective society, by cooperating with each other, can they survive. With resources so limited, a competitive capitalist society would fail quickly — U.S.-style inequities would not simply create poverty, they would create mass starvation and rapidly deplete the limited natural resources. Such a place would shortly descend into hopeless chaos and implode.
Anarres is far from perfect, being an “ambiguous utopia.” It is an anarchist society without government, yet it must ensure resources are used where they are needed, that men and women with the right skills are sent where they are needed and that the basic necessities of life are available for everyone. There are no jails or coercion, yet peer pressure must be sufficient to deter the potentially uncooperative. Freedom of decision and personal life choices are paramount, yet people must be sent to new locations when emergencies occur.
One of the largest contradictions is in how people are to serve this society, in normal times and during crises. This problem is embodied in the main character, Shevek, a brilliant physicist. Can Shevek best serve Anarres by continuing his research? He is so far beyond other scientists that no one on Anarres can fully understand his work. Only a handful of physicists on Urras can, and they are interested in exploiting him for their own (national) interests. Although it is assumed that Shevek’s esoteric work will have applications some day, it has no practical use now. Or, particularly during the crisis of a severe drought that leads to deprivation around Anarres, is it in the dry world’s interest that Shevek drop his research and perform practical work that will help Anarres marshal its meager resources for survival? Can he go back and forth depending on conditions?
It is the very fact that Anarres is a collective society that enables individuals to flourish in a difficult physical environment. Yet can those individuals do what they want, or must that individuality be set aside for the greater good? There is no easy answer, or even single answer, to this question. Neither Shevek nor his society can formulate a solution. Yet the struggle over this question on Anarres is vastly different than the contradictions inherent on Urras, where the two dominant countries still regularly fight proxy wars in other countries against each other and where the “free” United States-style nation proves to be much less free than it appears. The tenuous relationship between Anarres and Urras has its own set of contradictions.
The society of Anarres, based on cooperation without even the concept of money, is so different from the modern neoliberal state built on pitiless competition with power rooted in economics as to be seemingly an impossible transition. And, indeed, Anarres is not the transformation of any society, even if it was conceived on Urras. The Anarres anarchist society is constructed in a place that was empty, except for a couple of mining settlements where nobody lived permanently. It is created out of nothing, not out of a pre-existing society. On Urras, from where the original Anarres settlers escaped, the traditional nation-state forms still exist, intact, two centuries after new Anarres settlement is closed.
Can a radically new society, based on values far different from existing society, be created in the same country? Are pre-existing societal pressures too powerful to be overcome? Can a radically new society only be created on a blank slate? Is a radically new society needed to be created somewhere else before it can supplant the existing order? And if so, does the lag period have to be decades, even centuries? Now we’ve leaped from contradictions on a personal scale to contradictions on a national or even global scale. The Dispossessed does not purport to attempt an answer to these questions and for the most part does not even ask these questions. But it does stimulate thinking about these questions, and this alone raises it into very select company.
How to organize in the absence of a state?
If we dig down into Anarres society, it is, theoretically, a world of “pure” anarchism, although some Marxists would argue that such a society would be the end result of communist development. Anarres is a world of true common ownership — there is no state, not even a government, to own productive property in the name of the people. The only global organization is a bureau that links people with jobs that need to be filled.
The bureau has no coercive powers; any man or woman is free to accept or decline a posting. But in times of crisis, such as the long drought Anarres goes through, peer pressure is very strong to accept a post, even if it is in a remote location and it requires the acceptee to be away from his/her partner for a long period of time. Housing, cafeterias and other needs are always available, wherever a posting takes a person. This also makes Anarres a mobile society, as there is no private property to be left behind, freeing men and women to move around the moon as they like. It is also a society totally without hierarchy, class distinctions or gender roles. Puritanism is also erased; a full sexual freedom exists with the elimination of sexism and gender roles.
These liberating social conditions are inseparable from the economic freedom of Anarres. It is, again, a place with true common ownership, different from an anarcho-syndicalist economy, in which the members of small collectives would together own their workshop or production facility. It is also distinct from the concept of the state owning property in the name of society as developed in Soviet Union. But even this concept is, in theory, a stage of development in which the end result is a withering away of the state which, again in theory, might result in an economic design not much different than the concepts of the anarchist society of Anarres.
Anarres is able to maintain its society through isolation. There is no contact between it and Urras, except for freight ships that mostly transport minerals to Urras, but also carry other goods, even books, in both directions. Anarres is completely closed to Urras, with nobody from the freight ships allowed to leave the small port. It is unthinkable for any Anarres citizen to go to Urras. Governments on Urras ruthlessly suppress any groups that wish to implement Anarres ideas, but the countries of Urras make no attempt to interfere with Anarres itself; Anarres continues to ship minerals to Urras and, from the Urras point of view, remains a mining colony.
The people of Anarres, who deeply believe in their project, are allowed to continue to develop their society with no interference thanks to the hundreds of thousands of miles that separate it from the warring nation-states of Urras. But what if there was no such separation; what if the capitalists of Urras saw a threat in Anarres? Would Anarres have the freedom to develop its egalitarian society? Can a radically new and different society exist next to or nearby societies that continue to use traditional, hierarchal forms? These questions do get raised in The Dispossessed, and of course asking these questions brings us back to Earth.
In our solar system, Earth’s moon is not capable of sustaining life; alternative societies will need to take root here on Earth. But is it possible for a radical society — an egalitarian society that provides an adequate standard of living, materially and in all the other ways — that, by its very existence, provides a superior alternative to capitalist society, to have the time to create itself? Is it even possible for such a society to take root with more powerful neighbors ready to suppress it?
Revolution when there is the (physical) space for it
Ursula Le Guin, the creator of an “ambiguous anarchist utopia,” is not optimistic on these questions. Neither is Kim Stanley Robinson, the creator of a Marxist-inspired revolution on Mars that succeeds against great odds. Unlike the anarchists of Anarres, who have a world essentially handed to them — authorities on Urras apparently decided this would be a way of getting rid of their troublemakers — the Martians of Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars) have to overthrow oppressive colonial rule to create their better society.
But just as Anarres benefited from its distance from Urras, Mars’ distance from Earth is what gives the revolutionaries the space to create their new society. And the Martians, too, must compromise. Anarres must continue to supply Urras with minerals or face the possibility of an invasion; the revolutionary Martian government must continue to accept a continuous stream of colonists from Earth and maneuver its way around the colossal economic power of Earth’s biggest corporations and the puppet political institutions the corporations control.
In the years of the 21st and 22nd centuries, capitalism continues to develop; that is, economic power is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. About 20 corporations have a stranglehold on the world’s economy and dominate Earth. The economies of all countries except the 11 comprising the G-11 grouping (expanded from the present-day G-7) are dwarfed by those 20 corporations; indeed, most countries of the world are directly controlled by one of the top corporations. The United Nations is the gendarme of this corporate domination. The UN organizes the colonization of Mars on behalf of its corporate masters; the intention is to exploit the resources of the Red Planet and to, over time, export some of Earth’s overpopulation.
Some colonists are willing to go along with this program; many others want to create a better world than what they left behind on Earth. This increasingly bitter divide is complicated by an environmental divide between “Reds” (those who wish to leave Mars as it is) and “Greens” (those who wish to terraform Mars into an Earth-like environment). The divide between willing colonists and independent-minded social builders does not coincide with the environmental divide; although there is wide support to break free of Earth’s grip and build a better society, there are more “Greens” than “Reds” on the environmental question. At any rate, during the colonial era, the decision is out of the Martians’ hands as the UN and the corporations behind it seek to create an Earth-like Mars. Terraforming begins with the first colonists and there is far too much economic muscle applied from Earth for the process to be slowed, much less stopped.
A further fracture in the developing Martian society, which ultimately adds to political tensions, is the huge social gap between the younger men and women who are born on Mars and the waves of colonists who continue to flood the planet. The intention of the independence-minded colonists is to create a better society, not only in terms of dispensing with the rapacious economic determinism of Earth, but in other realms as well. These colonists want to create a non-hierarchal society free not only of class distinctions but of ills such as sexism, racism, nationalism and cultural arrogance.
To the men and women who are born on Mars, this is not only natural, but easy to express because to them the hideous stratifications and exploitation of Earth are revolting and unimaginable. Counter-pressures come on economic and colonial questions from the colonists who see Mars as a natural colony of Earth and from the large number of colonists who come from more repressive cultures and seek to replicate the backwardness they left behind.
Creating the future when so much of the past is present
On this fictional Mars created by Mr. Robinson, we have something of a hybrid between a society trying to create itself next to existing, hostile societies and a society free to create itself out of nothing in isolation from hostile counter-pressures. Mars is of course barren of life before the arrival of the first trickle of colonists — the Martian population starts in the hundreds and rises to the tens of millions — so it has the potential to create itself out of nothing. But in reality, it is a colony controlled by Earth, regularly sent new colonists who don’t share the lofty ideals of the independence-minded or “native” Martians, and who act as forces to create a replication of Earth. Here we have a different contradiction, that between the huge distance between the planets that should provide the space for a new society to create itself and the very powerful forces that bind the new, and still developing, society to the old.
For a long time, those powerful forces overpower the native energy that seeks to create a new Martian society; a society that would be different and more advanced than what can currently exist on Mars. The Martians don’t have the option to isolate themselves — even if they could reach a consensus on that issue — because they aren’t strong enough to stop the UN from following whatever policies the UN wishes to follow. Gradually, repression is strengthened until the movement for independence is forced underground. During this time, underground resistors can create small hidden pockets where new societies can be created, but they are politically impotent.
Unlike the “ambiguous utopia” of Anarres, where there was freedom to create something entirely new in a political vacuum, the Mars of Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy has real pressures acting on it, external and internal. Far from political, social or environment unity, this Mars has wide ranges of opinion on all questions, and vastly different, even irreconcilable, cultural experiences. It has to find a way to juggle and allow expression to all these forces, assuming it can even find a way out of its colonial status.
None of the other issues can be tackled until the first issue of independence can be solved. Even then, Mars will not have full freedom of action. A well-timed revolution, launched just as Earth enters into a sudden global environmental crisis, enables the Martians to overthrow the direct rule of the UN and Earth’s corporations, but does not remove the power that still exists on Earth. There are those on Mars opposed to the revolution; they are politically neutered now but won’t necessarily remain so. There are socially backward elements who can only cling to what they left behind on Earth. Among the majority pro-revolution opinion, there are a variety of conflicting interests and differing political ideas. The environmental split between “Reds” and “Greens” still exists; the Reds are losing that battle and know it, but still seek to at least slow down or somehow halt progress on terraforming.
At the start of a revolutionary period, all things are possible. How will the possibilities be sorted? How can all reasonable opinions be represented? How and who can decide what a reasonable opinion is? During this period of tremendous change, which will eventually come to a close, how radical a break from the old society can there be? How fast and how far can the revolution go in building a new society? Can an accommodation be made with many conflicting areas of opinion while retaining the revolutionary impulse to create a new society? Can competing interests co-exist long enough to build lasting institutions, or must one group begin to dominate other groups? Can the unique circumstance of tens of millions of miles of space between the planets allow a radical break from the past that would not be possible on Earth?
Other than the last question, these questions apply to all revolutionary situations. The uniqueness of revolting on a separate planet does give the Martian revolutionaries the space to create lasting institutions locking in a radically new society; but even here, Earth’s need to deal with its environmental catastrophe keeps it occupied. Otherwise, any attempt at revolution likely would have been doomed. Indeed, a first attempt is mercilessly crushed by the UN.
Freedom from economic coercion at the base
The political institutions the new Martian government creates are not necessarily a vast departure from previous government styles; but it is different enough to allow radical changes in other spheres of life, especially social and economic. The government is nominally a multi-party parliamentary system on a global scale; but government exists only at the city and global levels. There are no countries or subdivisions. Economic freedom and equality is enshrined in the new Martian constitution; all workplaces are collectively owned by the people who work there. The new society is stripped of inequality and all hierarchy; with full equality among all citizens, a full and exuberant sexual freedom for all genders blossoms with the elimination of sexism. Anything less is incomprehensible to those born on Mars free of the horrors of Earth.
Perhaps all this happens rather too easily, but the buildup to the revolution and the pre-revolutionary work of creating a new world lasts several decades and involves three generations, so it by no means is a sudden change. Unlike the “ambiguous utopia” of Anarres — rather conveniently allowed to happen on an empty moon — Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy takes the realistic approach that old hierarchies can only be removed with considerable effort. Along the way, the characters struggle with the weight of history, and argue history’s lessons.
There is no doubt that further lessons need to be learned from history, and it is clear that both Ms. Le Guin and Mr. Robinson have not only studied, but learned, history. Their fictional worlds, and the very real and interesting characters who inhabit them, are all the richer for this. But can these worlds — the stateless anarchism of Anarres and the Marxist egalitarianism governed through parliamentary consensus of Mars — be brought into existence on Earth? Would we want to, or would a better world be different that these ideals? Can a truly egalitarian society, allowing a full scope of economic as well as other freedoms, come into being, or would hostile capital-dominated countries inevitably overwhelm it, as the 20th century’s socialist experiments were overwhelmed?
What the planets created in these fictions have in common is that the inhabitants have full freedom — starting with economic freedom, without which most other freedoms are illusions. (Unless your idea of democracy is choosing what cola you can drink.) Whatever the future has in store for humanity, it will certainly be different from the future societies sketched in this review. But the future will have to include a full range of freedoms similar to that enjoyed by the books’ characters. That won’t happen under capitalism — by definition, it can’t — and it won’t happen under a monolithic party that doesn’t understand its own doctrine. It won’t come under an ephemeral “third way” that is just capitalism with a thin veneer of sweetener layered on the top.
Humanity will have to find a way forward, somehow, or face catastrophe. I won’t pretend to have the answer. But it is nice to have stimulating fiction that works not only as a fine read, but allows us to think about the possibilities along the way.