Friday, May 20, 2011

Book Review: The Dispossessed (Part 2 of 2)

Ursula K. Le Guin
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –


This is a continuation of an earlier review. For a description of the back story and plot of this book, see my post from last week.

I think that the real power of The Dispossessed is that it gives you a chance to explore both a libertarian anarchy and a capitalist government - populated by very similar people - through the eyes of someone with a very open mind. And in a more subtle way than either Le Guin's own earlier work or Heinlein’s polemics.

The main character, Shevek, was born and raised on the moon Anarres, in a society founded as an experiment in nonauthoritarian communism. For him, this is the comfortable default; he has been raised to think of governmental structure as inherently corrupt and of the drive for profit as an unjust and ineffective motive.

In many ways, the Anarresti system is a good one and Shevek is justifiably proud of it. People trust each other (there is no reason not to, since nothing is private). People do, for the most part, work together. No one is left to starve while others have extra food. No one is forced to take an illegal, oppressive, or dangerous job just to survive. Everyone is of equal status – men and women alike.

The problem is that, in spite of itself, Anarres has started to develop a government-like bureaucracy. The Anarresti structure is meant to foster choice and open-mindedness. But every crisis requires the imposition of a little more process which never really goes away when the crisis is over. 

It doesn’t help that the moon is so inhospitable. A five-year famine tests the Anarresti social commitment to the breaking point, with mobs coming awfully close to hijacking food shipments designated for somewhere else. So the bureaucracy, such as it is, clamps down tighter to make sure everyone gets fed. This, plus Shevek’s own experiences with close-mindedness and even censorship at work, make him realize that their system may not be as infallible as he was raised to believe. More and more, norms and regulations are putting the needs of society as a whole before individual freedom.

Urras opens Shevek’s eyes even more - and confuses him.

Some aspects of Urrasti capitalism are indeed as bad as he was taught. When he meets the elite, they all seem anxious, and he wonders if it is worry because someone always has more, or guilt because someone always has less. Women, servants, and laborers are second-class citizens, and they are by no means all happy about it. Large groups of sometimes violent Urrasti people want a change and want him to be their spokesman.

But he also sees things that show him that a profit-driven system might not necessarily be all bad:
“He had been taught as a child that Urras was a festering mass of inequity, iniquity, and waste. But all the people he met, and all the people he saw, in the smallest country village, were well dressed, well fed, and, contrary to his expectations, industrious. They did not stand about sullenly waiting to be ordered to do things. Just like Anarresti, they were simply busy getting things done. It puzzled him. He had assumed that if you removed a human being’s natural incentive to work – his initiative, his spontaneous creative energy – and replaced it with external motivation and coercion, he would become a lazy and careless worker. But no careless workers kept those lovely farmlands, or made the superb cars and comfortable trains. The lure and compulsion of profit was evidently a much more effective replacement of the natural initiative than he had been led to believe.”
What Shevek is learning is that neither type of society is inherently, self-consciously evil. Both kinds of incentive can be used to get people to do things. Both can be effective, to a point and in the right context. And both have dangers.

He also realizes that the mental and physical walls between the worlds hide a big lie: Anarres needs Urras. Although Anarres is anti-capitalist, it is essentially a mining colony of Urras. The Anarresti receive manufactured goods, machinery, and new strains of plants in exchange for their ores. And, although no one seems to acknowledge it, it is largely the fear and hatred of Urras that keeps the Anarresti social bond strong.

In addition, it may be mainly Anarres’ isolation that allows the system to persist. As one of Shevek’s new Urrasti friends points out, it’s easy to be anarchists when your population is small and you have no neighbor states. If Anarres was threatened by an aggressive nation, they’d have to change (like by developing a military) or be wiped out.

By the end, you find yourself feeling that it is impossible to be an ideological purist about any one system. Every system, no matter the theoretical underpinnings, requires vigilance and creativity to avoid either tyranny or stultification.

In describing the theoretical physics he works on, Shevek explains that he thinks in terms of two types of time. One is “arrow time,” in which time is linear, progressing from past to future. The other is “circle time,” in which time goes in predictable, repeatable cycles like the seasons; where past and future exist simultaneously and our "now" is just us experiencing a sliver of what always has been and always will be.

Shevek says that in order for his theories to work, we must exist in both types of time simultaneously. Arrow time enables us to have progress; without it there is no change. Circle time enables predictability and constancy; without it there is chaos.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few... or the one.
Sometimes the needs of the many
do outweigh the needs of the few...
or the one.
I think Le Guin is drawing a parallel between Shevek’s physics and society. We need to make sure that fulfilling the needs of a few individuals doesn’t mean that the needs of the many go largely unmet. But we also need to make sure that the needs and drives of the individual don’t get entirely submerged by the needs of the whole.

The best solution lies in a balance. And achieving a balance, in turn, depends on open communication between people with different ideas, each constantly providing feedback and challenge for the other.

All of this makes me think of the words of the wise and articulate poet Jello Biafra, when he wondered: Where Do Ya Draw the Line?

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