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Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed


An interesting thought experiment of an anarchist society that was allowed to get established, to grow and evolve, set against a SF backdrop. Le Guin really puts lots of effort to imagine a realistic, believable society, and to try to predict problems it could face.

So far, through our history, a stateless, non-hierarchical, egalitarian society could never coexist next to its opposite. The two pose too much threat to each other in circumstances where they can not be truly separated. Le Guin imagined a situation, where a wall could be built and this experiment given chance to get established and allowed to run for 200 years.

On a distant alien planet, a massive non-violent popular social revolution was won - instead of fighting till the bitter end, the rich and powerful had an option to “buy off” the multitudes rising against them. Next to the lush habitable planet, there was a barely habitable moon. The revolutionaries had struck a deal with the state to be allowed to move to the moon, and after the initial Settlement was complete, to live in isolation, practically with no contact between the two worlds and the two societies.

Prior to the Settlement, the home planet, robbed of its mineral ores, was supplementing at great cost its needs from the mining operations on the moon. A deal was reached that the settlers would excavate the ore that they would practically freely give away to the transports from the planet 8 times a year - a lucrative (for the planet) and viable (for both) arrangement that, along with the self imposed isolation, stripped the states on the planet of incentives to threaten the existence of the free society on the moon.

On the moon, a short, non-imposing wall was built (the only such boundary on the whole world) around the only space port, marking a clear separation between the two worlds, a boundary that may be crossed only by occasional transports of planet-bound ore or occasional medical supplies, seeds, technology, etc coming in return. All walls are bad, argues Le Guin, because a line between a shelter and a jail is thin one.

This wall, both masonry and virtual, has sheltered the moon society, allowed it to establish itself, grow its roots, develop… They have done away with all hierarchical structures, all coercions, artificial limitations. There is no state, no rules, rulers, laws, no money or private property. People have equal chances, and are free to do whatever they want and their right to take their share of whatever they need is not limited. However, this is not a paradise or an utopia in terms of material abundance - it is a harsh, barely liveable world, and its inhabitants depend on each other for survival. In the absence of coercion and material incentives, they are motivated by a combination of awareness of the necessity of their being a functional part of the whole, and by fear of condemnation by society and thus an urge to conform.

As mentioned, there is no state, no politicians, police, no permanent hierarchical structures (for rare necessary administrative positions people are chosen by lottery for a limited terms). There is no money, economy is planed globally and conducted by collectives and syndicates.

People live their lives thoroughly integrated into collectives - in the daytime they work, play, eat and spend most of their time communally, and at night they sleep in shared dormitories. When they need privacy for sex (and all forms of consentual sex are completely unregulated and accepted) they are issued single dormitories. There is no marriage as a legally or morally enforced relationship, but people do form durable or life-long bonds. In such cases they are given permanent private rooms.

After they are weaned off, learning centres take over and take care of the children. The parents may decide when this happens and how much and how frequent “individual care” would they devote to the children, but the children do get socialised from an early age and are given equal opportunities.

No one is forced to conform, at least not by a brute force, so, an individual that does not fit into one collective may seek another, and if they do not fit in any collective are free to move to live alone or form a collective of their own. Even within a collective, there are no rules, laws or anyone to enforce them. But not abiding to the expectation of the collective may result in being shunned by the society - a worst punishment in a collectivist society. There is no crime motivated by inequality, and other crimes when they do happen (rarely) are self regulated by the society.

The foundation of this society was laid down in a planned, deliberate, thoughtful way. The founders knew what they wanted to achieve and what they wanted to avoid. And for decades and generations the society did grow and develop along those lines, but the clarity and understanding of the founders’ motivations became murky, and some relations instead of being deliberate became customary. For example, after doing away with bureaucracy and limiting it to a bare minimum needed (for planing and coordinating global efforts needed for survival such as work projects, food and work distribution, etc), and asserting and protecting individual freedoms, several generations later, people stopped being aware of the threats the founders were fighting against and which they wanted to limit or avoid. Bureaucracy took root and became little stronger after each crises, and structures got established not through law but through customs.

The core principle of guarantee of an individual freedom whenever it is non-harmful for the collective was compromised and total conformity began being imposed.

There is a great quote from George Orwell that applies to this very well:

In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.

People are not perfect. Human nature is not perfect. As Le Guin said, an anarchist is not born in the same way a civilised person is not born. They both need to be raised, brought up. And in order to endure, a Revolution must not forget its origins and must not forget that it has to be permanent, perpetual, in order to preserve its achievements…


I really enjoyed Le Guin’s exploration of these ideas, especially in the thought experiment of an anarchist society that was allowed to get established, to grow and evolve. She really puts lots of effort to imagine a realistic, believable society, and to try to predict problems it could face.

I did not find the characters or the story itself striking, but only as vehicles for the ideas she wanted developed.

I liked the parallel narrative (in both time and space) and I think that it worked really well and the plots were well synchronised.

As much as I liked her social and philosophical ideas, I did not care much about her “physics”. It would be much better if she left it more vague, without trying to explain it as much, because she ended up sounding silly at times.


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