Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Anarchism or Anachronism - MungBeing

Anarchism or Anachronism at MungBeing
Published August 2012


on LeGuin's The Dispossessed

by alison ross

In a recent interview, novelist Ursula K. LeGuin professed to living a materialist lifestyle, while cleaving to anarchist ideals. She freely acknowledged the explicit hypocrisy of her dichotomous existence.

But at the very least, through her epic novel The Dispossessed, LeGuin has managed to elucidate the seemingly dubious dimensions of the anti-hierarchy concept for many people - illuminating its merits for those who, like me, had previously been exposed to anarchism through scruffy runaway teens touting anarchist principles while begging for money in public places. In other words, she managed to make the ambiguously abstruse more tangible and dare I say, appealing.

What's striking about LeGuin's tome is that she does not shy from revealing the cracks inherent in anarchism, while still clearly cherishing it over what LeGuin terms "archist" systems - that is, systems that involve hierarchies. Indeed, rather than being seen as a science fiction-attired endorsement of anarchism, The Dispossessed can be more accurately understood as an unflinching exploration of the tension between the dual essences of human nature - inclined toward both creative chaos as well as inflexible conformity. Humans crave liberation of the imagination, and yet fear their own emancipation. Hence, we have the cacophonous discord between these paradoxical proclivities.

The Dispossessed narrates a tale of Shevek, a brilliant young physicist living on the anarchistic planet Annares, which was created by rebels from Urras, a planet resembling earth in cultural and capitalistic ways. Shevek wants to unite the two disparate cultures, and he aims to do so through his radical time theory. When he travels, against his own people's wishes (they prefer isolationism), to Urras, he gradually comes to realize he has become a pawn in their system. They aim to exploit his theories for their own economic gain, and yet mask their intentions in obsequious gestures toward him.

Shevek feels stifled academically on his own planet and herein lie the flaws of the anarchist "system," according to how LeGuin interprets and constructs it. Shevek would actually have more success in promoting his theories for the greater good on Urras than on Annares, and yet ideologically he disdains the superficiality of a consumerist culture, and the authoritarian hierarchy that is native to such a civilization.

The structure of the book itself deftly manipulates time by switching from the past to the present fluidly. It's as though LeGuin is attempting to illustrate Shevek's temporal theories through the idiosyncratic book structure. The past and present appear to be happening concurrently according to how the book is organized, which manifests the ideas of simultaneity that Shevek is postulating.

Recently while reading the novel, which was written in the 1970s during and after a time of political turmoil and revolutionary fervor in the United States, I was reminded of the modern-day Occupy movement. Indeed, the novel radically resonates with contemporary topics. Occupy Wall Street was founded by anarchists protesting the egregious inequities of our plutocratic corporate state, and the oppressive hierarchy that evolved from that system. I had never fully grasped anarchism before the germination of the Occupy movement; I always thought anarchism was a narcissistic celebration of irresponsible, wayward behavior. Turns out that true anarchism entails real responsibility and communal effort. This is also starkly illustrated in LeGuin's novel. The Occupy movement has been brutally suppressed, but it does continue to flourish, and it has done so because its participants refuse to cower to authoritarian structures, keeping their movement leaderless, insisting on working communally.

At the same time, as LeGuin shows us, even a utopian anarchist society is not immune to stagnation and subversion. Shevek is frustrated with his "perfect" society because it has become tainted by the very ego-forces that gave rise to authoritarian capitalism; jealousy and suspicion from his fellow anarchists threaten the success of his time theory.

Too, Annares seems a bleak planet to inhabit, and hardships abound. Much of this has to do with the planet itself - it possesses an arid climate and hardscrabble land - but it's also a consequence of the anarchist ideals against consumerism and competition. Material wealth may make life easier in some ways, but most such wealth is gained at the expense of other people, and the anarchists on Annares are loathe to embrace that notion. The idea of egalitarianism thrives on Annares, even as it is threatened by ego-forces.

We are all dispossessed, LeGuin seems to be saying, because a truly utopian society cannot exist. We are ideologically sundered by our competing and contradictory desires to attain both freedom and affluence. The striving toward freedom must be untethered to wealth aspiration, and must be unbound by ego. When freedom is fraught with ego-struggles, then it ceases to be freedom, and becomes an authoritarian dystopia.

LeGuin clearly believes anarchy is the more appealing of the two worlds, and yet...is authentic anarchy feasible given the murky underside of the human ego? Will we ever be "possessed" of true freedom and communality?

Or are we doomed to disillusionment and disaffection - dispossessed of hope and happiness? Is Occupy Wall Street already an anachronism, or will Shevek's time theory allow for simultaneous existence of happiness and freedom from repressive hierarchies?

No comments: