The Dispossessed (Anarres and Odonian Anarchism)

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AnarchoWinter
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Mar 26 2018 04:03
The Dispossessed (Anarres and Odonian Anarchism)

I just got back from a book reading group with some friends about The Dispossessed. We talked about quite a lot of things, but we mostly focused on the anarchist socity of Anarres and the way that the ideals of anarchism were implemented in this fictional society, and where the deviations from anarchist principles happened, why these deviations happened, and how they could be fixed.
I want to make a thread for the discussion of the book from this angle. Here are some quotations to start off the discussion:

Regarding PDC (Production and Distribution Coordination) from chapter 3

Quote:
Everybody on Anarres is a revolutionary, Oiie. . . . The network of administration and management is called PDC, Production and Distribution Coordination. They are a coordinating system for all syndicates, federatives, and individuals who do productive work. They do not govern persons; they administer production. They have no authority either to support me or to prevent me. They can only tell us the public opinion of us—where we stand in the social conscience. That’s what you want to know? Well, my friends and I are mostly disapproved of. Most people on Anarres don’t want to learn about Urras. They fear it and want nothing to do with the propertarians. I am sorry if I am rude! It is the same here, with some people, is it not? The contempt, the fear, the tribalism. Well, so I came to begin to change that.

Regarding Centralization from chapter 4:

Quote:
Decentralization had been an essential element in Odo’s plans for the society she did not live to see founded. She had no intention of trying to de-urbanize civilization. Though she suggested that the natural limit to the size of a community lay in its dependence on its own immediate region for essential food and power, she intended that all communities be connected by communication and transportation networks, so that goods and ideas would get where they were wanted, and the administration of things might work with speed and ease, and no community should be cut off from change and interchange. But the network was not to be run from the top down. There was to be no controlling center, no capital, no establishment for the self-perpetuating machinery of bureaucracy and the dominance drive of individuals seeking to become captains, bosses, chiefs of state.
Her plans, however, had been based on the generous ground of Urras. On arid Anarres, the communities had to scatter widely in search of resources, and few of them could be self-supporting, no matter how they cut back their notions of what is needed for support. They cut back very hard indeed, but to a minimum beneath which they would not go; they would not regress to pre-urban, pre-technological tribalism. They knew that their anarchism was the product of a very high civilization, of a complex diversified culture, of a stable economy and a highly industrialized technology that could maintain high production and rapid transportation of goods. However vast the distances separating settlements, they held to the ideal of complex organicism. They built the roads first, the houses second. The special resources and products of each region were interchanged continually with those of others, in an intricate process of balance: that balance of diversity which is the characteristic of life, of natural and social ecology.

How transportation functions normally and during the the famine from chapter 8:

Quote:
After a year of the drought the normal transport lines were insufficient, despite the fierce efforts of the transport workers to meet demands. They were the largest federative in the Odonian society: self-organized, of course, in regional syndicates coordinated by representatives who met and worked with the local and central PDC. The network maintained by the transport federative was effective in normal times and in limited emergencies; it was flexible, adaptable to circumstance, and the Syndics of Transport had great team and professional pride. They called their engines and dirigibles names like Indomitable, Endurance, Eat-the-Wind; they had mottoes— We Always Get There.—Nothing Is Too Much!—But now, when whole regions of the planet were threatened with immediate famine if food was not brought in from other regions, and when large emergency drafts of workers must be shifted, the demands laid on transport were too much. There were not enough vehicles; there were not enough people to run them. Everything the federative had on wings or wheels was pressed into service, and apprentices, retired workers, volunteers, and emergency draftees were helping man the trucks, the trains, the ships, the ports, the yards.

Regarding communications and the PDC from chapter 8:

Quote:
PDC, the principal users of radio, telephone, and mails, coordinated the means of long-distance communication, just as they did the means of long-distance travel and shipping. There being no “business” on Anarres, in the sense of promoting, advertising, investing, speculating, and so forth, the mail consisted mostly of correspondence among industrial and professional syndicates, their directives and newsletters plus those of the PDC, and a small volume of personal letters. Living in a society where anyone could move whenever and wherever he wanted, an Anarresti tended to look for his friends where he was, not where he had been. Telephones were seldom used within a community; communities weren’t all that big. Even Abbenay kept up the close regional pattern in its “blocks,” the semiautonomous neighborhoods in which you could get to anyone or anything you needed, on foot. Telephone calls thus were mostly long-distance, and were handled by the PDC: personal calls had to be arranged beforehand by mail, or were not conversations but simply messages left at the PDC center. Letters went unsealed, not by law, of course, but by convention. Personal communication at long distance is costly in materials and labor, and since the private and the public economy was the same, there was considerable feeling against unnecessary writing or calling. It was a trivial habit; it smacked of privatism, of egoizing. This was probably why the letters went unsealed: you had no right to ask people to carry a message that they couldn’t read. A letter went on a PDC mail dirigible if you were lucky, and on a produce train if you weren’t. Eventually it got to the mail depot in the town addressed, and there it lay, there being no postmen, until somebody told the addressee that he had a letter and he came to get it.
The individual, however, decided what was and what was not necessary.

ajjohnstone
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Mar 26 2018 12:56

The whole book is based on a scenario of Planet Anarres suffering scarcity of resources.

Can we say this is also the case with the Planet Earth?

If we have potential abundance, the structures and administrations of society will bound to diverge from Ursula Le Guin's projections.

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Mar 26 2018 17:19

Yeah, that's my main critique of Anarres' anarchism, that it's a society of scarcity rather than plenty. Sure, from a narrative viewpoint it may make sense to have an anarchist society set in a scarce environment, but it severely limits how you can imagine actual anarchism working out--unless one believes that anarchism would be based on scarcity in the first place.

Anyway, thanks for writing up the OP malatesta! I love me some sci-fi discussions.

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Mar 26 2018 18:13

It's one of the things I like best about the book. How it puts the anarchist vision under so much pressure. I find it a more useful thought experiment than one of plenty and no conflict.

ajjohnstone wrote:
Can we say this is also the case with the Planet Earth?

The complications of climate change will likely stress our ability to produce, build and deliver for everyone regardless of social organisation.

Funnily enough I was thinking about the book as a good example of climate change challenges just the other week. It would be an interesting thought experiment to overlay Anarres on a climate change affected region of today.

ajjohnstone
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Mar 27 2018 08:34
Quote:
The complications of climate change will likely stress our ability to produce, build and deliver for everyone regardless of social organisation.

I'm not so sure i agree with you here

Certainly, we will have to tackle it as a priority inside a socialist society but the manner we will do that should not imply sacrifice or as many environmentalists insist, de-growth.

Anarcho
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Mar 27 2018 17:48

Well, scarcity is relative -- we live on a planet with 7 billions of people, and resources are finite. So I would suggest that communist-anarchism would need to consider the issue of scarcity rather than assume it away. This does not make it impossible, it needs to work in worst-case situations as well as best-case.

I've written an article on Le Guin for the latest issue of Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, which may be of interest.

I would suggest that the problems Le Guin raises would apply -- to some degree -- to any society, regardless of its material base. Even the best organisations can become bureaucratic, individuals can act in power-seeking ways, social living can produce conformity.

In short, there is no such thing as utopia.

meerov21
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Apr 7 2018 18:20

The problem of planet Anarres is not a deficit at all. First of all, I do not understand the concept of abundance. Human needs are great, perhaps they are infinite, and on the other hand, the idea of economic abundance in doubtful in a fragile eco-systems of Earth.

Just poverty can lead to the emergence of anarcho-Communist civilization, as indicated, for example, the experience of Bushmen's tribes in Kalahari desert.

But there is no anarchism on the planet of Anarres. The reason for this is that according to Ursula Le GUIN's plot, planet Anarres is run by a group of bureaucrats who manipulate the population. Moreover, in economic terms, Antares is the raw material appendage of the capitalist planet Uras. In exchange, Anarres receives high-tech products from Uras. Anarres is a bureaucratic raw materials Corporation integrated into the capitalist market and managed by bureaucracy.

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Khawaga
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Apr 9 2018 13:16
Quote:
First of all, I do not understand the concept of abundance.

How? I mean, capitalism produces in absolute abundance given how much food, clothing and electronics we throw away, as well as all the packaging etc. That is only possible with abundance; the problem is one of distribution. Sure, there will always be scarcity for some things of need, but capitalism, for all its faults, has demonstrated that it is possible to produce basic necessities in abundance (although at the expense of people and planet to some degree.

Poverty is really a non-starter for anarchism and it doesn't matter that some bushmen or ancient tribes were non-class; we're not at the same stage of development.

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Apr 10 2018 18:16

Great discussion!

[Edited post to remove end of book spoiler. Post-rev, such offenses will be punishable by gulag.]

My main thought after reading this book was that, if an anarchist society becomes corrupted by bureaucracy, then the solution is more anarchism! tongue We'll always need rebels and dissidents to keep things in check and keep us from sliding into covert authoritarianism. Permanent revolution. Creating the 'perfect society' is not enough, because it can always be corrupted. We need to encourage critical thinking, the moral courage to express dissent, and teach this to our children.

Anares is an anarchist society, but it seems there aren't many anarchists, if that makes sense.

One thing that stands out in my memory of this book, and disturbs me, is when Shevek sexually assaults someone, and this is never addressed. Like, I'm ok with a story where the main character does bad things and has moral flaws, but it's just like this thing that happens and he never looks back on it with regret, or looks back on it at all, and neither does the narration. The story moves on without any analysis or reflection.

I could never figure out what point Ursula K LeGuin was trying to make there.

Anarcho wrote:
it [anarchism] needs to work in worst-case situations as well as best-case.

I very much agree with this, and with those who are saying that global warming could change the material conditions on Earth badly enough that we'd have scarcity, even if we have libertarian-communism.

ajjohnstone wrote:
Certainly, we will have to tackle it as a priority inside a socialist society but the manner we will do that should not imply sacrifice or as many environmentalists insist, de-growth.

I don't like that either. But if global warming screws things up bad enough, we won't have a choice. Fertile land could become so scarce, and it could become so hard to grow enough food for everyone, that we'd have to devote way more labor to farming than we have in many generations. Which means way less labor for everything else.

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Apr 10 2018 18:18
meerov21 wrote:
But there is no anarchism on the planet of Anarres.

SHOTS FIRED!!!!111!

Dannny
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Aug 10 2018 03:25

The Spanish anarchist Germinal Gracia (Victor García) included some brief reflections on The Dispossessed in a book he wrote in the 70s, which have been translated here if anyone's interested: http://sfforward.blogspot.com/2018/08/a-spanish-anarchists-view-on.html