by Elliot Hurst
The Dispossessed is an amazing utopian sci-fi novel, and everyone should read it.
It won all the prizes when it came out and is considered a classic. Ursula Le Guin grew up with an anthropologist father. As she puts it ‘Even though I didn’t pay much attention, I heard a lot of interesting, grown-up conversation’. This was one early influence that guided her to creating societies full of contradictions and tensions that feel very plausible. What makes this novel so compelling is its ability to explore different social and economic systems in a way that avoids the notion of a ‘utopia’ as a static pinnacle of perfection. As the tagline for some editions states, it is ‘an ambiguous utopia’.
What makes The Dispossessed such great degrowth fiction? The book is centred on the planet of Anarres and the social and political systems there. The guiding political philosophy on Anarres is Odonism – named after the founder Odo. While largely anarchist inspired, there are plenty of overlaps with degrowth ideals.
In recent years degrowth scholars have focused on the role of the social imaginary. A key concept in the social imaginary on Anarres is the idea of society as an ecology, within which people have a ‘cellular function’ – a way of living that is their ideal contribution to the whole. This is a vision of economics built on biology and ecology rather than physics and mechanics. Those familiar with Murray Bookchin will see the echoes of social ecology here. The central values of this society are solidarity and freedom. There is also a rejection of the idea of private property. This runs counter to our familiar notions of individuals and their stuff. This ideology is manifested when people are accused of being ‘propertarians’, or of ‘egoising’ when talking about themselves. The emphasis on non-possessiveness is also found in a sentence such as ‘You can share the handkerchief I use’. Le Guin skillfully investigates the tensions that emerge between individual desires and a sense of the common need. It is clear that the culture of Anarres arises from political beliefs, and also sustains them.
On an economic level, this society without property and growth is managed using a syndicalist model of production – this means that different tasks, such as food production or transport, are managed by horizontal and independent ‘syndics’. There is also a general labour pool and when certain work is required a centralised computer system matches volunteers to requirements. In common with degrowth proposals, it is a rare occasion when someone works an 8 hour day. This is not a primitive society, there is room for advanced scientific research, and a variety of cultural pursuits – but a limited quantity of consumable goods. The priority is that everyone gets what they need.
Beyond degrowth, the narrative of The Dispossessed investigates how societies can develop hierarchies no matter what their political philosophy. This leads the protagonist to describe a need for ‘constant revolution’ to uphold the values that keep society functioning. A useful perspective as we slide from democracy to plutocracy.
by Ursula Le Guin
Book Cover from: SF Reviews
G. Kallis, H. March (2015) Imaginaries of Hope: The Utopianism of Degrowth. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 105 (2): 360-368 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00045608.2014.973803