The Dispossessed

Shevek is a physicist on Annares.

Annares is an anarchist community founded on a harsh moon, some one hundred and sixty years before, as a compromise between its revolutionary founders and the home world of Urras. The two worlds have stood at suspicious length ever since until now when Shevek will travel to Urras to both work on his unifying theory in physics and hopefully build bridges between the separate cultures. It is a visit viewed with hostile suspicion on Annares and greeted with manipulative glee on Urras, as they want Shevek's theory for their own political purposes.

Ursula Le Guin's novel creates out of the drama of this visit (and Shevek's unfolded life that leads up to it) a remarkable novel of ideas. The principal of which is that of 'anarchy'. This is not the anarchism of protest - violent or petulant - but of Kropotkin's mutual aid. A society (on Annares) built from a consensual way of building a world that takes from each according to their ability and gives each according to their need. She beautifully shows how both this world might be possible and how it may be distorted by our inability to genuinely honour (or abide with) people's individuality. There is always the creeping potential for bureaucracy and conformity. Patterns of how it has always been, stifling the new, the strange, the possible. What is the balance between responsibility to the whole and genuine freedom?

But in the process she creates a world, which whatever its flaws, is deeply, abidingly attractive. A world in which there is no want. Reading it does press you to consider why such a world is not so and it is difficult to imagine what a response might look like. For example, in the UK, the seventh 'richest' nation on earth, why is it not possible to provide a basic, living income for all, simply by the fact of us being citizens? I suspect the answer is because we do not trust people then to contribute to the whole. In fact expecting that what lies behind our economic arrangements is a fiercely negative view of what it means to be human. What is so moving, and compelling, about Le Guin's vision is that it protests our flaws and yet sees possible sources of hope beyond them. 

It is where I too stand recognising our multiple abilities to miss the mark of our being but recognising that there is a fundamental 'communism' within us: the reality of our unified nature made in God's image (though Le Guin would express this differently) to be at one with one another. The only thing we have to fear, to quote Kennedy, is fear itself.

It is a very potent fear - that of our freedom and our compassion - but not one that has the final word.


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