Ursula Le Guin (1929 – 2018)

Ursula Le Guin

I was sad to hear of the death of Ursula Le Guin yesterday. I heard her speak at an international anarchist symposium in Portland, Oregon back in 1980. She talked about her views on anarchism, buddhism, anthropology, science fiction, creativity and writing, and answered questions about her stories and books. The book that anarchists celebrated was The Dispossessed, about an anarchist colony on a large moon orbiting a planet like Earth. Here I reproduce a dialogue between the main character, Shevek, from the anarchist moon, Anarres, and a rich woman, Vea, living on the Earth-like planet that Shevek has secretly arranged to visit. Shevek expresses the ideas of the anarchists on Anarres, the “Odonians,” while Vea speaks from the vantage point of a cynical female member of the ruling class who cannot accept that the anarchists can live without hierarchy and authority, arguing that they have merely internalized them. It’s a great passage, drawing out some potential issues about life in an anarchist society, while showing that even a cynical “propertarian” (the word Le Guin uses to describe the capitalists) really wants to be free, but cannot see that freedom itself is a kind of relationship, and not something that can be achieved in isolation, or by exploiting others.

The Dispossessed – Chapter 7

[Vea] sat down on a low, cushioned stool near [Shevek], so she could look up into his face. She arranged her white skirt over her ankles, and said, “Now, tell me how it really is between men and women on Anarres.”

It was unbelievable. The maid and the caterer’s man were both in the room; she knew he had a partner, and he knew she did, and not a word about copulating had passed between them. Yet her dress, movements, tone — what were they but the most open invitation?

“Between a man and a woman there is what they want there to be between them,” he said, rather roughly. “Each, and both.”

“Then it’s true, you really have no morality?” she asked, as if shocked but delighted.

“I don’t know what you mean. To hurt a person there is the same as to hurt a person here.”

“You mean you have all the same old rules? You see, I believe that morality is just another superstition, like religion. It’s got to be thrown out.”

“But my society,” he said, completely puzzled, “is an attempt to reach it. To throw out the moralizing, yes — the rules, the laws, the punishments — so that men can see good and evil and choose between them.”

“So you threw out all the do’s and don’ts. But you know, I think you Odonians missed the whole point. You threw out the priests and Judges and divorce laws and all that, but you kept the real trouble behind them. You just stuck it inside, into your consciences. But it’s still there. You’re just as much slaves as ever! You aren’t really free.”

“How do you know?”

“I read an article in a magazine about Odonianism,” she said. “And we’ve been together all day. I don’t know you, but I know some things about you. I know that you’ve got a — a Queen Teaea inside you, right inside that hairy head of yours. And she orders you around just like the old tyrant did her serfs. She says, `Do this!’ and you do, and `Don’t’ and you don’t.”

“That is where she belongs,” he said, smiling. “Inside my head.”

“No. Better to have her in a palace. Then you could rebel against her. You would have to. Your great-great-grandfather did; at least he ran off to the Moon to get away. But he took Queen Teaea with him, and you’ve still got her!”

“Maybe. But she has learned, on Anarres, that if she tells me to hurt another person, I hurt myself.”

“The same old hypocrisy. Life is a fight, and the strongest wins. All civilization does is hide the blood and cover up the hate with pretty words!”

“Your civilization, perhaps. Ours hides nothing. It is all plain. Queen Teaea wears her own skin, there. We follow one law, only one, the law of human evolution.”

“The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!”

“Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical. You see, we have neither prey nor enemy, on Anarres. We have only one another. There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness.”

“I don’t care about hurting and not hurting. I don’t care about other people, and nobody else does, either. They pretend to. I don’t want to pretend. I want to be free.”


Ursula Le Guin on Murray Bookchin and the Ecological Imperative

bookchin next revolution

Below, I reproduce some comments by Ursula Le Guin on Murray Bookchin, taken from her preface to a new collection of some of Bookchin’s writings on libertarian municipalism, communalism and direct democracy, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, edited by Debbie Bookchin (his daughter) and Blair Taylor. In Volumes Two and Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several excerpts from Bookchin’s anarchist writings on ecology, popular assemblies, direct democracy and direct action. Murray Bookchin has been in the news recently as one of the ideological inspirations for the experiment in direct democracy now being undertaken in Rojava in northern Syria, under attack by the Islamic State and threatened by Turkish intervention. Ursula Le Guin is a well known science fiction writer who has often dealt with ecological and anarchist themes in her books, particularly in The Dispossessed, which is about an anarchist society in exile on a moon orbiting an Earth like planet, the strains within that society and the need for a social revolution on the planet below.

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

Direct Democracy and the Ecological Imperative

What all political and social thinking has finally been forced to face is, of course, the irreversible degradation of the environment by unrestrained industrial capitalism: the enormous fact of which science has been trying for fifty years to convince us, while technology provided us ever greater distractions from it. Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.

Yet we can’t stop the process. A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.

Murray Bookchin spent a lifetime opposing the rapacious ethos of grow-or-die capitalism. The nine essays in “The Next Revolution” represent the culmination of that labor: the theoretical underpinning for an egalitarian and directly democratic ecological society, with a practical approach for how to build it. He critiques the failures of past movements for social change, resurrects the promise of direct democracy and, in the last essay in the book, sketches his hope of how we might turn the environmental crisis into a moment of true choice—a chance to transcend the paralyzing hierarchies of gender, race, class, nation, a chance to find a radical cure for the radical evil of our social system.

Reading it, I was moved and grateful, as I have so often been in reading Murray Bookchin. He was a true son of the Enlightenment in his respect for clear thought and moral responsibility and in his honest, uncompromising search for a realistic hope.

Ursula Le Guin