Volume 5, Number 2 & 3, Summer, 1987

The Dispossessed: A Dissenting View

By Joseph P. Martino

Any discussion of libertarian science fiction inevitably includes Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed. It is widely viewed as an outstanding depiction of a free society. The basic rule of the story's anarchistic society, that only the individual can make a moral choice, strikes a sympathetic chord with lovers of freedom. Shevek, its main character, says "the duty of the individual is…to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible," clearly making him a "hero" of freedom. It is with considerable trepidation, then, that I offer a dissenting view. I think that The Dispossessed presents a badly flawed idea of freedom.

The story contrasts the "propertarian" society of A-Io with the anarchist society of Anarres. But A-Io oppresses its citizens with innumerable economic and political regulations, and conscripts the lower classes to fight and die in imperialistic wars. Clearly, Ms. Le Guin is not portraying a free market society but instead something like Mussolini's corporate state, or 18th Century Mercantilism.

The anarchist society, Shevek's home, doesn't have a money economy. Food, shelter, and housing are free. But, the word "free" is misleading. Everyone must produce, but they have no claim on the product of their time. All production is confiscated, then returned as "need" dictates. Is this freedom?

Anarresti production is carried out by voluntary syndicates or by individuals, but is coordinated by PDC, the Production and distribution Coordination organization, and its computers. But the mention of computers is just hand-waving. Computers must be provided with information. One of the most fundamental findings of economics in this century is that the function of a money economy is to transmit information about what things people want, and how they may be provided most efficiently. Without a price system no one could even know what should be produced, let alone how. That's why every centrally planned economy on the face of the earth allows some degree of market activity.

To her credit, Ms. Le Guin doesn't take the polemical route of contrasting the virtuous anarchists of Anarres with the corrupt propertarians of A-Io. She portrays the anarchists as having both vices and virtues. One of Shevek's friends is a musician whose works do not please the music Syndicate. He wants to write chamber music; the Syndicate prefers chorales. His work is censored because it doesn't fit the "Organic" style. Sabul, one of the leading physicists on Anarres, refuses to recommend Shevek's first major paper for publication unless Shevek allows Sabul to share credit. Without the recommendation, PDC will not allocate paper to print it. Shevek grudgingly gives in. Later, Shevek wants to send one of his papers to A-Io. The Defense Syndicate objects to "trading with the enemy," and, only by striking another humiliating bargain with Sabul can Shevek send the paper.

The idea here is that Anarres is suffering from "creeping archism," brought about by the weaknesses or the people. But again, Ms. Le Guin mistakenly portrays a free society. In the absence of government to enforce the monopolies, how did the music Syndicate gain control over what could be written? How did PDC gain control over allocation of paper?

If there really was no government, then no syndicate could monopolize any activity. If one music syndicate didn't like chamber music, a competing one might. If one defense syndicate became bureaucratic and arbitrary, people would deny it support and switch to another. Without government enforcement people would ignore any group which tried to "coordinate" production. The problems portrayed are not caused by the vices of the people, but by the centralization of supposedly anarchist Anarres.

Sabul and Shevek's bargain over the physics paper exemplifies Le Guin's flawed view of freedom. For Ursula Le Guin, this corrupt bargain represents a voluntary exchange. Since both parties take a profit, all voluntary exchanges are exploitative and evil. Because she starts from this premise, her idea of a free society is one in which all exchange, economic or other, is prohibited.

How does Ursula Le Guin get away with such a portrayal of freedom? Essentially because she is such a good writer one overlooks the flaws. Despite its great story, however, this book undermines freedom by misrepresenting it.

All trademarks and copyrights property of their owners.
Creative Commons License
Prometheus, the newsletter of the Libertarian Futurists Society, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.