Volume 7, Number 1, Winter, 1989

Fiction Forum

Opposing view

By Jim Stumm

The Dispossessed—I don't hate it. I find it rather enjoyable. But it shouldn't get a Hall of Fame award, because it is not a libertarian novel. This is not a literary award, or a fun-to-read award to be given to entertaining books. It is, in my opinion, an award that should go to novels that promote libertarianism by depicting societies in a favorable way. A few awards should also go to dystopian novels which show the terrible things that will happen if unlib trends continue.

The Dispossessed is socialist propaganda. Give it the Lenin prize, not the Prometheus. The economic system it depicts is council communism, which is the way the Soviet Union is supposed to work, but, of course, doesn't, because human nature will never allow it to work that way. What usually is done in the real world is that a reign of terror is imposed, secret police, concentration camps, the Gulag. Le Guin depicts the system as working w/o The Terror, as being generally nice and not coercive. You can do that in fiction, but not in reality. LFS is supposed to be promoting libertarianism, which means the novels we recognize should depict economically realistic systems, not impossible pipe dreams.

Here's an example of what I mean. On page 192 of the paperback, the Publication Syndicate refuses to publish Shevek's book. That's the sort of thing that would happen all the time (as it does in Russia), and it would first happen in the very early days of Anarres. What would happen then? In reality, many of these passed-over authors would self-publish, learn the printing skills, get the equipment, and do it themselves. And some of them, or some others, would set up as independent printing companies, to compete with the official Publication Syndic and publish rejected books. Soon there would be a multiplicity of competing printers, and official Syndic would be just another company, or would be driven out of business. And that sort of thing would happen over and over in every economic field, resulting in a laissez faire free market.

Or, the other possibility would happen, what usually happens in the real world, the independent printers would be suppressed by force. The Publication Syndic would send out thugs to smash any independent press, and carry off any independent printers into forced labor. One or the other of these two things would happen at once. But the one thing that would never happen is that Le Guin's unstable, impossible system would continue for 400 years.

Le Guin mentions the self-publishing option, and dismisses it with a very feeble argument. They can't self-publish, she says, because "Paper's at a minimum ration." Big deal! Free marketeers could make their own paper. They could recycle paper published by the official Syndic, for one thing.

Le Guin adds that "if you could not work in solidarity with your syndics, you worked alone." Why? Why not form another syndic, or association, or company, if the official one is dominated by suckholes? Is it the law? Will secret police carry you off to a concentration camp if you try to do it? That's why it isn't done in Russia, and that's the only disincentive possible to keep it from happening. Le Guin doesn't answer this objection. She doesn't deal with it. She simply portrays her characters, in all kinds of situations, acting as she would like them to act, which is not the way we observe that people do act in the real world.

I could go on for a great many pages criticizing numerous other libertarian errors that fill The Dispossessed. But, I'll add just this one more thing: I found the capitalist society of Urras to be a whole lot more attractive than socialist Anarres, reading between the lines, even though Le Guin tried to paint Urras in the worst possible light. She reminds me of Soviet writers who try to make the U.S. look bad, but Soviet readers get a different message in spite of their best efforts. E.g., the Soviet writer complains about the terrible traffic in the U.S., but Soviet readers realize this means practically everyone in the U.S. can afford a car, whereas for many in Russia it's an impossible dream.

In the Fall 1987 Prometheus, Bob Shea says those who object to The Dispossessed "believe that freedom is impossible without private property." He's right. We do believe it, and it is. Libertarians are propertarians. We do indeed hold that freedom would be only a pale shadow of the real thing if it did not include the freedom to own and use non-coercively acquired property, including especially the means of production. And in this regard, as a diatribe against private property, The Dispossessed is blatantly anti-libertarian.

Shea says Le Guin understands freedom quite well. Bullshit! She doesn't understand the first thing about economic freedom.

Shea says the novel is primarily about the things that have gone wrong in this society. Good enough, except the problems that come up are not serious enough and not soon enough. And the problems would not become manifest as the sort of liberal angst and malaise Le Guin depicts, but rather as a near total breakdown of the production and distribution of goods. The problems would be like the famine in early 1920's Russia when the Commies tried to implement their program, which forced Lenin to adopt the semi-capitalist New Economic Program, because (I believe), he didn't quite have the stomach to impose the truly vicious reign of terror it takes to make that kind of system work. It took a sterner character, Stalin, who had no such scruples, to make it work.

So let's see socialism in Anarres break down in the first few weeks. Let's see the entrepreneurs attack the economic problems, and a laissez faire market society emerge very quickly. That would be the novel that deserves our award.

If The Dispossessed wins the award, I'll take that as evidence that LFS is dominated by people who are not propertarians, people who have a very poor understanding of free market economics, and I'll have to reconsider whether there is any reason why I should continue as a member.

Mirabile dictu!

by Samuel E. Konkin III

Both Victoria Varga and Robert Shea independently asked me to "review" The Dispossessed for Prometheus. Considering that my literary aesthetics make John J. Pierce look like a New Wave-symp, and I think Neal Wilgus' "libertarianism is not necessary to win a libertarian literary award" position is self-annihilatory, you may wonder—as much as I do—why?

It seems that The Dispossessed is not getting sufficient support to earn its rightful position in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Supposedly, the opposition is coming from those who—mirabile dictu!—actually want to apply hard-core libertarian criteria in their selections. Some, I gather, have even threatened resignation from the Libertarian Futurist Society should this anti-property screed crash through the Hall's doors. I know how at least some of them feel; I have similar dark urges every time one of Jerry Pournelle's statist stories make the final ballot for our golden gift.

I would not be so churlish as to suggest that the same squad of secessionists (if Le Guin wins) are Jerry's janissaries of nominators, nor will I argue for an openness and tolerance which can encompass both—sort of out-Wilgus Neal. My position is that Ursula Le Guin's classic tale of Shevek the dissident and anarchist ambassador is within reasonable limits of libertarian definition—and Pournelle (he stands not alone among inapt nominees) is not.

You see, I am so propertarian that, if anyone could ever prove to me that abolishing the State or saving my own life (egoists may wish to avert their own eyes from this sentence) would jeopardize Property (qua concept), I would save said State and regret that I have but one Life to live (and love of it to give). [I also consider the first possibility to be a violation of Natural Law; i.e., for those who still do not understand what that term means, to be impossible.] I suspect that is why Bob and Victoria wish me to review Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed. I have nominated it for the Prometheus Hall of Fame and will gladly do so again. Furthermore, I expect to nominate the worthy Ms. Le Guin for future stories she should write; I can think of at least one other meriting consideration [The Left Hand of Darkness, if you're wondering; it already won her first Hugo] from her past writing.

I am not an unqualified Le Guin fan; the only sf writers I have ever gushed unreservedly over are both dead. [Robert A. Heinlein and Edward E. "Doc" Smith—I told you my aesthetics were Old Wave.] I have actually criticized the Holy Trinity of Koman, Schulman, and Linaweaver (only once each though)—and only became a Neil Smith fan when he gave up partyarchy. As a charter smokestack kisser and "I prefer my planets paved," non-ecologist, I didn't care for The Word for World is Forest. Nor did I care for the written version of The Lathe of Heaven; in fact, I actually like the televised version better.

So why do I agree with most of sf fandom that The Dispossessed is hot stuff and disagree with my propertarian comrades?

Let's dispose of the obvious stuff: it's a good story and quite traditional in the telling, definitely not New Wave. When it came out (and I read it in time for the Hugo nominations and, yes I did nominate it, and, yes, I was as hurt and astonished as other libertarian sf fen [frefen] when a year or two later Ursula thought we libertarians were a bunch of closet Reaganites), that was an important criterion. Did it keep me gripped in my seat? Sure did. Did I care about Shevek and his plight? Darn right.

And, something which may not be true of other readers, I could identify with Shevek and his world a lot. Not only was I an academic, but I was a dissident publisher (New Libertarian was only a couple of years old). Furthermore, I could identify with leaving a small world of my fellow ideologues to re-enter the larger statist world outside; the Anarchoslum (predecessor of the spiffier Anarchovillage) had just begun in Lower East Side New York.

Le Guin's terminology may put off some libertarians still nursing an objectivist hangover when she calls The Dispossessed "an ambiguous utopia." It bothered me until I read the book. Ambiguity is usually the first refuge of the scoundrel, particularly the literary con artist. Anarres is not ambiguous; it is honest. I had only to look around the Anarchoslum (and I could do so even today in the Anarchovillage) to know that the best society will still have non-best people living in it. I was so impressed with her honesty that in my near contemporary first sf novel (now completely out of print and unobtainable, thank goodness), Agent for Anarchy, I had Rann Gold (my anarchist version of James Bond) visit a commune that had survived into the free market future society and talk to a bitter—but sympathetic—old friend there who refused to accept the wondrous agoras around his little world.

Now let me deal with the first of the two key issues that really bother the opponents of Le Guin's novel: A-Io. This separates the Revisionists from the unenlightened, if not the women from the girls. Doesn't A-Io deliberately represent the capitalist United States of America? You bet. Now you tell me: if Murray Rothbard had half the fictive talent of Ursula K. Le Guin (and he claims none), how different would his portrayal of Imperial America be in 1972, or even 1968?

Secondly, and the element that most impressed me back when I first read The Dispossessed: the underground printers, the samizdat. Whether or not Le Guin thought this through consistently, she portrayed the rediscovery of property in a propertyless society as a necessity for the re-establishment of dissent, and, hence, meaningful freedom. This case was one of many elements percolating in my mind when, in 1973, I discovered Counter-Economics and in reformulating Agorism. The heroic actors in The Dispossessed are not "capitalists" and not even good anarcho-communists; they are proto-agorists.

I have no idea whether Ursula K. Le Guin votes or even supports reformist politicians (but see her position on Establishment below); however, compare her position on the other four crucial issue areas for libertarians at this time (let alone the early 1970s):

Anarchy vs. Minarchy: she's anarchist. (Jerry Pournelle, as a counter-example, is strongly archist).

Revisionist History: she's revisionist. (Pournelle is not a Fundamentalist-type statist but that's the best you can say.)

Economic Liberties: Le Guin is weak on understanding what the better parts of our mixed economy are, but surprisingly far-sighted on Counter-Economics. (Pournelle, with his dropping of Space Statism, can no longer be called an outright fascist, but he still accepts a lot of state economic intervention and regulation, along with his formal advocacy of free enterprise.)

For those of you who like grade-point simplification: Jerry Pournelle (who supports politics and party—the RP) gets about 1.75 out of 5—D to D-; Le Guin gets at least 4.25—a B+ or A-.

In the most recent issue of Locus (November, 1988, #344—and if you, qua sf fan, don't know what Locus is, shame!), an article entitled, significantly, "Ursula K. Le Guin: Not the Establishment," Le Guin is quoted as saying, "The Eastern Literary Establishment basically makes me want to throw up. If I wanted to join, I don't suppose they'd let me in. I don't like Establishments. I'm not an establishment person." Right on! Time for Neil, Brad, and Vic to offer her membership in the Libertarian SF Writer's Mafia!

One last thing: I last read The Dispossessed 15 years ago; it sticks in my mind that much.

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