8 min read

Reflections on...The Dispossessed

Disclaimer: The 'reflections on' series is better appreciated if you've read the source material, though it isn't necessary. You can find the book here or here, the audiobook here, and a summary here. Also, SPOILER ALERT.

He tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him past endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream. He could not force himself to understand how banks functioned and so forth, because all the operations of capitalism were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary. In a human sacrifice to deity there might be at least a mistaken and terrible beauty; in the rites of the moneychangers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men’s acts, even the terrible became banal. Shevek looked at this monstrous pettiness with contempt, and without interest. He did not admit, he could not admit, that in fact it frightened him.
- Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

Following our exploration of what a 'fair' future would look like, I thought it helpful to reflect on one of the most famous works of science fiction that imagines a extreme egalitarian society - Le Guin's The Dispossessed. It's one of very few books to win the Hugo, Locus and Nebula Awards for Best Novel - bringing its critique of individualism and capitalism to a mainstream audience. Here's the summary from the book:

A bleak moon settled by utopian anarchists, Anarres has long been isolated from other worlds, including its mother planet, Urras--a civilization of warring nations, great poverty, and immense wealth. Now Shevek, a brilliant physicist, is determined to reunite the two planets, which have been divided by centuries of distrust. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have kept them apart.
To visit Urras--to learn, to teach, to share--will require great sacrifice and risks, which Shevek willingly accepts. But the ambitious scientist's gift is soon seen as a threat, and in the profound conflict that ensues, he must reexamine his beliefs even as he ignites the fires of change.

I'll explore some of the major themes this brings up by exploring the three main planets of the book, how they help us sharpen our consideration of a 'fair' future society, and some of the lessons it might teach us about the path to getting there.

What do we see as utopia? - Annares

Is Annares presented as a utopia? It's a fascinating question. The extent to which the reader identifies it as a utopia reveals a lot about their values.

It is not luxurious. There are not abundant resources meaning that everybody gets by. It is equal. There is no property. Everybody shares everything: food, water, clothes, work, shelter. There is no 'government', simply a set of agreed-upon algorithms and processes that keep society functioning effectively. There are no laws, legal system, or prisons. With no property or status to fight over, there is no motivation to commit crime. Where crime is committed the individual is treated for mental health problems - the only possible cause for wanting to hurt fellow people - and not punished. There are no nations. Everyone is a global citizen - an Odonian.

It is the perfect hypothetical to utilize the 'veil of ignorance' thought experiment. Would you rather live on extremely equal Annares or very unequal Urras? If Urras, are you sure you'd rather live there knowing you could be a part of the working class? What risk would you be willing to take for the chance to be an 'owner' on Urras? If nothing, you must accept Annares as the ethical imperative form of 'fair' society.

This isn't even a comparable hypothetical to our Earth given that our technological capabilities and, for now, natural resources are far greater than those of Annares. Our potential socialist society would not require '10th day work that nobody wants to do'. We could potentially achieve technological resistance to drought and other natural disasters. Our society would be a post-work world of abundance.

Odonian life is described as being interpersonally idyllic. There is nothing in the way of strong bonds being formed with anyone else. It is a brotherhood with everyone on equal footing, but also with nothing clouding people's assessment of character. When everyone shares the same values, meaningful relationships are abundant. Sex is far from a taboo subject, leaving everyone more free to experiment and explore knowing they are safe. Sexual preferences appear to be more fluid. Life partnership takes on different meaning in Annares. The concept of non-ownership extends to people in its fullest form. 'Partnering' is a truly mutual act, with no marriage or contract binding the couple, rather the promise and preference to continue the partnership every day. The partnerships described in the book presented the strongest positive emotions felt by any character, suggesting that this form of love is superior to the experience of most couples on Earth. Child-rearing is a different activity, as non-ownership extends to infants. Parents seemingly have few responsibilities and fewer obligations in raising children. They could give-up a child at birth and it would be raised by the community with no stigma felt by the parents. Typically they will raise the child in the home until two or three, when they will then sleep at the 'learning center' dorms. They will still spend non-school time with the child, but will return them to the dorm to sleep. At a certain age the child becomes 'independent' and the parent-child relationship ends. The extent that a relationship continue is a fully mutual choice at that point in time. Strong relationships continuing through life are deemed as unusual as those that end abruptly at independence.

It is hard to evaluate whether this aspect of Odonian life is truly utopian, largely because it is so different to our own. The freedom is appealing, and monogamous relationships built on a daily commitment rather than a contractual binding are clearly superior. Societal child-rearing would need to be tested before many would be convinced of its status as utopian.

How bad can inequality be? - Urras

A projection of Earth in the not too distant future if current trends continue. A warning sign. It raises good questions: how much an under-class will endure before they reach breaking point and revolt. How far will a ruling class be willing to go to quell an under-class uprising? Would they kill thousands as happens in the book? Where would accountability come from in a world where the ruling class of other nations have to quell their own uprisings? What can a disenfranchised under-class do to take back power when the ruling class will kill them freely? Are they slaves at that point? Where do we draw the boundary on slavery, and with what human society is willing to accept (if they are not the same thing)?

What if it all goes wrong? - Terra (Earth)

Extremely prescient. Society on Earth screwing everything up beyond belief and only being rescued by the 'Hainish' people. It is unclear if they are an alien race in the book - they are presented as being an ancient people yet still have human-like form. It's not unbelievable to think this is the way Earth society might go. It's fascinating that Le Guin presents a horrendously unequal society on Urras... only to then present the original Earth (Terra) society as worse, to the point of self-destruction. Without the Hainish coming to the rescue, human life would be extinct. This tipifies the damning indictment of humanity throughout the book. The 'utopian' planet of Annares is only colonized in response to the ultimate working class revolution on Urras. Urras is a Terra 2.0 where the people have seemingly not learned from any of their previous mistakes. Urras is very similar to Earth of today, or maybe in twenty years time.

Will it really take an entirely new 'nation' or 'colony' of socialists being formed before that society can exist? And where will they go? It is understandable that that society would be given the least desirable area possible - any area with any desirable qualities will have been claimed and owned under capitalism.

What it teaches us about how a post-capitalist 'government' might dysfunction, and what can be done to keep it on track

We see that power corrupts, even on Annares where structurally there is no power. Whenever distribution is controlled by an authority there is opportunity for power and corruption. Organizing structures or institutions of some form appear to be a necessary component of any scaled society - even if their sole purpose is to monitor and improve the AI system that is the technological manifestation of the constitution of the society. The book seems to suggest that we cannot rely on even the best of human nature in these scenarios - humankind is programmed to seek power, and will often convince itself it is either not seeking power, or is doing so for another greater purpose to justify the act. The answer Le Guin provides is that society must always be radical - that it needs structures and systems in place to ensure constant refresh and renewal of how society functions, driven by true individual freedom.There is possibly a sub-comment that most humans crave direction, that people will fall in line with a way of doing things, even when that order is exceptionally subtle, as it is on Annares. It is the gradual growth of this 'correct way of doing things' that leads to the 'shadow government' that Shevek and the Syndicate of Initiative revolt against. It is this gradual distaste for a freedom of ideas that drives him to leave Annares for Urras.

While the 'governing' setup is not explored in detail, it seems that referenda are used frequently with everybody getting one vote on adjustments to the governing framework.

The role of AI is interesting. Here it is lightly presented that there is a computer system that is the complete codified acceptance of how Odonian society should function, and society follows it's rulings and decisions. The largest role it plays is in work allocation. Here it functions as a job board where seemingly anyone (or any syndicate) can post an open role for any other individual to accept. It seems that the desired KSAEs are included in the post, yet there is no application for roles, or screening of applicants. The good-nature of Odonians means they would not put themselves forward for a role they are not capable of as this would damage society as a whole.

Odonians are free to opt out of work. There is no enforcement mechanism for the working norms of society, other than the social pressure an individual would feel from their community against them 'freeloading' on the good of others. The inherent good nature of Odonians means that this would likely present more as confusion than negative judgement.We only see hostility from Odonians when they feel an individual or group are 'traitors' - actively seeking to damage Odonian society. It is interesting where their inherent compassion ends and the hostility begins. There are reasons to believe that this is a defensive that stems from the ancestral/generational trauma that lead to the founding of the society by Odo.

They are deeply suspicious of 'profiteers' from Urras, even when it is explained that they are exactly the same as the ancestors that revolted and colonized Annares. That Odonian compassion does not extend to these people is reflective of the trauma, but also of the echoes of human fallibility they still carry for self-preservation over altruism.

The central AI also seems to manage resource allocation. This is a similar optimization and balancing question that a rudimentary AI should be capable of when the function is to provide equal resources to all people. The distribution and logistics would require greater computation than the allocation itself. Odonians are exceptionally anti-waste, however there must be an accepted level of waste in the system to allow the freedom and flexibility that Odonians seem to possess. Odonians have given up a large amount of privacy in favor of transparency and waste minimization. In theory if an AI knows where everyone is at all times, knows what work they are performing and has their full health record, it can very efficiently distribute the optimal nutrition to the right place for all people.

The Dispossessed explore hypothetical futures that are valuable to us in designing a single ideal future. It adds complexity to the idea of 'fairness's - more than the 'veil of ignorance' experiment offers - and introduces tradeoffs such as how much comfort or ownership would you be willing to give up to have a truly equal society? We then explored how such a society might function, and informs what we could begin to implement in the present to move to a more 'fair' future vision.

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