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The Dispossessed

by Ursula Le Guin

1974, reprinted 2001, Eos/Harper Collins

Written by Darrell Anderson.

Few people understand the straightforward definition of anarchy. Ursula Le Guin, in her novel The Dispossessed, understands the meaning.

The word anarchy describes a concept of liberty. The word typically instills discomfort and uneasiness into the minds of many. Many people today carelessly use the word to mean bomb-throwing, unlimited boundaries, chaos, and disorder. What exactly is anarchy?

A straightforward definition of anarchy means “without rulers.” For example, monarchy is the “archy” or rule of one, oligarchy is the rule of a few, hierarchy is a layered rule; thus anarchy is the rule of none.

Anarchy does not mean without rules, but without rulers. Anarchy is first and foremost a philosophy, social system without rulers. A social system without rules is most certainly a world of chaos and confusion. Anarchy is not barbarism. Anarchy is not Utopian or idealistic but a realistic logical conclusion to the principles of self and trespass.

Trespass is any violation of an individual’s body or resources. By definition, trespass includes the threat of violation. Anarchy does not necessarily prohibit self-defense, but prohibits initiating trespass. Many philosophical anarchists believe that any self-defense must be proportional to stopping the trespass.

Anarchy is based upon the principle of free association and voluntary exchange. Although many people tend to confuse anarchy with philosophical socialism, anarchy need not be communalistic in nature. The foundation of anarchy is free association and voluntary exchange. Anarchy is not about force and coercion, nor does the philosophy of anarchy deny the concept of property. Fundamentally, anarchists deny political privilege, which often tends to distort the concept of property.

Le Guin seems to understand these principles. The story is about Shevek, a physicist living on the planet Anarres. Anarres is a part of a dual planet system, sharing its planetary orbit about its sun with Urras. The planet of Anarres was settled by anarchists, people who decided that life elsewhere was better than life on Urras. Almost 200 years later, Shevek decides he wants to share his General Temporal Theory, a theory redefining the concept of time and space travel. More importantly, he wants to see his people shed their hatred and distrust of outsiders because that attitude is slowly changing his society into close-minded zealots. Shevek hungers for the free exchange of information and ideas. He wants to see outsiders change to become more free. Yet, as Le Guin artfully shares in her story, ideas are the most dangerous weapon invented. Even the anarchist can be afraid of new ideas and change.

The Urrasti people who control the political structure want Shevek to publish his theory quietly within the framework of their society. Doing so would provide the Urrasti much political power within the federation of the nine known planets. The Urrasti invite Shevek to visit their planet because the Annaresti have a long-standing social rule forbidding outsiders to visit their planet.

Many Annaresti are afraid that allowing outsiders into their society will destroy them and therefore consider Shevek a traitor. Some Annaresti have threatened to disband their anarchist custom of peaceful shunning and ostracism and are willing to use violence to stop Shevek. This is the tension of Le Guin’s story.

Human social systems evolve. They always have and always will. Anarchy is not utopia, but represents a collection of ideals that humans have yet to fully seek, let alone obtain. Le Guin understands anarchy. Sadly, however, only anarchists will understand and appreciate her story.

Finis.

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