Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Anarchists and Capitalists

When my SF class here in Leipzig finished reading Le Guin's The Dispossessed, I asked them a key question. We had discussed the two planets LeGuin created, Anarres and Urras, and the various issues the novel raises: competition versus cooperation, safety versus freedom, the individual good versus the social good, equality versus merit. We looked at how LeGuin does not assume all good lies on one planet or the other, and why she subtitles her novel "An Ambiguous Utopia." We discussed the physical basis of each society: the geographically rich homeworld of Urras, and the relatively poor fertility of Anarres, the moon upon which humans had not originally evolved. We looked at the political structure of each: capitalistic Urras and anarchistic, non-money, non-propertarian Anarres. After all these points had been made, I asked them (with great curiosity on my part) this question:

"If you had to live on either Urras or Anarres, which would you choose? Urras, with its luxurious rich and starving poor, or Anarres, where all is shared equally and without law or government or ownership, but there isn't much to share in the first place?"

One student asked -- sensibly -- "Do I get to be at the top or the bottom on Urras?" But I said he wouldn't know until he got there.

The vote was four for Anarres, twenty-one for Urras, a few students abstaining. I'm not sure what this says about the young in the former East Germany, but it's sure interesting.

11 comments:

Frank Böhmert said...

Did you ask this question in the States, too? If yes, how were the answers in comparison?

(I would stay where I was born, I think. So: Urras!)

Nancy Kress said...

I don't teach SF as literature any more in the States, so I haven't had the opportunity to ask it of American students. I wish I could; it would be interesting to compare results.

Neal Holtschulte said...

Count me as one for Anarres.

Luke said...

I think it's a "grass is always greener" thing.

Mike Flynn said...

Urras would be okay, provided there was the ability to move up (like the wealthy medieval peasant Constant La Roux) or to give it up (like Francisco d'Assisi). Equality in poverty strikes me as being less fine in practice than it sounds, depending on how poor, but its also strikes me as more imprisoning. One is more likely to be trapped within class boundaries when there is only one class.

Liberte and egalite are opposed ideals. You need fraternite to make them work together.

Mark said...

Just gotta add my $.02 here for FYI purposes if nothing else. Although Mike F is right in that diversity of income (and other stuff) is a side effect of freedom, I personally feel drawn toward the Anarcho-Communistic fellowship of Anarres.

Some of my friends may be surprised with this statement, as I'm also a fan of L. Neil Smith.

I couldn't help but notice that although Anarres doesn't have a formal monetary system or government (and I do count corporations as forms of government) there is a kind of hierarchy implied through the syndicates and how work assignments are determined.

Nancy Kress said...

Mark-- Yes, that's LeGuin's point, of course. Even in the absence of legal authority, hierarchy will emerge, since primate dominance behavior is built into our genes. To attain "fraternite," which she (and Anarres) values above all, takes constant reminders and constant education. I think a key line of the book is "Nobody is born an Odonian, no more than anybody is born civilized."

Mike Flynn said...

Marvin Harris' account of how mumis ["big men"] emerge in Pacific Islander chiefdoms is instructive in this regard.

Luke said...

It's certainly difficult to train a toddler not to be a "propertarian" when he says "Mine!" ;)

Mike Flynn said...

William of Ockham identified property as one of the natural rights which the prince could not alienate -- but which could be voluntarily relinquished in the pursuit of a greater happiness. That is, when someone defends his property against theft of destruction, he is universally seen as justified even by the thief trying to take it, and even if the defense is hopeless.

OTOH, he was a Spiritual Franciscan and held that the service of God was a greater happiness than possession of property, and so the Franciscans did not own anything, not even their sandals, but only had the usage of it.

Poor ol' Billy Ock managed to honk off a lot of people (for a variety of reasons) and fled to the Kaiser's court in Munich. He famously told Kaiser Ludwig der Bayer, "if you will defend me with your sword, I will defend you with my pen." History does not tell us what Lou thought of the deal, but Billy became an imperial propaganda hack. He left Munich when the Black Death broke out there, but he never arrived anywhere else, except a minor science fiction novel.

Mark said...

I'll have to write up some of my experience with different styles of organization. One of the political rallies I "helped" "organize" had no formal "leader" until, hinging upon a fine point of where we should be allowed to stage our protest, a security person asked who was in charge and we all kind of looked around, confused as to why we would even need one :-D Until that point, concensus/anarchism/spontaneous order from chaos was working just fine, even to the point of those who volunteered to get the necessary permits, etc.