In the aftermath of the crushing 2019 General Election, I felt I had to get ‘active’ in a political sense. To put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, which led me to join the Labour Party.
It came at a time of great uncertainty. I’d recently moved back to my home town on the outskirts of Reading and it dawned on me that what was once so familiar to me – the streets, the houses, the people – were no longer recognisable. Partially out of loneliness, then, I attended a few local Party meetings, unsure of what to expect, which turned out to be a lot more interesting than I thought they might be and led me to meet a great bunch of people, sharing the passion and drive for radical, positive change. But I found that there didn’t seem to be much of a social side; there wasn’t enough emphasis on the ‘party’ in the Labour Party, and so I decided to put forward the idea of a book club to Reading Young Labour, and, luckily, there was great interest.
We ran into problems quickly, however, as the country was put into lockdown a couple of weeks before our first meeting, yet we were undeterred and held our first meeting online to discuss Nathalie Olah’s 2019 book Steal As Much As You Can – part memoir, part study of the damaging cultural effects of Neoliberalism in the United Kingdom. Not without its flaws, the book nonetheless offered ample material for discussion and led nicely into our second choice – Mark Fisher’s 2009 work Capitalist Realism, a much more rigorously academic treatment of the contemporary political atmosphere. Its central conceit being that we have entered into ‘Capitalist Realism’ where Capitalism has become so entrenched as to become the only possibility, and so Fisher argues for the need to “begin… to develop strategies against a Capital which presents itself as ontologically, as well as geographically, ubiquitous.” It’s a bold claim, but one which we could consider in relation to our third book, which is also the first work of fiction we have read together.
Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed is aptly surmised by its subtitle: ‘An Ambiguous Utopia.’ It presents us with the vaguely-Utopian Anarchist society on the moon Anarres and the Capitalist state A-Io on the planet Urras; futuristic yet familiar settings that enable Le Guin to engage with pressing political and social issues. The novel’s plot revolves around an Anarresti scientist named Shevek who requires the help of Urrasti scientists to help realise a Theory that would allow instantaneous communication (it was the 1970s – hand-held mobile phones were unfathomable). He travels to Urras to work and learns more about how A-Io’s society functions with each passing day. It doesn’t take long for Shevek to discover that the immaculate image of A-Ioti society relies upon the exploitation of lower-class citizens.
Shevek notices just how stark the differences are between the two societies almost immediately. A few days after he arrives, he is taken by his hosts through the shopping district of A-Io. He is immediately, and disorientedly, overcome, almost having a kind of existential panic attack. He is aware of the existence of goods – from “coats, dresses, gowns…” to “perfumes, clocks… toothpicks” and “calendars” – on offer around him, entirely disconnected from the ways in which they each were produced. “Where were the workshops, the factories, where were the farmers, the craftsmen… the people who made,” the narrator wonders on Shevek’s behalf.
It’s incisive and prescient; how different is it really from town centres, from Reading’s high street, for instance? We have plenty of shops, plenty of access to anything we either need or want in our lives; but do we know where much of it comes from? Clothes shops, cafes, restaurants, shops offering a variety of technologies… In Shevek’s distress, I think, lies one of the most integral lessons to take from the book: we need to begin to re-create, and re-establish the connections between goods on the production lines and how we come to be able to consume them.
The journey from creation to consumption is a long one, fraught with issues from social injustices such as exploitative wages and poor working conditions, as well as environmental issues like irreparable climate change. Not only would it be beneficial for us as consumers to know how things arrive in our hands, but, moreover, it could inspire people to take a more active part in that journey; either through taking jobs in those sectors, or to fight for better rights and provisions for those that already do work in production or for better protection for our natural environment. Otherwise, we’ll be left with no “relation to the things but that of possession,” and the calls for building a sustainable future may become background noise.
Reading in the context of a pandemic, one of the aspects I found most interesting in the novel was the ways in which the Anarresti society functioned. In maintaining their society, the Anarresti engage in, essentially, mutual aid, which is, as the ‘Covid Mutual Aid’ website explains,
“[W]here a group of people organise to meet their own needs, outside of the formal frameworks of charities, NGOs and government. It is, by definition, a horizontal mode of organising, in which all individuals are equally powerful. There are no ‘leaders’ or unelected ‘steering committees’ in mutual aid projects; there is only a group of people who work together as equals.”covidmutualaid.org
The settlers of Anarres utilise this type of organisation, but to organise an entire state. There is no government, merely (necessary) bureaucracy to ensure that the needs of the community are met by those part of the community. Le Guin presents a nuanced picture of how such a Utopia may exist in reality, warts and all. In one particular passage that provoked numerous annotations in my copy, Shevek is having dinner with members of his host University and discussing what life is like on Anarres.
He recognises the fact that life on his planet is “not efficient,” given how much training needs to be done before people do certain kinds of necessary labour. But he goes on to challenge the idea that efficiency is the same as making the most of life; “you can’t tell a man to work on a job that will cripple him or kill him in a few years,” he reasons, for “why should he do that?” Shevek recognises some of the limits of mutual aid, but provide a stronger reason for why things still get done, which, it must be said, is just as relevant in our world: “People like to do things.” If the imperative to work – for wages, for bills, for luxury items – is taken from us –e.g.by the implementation of a Universal Basic Income, for instance, or through other structural and systemic revolutions – then people would still like to do things; they would still work. Free time can and will be filled with things other than watching telly or eating, and people want to spend time doing something; I’m sure all of us have experienced this feeling during the current lockdown.
Where the novel appears most obviously to have aged is in its limited conceptions of gender in the (admittedly ambivalently) Utopian world of Anarres. The Annarresti, living in a society that is seemingly held up by all equally, and in which anyone is free to have relationships with anybody else without fear of judgement, seem to have shed at least some prejudices and types of discrimination. For instance, people seem to have moved beyond being gay, straight, or even bi, instead being free to have relationships with anybody else, without even really considering one’s gender. Furthermore, there is no distinction between labour done by women or by men, and any childcare is typically done by the community, rather than any particular parent. And yet the basic categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ remain as essentially arbitrary distinctions. But this is typical of sci-fi (and even general fiction) writing more generally, as the possibilities of the imagination are necessarily limited by one’s surroundings and what they take for granted; we can’t blame Le Guin for that, especially as it wasn’t until the 1990s that the idea of gender being constructed and mutable – i.e. that it was more artificial than natural – was brought to prominence within Western Feminism.
Moreover, it was pointed out during the book club chat, that Le Guin had written an earlier novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, about a planet of ambisexual beings – that is, individuals without any fixed sex – which indicates Le Guin perhaps didn’t fully accept the idea that gender and sexuality, and their expressions in our culture, were natural parts of human life. It’s a shame, then, that this idea didn’t seem to be realisable in the world of Anarres, but this is really a minor point. The novel is rich with ideas, critiques, and considerations and even a cursory search or glance at Wikipedia reveals that there is so much academic writing on the novel and its problems and possibilities, and to do it all justice is beyond the limitations of this blog.
The Dispossessed presents us with several important takeaway lessons: that we need to re-connect with the world of production to maintain the urgent need for changes to environmental policy and better treatment of workers; that we need to forge substantive relationships between ourselves, our comrades, and those who we have not yet reached out to or convinced; and that we need to begin to consider the possibility that our current political moment – call it ‘Capitalist Realism’ if you like – won’t last forever. As Mark Fisher explains, the goal of Capitalist Realism is to position itself as our only option, and so he calls for us to “begin anew”. Le Guin, in The Dispossessed, helps to inspire actual alternatives. Indeed, in a 2014 national book awards speech, she offered these words of hope. “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.” If we can remember that, and continue to create and champion powerful, unashamedly left-wing Art, who knows what the future might look like?
- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
- Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed
- Covid mutual aid, https://covidmutualaid.org/