The dispossessed in late middle age

There is nothing here but States and their weapons, the rich and their lies, the poor and their misery. There is no way to act rightly and with a clear heart. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into and fear of loss and the wish for power.  You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is ‘superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them or command them, or obey them, or trick them. You cannot touch another person, yet they will not leave you alone. There is no freedom.

with one elision, a quote from UK Leguin’s “fictional” description of a different world that she contrasts with a harsh utopian alternative.

Ray Williams thought that Leguin’s utopia significantly was an escape from a morally crippled but unbeatable affluent society and indicated a pessimism about the possibility of social change.

It is a generous and open getaway, within the limited conditions of its wasteland destination. The people of Anarres live as well, in all human terms, as Morris’s cooperators; mutuality is shown to be viable, in a way all the more so because there is no abundance to make it easy. The social and ethical norms are at the highest point of the utopian imagination. But then there is a wary questioning beyond them: not the corrosive cynicism of the dystopian mode, but a reaching beyond basic mutuality to new kinds of individual responsibility and, with them, choice, dissent, and conflict. For this, again of its period, is an open utopia: forced open, after the congealing of ideals, the degeneration of mutuality into conservatism; shifted, deliberately, from its achieved harmonious condition, the stasis in which the classical utopian mode culminates, to restless, open, risk-taking experiment. It is a significant and welcome adaptation, depriving utopia of its classical end of struggle, its image of perpetual harmony and rest. This deprivation, like the waste land, may be seen as daunting, as the cutting-in of elements of a dominant dystopia. But whereas the waste land is voluntary deprivation, by the author — product of a defeatist assessment of the possibilities of transformation in good and fertile country — the openness is in fact a strengthening; indeed it is probably only to such a utopia that those who have known affluence and known with it social injustice and moral corruption can be summoned. It is not the last journey. In particular it is not the journey which all those still subject to direct exploitation, to avoidable poverty and disease, will imagine themselves making: a transformed this-world, of course with all the imagined and undertaken and fought-for modes of transformation. But it is where, within a capitalist dominance, and within the crisis of power and affluence which is also the crisis of war and waste, the utopian impulse now warily, self-questioningly, and setting its own limits, renews itself.

That was in 1978 - as usual thought provoking work from Williams although I think he misses the importance of feminism in shaping/freeing Leguin’s imagination.  In retrospect, one could argue that Leguin’s book represents a moment that the tide was going out in the USA-  as the Reagan revolution came to power and America’s utopianists were confronted with a much uglier world indeed. In this world, the utopian imagination was switching to Mad Max and the expectation of progress faded and even escape to a harsh utopia seemed naive.  This is kind of also the dominant thesis of the “left” as expressed by people like David Harvey: the “neoliberals” (stupid and misleading label) Reagan and Thatcher came to power and taught us all to be obedient serfs again.  But nostalgia is not a useful guide to the past and it’s wise to remember that the world of 1978 was not one dominated by counter-cultural utopian Anarchists. Leguin’s “getaway” pessimism was shaped by a world still dominated by the cold war.


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