Individual vs community (2): majority rule and our neighbors’ opinions

Ursula Le Guin does (I think) a marvelous job of exploring the tension between individual and collective in a specifically anarchist context in her book The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (which some day I hope will be taught in high schools alongside Orwell). The main character is an introvert, a brilliant physicist, who believes in the ideals of anarchism but finds his talents and personality in tension with the anarchist society in which he lives. As a child, Shevek’s tendency to monologue about philosophical problems too sophisticated for his classmates is denounced by a teacher as “egoizing” and immaturity. As an adult, his pioneering work in physics is suppressed by a jealous rival on the grounds that it amounts to “impractical hypotheses without social organic utility.”

Things become darker still when Shevek and his friends begin their own syndicate and printing press; although the people of the planet Anarres are descendants of anarchist revolutionaries called Odonians, they are hostile to Shevek’s revolutionary activity. His partner Takver is ostracized by her coworkers, and a woman on the sanitation committee says with typical anti-intellectualism, “Don’t you try to come into this room, I know you, you damned traitors, you intellectuals, you egoizers.” Even their ten-year-old daughter is ostracized as a “traitor” by the other children in the dormitory.

However, although threats of violence and death are made, the people of Anarres never assemble themselves into an actual mob. They are too much the products of anarchism for that. When Shevek boards a freighter taking him to the capitalist country of A-Io on the planet Urras, people gather to jeer, to throw rocks; some even intend to kill him. But they are disorganized, they get in each other’s way.

If the foreman had no experience in bossing a mob, they had no experience in being one. Members of a community, not elements of a collectivity, they were not moved by mass feeling; there were as many emotions as there were people.

In short, they are too much individuals to disappear into the lethal crowd of Auden’s Horae Canonicae.

Nevertheless, this individualism is in danger from various forces: creeping bureaucracy; the struggle to survive in an inhospitable climate; continuing technological dependence on the capitalists of Urras; and most of all, perhaps, the basic human tendency to find safety in ideology and tribalism. Towards the end of the novel (which is actually somewhere in the middle of the timeline it covers), Shevek observes that although they are free from written laws, they are heavily governed by convention:

“We keep our initiative tucked away safe in our mind like a room where we can come and say, ‘I don’t have to do anything, I make my own choices, I’m free.’ And then we leave the little room in our mind, and go where PDC posts us, and stay till we’re reposted.”

As in a democracy, there is an illusion of freedom which sustains the status quo. Americans do the same. We say to each other, “You’re free. You have no right to complain. If you don’t like something, then vote, get involved in politics.” But we know well enough that our votes are limited to certain occasions, that one must have certain connections and financial resources to have a political career, and that our society is not set up to enable the average person to be very involved in local politics. Forced to work more and more simply to survive, we have less and less time to work towards changing the policies that place us in this position. It’s a vicious cycle. And still we say to ourselves, “This is a free country. I could do something about it if I really wanted to.” And then, mollified by this comfortable illusion, we don’t do anything.

Speaking of a friend named Tir who went insane after being criticized for a satirical play he’d written, Shevek goes on:

“The social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience, instead of striking a balance with it. We don’t cooperate – we obey. We fear being outcast, being called lazy, dysfunctional, egoizing. We fear our neighbor’s opinion more than we respect our own freedom of choice. You don’t believe me, Tak, but try, just try stepping over the line, just in imagination, and see how you feel. […] We have created crime, just as the propertarians did. We force a man outside the sphere of our approval, and then condemn him for it. We’ve made laws, laws of conventional behavior, built walls all around ourselves, and we can’t see them, because they’re part of our thinking. Tir never did that […] he never could built walls. He was a natural rebel. He was a natural Odonian – a real one! He was a free man, and the rest of us, his brothers, drove him insane in punishment for his first free act.”

“I don’t think,” Takver said, muffled in the bed, and defensively, “that Tir was a very strong person.”

“No, he was extremely vulnerable.”

When Shevek says that Tir is a “real Odonian,” he means that he’s a true anarchist, like the original settlers who came to Anarres to live out their dream of a society without coercion. I suspect that in Shevek’s remark that Tir was also “extremely vulnerable,” Le Guin is observing the vulnerability of anarchism itself. Anarres in Shevek’s time, two hundred years after it was colonized, is not the Anarres of the original settlers. How long can pure political idealism be sustained in practice? Society will always tend towards some form of authoritarianism; anarchism is always an impulse within that society, against that tendency.

But this is not to say that all societies are equally unfree, or that the degree to which authoritarian and anarchist impulses are expressed within a given society doesn’t matter. It matters, of course, very much. And for all Anarres’ faults, it is the utopia of the title. Its ideals and values are upheld. By the end of Shevek’s time in the capitalist state A-Io, it appears to him as Hell. But even before that, he contrasts the two in a drunken speech at a party:

“Everything is beautiful, here. Only not the faces. On Anarres nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces. The other faces, the men and women. We have nothing but that, nothing but each other. Here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes. And in the eyes you see the splendor, the splendor the human spirit. Because our men and women are free.”

Even to have ideals, to be inwardly free enough to hold them and believe in them, is radical and difficult. In the United States today, we are terribly short on idealism. We can see small surges of it in the Occupy movement, in the grassroots support for Senator Sanders, but there is a constant pressure not only from the government itself but from the people around us, our neighbors, our colleagues, our relatives, our friends, pressing inward, saying, “No. You must not dream. You must not hope for something better. At best, you can hope for incremental improvements in the status quo. To dream for anything more is suicide.”

We are told that idealism leads inevitably to the totalitarian states of the twentieth century; to Stalin, to Hitler. We are told that to vote our conscience makes us responsible for whatever sickening candidate may be elected. And because everyone is constantly saying this to each other, very few people dare to vote their conscience, or perhaps they dare but are persuaded it’s futile, and the prophecy of futility fulfills itself.

The Dispossessed is at once a clear-sighted exploration of the potential pitfalls of an anarchist society (and the real beauties, as well as horrors, of a capitalist one), and a celebration of the anarchic impulse of the human spirit. Ultimately, the problem with Anarres that leads to a stifling of the individual is not that it’s anarchic, but that it’s not anarchic enough. It has convinced itself that the victories it’s already achieved are the fulfillment of its idealism; it has laid aside the dream of becoming more. So solidarity ossifies into tribalism.

I’ll wrap up with another quote from Shevek:

“If we must all agree, all work together, we’re no better than a machine. If an individual can’t work in solidarity with his fellows, it’s his duty to work alone. His duty and his right. We have been denying people that right. We’ve been saying, more and more often, you must work with the others, you must accept the rule of the majority. But any rule is tyranny. The duty of the individual is to accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible. Only if he does so will the society live, and change, and adapt, and survive.”


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