limiting power

As I noted in my previous post, there is no political system, no ordered social life, in which one can wholly escape being subject to power. As Burke says in his Reflections, “Men cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. That he may obtain justice, he gives up his right of determining what it is in points the most essential to him. That he may secure some liberty, he makes a surrender in trust of the whole of it.” Rousseau tried to evade this stark choice by inventing the idea of the “general will,” to which we all supposedly give free assent even when we are being brought to the guillotine. But of course the “general will” is a pious fiction for autocrats, and Burke’s contrast, in all its starkness, is certainly true.

Anarchism, as I understand its best exponents, does not deny Burke’s contrast but rather openly acknowledges the truth of it and yet attempts to blunt its force. This can never be done completely. A spontaneously self-organized environment, an emergent order, such as anarchism favors, is still an order and in any order some people at some times have power over others. And when they have such power they will sometimes use it wrongly.

The best fictional depiction of anarchism in practice is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossesed, and I find it fascinating that the pivotal conflict of this novel — which largely celebrates the austere beauty of an anarchist world — centers on a power struggle among anarchists. Insofar as Shevek, the book’s protagonist, has an antagonist it is his fellow physicist Sabul, whose role in the Physics syndic on Anarres allows him control over the publication and distribution of scientific papers — especially papers that come from the nearby capitalist world of Urras. (Anarres is the moon of Urras, largely uninhabited until a group of anarchists were allowed to settle there two centuries before the time in which the novel is set.)

It occurred to [Shevek] once that Sabul wanted to keep the new Urrasti physics private — to own it, as a property, a source of power over his colleagues on Anarres. But this idea was so counter to Shevek’s habits of thinking that it had great difficulty getting itself clear in his mind, and when it did he suppressed it at once, with contempt, as a genuinely disgusting thought.

But disgusting or not, the thought is true, and Shevek has to find a way to work with Sabul, to deal with Sabul, so he can get his own highly speculative work into the hands of Urrasti physicists — because there is no one on Anarres who understands what he is trying to do. “He wanted to publish what he wrote and to send it to the men who could understand it, the Urrasti physicists; he needed their ideas, their criticism, their collaboration.” And in order to make that happen, “He needed Sabul.”

So they had bargained, he and Sabul, bargained like profiteers. It had not been a battle, but a sale. You give me this and I’ll give you that. Refuse me and I’ll refuse you. Sold? Sold! Shevek’s career, like the existence of his society, depended on the continuance of a fundamental, unadmitted profit contract. Not a relationship of mutual aid and solidarity, but an exploitative relationship; not organic, but mechanical. Can true function arise from basic dysfunction?

But all I want to do is get the job done, Shevek pleaded in his mind, as he walked across the mall towards the domicile quadrangle in the grey, windy afternoon. It’s my duty, it’s my joy, it’s the purpose of my whole life. The man I have to work with is competitive, a dominance-seeker, a profiteer, but I can’t change that; if I want to work, I have to work with him.

Ursula Le Guin was profoundly attracted to anarchism. As she wrote in a description of her novel’s genesis,

The Dispossessed started as a very bad short story, which I didn’t try to finish but couldn’t quite let go. There was a book in it, and I knew it, but the book had to wait for me to learn what I was writing about and how to write about it. I needed to understand my own passionate opposition to the war that we were, endlessly it seemed, waging in Vietnam, and endlessly protesting at home. If I had known then that my country would continue making aggressive wars for the rest of my life, I might have had less energy for protesting that one. But, knowing only that I didn’t want to study war no more, I studied peace. I started by reading a whole mess of utopias and learning something about pacifism and Gandhi and nonviolent resistance. This led me to the nonviolent anarchist writers such as Peter Kropotkin and Paul Goodman. With them I felt a great, immediate affinity. They made sense to me in the way Lao Tzu did. They enabled me to think about war, peace, politics, how we govern one another and ourselves, the value of failure, and the strength of what is weak.

So, when I realised that nobody had yet written an anarchist utopia, I finally began to see what my book might be.

Le Guin says she set out to write “an anarchist utopia,” but the subtitle which has been attached to the book since a copywriter for an early edition came up with the phrase calls it “an ambiguous utopia.” Le Guin as political thinker wanted construct an ideal, but Le Guin as novelist — as a close and shrewd observer of “the crooked timber of humanity” — couldn’t do that. She had to acknowledge the flaws that creep into every social order because every social order is comprised of people.

This chastened view of anarchism strikes me as the proper one. The founders of the anarchist colony on Anarres certainly wanted to make it impossible for anyone to become Sabul — thus especially their constructed language, Pravic, which tries to remove from lanugage and therefore from thought the idea of possession or ownership — but Sabuls there will always be. The feasible goal of anarchist order is to reduce the number of Sabuls and, when they arise, limit their power over others.