Ursula K. Le Guin, An Appreciation

Ursula K. Le Guin. Meet-the-author Q&A session; Bookworks bookstore, Albuquerque, NM, USA; July 2004. Photo taken by Hajor, 15.Jul.2004. Released under cc.by.sa and/or GFDL.Ursula K. Le Guin did not care for capitalism.

What have I, a pro-market libertarian, to do with Ursula K. Le Guin, and what would move me to write an appreciation of her work?

Le Guin, who died last week at the age of 88, was an American novelist (her preferred designation) who mostly wrote science fiction and fantasy but also wrote poetry, “young persons’ fiction” and essays. Her novels won her five Locus, four Nebula, two Hugo, and one World Fantasy Award. Unsurprisingly she was also granted a number of lifetime achievement awards, all of them richly deserved. She was a feminist and an environmentalist, whose fiction pioneered themes of gender equality.

Le Guin was the daughter of the cultural anthropologist Arthur Louis Kroeber and the author and anthropologist Theodora Kracaw, both of whom were famous for preserving the language and stories of Ishi, the last member of the Yahi First Nation, who had been exterminated in a series of massacres during the California Gold Rush. Le Guin’s fiction was deeply influenced by her parents’ work, and the relations of different languages and cultures, including the risk of genocide and linguicide, are among the themes she treated in her rich and nuanced oeuvre. In her work, she manages to evoke entire cultures through suggestive names and hints of cultural systems embodied in stories and rituals.

She did not care for capitalism. News of her death had hardly had time to spread before memes began to circulate bearing this quotation:

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.

I imagine that most libertarians and conservatives reading such a quotation would think, “Another crank,” and dismiss the rest of what she had to say out of hand.

That would be a pity, because what Le Guin meant by “capitalism” was not what most libertarians mean by it. She seems always to have meant a system of government by or for capitalists—something which in this libertarian’s opinion has never actually existed, but which would not be particularly libertarian if it were to exist. In other words, by “capitalism” she meant plutocracy or crony capitalism.

Like most leftists, she also opposed capitalism on the grounds of its vulgarity and supposed uniformity.

But that’s not all! Unlike most (all?) contemporary leftists, Le Guin was critical of the state! 

The state, its dangers, and the possibilities of resisting it, are the basis of several of her most famous novels.

This is true most obviously of The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, her magisterial 1974 novel that won the “trifecta” of science fiction literary awards: Nebula, Hugo and Locus. The story of a brilliant physicist named Shevek (modelled on her parents’ friend Robert Oppenheimer) who travels from the anarchist settlement on the planet Anarres to the twin planet of Urras in Tau Ceti, ironically enough, to receive an award. The planet he travels to is divided into three states that basically represent the capitalist west, the Soviet bloc, and the Third World, with the subtle difference that Urras has managed to develop its advanced industrial civilization without seriously damaging the environment. Shevek’s life growing up on Anarres is told in parallel, and this narrative structure cleverly suggests his research in “temporal physics” which ultimately leads to the creation of a device, the ansible, that makes possible instantaneous communication between worlds separated by light years of space.

The anarchist society on the desert-world Anarres is modelled on the Israeli kibbutz and relies mostly on shame and opprobrium to maintain a system in which property is held in common—”propertarian” is a vile insult in this society and hoarding the most frowned-upon deviation. This might strike pro-market libertarians as rather more dystopian than utopian, and Le Guin herself, while obviously deeply sympathetic to the Anarresti, is not unaware of the drawbacks—hence the “ambiguity” of the utopia.

But Anarres is a well-imagined stateless society, something that most of the people sharing anti-capitalist quotes from Le Guin would probably find deeply unsettling.

Victoria Varga spent many years nominating the novel for the Prometheus Award, granted annually by the Libertarian Futurist Society to an American science fiction novel “promoting individual freedom.” Resistance to this proposal was stiff, as can be imagined. But, as Varga points out,

It should be repeated, a million times if necessary, that the essence of libertarianism… must be freedom of choice. Although most libertarians may believe that the best society is technologically advanced, economically laissez-faire, with private property cemented into the cornerstone of every community, other free people might choose communalism, back-to-the-bushes hermitism, or any of a thousand cultures, religions, or eccentricities possible to humanity and still remain within a libertarian framework, as long as those societies eschew the initiation of violence and respect the right of others to choose their own way of life.

In that respect, The Dispossessed absolutely qualifies as a libertarian novel, and one that is a great deal more nuanced and better written than any other recipient of the Prometheus Award, certainly during that era. (Since then, the insistence on works of right-wing science-fiction has been relaxed and a number of leftists, including Margaret Atwood, Cory Doctorow, and Ken MacLeod, have been nominated for or have won the Prometheus.)

Le Guin also deals with the dangers of state power in several other novels, notably the multi-award-winning The Left Hand of Darkness, her great pioneering novel of gender rights, in which an escape from a gulag in a totalitarian state is a major part of the plot, and The Telling, in which a clandestine resistance fights a state’s efforts to suppress and destroy a narrative culture.

Le Guin was deeply impressed and influenced by Taoism, which, at least in its original form, is a profoundly libertarian spirituality. Several cultural traditions in her novels are clearly based on Taoism, including the monastic Handarrata in The Left Hand and the richly-detailed magical culture of her fantasy series Earthsea. She ended up publishing a paraphrase of the Tao Te Ching which includes this undeniably libertarian chapter:

True leaders
Are hardly known to their followers.
Next after them are the leaders
the people know and admire;
after them, those they fear;
after them, those they despise.

To give no trust
is to get no trust.

When the work’s done right,
with no fuss or boasting,
ordinary people say,
Oh, we did it.

Ursula K. Le Guin, rest in peace.