On the impossibility of utopia (part 2)

February 6, 2023

A tabula rasa helps, and this is the basic premise of one of the most important utopias of the 20th century, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. A planet governed by fairly ruthless capitalism (ie our Earth) has a spare, habitable and yet uninhabited moon, and when rebellion against the system reaches unmanageable proportions, the rebels are allowed to depart from the planet for the moon, where they gradually construct a radically different society, which they have been engaged in doing for several centuries by the time of the novel. What is particularly effective in Le Guin’s novel is the admitted difficulties of working out how to build and sustain a society run on very different lines from our own; she considers the world of work, housing, childrearing, relations between the sexes, and relations with the outside world; it’s clear nothing is easy or straightforward, everything must be fought for and everyone must be constantly vigilant; there are malcontents and misfits. And yet, the society of Anarres (the moon) is definitely utopian, and at the same time does not exist and never actually can; what Le Guin succeeds in doing better than most writers is getting the reader to engage with the ideas and reflect them back on our own flawed world…

The issue of coercion rears its head: what do you do with those who don’t fit in or don’t want to fit in? It’s a long time since I read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and I have been promising myself for a while to return to it, but the one detail I still recall from the utopia she imagines is that ultimately those who do not fit in and who violently oppose the new society are put to death. Chilling, and yet the logic makes sense when you are inside the text…

Ultimately what comes across is humans’ ability to be nice to each other and co-operate meaningfully on a relatively small scale; the problems arise once you move to the macro level. And I have wondered if some of these difficulties are an inherent consequence of capitalism and the shortages which are an inevitable and necessary part of the societies it creates: capitalism cannot eliminate inequality and shortage per se.

Utopias as presented in fiction are not democratic, at least in the sense in which we currently understand democracy, ie regular voting which changes very little, a veneer of choice and control, relying on experts and individuals having power without accountability or responsibility. Real utopias would seem to require constant vigilance and constant engagement on the part of members, or else an acceptance that there is not the freedom to behave in certain ways or to make certain choices, that famous freedom from and freedom to that Margaret Atwood explores (among other things) in The Handmaid’s Tale.

To be continued…


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