Anarchy and insurrection are major motifs throughout The Dispossessed, and on the planets of Urras and Anarres, people frequently question—or oppose directly—the systems that govern them. On Urras, where three vastly different states are controlled by three very different regimes, discord and unrest permeate the whole of the planet, and anarchy is seen as a thing to be quashed. On Anarres, which was founded on principles of anarchy and where there is, in theory, no governing or ruling individual, organization, or syndicate, anarchy is publicly hailed as the means by which Odonians were able to create a world for themselves, but when push comes to shove any questioning of the systems which have come to dominate Anarresti society is frowned upon. Le Guin argues, through her portraits of the twin worlds, that even in a world founded on principles of anarchy, a system of power will always rise up—and when it does, there will always be true anarchists and insurrectionists who speak and act out against it. In this way she argues that anarchy is the lifeblood of any society, anywhere in the universe, and that the anarchic clash between the people and their state is the only mechanism by which real change is possible anywhere.
On Anarres, Shevek and his family and friends go through their days operating unquestioningly within the framework of their anarcho-syndicalist society. People voluntarily follow postings from the PDC, the Production and Distribution Coordination, and the Divlab, or the Division of Labor office. Only Shevek’s friend Bedap questions whether the PDC has become, effectively, the government of Anarres—though the Odonian leader Odo advocated for the destruction of the state and any governing bodies of any kind. As the novel progresses, Shevek and his partner Takver begin to take Bedap’s musings seriously as they witness the extent to which the PDC controls the Anarresti. Odonians are moved around from job to job, prevented from pursuing certain lines of research, communications with the Urrasti, and beaten down or broken by seemingly vindictive or manipulative labor postings (after staging a play which is critical of Odonianism, Shevek and Bedap’s friend Tirin is assigned hard labor position after hard labor position until he loses his mind, eventually being “posted” indefinitely to an asylum).
Shevek and his friends slowly recognize the insidious side of the PDC, and the hypocrisy of an organization that seeks to control its citizens while masquerading behind anarcho-syndicalist values. The final straw comes when Shevek and Bedap, in a PDC meeting, propose building a bridge between Anarres and Urras by welcoming self-proclaimed Odonian refugees from the Urrasti state of Benbili, which is controlled by a military dictatorship. The PDC refuses, stating the terms on which Anarres was founded—total exclusion of the Urrasti. Instead, Shevek proposes sending an Anarresti to Urras, and is warned that any Anarresti who left and then attempted to return would be met with potentially violent justice. Lamenting that their planet is no longer truly representative of the anarchist values it purports to propagate, Shevek and his friends resolve to follow through with the ultimate act of insurrection—sending Shevek himself to Urras.
On Urras, Shevek is kept for many months in a cushy private apartment at Ieu Eun University, a college nestled in the wealthy Ioti capital, Nio Esseia. Though Shevek’s handlers and fellow physicists take him on a “tour” of A-Io, Shevek is never allowed to encounter any members of the lower classes. The Ioti do this on purpose: they do not want Shevek to see the political unrest on their planet, or for their struggling “unpropertied” classes to get a glimpse of the Anarresti man who represents the potential that anarchy has to make a true change. News of the conflicts spreading through the world leak through, however, and Shevek learns that the capitalist state of A-Io and the socialist state of Thu are fighting a proxy war in the already ravaged state of Benbili. A-Io supports the reinstatement of the overthrown Benbili military dictator, while Thu supports the people’s revolution, and the two more dominant states clash in a “third-world country” so as not to bring the “barbarism” of war to either of their states.
Seeing this unrest develop, coupled with his revelation that the Ioti state only wants his General Temporal Theory for their own advancement, motivates Shevek to leave the University and seek refuge from the state’s machinations in the world of the lower classes. There, he is hailed as a hero and a symbol of the revolution, and invited to give a speech at a socialist worker’s demonstration. The demonstration is attacked by the state police, however, and Shevek is forced to flee to the Terran embassy. There, he offers his General Temporal Theory to the displaced people of Terra, rather than offer it to the Ioti state, who will only use it to bring more pain and destruction into the world.
Written as an ode of sorts to the values of anarchy and insurrection, The Dispossessed doesn’t ever champion one political ideology over another, but rather celebrates defiance and revolutionary thought and action in the face of oppression. Le Guin proudly dedicates the pages of one of her landmark novels to an unrepentant anarchist, and encourages the distrust—and the dismantling—of the power structures that allow governments to control and harm the people they are entrusted with serving.
The People vs. the State ThemeTracker
The People vs. the State Quotes in The Dispossessed
“We don’t leave Anarres, because we are Anarres. But are we kept here by force? What force—what laws, governments, police? None. Simply our own being, our nature as Odonians. It’s your nature to be Tirin, and my nature to be Shevek, and our common nature to be Odonians, responsible to one another. And that responsibility is our freedom. To avoid it would be to lose our freedom. Would you really like to live in a society where you had no responsibility and no freedom, no choice, only the false option of obedience to the law, or disobedience followed by punishment? Would you really want to go live in a prison?”
“The law of existence is struggle—competition—elimination of the weak—a ruthless war for survival. And I want to see the best survive. The kind of humanity I know. The Cetians. You and I: Urras and Anarres. We’re ahead of them now, all those Hainish and Terrans and whatever else they call themselves, and we’ve got to stay ahead of them. They brought us the interstellar drive, but we’re making better interstellar ships now than they are. When you come to release your Theory, I earnestly hope you’ll think of your duty to your own people, your own kind. Of what loyalty means, and to whom it’s due.”
“We have no government, no laws. But as far as I can see, ideas were never controlled by laws and governments, even on Urras. You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you, and prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn’t any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the human mind. Public opinion! That’s the power structure he’s part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules Odonian society by stifling the individual mind… Government [is defined as] the legal use of power to maintain and extend power. Replace ‘legal’ with ‘customary,’ and you’ve got Sabul, and the Syndicate of Instruction, and the PDC.”
It was difficult for him to distrust the people he was with. He had been brought up in a culture that relied deliberately and constantly on human solidarity, mutual aid. Alienated as he was in some ways from that culture, and alien as he was to this one, still the lifelong habit remained: he assumed people would be helpful. He trusted them. But Chifoilisk’s warnings, which he had tried to dismiss, kept returning to him. His own perceptions and instincts reinforced them. Like it or not, he must learn distrust. He must be silent; he must keep his property to himself; he must keep his bargaining power.
“It is an ugly world. Anarres is all dusty and dry hills. And the people aren’t beautiful. The towns are very small and dull, they are dreary. Life is dull, and hard work. You can’t always have what you want, or even what you need, because there isn’t enough. You Urrasti have enough. You are rich, you own. We are poor, we lack. You have, we do not have. Everything is beautiful here. Only not the faces. On Anarres nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces. 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 of the human spirit. Because our men and women are free—possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes—the wall, the wall!
On Anarres [Shevek] had chosen, in defiance of the expectation of his society, to do the work he was individually called to do. To do it was to rebel: to risk the self for the sake of society. Here on Urras, that act of rebellion was a luxury, a self-indulgence. To be a physicist in A-Io was to serve not society, not mankind, not the truth, but the State. On his first night in this room he had asked them, challenging and curious, “What are you going to do with me?” He knew now what they had done with him. Chifoilisk had told him the simple fact. They owned him.
“Do you know what your society has meant, here, to us, these last hundred and fifty years? Do you know that when people here want to wish each other luck they say, ‘May you get reborn on Anarres!’ To know that it exists, to know that there is a society without government, without police, without economic exploitation, that they can never again say that it’s just a mirage, an idealist’s dream! I wonder if you fully understand why they’ve kept you so well hidden out there at Ieu Eun. Why you were never allowed to appear at any meeting open to the public. Why they’ll be after you like dogs after a rabbit the moment they find you’re gone. It’s not just because they want this idea of yours. But because you are an idea. A dangerous one. The idea of anarchism, made flesh. Walking amongst us.”
“There is nothing on Urras that we Anarresti need! We left with empty hands, a hundred and seventy years ago, and we were right. We took nothing. Because there is nothing here but States and their weapons, the rich and their lies, and the poor and their misery. There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into. There is no freedom. It is a box—Urras is a package with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man. A man whose hand was shot off because he held it out to others. I have been in Hell at last, [and] it is Urras.”
“What we’re after is to remind ourselves that we didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. 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. Only if he does so will the society live, and change, and adapt, and survive. We are not subjects of a State founded upon law, but members of a society founded upon revolution. Revolution is our obligation. We can’t stop here. We must go on. We must take the risks.”
“Things are…a little broken loose, on Anarres. That’s what my friends on the radio have been telling me. It was our purpose all along to shake things up, to break some habits, to make people ask question. To behave like anarchists! All this has been going on while I was gone. So, you see, nobody is quite sure what happens next. And if you land with me, even more gets broken loose…Once you are there, once you walk through the wall with me, then as I see it you are one of us. We are responsible to you and you to us; you become an Anarresti, with the same options as all the others. But they are not safe options. Freedom is never very safe.”