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Stargazing

2015.06.25

BY Edwin Gardner

I was on a little retreat in the deep north of the Netherlands where the land is flat, open and windy. With waving grass and low-hanging clouds casting quickly shifting shadows. Here, on a clear night, you can see the Milky Way in all its glory, but I was unlucky, every night the clouds hid it from view. But although I couldn't see the stars, my mind was occupied with the distant sun of the Tau Ceti system twelve light years from here. I was wondering:

Could I possibly be a non-possesive and sharing human-being?
Could I be a true Odonian?

Questions brought about by Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed. In the novel she evokes the civilisations of Anarres and Urras, sister planets that dance around each other while orbiting Tau Ceti. 170 years ago a million Odonian settlers left Urras and started a civilisation based on Odo's principles of freedom and anarchy on Anarres. A society without a state, without laws and without money where people share everything for the benefit of the social organism. Although it is an desert-like planet, in the ears of the have-not's left behind on luscious green and Earth-like Urras, it sounds like utopia. But alas, no one is allowed to go to Anarres. Although, one man is allowed to come to Urras: Shevek. A brilliant Anarresti scientist and radical Odonian. The story follows Shevek's ideological struggles with his own anarchistic society, and the culture shock when he encounters the capitalists on Urras.

This story from 1974 touches on so many of my thoughts in this year, 2015 on planet Earth. Where capitalism seems a destructive force out of control, and privately everybody seems to desire for a just and sustainable planet. How can it be? Around me I feel longing to move beyond merely owning things. I’d rather share something meaningful and profound with my friends than to accumulate things that weigh me down. We talk of share economy, participatory design and democracy. Cooperatives for everything, peer-to-peer banking, open source project, creative commons licenses and universal basic income. My work needs to be fulfilling and my experiences authentic. And thus I drink crafted beers, and wear my grand-father’s cardigan. This niche hipster world sounds as much as a utopia, as does Anarres.

This is where Shevek's story becomes interesting. In many ways his world sounds desirable, like a solution to be of our society’s ills. Also Anarres is inhabited by humans, just like the ones on our planet. And wether humans are part of a primitive tribe, are my close friends or members of a fictive civilisation they are a social species. They'll get angry, fall in love, feel sad, care for the other but also dominate and be envious towards each other. We can’t help it, we are a social species. And it is exactly this that Le Guin captures so masterfully.

On Anarres where there are no means of control, like a police force, laws to be obeyed or money to be paid. We will still look to others to understand what we have to do. Shevek's also realises this: “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.” It is these walls, the invisible ideology that underlies our reality and behaviour, that make it hard to imagine other realities. During the Occupy Wallstreet everybody was so eloquent in voicing what they didn’t want. What was wrong with our current system. And I agreed with all of it, but I was left wondering: ’so, what do we want then?’ A question with no answer. Slavoj Zizek said: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” Our imagination seems to have less trouble with robotic overlords, alien invasions and climate catastrophe, than how an inclusive and sustainable world could work.

So perhaps an alien world, beyond the convines of terrestrial gravity, can aid our imaginative canvas. Both Earth and Anarres are social worlds where social standing and relations move the behaviours of its inhabitants. Le Guin’s descriptions of Anarres captures many features, we in our time and place in the universe, desire for. On Anarres it starts with the anguage. The word ‘work’ does not really exists, instead they have a word that means something like ‘work/play.’ In an effort to explain to someone on Urras, Shevek explains:

“Here you think that the incentive to work is finances, need for money or desire for profit, but where there’s no money the real motives are clearer, maybe. People like to do things. They like to do them well. People take the dangerous, hard jobs because they take pride in doing them, they can —egoize, we call it—show off?—to the weaker ones. Hey, look, little boys, see how strong I am! You know? A person likes to do what he is good at doing. . . . But really, it is the question of ends and means. After all, work is done for the work’s sake. It is the lasting pleasure of life. The private conscience knows that. And also the social conscience, the opinion of one’s neighbors. There is no other reward, on Anarres, no other law. One’s own pleasure, and the respect of one’s fellows. That is all. When that is so, then you see the opinion of the neighbors becomes a very mightly force.”

When what drives us socially changes, our physical world follows. In the cities on Anarres, unlike ours, the way things are produced is not hidden from how we consume things. The workshops and factories are open to the streets, and from what is made people take what they need, and share if they can. In their cities, as Le Guin describes them: “There were no disguises and no advertisements. It was all there, all the work, all the life of the city, open to the eye and to the hand.” Anarres is not a world where robots liberated humans from labor. It is not a rich green planet like ours. But it does have socio-economics that is based on the idea that there is enough for everyone, and that the primary challenge of the economy is to distribute fairly instead of growing production endlessly. Although Shevek is disappointed to find out that he is not as free in his actions as he thought he was, he is a true believer in the Odonian principles that make live possible on his barren planet. As they say on Anarres: “Human solidarity is our only resource”

So if walls are man-made things. The ones in our cities as much as the ones in our minds, we can imagine other constructions. As societies change, walls crumble, and others can be built. Wondering about other possible realties while gazing at the stars is a good start. And if it’s cloudy, surely Ursula Le Guin can take you there.

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