Beyond Perfection

The following article is published in the Anarchist Federation’s latest Organise! magazine #81, Winter 2013 whose main theme is ASPECTS OF THE FUTURE SOCIETY. Visit the above link for the full contents which include articles on: Education and Anarchism, Children of the Commune. PLUS: In Defence of Malatesta, The Libertarian Socialist Movement in Egypt, Syria’s Grassroots Civil Opposition… AND MUCH MORE.

Beyond Perfection: What we can learn from science fiction anarchist Utopias

One of the major criticisms levelled at anarchism as a political philosophy is that it is utopian.  Many would argue that this is a misunderstanding of anarchism, that the basis for an anarchist society does not rely on naivety, impracticality or a simplistic and overly positive view of humanity.  I want to argue that this is a misunderstanding of utopianism.  Of course anarchism is utopian.  Anybody who thinks their own ideology is not utopian either hasn’t thought it through properly or, for some reason, wants to live in a society that’s doomed to inequality, misery and eventual self-destruction.  And anybody who thinks utopianism is simplistic, impractical or naive clearly hasn’t read enough utopian fiction.  There are a plethora of distant worlds that can boast anarchist societies as complex, as pragmatic, as inspired and inspiring, as troubled and as troubling as any historical or contemporary earth-bound revolution, and they all have utopian characteristics.

Then again, those critics may have a point when it comes to some of the 19th Century utopias (e.g. William Morris’ News from Nowhere, H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward), but as a science fiction reader I have a greater criticism to level against these than their naivety or even their comically dire gender politics: they’re really dull stories.  Which isn’t to say they aren’t interesting utopias.  As portraits of the utopian ideals of anarchists and socialists of the time, they’re a fascinating insight, and there’s plenty that’s still relevant in their lengthy and technical explanations of the organisation of labour and property.  But in terms of plot, character and a sense of place with more depth and veracity than the stage set for a school pantomime, they pretty much fail.  Take News from Nowhere, the most anarchist of these early utopias: it’s a guided tour of a pre-industrial pastoral idyll, with no nations or borders, no heavy industry or money, all produce shared freely, all objects beautiful and practical works of artisanship, where the words “work” and “play” mean much the same thing.  Fair enough, as holiday brochures go.  I’m sold on the week’s stay, but if I’m looking to take up residence in a utopia I generally want to dig a bit deeper and cast a more cynical eye.  I might ask questions like: “What happens if the harvest fails?”, “What if a natural disaster requires the speedy need for mass-produced tools and shelters?” and “If child-rearing and home-making are such highly respected, rewarding professions, haven’t any of these sexually free and socially emancipated women ever wondered why there aren’t any men doing them?”  There’s something about those unflappably amiable, instant responses the tour guide has to all the protagonist’s questions that suggests a script, or at least a party line, recited by rote and possibly under threat.  You want the protagonist to, just once, say something like: “I don’t buy it, beardy.  It’s too perfect, and the ‘work is play’ crap sounds distinctly Orwellian to me.  Put down the exquisitely carved pipe and tell me where they’re hiding the gulags.”

This might be a little unfair.  News from Nowhere was written to explain how an anarchist society can be productive and stable in the conditions of the time and place it was written, not to explore its responses when faced with environmental crisis or massive social change.  But you’ve got to admit, answering those questions would make it a much more interesting novel.  The utopias that really capture our imaginations are those that are less concerned with the solutions an anarchist society can offer than the problems it might face.

If you’re wondering whether a story exploring problems within an anarchist society is really a utopia, let’s do definitions.  The word “Utopia”, coined by Thomas More, comes from a pun on the Greek for “no place” and “good place”.  So really, the essential qualities of a utopia are just that there’s something desirable about the society, and that it doesn’t exist.  Anybody who thinks that establishing a better society will instantly bring blissful contentment to all is destined to spend the revolution forcibly re-educating dissenters (and until then, they’ll probably be selling you The Socialist Worker).  A utopia doesn’t have to be a flawless place, where day to day problems are entirely eliminated.  It’s about demonstrating an alternative and preferable way of living.  You can do that with a guided tour of a perfect society, but it’s more interesting and more persuasive to show how that society deals with imperfection and conflict, both from within and without.

Iain M. Banks sets his Culture novels in a context that gives his advanced anarchist society something to kick against, namely a universe full of distinctly less utopian societies.  The Culture is post-scarcity, high-tech, wish-fulfilment utopianism at its most decadent.  Resources are near infinite, labour is unnecessary, and infallible sentient computers (the Minds) with a wry sense of humour and impeccable ethical judgement ensure the smooth running of all environments.  The enhanced humanoid residents of The Culture’s many worlds have nothing to fill their near-immortal existences except for games, sex, drugs, the pursuit of intellectual and creative fulfilment, and interference in the development of other societies.  This last is the job of an organisation known as Contact, a popular career choice with those who remain strangely unsatisfied by the literally limitless opportunities The Culture has to offer, and take to the stars to see and ultimately save less fortunate worlds.  These are the most interesting characters, as their stories tell us most about The Culture itself, and about our own ambivalence towards utopianism.  We fear and mistrust perfection even as we strive for it, because it will ultimately leave us with nothing to strive for, no jeopardy to brave, no cause to defend, no meaning to our existence.  The Culture, like Nowhere, is a static society, but unlike Morris’ utopia it isn’t merely holding itself in place with a distaste for further development, it has reached the peak of its possibilities – of all possibilities – and has nowhere to go.  This is the problem that leads to the restlessness of those who join Contact, and who then struggle with the ethical dilemma of what they do, of whether the worlds they visit even want to be saved, of whether they are, in fact, saving them or dooming them to their own state of existential stasis.  It would all be quite angsty if it weren’t for the humour of the Minds, who inhabit armed spaceships that can be as large as planets and give themselves names like Prosthetic Conscience, Of Course I Still Love You, You’ll Thank Me Later, Jaundiced Outlook, Frank Exchange Of Views, Honest Mistake, Zero Gravitas and God Told Me To Do It.

Don’t be fooled by the presence of warships and conflict into thinking this is a trick utopia.  There are no false walls here, and the Minds are not secretly megalomaniacal controllers who keep humanity enslaved in luxury for their own ends.  They are, themselves, complex and sympathetic (if somewhat ineffable) characters, as caught up in the ethical dilemmas of utopian life as their human companions.  While some of them can be manipulative, they seem to be genuinely trying not to be, though they’re so much more intelligent and aware of action and consequence than their organic friends they can hardly help it.  The point of this anarchist utopia is not that there’s some ignored power relation at work that compromises its integrity, or even that you can have too much of a good thing.  It’s a more subtle and complex message about inertia and entropy, of the nature of power and privilege, and the need for change and development, personal and societal, even in the face of seeming perfection.

At the other end of the scale is Anarres, a scarcity society set on a near-desert moon in Ursula Le Guin’s universe of the Ekumen.  It is most fully explored in The Dispossessed, which is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia”.  Anarres is neither the simple idyll of Morris’ Nowhere nor the paradise of Banks’ Culture.  An isolated community, self-exiled from its capitalist neighbour Urras, the Anarresti have built their utopia in far from ideal conditions.  This anarchist society suffers famines, labour shortages and social upheavals, and has plenty of technological development still to strive for.  Because we see Shevek both growing up on Anarres and explaining his homeworld to those he meets on Urras, there are some good, clear demonstrations of how labour, property, security, family and institutional decision-making work in a world without money or leaders.  There are easy parallels to draw with our own world’s revolutions and the founding of Anarres, which reflects the society many Russian revolutionaries envisaged, and might have built if they weren’t trapped in the context of a capitalist economy.  Even the language and names sound a little bit Russian.  It’s a great utopia for showing how anarchism can build a society as stable as any other system, but also how isolation and ideological orthodoxy breed stagnation, and the importance of revolution as a social value, not a one-off event or a means to an end.

For all these reasons, The Dispossessed tends to be the go-to utopian novel for anarchists trying to explain to the cynical how a society without money or authority could actually work.  We see a society in which children are taught from the earliest age that they can’t keep possessions to themselves (though there’s little for them to keep) but are free to do as they choose (and there’s much for them to do.)  They learn together through play and discussion, and education continues into adulthood through self-directed research.  Work is not compulsory and resources are not rationed, but contribution to the community and distaste for excessive consumption are strong social values.  Personal freedom and social duty exist in a balance that is, for the most part, healthy, rational and fulfilling, but this can change with a bad harvest.  The story follows Shevek’s career as a physicist whose momentous discovery could affect all the known worlds of the Ekumen.  His desire to follow anarchist principles, to avoid propertarianism and unbuild walls, leads him to Urras, which looks a lot like contemporary western democracy (except for those countries that look a lot like contemporary state communism).  On Anarres, Shevek battles environmental and social upheavals, informal power structures and the appropriation and censorship of ideas, and yet the anarchist society still manages to come out favourably in comparison with Urras, in which the power structures are even less clear to Shevek, and a great deal more dangerous.  Protest and defiance of convention meets with violence on both worlds, but ultimately both have the possibility of revolution, of growth and change, and hope for the future.

Nobody does alternative societies better than Le Guin, and she has created a few besides Anarres that could be viewed as ambiguously anarchist, and more ambiguously utopian.  They tend to get less attention than Anarres, probably because they’re less useful for anarchists having arguments.  They’re interesting, though, for more subtle discussions of anarchist society and utopianism, ones that explore not the society that anarchists would necessarily wish to build but the many varieties of anarchist society that are possible, the many ways in which human societies could reject hierarchy.  One of the most acclaimed is Always Coming Home, but though there is no particular hierarchy of individuals in the societies of the Kesh, there are a great many customs that dictate social status of various kinds, and the reliance on the spiritual and the rejection of technology (aside from some sort of internet that they don’t use much) sends it into a static state.  In this way it would resemble News from Nowhere if it weren’t for its much more sophisticated investigation of cultural differences and interactions, and its acknowledgement of various forms of conflict, both personal and societal. 

More unusual, and less frequently explored, is the world of Eleven-Soro in the short story Solitude, a world in which a post-cataclysm society has developed social arrangements that go to extreme lengths to guard against the mistakes of the past.  Any exercise of power by one person over another is taboo, referred to as “magic”.  This includes any attempt to manipulate another’s behaviour, to make them feel guilty or duty-bound to follow a course of action for another’s sake.  The men live alone and the women in circles of houses known as “auntrings”, where they educate each other’s children but do not enter one another’s homes and rarely speak to other adult women without good cause, in what seems to be the ultimate expression of anarchist individualism.  Nobody asks for or offers help with any task, though women are watchful of one another’s health, send their children with food to the sick and assist each other in childbirth.  Only children can ask questions or be taught anything.  No adult tells another what to do, or even offers advice except in the most roundabout of ways and the direst of circumstances.  Looked at as a society, Eleven-Soro is brutally dystopian (especially for men), but individuals within it can find a kind of utopia that is achieved through the fulfilment of total self-awareness, becoming “a self sufficient to itself”, and in many ways the lives of the Sorovians are rich and happy beyond imagining.  It is a strange, sad, beautiful story that consistently challenges gut responses and judgements on the nature of power and community.  I highly recommend giving it a read, not as a model for an anarchist society but as a challenge to some of our ideas on interpersonal relationships and social duty.

So which of these societies, if any, comes closest to what we as anarcho-communists aim for?  For me, any society claiming utopian status has to be convincingly resilient; show that it’s not going to crumble at the first sign of change or challenge; that its systems are robust enough to undergo cultural, ecological and technological developments without compromising its ideological foundation.  Static societies are neither believable nor desirable.  Who wants to live in a world where nothing ever changes?

This is the mistake many make about utopianism and about revolution.  They think it means embodying an ideal within society and then trying to hold back the tide of human fallibility and outside influence to preserve that moment of perfection.  No wonder so many people think it’s a completely unrealistic perspective.  That kind of utopianism is not what we strive for, either in life or science fiction.  I read utopias and work towards anarchist communism not because I believe in a perfect world but because I believe in a better world.  The most inspiring and persuasive utopias are the ones that, like Anarres, don’t just ask, “Where do we want to be?” or even “How will be get there?” but “Where will we go next?”  That’s something important for science fiction writers and activists alike to remember.  Revolution is not an event but a process, and utopia is a journey, not a destination.

Organise! magazine #81, Winter 2013.