Postmodern Anarchism in the Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin

by Lewis Call

The Debate: Critical Awareness of Le Guin’s Anarchism

The Novels: Le Guin’s Postmodern Anarchism

Works Cited

It is easy enough to locate anarchist themes in the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Her frequent critiques of state power, coupled with her rejection of capitalism and her obvious fascination with alternative systems of political economy, are sufficient to place her within the anarchist tradition. She has, from time to time, explicitly embraced that tradition. Le Guin is, among other things, a popularizer of anarchist ideas. The political philosophy of anarchism is largely an intellectual artifact of the nineteenth century, articulated in England by William Godwin, in France by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and in Russia by Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin.

Yet this vibrant intellectual tradition remains largely invisible to ordinary people in the early twenty-first century. By describing anarchist ideas in a way that is simultaneously faithful to the anarchist tradition and accessible to contemporary audiences, Le Guin performs a very valuable service. She rescues anarchism from the cultural ghetto to which it has been consigned. She introduces the anarchist vision to an audience of science fiction readers who might never pick up a volume of Kropotkin. She moves anarchism (ever so slightly) into the mainstream of intellectual discourse.

Yet Le Guin, like many whose anarchist views developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, also seems to recognize that this is not enough. Like classical Marxism, modern anarchism developed within the specific political, economic and intellectual environment of the nineteenth century. In that context, it made perfect sense for anarchists to focus their critical powers upon the twin sources of oppressive power in the age of the Industrial Revolution: capital and the state. By the late twentieth century, however, this traditional anarchism had become dangerously outdated.

During the 1960s in particular, political activists throughout the western world added critiques of ethnic power and gender power to the list of anarchist concerns. In the intellectual world, Michel Foucault identified and criticized the disciplinary power that emerges in schools, hospitals, military barracks, psychiatric clinics and families, while Jean Baudrillard articulated a radical symbolic critique of the semiotic system that dominates the contemporary world.

Meanwhile, Guy Debord and others argued that citizens of the late twentieth century lived in a world dominated by the spectacular mass media, a world in which consumerism has found its way into every aspect of people’s lives, a world in which the traditional forms of political action (and perhaps even the political subjects who might perform such action) have become dangerously fragmented. In such a world, the anarchist critique cannot afford to remain trapped within the modern, industrial mode of thinking. Anarchism must become more flexible, more fluid, more adaptable. In a word, it must become postmodern. Along with Todd May and Saul Newman, I have tried to describe the approximate contours of such a postmodern anarchism (see May, Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism; Newman, From Bakunin to Lacan; and Call, Postmodern Anarchism).


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