As I periodically do, I reread Ursala LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. It’s the kind of book that is essential, that keeps one alive.
It is a mystery to me, however, that this book is not at this moment more widely read and discussed. We live in a new Age of Anarchy–that is, in a time when very many people consider anarchism a viable and important political philosophy. And, there is an anti-theoretical turn that many activists have so deep in their character that a disgust towards, say, Marxism is nearly spinal. In such a time, one might expect the greatest science fiction novel of anarchism to have a renaissance. Instead, our age remains the age of Katniss.
The disturbing thing about The Hunger Games, the thing which should most troubles us about this fantasy of children killing each other, is its deep and irrevocable anti-politicism. Ethics asks, How should one live? Or so Plato phrases the question (with that very ambiguity between one’s self and one’s group), and he rightly observes that no question could be more important. But politics is just a version of that question. Politics is that discipline that asks, How shall we live together? And if there is no more important discipline than ethics, then there is no more important part of ethics than political philosophy. Its answers are essential to human being and human flourishing. We are social animals, without society we are nothing, and thus we cannot escape the responsibility to answer social questions, to solve social problems. But Katniss is a child of Margaret Thatcher: for her, society is a fiction. There are only individuals–individuals who compete in an arena instead of in a market.
(Is it pedantic to state the hidden obvious? Or is it a sign of despair that I might think it necessary? In either case: Such a view is explicitly contradictory, of course. It is like saying, “There is no language” or “I don’t exist.” It is contradictory for a person to sit in an interview, as Thatcher did, talking in a shared language, while obeying the implicit rules of the press, with the aim of influencing the reading audience, and say, “There is no such thing as society.” Yes, yes, Thatcher went on to talk about the “living tapestry,” but of course that is what everyone means by “society.” So at best it was a cheap trick: to try to define “society” as meaning nothing more than the dole. Such is neoliberalism: it has so colonized our minds that we do not see its violent contradictions, or its cheap tricks of semantics.)
Look at these Hunger Games books. Find me a single place where Katniss asks, what kind of society should we strive for? It never happens. She has only personal goals. She wants to be left alone and to get the boy and protect her sister and so on. (Of course, her readers want her to get more fame, though she pretends she doesn’t. Fame is the only currency in this book. Purpose and public discourse are replaced with anomistic fame. Bizarrely, the whole civilization hangs on fame–whoever gets Katniss to endorse them wins the war, because here only fame sways the world.) Katniss never asks, What about everyone else? How can we best live together? What kind of society should we strive for? Instead, the sole moment of political reflection is a statement of nihilistic complacency, coming near the end of the sprawling trilogy:
“If we win, who would be in charge of the government?” Gale asks.
“Everyone,” Plutarch tells him. “We’re going to form a republic where the people of each district and the Capitol can elect their own representatives to be their voice in a centralized government. Don’t look so suspicious; it’s worked before.”
“In books,” Haymitch mutters.
“In history books,” says Plutarch. “And if our ancestors could do it, then we can, too.”
Frankly, our ancestors don’t seem much to brag about. I mean, look at the sate they left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly, they didn’t care about what would happen to the people who came after them. But this republic idea sounds like an improvement over our current government.
She and her peers are just more disillusioned and bitter American voters, using “politics” as a synonym for dishonesty and not realizing that they dis-empower themselves with this very act of semantic spite.
Shevek, the anarchist physicists who is the protagonist of The Dispossessed, would be disgusted. He knows that society is as real as stars and planets. He knows his responsibilities are as genuine a demand as the pull of gravity or magnetism. He knows he must listen to and learn about those around him. And he knows he must have well-considered values, before he can act responsibly. For him, physics and political philosophy are inseparable: they are both deep searches for genuine truths.
A few Sheveks would make the world of the Hunger Games impossible. The Arena would be shut down. The wealth would be shared among all. Isn’t that far, far more impressive than being good at killing other children?