Ursula Le Guin and the Persistence of Tragedy: We ought to read The Dispossessed to appreciate complexity—and the imperfection of our theories in the face of life’s messy reality. (brian a. smith, 3/13/20, Law & Liberty)
The Dispossessed provides us no resolutions. For most of the story, Shevek is a man trying to find his way home, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring. That along with the way Le Guin refuses to let the reader see either of her settings with rose-colored glasses suggests one of the novel’s great values today. Reading the book can help readers clarify what their deepest aspirations and longings will really cost.
Those on the Left should ask how much they’re willing to give up in pursuit of equality. Modern socialists often try to harmonize their opposing desires: they think we can have the tremendous wealth of a modern economy alongside deep equality; they want radical, autonomous choice and also the opportunity to enjoy familial and communal solidarity; they want political and religious conformity without a diminution of cultural and artistic ingenuity; and they desire ongoing technological innovation without the dramatic inequality that entrepreneurs and inventors so naturally generate.
Far from being a platform for family to succeed, socialist intervention may well require the ongoing shredding of those bonds for the simple reason that families undermine the broader solidarity real socialism requires.
Socialists—especially Christian ones—now praise immigration as a great moral imperative. What does it suggest that all of the world’s most successful solidarity-driven socialist experiments are small-scale monocultures? Isn’t it telling that Le Guin’s relatively successful socialist scheme on Anarres is a hermetically-sealed unit speaking a common language and sharing a single, tightly-unified culture?
Traditionally-minded conservatives naturally look to old modes and orders for inspiration. This certainly doesn’t mean that they’re averse to creating new ones, but taking Le Guin seriously might force them to ponder some little-considered questions. What does reestablishing moral order really mean, particularly in the context of a national economy? There’s the obvious (banning porn) but what about the not-so-obvious elements of this, like the moral status of the goods and services we buy and sell?
If the new conservative goal is limited to a worker-friendly industrial policy, that’s one thing, but conservatives ought to keep an eye on where the aspiration to live with the right sort of virtuous economy can lead. The barely-concealed aristocratic longings enjoyed among some traditionalists risk making them into the caricatures of conservatism that Corey Robin imagines who simply long to “keep the lower orders down.” It is good to be clear about what we really mean when we ask for a new economy. Just as a growth oriented economy leads us down disruptive paths, we shouldn’t forget that a stable, virtuous pattern for economic activity might necessitate a return to older patters of life.
Insulating us from Utopian thought is one of Western Messianism’s greatest gifts.