Ursula K. Le Guin, now over eighty, looks even more like someone who could turn you into a newt. With her was Margaret Killjoy (who, much to my surprise, was a dude) the founder of Steampunk Magazine. The two were sharing the stage at Powell’s to talk about anarchism in science fiction, and even though I’m far away from being an anarchist, the intersection of politics and SF has always been near and dear to my heart.
The room was full of people in boots and black jackets, and honestly I didn’t look all that out of place, considering. Le Guin read briefly from The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home, only the first which I’d read. Even now she’s still charismatic, and seems immensely comfortable in front of a crowd. The passage she read from The Dispossessed highlighted a character’s dismay this his formerly anarcho-utopian society had reverted to capitalism. I wondered to myself how much of a real difference there was between anarchy and an unrestrained marketplace and thought, not much, really.
Killjoy was actually and extremely engaging speaker. Very funny, very active, and utterly confident. I’ll confess that I found him charming, even as I found him hopelessly naive. He named various writers who, at one time or another, expressed an affiliation with anarachism and waxed rhapsodic on the joys of statelessness. I was not convinced. I don’t find any utopian vision all that convincing, really.
More cynically, I wondered how many of the audience hadn’t even bothered to read a single word of political theory, and just liked wearing black and the idea of disorder. Quite a few, probably.
Utopias always remind me of a particular episode of South Park, wherein a crowd of hippies decide that they are going to create a new model of living. “We’ll have one guy who like, makes bread. And one guy who, like, looks out for other people’s safety.”
“Like a baker and a cop?” says one of the children.
“No no, can’t you imagine a place where people live together and like, provide services for each other in exchange for their services?”
“Yeah, it’s called a town,” says one of the children.
I have my own issues with Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s politics, but in this instance they’re spot-on. Utopias reimagine what already exists, but with a certain kind of simplicity and straightforward innocence replacing complexity.
Now, don’t get me wrong- the reason that renouncing anarchism is difficult for me is that there’s a lot about it that is appealing. I do think that self sufficiency has a lot of merit, and there are plenty of things that the government should stay out of. When it comes to social issues I’m more or less a libertarian. But, there are certain things, like public education and urban planning, that I’m unwilling to do without. When I look at my beautiful hometown of Portland, OR, when I ride its bike lanes and zoom among its multi-use buildings, I know I’m experiencing the benefits of a government that has done something very, very right. Anarchism seems to rail against militarism and oppression, but fails to realize that smashing the state means getting rid of the bike lanes. That’s just unacceptable.
Bringing down civilization doesn’t appeal to me. I love civilization, despite all of its very real problems. When I think of an ideal world, I don’t think of anarcho-syncadalist communes. I don’t imagine bucolic local communities. My ideal world has high-speed rails connecting continents like iron spider webs, megalopopli teeming with urban populations. I imagine cures for cancer that everyone has access to and nicely funded educational systems. Does that mean that some people are going to have jobs they don’t like and taxes they don’t want to pay? Absolutely- and I have no problem with that. When I think of my ideal world, I don’t imagine a cessation of suffering.
But, despite that, I still look forward to the future, and I know that a utopian ideology, any kind of utopian ideology, cannot deliver it.