Harper’s Magazine, “Between Chaos and the Man: How not to become an anarchist”

By Alan Jacobs, November 14, 2022

Discussed in this essay:
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Harper Perennial. 400 pages. $16.99.
The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 704 pages. $35.

I first heard of anarchism around forty-five years ago, as a teenage member of the Science Fiction Book Club. One day the U.S. Postal Service delivered a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Dispossessed, which I read as soon as it arrived and immediately declared my favorite book—even better than Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End or Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey, which had until that moment shared the honor. Then I dug out a moldy volume of our old World Book Encyclopedia and read about the history of anarchism.

My enthusiasm soon—I almost said faded, but that’s not quite right: lacking a point of focus, it diffracted. I retained my enthusiasm but didn’t know where to direct it. I hold Le Guin partly responsible, because she was too intelligent and honest a writer to portray her anarchist society as anything but “an ambiguous utopia,” as a cover blurb of a later edition put it, in a formulation that would eventually become the effective subtitle of the book. Even an anarchist society is made up of human beings, and we all know the warping that inevitably happens when that crooked timber is one’s primary building material. Le Guin made anarchism beautiful but also human—and therefore questionable.

I also came to feel increasingly strongly that I lived in a country dominated by two parties, two parties that could not be dislodged, and that could not be persuaded to take anarchist ideas seriously. Again and again I watched third-party candidates who deviated only slightly from political orthodoxy spring up and then wither away, along with the movements in which they were rooted; what chance, then, did something as bizarre as anarchism have? Anarchism was, I decided, fascinating in science fiction but irrelevant to the world in which I actually lived.

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