The notion of freedom is depicted as a foundational ideal in both Edward Bellamy’s and Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopias in their texts Looking Backward and The Dispossessed respectively. It’s presented as unassailable, a cornerstone of the utopian societies of the year 2000’s Boston and the fictional planet of Anarres. However, in both these societies freedom is understood and defined in different ways: while Bellamy’s utopia sees freedom as the right to be free from hunger and want, Le Guin’s Anarres sees freedom as the right to free will. These different delineations of what it means to be truly free create extremely different utopian societies in both these texts: while Bellamy’s utopia has a centralised authority with complete administrative and executive power, Le Guin’s utopia is modelled as an anarchist state with no formal structure of power. The differing definitions of freedom in these societies also raise questions about the different types of freedoms themselves, and the compromises each of them demands. Hence, in this essay, I compare and contrast the divergent ideas of freedom in these utopian societies, and explore what these variations can tell us about the concept of utopia itself. I further question if it is possible to create a seamless utopian society which would demand no compromises of its citizens.
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward presents a communist, utopian society set in the year 2000 in Boston, Massachusetts. In this society, the entire division and regulation of the various forms of labour, industries, and commerce is entrusted to the nation state; for all the citizens believe that individuals are inherently self-serving, and the common interest can be effectively served only by “a single syndicate representing the people” (Bellamy 241): the centre government. This utter concentration and extension of the government’s power is disconcerting and is understandably questioned by the protagonist, Julian West, who believes that a government’s true responsibility is to protect and defend its citizens. On his prompting, the representative of the utopian state, Dr. Leete, explains: “We have no wars now, and our governments no war powers, but in order to protect every citizen against hunger, cold, and nakedness, and provide for all his physical and mental needs, the function is assumed of directing his industry for a term of years” (Bellamy 242). Dr Leete’s response throws light on what this utopia’s citizens believe to be the most important tenet of freedom: the freedom from hunger, cold, and nakedness. Plus, while he uses the word “function” to refer to the control imposed by the government over citizens’ industries, Dr. Leete uses the word “powers” while talking about the government’s role during war times. This difference in word choice suggests that the citizens view the government’s economic tasks more as a laudable responsibility than an opportunity to harness power and influence. The government’s extension of “powers,” hence, is more a necessary taking up of utilitarian responsibilities to efficiently allow their citizens to be free from hunger and cold.
However, in order to provide all its citizens with this particular freedom, the government encroaches upon another kind of freedom: the freedom of free will. In Bellamy’s utopia, the exercise of free will is seen as an absurd and complicated notion. The act of work “is regarded as so absolutely natural and reasonable that the idea of its being compulsory has ceased to be thought of” (Bellamy 244). Hence, it is completely unconceivable to the people here that someone might want to exercise their free will and refuse to work. This contradiction of freedoms renders a complicated utopia in which while people are never hungry and cold; they are also not provided with the space to choose to serve themselves over the community, and derive pleasure from that act. It is, hence, commonly accepted that individualism, “which in your [West’s] day was the animating idea of society, not only was fatal to any vital sentiment of brotherhood and common interest among living men, but equally to any realization of the responsibility of the living for the generation to follow” (Bellamy 272). Here, serving the community is seen akin to serving the self.
Le Guin’s Anarres, on the other hand, depicts a stateless, anarchist utopia. Their society is founded upon the right to exercise their free will unperturbed by the power and influence of any kinds of governments. They have no governments; they only have a singular production and distribution coordinating system (PDC) which oversees the work groups and labour assignments, in which every person is regarded as a replaceable tool whose job is to assure the smooth functioning of the PDC’s ideological apparatus. In Anarres, ideally, while the community is still paramount, the individuals are supposed to retain the freedom to propose individual ideas and execute them; and the only court they are answerable to is that of public opinion. This is drastically different from Bellamy’s utopia in which the notion of individual, novel ideas is a foreign concept. Since their entire society is founded upon an effective regulation of work, Boston’s citizens find that there is no need for new ideas which herald change, and to ever consider “any new laws of consequence” (Bellamy 266) because “the fundamental principles on which our society is founded settle for all time the strifes and misunderstandings which in your day [West’s year – 1887] called for legislation” (Bellamy 266). This exhibits the stagnant nature of Bellamy’s utopia; a quality which is in stark contrast to Anarres’ ideals which posit individual creativity and revolution to be foundational values and, hence, yield unceasing strifes, conflicts, and arguments.
Unlike Bellamy’s utopia, which is founded upon an efficient division of labour and resources, Anarres was born to stay free—people “didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom” (Le Guin 295). This is an important distinction which yields two utterly different utopias. For the people of Anarres, free will is more important than safety, i.e., freedom from “hunger, cold, and nakedness” (Bellamy 242). This yields a utopia in which even when people are ravaged by famines and droughts, the citizens do not turn to the PDC to regulate their resources more efficiently. Instead, they locate the fault in the PDC’s policies itself, and believe that they can achieve their ideal, equal anarchy only through a restructuring of the PDC to further reduce its influence and reattain their freedom. The people of Anarres are disconcerted by any sign of influence or power. In a conversation between Bedap and Shevek, Bedap exclaims:
We have no government, no laws. But as far as I can see, ideas were never controlled by laws and governments, even on Urras. You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you, and prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn’t any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the human mind. Public opinion! (Le Guin 138, emphasis mine)
Anarres has no government—here, a lack of a government is the primary influence which shapes their society. Faced with a crisis, the people of Anarres always turn towards the path of more free will and lesser regulation. Bedap argues that there is no “vested authority” (Le Guin 138) in Anarres. Therefore, the only source of the increasing rot in Anarres’ society is the court of public opinion which, to a large extent, resembles the court of law; and conveniently allows people to suppress new ideas by ignoring them. And hence, he suggests that the court of public opinion, alongside its far reaching power and influence, should be destroyed.
I argue that by suggesting that the citizens of Anarres not place any value in public opinion, Bedap attempts to remove the sole locus of influence within Anarres. However, I question if it is possible to create a utopia with no centre of power; i.e., a completely seamless utopia, with perfect freedom from influences and zero compromises. Consider: Bellamy’s utopia flourishes, and provides its citizens with the freedom from “hunger, cold, and nakedness” (Bellamy 242). However, it chooses to not provide them with the freedom of free will. On the other hand, Anarres chooses to provide its citizens with the freedom of free will, and settles to not privilege the freedom from hunger and cold instead. This yields two very different utopias, with different loci of power. But, if one takes up Bedap’s suggestion and attempts to change Anarres’ society to render public opinion valueless, remove Anarres’ only nexus of influence and refuse to compromise—what would replace it? And if nothing replaces it, what kind of utopian or non-utopian society would that yield?
Both Bellamy and Le Guin depict two very different visions of utopia in their texts. This difference in their societies can be traced to their differing prioritisation of which type of freedom they consider more important. While Bellamy’s utopia holds the freedom from hunger and cold as paramount, the people of Anarres believe that free will is the most important ideal to live by. By reading these texts simultaneously, we can better understand their visions, and further explore the concept of utopia. Bellamy’s utopia presents a flourishing society; but one in which people have no free will. Anarres does the opposite: while people have complete free will, they are cold and starving. This juxtaposition raises questions about which type of freedom matters more, and if freedom always implies happiness—for is happiness the state of being well-fed and warm or the state of intellectual and emotional self-actualisation? It also makes one wonder if a truly seamless and perfect utopia, with no cracks of opportunity costs and compromises, is ever possible.
Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000–1887. 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1888), 126–39, 146–54, 210–19, 224–31, 262–71.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. Gollancz, Orion Publishing Group, Great Britain. 2002.