Warning: The following text is a discussion of the film Black Panther. It contains several spoilers for the film, so if the reader is yet to see it, they are urged to do so before reading on. The author is a white male residing in London and is not familiar with Igbo, Xhosa, nor Shona, which form part of the composite languages used in the film.
The purpose of this text is to analyse the political subtexts contained within the film Black Panther. Its genesis was in the course of a debate held between the author and two friends originally from Zimbabwe who held a different perspective on the merits of Killmonger. The author wishes to posthumously exonerate Killmonger, one of the most sympathetic villains seen on screen (possibly exceeded by the “carpetbaggers” depicted in “Gone With the Wind” or “Birth of a Nation”). In the context of Marvel films, the Vulture as rendered by Michael Keaton in Spiderman: Homecoming is resoundingly trounced as a memorable foil to the protagonist. The Vulture varies between lackadaisical and conniving, conforming to the strictures of what Hollywood anticipates a unionised worker to be. This reading of the character of Killmonger is taken solely from the films, Killmonger as depicted in comics appears to have had a quite distinct origin story and motivation.
It will be beneficial to delineate some characters discussed within. The eponymous character, “Black Panther”, or “T’Challa” was portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. The character was first introduced in the Marvel cinematic universe in “Captain America: Civil War”. Boseman’s love interest “Nakia” was played by Lupita Nyong’o, the chief of his personal security (the “Dora Milaje”), “Okoye” is played by Danai Gurira, the chief of the Border Tribe, “W’Kabi”, was played by Daniel Kaluuya, “M’Baku” (in the comics, “Man-Ape”, helpfully excised as a title), Black Panther’s initial rival for rulership of Wakanda, is played by Winston Duke, his initial target for reprisal for the killing of the former ruler of Wakanda, “W’Kabi”, “Ulysses Klaue” was played by Andy Serkis, a CIA agent interloper, “Everett K. Ross”, was played by Martin Freeman, Letitia Wright played the Black Panther’s sister, “Shuri” and Michael B. Jordan portrayed the Black Panther’s eventual antagonist, “Erik Stevens” (Killmonger). Nabiyah Be also had brief, though captivating, appearances as Erik’s partner in crime.
Before launching into the political reading of the film, a few acknowledgements can be made. The film veers clear of being propaganda for the prevailing order. It is an entrancing tale, carefully woven, incorporating idyllic pastoral scenes along with technological colossi in a panorama encapsulating the pinnacle of African society. The spectacle is beautiful and appealing to a global audience. However, even in the most innocuous scenes, ideology creeps in at the periphery. Early in the film, in a discussion with Nakia, T’Challa stops outside of a city market – we’ve established that what’s described as the most advanced civilisation on the planet relies internally on trade. The economy of Wakanda appears to be based on a combination of agricultural cultivation, artisinal handicraft and technology which would appear to be the fruition of an accelerationist’s fantasy. The necessity of exploitation seems to be elided with the plot device of “vibranium”, which powers and enables the automation of the complex emergent society (without eliminating the presence of a “merchant” tribe, unfortunately). A market unaccompanied by shanties and unharangued by state forces seems to approximate a synopsis for the society. Internal dissent seems limited to the Jabari, the mountain tribe led by M’Baku. The Jabari can be interpreted as the “anti-civilisational” dissident faction who disapprove of the current technological direction of the leadership.
Gender is handled carefully within the film. There are impressive components, with the Dora Milaje, modelled in part on the Amazons of Dahomey (described by Walter Rodney in “The Underdevelopment of Africa” and elsewhere), being remarkably competent fighters. Nakia is portrayed as being a potential combatant in the trial by combat to determine the ruler of Wakanda and a stalwart figure throughout. Shuri is depicted as being instrumental in the development of several technical elements of contemporary society, including their transport system – in contemporary society black individuals are among the most under-represented in fields such as engineering and computer science (and Letitia accomplishes this with levity, flourishing a gesture befitting Proverbs 6:13). However, there are unexamined aspects of Wakandan society which are fairly repressive – tribal succession replicates hereditary monarchy based on male primogeniture, with precedence given to an adult male heir rather than to a surviving wife (most likely due to the tradition of trial by combat). In the opening narrative, such a tradition appears to receive its sanction from an ancient God – a deo Rex, a Rege lex. The Jabari tribe is portrayed as predominantly patriarchal. Most tribes have active participation from women, but the Jabari emerge as a solidly masculine bloc to challenge T’Challa for succession to the throne. Winston Duke does provide a masterful performance as M’Baku for the brief screen time he’s allotted, transforming from languor to ferocity with alarming alacrity and providing the audience’s biggest laugh during a bathetic moment involving T’Challa’s family imploring M’Baku’s aid.
Part of the strength of the film is how it provides a chimaerical version of a culture melding many different African predecessors, particularly evident in the luxurious tableaux of costumes on display. Inspirations range from the lip plugs of the Mursi people of Ethiopia (neatly transposed against a suit) to apparel which could have been derived from the complex masquerades of Nigeria and Sierra Leone or traditional kente cloth. Perhaps one of the detractions of the film is that the disparate tribes are given scant attention, plenaries are dominated by the decisions of T’Challa and later Killmonger – their contribution to Wakandan society appears to be primarily aesthetic rather than material.
One of the most striking visual elements of the film is during the dream sequences where T’Challa and then Killmonger are transported into an afterworld to confront their ancestors. The sky in both instances takes on an ethereal and suitably regal purple tinge as the dreamer becomes appropriately illuminated. Another motif which worked well was the recurring use of drums in the film’s soundtrack, reminiscent of the use of bamboo flute throughout Kurosawa’s oeuvre. It was, however, disappointing not to encounter Run the Jewels after they were tantalisingly featured in the trailer for the film.
The gist of the argument must be prefaced once more: Killmonger is a blemished character, to put it mildly. Jordan inhabits the role with suavity and panache, with a suffusion of menace when required. Several of the actions he takes are unconscionable and would necessitate resistance if encountered in reality. With that said, Killmonger could be described as a better ruler than T’Challa and perhaps more in accordance with the platform of the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party had its genesis at approximately the same time as the comic character, leading to the Black Panther briefly being reintroduced as “the Black Leopard” in 1971 with explicit reference to avoiding confusion with the political group. The Black Panther Party’s expanded a point in their ten in their ten point program regarding police brutality and murder (unfortunately still searingly relevant), clarifying that they believe all black people should arm themselves for self-defence. Killmonger merely transcends such a notion by organising a secret society to instantiate an armed insurrection (in a slightly more authoritarian model than Bakunin’s invisible dictatorship). Killmonger elaborates that the insurrection will involve the killing of the children of the leaders of extant states, a position which is fairly indefensible – though Trump promulgated the notion, stating in 2015 that family members of “terrorists” should be killed. Such an approach was a facet of revolutions like the Soviet, as happened with the Romanovs – it was also narrowly avoided in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, where Henry the 4th was spared.
Killmonger chooses to assert his dominance once inaugurated as ruler by threatening the cultivator of the grove and bestower of his ceremonial necklace, choking her by the throat. Another way in which Killmonger is demarcated as odious is in his despatching of his working class partner, Linda – after she took part in his Bonnotist escapades with aplomb – merely to more swiftly eliminate Klaue. Klaue in turn is presented staidly, with the writers conjuring a relict of a former colonial administrator without the overtness of Ellis from Burmese Days. There’s a certain subtlety to the intimation that he’s the same “speed” as Ross (it’s caught on the edge of a remark). Few tears were shed when he met his violent end, enabling Killmonger’s accession to the sanctum of Wakanda. One jarring omission on behalf of the writers is the treatment of Killmonger’s past as a participant (in the Joint Special Operations Command) in the Iraqi and Afghani war. Each of these terrains was assuredly as integral to the US imperial project as any CIA objective and combat is still being prosecuted in both countries in order to discipline recalcitrant parties. Yet this revelation is presented as part of the fabric which qualifies him to be a worthy ruler.
Still, despite the apparent flaws, the actor Chadwick Boseman claims he identifies more with Killmonger. The two leaders of Wakandan society enact similar compromises. Neither hesitates to kill nor maim where necessary to accomplish their aims. T’Challa does not fundamentally alter Wakandan traditional practice, whereas Killmonger institutes reforms which would eliminate combative ritual and also make the society more internationalist. T’Challa is willing to collaborate with the CIA, whereas Killmonger would prefer to execute malefactors. The distinction Boseman admires about Killmonger is that he experienced what life would be like for an actual black person in the US living in Oakland, rather than someone living in a life of isolated privilege like T’Challa. Killmonger’s story arc is fanciful, but disbelief can be suspended. As mentioned above, black individuals are presently under-represented in fields such as engineering and furthermore, MIT has a lower black student body rate than US society generally and black graduation rates are lower than other demographics (being raised with one parent dead would put Killmonger at a further disadvantage). With that said, education and lifespan outcomes are amongst the best for black US veterans than for almost any other profession. Black male lifespan in the US in general, despite being substantially lower than that of white males, would still starkly contrast with that of Chad or the Central African Republic which is about 20 years lower – these countries may be prospective neighbours of Wakanda, which cements concerns discussed below.
The central political allegory in the film is a dispute between a form of largely illusory “splendid isolationism” (which perhaps saw some fruition in the administration of Grover Cleveland) and neo-conservative interventionism. These are the two acceptable positions in US discourse, while Nakia’s liberal orientation and Killmonger’s revolutionary authoritarian approach to egalitarianism represent positions which may be comprehended and ultimately discarded. Ta-Nehesi Coates - firmly operating within the framework issued above - wrote two instalments of the Black Panther series, though neither arc appears to be adapted for this film. One exchange in the film contains a microcosm of the entire debate. In a discussion regarding the role of Wakanda, W’Kabi is urging T’Challa to expand to “assist” the populations bordering them, with an implication that Wakanda would be heavily involved in determining their fate – part of an extension of a doctrine which appeared in its most recent guise as “compassionate conservatism”, but could be divined in Hamilton’s assertion that “vacant Western territory” is “common Property of the union” in an essay concerning dissension between states, a claim which could only be countenanced given an earlier campaign of extirpation of the native population by the original occupying force in the region. T’Challa implores W’Kabi to focus instead on the border, arguing that Wakanda would be unable to function with a sudden influx of outsiders, which would leave Wakanda vulnerable to destabilisation – this statement could have earned plaudits from groups as ideologically diverse as the National Policy Institute or the Molinari Institute. “Refugees bring their problems with them” can also only be interpreted as an overt nod to Trump’s nationalistic campaign. With that said, it’s clearly part of the ineluctable logic of nationalism, where individuals are granted rights as a citizen of a particular country in an attempt to preserve conditions prevailing in a particular region. The ordering of the affairs of a particular group of people manifests in present society in the state, formerly such affairs could be managed at the level of the city or commune.
Nations are omnipresent in present society, with rates of exploitation varying from region to region as capital strains to normalise those relationships. Yet, such a trend merely represents one possible method of ordering human affairs. An alteration in the mode of production whereby all are invited to determine the goods produced and their allocation could render the paradigm obsolete, as conditions would be similar globally – all would be involved in the production process as their capacity allowed and distribution would be primarily aimed at need. Quite apart from the fact that depicting a socialist utopia could perhaps be contrary to the interests of the producers of the film (after all, they are investing their capital in an attempt to make a profit), this may violate one of the precepts of orthodox Marxism, that socialism is not possible in one country. Voluntary interactions between groups not basing themselves on the principle of need must then take the form of equivalent exchange, which is mediated by currency and alienation can insinuate itself (in apparently voluntary relationships of exploitation of those without capital by those with it). With that said, the necessity of global revolution was based on the interdependence of the national economies following rapid liberalisation and industrialisation. Different economic forms coexisted with the rise of liberal capitalism, including feudalism (with slavery persisting in several countries, including India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan) and in some cases what Engels termed “primitive communism”. Wakanda appears to be self-sufficient. Tristan da Cunha formed a society without any formal rulers for a prolonged period of time – so a model for a Wakanda without rent seeking and without preserving the notion of “comparative advantage” already exists.
An addendum to the above is whether Nakia’s “noblesse oblige” represents a break from the poles of neo-conservatism or isolationism. The domestic practice of liberalism is often obfuscation – in the terms of Adam Smith, the government is to set no restrictions on popular entertainments, as a distracted populace is a content one. As phrased by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a population where individuals are working is one where people will not participate in terrorism (and their horizon beyond work should be constrained to consumption). In practice, “liberal” intervention as experienced by those liberated is often experienced as indistinguishable of that from “conservative” intervention. From Operation Polar Bear to Operation Infinite Reach or from Operation Gothic Serpent to Operation Noble Anvil (supported by Bernie Sanders and resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians), it would not be likely for someone subject to such a campaign to scrutinise the motivator for the campaign. However, as portrayed, Nakia does diverge quite markedly from current imperial powers and their allies such as the US or the UK in her refusal to engage with child soldiers. The UK apparently deployed 22 soldiers under the age of 18 to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2010, refusing to endorse the Optional Protocol on the Rights of Children in Armed Conflict. The US likewise appears to have little compunction with child casualties, with Nawar al-Awlaki being one recent example in a litany of other children experiencing “manifest destiny” (her brother, Abdulrahman, was killed at age 16 in an attack ordered by the previous administration). It may be worth querying whether legitimate disinterested intervention into the affairs of other countries can occur – there are a few recent precedents, none of which are incontestable. One civic example would be the TAZARA (or Uhuru) railway running from Tanzania to Zambia and funded by a grant from China. China was, of course, wishing to extend its influence in the region and desirous of other examples of successful examples of resistance to colonialism, but without a financial quid pro quo. China under Xi Jinping is more pragmatic, proferring a $4b loan to fund a Kenyan railway. A potential military example would be Vietnamese involvement in Cambodia after Democratic Kampuchea descended into depravity, though this would be accompanied by their own concerns for stability. Pitcairn Island exemplified a case of intervention with no discernible cupidity motivating it, as the UK government ended the sovereignty of the inhabitants after discovering systemic child sexual abuse occurring there.
What of the central tenet of Killmonger’s program – namely, the arming of oppressed groups throughout the world? One initial objection a Zimbabwean friend brought up is that it proposed an unnecessary racial demarcation which didn’t take into account class position – there are plenty of black people integrated into the bourgeoisie in societies which otherwise thrive on white supremacy. Killmonger at one point refers to “two billion people who look like us”, but elsewhere notesthe origin of human life in Africa (“aren’t all people our people?”), claiming their program would encompass all oppressed people. While there do appear to be internal contradictions, the wider aspect is reinforced by the fact that one of the destinations for the weapons caches was Hong Kong, which has a notably low proportion of black inhabitants (<%1) in comparison to the US (>%10). This was likely a reference to Dr. Strange’s portals of world influence, but it does undermine the notion of a limited scope of potential for Killmonger’s quest. The more perverse trope is the echo of his father’s claim, after an apt comment about the black population being over-incarcerated that they need to be “ruled the right way”, with Killmonger stating that the “sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire”. This seems to belie the way in which territory is acquired by existing empires. While there is some component of embedded units and complicit natives, it is very rare to successfully instantiate an insurrection while preserving loyalty. It may be a tactic employed by irredentists with contiguous borders for the territory they seek to obtain, or even in the case of Texas, by intentional demographic shifts. Much more common is the practice of overwhelming military devastation using foreign troops and the establishment of colonies, which did not appear to be a facet of Killmonger’s strategy.
Castigating Killmonger for arming the oppressed on the part of the US would be rank hypocrisy. The United States was a country founded on a revolution (arguably sparked by colonial authorities’ extrajudicial killing of Crispus Attucks), with a Bill of Rights enshrining the right to bear arms and a declaration of independence proclaiming that a people may abolish a government destructive of the rights of said people. Slaves in Haiti under the generalship of Toussaint Louveture extended the scope of revolutionary possibility to a far greater extent, overthrowing their former colonial masters and inspiring similar transformations throughout South America. Such an action inspired trepidation in the formerly quiescent United States, with Jefferson instantiating an end to the supply of arms to Haiti and subsequent administrations initiating an embargo against the country, in order to stave off the threat of a similar occurrence in United States. This ought to be viewed as a manifestation of white supremacism, as the federalist papers record principled non-intervention in a Netherlands convulsed by its own internal discord (though this may have also been influenced by more practical obstacles), a meta-awareness that Republics practising commerce may go to war with one another and a knowledge that provisions for standing armies provoke neighbours to inaugurate the same. These would all be sufficient grounding to convince the US to “tend to its own garden” rather than aggressively pursue expansion, yet this was not to transpire. Attempts to stave off slave rebellions were mostly successful, as the slave-holders rebellion did not occur until over half a century later. The cause of abolition was hastened by actions like those taken by John Brown and its eventual formal success was only guaranteed by formidable military action.
The US, apart from its own history of successful revolution, also actively supplies arms, materiel and training to groups it considers worthy. This, perhaps, also forms the biggest detraction of any attempt to merely arm the populace without also instantiating a program (or the “spiritual revolution” Gerald Cohen discussed). In many cases, the groups the US arms can only be considered “oppressed” in the most tenuous of senses. For instance, the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense of the Contrarrevolución was formed of business elites and guards of the former dictator of Nicaragua and were held to be worthy of $19m in US military aid. Various mujahideen groups received several hundred million dollars of support from the US in an attempt to depose the Soviet friendly Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The US supported UNITA in Angola, a formerly Maoist oriented force. The US has also provided material support to Kurdish groups operating in Syria, including the YPG. This presents somewhat of a conundrum to someone committed to establishing a global egalitarian society. While US intervention for the most part appears to have been primarily only to the advantage of a section of the bourgeoisie in the US and their clients in subject countries, similarly oppressed groups could instigate and carry out programs completely orthogonal to the establishment of a desirable society. Many conflicts can be traced back to colonial administration and the granting of privileges to client groups – directly in the case of the Dutch priyayi in Indonesia or even more drastically with Tutsis in Rwanda. Others may have been exacerbated by colonialism, but it’s difficult to negotiate a settlement which would reconcile the competing desires present in Balochistani, Bangladeshi, Biafran, Khalistani and Tamil independence movements for example. This would also refute a hypothesis sketched by George Jackson in his notes from Soledad – that the European is by nature inherently aggressive and seeking to dominate others (a position shared by Thorstein Veblen). While much of European culture is martial and reverence for the troops is amplified to a great degree in the United States, such a view is incompatible with history and with a material analysis of the world. Assuming all people to have similar capacities which respond differently in different circumstances, it is clear that certain positions in society reward aggression and subjugation to a greater degree. The US is essentially required by reason of its great wealth to marshal the rest of the world and segregate its citizenry from all others. The present states were formed as a result of imperial expansion – one of the most pre-eminent rulers in the world in terms of base acquisition was Musa I, who presided over the Malian Empire. The Han Chinese empire formed independently of colonial aggression from Europeans. Cetshwayo, the leader of the Zulu resisting British aggression, killed five of his brothers in internecine warfare, followed by his mother and subsequently killed followers showing insufficient grief at her funeral. Suleiman Zobeir, rebelling against the colonial government of Britain in Sudan, was inspired to battle by the suppression of slave trading in the region. One way Killmonger may have resolved these contradictions would be to make reference to exploitation rather than oppression – waged employment, renting and domestic duties are far more universal in their scope and much clearer delineations. Heuristics would still need to be used, as the exploited can behave oppressively – in spheres related to privileges they hold, in isolated interpersonal relationships and in contemporary society, by acceding to the ranks of the bourgeoisie (or being lackeys for them, like Human Resources members and bailiffs). Bakunin held the lumpenproletariat, who may not necessarily be exploited, to be the most revolutionary force.
Another stickling point in the prospects for global revolution is the instance of Algeria as documented by Franz Fanon in “A Dying Colonialism”. Algeria accomplished “self-determination” of sorts by throwing off its colonial masters, without resolving internal contradictions. These finally manifested in a military coup following the election of an Islamic party and a civil war claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people. Incidentally, one of the prime exponents of the torture of native Algerians, Paul Aussaresses, would later instruct students in the School of the Americas on interrogation and torture, tactics later implemented in the CIA Phoenix Program against the Vietnamese. The CIA would also allocate $100k for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, but were ultimately beaten to it by Belgian operatives. The profound turpitude of the CIA’s involvement in regime change in former colonies juxtaposed against the scene of Ross shooting down a weapons cache aimed at liberation of the oppressed did induce a sense of grim revulsion. Ross being lauded while Killmonger perishes is an allegory for centuries of defeats and recuperations in egalitarian movements. Killmonger’s departure does give the opportunity for Marvel to introduce and fully flesh out other villains from the mythos such as Madam Slay and her assistant Mute, which could be phenomenal if handled well.
After the recent death of beloved anarchist science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, a lot of opinion pieces appeared throughout the anarcho web assessing her legacy, with special focus given to her most overtly anarchist work: The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. The novel explores, through the eyes of its scientist protagonist Shevek, the ins and outs of a fictional anarchist communist society on a desert moon; organised through free federations of cooperative syndicates, without markets or money of any kind, and with a general anti-authoritarian culture.
As the book’s subtitle indicates, it's a piece of utopian speculation on what a better society could look like, albeit one – again, as the subtitle indicates – tinged with ambiguity, and unafraid to point out some of the hurdles faced when trying to create a world without hierarchy, such as the potential for creeping cultural conformism and bureaucratisation.
What's surprising about most of these aforementioned opinion pieces is so few of them seem to bring up the long legacy of utopianism (in the positive sense of the word) that's core to the social anarchist tradition itself.
After all, at the heart of the desire for social anarchy is an impulse towards a truly radical kind of social betterment. Social anarchy, a society without rulership, is not only an image of a world freer than any other, but one which exercises constant vigilance against any potential attempts to make it less free via the emergence of new forms of archic power.
It's even more surprising given that we now live in a time rich with possibilities for realising the very kinds of utopias anarchists tried to dream up – in the sense of eutopia (good place), rather than outopia (no place); with the former referring to visions which guide social progress and the latter referring to abstract dreams which thrive on their own impossibility of being realised. Yes, there are also more dangers and obstacles than over before, but for some reason we can't seem to stop focusing on everything setting us back to the extent that we most often fail to examine new openings for transforming the political, economic, ideological, and cultural spheres along libertarian lines.
Through a combination of social-political and technological factors, the people of the planet are more interconnected than ever before. With this interconnectedness providing a potential basis for a new global universalism; “a world in which many worlds fit” to borrow an aphorism from the Zapatistas, in which unity is rooted in a desire for complementary diversity rather than a desire for sameness and the exclusion of otherness. In technology, we now have a greater capacity than ever before to eliminate human and animal toil through automation, to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in favour of ecological and decentralism sources of energy, and to make the control and development of new technologies cooperative and participatory, benefitting the populace rather than the elite.
So why is the possibility of utopia being ignored by anarchists at best and dismissed as delusional at worst? At least part of the reason may lie in a general feeling of hopelessness anarchists get upon being faced with what seem like insurmountable problems: an ever-expanding capitalist state system, a frying planet, and now a widespread turn towards cultural reaction in much of the global north and south.
However, other political traditions seem to have wasted no time coming up with their own trajectories towards a better future, despite grappling with the same obstacles. Marketarians (the ones who call themselves “libertarian” but aren't) devote a great deal of effort to proselytising their vision of a fully-privatised world run by tech billionaires. Liberals and neoliberals like Steven Pinker expound a vision called “ecomodernism” which combines green capitalism with a love for technocratic centralism which puts the professional classes in charge. More decentralism-oriented progressives like Jeremy Rifkin a “collaborative commons” based on a coming “internet of things” which will eventually reduce scarcity to the point of near-nonexistence. Even a handful of Marxists have jumped on, with “ecosocialism” and “fully-automated luxury communism” being Marxian reinventions of the very things social anarchists like Peter Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin once advocated.
There's no shortage of futurisms floating around the political imaginary. And while enthusiastic proponents of futurist utopianism from an anarchist perspective do exist, they are small in number and confined to a smattering of blogs, Facebook groups, and subreddits. A few proponents of Bookchin's post-scarcity anarchism here, a handful of anarcho-transhumanists there, but little in the way of overarching vision to tie them together and draw more people in.
The majority of anarchists can't seem to stop devolving into mere resistance to the existing systems of domination, holding on to the dream of a world without states, capitalists, or hierarchy as little more than a spectral “happy place” to retreat to when the realities of oppression, exploitation, war, and ecocide become too much to bare. While social anarchist thought was once overflowing with inspiring and inspired images of the future, both in its classical and new left periods, it seems to lack most of that inspiration today.
Most of the major social anarchist organisations and commentary outlets today tend to be focused on either struggles to defend the social programs established in the post-war era, pursue most of the same cultural changes to expand the autonomy of the underprivileged sought by liberals, or muse about the achievements of anarchists and other libertarians of the past. It's rare to even see anarchist speculations on new ways we could organise a libertarian socialist world; for example incorporating new ideas from frontier disciples like cybernetics, robotics, bio-engineering, or ecological science, just as Kropotkin and Bookchin incorporated the latest scientific and technological ideas into their analyses and
We need to reinvigorate that thought, injecting a fresh dose of techno-ecological utopianism into it. We need to feel less afraid to make ridiculous claims of how awesome and fantastical we want the rest of the 21st century and beyond to be. We need to take seriously a certain oft-repeated meme from the French general strike and student uprising in 1968: “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible!”
That's why I'd like to sketch out the fundamentals for something I find to be fatally lacking within contemporary social anarchism: a hopeful, reinvigorating, inspiring, and realistic future-vision; imbuing anarchists and other libertarians with both a trajectory of where we ought to be going, and a renewed drive for getting there.
To clarify things a little, let me define what I mean by futurism. I use it here to refer to a special kind of vision of the future, which is more detailed and normative than a mere notion of how things could turn out beyond the present, but less mapped-out than a blueprint (such as the late Jacque Fresco’s Venus Project). In other words, a general template of the future based on a certain set of values and features.
In this sense, almost all of classical anarchism had its own unique futurism, guided, as it was, by a desire for a new order in which the state gave way to free confederations of autonomous communes, productive resources were placed in the hands of all and managed by those who worked them, technology was repurposed to increase well-being and reduce toil rather than increase profits and reduce the power of labour, and a culture of gods and masters gave way to a culture of free individuals and mutual cooperation. With regard to the (now) more defining feature of futurisms – technology – as early as 1880, in his essay Communism and Anarchy, Carlo Cafiero speculated that as technics advanced to the point where production began to outstrip consumption and toil was eliminated through labour-automation, the old commons maxim “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” would evolve towards a new maxim of abundance: “from each, and to each, according to their will”.
Social anarchist futurism could be said to be characterised by a desire to expand the scope of will relative to the scope of toil. But this was not rooted in the kind of naive technological determinism so common in Marxism, in which technological advancement is always necessarily progressive. The social anarchist assessment of technics (techniques and technologies) was one of continual critique, emphasising the need for technologies which made labour pleasurable rather than rote, and designed so as to maximise local self-sufficiency, direct participatory control of the productive process, and decentralist organisation.
Anarchists welcomed new technologies when they enhanced self-determination – with Kropotkin being enthusiastic about the invention of greenhouses and washing machines – but attacked the brutal and centralist systems of mass production beloved by both market capitalists and state socialists. Lewis Mumford, taking many cues from Kropotkin, later developed an analysis of technical development as libertarian as any devised by a self-defined anarchist, stressing the need for “democratic technics” relative to the “authoritarian technics” lauded by both western industrialists and soviet bureaucrats. Murray Bookchin in turn followed both Kropotkin and Mumford in his theories of liberatory technology, adding an ecological dimension to anarchist futurism. Bookchin not only called for a technics of human-scale, direct participation, decentralism, and local self-sufficiency, but an ecological technics which generated energy from renewable restricted and mended the rift between humanity and nonhuman nature.
While Bookchin and others in his Institute for Social Ecology experimented with new forms of eco-technics from an anarchist perspective in the mid-to-late 20th century, and produced scholarly critiques of more centralist future-visions, such as those of Buckminster Fuller, the initial optimism of the 1960s and 70s gradually faded into a more pessimistic view of the future as the century drew towards a close. With the triumphalism of neoliberal capitalism taking over the social imaginary from the 90s onwards, there seemed to be fewer and fewer anarchists interested in new technology and using it to build a brighter future, save for a few important exceptions in those who became early adopters of the internet and free software as an important tool for decentralist organising and establishing global connectedness. But even this seems to have declined as of late.
In the meantime, a handful of radical leftists have stepped in to recreate what Bookchin and others called post-scarcity anarchism, but (sadly) without the anarchism.
Marxists such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have offered some compelling suggestions in their book Inventing the Future, calling for such things as full-automation of all toilsome labour and the common ownership of the means of production. Though their vision is too mired in too much of the same old statism and centralism which has always plagued Marxism as a tradition. The same goes for the “fully-automated luxury communism” memed by Aaron Bastani and his friends at Novara Media.
Full automation and common ownership of technologies won't be that liberating if control over those technologies remains in the hands of the state, most likely a new state-form directed neither by capitalists nor traditional bureaucrats, but a new “techno-bureaucracy” composed of technicians, engineers, scientists, and other monopolisers of skills, knowledge, and techniques. The “savants” Mikhail Bakunin warned of in God and the State.
This is why it's vital to restate and reestablish a specifically social anarchist futurism, to steer not only all futurisms, but the radical wing of futurism away from centralism and hierarchy, underpinning its aims with an ethos of anti-authoritarianism, decentralisation, and individual autonomy.
If the long-term goal of social anarchism is freedom and well-being for all, then what technologies should anarchists seek to develop and adopt?
They would, ideally, be technologies which were ecologically sound – using solar, wind, wave, and geothermal energy rather than oil or gas to generate electricity – human-scale and build for local production rather than mass production, capable of ensuring a large degree of self-sufficiency in consumables at the local level, and designed so as to bring about the maximum degree of direct control by users and horizontal cooperation in the process of production. In other words, they should be consistent with the aims of Peter Kropotkin's hypothesised science of meeting human needs, social physiology: meeting the maximum amount of needs, in the shortest time, using the minimum possible amount of energy (including human labour).
None of these things are fantastical dream inventions which exist only in science-fantasy. All of these things exist right now. At the time of writing, they remain in the hands of a few nerds and specialists. But imagine if they were not only proliferated, but their use organised via social-libertarian methods. That is, through community-stewardship, cooperative enterprises, and horizontal participatory control by free producers.
Kevin Carson does a wonderful job of documenting their existence and potential uses by anarchists in his exhaustive studies The Homebrew Industrial Revolution and The Desktop Regulatory State. They include free and open-source software, open-source hardware, small-scale fabrication laboratories, micro-manufacturing, 3D-printing, and countless examples of commons-based peer-production online.
Most of these liberatory technologies already have an innate tendency towards decentralist and participatory usage, given their human-scale, relative simplicity, and operations which don't require a strict division of labour between specialist technicians and workers carrying out rote instructions; as well as eliminating labour where possible.
Imagine, for example, getting up in the morning and being able to walk into a fully-automated supermarket, with a robotised vertical farm overhead where all the food is grown, and being able to take any goods you like without any money being exchanged, while computers keep track of demand and supply levels so as to figure out what to grow and how much of it to stock. Then you could walk down to your neighbourhood centre, located where the gaudy shopping mall used to be, filled with creative teams of local specialists in fabrication and repair, using decentralist technics to make everything from computers to home appliances to works of art; their work and tools longer hindered by the artificial scarcity of intellectual property laws and distributed on the commons principles of “to each according to need”, or at most trading favours.
This is a brief glimpse of what a libertarian technics could look like in a future economy of the commons, though it's one we’ll likely never see if the route of technical change isn't directed away from the statist and capitalist imperatives towards centralised control and mass production; useful for making weapons and surveillance, but not so useful for meeting human and ecological needs.
What social anarchists need to do in response to this changing technological milieu get serious about the course of technological development, actively push it in the direction of ecological design, decentralism, smaller scaling, and participatory control. We can't just take over the ecocidal, centralised, and bureaucratic infrastructure of the capitalist state system and expect to make it run according to worker self-management. Authoritarian technics can't be made to run according to libertarian logics.
New worlds have to exist in the social imaginary before they exist in recognised reality.
Before a thing can be actualised through a society's “megapolitics” (governance and jurisprudence) it must gain credence through the society's “infrapolitics” (culture and ideology). Infrapolitics – infra- coming from the Greek “under” – refers to forms of social action which are not usually counted as political, but have political resonance through their effects and affects on people's thoughts and behaviours. Infrapolitical struggle refers to the ethical, aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual fights to alter the mental and behavioural composition of a culture; which in turn has a long-term effect on the composition of the political and economic system.
Looking back at the classical anarchist and libertarian socialist literature of Peter Kropotkin, Élisée Reclus, Emma Goldman, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, and others, it was brimming with flowery expositions of culture would be invigorated by a libertarian social order; with the arts ceasing to be the preserve of an intellectual elite and instead became suffused into the lives of the common people. The drab and brutal architecture which coated working-class life would give way to beautiful and ornate streets, mixing the ecological with the technological, and the ancient with the modern. The best of painting would no longer be confined to professional galleries, but adorn public areas. Every individual would become, in a sense, an artist; a sculptor of their life in communion with others.
As Herbert Read put it a few decades later, we can assess the artistic worth of a society by the aesthetic richness of its most functional objects: pots and pans. The good Society of the future would be one in which culture – in the “high art” sense of the word – ceased to be a distinct domain of life and became an integrated feature of everyday reality.
This is the kind of cultural transformation we should seek to bring about, one in which the functional and ornamental principles are fused, where the line between economical and aesthetic choices becomes blurred, as the orientation of both is geared towards continually increasing the bio-psycho-social well-being of people and planet.
While social anarchists have always had a presence in arts and culture – from early modernism, to experimental theatre, to hippiedom, to punk, to alternative comics, to science-fiction literature – this has, for the most part, been in the form of individual anarchists using art to explore alternative states of being on a personal level, rather than growing a mass cultural presence across media and (artistic) mediums, with the aim of transmitting specifically anarchistic values and images of what things ought to be like. That's what we need to do in order to gain the high ground in the infrapolitical arena.
One of the most promising developments in this regard has been the birth of solarpunk subculture in the early-to-mid 2010s. Solarpunk, with its name being a cute spin on both cyberpunk and steampunk – evoking solar power and thus ecological consciousness – is an aesthetic and cultural scene which responds to the social and technological questions posed at the start of the 21st century in much the same way steampunk responds to the social and technological questions posed at the end of the 19th century; with both asking “what if society and technology took a different route?”
Steampunk rejects the actual future that happened in favour of a fantastical future filled with democratised technologies and anti-authoritarian sky-pirates fighting the forces of empire. Solarpunk, in turn, rejects the hypothetical “cyberpunk” future in which states and corporations rule an even more dispossessed populace in an ecologically devastated landscape. Instead, it imagines the future we might have if we took the very “alternative route” which now lies before us: replacing states and corporations which free federations of communities and cooperatives, using decentralist and ecological technologies to create a world beyond economic scarcity and social hierarchy, defined by autonomy, mutual aid, diversity, and inclusiveness.
At present, solarpunk is quite small, with only a few short story collections and a moderate online presence of artists and hobbyists. But it's potential as soil for growing a larger libertarian counter-culture – whose general orientation is ecofuturist – more than makes it a worthwhile avenue for anarchist focus.
With the imaginary universes underpinned by our increasing reliance on the internet becoming a bigger and more important aspect of ours lives – in particular among the younger generations – anarchists need to pay more attention to the infrapolitical aspects of social struggle, rather than dismiss them (as so many do) as mere window dressing relative to “real” practice.
It can't be emphasised enough that social anarchists placing a renewed emphasis on cultural transformation should not be taken as a call to place less emphasis on economic or political transformation. If anything, a richer vision of the future should reenergise anarchists and libertarians organising in workplaces, communities, and civil struggles.
Let's divide social anarchist practice into two rough families of approaches: combat anarchism and venture anarchism. Combat anarchism refers to acts of insurrection and struggle, typically mass insurrection and class struggle. Venture anarchism refers to acts of exodus and creation, typically exodus from the dominant system by way of living off-grid or adopting an anti-systemic lifestyle, and creation in the form of building non-hierarchical settlements or enterprises, or artistic and technological creations.
Both are necessary. But successful action means knowing how much of one or the other to employ in a given situation. In the last few decades, anarchists have perhaps placed too much focus on what's wrong we the current world we’re fighting against (for understandable reasons), and not enough on the kind of world we'd like to replace it with. In other words, we've had too much combat anarchism and not enough venture anarchism. We need to appeal to people with discourse and optics which stress the positive features of the alternatives we want to build, emphasising the values of caring, vitality, cooperation, and creativity, and tone down (without dispensing with) the discourse and optics of revolt, struggle, attack, and negation. To repeat, we need both, but as of now, we need to alter the balance to favour the politics of creation.
And in practice, a renewed politics of creation means putting greater energy into building alternative associations to those of the state and capital, then linking those associations together – a feat which is made easier than ever given the instant and costless communication between nodes of a free federation made possible by the internet.
Most people can't, as of present circumstances, picture a far-off future beyond scarcity and hierarchy. What they can picture is an immediate future which contains more of the kinds of things they can see for themselves in the everyday operations of anarchistic associations which help them in their daily lives, such as participatory budgeting programs, popular assemblies in neighbourhoods, worker cooperatives, free and open-source software/hardware, online groups of peer-producers, and horizontal networks of cooperation between all of the above. And all of the above is what we need to get working on, in addition to existing labour and territorial work in workplaces and communities, and issue-based activism on all other fronts.
Thus far I've avoided giving specific recommendations, due to the need for individual anarchists to tailor a general vision to their particular circumstances, but I believe the following projects deserve to be highlighted:
Revolutionary movements which trace their lineage back to the 1800s tend to have a view of social transformation as an apocalyptic rupture, a violent and sudden cataclysm which tears a society away from everything which came before and puts something radically new in its place. A view no doubt conditioned by the so-called “bourgeois revolutions” of the 1700s, in particular the American and French examples.
With numerous attempts to enact this model in the twentieth century, the results have been a mixture of state socialism and postcolonial capitalism. In all cases, swapping one set of rulers for another. Only one, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, got its society anywhere closer to social anarchy.
Élisée Reclus was correct in seeing evolution and revolution as two parts of the same process of transformation, the former being the slow and gradual build-up of small changes, the latter being the rapid and radical shift from one set of conditions to another. Both matter. And transformative social movements have erred when and where they've seen change as a choice between the two, rather than the most apt selection of how both evolution and revolution should be pursued.
It's no longer sensible to believe, as past generations of anarchists did, that social anarchy will come into being after a single definite event in the form of a popular uprising, even in a single location. There's no doubt they'll be moments of sudden rupture with what came before, and most of these will involve popular uprisings of some kind. But there won't be an identifiable “before” and “after” in which we can call what came before as archistic and what came after as anarchistic.
Nor will those movements (plural) which push us in the direction of social anarchy call themselves anarchist, at least not as their primary name. As of right now, they call themselves anti-authoritarians, municipalists, syndicalists, peer-producers, democratic confederalists, Earth defenders, and movements for the commons. Anarchists must be a part of them, helping to push them in a more consciously libertarian direction from within.
What drives both those movements and the anarchists within them must not only be their immediate and short-term goals, but an animating vision of an ecological, decentralist, libertarian, egalitarian, and cooperative future. Not as some prefect and pristine image which can never be replicated in practice, but as an ideal which we continually strive to approximate. A practical futurism.
As of 2018, we face some dire circumstances: ecological degradation at the hands of the capitalist state system’s unquenchable thirst for growth, the continuing centralisation of wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller number of dominant owners, and cultural reaction at the moves of marginalised groups for greater freedom and inclusion.
Despair may be an understandable reaction in the face of such an all-consuming set of problems, but it's not only counterproductive, but mistaken. It's mistaken because when you look at all the possibilities, there's just as much rational justification for hopefulness.
Given the cacophony of competing futurisms – many authoritarian, some libertarian, most somewhere in-between – social anarchists need to steer the futurist conversation in a more libertarian and egalitarian direction, calling for the fruits of technological enrichment are both shared by all, and directed by all from the bottom up.
We need to suffuse the social imaginary with a future-vision rooted in the ideal of the commons (decentralised cooperation) and in libertarian management of those commons. At the same time, we need to put that vision into practice through continued combat against the forces and relations of rule, as well as new ventures to creatively generate and sustain alternatives to them. Sometimes this will involve working specifically as anarchists among other anarchists, guided by a general agreement on ideas and tactics. Other times it will mean working within broader popular movements and projects among non-anarchists, trying to steer them in a more anarchistic direction: away from centralism and towards free cooperation.
It'll be hard-going, and most of us probably won't see a fully-realised anarchist world within our lifetimes, but if we keep that vision of a world beyond domination in our minds, every step we take towards that ideal will at least be a step in the right direction, making our universe a little bit freer and a little bit more caring in every moment.
An expanded and referenced version of this essay is available at Solarpunk Anarchist .com
Written and Illustrated by Sophie La Belle
Sophie is a Canadian author, cartoonist, and public speaker. She is active in the transgender rights movement and speaks on the subjects of trans history and transfeminism. Assigned Male is her long running comic detailing her experiances.It features the character of 12-year-old Stephie, a trans girl discovering and embracing her gender. While working with transgender children, she "noticed how negative everything we tell them about their own body is, so I wanted to create a character that could respond to all those horrible things trans kids hear all the time." She has made educational guides to go with the comics, to promote safer spaces for trans youth.
With several hundred comics under her belt Assigned Male is sure to keep you busy for a good while!
Old Site www.assignedmale.tumblr.com
New Site www.assignedmale.com
(This article was originally featured in Organise! 72 - Summer -2009)
Science Fiction is at its best when it explores everyday human problems and prejudices through their extrapolation into extreme scenarios; disasters show the best and worst sides of humanity, while dystopias explore the full implications of the political and social impulses that govern us. More unusual, subtler and equally effective, is SF that explores aspects of humanity through their absence. While utopias eradicate society’s problems and dystopias exaggerate them, Le Guin creates, from scratch, ambiguous societies of human aliens who have never experienced problems central to our particular brand of humanity, extrapolates a culture, history and mythology from the inherent differences in socialisation, and goes on to explore the problems that they do have.
With Gethen, Le Guin challenges our world’s social construction of gender and explores its fundamental influence on our notions of identity by creating a world of human hermaphrodites. Unlike us (but in common with most other mammals) they have an oestrus cycle, so that they are only sexually active for a few days each month (known as “kemmer”). A Gethenian may enter this state as male or female, depending on many factors beyond their control, including the state of those kemmering close to them at the time. If a Gethenian conceives, “she” remains female throughout pregnancy and lactation, then returns to a state of “somer” and could be male next kemmer. In somer, Gethenians are without sexual drive and physically androgynous.
This biological and sociological re-imagining of sex brings with it the problem of writing a genderless society in a language that is not equipped to describe genderlessness, for an audience barely equipped to imagine it. The linguistic problem exacerbates the perceptual one, and Le Guin has dealt with this in various ways, with varying degrees of success. Initially, she uses masculine pronouns as neutral – or, at least, views Gethen through a human male character who does so, in the novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Shortly before this she had published a short story set on Gethen, but had not been aware at the time of the Gethenians’ unusual physiology. She re-wrote this story, Winter’s King, for a 1975 collection, this time using feminine pronouns for all characters while keeping the masculine titles of “King” and “Lord” to retain ambiguity. Eventually, with such deft linguistic gymnastics that the casual reader barely notices, she wrote a Gethen story eschewing the use of gendered pronouns altogether, Coming of Age in Karhide (1995).
I’ll talk first about The Left Hand of Darkness, since this is the first Gethen story that Le Guin wrote with the deliberate intention of making Gethen a world of androgynes. It is not, primarily, a story about gender. It is a story about the politics of small nations, in which a naive envoy from the Ekumen (a sort of research collective of inhabited worlds) is manipulated by factions from rival countries. It is also a story about survival in harsh conditions, and the relationships formed under those conditions. Suspicion and trust, exposure and shelter, solitude and companionship are woven in with themes of duality and oneness, reflected in the envoy Genly Ai’s (and the reader’s) perception of gender as binary, and its contrast in Gethenian sexuality and psychology.
Genly Ai, a Terran and a man, finds it difficult to treat Gethenians as genderless. Early on, he says: “I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own.”
His difficulty reflects the reader’s, which is made all the more problematic by Le Guin’s (or Ai’s) use of those masculine pronouns. Le Guin has spoken of regretting this decision, and in her introduction to the re-working of Winter’s King she says:“In the third person singular, the English generic pronoun is the same as the masculine pronoun. A fact worth reflecting upon. And it’s a trap, with no way out, because the exclusion of the feminine (she) and the neuter (it) from the generic/masculine (he) makes the use of either of them more specific, more unjust, as it were, than the use of “he”. And I find made-up pronouns, “te” and “heshe” and so on, dreary and annoying.”
While the decision to use masculine pronouns in LHoD is a submission to that trap, forcing the reader to perceive Gethen as a planet without women, it has another, stranger effect: it makes us actively fight that perception, to try to see the neutral as feminine as well as masculine. It also allows us to feel lulled into a sense of understanding the genderlessness on our own terms, before shocking us with startling incongruities such as: “The King was pregnant” (p. 73).
Like Ai, we force ourselves to view each character, by turns, as both male and female. Often, of course, the language (and our own cultural identification) forces us to view important and recurring characters as male, and this prejudice is used narratively – Ai’s mistrust of Estraven, his major ally in Karhide, springs from his inability to read “him”, to work out his motives and goals, and he especially hates the characteristics he perceives as feminine, dismissing subtle warnings and cautions as “effeminate deviousness” (p.17).
Ai’s unconscious, internalised gender prejudices are dangerously irrelevant on Gethen, and only when Estraven kemmers as female does he realise how great his mistake was. He has been judging Estraven according to his expectations of male behaviours, misreading a protective and loyal ally as a manipulative politician, with a mistrust coming partly from Estraven’s aloofness and stringent observation of shifgrether (a system of status and etiquette that equates openly offering advice with dire insult), but mainly from Ai’s inability to see him as both a man and a woman and neither.
This cultural confusion extends to Ai’s and previous Ekumen investigators’ view of Gethenian culture and history. We are told that there has never been a full-blown war on Gethen, yet the feuding nations that we see – a paranoid monarchy with a mad king, and an authoritarian communist state with forced labour camps – are far from utopian. The nation of Karhide is described early on as “not a nation but a family squabble” (p.12). Ai speculates that Gethenians, while capable of the same aggression and cruelty as other humans, lack the capacity to mobilise. He says, with characteristic simplicity: “They behaved like animals in that respect; or like women. They did not behave like men, or ants.” (p.39) An account from an earlier Ekumen investigator theorises that the Ancient Hainish (who seeded all human-inhabited worlds) created Gethenians as a genetic experiment with the deliberate aim of eliminating war: “Did the Ancient Hainish postulate that continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect? Or [...] did they consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped?”
This hypothesis does not go unchallenged, though. In the grip of a long ice age, Gethen is known to the rest of the Ekumen worlds as “Winter”; cold and starvation have had as much influence on the moulding of Gethenian society as has genderlessness, and which of these forces are responsible for Gethen’s unique characteristics, we are left to guess.
The same researcher speculates that the lack of sexual frustration or competition (since all are released from other duties for kemmer, and nobody is barred from the kemmerhouse) dulls ambition and slows technological progress, but again this is left open to the possibility that survival of the intense cold is a factor.
Technological progress happens slowly and steadily on Gethen. Large communal buildings stand for thousands of years, being repaired rather than demolished and replaced. Their greatest technological marvel is a highly efficient camping stove that can heat a tent for months on a single fuelling, but they have very few powered vehicles and no flight (with no flying animals to inspire
it). Resources are not wasted on anything but food and warmth. Travel is undertaken on foot, or by catching a supply vehicle headed in the same direction. Gethenians don’t rush to reach any destination, physical or technological – they get where they’re going without hurrying. Even the perilous journey across the ice that constitutes the second half of the story, compelled as it is by the need to arrive before supplies run out, is slow-paced and careful, with more development of character and setting than action or plot. Despite the lack of pace, the novel makes gripping reading. Each new discovery about the nature of Gethenian physiology and society, each shift of perception in the complex relationship between friends and aliens, every unexpected word and phrase connects theme to plot to character, and these quiet, thoughtful interactions are more riveting than any hectic chase over thin ice.
The revised Winter’s King demonstrates the reasons why Le Guin chose not to use feminine pronouns as neutral in The Left Hand of Darkness. Not only is the feminine more specific, but instead of giving the impression of a planet without men (as the opposite tactic implied the absence of women) it seems to suggest only that the characters important enough to have their movements described – the King, the palace officials and politicians – are female, while those mentioned too briefly for a pronoun to be necessary (staff and subjects) remain male by default. Because the use of the feminine rather than the masculine is being reconsidered, the neutral escapes consideration altogether. As in LHoD, the reader struggles against these perceptions, as King Argaven struggles against the mindforming aimed at manipulating her rule, but it is a harder struggle to see she as neutral than he, and the overall effect is not of androgynes but of a world ruled by women using masculine titles. It is a good antidote to the use of male as neutral, a challenge to the reader’s perceptions and the writer’s skill at manipulating them, but since thealiens’ sexual difference to Gethenians isn’t made explicit until two thirds of the way through the story, there is no real sense of androgyny in the characters. That said, the failure at androgyny leads, at least, to seeing more women than men, which is unusual enough to be worth the experiment.
The story, remaining relatively unchanged from its original version, has echoes of Semley’s Necklace in its concern with the incongruities of time and long distance space travel, but is most interesting for what it tells us about the Gethenian techniques of brainwashing – which they call “mindforming” and the Hainish “mindscience”. This is a huge contrast from the Foretelling of the Handdara, the more spiritually-inclined (yet still scientifically founded) psychic ability glimpsed in the other Gethen stories, and may go some way towards explaining why so many of the kings of Karhide are completely insane.
In contrast to both previous stories, Coming of Age in Karhide has no kings or politicians and is set amongst working people in an ordinary Hearth (a communal dwelling of around 200 people). This is a return to Gethen after around 25 years, for both for the writer and the planet. Le Guin chooses a completely different voice for this story: an open and intelligent Gethenian narrator looking back, with honesty and humour, on the experiences of adolescence. Since the narrator is using personal experience, and speaking in the first person, there is little need for gendered pronouns, and where other characters are spoken of they are either mentioned by name or cunningly pluralised to evade gendered pronouns, save for explicit uses to describe kemmering status.This careful consideration of language provides a very different viewpoint to previous Gethen stories, but nevertheless the characters emerge from the page gendered, perhaps more readily so as the reader has no consciously inappropriate gendered pronouns to challenge. The narrator, Sov, by intimately describing of the aches, pains, clumsiness and shame of puberty, including the first experience of menstruation, cannot help but come over as female, especially since we are left to hear all the anxieties regarding uncontrollable urges and awkward erections from Sov’s taller, moodier friend Sether. Their conversation, though they are comparing and confirming symptoms that they are both experiencing, reads like a girl and a boy talking, her with shyness and gentle reassurance, him with angry, humiliated outbursts at the unfairness and inhumanity of it all.
The whispered fears of the two adolescents include losing control in kemmer and committing rape, putting in doubt the Ekumen investigator’s assertion that rape is a physical impossibility for Gethenians – never that convincing, since we know from LHoD that drugs exist to stimulate or suppress kemmer, and are used by government agents in Orgoreyn to seduce spies and pacify prisoners. Sether relates a friend-of-a-friend story about a rape that took place when two truck drivers were cut off by snow and one kemmered as male. Sov is shocked, never having heard such things were possible. The story might be an exaggeration, as adolescent rumours about sex so often are, but it seems more likely that such incidents are taboo and that an alien researcher would have had difficulty uncovering them.
This fear of being made inhuman by kemmer may be due, in part, to the characters’ awareness of aliens and of their own uniqueness amongst other human races; they are afraid of the animalistic qualities of the kemmer cycle, that it will be like going into heat or rut, while also ashamed that, in kemmer, they become more like the grotesque aliens, who they equate with a hormonal imbalance towards male or female that causes some Gethenians to remain in a permanent state of kemmer. These people are stigmatised as “perverts” and, more tellingly, “half-deads” (indicating, perhaps, that the stigma is not in the permanence of their sexual state but in their lifelong limitation to only one physical sex). We hear of their existence in LHoD, as Genly Ai is often mistaken for one, but hear more in this story of the fear and fascination they evoke in other Gethenians. They are variously mistrusted and pitied, but not excluded from kemmerhouses – in fact, they often live in and run them, this being one of the few roles Gethenian society deems acceptable for those whose identity and sexuality are so conflated.
These various viewpoints, with their linguistic limitations, may not quite allow us to see genderlessness as the Gethenians do, but they do allow for some striking observations that can shock us out of assumptions we didn’t realise we were making. One of the best is this advice from an early Ekumen investigator on Gethen:“The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”
It is both amusing and uncomfortable to be reminded how much we have invested in gender identity, and how manipulatively seductive those heteronormative and patriarchal behaviours can be, even to those directly harmed by them. While it is tempting for any anarchist, feminist or LGBT activist to see a world lacking gender divisions as a form of utopia, Le Guin’s transitions to alternative societies are never that simple – there are no utopias, and the removal of one fundamental source of privilege on our world provides no easy answer to all the rest. The binary division of society into male and female is not replaced by another single, overwhelming binary, but by a multitude of smaller systems of status and hierarchy shifgrethor being the most visible of these, stigmatisation of a sexual minority the most familiar. Le Guin uses Gethen not to answer the problem of gender but to provoke further questions on the nature of identity and prejudice. When Ai asks Estraven if Gethenians are as obsessed with wholeness as Terrans with duality, he replies: “We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.” (p.159)
Perhaps we will remain unable to truly deconstruct gender until we can deconstruct the language that we use to reinforce it every day. Dreary and annoying as those replacement pronouns may be, perhaps a story using the Gethenian pronouns (whose existence is implied in LHoD) to describe those in somer, those in kemmer as female, those in kemmer as male, female animals, male animals and (prusumably) inanimate objects would better portray the people of Gethen, and I would love to see Le Guin take up that experiment.Which pronouns would better portray the Terrans remains an experiment for us all.
Le Guin, Ursula, The Left Hand of Darkness, 1973 (Panther, Herts.)
Le Guin, Ursula, ‘Winter’s King’, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 2000 (Gollancz, London)
Le Guin, Ursula, ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’, in The Birthday of the World and Other Stories, 2003 (Gollancz, London)
“What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.”
Laia Odo, The Day Before the Revolution by Ursula Le Guin
In the days following the announcement of Ursula Le Guin’s death, my social media feeds were full of articles, posts and tweets calling her various versions of "the mother of literary Science Fiction", praising her for “transcending genre” and implying that she single-handedly remoulded Sci-Fi from a swamp of Boys’ Own space adventures into the diverse and politically complex exploration of human society and its potential that causes so much anguish to Alt-Right whiners today. It’s a nice sentiment, but I don’t think she would have agreed.
While her anthropological, roots-up world-building certainly helped to broaden the scope of SF (and the demographics of its protagonists), Le Guin would have had no truck with that false dichotomy of the serious, socially conscious New Wave vs. pulpy Space Opera. Her stories have their roots in both. She cut her teeth on the pulp magazines and never dodged the SF label, even when it was a dire insult. While Margaret Atwood, for many years, was cagey about being called either a feminist or a Science Fiction writer, Le Guin always wore both those badges with pride and defended them to all comers (ultimately talking Atwood around to at least one of them). She didn’t turn Science Fiction into serious social commentary; her extraordinarily detailed worlds and breath-taking prose just underlined that it always had been. Which is a much greater and more ambitious achievement – not saying "Look at me, creating a new way of doing things" but "Look at yourself and the familiar things you think you know, and see them in a new way."
That's the message I take away from her work, the fiction and essays and the writing workshops I've used so often - alone or with students - and learned so much from, again and again. That's the anarchism I take away from The Dispossessed and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas and Unlocking the Air and Solitude and Four Ways to Forgiveness and Always Coming Home - so many ways to revolution, but it always starts with seeing the world as it is and then imagining it can be different. That's what the best SF always does, and that's what Le Guin did so incredibly well.
It might not be exactly true to say that Ursula Le Guin made me an anarchist, but she certainly made me the anarchist that I am. Sure, I read Bakunin and Kropotkin and Goldman and Parsons. I read about the Haymarket Martyrs and the Kronstadt Rebellion. I read William Morris’ News from Nowhere and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. But The Dispossessed was the first thing that made me really believe in an anarchist society – not just political “I agree with this!” belief, but visceral “If I squint, I can see it, I can see how it would work!” belief, that sense that another world really is possible: not an idealist vision of a perfect world with no failings, but an all-round vision of a robust, human society that can absorb a little failure and survive it and grow and keep on developing. I will always be grateful for that vision.
Rest in Power, Ursula. May you be reborn on Anarres.
The following statement was originally posted on the Anarchist Federation Facebook page on 20/11/2017 (Transgender Day of Rememberance). A earlier statement was posted on www.afed.org.uk on 30/10/2017 immediately following the transphobic leafleting at the London Anarchist Bookfair of 28th October 2017 and is available below . Other statements include one by Edinburgh AF which was on their noflag hosted site edinburghanarchists.noflag.org.uk and can be found on ainfos via the link below, also published immediately after the bookfair.
Statement from members of the Anarchist Federation
The basic human dignity of being able to choose or express who we are should not be an issue within the anarchist movement. Transgender/non-binary people should never be subjected to abuse or mischaracterisation in anarchist spaces/events by TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) or anyone else – anarchists do not tolerate bigotry in the guise of free-speech. It is very rarely that anarchists attempt to shut down debate or resort of physical or verbal violence to do so. If trans activists feel they have little choice but to resort to this in an anarchist space/event, that is a crisis for our movement.
The AF regrets that the opportunity has probably been lost to transform the London Anarchist Bookfair – which in recent years has developed into one of the most important and representative anarchist events globally – into an environment where this situation cannot not reoccur. Whilst the right of people to choose their gender identity is not up for debate, discussion about the relationship between different oppressions and their relationship to the wider class struggle are nonetheless important.
The class struggle and the struggles of specifically oppressed groups under capitalism do not run parallel with each other, but overlap. Our movement can only benefit from education and engagement with the issues effecting trans-people in the context of where the overlap happens, just as it must improve and advance its theory and action in relationship to all oppressions.
Where legal reforms will improve the material situation of trans-people under capitalism, workers with gender privilege must support them as part of the wider social and economic struggle. But this can only take place meaningfully in an environment which automatically defends the starting point that we are who we say we are, and where the imbalance of power which we bring into the movement from wider society is acknowledged and undermined as far as possible.
(Since initially sharing this statement the LABC has unfortunatly confirmed that they will not be organising a bookfair in London for 2018. their statement can be found at www. anarchistbookfair.org.uk)
I walked into the activist meeting feeling good. I had on my short shorts over tights and my makeup was good. I took my seat next to a stranger, a transwoman.
“Are you in transition?” she asked me. Like, within thirty seconds. I genuinely think this was the first thing she said to me after maybe telling me her name.
“Well, I, uh…” I stammered.
“Have you started hormones yet?”
I stammered some more.
I get it. She was new to the group and excited to see another transfeminine face in the crowd. But goddam is that some personal shit to ask a girl within a minute of meeting her.
I didn’t really answer her in the moment, but let me answer her first question more concretely now: I am “in transition” in the same way that I used to be a baby and one day I’ll be dead.
I am “in transition” in the same way that I used to be a baby and one day I’ll be dead.
Until I got asked questions that assumed I’m not yet where I ought to be, I’d been feeling good about how I looked as I was, right then. I didn’t need to look more like a ciswoman. Who cares about a little bit of beard shadow? Until I save up what I need to get it lasered off, it helps define my jawline and compliments dark makeup well.
Maybe one day I’ll “pass” as a ciswoman. I doubt it. That can’t be my goal. That goal would destroy me.
Society doesn’t care if I pass, I don’t think. What they care about is that I look like I’m trying. Which leaves me two options: pass or fail.
I don’t want to play that game at all.
* * *
An acquaintance of mine, who was loved dearly by people I love, was a transwoman named Feral Pines. She died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland last December. She died doing something I also do: playing electronic music in a weirdo DIY venue. Sometimes, when people you know die, you selfishly think about your own mortality.
A few evenings later, the night before my 34th birthday, I was thinking about Feral’s death and life. It was the last night of my early thirties. I’m getting older. All I could think was: “Oh god, I don’t want to die a boy.”
I came out to friends and family the next day.
* * *
A pretty common conversation I’ve had over the years, as I’ve publicly mused about transitioning (there’s that word again; I guess I use it myself), goes like this:
“Margaret, you shouldn’t transition, because you’re a handsome man but you’d make a kind of ugly woman, no offense.”
Sometimes I have that same conversation with myself.
Sometimes I have it with myself daily for months and I stress eat and mope and think unpleasant thoughts. Then I remember that I am what I am and dammit isn’t the point of punk to not give a fuck about what society expects me to look like, to act like, to consider beautiful?
To quote the CrimethInc poster, “Beauty must be defined as what we are, or else the concept itself is our enemy.”
* * *
It was easy to come out to my friends. I can filter my friends by their reactions. Anyone who has trouble with me as a transwoman isn’t my friend. It’s that simple.
Around my friends, in both anarchist and science fiction spaces, being a non-passing trans person scarcely even marks me as different. I might be the only one at any given party — though I doubt it — and I’m sure it colors people’s reactions to me to some degree, but overall it’s a non-issue. I’m fairly certain I’m known more as Margaret-who-writes-sci-fi or Margaret-who-almost-never-comes-to-meetings-and-when-she-does-she’s-sort-of-grumpy and not as Margaret-the-trans-girl-who-doesn’t-pass-for-shit.
It was harder to come out to my family.
I want to be clear: while it’s not the easiest thing they’ve ever dealt with, my family has been supportive.
But it’s with them that I feel the most pressure to look like I’m trying to pass. This pressure is almost entirely in my own head; my family doesn’t ask me when I’m going to start hormones or anything like that. But there’s really only one trans narrative that has broken into mainstream understanding — that of the person trapped in the wrong body, who needs to physically transition — and I find myself wanting to be legible to the people that I love. I want to be dealing with something that they can understand. I want them to be able to talk to their friends and have their friends get it.
That probably won’t happen.
* * *
For the first several months after I came out, I was a wreck. My self-esteem was through the floor. As soon as I judged myself by feminine beauty standards, everything went to shit.
Cisfeminine people deal with this too, of course. I find myself thinking “my shoulders are too broad” or “my waist is too square with my hips” or “my stomach isn’t flat” and those thoughts — or comparable ones — have run through the mind of every woman I know. Feminine beauty standards are absurd. It’s just that I’m newer to dealing with them.
There’s a specific kind of monstrosity that is the transwoman, though. A passing transwoman is a monster because she’s a deceiver. A non-passing transwoman is a monster because she is a pitiful, shameful being, a lost soul forever trapped in body limbo.
Without even realizing it, I fell into believing that about myself.
I snapped out of it, eventually. I don’t want to look like I’m trying and failing to be something I’m not. I just want to look like myself, whatever “myself” is at any given time.
There are probably steps I’m going to take to feminize my body, but all my money is going straight into my teeth these days, so it’s hard for me to even consider anything that requires financial investment. I think about feminization the same way that I think about future tattoos. I’m not not-myself because I don’t yet have the city of Hronople tattooed on my left thigh. I’m not not-myself because I still grow thick black hair on that same thigh.
* * *
There’s no reason for me to believe that my experience is typical of, or generalizable to, transwomen as a whole. I would never tell you that all transwomen can or should share this attitude about transition. The trans narrative that has broken into the mainstream did so by hard work and spilled blood, and it’s only holding on by the same. I am in complete solidarity with my trans sisters who choose to go whatever route.
* * *
There’s something dangerous but also entertaining about standing in front of a urinal in the men’s room while wearing fishnets and a miniskirt. For the time being, that’s what I’ll be doing, because people don’t tend to read me as trans.
When my friends or family “she” me in front of strangers, it’s going to continue to cause confusion because I don’t often wear the opaque foundation it would take to both hide my beard shadow and tell the world that I am jumping through the proper hoops to be accepted.
Many people are just going to outright not believe or understand me when I refer to myself as a woman. That’s fine. I’m probably not going to bother trying to convince society at large who I am. It’s too much work and it’s too self-destructive. I didn’t live this long iconoclastically to waste my time with shit like that now. My friends know me as “she,” my family knows me as “she.” I get to write my own bios in my books, so I’ll continue to publish as “she.” People will either accept it or they won’t.
Margaret Killjoy is a transfeminine author and editor currently based in the Appalachian mountains. Her most recent book is an anarchist demon hunters novella called The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, published by Tor.com. She spends her time crafting and complaining about authoritarian power structures and she blogs at birdsbeforethestorm.net.