Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home

home is where the anarchy is! <3

From Notes toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism

These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “Ecology and Revolution.” My co-panelists were Thais Gobo, Sergio Bedoya Cortés, and Dan Fischer.

“’Is the world at its end?’

[…] ‘There is no end.’” (Le Guin 281)

In the realm of speculative fiction, the late historian Richard Stites identified three emergent themes in art from the early Soviet period: namely, portrayals of capitalist hells (or dystopias), alternative and anti-modern utopias, and communist heavens (Stites).1 In the century since the Russian Revolution, utopian and dystopian anti-capitalist themes have resonated in science fiction, including literature, films, and games. For instance, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) inspired George Orwell’s 1984 (1948), while the visionary anarcha-feminist Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985) pays tribute not only to Zamyatin but also to their common predecessors: namely, the anarchist novelist Lev Tolstoy, and the anarcho-communist theorist Peter Kropotkin. A generation before the Russian Revolution overthrew Tsarism and landlordism, the British poet William Morris had written News from Nowhere (1890) as an imaginative journey to a liberated England of the future, organized along free-communist and ecological lines.

In this sense, Le Guin’s award-winning2 novel Always Coming Home combines elements of heavenly communism with anti-modern and alternative utopianism to seek out a “good place” for humanity, even within the precarious context of a future climate-devastated Earth (Le Guin 19). In the words of John P. Clark, this book “is a critique of ‘living outside the World.’ And it is a critique aimed at us” (Clark). In this presentation, I will elucidate Le Guin’s reconstructive vision, which heralds our potential for harmony and “liv[ing] inside the world,” while also contemplating her portrayal of the grim realities of socio-political oppression and ecological crisis (156). I will then compare Le Guin’s views on technology, gender, and authoritarianism with the critical perspectives of Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, before concluding.

Rendering homage to her parents, the ethnologists Alfred Louis and Theodora Kroeber, Le Guin (1929-2018) uses anthropological approaches to narrate this exploration of ‘future history.’ As an interdisciplinary work, Always Coming Home combines speculative ethnology with poetry, parables, music, spiritual journeys, and emblematic memoirs to (re)construct the world of so-called Kesh culture. In “the Valley” of California in the deep future, the Kesh have set up an egalitarian society based on anarcha-feminist principles of care, free love, and the gift economy.3 Among the Kesh, hierarchies between mental and manual labor are relics of the past. Valley people practice both hunting and gathering as well as communal horticulture, insofar as the two-season climate (wet-dry) allows. The lands surrounding each Kesh settlement are divided into “hunting” and “planting” sides. Although five Houses exist in the Valley, they are “not arranged in any hierarchy of power, value, etc., nor [i]s there rivalry among them for status.” On the one hand, to be “rich” in Kesh society means to be generous; on the other, Kesh culture associates violence with masculinity (Le Guin 44, 70-1, 83, 93, 128n123, 158, 175), such that, in this work, “[t]he patriarchal […] is identified with the imperialistic” (Jameson 67).

The Kesh practice matrilineal exogamy: in other words, men go live with their wives’ families after marriage, and partners bond across communities (8-9, 44). They are also sex-positive: men proposition women erotically from positions of supplication, not domination, as adolescent boys engage in gay banter, and LGBT couples freely cohabitate (219, 366). The Kesh “dance the Moon” every year, when all marriages and partnerships are temporarily dissolved, and men and women ritualistically join together for nights of lunar-inspired group sex. Comprised of groups of towns within the wilderness rather than cities dominating the countryside, Kesh settlements are organized around the heyimas, a sacred space dedicated to learning, book-making, and the creation of art (Le Guin 242-50, 274, 298, 314-6).

Through the practice of “heyiya,” or the recognition of the sacred and boundless interconnectedness of humanity, flora, and fauna,Valley peoples practice a religion lacking gods. As such, their belief-system recalls Daoism, Buddhism, Hermann Cohen’s vision of a “religion of reason,” and the Lakota philosophy of mitakuye oyasin (or the interrelatedness of all life). It hearkens back to the Neolithic, when it is believed that there was “no separation between the secular and the sacred” (Eisler 23). Moreover, Le Guin’s concept of heyiya resembles the traditional Chinese idea of qi, or “life-force,”and the Freudian libido. The interconnected spirals of the heyiya-if, known as “the visual form of an idea which pervaded the thought and culture of the Valley,” strongly resemble the Daoist taijitu, with the latter’s dualities of light and dark (Le Guin 45).

Through heyiya, the Kesh do not repress contemplation of mortality, but rather, integrate reflection on death into song, dance, and poetry. Like Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, they acknowledge that existence is pervaded by pain and suffering. Valley people recognize rather than deny humans’ animality, and seek to emulate the mutual aid practiced by our cousins, who “live softly” and peacefully, and “don’t make it hard to live.” Though they utilize animal products, the Kesh refer to non-human animals as people, as in the Russian животные (“living beings”) (Le Guin 83-94, 112, 114, 160, 366-7).

In ecological terms, this future-world is marked by capital’s desolation of the global climate. Implicitly speaking to the threat of sea-level rise posed by the melting of the world’s glaciers and polar ice caps, Grey Bull recalls a journey by sailboat to what must previously have been the San Francisco Bay Area, whose houses, buildings, streets, and roads now lie at “the bottom of the sea” (Le Guin 138).

“Under the mud in the dark of the sea there

books are, bones are […].

There are too many souls there” (Le Guin 390).

Speculatively, there may be an intertextual connection between this estranging journey into the effects of global warming portrayed by Le Guin, and the premise of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017), which features a future wherein the polar icecaps have melted, with New York—like other low-lying cities—irreversibly inundated. Steven Spielberg’s film Artificial Intelligence (2001) is similarly set in a flooded Earth of the future. Likewise, at the conclusion of Planet of the Apes (1968), audiences learn that this dystopian world is in fact our own, deep in the future, after human society has collapsed. By contrast, in Always Coming Home—despite the ecological constraints imposed not only by catastrophic global warming, but also by chemical and radioactive pollution of the environment—Le Guin’s sympathetic portrayal of Kesh society arguably constitutes an (an)archaeology of the future: a vision, in other words, of “what [we] can become” (Le Guin 136-41, 159; Eisler 5). With the help of an information “Exchange,” the Kesh use soft technologies, including cybernetics, railways, and solar energy, to decentralize production and decision-making—thus integrating the past visions of Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, Lev Tolstoy, Murray Bookchin, and Marshall Sahlins, among others (Le Guin 379-80).

Valley vs. Condor: Kesh vs. Dayao

Le Guin’s narrator and alter ego Stone Telling emblematically experiences “two radically different cultures” (Clark): namely, that of the “introverted but cooperative” Valley people (or Kesh), and that of the Condor people, otherwise known as the Dayao. The Condor are a nomadic group of marauders who practice militarism, ultra-misogyny, slavery, and cruelty toward animals (Le Guin 29). Being the daughter of a Valley woman known as Willow and the Condor commander Terter Abhao, Stone Telling finds herself between worlds. As an adolescent, she embarks on a dystopian spiritual journey of exile from the Valley north with Abhao, and suffers in the City of Condor for seven years.

Named by the Kesh for the gruesome carrion bird, the Condor are “Men of no House [or home],” who are “at war with every peoples of the lands […]” (Le Guin 16, 192, 379). Theirs is a dominator society, where “male dominance, male violence, and a generally hierarchic and authoritarian social structure [are] the norm” (Eisler 45). Farmers known as tyon serve the military bureaucracy, which in turn invests in “Great Weapons” with which to conquer, extract, and enslave. Stone Telling describes with dismay how Condor men brutalize non-human animals, and questions why they ever had tried to resurrect imperialism. For the author, hyper-masculinity, domination, and violence are all linked: “Everything among the Dayao had to have a chief […]. Everything they did was war.” In other words, they “stood in no relation to anything in the world” (Le Guin 38, 190, 199, 349, 380).

In this pyramidal society, “True Condors” can only be men, and literacy is violently restricted to the soldier caste. “Condor Women” occupy an intermediate position in the social hierarchy, while “all other women, foreigners, and animals” are viewed with contempt as “hontik,” or “half-animal[s].” The Dayao effectively practice purdah, or gender apartheid, as well as polygamy, and wives are expected “to have babies continuously.” Given the hegemonic view among the Dayao that women are viewed as men’s property, honor killings are normalized and even encouraged. This contrast starkly with Kesh grammar, thought, and social practice, which—like the Anarresti language in Le Guin’s other ‘ambiguous’ anarchist utopia, The Dispossessed (1974)—“makes no provision for a relation of ownership between human beings” (Le Guin 42n40, 193-9, 200, 340-8, 345-6).

Through their casteism, gross sexism, and ultra-violence, the Condor soldiers recall the ancient Greeks, Vikings, Mongols, conquistadores, and other slaveowners of yore, plus the Hindutva and Taliban of today—not to mention Frank Herbert’s fictional portrayal of House Harkonnen in Dune (1965). The reactionary modernism and technical reason they practice—evinced in their use of napalm, and in their reconstruction of battle tanks—bring to mind U.S. and Nazi imperialism.

Having realized the “wrong way” of life in the City of Condor, Stone Telling recruits her father into helping her leave with her infant daughter Ekwerkwe and servant Esiryu. Though Terter is killed for his insubordination, the female trio succeed in escaping. Returning to the Valley not to intimidate or colonize, as Abhao—who “was in mind and heart no warrior at all”—had done under orders decades prior, Stone Telling renames herself “Woman Coming Home” (Le Guin 34-6, 353-8, 368). Ultimately, the author closes by denouncing “the manipulative world of domination we actually find ourselves in,” and affirming “the cooperative world of freedom we are capable of creating” (Clark).

Elements of Critical Theory in Always Coming Home

Le Guin was an anarcha-feminist who was well-versed in the writings of Bookchin, Kropotkin, and presumably also Tolstoy. I am unaware of her having read or directly engaged the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. Nonetheless, they were contemporary radicals for many years, and many of the concerns raised in Always Coming Home closely parallel the critical analyses made by Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. Indeed, Le Guin all but cites Fromm’s The Sane Society (1955) when she concludes that “[w]hat we call strength [the Condor] calls sickness; what we call success it calls death” (Le Guin 380). Here, I will briefly examine three common themes found in Le Guin, Fromm, and Marcuse’s social theories: the dialectical analysis of technology, the avowal of feminist humanism, and the framing of psychosexual sadomasochism and political authoritarianism as dynamic systems.

Considering that the Kesh ‘economy’—such as it is—bases itself on hunting, gathering, and communal horticulture, and that the world depicted in Always Coming Home has been devastated by global warming and industrial pollution, some might take Le Guin to be a Luddite, and/or sympathetic to undialectical “anti-civ” discourses. Yet, neither such interpretation would be convincing. The author clearly favors literacy, learning, and life-long education for all, together with the egalitarian practice of medicine, and the use of “soft” technologies, such as gardening, sailboats, trains, and solar energy. In this sense, Le Guin takes a dialectical view of technology, whereby the so-called “Exchange” can help the Kesh designs tools with which to build an anarchist society, but it can also facilitate the Dayao’s militarist and genocidal expansionism.4 In turn, as we know, Marcuse and Fromm saw modern technology as a double-edged sword that could radically reduce the need for alienated labor and provide enough for all while also greasing the wheels toward fascist authoritarianism and collective self-destruction through war and ecological collapse.

Beyond this, Le Guin’s anarcha-feminist vision overlaps with aspects of Marcuse’s socialist feminism and Fromm’s psychosocial interest in matriarchies. Dialectically, the psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow critiques Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) as advancing an “anti-masculinist stance,” while also “manifest[ing] a near-complete invisibility […] of women as subjects” (Chodorow 140). Although it is true that Marcuse took several decades to advance a specifically feminist critique, in his last decade of life, he strongly endorsed the feminist movement for the potential he saw in it to transform society in a non-repressive way. In “Marxism and Feminism,” Marcuse hails the women’s rights movement, envisions a “feminist socialist” future, and endorses the androgynous ideal (Marcuse 165-172). Likewise, Fromm studied the findings of anthropologists like Robert Briffault to contest the orthodox-Freudian idea that the Oedipus complex is universal. Taking into account matriarchal and matrilineal societies of the past, such as Minoan Crete and Çatal-Hüyük, Fromm proposed that all love and altruism derives from the relationship between mother and child. Like Le Guin—he found in matrilineal societies a life-affirming alternative to Puritan and capitalist oppression (Jay 94-6).

Lastly, Le Guin closely echoes Fromm’s humanistic psychology in her examination of the psychodynamics of hierarchy: that is, of “the slave mind” (Le Guin 358). Particularly regarding gender, Le Guin illuminates domination as contingent: she shows that patriarchy and women’s self-derogation are upheld by attitudes, behaviors, and institutions that affirm male privilege and authority, and that, for the same reasons, such forms of oppression can be undone. For Le Guin, as for Fromm, defective social relations—including sexism, authoritarianism, and exploitation—persist because the less powerful party within such relationships—whether they be partners, workers, or slaves—resign themselves to such dehumanization. At the same time, as Hegel recognized in his dialectic of lordship and bondage, such relations of domination can be upset, if and when the subordinated party chooses to rebel. After all, mutual recognition is the humanistic alternative to involuntary sadomasochism (Chancer).

In Always Coming Home, we see how Terter Abhao professes his thoughtless faith in hierarchy: “As I give orders, I obey orders. In this matter I have no choice.” Additionally, when Stone Telling is enthralled to Condor culture in exile, she considers Esiryu “my slave, whom I obeyed.” Yet, back in the Valley, expressing anarcha-feminist humanism, Stone Telling returns to reason. She proclaims that “[t]here is no way that men could make women into slaves and dependents if the women did not choose to be so” (Le Guin 39, 198, 355).

Conclusion

Ursula Le Guin’s ‘ambiguously’ utopian anarchist masterpiece, Always Coming Home, is not only a classic of visionary fiction, but also an allegorical exploration of how we might salvage the future, within the context of catastrophic global warming. Following Bookchin’s framework of social ecology, and echoing the foundational message of Critical Theory, Le Guin shows how social, political, and economic domination are irrevocably tied in with ecological destruction. Her anarcha-feminist critique is disturbing in its persistent relevance: like the shocking recent femicides of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in London, Le Guin’s book speaks to the centrality of “[m]ale violence against women […] in the fabric of our society,” and the need to “rip[ it] out” (Bate). Ultimately, against those who, with “their heads on wrong,” would perpetuate authoritarianism and self-destruction, Always Coming Home proposes that our best recourse is mutiny, rebellion, exile, and autonomy (Le Guin 159).

Works Cited

Bate, Marisa 2021. “Sarah Everard’s murderer has been sentenced. Now, Cressida Dick must go.” Open Democracy, 30 September. Available online: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/sarah-everards-murderer-has-been-sentenced-now-cressida-dick-must-go. Accessed 3 October 2021.

Chancer, Lynn S. 2020. “Feminism, Humanism, and Erich Fromm.” Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future. Eds. Kieran Durkin and Joan Braune. London: Bloomsbury. 96-107.

Chodorow, Nancy 1999. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Clark, John P. “On Living in the World: Always Coming Home Revisited.” Fifth Estate, forthcoming.

Eisler, Riane 1987. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. New York: HarperCollins.

Enzinna, Wes 2017. “Bizarre and Wonderful.” London Review of Books, vol. 39, no. 9.

Jameson, Fredric 2005. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso: London.

Jay, Martin 1973. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1985. Always Coming Home. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marcuse, Herbert 2004. “Marxism and Feminism.” The New Left and the 1960’s: Collected Papers, volume 3. Ed. Douglas Kellner. London: Routledge. 165-172.

Stites, Richard 1989. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Notes

1For example, Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908), Alexander V. Chayanov’s My Brother Alexei’s Journey into the Land of Peasant Utopia (1920), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Yakov Okunev’s Tomorrow (1924), Alexander Belyaev’s Battle in the Ether (1927), V. D. Nikolsky’s In A Thousand Years (1927), or A. R. Palei’s Gulfstream (1928).

2The Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize (1985).

3Indeed, the portrayal of this “Valley” in California may be Le Guin’s tribute to the peaceful, stateless Valley community envisioned in the Daoist story, “Peach Blossom Spring,” written by Tao Qian in 421 C.E.

4Referencing her earlier work, The Dispossessed, Le Guin wrote to Bookchin, saying that she had based her novel in part on his idea of post-scarcity anarchism (Enzinna).

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