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Jonathan Stewart
Jonathan Stewart


It has been suggested that Le Guin's title is a reference to Dostoyevsky's novel about anarchists, Demons (Russian: Бесы, Bésy), one popular English-language translation of which is titled The Possessed.[1] Many of the philosophical underpinnings and ecological concepts came from Murray Bookchin's Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971), according to a letter Le Guin sent to Bookchin.[7] Anarres citizens are dispossessed not just by political choice, but by the very lack of actual resources to possess. Here, again, Le Guin draws a contrast with the natural wealth of Urras, and the competitive behaviors this fosters.[8]


Emphasizing this point is important, considering all the current talk about the specificity of modern precarious labor, its unique class position, and the programmatic requirements of rebuilding the Left. The blunt reality is that, give or take historical specificities, for producers and workers, precariousness has always been their lot. Correspondingly, class struggle only proceeds, and succeeds, when it transcends differentiation, and unites all of the dispossessed, regardless of how they are oppressed or how intensely they are exploited.

Marx was not the only mid-nineteenth century commentator to chronicle the lot of the dispossessed. Henry Mayhew, whose writings on London labor and the poor emerged at roughly the same time as the commentaries of Marx and Engels, emphasized how the capitalist labor market was characterized by dispossession.

Class, then, has always embodied differentiation, insecurity, and precariousness. Dispossession differs, but defines a common plight. No individual can be dispossessed in precisely the same way as another, or live that process of material alienation exactly as another would. Yet dispossession, in general, nonetheless initiates, defines, deepens, and widens proletarianization. It is the metaphorical mark of Cain stamped on all workers, regardless of their level of employment, rate of pay, status, waged placement, or degree of wagelessness.

This massive reserve, from which capital draws such sustenance for its accumulative appetite, now numbers in the billions, and as it has grown so too have the dimensions of misery of the dispossessed expanded:

This sense of belonging and yet not belonging was a constant feature of the tours I observed. It is also the feeling that was expressed in maximalist form on January 6 in the Capitol siege. Not every participant in the tours I observed would be classified today as a white Christian nationalist, but their stories are not so different from the narrative of restoration that justified the Capitol siege. Most importantly, the feelings evoked in both contexts are the same: possessiveness combined with outrage at being dispossessed.

He is a poet of the marginalised, the alienated and the dispossessed: of those who sought refuge after their homelands were destroyed, of those whose fractured lives reflected his own. In a time when our social fabric is fraying once more, when displacement, migration and transience are again the norm and ugly reductive nationalisms threaten to overpower liberal aspirations, Roth speaks to us with as much urgency and power as he did to those who read him during his brief lifetime.


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