Would J.R.R. Tolkien Have Occupied Wall Street?

Would J.R.R. Tolkien Have Occupied Wall Street?

I’m not sure where this came from originally (I found it on Facebook) but it’s pretty hilarious. Of course, it’s hard to say what Tolkien would have thought of these particular protests. He was an odd duck when it came to politics. Socially a traditionalist, he was also something of an anarcho-monarchist, and his ungoverned Shire was the epitome of his good society.

At one point, he wrote:

“My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remain obstinate!… Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people… The most improper job of any man, even saints, is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”

Tolkien was a medievalist romantic. His deep attachment to the traditionalism in the Catholic church was streaked through with a love of the myths and folklore he found wedged beneath the edifice of his own faith. There are no faeries in Christianity, but Tolkien wrote about faeries as if he truly believed in them.

His study of language and folklore gave birth to Middle Earth, and the Shire emerged as Tolkien’s very own Utopia, where neither men nor hobbits believed it was their job to boss others about – and those who did were quickly reminded of their proper place. Far off Gondor was ostensibly the seat of power, but it was, if anything, a Night Watchmen state (though of course, Tolkien would not have used those terms to describe it.)

David Hart had a nice piece on all of this last year, and he described both his own and Tolkien’s politics as “only cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.” This was once very similar to how I conceived of my own politics. The gently ironic critique, distant from the ugly pragmatism of day-to-day politics. A conservatism detached from the actual consequences of electoral democracy.

In some senses, this is still how I think about the world, but I have become a pragmatist also; I’ve shed many of the ideas that moored me once to whatever idiosyncratic conservatism I thought I possessed. I remain a decentralist at heart still; still cleave to my belief in subsidiarity and the importance of voluntary associations and civil society. But I no longer consider all of this the realm of conservatism or even libertarianism for that matter.

I wouldn’t mind living in the Shire, but I’d be one of those annoying hobbits clamoring for gay hobbits to be allowed to marry (speaking of rings). Likewise, if Saruman showed up and began extracting wealth at the point of a sword, and transforming once profitable industries into complicated financial goods, I’d probably Occupy the Shire with Frodo and the rest of them.

I am not against markets or limited government (depending on what you mean by that) – in many, many ways I am in agreement with my libertarian and anarchist friends. But we have come a long ways from the Shire. The world we live in is vastly skewed toward the very wealthy. Inequality and poverty are everywhere. Globalism has not progressed as some organic force. Free trade agreements are often as not resource-extraction arrangements cobbled together by governments and multinational corporations. Western capitalism is too often eerily reminiscent of Saruman’s sacking of the Shire.

I am not against corporations or business or a free market society (or capitalism depending on what you mean by it) and I don’t think most Occupy Wall Street protesters are – I am against the sort of violence that undergirds this particular breed of capitalism, most poignantly represented by the financial sector – and the military-industrial complex, of course.

Which made me think to myself, “Now we see the violence inherent in the system!”

A fine note to end on.

See also: Why There is No Jewish Narnia

 

 

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55 thoughts on “Would J.R.R. Tolkien Have Occupied Wall Street?

  1. Haha, oh I love that clip. There’s never enough Monty Python in my life.

    As to Tolkien and Occupy, I think he’d certainly be sympathetic to them, especially their basic aim of spontaneous organic community.

    Capturing productivity gains is one thing, but the breakdown of genuine peopled communities in the face of “capital’s” wants and needs is close enough to the sinister evils in Middle Earth.

    There, over zealous resource extraction by the dwarves (Mines of Moria) unleashed powerful evil and made them vulnerable to forces that multiplied beyond their control (orcs).

    Saruman supplants nature and tradition by rapid over industrialization only for Isengard to be occupied by ents,

    And the elves are destroyed at every turn by the excesses of their technology (the rings) and its appropriation by Sauron (THE ring).

    So at the very least, I think he’d find income inequality, massive political disenfranchisement, and the breakdown of communities and exploitation of nature all for the dream of a more materially prosperous and highly technologized future a completely incoherent tradeoff.

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  2. I’ve not read enough of Tolkien’s letters to formulate an idea about his approach, if any, to economics, and I hesitate to speculate; but I cannot resist mentioning that in Hobbit culture, those who host grand birthday parties give gifts rather than receive them. They’ve a much stronger sense of communal responsibility and generosity than we typically have. When Frodo and company returned to the Shire, there was never any question that they had an obligation to use the skills they acquired on their adventure to liberate their homeland and right the wrongs inflicted upon it through long-term service.

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  3. “I have no issue with those who do something useful, produce value, and make 100 times more money than me. I have MANY issues with those who produce nothing, destroy value, make others homeless and poor, scam the entire world, and make 10,000 times more money than I do. Those must go, along with the insane system that makes their scams possible.”

    Sage words.

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  4. I dunno if you can read much about modern politics into Tolkein’s work. Tolkein presents a world where you can tell who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy just by looking at them. There’s no moral ambiguity; while people can switch sides, it’s obvious that they’ve done it. Even the humans on Sauron’s side are clearly Different People from the rest of us.

    Not only that, but in Tolkein’s world it is literally impossible to do anything with the bad guys except kill them. Merely responding in a non-hostile way leads to corruption and eventual death (Saruman.) Even refusing to fight them ends badly (the Men of the Mountains).

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    • Tolkein presents a world where you can tell who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy just by looking at them.

      Too bad Gandalf didn’t look at Saruman when he came to him for aid. Doing so might have saved him some trouble. Snark aside, Tolkien’s moral universe is very Aristotelian: the good guys are good because they’ve made a habit of good actions and the bad are bad for the habit of succumbing to evil. Doing good builds up the soul; doing evil destroys it. You don’t see Darth Vader style switching of sides because conversion is typically a long, difficult, gradual process.

      Even the humans on Sauron’s side are clearly Different People from the rest of us.

      Really? Samwise Gamgee didn’t think so.

      Not only that, but in Tolkein’s world it is literally impossible to do anything with the bad guys except kill them. Merely responding in a non-hostile way leads to corruption and eventual death (Saruman.) Even refusing to fight them ends badly (the Men of the Mountains).

      I disagree. An argument the heroes make again and again is that one shouldn’t rush to kill the bad guys, even when one’s safety is in question or under threat, and even when the prospects of converting the bad guys to good guys seems utterly hopeless. Saruman and Gollum both eventually refuse the mercy given to them, but not because it was impossible for them to accept it, but because they, habitually disposed to evil, chose when it counted to stay the course of villainy.

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    • The parallels drawn to the “conquests” of Islam, both during Mohammed’s reign and after his death, are easy enough.

      Merely responding in a non-hostile way? Welcome to infiltration land. A small number (less than 5%) is a “respectful minority.” Reach 10%, and they start demanding enclaves where the law of the land is superseded by Shari’a. Reach 20%, and they start demanding that your law “forbid insulting the Prophet” or “forbid insulting Islam.” Reach 50%, and they start instituting Shari’a itself.

      Refuse to fight them? Sorry, it’s “convert or die.” Take a look at how Jews, Christians (Copts or not) are treated as second-class citizens. The Koran calls for “people of the book” to be kept as an undercaste, forced to wear “identifying marks” on their clothing – I wonder how Jews who went through 1940s Germany thought of that little Koranic suggestion that Haj Amin Al-Husseini gave to Der Fuhrer.

      Entering into nonaggression pacts, like the Men of the Mountains? One need look no further than the “Truce” of Hudaybiya to understand the regard Islam holds for nonaggression pacts.

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    • Dude, that was awesome. I especially liked this passage:

      “Zinn: He is celebrated on one hand as a great statesman, a wise man, and viewed by the people who understand the role that he actually plays as a dangerous lunatic and a war criminal. And you will notice that Gandalf’s war pitch hits its highest note when the Black Riders arrive in Hobbiton. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

      Chomsky: This is the Triumph of the Will.

      Zinn: And now Frodo and Sam are joined by Merry and Pippin, as they finally escape the Shire. They’re being chased by the Black Riders. Again, if these Black Riders are so fearsome, and they can smell the ring so lividly, why don’t they ever seem able to find the Hobbits when they’re standing right next to them?”

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    • I was just thinking of Dune in relation to Jason’s drug war thread, a lot of God Emperor of Dune meditaites on the issue of the perpetual self-justification of the police, but I’m probably not going to re-read it any time soon to build a coherent case.

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  5. Mt favorite part about that scene, which is brilliant from beginning to end, is that they’re just hacking at grass and piling up mud the whole time.

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  6. Funny you should ask. As one who has felt the power of the Ring first-hand, and as a soldier, I believe I can give some insights to both that and JRR, who, BTW, fought in the trenches of WW1.

    There is something that all soldiers share when faced with the madness of war, a wondering of what the hell is it that is making people insane enough to act like this? What God-Awful power is it that moves men to seek that which is now in front of us; in our eyes, in our hands, and fills our very noses with the stench of death? What is the foundation upon which Dark Towers all built?

    I have felt it, and there is nothing like it. With it’s power a powerful man or woman can rule the world. I bid you to examine Galadriel’s trial closely. With her natural power and Elvish magic she could embody it by merely being in it’s presence!

    The Ring, my friends, is Strident Nationalism. Merely corrosive to the weak, but deadly to the soul of any who can wield it.

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