The Hunger Games and Politics

So what did I think?

The Hunger Games is about the empire of economic necessity. If you’re a human being, congratulations. You’re playing the hunger games too. Within just a few hours, you will need clean water, food, shelter from predators and the elements, possibly medical care, and even sometimes safety from each other.

How do you get these goods? In the empire of economic necessity, there are basically two ways. One, you can take risks and work hard. Two, you can live by dominating the people who do — that is, by beating or swindling other people out of their product.

Ultimately, those are the only games in town. Saved wealth always points at one or the other. Luck exists, but very few can live by it. (“May the odds be ever in your favor” is, of course, propagandistic bullshit.) Mixed strategies exist, but we’re about ideal types here. Understanding them in their own terms is important if we’re to make normative sense of a world in which they clearly play a part.

The first strategy — call it the kingdom of work — is no fun at all. Taking risks can be brutal and often deadly. It’s almost never glamorous. The rewards are varied, but usually they’re meager and slow to arrive. In the long run they may be positive-sum, but will we ever see the long run? Who knows.

The second strategy — call it the kingdom of dominion — is, by all appearances, a rollicking good time. For the winners, anyway. The really successful folk in this kingdom live lives of primped, pampered luxury. True, true, they leave a trail of dead behind them, drawn both from the kingdom of work and from the less-successful among their own, but just look at the winners. Beautiful, aren’t they?

The hallmarks of dominion are a well-disguised cruelty — and luxury on well-mannered display. Even overt cruelty typically wears a mask. In The Hunger Games it’s one of unity, plenty, and… freedom. There is no atrocity that doesn’t eventually pass under the name of freedom. This should scare the heck out of those of us who propose to defend freedom.

(My favorite line in The Hunger Games? “Manners!” — sniffed at a pair of children who looked for a moment like they might slaughter each other just a little ahead of schedule. Well-mannered display and well-contained — but still vicious — cruelty. Ridicule would make an excellent film pairing with The Hunger Games for just this reason.)

Why do the citizens tune in to the Hunger Games? Because it reflects their own society, with its privileged few and its disprivileged many. And it does something perverse but somehow inspiring. It says to them: This is worth having. Even if Districts 1 and 2 get special training. Even if they really probably shouldn’t. And even if the whole thing is transparently rigged from the start. As the old song would have it: They got you to trade a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage.

And now for the most important sentence in this so-far nebulous reaction piece: The kingdom of work and the kingdom of dominion are at constant war with each other. They are at war inside single every social system that we have ever created. No ideology has ever succeeded at ending the war. All of them have tried, including my own. They fight in communism just like they fight in capitalism. They fight everywhere. They probably always will.

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès said it very well and very early. In his pamphlet “What Is the Third Estate?” he noted that the Third Estate of the Old Regime — basically, the nonclergy and nonnobles — did the overwhelming majority of the work of the society; the clergy and nobility, meanwhile, enjoyed tax breaks, feudal prerogatives, the extensive powers of government, and often quite capricious private powers over everyone else.

This must go, said the Third Estate, and today we are all Third Estaters. The perennial political economy is the hidden link between Karl Marx and Murray Rothbard. Both were anarchists largely because they couldn’t see government as anything other than an instrument of dominion. Even modern Rawlsean liberalism fits in here too, with a bit of a kludge: Bad luck, say the Rawlseans, is really important, and we ought to make an account of it. Dominion likes bad luck. It always has. So we banish it, and then we make sure it won’t find anything to eat if it ever does come back.

Ever since the French Revolution — and even before — one ideology after another has tried to expose the kingdom of dominion, to classify its cruelties, to lay low its power, and to allow only proper rewards for only honest work. Let the productive enjoy the fruit of their labor; let the parasites be made to do likewise. This is the perennial political economy, and differences among its children are mostly differences of classification: On which side do we put capital? What about religion? Do idea workers count? (Are they the only ones who count?) That, and how to classify the mixed workers, the ones who seek rents and also do a bit of real-world production, too. Not easy questions, and with the expansion of both scientific and social technology, they are getting harder all the time.

None of this, however, maps precisely onto any one ideology. This Sieyès and company would find long about 1793. To move beyond abstractions isn’t easy. (Would you have expected it to be?) And art is all about abstraction; ideality, not particularity.

As I tweeted yesterday, “I just wish The Hunger Games stuck it to my real-world political enemies a bit more clearly. That would have made it better art.” If that’s what you’re after, Ilya Somin rounds em up.

(Image credit.)

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18 thoughts on “The Hunger Games and Politics

  1. As I tweeted yesterday, “I just wish The Hunger Games stuck it to my real-world political enemies a bit more clearly. That would have made it better art.”

    Wit and irony aside, I think they actually did try that with the sequel to Battle Royale (the Japanese version of the Hunger Games, also very popular with teens, but unbelievably bloody)- in the first one, the adults have the teens fight to the death on an island for a television game show because “society collapsed”, and that’s the explanation. In the sequel, there’s an added subplot about the War on Terror shoehorned in (with a George Bush lookalike speaking Japanese!) that sort of made the story clearer while also making it a lot more ridiculous. Like you said, art is all about abstractions.

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      • It’s a great movie. Not to sound like a freak (any more than usual), but when we got married I gave my groomsmen and best person DVDs of Battle Royale as gifts. I don’t know about Hunger Games, but Battle Royale plays like a John Huges high school drama if all of the teenage politics actually ended in people getting violently killed! I can see why they didn’t release it in the US after Columbine, but maybe now it’ll get some sort of decent release. It’s a sort of phenomenon in Japan- you can get comic books, key chains, and even a bloody school uniform. At one point, David Fincher was going to re-make it, which would have been cool, but probably now everyone would think he was ripping off the Hunger Games!

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  2. I agree with that ending sentiment completely.  Th movie at least never seemed to deliver on any kind of deeper critique, implicity or otherwise.

    Although perhaps it does.  The take away seems to be: give into the dominating ideology and use it not to subvert it, but to simply get by for you and your family.

    Idealists, like Mr. “What if nobody watched,” are deadends.  Instead, you’ve got to give the crowd what it wants (e.g. play up the love angle, cater to decadent tastes) in order just to get back home alive with enough for you and yours.

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    • Ethan, in fairness to Hunger Games (a note, I haven’t read the books but have a general familiarity with them) the first movie is a translation of the first book which is to say that it’s basically incomplete. You will note that neither the male or female leads are immensly happy seeming at the end of Hunger Games. The point of this being that this isn’t a happy ending and that while the movie presents it as an ending it’s also portrayed as a rather tragic and bad one. Not as bad as some of the alternatives, nay, but certainly far from good.

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      • This is correct.  The first book of The Hunger Games didn’t have the deeper critique–it just lets the reader feel the bewildered desperation of not just the heroine but everyone in District 12, sharing their lack of understanding of why things are as they are.  It’s not until later in the series that the backstory that develops the critique is presented.

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  3. I think Somin and others are right on the message of decentralization.  And it’s one I certainly support.  As long as it is applied with equal gusto to all forms of consolidated power, tendencies toward a moderate but definitive amount decentralization are the only things that can save the human body and spirit from the abuse and alienation of overwhelming political institutions, economic systems, and social ideologies.

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  4. The problem with most children’s literature is that the ones that have, as their fundamental motto, “Listen To Authority!” tend to not be recommended from one kid to another across cliques and classes. (The notable exceptions are the Christian/Theistic ones but deference to Aslan seems to be a difference of kind and not just degree from deference to authority in general.)

    The stories that explain how the grownups are screwing over the teenager, playing them against each other, manipulating them, and keeping them from realizing their own true potential are the ones that get passed from hand to hand in the hallways.

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    • “The problem with most children’s literature is that the ones that have, as their fundamental motto, “Listen To Authority!” tend to not be recommended from one kid to another across cliques and classes.”

      I wouldn’t call this a problem.

       

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  5. So, like Harry Potter, the property resists a political reading from any angle.

    Which means something, and what it means is that the author wasn’t intending to write something political at all, and didn’t.  To the extent that politics appears, it’s that the worst aspects of every ideology are mashed together into a Bad Guy Empire that everyone can justify hating.

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    • I don’t quite agree, because if The Hunger Games had been read at the time of the French Revolution, I think it would straightforwardly have favored the Third Estate.  The lines have gotten a lot blurrier since then is all.  The enemy isn’t apolitical (think Lord of the Rings) it’s pan-political, which is something a bit different.

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    • Oh, no, it’s definitely political, and that’s definitely deliberate on the author’s part.  More evidently so in the second and especially the third books.  It’s just not about left vs. right.  It’s about the pathologies of war, about how even a thoroughly justified revolution can destroy its participants morally.  It’s about what methods are acceptable for overthrowing tyranny, and whether those methods will lead to a better world or just the same one with different people in charge.  It’s about our attitudes toward people who benefit from cruel and unjust systems – should they be regarded as evil and punished, or seen as human beings with whom we can sympathize, and who are products of the system in which they live?

      Considering that most civil wars these days don’t have clear-cut good guys and bad guys (look at the recently-ended conflict in Sri Lanka for an example), the series’ politics are very well suited to our time.  It’s a deeper message than the more typical good vs. evil story of children’s sci-fi/fantasy literature.

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  6. How do you get these goods? In the empire of economic necessity, there are basically two ways. One, you can take risks and work hard. Two, you can live by dominating the people who do — that is, by beating or swindling other people out of their product.

    I’m not an economist, but I’m pretty sure this is a vastly oversimplified and empirically unsupportable dichotomy.

     

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