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


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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55 Responses

  1. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Yes, very well said. The stories were largely about the march of industrialization and the breakdown of traditional community. I’m certainly not the traditionalist that Tolkien was, but I think much of his critique was valuable in its own right. Nor do I believe that globalism is inherently a bad thing by any means, but that it so often proceeds through violence and coercion.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        I think that Tolkien would laugh, were he to walk my fair city again. He saw the all consuming, souleating industrial machine, and termed it Mordor (and then tried to deny it!).
        Like Marx and Dickens, his work is dated. It lacks the clarity to see the changes that came after.
        I’d think he’d cheer for GASP more than for Occupy, but that’s just me. Housewives changing society seems like something that he’d understand.

        out of Mordor,

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      That’s brilliant, man.

      I’d add to it — what Tolkien considered the true climax of his magnum opus was not the destruction of the One Ring, but the Scouring of the Shire — an organic revolution against the imposition of oppressive state control (and apparently, accompanying industrialization), whose leaders once successful melted Cincinnatus-like back into the general population (with an economy ornamented by agrarian self-sufficiency and at most cottage-level industries) seeking nothing but peace in their personal lives.Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

        And they cut it from the effing movies. Those bastards.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        So i guess we now know who have “Save Tom Bombadil” bumper stickers on their cars.Report

      • Avatar DarrenG says:

        The resolution of the Scouring wasn’t at all “an organic revolution against the imposition of oppressive state control,” in that the revolution wasn’t organic — it was driven by a small, trained, experienced, militant cadre of reactionaries.

        It also wasn’t a reaction to imposition of state control. Saruman was a private industrialist. He did implement a small, corrupt pseudo-state in an attempt to legitimize and monopolize his use of violence, but that was a side-show to the main attraction.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          Racist reactionaries at that. Some of their best friends might be Big People, but they had no business being in the Shire.

          Men, elves, and angels (maia) all intermarried, but there’s no record of any interbreeding between the more closely related (you would think) men and hobbits.Report

  2. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar Mike says:

      Oddly enough, it’s generally on the left wing that you find community responsibility and generosity.

      The right wing is all about killing the safety net as “too expensive”, screaming “the churches will provide”, and trying to take credit. We still have a warehouse full of the useless CRAP that the Ree Tardiers “collected for Joplin survivors” down the street by my house, because rather than do the responsible thing and donate to the Red Cross and other agencies that already had boots on the ground and the means to transfer things that were actual life necessities, they had to hold their own giant “SEE WE ARE THE TEA PARTY AND WE ARE GENEROUS” event to get their name onto it.

      A full warehouse. Full of crap that is absolutely fucking useless to people who don’t have a workplace any more or a roof over their heads and who REALLY needed construction assistance, vehicles, food, water, shelter, and warm clothing.

      Fuck the right wing. They wouldn’t understand community responsibility even if you put those assholes in a chain line and made them serve food in a soup kitchen for a week to see the people that really, truly need help.Report

  3. Avatar Mike says:

    “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.Report

  4. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    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).Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

      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.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Neither Saruman nor Gollum is evil, merely corrupted. And if you put both of them there, you’d better put a buncha other people, who don’t end up actually swearing to the Dark One.

        Tolkien does a good treatise on temptation — but gollum represents the temptation of good as much as the temptation of evil. Which is kinda cool.Report

      • Avatar Plinko says:

        Since we can’t +1 comments, I just want to say that this is a really great response, Kyle.Report

      • Mr. Cupp,

        I generally agree, but I’ve been bothered a lot by the goblins and orcs: they seem irredeemable simply by existing, and it seems almost required to kill them when one can. (I may be too much a servant of the movies and not the books in this interpretation, so I stand to be corrected.)Report

        • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:


          As I understand the Tolkien mythology, orcs and goblins are among those intelligent creatures that are not free in a moral sense. They cannot do good, so far as we know. Whereas man, elves, dwarves and other free peoples may choose to be good or choose to be evil (or both), the orcs and goblins are essentially incapable of such a choice. They’re complete, permanent slaves to evil.

          Given this, there’s no hope or sense in trying to save or redeem them from their wickedness. The free peoples fight against them when necessary. They don’t make it a point to exterminate them from the face of Middle-earth, however.Report

    • Avatar Mike says:

      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.Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    It just wouldn’t be right to have a thread like this one without linking to the unused audio commentaryfrom Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky on the Lord of the Rings movies.Report

    • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

      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?”Report

  6. Avatar wardsmith says:

    Wanted to say something about Arrakis, because one planet shouldn’t control all the spice, but someone beat me to it as usual.Report

    • Avatar Plinko says:

      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.Report

  7. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    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.Report

  8. Avatar Boromir says:

    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.Report

  9. Avatar Kimmi says:

    Question preposterous from the start.
    Tolkien never understood why Americans liked his books anyhow.
    They weren’t written for us, but for his countrymen.Report