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.