By Jon Cogburn
This break the Cogburn family took a pause from our long-running Doctor Who/Adventure Time/Buffy the Vampire Slayer Marathon to watch all four Hunger Games movies in four consecutive evenings. Our kids hadn't seen them and Emily and I had done the usual irritating (to people who have a television perpetually on in their houses)* liberal thing of having read the books but not seen the movies. We were very surprised both that we liked the movies as much or more than the books and by how prescient they were.
The first Hunger Games book came out in September of 2008, near the end of W. Bush's disastrous presidency and at the beginning of the hegemony of social media and reality television. Facebook had been around for just four years and youtube for three. With the success of Survivor in 2001 reality television was already a major cultural force. Trump's Apprentice launched the same time as facebook.
In the vein of all good dystopian fiction Suzanne Collins' books are not only entertaining, but also a ferocious critique of the society in which they were penned. The society in the novel is divided into twelve poor rural districts, an urban area, and a thirteenth district which had been leveled seventy five years prior in a civil war. Every year the urban district hosts a "reaping" where each rural district must send a male and female game contestant to the capital, where they compete to death in a televised extravaganza. The survivor becomes wealthy and famous and must help future contestants in the games. They are called the hunger games because your odds of being selected are greater the more food chips you receive from the capital.
It's propitious to watch these films after the eight years of Obama's failed** interregnum between Kings W. Bush and Trump. Strangely, the films do an even better job of satirizing Trump's America than Bush's America, though the dysfunctions of the two eras clearly overlap.
1. Rural/City Animosity- In The Hunger Games the twelve districts produce all of the raw materials used by the urban capital, whose denizens are bizarrely effete and corrupt makeuped creatures who would be at home in a Prince Charming era Adam and the Ants video or on stage with David Bowie. The urban denizens produce the games, the media, and the political leadership to command the society. The city class exploit the surplus labor of the poor people in the districts.
Cracked dot com's David Wong penned one of the best election pieces on Trump's appeal in the contemporary United States. It's main thematic is the cultural and economic rural/city divide in the United States is the root of his draw to people who should know better. The article actually starts with screen shots from Hunger Games. Science fiction and historical fiction (especially westerns) and speeches by Republican politicians tend to present city dwellers as "decadent assholes who live in cities and wear stupid clothes" and the rural as bastions of simple virtues. But "realistic" film and television fiction either merely involves people in New York or Los Angeles or presents rural people as either scary or comical malevolent bumpkins.
So with respect to highly counterfactual fictional worlds, Collins was just going with a script that predates Star Wars. But she's not just recapitulating cowboy novel tropes in the way sci fi novels and Republican politicians do. Remember that during the Clinton administration, there was this view that American would be home to "creative class" jobs such as writing code and designing things while all the physically demanding and tedious jobs involving manufacturing would be done overseas (perhaps robots can clean up after us). The picture here is that the United States would be the Hunger Games capital and the third world our rural districts! And this seemed plausible during the Clinton bubble, which (unlike the Bush bubble) was shared broadly, producing a brief pause in the post 70s decline in the middle class. But Collins clearly saw that the gig was up during Bush. Not only would it not work internationally, it didn't work at home. The rural/city divide was just as much with us. We can hope that defeat by Trump has taught Clinton Democrats the same lesson that Collins understood before Obama.
At this point one should note that successful revolutions based on rural/city animosity don't end well, the worst recent one perhaps being the Khmer Rouge. But there are echos in Iran, Venezuala, and Turkey. There is absolutely no reason to be optimistic about where all of this is going in the United States.
2 "May the Odds Ever be in Your Favor."- This is the line that city dwellers in the film tell rural people at various times such as before pulling names out of the jar to determine who has to compete in the games and at the end of televised extravaganzas before the game start. At one point in the films the camera lingers over graffiti that in one of the rural districts that says "The odds are never in our favor." And how could the odds be in all twenty four contestants' favor? This is as superstitious as expecting God to favor both sides in a football game, or war.
The job of Democrats since the Great Depression has been to clean things up after the Republicans have ruined them by their confusion of the interests of the economic elite with everyone else. When this works well, the interests of the economic elite and people are roughly balanced. But with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton this began to go haywire, since the new Democrats' focus on serving the professional classes was consistent with corrupt Republican privatization of government services, gutting of anti-monopoly role of the federal government, destruction of unions, and deregulating away New Deal protections. At the end of Clintonism, the Republican and Democratic parties for the most part served two distinct, yet overlapping, sets of elites. Democrats serve Hollywood, information technology, and the highly educated upwardly mobile professional classes. Republicans serve extraction and refining industries, the military-industrial machine, and people who inherit their wealth. The financial industry gives money to both sides. Culturally, it is Democratic since the monopolistic relocation of financial services to New York, but its economic interests don't line up with easily with large chunks of the money people in either party, even as Republicans are better at carrying their water.
Key to the Democrats conquering the professional class is their embrace of meritocracy, which flatters successful highly educated people ignorant of the role of luck. For meritocrats, the response to culturally unsustainable and economically undermining levels of inequality is to subsidize education and job training so that the majority of people whose real incomes are declining can improve their lot in life.
But this is a slap in the face to that majority. While free education is a tangible good, the system isn't designed for everyone to to do "creative class" jobs. Inequality doesn't happen because members of the poorer majority aren't reading enough books. Someone is going to be cleaning the toilets in the workplace, and the whole society determines how much to remunerate such jobs and how much respect to afford the people who hold them. And rather than use productivity gains to lessen human labor or share the wealth, late capitalist societies has responded with increase in inequality combined with the creation of the bullshit job.
Clintonism is experienced by the downwardly mobile as the condescending hope that the odds be in your favor, while people know that things are not designed that way. The odds are never in our favor. Obama and Hilary Clinton had no answer for this other than slight redistributionism which the underemployed need but often experience as yet another slap in the face. Trump promised to bring back non-bullshit jobs that produced actual things and payed enough for people of unlucky birth to have respect.
3. Advantage of Birth- In the Hunger Games films the twelve districts form a hierarchy with the lower numbered districts having more status and money. Because of this, in Districts One and Two there are actual schools for game contestants. After each reaping people can volunteer to take the place of one of the contestants chosen. In Districts One and Two, the best male and female graduate of the schools volunteer, and they almost always win the games.
Republicans give lip service to meritocracy too but the fact that the United States is actually now the least upwardly mobile advanced society on Earth never seems to get through at least to their public ideology, which is hypocritical in this way. For a society without inheritance taxes and which permits monopolies will turn into feudalism, which is a pretty stable social configuration as long as there are no external shocks from societies that actually take advantage of the talents of most of their people.
During the time of Catherine the Great, her richest nobleman, Grigory Potemkin, had over two hundred thousand serfs on his land. Catherine liked him because he would pick out the most beautiful girls and train them to be ballerinas, who performed at a special theater he built on his palace grounds. For Catherine this was somehow modern and egalitarian, since the ballerinas' lot in life was better than the other one hundred ninety nine thousand serfs. Unfortunately, these girls really had no choice in the matter and they also ended up being lovers for aristocrats, in a similar manner to which the President in the Hunger Games forces game winners to sleep with powerful people in the city.
Thomas Frank (of What's the Matter with Kansas fame) has a new book called Listen Liberal: Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People which basically argues that Democrats are not that different from Catherine the Great and Potemkin here. Frank looks at blue states with solid Democratic majorities and notes that income inequality in such states is often worse than in red states. What Democrats communicate to downwardly mobile middle class people is that their immiseration is OK with Democrats as long as some of the children of the immiserated get a fair shot in the games.
But meritocracy isn't just bad because it involves a statistical error (the odds being in everyone's favor). It's also impossible for it to be instituted fairly. People are gifted differently by birth, people's parents have different levels of ability to prepare their children to play in the games, and different locales systematically help or hinder children in different ways.
The non-legacy kids at Harvard University (bastion of rich people who vote Democratic) are like the kids from Districts One and Two. That some middle class kid gets to go to Harvard says nothing about the fairness of meritocracy, because the thumb was already on the scale for that kid. I don't know if Collins was smart enough to foresee the capture of the financial industry and U.S. Government (during Democratic times) by the Ivy League. But the hierarchy of districts is a very good model of how this started to be played out in the Clinton administration and has only increased under W. Bush and Obama.
4. Sportsatopia- This is so skillfully done in the books and movies especially that it's hard to describe. Much of the brilliance of the Hunger Games concerns how the buildup to the games and the games themselves are televised in the capital. There is a fashion show aspect to it when the contestants are represented to the people. The contestants are interviewed on live television and if they impress enough wealthy viewers, those viewers can "sponsor" them, which leads to them getting little parachutes of helpful items during the game itself. There is a constant stream of absolutely vapid commentary by absolutely vapid good-looking media personalities.
I have no comment on this as I don't really understand sportsball in our society. It certainly serves a function and Collins is trying to implicate this function in our own tolerance of wretchedness. She does get just how inhuman celebrity worship can be. The people who root for the game participants are complicit in the deaths of 23 out of 24 of those participants. You can't watch that and not think of the gruesome head trauma that football causes. You can't watch that and not think about how we follow and joke about personal breakdowns and death of celebrities. It's not just the Gods that kill those they love.
5. Betrayal- At the end of the series the leader of the revolution is shown to be just as bad as the person she's overthrown. If the female protagonist hadn't killed her right on the brink of her assuming power as "transitional President", there would be a whole new set of games serving the same purpose. And there is some hint that all is not well, because one of her childhood friends has at the end gone to District Two to help impose order. The happy ending is that the protagonist gets to live in the depopulated District 12 (destroyed in the revolution) and have a couple of kids with the other childhood friend and fellow contestant. Though the books and movie leave this vague, this is potentially a happy ending for her and her alone.
Who knows what Trump will really do? But all signs point to a betrayal of the promises he made to his downwardly mobile supporters. He hasn't hired anyone with an even unserious plan to bring back manufacturing jobs or in any way alleviate whatever is causing Appalachian and Midwestern whites to kill themselves with booze, prescription pills, and guns. During the primaries he promised that he would replace Obamacare with something better, that he would not gut Social Security or Medicare. But since the election he's said nothing about stopping Congress from doing just this and he's appointed some people to his administration who are sympathetic to the Republican looting/unwinding. During the primaries he wavered back and forth between critiquing American imperial overreach and promising to be more brutal in executing it. But he has only has appointed many people who are spokespeople for imperial overreach. The new boss (Trump) seems to be not only the same as the old boss (W. Bush), but a worse version thereof.
Finally, I should note that Trump has shown one imaginative failure of The Hunger Games. In Collins' imaginative universe, racism, xenophobia, and sexism do not play a pronounced role in keeping the districts in line. This may make us blind to our possible future. It is far more likely than not that as the scope of Trump's betrayal to his downwardly mobile voters becomes clear, he will respond by amping up racism and xenophobia. W. Bush would not have been re-elected were it not for his decision to take us to war against a country that did not attack us or pose a threat. Part of Trump's appeal is that he was the only person on the stage in the Republican debates who honestly noted that this ended up being a disaster for everyone involved. The sickening irony is that, given the role that racism and xenophobia played in his campaign, he's almost certain to repeat W. Bush's tragedy as worse tragedy. God save us all if it's against Iran. God also save us from war within.
Second, while The Hunger Games is a brilliant send-up of meritocracy, we shouldn't forget that meritocracy is better than many of the alternatives where there is no pretense of fairness whatsoever. People with countries with lots of public corruption can set us correct about this. Of course this presents us with a final bit of depressing possibilia to usher in the new year. Trump's conflicts of interest are so extreme that our public ethos of rent seeking and who-you-knowism seems likely to increase even further. With Paul Krugman, I think that this is likely to be a much bigger problem than most of us imagine.
*I used to be this guy, and now I'm a different area man altogether.
**I realize that it's too early to determine whether the Obama years are a failure. I hope that I'm wrong here.
Smart economic elites don't beggar the people for their own short term gain. Clintonism and New Labour in Britain were the (very dumb) bet that enough of our elites would realize this and as a result you wouldn't need strong unions, anti-monopolistic state action, or publicly owned goods. The failure of Obamaism and the consequent rise of Trump shows that our elites are not smart enough though. I don't think this reflects anything special about the United States. Government in all countries mostly exist to prevent elites from sabotaging their own countries, and besides all declining imperial powers go through the same thing.]