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Rebel Without a Cause

The politics of The Hunger Games series aren't as revolutionary as they've been hyped to be.

The international success of The Hunger Games saga has been seen by some commentators as a sign of renewed interest in revolutionary ideas. The Guardian’s Ben Child recently examined the “anti-capitalist message” of the films in an article about “how The Hunger Games inspired the revolutionary in all of us,” while Donald Sutherland, the actor who plays the cruel and merciless President Snow, declared that he wanted The Hunger Games “to stir up a revolution” that could “overturn the US as we know it.”

Many view the world described in the movies based on Suzanne Collins’ trilogy as a metaphor for our own society. This isn’t surprising — the extreme inequality between the districts and the Capitol of Panem, the technologically advanced city in the series where the elite live, is reminiscent of the world we live in.

But the politics of The Hunger Games aren’t quite what they seem, and its heroine, Katniss Everdeen, won’t be inspiring an anticapitalist revolution anytime soon.

Cyber-Feudalism

The world of The Hunger Games can be a metaphor for many things but certainly not for the capitalism we live in today. If anything Katniss lives in a cyber-feudal, rather than a neoliberal, society — a difference well-illustrated by the fact that the “districts” into which Panem is divided represent a caste society (additionally divided on the basis of race) rather than one based on class.

The participants of the Hunger Games are seen as “tributes” that each district is required to deliver to the Capitol, mirroring an economic system based on feudal duties rather than the free market. Indeed, the Capitol’s wealth is amassed by the direct expropriation of goods from the outer districts and not through the mediation of the market.

Political and economic power are unified in the hands of President Snow, who dispatches his troops, the “Peacekeepers,” to both punish rebels and enforce higher production quotas. So it is the extreme violence perpetrated by the autocrat’s henchmen rather than the impersonal logic of the market and the exploitation of free laborers that guarantee the accumulation of wealth.

The whole system of Panem works thus through direct repression rather than through economic necessity. For example, geographic immobility (the citizens can’t move from one district to another) is implemented not by the lack of economic resources but by a legal caste system maintained by violence.

It’s the exact opposite of the fantastical world depicted in Andrew Niccol’s 2011 film In Time. There, the characters’ inability to move from one “time zone” to another is directly dictated by their wealth (or their time, which functions as currency). The system normally works without violence; inequality and exploitation are direct consequences of market rules rather than violent expropriation. The “Time Keepers,” unlike the Peacekeepers, exist to make people respect the rules, not to maintain an arbitrary and authoritarian regime.

The elites that live in the Capitol are also much more reminiscent of a decadent aristocracy than the bourgeoisie. The movies themselves insist on the aristocratic nature of the Capitol’s inhabitants by giving them classical Roman names — like Coriolanus Snow or Seneca Crane — and dressing them in flamboyant costumes and wigs that we might expect from the French ancien régime rather than capitalists today (it is thus relevant that Plutarch Heavensbee, the gamemaker who betrays the Capitol to work for the rebellion, bears a Greek name).

And if the fact that thirteen districts were involved in the first rebellion against the Capitol makes a painfully obvious allusion to the thirteen original American colonies, it is again the memory of a rebellion against a monarchy rather than capitalism that is evoked.

All of this is to say that The Hunger Games present a grab bag of allusions to historical systems of oppression (that are then augmented by contemporary dictatorial regimes in the two parts of Mockingjay) that make us think of anything except for capitalism.

The most likely form of revolution inspired by the movies is actually one that attempts to establish a capitalist society rather than abolish it. Moreover, treating the universe of Panem as if it did mirror our world constitutes the quintessential neoliberal illusion. Far from helping us reveal our most pressing contemporary problems, the liberal ideological message of The Hunger Games is that the major problems facing society today are state domination, dictatorships, and the restriction of individual liberties — in short, everything except for exploitation and capitalism.

Ideology as Propaganda

The Hunger Games is also a particularly clear example of modern blind spots regarding ideology. In all the movies the vast majority of Panem citizens are fully aware of the dictatorial aspect of the system. They maintain a critical distance from the official discourse and to the speeches of President Snow (they know it’s propaganda) but are resigned to their lot (they lack “hope,” as Snow would put it). They need only a spark to give them the will to overthrow the whole system.

This vision, reproducing the common idea that ideology is only something imposed on us from the outside (generally from the state), diminishes ideology to mere propaganda. Ideology is made to resemble a pair of glasses that the state or some other source of power forces us to wear, distorting the true world and the power relations that define it.

Slavoj Žižek argues that the genius of John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live — where it’s by putting on, rather than removing, the glasses that the hero becomes aware of his true world — is that it shows that to see ideology we need to wear the glasses rather than struggle to take them off. As Žižek writes, “we are naturally in ideology, our natural, immediate, sight is ideological.” Ideology is within us, in the way we spontaneously see the world. It is not simply imposed by an external force like the state or capital.

The Hunger Games films’ representation of a society controlled by an authoritarian regime backed by a coarse propaganda apparatus doesn’t map onto the true challenge of our time. Today’s battles aren’t about struggling for freedom of speech or an independent justice system, but precisely the opposite: they’re about a society that has established the ideological consent of the vast majority of the population without any of the barbarian and violent excess depicted in The Hunger Games.

Moreover, capitalism is implicitly presented as a solution to most of the concerns of the movie: we are not executed without a trial, we are not separated into districts by race, we have freedom of speech and of association. All these rights are — formally at least — perfectly compatible with capitalism.

François Furet’s Revolution

So it is strange that Child writes that we should “celebrate The Hunger Games for at least offering a vision of what genuine revolution might look like,” because the films ultimately refuse the very idea of revolution.

Indeed, every character who supports the rebellion for reasons beyond a blanket opposition to totalitarianism is portrayed as, at best, naive and, at worst, prone to authoritarianism themselves. Gale embodies the naïve supporter, as he is willing to accept the death of civilians in order to defeat the enemy. His desire for a better society and his voluntary participation in the movement to establish it leads to nothing more than a new dictatorship.

Revolutionary leader Alma Coin represents the totalitarian impulse. She already appeared suspicious in the first part of Mockingjay due to her repressive moralism (neither alcohol nor cats in District 13) — which, as Horkheimer once argued, is a quality shared by many a freedom-fighter-turned-dictator — and in the end she reveals herself to be just as bad as Snow as she dons a Mao-esque suit and ruthlessly orders the killing of civilians for the cause.

Holding political convictions in the battle against Snow seems inevitably to result in putting ends before means and, ultimately, totalitarianism.

Of course, Coin doesn’t end up victorious; she is stopped by an arrow shot by our heroine, Katniss. Katniss is presented as a superior alternative to both Gale and Coin. Writing in In These Times, Sady Doyle points out that Katniss is “not a revolutionary thinker,“ and this is certainly true. It has to be true. According to the logic of the films, if Katniss had actual political beliefs she would be as proto-totalitarian as Coin.

So Katniss plays her role in the rebellion either without knowing it (in Catching Fire, where almost everyone is in on the plot except her and Peeta) or without really wanting to (in Mockingjay). Her heroism in The Hunger Games saga ultimately rests not on her bow and arrow skills or her role in the rebellion, but in her total rejection of politics.

In this regard, The Hunger Games’ understanding of the revolution is much closer to François Furet’s work than to Karl Marx’s. Rather than being a solution, revolution is thought to lead inevitably to the gulag. Whatever your ideas are (openly autocratic in the case of Snow, more egalitarian for Coin), in the end, those political ideals will end in dictatorship.

As Furet himself writes about communism and fascism, even if those doctrines are in theory opposed, they both agree on who their real “common enemy” is: “democracy” and, by extension, free markets. The only solution for Panem is thus not a revolutionary project, but precisely to overcome the revolutionary moment and replace it with a liberal democracy (as we see Paylor, the new president, making an oath in a ceremony similar to the US presidential inauguration) that can guarantee basic human rights and constitutional order.

Katniss, whose constant refusal to engage in any kind of politics (or to have any kind of political vision other than human rights) opens the way for a less authoritarian regime, embodies Furet’s worldview.

The last scene of the movie pushes this refusal of revolutionary politics even further. There we see Katniss and Peeta leaving the Capitol and starting a family far from any city in a weirdly timeless and highly stylized scene celebrating domestic bliss in a world beyond politics and out of the state’s reach.

The solution that the movies propose is a romantic, even regressive one in which utopia is not a collective project of establishing a more just society, but a complete retreat from politics into the private sphere. The question of exploitation is never broached; instead the answer to oppression, as the saga imagines it, is to establish capitalism rather than to move beyond it.