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Game of Thrones and the End of Marxist Theory

What would a properly materialist reading of Game of Thrones look like?

It shouldn’t need saying, but Marxist theory isn’t a joke, a fun technique that can be applied to whatever everyday phenomenon catches one’s fancy.

There has been a worrying proliferation of this kind of haphazardness of late: newspapers are publishing Marxist theories of pencils, Marxist readings of Taylor Swift’s new album, Marxist accounts of why men have nipples. Institutions that would never dream of printing Marxist critiques of, say, the banking system, are perfectly happy to let the children of Karl critique our dreams.

In the most recent example, the Guardian has dredged up Paul Mason, the economics editor for Channel 4 News, to provide a historical materialist prediction for the upcoming seasons of Game of Thrones.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that — but these people should remember that Marxism is fire and danger: the theoretical approach that not only manages to comprehend capitalist relations, but proposes the abolition of those relations.

In other words, it’s the only joke that’s actually funny. Marxism sees the finely tuned logic of all currently existing societies, recognizes the absolute necessity of every element, and then pronounces the whole thing to be mad and stupid. It finally reveals that the rational world we’re living in now is in fact a fantasy world, full of snarks and grumpkins, as absurd as anything in the most overblown fictions.

Mason’s “Can Marxist theory predict the end of ‘Game of Thrones’?” misunderstands both fantasy and Marxism, most of all because it fails to grasp this important point. Part of its failure also has to do with its overreaching ambition — in the space of a short essay, Mason tries to forecast the future plotlines of Game of Thrones, account for the fall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism, and explain why people living under capitalist economies enjoy fantasy stories set amid medieval decay.

Any one of these could quite comfortably provide enough material for an entire book; muddled together in just over a thousand words, they end up crossing over each other into near incoherence. (Of course, given the mess he’s made of all three concepts, this response will also have to do much the same thing.)

Mason’s central argument is that the debt and ruination suffered by Westeros during the War of the Five Kings provides a fantasy analog to our own history’s late medieval crisis (also, confusingly, to the current crisis in the eurozone). The realm is ripe for a bourgeois revolution — as he puts it, “Westeros needs capitalists” — but, because of the limitations of the high fantasy genre, this can never happen. The social system in these fictions can decay, but it never actually collapses. Instead, fantasy feudalism will pant through its crisis by finding new land and resources across the Sunset Sea to the West.

This argument is brazenly irresponsible, and not remotely Marxist. Forget the capitalists: a People’s Republic of Westeros is possible, and imminent — but it may well be stranger and more fantastic than many of us would like to admit.

To begin with what is sometimes banally referred to as the real world, here’s Mason’s account of the crisis of actually existing feudalism:

Debts accumulated under a corrupt patronage system, whose sources of wealth dried up, destroyed the system in the end. . . . The power of commerce began to squash the power of kings. Feudalism gave way to a capitalism based on merchants, bankers, colonial plunder and the slave trade.

You may get the sense that there’s something missing here. The old monarchical powers find themselves with an increasing debt burden that threatens the stability of society. So the bankers come to the rescue, transforming feudalism into capitalism. Except under a patronage system, however corrupt, there isn’t supposed to be any sovereign debt.

What Mason’s describing isn’t a feudal crisis, but a capitalist one. At the beginning of the medieval period, there weren’t any organs of international finance capital; by the time feudalism went into its death throes, there were. Something else happened that laid the seeds for the emergence of the financialized world empire.

Strikingly, for something that claims to be a historical materialist analysis, there’s no mention whatsoever of class struggle. The real crisis of feudalism had very little to do with corruption and aristocratic profligacy, and everything to do with collective action on the part of the toiling masses.

After Europe’s population was decimated by the Black Death, labor could suddenly find a decent price for itself, and when threatened, it had the confidence to revolt. Peasant revolts were a near constant during the late medieval period — Germany alone saw over sixty periods of mass unrest between 1336 and 1525.

Often the peasants got what they wanted: high wages, rights to common land, and leisure time. As a result, the ruling class found it harder and harder to extract the surpluses they needed to keep the system going; in the end, they made recourse to mercantilism, enclosure, and primitive accumulation.

The real decline of feudalism was in fact a moment of incredible opportunity that was brutally suppressed. Mason doesn’t seem to acknowledge this. Instead, he connects the late medieval crisis with what in fantasy theory is known as “thinning.” As he explains:

In modern fantasy fiction there is always a crisis of the system: both of the economic order and of the auras of power — the magic — that emanate from it. There is, in literary theory, even a technical term for this critical point: “thinning.” In their Encyclopaedia of Fantasy, John Clute and John Grant define thinning as “the constant threat of decline,” accompanied by a pervasive mourning and sense of wrongness in the world.

But this thinning is required by narrative convention to be constant and pervasive. Fantasy worlds are allowed to have dragons and witches, but never real progress:

Westeros needs capitalists . . . But that can’t happen in the secondary world of fantasy fiction. The thinning process can never be allowed to end; it must be perpetual for the conceit of the drama to work.

For Mason, fantasy is always irrational, and reality always makes sense. This claim is dubious at best. To begin with, his analysis of the current alignment of forces and powers in Game of Thrones is just flat out wrong.

The revolutionary peasants and their dream of a New Jerusalem are in full force — the Brotherhood Without Banners haunts the countryside, fiercely communist and full of monotheistic zeal. And the capitalists Mason dreams of, “dressed in black, with white lace collars, stern faces and an aversion to sex and drink,” are already here.

It’s the Iron Bank of Braavos: in the latest season, they’re revealed to be the ones financing the secretly bankrupt Lannisters; they’re the ones who bail out Stannis after a string of nasty defeats and internal schisms; and it’s hard to believe that this city of runaway slaves isn’t keeping a close eye on Daenerys’s progress further down the Essosi coast.

When the Braavosi greet each other, one says valar morghulis, the other valar doeharis. All men must die, all men must serve — the motto of necrotic capitalism. They don’t care about legitimacy or primogeniture or the divine right of kings. They care about the numbers in their ledgers. If they have to restructure the entire Westerosi economy to get their money back, they will. A war-ravaged realm is perfect for primitive accumulation; the rise of fantasy capitalism is already underway.

More fundamentally, though, Mason misunderstands what thinning actually means. From the Encyclopedia of Fantasy itself:

The Secondary World is almost constantly under some threat of lessening, a threat frequently accompanied by mourning and/or a sense of wrongness. In the structurally complete fantasy, thinning can be seen as a reduction of the healthy Land to a parody of itself, and the thinning agent — ultimately, in most instances, the Dark Lord — can be seen as inflicting this damage upon the land out of envy.

Thinning isn’t a question of crop yields or the amount of gold on trading ships from Lannisport. It’s not something a TV economics editor could file a report on (“The malignancy of the Dark Lord rose to a six-year high at the close of trading yesterday . . .”). It’s an essentially textual phenomenon, the collapse of the imagined fantasy world into symbolic reality.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is supposed to be an autonomously existing fantasy world — but at the same time, it’s our own world in its own distant history. Thinning is a process of disenchantment, the slow dying off of magic and wonder: after Sauron is defeated, the elves and wizards leave Middle-earth for the Undying Lands, and the scene is set for the Age of Men in which we all still live.

This process is not too different from the rise of instrumental reason with the capitalist revolutions, the industrialized clearing out of monsters and spirits. Far from drawing a strict line between fantasy and reality, thinning integrates the world we know into that of the fantasy. It reveals our thoughtlessly accepted reality to be as textual and as essentially fictional as Mordor and the Shire.

Something very different is happening with Game of Thrones. At first, it’s just a historical drama on an unfamiliar geographic terrain. The supernatural is alluded to, but most characters seem to maintain an attitude of Enlightenment skepticism. There are dragon skulls in the worming crypts of King’s Landing, but they’re only bones, relics of a time before the thinning process reduced everything to mere power play.

But then the unthinkable occurs: magic starts to come back. As the new season dawns we’ve seen dragons and demons, faceless men and fire gods, elfine creatures in weirwood trees and the armies of the undead. For all the social collapse, it’s not the land itself that’s in decay, but rather the comforting falsehoods about a rational society.

The fantastic elements of the secondary world are stronger than ever; there’s a continual process of thickening. Just as the forces of finance seem ready to turn the Iron Throne into a sponsored tourist attraction and plant dark satanic mills among the sacred groves of the old North, all the old numinous powers come roaring to life.

Near the end of the fourth season, the Iron Bank provides Stannis with a massive bailout. Instead of using it to march on King’s Landing, he goes to the Wall to defend the realms of men against the White Walkers.

It’s a kind of literal manifestation of the process Marx describes in the Communist Manifesto: the bourgeoisie drowns holiness, strips haloes, and reduces all mystical relations to cold, rational monetary calculation. Marx, it must be remembered, entirely approves of this; believing the end of capitalism has almost arrived, he uses the Manifesto to bury and praise it at the same time.

Except at the start of the Manifesto, communism appears as a “specter” (in the first draft, a “frightful hobgoblin”). Jacques Derrida famously identifies the specter, or revenant, as that which comes back — is communism just a return of the mystical forces of the failed late medieval revolutions, that in turn sweeps away the bloodless rationality of the bourgeoisie? This idea is complicated further: Marx compares the capitalists to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

Capitalism is a monster more uncontrollable than any mere dragon, and a succession of bourgeois economists have tried and failed to rein it in. In Capital, Marx spends some time discussing the properly supernatural elements of the capitalist system: the bodiless phantasm that is exchange value, the topsy-turvy nightmare of the autonomous commodity.

It’s a process that runs counter to the thinning of fantasy literature — rather than skimming away the magic to leave us in a boringly mechanistic universe, he peels away the veneer of rationality in things to show that the magic never went away. The end is the same: it’s difficult to ever conclude that our world is fully real.

Like Jorge Luis Borges’s Tlön, the thickening effect in Game of Thrones is already becoming visible in our world. More newborn girls are being named Khaleesi than Betsy, Imogen, or Nadine. Nerds who would once babble at each other in Klingon are now putting in long hours learning Dothraki or High Valyrian. Surely it can’t be long until our own dragons start to hatch.

It might now be possible to explain why people enjoy fantasy stories set in some version of a feudal society. Mason tries to do the same thing, but the result is unpersuasive:

[Feudalism] forms the ideal landscape in which to dramatise the secret desires of people who live under modern capitalism. . . . Trapped in a system based on economic rationality, we all want the power to be something bigger than our credit card limit, or our job function.

We have creditors, we want kings. Except Game of Thrones constantly undermines this idea: its kings aren’t just cruel and stupid but powerless, trying to bat away rapacious financiers and ghoulish monsters with both flapping, ineffectual hands. It’s a strange detour into the language of desire and latency, a kind of Žižekian maneuver that seems to indicate an argument that’s run up against its own limits.

Feudal society wasn’t really grand, and capitalism isn’t really rational. It’s just that the medieval period was the last time that all the mystical creatures that hid in the dark places of society were known, named, and understood.

Now, outside of Marxism, they’ve clouded themselves once more in an impenetrable gloom. Reading the finance pages in any newspaper is a far more baffling experience than delving into the most arcane of ancient grimoires. We enjoy medieval fantasy because in some way it helps explain our own demon-haunted world.

It can also give us hope for the future. A properly materialist reading of Game of Thrones can only conclude that, as a matter of historical necessity, in the fifth season the White Walkers will burst through the Wall, the dragons will break free from their petulant queen and her cloying white-savior complex, strange sea monsters will turn the Braavosi banking houses into heaps of rubble with a sweep of their vast tentacles, and all will unite with the smallfolk of the land to dethrone all the bickering pretenders, melt the Iron Throne into tractor parts, and build a new and better society.

And maybe one day, in the not-too-distant future, when Marxist theory is no longer needed, people will enjoy telling each other fantasy stories set in that strangest and most mystical of eras, a time of malign magic and crushing poverty — the early twenty-first century.