Monday, April 23, 2012

Hunger Games - Fascism Playing on all Strings

Winston Smith, the protagonist and dissident in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, reflects upon the nature of the totalitarian regime of Oceania. "I understand HOW," Smith observes. "I do not understand WHY." Smith saw clearly the mechanisms of authoritarian rule, the brutal means of obtaining and keeping power, but he was mystified by the deeper meaning of the ongoing sadism of the Inner Party elite. He was searching for the purpose, the rationale for power that we call ideology. Ruling groups need to to explain themselves to the people they rule and to bolster potentially lagging psychological and political morale. Winston Smith's question could as easily be asked of the cynical leaders in The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games, as even most adults now know, is a movie about kids slaughtering other kids. The ruling regime is made up of what look like fashionista Fascists, lording it over the masses who seem trapped in Appalachian poverty circa 1930, still dredging up coal to service the decadent city folk. There is no John L. Lewis to help organize them in their own defense. There are however, two young kids who are dispatched to a yearly bloodlust Olympics designed to propitiate the obscure gods of nationalism.

This all takes place in the future of course. But movies and novels that outline a deeply malevolent social future - including 1984 - compel us to question whether a society structured in such a way could ultimately become real. For many viewers, given the intense political debate surrounding the release of the film, some of the more insidious elements portrayed in the film are already with us. Is the ruling group the logical extension of the authoritarian "socialist" schemes of Barack Obama, or are they the one percent gone to seed but with a firm grip on the police and military apparatus?

The themes of youthful violence, ritual sacrifice, manipulation of history and the use of sophisticated media techniques for authoritarian control are not new. In fact, these "themes" are a central part of the lived history of what historian Eric Hobsbawm calls the Age of Extremes - our carnage filled 20th Century.

The heroes of The Hunger Games are sensitive and reluctant killers, thrown into violence through state force and lottery happenstance. The villains (in addition to the obvious adults who pull the strings) are also kids, but ones who relish the mayhem and thrill to the site of blood.

New Yorker reviewer Anthony Lane suggests that the popularity of the movie derives from the fact that teenagers relate to characters that are both important and victims, zeroing in on teenagers psychic wheelhouse. But recent observations by historian Tony Judt add another dimension. In his posthumously released book of conversations, Thinking the Twentieth Century, he reminds us that it was young people who made up a good part of the right-wing and fascist movements that flourished in Europe after World War I. What young people had in common was the belief that they were the ones who would release the "deeper energies" of their respective nations. And for many of them, it was precisely the bloody and deadly aspect of World War I which defined their youth. "Togetherness in conflict," Judt says, "gave the war a very special glow." Similar sentiments about the decisive power of violence were common among left-wing youth as well.

But in The Hunger Games, the dominant power, the real engine of social control is the omnipresent "media." Cameras see everything and television broadcasts everything. These incessant images provide the symbolic framework for interpreting everyday life. In Orwell's masterpiece, as literary critic Irving Howe pointed out, the world is a place where individuality has become obsolete and personality a crime. In The Hunger Games, "personality" is not only manipulated and shaped by the media overlords, but a "winning" personality and a romantic backstory are commodities that provide the potential means of survival for the contestants.

In the classic Fascist mode, both fashion and the state have become fetishes.

Here is Mussolini writing after taking power in Italy:

"Democracy has deprived the life of the people of "style:" that is,
a line of conduct, the color, the strength, the picturesque, the
unexpected, the mystical: in sum, all that counts in the life of the
masses. We play the lyre on all of its strings: from violence to
religion, from art to politics."

It was the typical Fascist strategy, sociologist Michael Mann points out, to merge politics, art and style. In contrast to what we now know about the social and economic interests that backed Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, The Hunger Games remains historically and analytically agnostic. What are the class and social interests of the party oligarchy, or do they even constitute a "party" in the traditional understanding of the word? We don't know because it is not shown. That is why Tea Partiers and Occupiers have both projected their political values onto the movie.

In the beginning there is sacrifice. In the end there is salvation. In The Hunger Games, the state has turned sacrifice into system and routine in an apparent attempt to solidify the nation. In one of the more provocative scholarly treatments of ritual and sacrifice, Rene Girard points out that in the traditional sacrificial ritual, the victim's function is to unite the group against the source of communal strife thereby mitigating the internal crisis that otherwise threatens to tear the community apart. Sacrifice is the source of religion and therefore also of civilization. The "victim" is devoured and then made sacred. New gods are available to worship.

But in The Hunger Games, the sacrificial ritual has become bureaucratized, repeated in the same way year after year. And the regime makes a political or category error. Victims abound but heroes are created too, and sent home to eventually organize a vengeful response. The internal tension - the contradictions of the society - cannot be resolved through ritual sacrifice alone.

It took World War II to destroy Fascism in Germany and Italy. In Spain, it took the death of Franco to precipitate the eventual emergence of democracy. Whatever political tendency the regime in The Hunger Games represents - and the filmmakers undoubtedly know that the more vague the answer the better the box office - it is pretty clear that it too will be destroyed by war. It will be interesting to see what kind of political system inherits the apparatus of what looks like a highly modern but economically distorted state.

Further Reading:

Rene Girard - Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

Irving Howe - 1984: History as Nightmare - In Twentieth Century Interpretations of 1984 (Edited by Samuel Hynes)

Constantin Iordachi - Comparative Fascist Studies - New Perspectives

Tony Judt - Thinking the Twentieth Century (with Timothy Snyder)

Michael Mann - Fascists