The Hunger Games As Class Warfare

One of the risks one runs in romance is seeing very bad movies enjoyed predominantly by members of the opposite sex, and this weekend I endured over two hours of The Hunger Games, the latest set of books intended for teenage girls but inexplicably favored by a much larger crowd. I knew very little details about the story going into the film, save for someone describing it as “Running Man meets Degrassi High,” and that it was mildly notorious for its fundamental premise of “kids killing kids.” Ultimately, however, while the movie did achieve some mildly suspenseful “hunger” in the lead-up to the “games,” a combination of undeveloped characters, zero chemistry between protagonists and no real moral ambiguity despite the controversial subject matter meant I came away underwhelmed. Still, I was grateful I had not relived the nausea that accompanied date-induced viewings of Eat, Pray Love and Sex and the City 2.

Critics have pointed to political commentary within The Hunger Games as a redeeming quality, although taken at face value this commentary is facile: totalitarian regimes are not fun to live under, reality TV can be exploitative, etc. In other words, critics acknowledge that this cinematic cupcake is mostly empty calories, yet there is just enough substance beneath the frosting for adults to savor it as well as kids. These same critics bemoan this fact, arguing that the writers (including the book’s author, Suzanne Collins) and the director could have taken advantage of some relatively open goals to do incisive observations on gritty political and social phenomena instead of just gently treading the surface of an admittedly very pretty pool.

In truth, I thought that the movie did manage to convey some subconscious interpretations of the world we live in, probably unintentionally. The movie, purposefully written to be shallow and unchallenging, is so shallow that the shallowness gives way to accidental depth, although it requires you to “stand outside” from the film to perceive it. I do not know for sure, but I assume Collins, the other screenwriters and Ross are not anti-capitalists, yet there is an unmistakable yet ethereal Marxian (if not Marxist) theme running throughout the movie. Admittedly, I have not read The Hunger Games, so there may be some departure between what comes across in the movie and what may be found in the book, but of the things I noticed and mentioned to my date, I have been assured that these things feature even more prominently in the book than on the screen.

WARNING: Spoilers below.

The Hunger Games As Class Warfare

The main protagonist of The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, the eldest daughter of a working class family in District 12 of Panem. We are told quite clearly that Katniss is a strong character, as she becomes the “rock” of her family when her father dies in a coal mining accident and later serves as a breadwinner by hunting birds and squirrels and selling them. It is obvious from the outset that Katniss is the by-the-numbers feminist hero, possessing the most positive qualities associated with her sex — beautiful, reserved, concerned with authenticity – yet adopting traditionally male characteristics as well – courage, pragmatism, an assertiveness in the face of appearing weak.

The film, however, also denotes a certain purity and simplicity to her proletarian background, evidenced by the clothes she and the other residents of her district wear when summoned for “The Reaping” – the ceremony where the children who will fight in the Hunger Games are selected. In this scene particularly, District 12 invokes a portrayal of West Virginia coal country, the people plainspoken and uniformly Caucasian, the wardrobes suitable for church and unassuming, the attitudes darkly humorous in their practicality. After Katniss volunteers and Peeta Mellark is conscripted as “tributes,” their fellow district dwellers are encouraged by a state representative to applaud their sacrifice, but instead collectively make a motion of remembrance and honor – a comical device that shows blatant rejection of state propaganda, but expresses a consciousness of what is truly appropriate for the situation. Although certainly not a happy place (as no place is, in this dystopia), District 12 has a rustic, salt-of-the-earth honesty that portrays working class community as glum and hopeless, yet simultaneously natural, virtuous and even innocent.

When Katniss and Peeta arrive in the Capitol, however, the contrast is evident. The people wear outlandish, garish costumes, and are so willing to embrace falsity that they dye their hair fluorescent blues, greens and reds. What especially struck me is how male fashion in the Capitol is incredibly mincing and unreservedly effeminate, a stark antithesis to the rugged, overalls-wearing miners in District 12. The Capitol population is soft and spoilt, and it is no coincidence that the movie depicts none of the Capitol population engaged in any sort of manual labor. Indeed, the only “work” we see “average” Capitol people do is operate the murder machinery that makes the Games possible. Also tellingly, despite their desperate need to be entertained by the spectacle of the Games (see below), the Capitol residents do not come across as creative, save for devising new ways of possibly murdering the Games’ contestants.

(Sidenote: It is interesting that the one person expected to be dressed the most bizarrely, the fashion designer Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz, wears simple black garments and only a modicum of eyeliner. At first glance, this contradicts the stereotype that fashion designers are prone to the most radical fashion choices. Yet is it more probable that Cinna is in fact making a statement, that by eschewing flamboyance in favor of modesty he is being rebellious?)

In Panem, the mode of production is organized almost exactly like that of late capitalism. The dominant class (the Capitol residents) enjoys easy living and decadence, although their leisure is dependent on workers exchanging labor power for monetary compensation (the District dwellers). One might note that, while it is not fully elaborated, Panem’s economy is more about a monolithic state controlling the means of production than a society built around property rights and private enterprise. One should recall, however, that Engels predicted that capitalism, at its penultimate stage, would essentially be state-controlled capitalism:

“But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head.”

Lenin also called imperialism the highest stage of capitalism, and Panem is clearly an imperialist state. In fact, Collins’ literal description of a series of outlying districts providing raw materials to a central powerbase runs parallel with Immanuel Wallerstein’s Modern World System, in which countries in the periphery – the Third World – supply vital resources to the core – the First World – who in turn keep the periphery underdeveloped and repressed. This anti-imperialist undertone within Collins’ work is highlighted by the major characters from the Capitol having the name of ancient Romans (Cinna, Seneca, Caesar, Claudius, Coriolanus) in addition to the use of chariots when introducing the Games’ contenders and the gladiatorial nature of the Games themselves. It is likely Collins employed these references out of laziness and unoriginality, but the negative connotations she was tapping into run deeper than even she could realize.

Unconscious as it is, Collins’ inadvertent step into Marxian class analysis and even dependency theory is imperfect. Most strikingly, the image of the working class is idealized, almost dreamlike, and when it comes to actual autonomy, the workers of Panem have none. Their dalliance with rebellion comes through as riots, self-inflicted wounds that suggest the “mob” can only act in spurts of emotion. Must Panem’s workers only be galvanized to insurgency by the acts of teenagers? Where are the underground councils and secret communes that surely must have been in place well before the confrontation with authority spearheaded by Katniss’ largely symbolic gestures?

Collins paints a convincing picture of inequality, indolence and exploitation, because it is portrait of our actually existing conditions. Observations from the corner of her eye in this life have no doubt influenced the corruption of Panem as it comes across in her books and the movie. Yet the idea that her characters, so woefully undeveloped compared to their environment, are able to inspire revolution lacks plausibility, and Collins has clearly fallen victim to the popular vilification of the masses as irrational and hysterical, even if she does accept the romantic, almost pastoral notion of their “pure and simple” lifestyles.

The Spectacle: The Opiate of the Masses

In the essays he wrote while in prison, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci commented on “cultural hegemony” – how the dominant class imposes certain value systems and traditions on to other classes, creating the illusion of shared beliefs and symbols when in actuality the classes are opposed to one another in genuine interests. The Games can be seen as a stand-in for this hegemony rather than just an example of it, both because of their origin and their intended effects upon the people of Panem. The competition is the brainchild of the state, designed and managed by state actors, and it succeeds in dividing the Panem proletariat while at the same time instilling in them a false consciousness centered on hope and aspiration.

In the film, the Games are explained through a patriotic film-within-the-film. The districts rose up against the centralized state, lost, and subsequently agreed to allow their numbers to be culled every year by sending two of their young people to compete in the Games. (Interestingly, the film-within-the-film portrays the peace treaty as identical to the U.S. Constitution.) We, the audience, may obtain some amusement from this naked propaganda, presenting as it does a horrifying prospect (that children will be taken from their families and most likely killed) as a noble and worthwhile thing (shedding blood as a sign of fidelity to an oppressive, autocratic state). We laugh because the absurdity is obvious, as it always is in jokes about fascism or pseudo-fascism, e.g. “the beatings will stop when morale improves.” Strangely, we are not moved to be so flippant about the autocracy we see in our daily lives. When TV ads urge young people “to be all they can be” by joining the military and potentially dying in conflicts that are generally pointless and without strategized exists, we treat it very seriously. When politicians call for the poor and vulnerable to follow the Protestant ethic of working hard and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, not everyone laughs in their faces. The values we associate with military service and atomized individual accomplishment do not derive from our own natures, but are placed there as means of control, just as surely as Panem’s dictator wants the districts to give up their children to die and also be happy about it.

What exactly does the state instill in its audience with the Games, however? It is interesting that, while the event it commemorates was the districts being collectively crushed by the state, the Games are “every man and woman for himself,” with the districts fighting one another and between themselves. The objective here is to crush feelings of solidarity and independence. Much as how modern states use religious, ethnic and other cleavages to divide the working class and hinder their organization, the state of Panem uses the Games to foster competition rather than cooperation between the districts, although they have more in common with one another than anyone in the Capitol.

Katniss rebels against this by allying with another “tribute” from District 11, a young black girl named Rue. When Rue is later killed by a boy from District 1 (a district of jewelers, possibly an accidental reference to the petty bourgeoisie), Katniss exposes herself and performs an elaborate death ritual for her comrade. Watching this on screen, District 11’s black workers honor Katniss with the same hand gesture seen earlier in the film at the Reaping and then riot. Katniss transcends the “divide and rule” tactics utilized by the state and achieves a cross-district camaraderie, which in turn motivates District 11 to make a frenzied lunge for freedom. Later, when Katniss is about to be killed by a knife-throwing girl from District 2, she is saved by Rue’s counterpart from District 11, who somehow knew about Katniss’ taking Rue under her care.

Unfortunately, this is done in a very patronizing way, and Collins actually undermines the superficial anti-imperialism noted earlier. The heroic white girl saving the helpless black girl and consequently being thanked for this protection reeks of the sort of condescending neo-“white man’s burden” we encounter in the form of Kony 2012 or the Save Darfur campaign. Rue, the visionary, devises good ideas, but is unable to execute them on their own, relying on Katniss to do the actual “heavy lifting” with her superior skills and knowledge. At no point is it suggested that Rue could win the Games on her own as an independent actor, and by saving Katniss, Rue’s fellow District 11 inhabitant actually worsens his own prospects by allowing Katniss to survive. Somehow, he is obligated to put aside his own individual desire to maximize his situation to celebrate/save the “white savior” in his midst.

In a very telling scene, President Snow reproaches Seneca, the state official overseeing everything, that he is allowing the Games to give the people too much hope. The message is that the people of Panem might be allowed to believe that they could overcome the odds of the Games to succeed, but they can never overcome the odds of overthrowing the state. This is the same message we get from all cultural sources today concerning liberal democracy. In actual reality TV shows, we indulge in “rags to riches” fantasies, in which “regular” people achieve fame and fortune through their own talents. In fiction, we thrive on depictions of struggles against injustice, where the hero triumphs over stock characters that are generally obvious in their evil, be they fascists, communists or evil wizards who cannot be named. We consume the American Dream and American Exceptionalism: that we are a place where anyone can make it if they try and where we are specially chosen for a unique and incomparable existence. For all that, however, a struggle against the status quo itself would be fruitless, as we have reached the “End of History,” and it is more conceivable to imagine the end of the world than it is the market-oriented democratic republic. People are given the ability to “hope a little” – to buy wristbands that say a certain thing, to buy organic food instead of processed food, to perhaps even march around with signs – but cannot “hope too much” – to disrupt the system, either through civil or unlawful disobedience, in the name of ideologies that have no place in the time of post-ideology.

Katniss, however, never has to get her hands dirty in urging people to “hope too much.” In the course of the movie, she only really kills one person directly, and this is in the process of defending herself, and this itself is only a contrived set-up for Rue’s death. Even when it comes to the finale of the Games, she only uses her weapon to free her lover so that he might push their enemy from a height to be devoured by crazed dog-like creatures. Like the modern liberal who seeks to overturn the status quo, Katniss does not find herself required to stray into morally questionable territory. She wants to win without paying a high cost, and she essentially does so. When the Slovenian social critic Slavoj Zizek talks about Coke without caffeine or war without casualties, he is also talking about Katniss winning without having to truly murder. Of course, she lives in the world of fiction. For the progressive who wants social revolution without the revolution, obtaining the benefits without having “done the work” is fanciful.

The Hunger Games and Social Alienation: The Complete Lack of Chemistry

Jennifer Lawrence, who portrays Katniss, and Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta, have zero chemistry throughout the movie, despite the rather critical plot point they are supposed to be in love with one another. While this did hurt the film overall, it did add to the point that their romance begins in a false fashion, as a means to get the public to like them and cheer for them – in other words, to make them more marketable. Ironically, Lawrence and Hutcherson are playing the same game but in real life, attempting to sell us the suspended disbelief that they are in love, but in failing so miserably, expose to us how, in reality, we have been conditioned only to believe in something when the appearance of sincere emotional connection is present. We are so alienated from one another that a fiction only becomes appealing when it offers the passion we lack in our daily lives.

For the characters in the movie, event after event denies self-actualization. The clothes one wears to the state’s mandated rally are chosen for you. Lenny Kravitz dresses you when you arrive at the Capitol in the run-up to the Games. In a highly scripted interview process with Stanley Tucci’s character, you pretend to be charismatic and confident even when you are shy and facing certain death. When the Games themselves begin, although you are under constant observation, there are only a handful of characters that make any kind of connection, and these are neither believable nor meaningful. Rue comes and goes, but it is her young age that makes her passing poignant, not because we get to know her. Similarly, because Lawrence and Hutcherson have feelings for each other like tepid tap water, we do not know if their mutual professions of love are heartfelt or manipulative ploys to get the other to let his or her guard down. When, near the end of the movie, Katniss and Peeta swear to eat poisonous berries so they will both die rather than having to kill one another, this moving scene becomes an exercise in suspicion. Will the other person really eat the berries if I eat them first? Dare I ask them to eat first? How do I know she will not spit them out after I have eaten mine? What if this is just a teenage crush and I am about to die for a fleeting, hormonal impulse? We are not supposed to think these last few questions, but because we do not know for sure how the characters feel in the movie – as devoid of feeling for one another as they are – we stare into the reflection of our own self-denial, our own self-doubt. We come away with no resolution, but because we do not actually care about the characters, it seems proper – very similar to our own detached, indifferent interactions with most people and objects.

This apathy is reflected in the very shocking and daring premise of the movie (children killing children), which certainly has been done in the arts before, and echoes the school shootings in this country’s recent past. This movie would have been unthinkable in the wake of the Columbine massacre or 9/11, when we were held in the grips of social concern. In this day and age, however, where Afghani and Iraqi children are regularly shot down in the name of “just war,” we are so disconnected from the death of children in and of itself that it only becomes objectionable when it is our own children. The death of fictional children – be they the children of Panem who exist only in Collins’ novels, or the death of Middle Eastern children who exist only in headlines – do not resonate; they fall flat with us.  The fact that there has not been more objection to the “kids killing kids” plot, or even that it is being used as a vehicle for a very uninspiring film, speaks volumes about how ambivalent we have become as a society toward social cohesion.

These have just been my own personal ruminations, and I think they would be bolstered with an inclusion of a feminist critique about The Hunger Games as possibly feminist cinema. Since I am not equipped for that sort of analysis, however, I will conclude here.

It is plain on the face of it that The Hunger Games is an utterly forgettable movie, much like the franchise it is based on – entertainment for population consumption, to be digested and then passed over once the novelty fades. In the meantime, however, if we cannot get amusement from taking this stuff seriously, perhaps we might get some amusement from taking it a bit tongue-in-cheek.

The Case of Trayvon Martin: Is Racism or the Law to Blame?

You may have already heard about this tragic case. In case you have not, here are the facts.

On the evening of February 26th, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic man and neighborhood watch member, dialed 911 when he observed 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin walking to his father’s girlfriend’s residence, where Martin was staying. Zimmerman frequently called the local Sanford police to make them aware of “suspicious” people, and even went door-to-door warning neighbors to look out for black youths. According to the 911 call, Zimmerman thought Martin was on drugs, staring at houses and possibly had something tucked into his pants. The 911 operator informed Zimmerman that a police officer was on the way, at which point Zimmerman bemoaned the fact that the “suspicious” people he called in “always get away.” Zimmerman initially agreed to meet the police near some mailboxes, but quickly decided to follow Martin on his own. The 911 operator advised Zimmerman not to do that, but did not object when Zimmerman asked if the police could just simply call him when they arrived rather than meet him somewhere.

Details after that are sketchy. Witnesses have told the media they saw Zimmerman and Martin wrestling on the ground, and at one point Martin had Zimmerman underneath him. Austin McLendon, 13, observed Zimmerman and Martin after they had separated while he was walking their dog. There was a gunshot, followed by someone screaming for help, followed by another shot, after which the screaming stopped. The gunshots and screaming can be heard on a 911 call from a woman whose backyard Zimmerman and Martin had been wrestling on. According to police, Zimmerman claims he was the one pleading for help, while some residents in the neighborhood believe it was Martin.

When residents and the police finally came out to see the aftermath, Martin was dead. Zimmerman, who is licensed to carry a concealed firearm, placed his handgun on the ground and immediately claimed self-defense. Martin had been unarmed, having only a bottle of iced tea and some candy he had purchased at the convenience store. Zimmerman has never been arrested, much less charged with any crime.

The injustice is obvious. A 28-year-old man carrying a gun kills an unarmed teen due to racial profiling, cites self-defense and never spends a second in handcuffs. How can this happen?

Some people cite racist law enforcement as the primary factor, and there is a history of that in Sanford. In 2005, two security guards with connections to the police department shot and killed a black teenager in the back, claimed self-defense and the court dismissed all charges. Last year, police refused to prosecute the son of a police lieutenant caught assaulting an innocent black homeless man, and only after the video generated outrage on the Internet did the police arrest the lieutenant’s son. Consequently, the Sanford police chief at the time stood down.

There is also evidence indicating the Sanford police have mishandled the investigation into the Martin killing. When Zimmerman told police he had nothing of his record (a lie), the police took him at his word. When a resident claimed that Martin had been crying for help before he was killed, the police “corrected” her because they were going off Zimmerman’s account. Since then, the resident, Mary Cutcher, has come out publicly with neighbor Selma Mora Lamilla to say that they do not believe it was self-defense and that, despite attempts to go into detail with police, have been ignored by law enforcement.

The Sanford police have clearly mismanaged this case and, given recent history, it is reasonable to presume that racism is rife within the local law enforcement agencies. Still, racism alone cannot take the whole blame for what is keeping George Zimmerman away from jail or a judge. The biggest obstacle to justice is, ironically, the law.

Florida is one of a number of states to have a “Stand Your Ground” law. Many people are familiar with the Castle Doctrine, which holds that people are under no obligation to retreat if someone enters their home because “a man’s home is his castle.” Therefore, if someone intrudes into your home and you have reasonable cause to believe that your life is in danger or the intruder will do some form of grievous harm to you, you are within your rights to defend yourself – with lethal force, if necessary.

What “Stand Your Ground” does is it takes the Castle Doctrine and does not apply it only to your home or your car, but anywhere where you have a right to be – a street, a sidewalk, etc. If someone attacks you, you have no duty to flee. You can fight back and, if you think you might be killed or seriously injured, you can use lethal force as well.

Of course, you might expect that you would have to prove in a court of law at some point that your use of lethal force was lawful. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, however, states that people who kill in self-defense are immune from prosecution – meaning that no criminal or civil charges can be filed, ostensibly to prevent loved ones of the victim from getting revenge through court costs or legal damages. For them to arrest you, the police need “probable cause” to believe you inappropriately used lethal force. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove murder rather than one the defendant to prove self-defense.

Many critics of how the case has been handled argue that the Sanford police have “probable cause” to arrest Zimmerman and the only thing holding them back is racial bias. While I am no legal expert, I do not think this is strictly true. The Sanford police may be racially biased, but I think even if local law enforcement was eager to throw the book at Zimmerman, they would have, at best, an uphill battle overcoming Stand Your Ground.

Let us go over some of the circumstantial evidence available to prosecutors, from strongest to weakest:

“Cutcher and Mora Lamilla both insist the voice they heard screaming for help belonged to Travyon Martin, not George Zimmerman.” While the police were obviously wrong to “correct” Cutcher, it is still the word of two indirect witnesses versus one direct witness (Zimmerman). I think this testimony might be sufficient enough for police to have “probable cause” at a stretch, but I fail to see how it gives the police, the judge or a jury adequate reason not to give Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt since it boils down to “He Said versus She Said/She Said.” Given the strength of Stand Your Ground, I am skeptical that Zimmerman’s claim could be overturned based on the inference of two people who were not actually there. Sadly, there are only two people who definitively know what transpired, and one of them is dead.

“The screaming for help stopped when the second shot went off, killing Martin, so it must have been Martin screaming for help, in which case he was not assaulting Zimmerman.” Zimmerman says he was screaming for help, and I would presume he would say that he stopped screaming after the second shot because Martin was no longer a “threat.” As absurd as it sounds that a grown man would be crying shrilly for help because a teenager was kicking his butt, the fact that Zimmerman was getting his butt kicked is element of this where there is some direct corroborating evidence (see below).

“Zimmerman fired a ‘warning shot’ to scare Martin, yet decided to shoot Martin anyway.” The idea that the first shot was a “warning shot” is based on speculation by one of the lawyers employed by Martin’s parents. It is unknown, to my knowledge, how Zimmerman has explained the first shot (if at all), but it is entirely conceivable that he could chalk it up to a struggle for the gun, a missed shot meant to kill, etc.

“The 911 call shows Zimmerman started a fight with Martin, so if anyone was acting in self-defense, Martin was.” Zimmerman claims Martin started the fight with him and so far his account is all we have. On the 911 call, Zimmerman indicates he is following Martin, but that is all. Zimmerman could say that he approached Martin politely with a tap on the shoulder and Martin attacked; or that Martin, despite initially walking away when Zimmerman started following him, turned on his heels and began an assault. As absurd as either scenario sounds, again, Zimmerman’s account is the only one who started the fight.

“It is ludicrous that a 17-year-old teenager could seriously harm a 28-year-old man.” Agreed, but this is one of the few areas where witnesses support Zimmerman. Witnesses have said that Martin was on top of Martin at one point, and when police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman had a bloodied nose and head plus grass stains all over his clothes. Besides, Stand Your Ground does not require that one take weight and age into consideration. All Zimmerman had to do was “reasonably” believe Martin meant to seriously injure him, and that is all his appeal to self-defense needs.

While it would be easy for Zimmerman or his defense attorney to tear holes into the above arguments for why it wasn’t self-defense as I just did, it would be considerably more difficult for Zimmerman or his lawyer to actually persuade a jury or a judge that it was rational to perceive Martin as a genuine threat. Yet with the law so biased in favor of someone claiming self-defense, Stand Your Ground ensures neither Zimmerman nor his lawyer will have to make that case.

Please, be aware that I am not defending either Zimmerman or the Sanford cops. Like most people two neurons, I recognized this case right away as a would-be Judge Dredd racially profiling a black kid, getting into a situation he was not trained to handle and killing the black kid because the kid was beating him up. And I also do not doubt for a moment that if this had been a case of an ethnic minority killing a white person under similar circumstances, the law would likely magically “bend” in ways it has not for Zimmerman.

Still, the underlying point is this: Stand Your Ground laws protect aspiring Wild West vigilantes like George Zimmerman, racist cops or not.

State Power or Power to the People?: Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions Today

Lenin once declared that, as long as the state exists, there could be no freedom. Given the growth of state power around the world in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent global War on Terror, it would appear that Lenin’s vision of freedom is more out of reach than ever. Does it therefore follow then that rebellion and revolution are impossible in the post-9/11 period? This essay uses Theda Skocpol’s analysis of popular uprisings in France, China and Russia to argue that, in actuality, the structural conditions necessary for successful social revolutions still exist. Despite the considerable resources at their disposal, modern states continue to undergo major crises that they cannot cope with, even in an age with so much significance assigned to stability and continuity. Additionally, as the Arab Spring attests, classes still unite into powerful coalitions via shared interests that undermine the status quo and demand a broad reconstruction of the political, economic and social landscapes. Of course, just as Skocpol describes the required conditions for social revolution, she also stresses the constraints placed upon elites as well as revolutionaries, and in the current epoch consideration of such constraints remains relevant, as no major international incident occurs within a vacuum. Indeed, the question becomes not whether radical reform can emerge to shake the state, but whether it can endure myriad forces arrayed against it to create a lasting and meaningful new order.

In each case study within States and Social Revolutions (1979), Skocpol finds a crumbling “old regime” unable to institute “reform from above.” Absolutist monarchies, once relied on to safeguard servitude of the lowest classes, proved impotent to answer competing military power abroad and to satisfy basic needs at home. For Russia, it was the devastation and humiliation brought on by defeat in the first World War, while France and China could not adequately meet the demands of landed gentries agitating for greater autonomy. It was only when “top-down” change due to structural parameters failed that revolution “from below” became credible; the revolutionaries found themselves knocking on open doors. Presently, in the developing world, countries fall generally within two categories: (1) those witnessing economic growth through open markets and liberalization, birthing nascent bourgeoisies eager for empowerment, and (2) cash-strapped states, typically contending with severe Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), relying on force to hold onto power through fear and intimidation. In the developed world, advanced countries follow a trend of maintaining public appeasement through tax cuts and benefits programs, while also operating in an international environment where foreign intervention – justified either as “humanitarian interventions,” preventive strikes to halt the rise of even the possibility of existential threats, or both – is commonplace. In the case of the Third World, the parallel with the restless, newly influential French and Chinese middle classes is clear, while the unsustainable use of brutality amidst squalor invokes comparison with Russia after total war. As for the First World, states cannot maintain solvency when they are little more than gigantic pension funds with equally massive armies. Countries that are more the former than the latter, such as Greece and Italy, descend into much-protested austerity; while those that are more the latter than the former, such as the United States, alienate those they occupy and pay a high domestic cost for doing the occupying – in terms of “war weariness” as well as body count. Moreover, all countries at all levels of development must contend with neoliberalism’s economic hegemony, and the crisis borne from its prescriptions of deregulation.  The recent financial crisis affected all countries, and the inability of states across the board to either hold those responsible accountable or to enact reforms to prevent its repeat evidences that states are more beholden to global capitalism than the other way around. In sum, states may be more “muscular” after 9/11, but they are not perfect, and Skocpol argues that when states reach a critical juncture of failure, revolutions are not just possible – but inevitable.

Whether a revolution has potential or is automatically in the pipeline, someone has to lead it. Skocpol comments that the “patterns of class dominance” determine this, with dominant classes (outside the state) often working in tandem with the oppressed working classes to bring down the state. We see this today, most recently with the Arab Spring, and Egypt serves as case in point. The revolution began with trade unions, as workers demonstrated for improved conditions and higher wages, and was supplied momentum by the downfall of an authoritarian regime in Tunisia by grassroots protest. This galvanized the liberal intelligentsia, who had long campaigned for democratic reforms, in addition to other sections of the population, including supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The consequence was a national movement acting as a “broad tent,” and while the revolution could not be described as a truly social one due to constraints upon the process (to be described below), there was clear consensus that the state had to be transformed. Just as the revolutionary classes were not “equal winners” in Skocpol’s cases (the liberals triumphed in France, for example, while the peasants prevailed in China), it seems those favoring a moderate religious party have subordinated the secular Egyptian intellectuals. Meanwhile in the United States and the United Kingdom, the last few years have seen a flood of collective action, as primarily middle class groups – affluent, well-educated white adults in the Tea Party, disaffected college students in the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London movements – have taken to the streets. While not genuinely embracing revolutionary tactics, such protests are linked by grievances that transcend singular policies and speak to a more general displeasure with the system as it is operating, part of a grand narrative that professional politicians have lost touch with citizens and are unwilling to defy vested interests to make tough decisions. Certainly, in terms of class interests alone, the “squeezed middle” in developed countries could feasibly make common cause with more traditionally repressed fragments of society to realize an overhaul not just of one particular regime but the system itself.

So why do they not do so? In her book, Skocpol writes about constraints upon classes. The Russian peasants, for example, gained independence and solidarity after their emancipation, but did not achieve true impact as a force until the disintegration of the military weakened state coercion. Similarly, disgruntled groups in the Third World may conceive their own independence and solidarity through the advent of civil society organizations (such as the aforementioned trade unions), but state coercion decides the issue as insurgent groups do not gain from a fractured military (as in Libya as well as Egypt). Swift and merciless suppression as seen in Bahrain and Syria are more typical. In instances where movements with an agenda of reworking society take power democratically, e.g. the socialist successes in Latin America and parts of Africa, multinational corporations and transnational economic institutions apply pressure to ensure new governments do not deviate too far from the neoliberal project. In cases where they do, as in Venezuela, what follows is isolation and vilification as a deviant anomaly. In the First World, the constraints are primarily cultural. Despite the obvious appeal for the working class to be at the forefront of unrest, they have been notably absent. One can explain this by their demonization in society as inherently uneducated and incapable of sophisticated reasoning – the “white trash” of the middle U.S. or the “chavs” of urban Britain. The middle classes are disinclined to ally with those dismissed as deserving their servile status. Given this dismissal, the working classes retreat into their own “false consciousness,” rallying to a cultural narrative that they are the “real” backbone of their country and their interest should be in defending tradition rather than crusading for change. As for the middle classes themselves, they are lulled into the liberal hope of “revolution without revolution” as Robespierre described it: the ability to affect upheaval without shedding the unpleasant blood, sweat and tears necessitated by drastic action. They are quick to identify the programs and policies they do not like, but their faith in the importance of the atomized individual – a chief cultural standard – makes sacrificing personal self-interest in order for delayed gratification unthinkable. The winds of change cannot surmount the barricades of their sense of self, and consequently these winds are only so much noise against the shutters, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

State power is neither invincible nor undying, despite the enlargement of authority that followed terrorism’s rise as a locus of international anxiety. People are still anxious about a great many things in addition to the suicide bomber lurking under their bed: the ability to trust their leaders, to hold them to account, to earn a living and provide for their families and to participate meaningfully in decision-making. When states fail in these areas and lose the cornerstones of credibility and coercion, the potential for their downfall is there. Yet a line of dominoes does not begin falling on its own; it must be pushed. This is why recognizing Skocpol’s attention to constraints is so essential to her work. Looking around the world today, we see the conventional barriers to revolution, chiefly in the blunt instrument of state oppression. Yet Skocpol omits cultural values from her analysis, which is unfortunate, as value systems can be just as important to structural analysis as the state and its institutions. Many years ago, Skocpol “brought the state back in” to aid in comparative political research. Perhaps it is time to bring social norms into her still useful approach as well.

The Kids Are All Right (With Foreign Intervention): Kony 2012 and The Logic of Viral Video Action

Mancur Olson, in his iconic work The Logic of Collective Action, turned traditional group theory on his head. Olson posited that individuals would not collectively campaign for public goods without individual incentives to contribute. This is because there would be a tendency by many to “free ride” on the time and efforts expended by others. According to the logic of The Logic, social movements should be rare, as it would irrational for people to devote their resources for a cause without a direct and immediate benefit as compensation for their contributions.

Olson was wrong, and it is a shame he never bothered to look outside his window while he was describing the thought processes of homo economicus. In 1965, the year The Logic first saw print, the first SDS march against the Vietnam War attracted 25,000 protestors to Washington, D.C. Later that same year, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and the first Civil Rights Act into law, major victories for the Civil Rights Movement, a huge and multiracial movement characterized less by individual reward and more through immense courage in the face of often lethal (and sometimes state-sanctioned) prejudice. Around the world, one could witness the student and worker uprisings in France, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the ascendance of the “New Left” and an explosion in counterculture. Why Olson chose to focus on his abacus instead, however, is unfortunately emblematic of academia, where it is not required that an intellectual trend to be grounded in reality to be fashionable.

Olson was not just wrong in his own time, however. If anything, time has made his theory even more inaccurate, because “getting involved” is not that much of a commitment anymore. Thanks to social media sites like Facebook or Twitter and “viral videos” on YouTube, at the click of a button, you can share a link to a news story, poster or video designed to create awareness about a cause. Granted, there is no assurance that what you post will be read or watched by others – something I consider every time I write one of these things – but you still have better odds than previous generations did, armed as they were with little else besides megaphones and a copy of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.

Recently, the advocacy group Invisible Children proved just how irrelevant Olson is today by generating buzz around Kony 2012, a video about the brutal warlord behind the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). As of this writing, the video boasts over 70 million views. Major celebrities, like Oprah Winfrey and Rihanna, have endorsed the video. Donations to Invisible Children are pouring in, despite the mission of “Stop Kony” being one that directly benefits the mostly Western audience responding to it. So much for the “free rider problem.”

That is not to say, however, there is not a problem here. I will not touch on some of the common criticisms leveled against Invisible Children, such as that it is financially questionable organization with questionable accounting and transparency practices. I will also refrain from the much-cited Foreign Affairs article pointing out that Invisible Children and organizations like have “exaggerated the scale of LRA abductions and murders.” Quite honestly, if you have not yet read Mahmood Mamdani’s dissection of the “Save Darfur” propaganda campaign, it really deserves a look at how facts are distorted in order to frame a narrative suiting the intentions of certain deceptive (albeit well-meaning) groups. Pretty much everything that has been said about the mendacity of the “Save Darfur” movement can be said about Kony 2012, so I will not rehash it here.

I will stand Olson on his head and say that people – especially Westerners – are actually quite prone to caring about noble causes, especially when they are told that celebrity statements, wearing bracelets and sharing videos is all that is required to end a problem that has been going on for 25 years. They key is to simplify an issue so that it can be easily understood and digested, and play up your audience’s ego by assuring them that they can be the great saviors who can help poor Africans who cannot help themselves. The former takes some work; the Western mindset is soft-wired to accept the latter.

The truth is that the LRA is just scratching the surface of Uganda’s problems – and it is not even active in Uganda anymore. In actuality, Uganda is dealing with a host of other crises – a tyrant who has held onto power for almost 30 years; millions in missing funds and stolen medical supplies; a nascent oil industry sure to fuel even further corruption; and a population of young people dealing with increasing unemployment. Additionally, if you take the time to learn the history of the LRA, you will see that its roots in northern Uganda go all the way back to Uganda’s creation – the arbitrary drawing of borders by the British Empire, which intentionally exacerbated the tensions between the southern Bantu-speaking people against the Acholi and the Langi in the north. Even if Kony is captured or killed, does anyone who truly understands Uganda’s history believe that the endless cycle of warlords and rebels – Obote, Amin, Museveni – will suddenly stop? That, somewhere down the road, this huge ethnic cleavage will not produce more child soldiers, more abductions, more massacres?

Of course, groups like Invisible Children do not get into all that. It would complicate what they are trying to market to you – namely, that by pressuring Western governments to intervene, Kony can be stopped and the world will be a better place as a result. The appeal of this message too has to be understood with an appreciation for colonialism, as colonialism was justified by the “white man’s burden” – the belief that backward peoples in primitive countries were helpless and needed to be saved by enlightened, advanced Westerners. We still need to believe this today, as the scramble for Africa never stopped. The West continues to plunder Africa for its many resources (the continent is essentially a giant rock rich in minerals and petroleum) and, thanks to the “Washington consensus” and globalization, ensures that none of its countries will be allowed to develop independently on their own terms. Rather than drawing attention to this structural parameter that would be impossible to change without drastically altering the global economic system, advocacy groups present easily identifiable villains – like Kony – who do clearly terrible things – like abduct children and turn them into soldiers. If enough Westerners work together to achieve one simple goal – capturing or killing the villain – then the truth in their hearts, deep down, that the West is helping Africa more than hurting it will be affirmed. The “white man’s burden” will be a little less heavy to carry.

I realize that this post, like so many other criticisms directed at Invisible Children, will be decried as cynical nay-saying, and I will confess that the “wet blankets” dampening Kony 2012 can be as annoying as the well-meaning and naïve defenders of it. Yet my intention is more than snidely rolling my eyes and derisively shaking my head at an Internet meme that will soon be forgotten. My genuine concern is that groups like Invisible Children and the “Save Darfur” movement will engender my and future generations into viewing complex conflicts around the world in staggeringly simple terms, so as to justify future foreign interventions, continuing the neo-imperialism that has so characterized the post-Cold War era and has led to endless war. Seeing the hollowness and misrepresentations of campaigns like Kony 2012 is not about promoting apathy, but rather encouraging people to see the world as it really is, not as it is marketed to us.