Reactionary Sociologies: Cultural Hegemony of the Ruling Class

“The Left is rather prone to a perspective according to which the class struggle is something waged by the workers and the subordinate classes against the dominant ones.
It is of course that. But class struggle also means, and often means first of all, the struggle waged by the dominant class, and the state acting on its behalf, against the workers and the subordinate classes. By definition, struggle is not a one way process; but it is just as well to emphasize that it is actively waged by the dominant class or classes, and in many ways much more effectively waged by them than the struggle waged by the subordinate classes.”
Ralph Miliband, “The Coup in Chile” (1973)

Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher and German poliThe Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon ranks as perhaps Karl Marx’s greatest historical work. In the essay, he documents the events that culminated in the 1851 seizure of power in France by Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. His study of the French commercial bourgeoisie, the urban working class, and the “grotesque mediocrity” that was Louis Napoleon himself are descriptive only of a certain time and place, but the analysis of class struggle provides a useful inspiration Marxist scholars interpreting critical junctures past and present. For example, the rise of fascism in the West during the early 20th century played out in a manner comparative to the spread of liberal values in the late 19th century, just as the latter had a profound effect on the parameters set on the former. As the West enters another period of unrest, a similar class struggle is occurring. With neoliberalism under threat, elites are uniting with right-wing populists to frustrate and prevent popular challenges from the left.

The Past is Prologue

barricades_rue_saint-maur._avant_l27attaque2c_25_juin_1848._aprc3a8s_le28099attaque2c_26_juin_1848_28original29In 1848 liberal revolutions swept through western Europe, a sign that “rule by the sword and monk’s cowl” would no longer be accepted in the embrace of logic and reason post-Enlightenment. The turn to commercial agriculture had produced the bourgeoisie, who demanded greater freedoms and political participation. In France, the revolution started out peaceful a “matter of course,” with the “bourgeois monarchy” replaced with a “bourgeois republic” promoted by “the aristocracy of finance, the industrial bourgeoisie, the middle class, the petty bourgeois, the army, the lumpen proletariat…, the intellectual lights, the clergy, and the rural population.” Marx notes that this ruling class used force to put down a proletarian uprising in late June, in which thousands were killed, ending the “universal-brotherhood swindle.” Much more attention is passed to the following years, as Louis Napoleon is first elected president in December 1848, his struggle for power with various bourgeois factions, ending with the 1851 coup and the Napoleonic victory over the bourgeoisie. Replace Louis Napoleon with Hitler or Mussolini and we see parallels with moderate liberals underestimating megalomaniacal tyrants. In the modern age, we are still in the early days, but the prospect of democratic breakdown seems increasingly possible given dismal trust in major institutions, especially in political parties and governmental bodies. As before, there seems to be one element in common: liberal elites forming pacts with anti-democratic reactionaries in alliance against the working class, even at the (remarkably high) risk of right-wing betrayal.

In a series of articles detailing the class antagonisms of the 1848 revolution in France, Marx writes that it “was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it: bankers, stock-exchange kings, railway kings, owners of coal and iron mines and forests, a part of the landed proprietors associated with them—the so-called financial aristocracy.” The downfall of the monarchy had as its chief objective “to complete the rule of the bourgeoisie by allowing, besides the finance aristocracy, all the propertied classes to enter the orbit of political power.” The bank is the “high church” to the financial aristocracy, and rather than letting the state fall into bankruptcy, the provisional bourgeois government seeks a “patriotic sacrifice” in a new tax on the peasantry. What is more, the bourgeois republic swiftly turned against the working class, with one minister remarking: “The question now is merely one of bringing labor back to its old conditions.” The proletarians of Paris revolted in the “June days,” which prompted a massacre of thousands. Across Europe, a similar pattern repeated as the continental bourgeoisie “league[d] itself openly with the feudal monarchy against the people,” with the bourgeoisie becoming victims themselves in the aftermath of the revolutionary era. Reactionary counterrevolutions were widespread and repressive, particularly in Russia. To the extent that western European states implemented liberal reforms in subsequent decades, it was not in response to revolution, but gradual reforms undertaken by bourgeois political parties in concert with the financial aristocracy and other elites from the old political order. These groups shared a common fear of the working class and organized labor, whom they proceeded to keep out of power.

Over time, the continued agitation of organized labor movements (including political parties affiliated with trade unions) as well as greater public awareness of extreme poverty, mass illiteracy, and high mortality among the working poor turned the “classical liberalism” of Adam Smith to the “social liberalism” of Leonard Hobhouse. Western European governments began introducing reform packages including old age pensions, free school meals, and national health insurance. In Germany, the conservative statesman Otto von Bismarck created the first modern welfare state in a successful bid to stave off competition from socialist rivals. These strategic concessions by elites inspired some on the political left to argue socialism could be implemented in a similar vein, through incremental legislative reforms. In the U.K., this school of thought was embodied by the Fabian Society, whose members included two co-founders of the London School of Economics, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, as well as the Irish playwright and activist George Bernard Shaw. In Germany, social democratic politician Eduard Bernstein served as principal theorist in articulating a modified version of Marxism, where socialism would not come through violent revolution but by peaceful, lawful means. Bernstein even cited the repression of the Parisian proletariat in 1848 as an example of why revolution was actually a path to reactionary victory, not socialism.

In response to Bernstein’s revisionism, the German communist Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet in 1899, Social Reform or Revolution?, arguing that accumulative state-sanctioned reform “is not a threat to capitalist exploitation, but simply the regulation of exploitation. …[I]n the best of labor protective laws, there is no more ‘socialism’ than in a municipal ordinance regulating the cleaning of streets or the lighting of streetlamps.” According to her, the political participation of the working class in democratic societies is ultimately fruitless because “class antagonisms and class domination are not done away with, but are, on the contrary, displayed in the open.” In other words, the parties vying for power in legislatures take on the class character of the constituencies: a Conservative Party for the traditional ruling class, a Liberal Party for the commercial bourgeoisie, a Labour Party for the working class, and so on. Yet capitalism is fundamentally about the economy and economic power, not politics or laws. For Luxemburg, just as it was for Marx, the route to proletarian liberation was not through parliaments, but through a dictatorship of the proletariat, with the absolute class dominance of the working class over others. Only through this complete reversal in class relations could the workers of the world seize the means of production and build real, lasting socialism. Even as Luxemburg later became a critic of the Bolsheviks for what she claimed were undemocratic practices, she never endorsed liberal democracy as a credible avenue for rescuing the working class from their oppressed, exploited state.

The Ruling Class and Fascism

In 1919, right-wing paramilitaries operating under orders from the social democratic German government murdered Luxemburg and tossed her body in a Berlin canal. That social democratic politicians, ostensibly dedicated to building socialism, would use such methods against the revolutionary communist opposition seemed to validate the criticisms by the communists that reform-minded social democrats would, in the end, align themselves with the ruling class instead of ordinary workers. This was borne out by other examples. In early 1929, the Berlin police, directed by the social democratic government, used vicious force to put down banned communist rallies on May Day. Dozens died, most of them innocent bystanders and not communists at all. In the U.K., the 1929 Great Depression led to first ever Labour Party election victory, but rather than pursue socialist policies, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald formed a “National Government” with the Conservative and Liberal parties, betraying his left-wing blue-collar base. In France and the U.S., social liberals were able to placate anger and anxiety over the economic crisis by finally creating welfare states, including the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while maintaining capitalist economies.

Rede Adolf Hitlers zum ErmächtigungsgesetzIn Germany and Italy, however, resentments instilled by World War I and the effects of the Wall Street stock market crash left conservative and liberal politicians exposed to populist grievances. This led to a surge in popularity for the far left and the far right in both countries. Notably, neither Adolf Hitler in Germany nor Benito Mussolini in Italy came into government by force; rather, they were appointed by elder statesmen, Hitler by President Paul von Hindenburg, and Mussolini by King Victor Emmanuel III. Although both men later seized absolute power, they had the support of the upper and middle classes, especially the petty bourgeoisie. Democracy was destroyed, but in both cases, capitalism was maintained. Hitler collaborated with German industrialists, with private companies designing everything from Nazi uniforms (Hugo Boss) to aircraft engines (Daimler-Benz, owner of Mercedes-Benz). The Italian automobile manufacturer Fiat produced machinery for Mussolini’s armed forces as well. Just as today, war was good business, and companies were keen to profit from it. Meanwhile, trade unions were abolished, and labor issues became a matter for the state to regulate. Contemporary right-wingers in the West often attempt to portray Nazi Germany or fascist Italy as “socialist” or “communist” in ideology or character, but truthfully they shared an intense hatred for Marxism and the Soviet Union (along with Japan, the two future Axis powers were signatories to the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact, an informal alliance explicitly aimed at opposing Moscow and the spread of communism.

Domestically, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy rounded up political prisoners and placed them in jails or concentration camps, many of them from radical left-wing parties. In Italy, this included one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci. An activist who organized industrial action at Fiat factories, Gramsci was also a Marxist theorist, his primary contribution being the idea of “cultural hegemony.” According to Gramsci, the ruling class no longer needs to rely on force or the threat of force to exercise social control. Instead, the subordinate classes adopt the norms, ideas, and values of the dominant group, internalizing them as their own. Civil society in capitalist societies create and consolidate this cultural hegemony through institutions separate from the state (schools, places of worship, even family units) that nevertheless encourage and reinforce acceptance of the status quo. The role of religion in bolstering those in power while also functioning as an “opiate of the masses” is well-known, but practices like reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” in a classroom or deferring to “father knows best” in family matters also develop submission to authority. Presenting the default quality of human nature to be self-interested and egocentric contributes to the perception of capitalism as normal, innate to humanity itself. In this way perspectives critical to maintaining and expanding capitalism and the power of the ruling class become “common sense” and “conventional wisdom.” It becomes easier in the popular imagination to imagine the world endling than it does to imagine a world without the dominant economic and political systems. This is reflected in a slogan employed by Margaret Thatcher in her promotion of neoliberal economics: “There is no alternative.”

The Case of Spain: Sociological Francoism

344px-francisco_franco_1930In July 1936, civil war erupted in Spain between the popularly elected left-wing government and right-wing rebels, the latter eventually headed by General Francisco Franco. After the victory of the rebels in 1939, Franco became the dictator of Spain and would remain so until his death in 1975. While not explicitly fascist, the Franco regime was undeniably authoritarian-conservative, favoring militaristic nationalism and very traditional Roman Catholicism. Political opponents in Francoist Spain were brutally repressed by state law enforcement agencies, with death warrants personally signed by Franco himself. The government, however, also implemented was is now termed “sociological Francoism,” the internalization in the Spanish public of ideas and values that supported the dictatorship. The government only recognized Castilian Spanish as the “official language” of Spain, denying the reality that tens of thousands of Spanish citizens spoke other languages, such as the Catalan and Basque languages. The Catholic Church had authority over Spanish schools and teachers who were judged to be insufficiently pious were dismissed from their posts. The orphans of parents who had fought for or supported the left-wing government during the civil war were turned over to Catholic orphanages and taught that their parents had been terrible sinners. State propaganda substantiated patriarchal gender roles, with men encouraged to be proud, aggressive warriors and women to be obedient, unassuming mothers and housekeepers.

While politically illiberal, Francoist Spain embraced economic liberalism, attracting around $8 billion in foreign direct investment and a booming tourism business. Despite the obviously tyrannical nature of the government, corporations and bourgeois holiday-goers were keen to profit from opportunities available in the country. It was easier to ignore and welcome the harshness directed at left-wing dissidents than to take a principled stand, especially for those sectors of Spanish society that had no natural sympathy for the cultural minorities or the militant working class. Francoist Spain helped to demonstrate that economic prosperity and a relatively high standard of living can eclipse notions of political liberty and civil responsibility for a majority of social groups, contrary to what liberal idealists would claim. The growth of the Spanish economy for fifteen years, from $12 billion to $76 billion, kept Francoism secure.

When Franco died in 1975, a democratization process occurred in which political parties from the left and right forged an agreement called the “Pact of Forgetting.” There would be no formal reckoning with the human rights abuses and repression of dissent that had occurred during Francoist rule. Individuals and institutions who had blood on their hands were allowed to continue in public life. The Spanish 1977 Amnesty Law (still in force today) granted immunity to perpetrators of atrocities from any prosecution or punishment. This consensus to avoid dealing with the crimes of the past meant that Spanish society did not polarize in the aftermath of Francoism, ensuring a stable and sustainable transition to a peaceful democracy rather than chaos and division leading to another potential civil war. Justice was sacrificed for political order and national unity.

In 2007, a center-left government in Spain passed a law intended to overturn the “Pact of Forgetting” and to finally recognize the rights of victims who suffered during the civil war and the dictatorship by rehabilitating the reputation of political prisoners, identifying those killed in summary executions and buried in unmarked graves, and removing Francoist symbols from public life. In 2014 a report made by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights found that implementation of the law was “timid” and that only three regions had supplied any meaningful effort in trying to locate people who had gone missing during the Franco years. Today, the major center-right political party in Spain, the People’s Party, traces its origins to Manuel Fraga, a former Francoist minister who oversaw the gradual, highly compromised transition from dictatorship to democracy. The People’s Party strongly opposed the passage of the 2007 law to finally deal with the repression of the Franco era, claiming it was “an argument for political propaganda.” Many works of art censored under Franco are still published in their censored or expurgated forms. Most recently, the People’s Party has been losing ground politically to a far-right party, Vox, which in addition to being openly xenophobic and sexist also expresses unreserved nostalgia for the Franco regime. While Franco’s formal dictatorship no longer exists, the cultural hegemony it utilized is still in place, with generations of Spaniards past and present conditioned to view the dark years of Francoism as not only far and respectable but even desirable. Today some Spaniards still openly lament: “Con Franco vivíamos major” (“We lived better with Franco”).

The Cultural Hegemony of Today

tina-thatcher-e1450536813194Just as the unrest of 1848 and the 1920s were ultimately triumphs for reactionaries, it seems that the present global tension is boosting the extreme right. The rise of Vox in Spain has its parallels in the U.S. “alt-right,” the arch-Brexiteers in the U.K., far-right populists in Brazil, ad nauseum. A large reason for this trend is that, culturally, these movements have received greater tolerance and even acceptance in these countries than left-wing movements typically spearheaded and supported by the younger generation. In societies where repressive violence is widely considered incongruent with liberal values, left-wing challenges are instead frustrated through unfavorable media coverage and social bias against unconventional progressive proposals. For example, universal health care is generally regarded with disbelief and skepticism as a dangerous, extreme policy despite the fact that almost all industrialized countries have some form of it. Calls to abolish NATO, explicitly set up to combat the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries, are dismissed as absurd despite the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe allies several decades ago. Meanwhile, appeals to the principles of the past, despite being steeped in prejudice and ignorance by modern standards, at least have the virtue of familiarity. In other words, in the minds of many people, it is safer to go back than forward, even if it is at the expense of marginalized, vulnerable communities who have only just received some modicum of social justice after decades of fierce struggle.

It is doubtful that the present social control protecting the ruling class and favoring reactionaries will falter until there is the development of what Gramsci described as “counterhegemonic culture.” For Gramsci, cultural hegemony is not monolithic; it is borne from social and class struggle that it, in turn, molds and influences. Cultural hegemony is therefore a contested and shifting set of ideas. In the U.S., it is notable that the predominant counterhegemonic critique is less radical than it is sometimes treated in the mainstream press; the “socialism” equated with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, the embodiment of the left-wing attack on the status quo, is more evocative of the welfare state policies of the New Deal era or many modern European capitalist countries. Millennial Americans, while typically more empathetic and more tolerant than past generations, are also less militant than their historical counterparts when it comes to political action. Recent so-called flashpoints of left-wing opposition, such as the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and 2017 Women’s March, have had festival atmospheres rather than the rage-fueled confrontations with authorities that were characteristic of the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Egypt or the 2019 Hong Kong demonstrations. Western counterculture is still defined by individuality and avant-garde attitudes, but now more than ever also takes place through professional commercial operations. Music festivals and events of “radical self-expression” like Burning Man are less threats to the status quo than sanctioned profit-making avenues for “sticking it to the man” without actually risking real consequences through acts of civil disobedience and resistance.

The answer for this absence of popular revolt and meaningful counterhegemonic culture may be our own sociological sickness, a nostalgia for the neoliberal golden age of the 1980s-1990s. Western liberal societies did not have the pseudo-fascist traits of Franco’s Spain, but there are parallels with a period of economic prosperity coupled with indirect state violence against social “undesirables” (the ignored AIDs epidemic and the vilification of black “welfare queens” in the U.S., the industrial decline and racial tensions of Thatcher’s Britain). Also, just as the Spanish Civil War and the right-wing victory destroyed a powerful left-wing movement in Spain, the failure of 1960s protest in the West to enact real reform led to the virtual demise of a significant organized left-wing mobilization for the rest of the 20th century. Spaniards who grew up in Franco’s Spain were conditioned to accept the regime and its values as “normal” and correct; so too did many Westerners grow up in an environment where counterculture was a fun outlet for the weekends rather than a long, drawn-out struggle. While Western left-wingers may chant “Another world is possible,” it must be asked whether they have either the imagination to picture such a world, or the discipline to ever realize it.

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.