Tag: hunger games

The Politics of the Hunger Games

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the projects that I’m working on now is a book provisionally entitled “The Politics of the Hunger Games.” PM and I are overdue in submitting a full proposal to the press. In an earlier post I sketched out some provisional chapter titles. Here I provide a more complete list and a synopsis of the final chapter.

This is definitely a “crowdsourcing” post, so comments are appreciated. Details and spoilers below the fold.

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Five Lessons from “The Hunger Games”

So I recently read Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” series after being pleasantly surprised by the movie. I easily breezed through all three books on plane rides, on which I prefer reading fiction (yes, even teen fiction) rather than my typical literary fare.
Collins is no Steinbeck.Nonetheless, I (slightly hesitantly) confess that I was impressed with many of the underlying themes within the series—particularly with how well Collins seems to understand how people build and take power in oppressive systems. Besides the strong “shame on us for our oblivious, exploitative, violent consumerism…arise!” message of the series, here were my key takeaways from a conflict perspective. Spoiler alert, by the way.
1.     All oppressive regimes end. Even totalitarian ones. In fact, the longer they endure, the more vulnerable they are to failure. Why? Because the more generations live under oppressive rule, the more likely they are to develop the skills they need to eventually undermine it. Katniss Everdeen develops survival skills—hunting to sell food on the black market, making tools out of basic objects, and knowing how to deprive the regime of what it really wants (her obedience)—that eventually help her to totally outsmart the Arena. The deprivations imposed on the districts of Panem turn out to give them the very tools that empower them to challenge the Capitol’s rule in the end.
2.     Every oppressive regime has ambivalent insiders. All regimes are, in the end, totally dependent on the obedience of those who support it—economic, military, media, and civilian elites. When such insiders (Sinna, Plutarch, etc.) stop obeying the regime, and its pillars of support begin to crack, it’s the beginning of the end. Insiders, too, are often intimately familiar with the regime’s vulnerabilities and are therefore quite well-disposed to challenge it. 
3.     Power is essentially psychological. No regime can repress all of the people all of the time. So many regimes rely on terror to suppress dissent. And by and large, it works—until it doesn’t.
4.     It’s all about exposing the lie. The psychological power of terror ends when people simply decide to stop being afraid. Then it’s all over. Like in the books when the Districts end up rebelling once they realize that 1) the Capitol is (and always has been) vulnerable to challenge; (2) all information coming out of the Capital is (and always was) lies; and (3) all they have to do (now and ever) is coordinate their uprisings. The people of the districts realized they had the power all the time. As soon as this “cognitive liberation” was achieved, it was all over for the Panem of the Hunger Games.
5.     Girl power is real power. Of course a strong, smart, and independent female protagonist distinguishes the series from many others like it. This is a rather fantastical feature of the series—the apocalypse must have truly come and gone for such gender equity to be standard practice in society. In fact, many of the key political players in the story turn out to be female, with many of the male characters depicted as weak, passive, or possessing a level of self-doubt or naïve goodness that exasperates the heroine (um, role reversal!). Those female characters who are fairly weak and uninspired to action (e.g., Katniss’ widowed mother) are viewed with disdain by the stronger characters, but not because they are female–just because they are apathetic. But here’s the thing about girl power. I have a hunch (yet to be fully tested empirically) that in our contemporary, pre-apocalyptic earth times, when women are willing to mobilize against oppressive systems, their movements have far greater potential to win. Jay Ulfelder, Orion Lewis, and I recently looked at which factors are associated with the onset of major nonviolent popular uprisings and found that higher rates of female literacy (maybe a proxy for increased social engagement, economic influence, political power, or all of the above) are significantly associated with such onsets. When women join the fight, movements can become twice as large. Maybe women are more organized or more tactically disciplined (at least one colleague has mentioned this as a possibility). There are often taboos against public repression of women that can be used to the movement’s advantage. And women can deprive the regime of many things it wants—cultural, political, economic, and sexual obedience. In other words, I have a feeling that when men hit the streets, dictators shrug. But when women get fired up, dictators tremble.

Pop Cuture Meets Social Science: Beautiful Marriage

 Check out this post where Brett Keller uses sophisticated social science statistical methods to ascertain how badly fixed the Hunger Games depicted in the novel/movie are. 

All I can say is that we live in a wonderful time where folks can radically over-think some pop culture and then disseminate widely and quickly via Al Gore’s internet.  Indeed, all Alan Sepinwall has to do is ask the internet, and it provides him with the rules for True American must mere hours after the game was presented on New Girl.

Anyhow, back to the Hunger Games analysis–I am now beginning to regret not teaching Intro to IR next fall, as we now have a great example of a collective action problem: why doesn’t every kid in a Panem district ask for the max amount of tessera?  If every kid does this, their odds of being entered into the games does not change….

Read the piece–it is chock full of nerdy goodness.


Pop Culture Narratives in World Politics: A Bleg

I will be on a panel at 1.45pm in Indigo A with the following description:

There has been a growing body of work in world politics that relies on or analyzes fictional narratives. To what extent can cultutal phenomena like Battlestar Galactica or Harry Potter be used as for pedagogical purposes in the classroom? How useful are such narratives as data points to either explicate or substantiate theoretical claims in world politics? This roundtable weighs the costs and benefits of using popular culture narratives inside the classroom and in publications.

Charli Carpenter will be discussing her work on the intersection (PDF) between Battlestar Galactica and real-world politics. I assume that Patrick James will tell us about his forthcoming book on teaching international relations through The Lord of the Rings. I expect that you all can guess what Dan Drezner’s role on the panel will be. I’m not at all sure what Jonathan Cristol will present — perhaps something on Philip K. Dick?

Here’s my question: what should I talk about? I don’t have any interest in revisiting the substance of Harry Potter and International Relations, which leaves four options:

  1. Methods and Methodology. In essence, I could discuss my thinking — six-years on — about the framework Iver Neumann and I developed for HP&IR. If Steve Saideman will allow me to present last, this might be a nice way to close out the disparate panel presentations.
  2. The Hunger Games. My guess is that I would talk about the series from the perspective of the four  approaches to popular culture and politics referenced in the first option.
  3. Interstellar Relations: The Politics of Speculative Fiction. The substance and pedagogy of the class I teach, with ample kudos to PTJ’s influence.
  4. Strange IR: International-Relations Theory as Speculative Fiction. A discussion of a paper idea that PM came up with after we finished a brief comment on whether the nineteenth century was the most important  (.doc) “turning point” in international politics. In brief, why a number of over-the-horizon developments — the “great convergence,” climate change, the end of the “Age of Efflorescence” — might alter the constitutive rules of international politics and how coming to grips with that requires practical science fiction. 

Feedback would be greatly appreciated.


Yes, Matt Yglesias, Panem is an extractive, totalitarian empire

[UPDATED] Yglesias asks if “any real country could have an economy like Panem’s?” His answer comes via a synopsis of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail:

The places that are rich today were poor then, while those that are poor today were generally rich in the past. This, they argue, is no coincidence. When Spanish conquistadors showed up in the prosperous areas of Latin America, they stole all the gold they could get their hands on and then set about putting the native populations to work. They set up “extractive institutions” whose purpose was to wring as many natural resources (silver, gold, food) from the land as possible while keeping power in the hands of a narrow elite. These institutions discourage savings and investment, since everyone knows any wealth can and will be arbitrarily expropriated. And while the injustice of it all led to periodic revolutions, the typical pattern was for the new boss to simply seize control of the extractive institutions and run them for his own benefit.

In short, Yglesias thinks that Panem makes sense when it comes to raw-materials extraction and agriculture, but less well when it comes to the production of complicated manufactured goods.

Collins wisely avoids going into detail about what life is supposed to be like in Districts specializing in luxury goods or electronics. It’s difficult to have a thriving economy in electronics production without a competitive market featuring multiple buyers and multiple sellers. 

Absent market competition, personal computers never would have disrupted the mainframe market and the iPhone and Android never would have revolutionized telecommunications. Entrenched monopolists have no interest in developing new technologies that shake things up. It’s difficult to get real innovation-oriented competitive markets without secure property rights, and exceedingly difficult to have secure property rights without some diffusion of political power. That needn’t mean real democratic equality—a standard the United States and Europe didn’t meet until relatively recently—but it does mean fairly broad power-sharing, as the U.S. has had from the beginning.

Yglesias’ line of analysis is pretty unobjectionable, but it does run into a few issues.

First, in relative terms, Panem’s core and inner-periphery appear to have developed consumer markets.  Capitol itself is given to conspicuous consumption and its elite enjoy a particularly high standard of living, even by contemporary US standards. The low-numbered Districts, particularly Districts 1 and 2, are far more prosperous than District 12. Just because a polity engages in significant economic extraction does not mean that its metropole and more prosperous peripheries cannot produce market forces that drive at least some innovation, as was the case with European colonial empires and any number of city-state empires.

Second, the more interesting interaction is, as Yglesias touches on but doesn’t give adequate attention to, whether Panem’s totalitarian impulses discourage innovation. This is a much broader topic, but my sense is that we shouldn’t confuse the “innovation gap” between, say, the United States and the USSR with a claim about lack of innovation in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was, for much of its life-cycle, reasonably innovative on a number of scientific fronts. Given Panem’s apparent lack of full-fledged international competitors–and hence fears about a technology gap with other states or empires–I don’t see a major problem for Collins on this front.

Indeed, as one of Yglesias’ commentators points out, Panem exists at least a few centuries in our future in a post-collapse environment.

My reading of the technology of Panem is that it is largely stagnant itself, much of it the remnants of a more enlightened time before what seems to have been an somewhat apocalyptic event. What advancement their is is indulgent and trivial. It is implied, for instance, that life in District 12 has not changed much for a long time – no new ways of mining, neither more nor less oppressive than it had been, no indication of technological progression. You can imagine an electronics district that is like Foxconn etc; capable of competently creating electronics with all the necessary precision, but not particularly invested or interested in *what* they are making.

Third, Yglesias misses one of the more important consideration regarding Panem’s plausibility: the size of its population. District 12’s population is around eight thousand. One impressively obsessive estimate places Panem’s entire population at no more than four million–a number that strike me as extremely high from the scattering of information found in the novels. This high estimate would make Panem’s population roughly that of late medieval/early modern England, less than half that of New York City. This is an exceedingly small population, and one dispersed over a territory the stretches from at least modern-day Colorado to to eastern Kentucky. I am not convinced that Panem’s population, which may very well number in the low hundreds of thousands, could sustain its economy.

All of these speculations run into a fundamental problem. We are discussing a society with extraordinarily advanced genetic engineering, let alone other futuristic technologies. Moreover, Panem resides in a world with a much diminished carrying capacity. We should not assume that the economic logic of the present, let alone the premodern past, provides us with clear guidance for assessing Panem’s plausibility.

[UPDATE]: I hope that PM has more to say about this later, but one implication of Panem’s low population should be very expensive labor–which raises questions about the Capitol’s choice of labor-intensive production techniques, most notably in the Districts devoted to raw-material production and basic manufacturing. But this isn’t really much of a mystery once we recognize that Panem’s economic system is subservient to its political structure. The Capitol’s segmentation of the Districts by position in the chain of production, its creation of artificial energy scarcity, and its monopolization of the flow of resources among the Districts… these are classic, if rather extreme, forms of divide and rule. So if we want to assess Panem economics, we need to do so through the lens of political economy. Or as Aristotle might say, politics really is the master science.


(Some of) The Politics of the Hunger Games

As regular readers know, I assigned The Hunger Games in the last iteration of my SciFi class. Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about doing a short book with, one hopes, a less boring title than “The Politics of the Hunger Games.” Indeed, I just finished talking to an editor about it. Unlike the Harry Potter and International Relations volume that I co-edited, or the Battlestar Galactica volume that I co-wrote the conclusion for, this would be a short monograph intended for a non-academic audience.

So far I’ve sketched out chapters with titles like “Capitol Rules: Panem as Empire,” “Capitol Punishment: Panem as Totalitarian State,” “Playing by the Rules: Manipulation through Narrative,” “Capitol Falls: Revolutionary Politics,” “Katniss is not Bella: Class and Gender,” and “Bread and Circuses: Resources and Economics.” Obviously, some of these themes are pretty obvious (and covered in The Hunger Games and Philosophy), but for this kind of book, its less about originality than quality.

Thinking that I should probably find out what the interwebs are saying about the subject, I recently did a trusty google search. Turns out that the top hits include debates (e.g.) about whether the books are “conservative” or “liberal (uh, ok); an interesting, but rather strained attempt to link The Hunger Games to the politics of food; a somewhat disappointing New Yorker piece with “counterinsurgency” in the title; and a very wrongheaded analysis of Panem as an example of “asymmetric federalism.” So I guess there’s room here.

(Previously at the Duck, Charli talks Hunger Games.)


Friday Nerd Blogging




“killer kids”

“torture and execution”




“weird science”

This President’s Day week, tickets went on sale for The Hunger Games movie. While you re-read the books and prepare yourself to be generally underwhelmed by the film (seriously? casting kindly-wise-old-Father-of-Elizabeth-Bennett as a bloodthirsty dictator?), let me encourage you to purchase The Hunger Games Companion.

The Companion is jam-packed with history, science, survival facts, literary analysis, mythology and trivia about real-life sites around which the key phenomena in the novels manifest sociologically, in real life both past and present. Each chapter is like a mini-syllabus for a separate first-year honors seminar in some grisly topic. Each is a window onto a dark underside of human history and politics.

One chapter you won’t see in The Companion would be titled “International Relations.” That of course is because there are no international relations in Panem, since apparently there are no other humans anywhere in sight. My son is starting in on the books hungrily now, and he noticed this right away: “Why aren’t they worried about invasions by other Capitols?” It’s an interesting question, but there you have it: the story is one of domestic affairs only, with no two-level games.

I wonder what readers of this blog think this means in terms of the sociological value of the story, and I also wonder how the story would have been different if at all had President Snow needed to contend with international diplomacy while keeping his subjects under the heel.


Fun and Grisly Holiday Reading

I finally finished the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy. (I was not expecting that ending, though in hindsight I’m not sure why.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the dystopian premise: the United States is gone. Its successor nation, Panem, consists of an opulent, entertainment-obsessed capital somewhere in the Rockies and thirteen impoverished districts in which inhabitants farm, mine and manufacture. The Districts are kept in line partly through a Tribute system (developed after an uprising 70 years ago in which the thirteenth district was exterminated): every year a boy and girl are chosen by lottery to fight in an elaborate reality TV show for the entertainment of the Capitol. The winner and his or her family receive a life of ease; the losers die horrible deaths in the arena while all of Panem watches.

So far, not a terribly sophisticated plot, but that’s just the first few pages. What’s interesting are the industries surrounding the games: the audience can bet on the winner, there is a system for providing assistance to the favorites, an elaborate set of strategies for currying favor, and each contender works closely with a team of fixers whose professional success is based not only whether their tributes live or die but on how well they can serve the overall goal of entertaining the masses in order to uphold the fragile, fearsome stability of the system. And then there are relationships among the tributes themselves, who can form alliances and develop friendships even though only one of them will survive. And that’s before things turn “political.”

The books, which are currently being turned into mega-films by Liongate deal not just with survival under impossible conditions (for a taste, check out this fan-made video by an actress who hopes for a chance at the coveted role of Katniss). More profoundly, they are about repression and inequality, the socio-political-military-entertainment-industrial-consumer complexes that sustain them, and the continuum of resistance mechanisms by which people along a continuum of core to periphery inch toward revolution. (There’s a lot more to work with here than Collins develops in the books; I hope the screenwriters will make the most of these subtexts.)

The series is pitched as “young adult fiction” in the genre of the Twilight series, although why this is true – whereas Orson Scott Card’s novels, for example, are generally understood as adult fiction – somewhat escapes me (perhaps the sci-fi pedagogy experts on this blog can explain this). The Hunger Games seems far more sophisticated than Twilight (when my daughter was reading it this summer, the adjective she used to describe the book was “complicated.”) Like Card’s Treason, Wyrms, Ender or the Homecoming series’ the characters in The Hunger Games trilogy are young adults, of course, but they are facing very adult situations and more importantly, they are treated as adults by the adult characters and the author in every way that matters. The books are just as brutal (as Entertainment Weekly put it “let’s see the makers of the movie version try to get a PG-13 on this baby”) and – yes – just as complicated as anything cooked up by Card.

In fact, one of the most interesting themes in The Hunger Games is captured pretty well by one of my favorite quotes from Card:

“Sometimes it’s impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.”

Or rather, if you wear too many contradictory identities for too long, it’s very hard to know who you actually are or what you prefer. So Suzanne Collins’ novels are at their root a commentary on the ways in which our subjectivity is mediated by the performances in which we participate – which are constituted by various types of media – to the extent that our various identities are de-stablized by the act of pretending, until ultimately distinguishing the real from the unreal becomes an exercise in blind trust among those we choose as companions. In such contexts, the meaning of political agency shifts significantly and reasserts itself in surprising ways.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


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