Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On the Local Economy and The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen: Local(ist) Hero

The comments presented forthwith do not necessarily represent the opinions of the author, nor any reasonable human being. On the other hand, inspired by this meisterwerk (subtitle: "A Critique of Pure Treason"), this essay may be a product of a voice of some generation at some point whose collective tongue cannot be extracted from its collective cheek. The author also posts here with less silly (but still somewhat silly) thoughts.

Wendell would live in District 11
The world of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games could be cited as the frightening result of Tocquevillian democratic despotism. The Capitol, bent only on rapid materialism and consumption, is lulled into abandoning their mores and is oblivious to questions of the morality of pitting 24 adolescents against each other in a fight to the death as long as they are entertained. Katniss and Peeta, the flawed heroes of our tale, are bent on bucking the system, refusing to be a “pawn in their Games” and eventually becoming the symbols of resistance for the impoverished Districts who have become artificially dependent on the Capitol’s kindness for their very existence. Besides their growing role as reluctant leaders in the resistance against the evil President Snow, Peeta and especially Katniss show fierce loyalty to their home, District 12. In this essay, I will examine how themes of localism pervade Collins’ kid lit series and the “total economy” of Panem is a means of destroying the local character of the Districts.

In the oft-cited Federalist No. 10, James Madison outlines the causes and discontents of faction in the newly forming union of the United States. A faction, Madison writes, is “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Madison is convinced that factions are a social ill, a roadblock to a harmonious union and that they should be marginalized and destroyed. The two methods which Madison outlines to eradicate factions are “removing its causes” and “controlling its effects.” In The Hunger Games, the fear of faction drives the Capitol’s twisted “penance” policy of taking tributes from each District. It is no coincidence the fictitious nation is called Panem. According to the central propaganda, the factions that drove the Districts to rebel caused District 13 to be wiped out and the fear of the threat returning is used to justify the unconscionable annual panem et circenses events pitting child against child. Thus, to eradicate factions, initially the Capitol attempts to “control its effects” by asserting its authority over the Districts through fear and artificial dependency. To ensure loyalty is not to the local districts and to the center, the Capitol attempts to, in Madison’s words, “destroy liberty, which is essential to [the faction’s] existence” while pretending that “every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”

District 12's Organic Farmer's Market
We see, however, that the Districts – especially District 12, which we see through Katniss’ eyes – have their own character and cohesion. Localist tendencies are on full display and while there is a sense of suspicion between citizens in the Districts (there are always Peacekeepers from the Capitol to fear), a camaraderie exists between those who are closest. Because of the Capitol’s maintenance of a “total economy” that, as Wendell Berry writes in his 2001 essay “The Idea of a Local Economy,” is “an unrestrained taking of profits from the disintegration of nations” – in this case, the Districts – the local economy must survive underground. This underground local economy Katniss and her friend, Gale, must hunt outside the perimeter of the District to feed her family, a crime punishable by the harshest of means; however, there is an unspoken agreement amongst the denizens of District 12. The shadow economy is built on personal knowledge of other people’s character. Katniss would not trade her hard won squirrel for food with someone unknown who could turn her in to the Capitol. It is also remarkable that the local economy is largely centered around food. In the same essay, Berry notes that the local food economy can “give everybody in the local community a direct, long-term interest in the prosperity, health, and beauty of their homeland.”# The Capitol attempts to control the effects of the factions in the Districts by controlling the food. The local black market for food is a direct rebellion against the larger forces that attempt to keep the Districts subservient, giving them a direct interest in their immediate surroundings.

Berry writes that the idea of a local economy rests on two central principles: neighborhood and subsistence. The principle of neighborhood is seen primarily in the tableau featuring Peeta’s pity on a starving Katniss by throwing her a piece of bread. In a neighborhood, “neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another, and they find answers that they and their place can afford.” While charity is not part and parcel of life in District 12, this is explained by the fact that “they and their place” cannot afford any. It is impoverished. But, we see the lasting connection between Peeta and Katniss begins with such an act of charity, of looking out for one’s neighbor. One is reminded of Christ who looks at the starving crowd with compassion and proceeds to feed them with miraculous multiplication of loaves. The local economy runs on such compassion, which is so remarkable in a place so starved as District 12 that it is burned into Katniss’ memory and binds Peeta and Katniss even before they are thrown together to fight for their lives.

In addition to Collins’ portrayal of the local economy as rebellion against the Capitol, the Districts’ loyalty to the character of their District is the source of wider scale revolt beginning after the 74th annual Hunger Games. The Capitol attempts to appropriate and impose a cheerier narrative on the local character of the Districts. The most prominent example of this is the parade of tributes that precedes the Games, where Katniss earns her moniker “The Girl on Fire.” Because each district is dominated by one means of production – District 12: coal, District 11: agriculture, etc. – each team of tributes is dressed in a manner that reflects their contribution to the Capitol’s well-being (and their own oppression). In this way, the Games attempts to “control the effects” of the District-based faction through trying to show how grateful and proud the Capitol is of the District’s contribution to “the common good.” This extraordinary division of labor, however, is a result of the destruction of localism within Panem. There is no sense of the common good in the Districts because no one benefits from the contribution they make to the Capitol’s well-being. The alienation from the product of their labor is evident in the wealth of the Capitol compared to the single-product economies of the Districts. There is no room for developing the “diversity of the faculties of men” that Madison values so highly.

Effie: Consumer culture embodied
The foreignness of the people of the Capitol also emphasizes the distance in every sense between the Districts and the central government of Panem. When Katniss and Peeta arrive in the Capitol to begin their parade to slaughter in the arena, they are mystified by the wealth and ostentatious character of the citizens. The decadent clothing and strange makeup show an extraordinary disconnect between the Capitol, who reaps the harvest of things they did not produce, and the Districts, who see no fruit of their labor. The encroaching technology-based empire is completely unfamiliar to the people of the Districts and the Capitol does not understand the plight of the people who enable their decadence, nor does it want to outside of watching them fight to the death for their entertainment. The Capitol is a placeless place with no sense of the economy as a whole. It is completely based on consumption with little sense of the line of production or the common good. Berry writes that the total economy “licenses symbolic or artificial wealth to ‘grow’ by means of the destruction of the real wealth of all the world.” The strange clothing and exorbitant meals enjoyed by the people in the Capitol is enjoyed on the backs of the “real wealth” and production of the Districts.

The Games themselves show the disconnect between the local and Panem. While the Districts view the Games as a horrific event where two of their own will (most likely) be killed, the citizens of Panem use it as their circenses, cheering and consuming without regard for details about their lives beyond the shiny picture set before them. They appear ignorant to the fact that their flagrant consumptive lives are built on the tributes’ backs. The tributes may escape production at home, but are subject now to producing entertainment for the Capitol. The economy is not whole and it is reflected even in Panem’s view of human life. Katniss recognizes Peeta from his significant act of charity, but they are anonymous to the people of the Capitol despite, as members of District 12, providing for their needs at great cost to themselves.

Collins’ The Hunger Games displays the extraordinary consequences of a consumer culture disconnected from production and the means by which developed regions can exploit the poor without any idea of the common good. The antidote to this, portrayed by the local black market in District 12, is destruction of anonymity and cohesion of local character. The rebellion starts with District 11’s identification with Rue, one of their own, who at only 11 years old becomes a victim of the Capitol’s Games. The total economy of Panem may control factions, but only by destroying their liberty without successfully replacing their interests with that of the Capitol’s.

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