Capitalism, Communism, and the Hunger Games

[This article is a tad complex. I've written a much clearer version that is an easier read.]

[Update: see also a more recent post, Occupy Panem]

The other day, I ran across this article and skimmed through it. I disagree with much of the author’s interpretation of the film. The books and the movie are not contrivances attempting to change people’s ideology. They’re stories. If Collins was pushing a viewpoint regarding capitalism, it really shouldn’t be so difficult to discover. The author of the article makes this difficulty clear in floundering to draw inferences. That details can be isolated and confounded into such a conspiracy reflects that the author of this article has his own ideas he is imposing upon The Hunger Games.

Fiction books making political points are far more overt than these. Look at Orwell’s classics Animal Farm and 1984. Look at Ayn Rands books (if you can stand the thorough absence of spirituality and moral truth). Look at State of Fear by Michael Crichton. You don’t have to go digging into the esoteric and the obscure, and if you did, you would find more than this paucity of lines which back your claim. With these works, you can see plainly what the authors intended to say regarding the real world. That’s the whole point, really. If you want to make someone think something, you don’t hide it so much. If Suzanne Collins intended her books to be anti-capitalist, she did a pretty terrible job of it, focusing so exclusively on Katniss’ emotional tug-of-war. I don’t think it necessary to even address the ‘historical timing’ of the 74th Hunger Games in comparison to Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, much less bring in Hitler’s totalitarian regime. I could, but why waste time on the absurd? For instance, the thought that Lionsgate timed The Hunger Games’ release to coincide with arguments before SCOTUS on the Obamacare bill… sheer lunacy. Movies, especially pop-hit movies, are always timed to maximize ticket sales.

Let me point out the largest flaw with the article, though I doubt it is necessary. The books don’t display a whit of free-market capitalism, outside of the black markets at the Hob (and presumably black markets elsewhere in Panem). Free market capitalism is a social order wherein each person owns himself and transacts freely with others, unhindered by any person who is not a part of the transaction. None of the economic arrangements in Panem qualify under that definition. The only way one could draw a conceptual link between Panem’s Capitol and free markets, is to say that it is the end result of monopolization. But harmful monopolies do not last without the implementation of force, and one must define that as autocratic government, rather than free-market capitalism. Certainly, free markets do not involve such force, by the very definition of the idea.

To find an accurate picture of the economic arrangement in Panem, look no further than Soviet Russia. The parallels here are far more impressive. The Capitol can be seen as the nomenklatura, whose privilege and power was maintained at the expense of the kulaks and the rest of the Soviet people. Almost immediately after taking power, Lenin instituted a ‘famine’ (which really says all you need to know about Soviet communism). This was done to realign the Russian economy with Lenin’s vision of Marxist Communism. This ‘famine’ lasted more than forty years, starving millions to death. Nothing was wrong with the climate, nothing was wrong with the people, nothing was wrong with the trade; the famine was a weapon of government, a tool used to reshape the political property of their people, identical to that wielded by the Capitol.

The 'shops always help to illustrate huh? Wait, I overlayed the commies onto the rebels? D'oh!

The ‘shops always help to illustrate huh? Wait, I overlayed the commies onto the rebels? D’oh!

Further, the nomenklatura did not experience this famine. Most of these officials lived rather lavish lives, especially when compared to those whose forced labor supported their lifestyles. Once again, the relationship between the Soviet government and its people was identical to that in Collins’ books. Identical too, the Soviets’ wanton murder of anyone who opposed the regime (or seemed to), the proliferation of black markets to supply those things the government could not or would not, massive propaganda programs in schools and general life, and the systematic suppression of individual will in order to keep everyone in line with the political structure. Nietzsche was right; the will to power resulted in unbridled violence and nothing less.

If you would like to read more and see these similarities yourself, check out Richard Pipes’ Communism: A History. It shows this pattern not only in the Soviet Union, but in every state which has embraced communism.

Do I think that Collins was trying to remodel the Soviet Union in Panem? No, of course not! I don’t know what research she did and it’s just as likely that any similarity is pure coincidence. Even though fiction literature is built upon what we know of real life, it may be subconscious as much as conscious. After all, many of the problems with communism were inferred by economists (such as Ludwig Von Mises) long before those disastrous results came to be seen. I think Collins is a creative genius, and if she did specifically model portions of her books after history, then it seems clear she used a smattering of Roman history, French history circa 1790, and Russia 1918-1950. Maybe, maybe not.

How about a direct quote from Suzanne Collins, as to where she got inspiration for The Hunger Games: “A significant influence would have to be the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The myth tells how in punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete, where they were thrown in the Labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur.” (http://www.scholastic.com/thehungergames/media/qanda.pdf)

Either way, it seems obvious she wasn’t trying to make points about history or about our lives today. If she was, they’d be more plain to see. She’s telling a story and doing a great job of it. Andrew Klavan once pointed out; very often when we begin to follow politics, everything in life becomes interpreted in light of its political existence. But many things are actually not very important politically, especially in America. Least of These (my own Hunger Games fanfiction) gets much closer to making political statements than The Hunger Games. Even so, it doesn’t make any specific assertion other than appealing to the general principle that people must not be the property of the government. Still, the bulk of it focuses on the emotional lives of the people involved. There is no analogy here to our lives, because I didn’t write one in. I doubt Collins did, either.

To draw any ideological conclusions from The Hunger Games is to miss the point entirely. If you must and cannot be deterred, infer that the larger the government is, the smaller you are. The larger the government is, the more likely it will do something which oppresses you (for good or ill).

But infer also this, sometimes it’s okay to be fascinated by stories and bask in them for what they are, and not try to discover deeper, hidden meanings. If you cannot separate things in your mind, either give yourself a break from the political side, or fully abandon entertainment. Sometimes, the two just don’t mix. And as a history/politics junkie, I love that.

About J.T. O'Connell

I am an independent author writing in a number of different genres, primarily young adult. I live with a beagle named Moose in Loveland, Ohio which is a shade north of Cincinnati.
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7 Responses to Capitalism, Communism, and the Hunger Games

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