The Politics of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, a hugely popular series of science fiction novels by Suzanne Collins, is coming out as a major movie next week. At Ricochet, James Delingpole argues that the series has a strong Tea Party-esque antigovernment message.

I summarized the plot here:

In the far future, what’s left of a post-apocalyptic United States is ruled by a tyrannical central government (the “Capitol”) that oppresses and exploits twelve subordinate districts. Every year, each of the districts must send two teenagers (a boy and a girl) to participate in the Hunger Games, a nationally televised game show where they fight each other to the death until only one survives. The government uses the Games to entertain the public and divert their attention away from its oppressive nature, while also reminding the districts that any attempt at rebellion is doomed to failure. Main character Katniss Everdeen ends up in the Games after she volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, who was chosen in the selection lottery.

Here is Delingpole’s interpretation of the series’ message:

America, the near future. So vast and controlling and all-powerful has grown the DC political machine that the country at large is now just a collection of vassal states whose cowed, servile populations exist solely to provide goods and services to the grotesque sybarite class in the Capitol. In this future, the free market has been all but abolished – which is why, of course, starvation is rife and shortages are endemic. Only on the black market does free trade still survive. It’s illegal but it’s the only place where you can haggle for sufficient food – mostly game poached at great personal risk – to keep your family alive….

The Hunger Games is probably the best education any child can get into the horrors of Big Government and the tyranny and injustice of statism. It’s impossible to read this book and not come away thinking like a Tea Partier.

Actually, the series seems to be set much later than the near future, probably at least a century or two from now (the books are not very clear on this, but all the clues we get point to a large amount of time passing, to the point where the old America has been almost completely forgotten).

More importantly, I am not sure that Delingpole’s interpretation of the series’ politics is correct. Collins does indeed convey a very skeptical view of government. Not only the Capitol but even the government promoted by its opponents turns out to be tyrannical, which suggests that the flaws of government are institutional and not merely the result of the wrong leaders being in power. However, it is far from clear that Collins promotes libertarianism or Tea Party-like conservatism as the solution to this problem.

Moreover, a left-wing interpretation of the series’ politics is at least as plausible as Delingpole’s is. The “sybarite class” of the Capitol and their oppression of the twelve districts can be seen as a classic leftist parable of the oppression of the poor by the rich. The game show-like nature of the Hunger Games can be interpreted as an indictment of commercialism. And perhaps the true way forward for Panem is a government that cracks down on commercialism, redistributes wealth to the poor, and gives everyone free food and health care.

The series is subject to such widely disparate interpretations in part because Collins’ world-building is relatively weak. We don’t learn very much about the political and economic system of Panem, and some of what we do learn is internally inconsistent. We don’t even know whether Panem’s economy is primarily capitalist or socialist. Are the coal mines where most of District 12’s population works owned by the government or by private firms? We are never told.

Contra Delingpole, District 12 does seem to have some private small businesses that operate legally (e.g. – Peeta Mellark’s father owns a bakery), as does the Capitol (we see a few of them in the third book). Therefore, private enterprise has not been completely relegated to the black market. But there certainly is a substantial black market sector, and it is not clear whether there are any large privately owned enterprises, either in the districts or in the Capitol.

Equally striking, we don’t see any evidence of an official ideology propagated by the government, other than the idea that resistance to the rule of the Capitol is futile. Virtually all real world dictatorships do in fact rely on ideology to stay in power as well as the threat of force. Indoctrination doesn’t persuade everyone, but it is often at least partially effective in helping an oppressive regime stay in power. In addition to being unrealistic, the absence of an official ideology makes it difficult for readers to figure out what kind of political and economic system the Capitol has established. The Capitol’s opponents also lack a clear ideology (though Collins gives us a few more hints here than on the side of the Capitol).

The Hunger Games would have been better if it had greater depth and realism in its political setting. On the other hand, the series does have some great characters and psychological development, and is mesmerizing despite its flaws. And, as Delingpole’s interpretation demonstrates, the thinness of Collins’ world-building allows both right and left-wing readers to read their own ideas into the story. This may contribute to its popularity.

UPDATE: I have restructured this post somewhat to make it more clear.