Panem and the dueling dystopias

As was mentioned in my prior review of the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins got the inspiration for the idea for the books while watching American reality television juxtaposed with the very real horrors of the Iraq War. If the first book, for all its violence, concentrated on the decadence of the Capitol, the second book, Catching Fire take us much deeper into the dystopian tyranny of Panem, and it is the combination of these two versions of dystopia that Collins has skillfully packaged in the form of a children’s novel that most sparks my interest.

Catching Fire, tells the story of what unfolds after Katniss and Peeta have returned victorious from the Hunger Games. Their act of defiance at the end of the games, threatening to commit suicide rather than follow the cruel logic of the games which permits only one victor, has proven a spark that begins insurrections against the tyranny of the Capitol. Rebellion only grows as the Capitol tries to manage the story of Katniss and Peeta and put an end to their worship as heroes. But, what has begun can not be stopped and here we are shown the deep violence at the heart of Panem that transcends the dark cruelty of the ritualized brutality found in the spectacle of the games.In desperation, the Capitol isolates rebellious districts and attempts to starve them into submission. It tortures, imprisons’ , and, as appears to be hinted at towards the end of the novel,commits an act of genocide against District 12 the home of Katniss and Peeta.

As the philosopher have always told us, tyranny, being based upon fear, is the worst form of government. Such fear can only lead to three results in the individual: paralysis, flight, or the decision to fight back. The tyranny of the Capitol has been based on the institutionalized fear of the Hunger Games, along with the “memory” of the Capitol’s complete destruction of District 13 during the last rebellion. Katniss and Peeta had broken the spell of the games. Katniss herself entertains ideas of flight only to ultimately decide on courageous rebellion, and the peoples of the districts become inspired to end their paralysis and fight back not only by her, but by the hope that District 13 has somehow survived and remained beyond the control of the Capitol

On a superficial level what Collins has done here is something quite interesting and groundbreaking, for she has managed to combine successfully the two rival versions of dystopia that have held us in their spell since the first half of the last century. Those two versions are, of course, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Orwell aimed to capture the brutality of totalitarianism, in both its right-wing, and left-wing varieties. The dystopia of totalitarianism was characterized by Orwell as “a boot stomping on a human face, forever”. It was a state based upon not only fear, as were all tyrannies of the past, but the need for the absolute submission of the individual. Obedience was not enough. The soul of the individual was a territory the totalitarian state aimed to bring under its will, and the aim of the state was to surround its subjects in an omnipresent web of surveillance that took from them not only their public but their private lives as well.

Huxley took a much different, and many argue more prescient, view of dystopia in his Brave New World. For him, tyranny was less likely in the modern era to take the form of a regime based on fear and total control, than it was to be based on the population being lulled into submission by entertainment, consumption, sex, and satiety.

In his brilliant, if horribly ill timed book, The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov, argues that we have been blinded to the nature of modern tyranny by seeing the distinction between Orwell’s and Huxley’s visions of utopia as an either- or question. Thinkers, such as Herbert Marcuse, have made a pretty good case that the West has many of the features of the dystopia presented in Brave New World. We are a society that has, willfully or not, been distracted from politics by a plethora of entertainment, advertisement, and pleasures. As Morozov points out, many non-Western regimes  that are in every sense of the word, authoritarian, have caught onto this trick. States like Russia and China let people watch or buy whatever they wish. The reality and dreams of limitless consumption appear to steer attention and energy away from politics and thus leave current political elites entrenched. “Bread and circuses” as the Romans used to say is the best way to control the masses.

Morozov insists that just because regimes have learned from the West how to lull their people  to sleep ala Brave New World does not mean that Orwell should be left in the dust. For, when deemed necessary as the only means of retaining their grip on power,  manyauthoritarian regimes have shown themselves capable of 1984 style violence. We need both Huxley and Orwell to understand dystopia in the present, and Collins has managed to combine both.

The Capitol is a Brave New World style dystopia through and through. Its citizens are enthralled, not merely, by the reality TV “entertainment” of the Hunger Games, but by seemingly endless consumption, celebrity, and vanity. A great metaphor for the Capitol can be seen in a common practice there which Collins presents to us almost as an afterthought. “Citizens” of the Capitol have a habit of eating everything in sight at their major social gatherings. The way they pull this off is to ingest a liquid that makes them vomit between periods of gorging. This occurs even in periods when the Capital is trying to starve the people of rebellious districts into submission or death.

Yet, if within the world of the Capitol dystopia takes on the form of a Brave New World the way the Capitol brutally treats the districts is straight out of 1984. It tortures, murders, terrorizes, and commits acts of genocide.

Collins could not have anticipated that within several years of writing her novel the whole scene of the Capital trying to bring the rebellious districts to heel would be replicated in the real world as challenged tyrants resorted to the fear of extreme violence to keep themselves in power: Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria where the horrors continue. Only where the forces of the regime refused to kill their own people, such as Egypt, was enormous bloodshed avoided.

The Panem analogy could also easily be applied to the US if one sees America itself as the Capitol and the world at large as the districts. We are a consumerist and entertainment paradise that spies upon, brutalizes, and attempts to control the rest of the world.  No matter if this analogy holds or not it’s pretty certain that if Aldous Huxley were brought to early 21st century America he’d think he’d stepped into his Brave New World, but Orwell could not say the same for 1984, at least not within the United States itself.

Still, the best real world version we have for Panem is not, despite all its flaws and injustices, the United States, but China. The developed eastern China is enthralled to a versions of consumerism that would make even Americans blush. As long as the Chinese Communist Party can keep the money flowing they remain largely unchallenged even if a blind renegade such as Chen Guangcheng
can periodically bring the injustices, of at least local governments to light. If eastern China is Collin’s Capitol, its Tibetan and Xijiang regions are its districts, which inspire brutal crackdowns wherever their inhabitants get a little too uppity for the PRC’s taste. It will be interesting to see how the Hunger Games movies, and the inevitable copycats they will spawn will play in China. This potential of a now global film and media industry to pose deep questions may be the only way to balance out its tendency to lull society into a state of passive acceptance of the current order.

No one in the West should become smug on the basis of this characterization of China as Panem.  Rather, we should remain ever vigilant for any movement in the direction of 1984 and push back hard on any extension of the power of the state to imprison, silence, torture, spy upon, or lie. Huxley’s dystopia, which is probably the one we live in, is based upon the state having solved the problem of scarcity and stuffing the people until they no longer know what freedom is for. This may be characteristic of a very particular period of human history following the Second World War, but this might prove to have been a golden age of economic equality which we have exited permanently.

If we do not, sometime soon, emerge from the current economic crisis, if the model of middle class consumer society proves irretrievably broken, then all bets are off. Elites may be challenged in ways they have not since the early part of the last century and one of the possible, if unlikely, dystopian outcomes would be a return of at least some of the features of the tyranny on display in 1984.

We Are, Panem!

Any good work of dystopian literature has a number of hurdles to cross.  By far, the biggest of these hurdles is that the work needs to provide its readers with a survivor’s and rebel’s guide to any version of the dystopian world projected in that work. Anyone who has read and taken seriously, for instance, Orwell’ 1984 will be forever on the lookout for anything that smacks of totalitarian surveillance or an over intrusive state. The phrase “big brother” is a protective meme, a warning sign that would hopefully prevent the public from blithely accepting the expansion of the power to survey or control the lives of individuals.

If the Hunger Games Trilogy ultimately provides us with just such a survivor’s and rebel’s guide, as in the case of Orwell’s work, it will only be shown over time. What is clear now is that these books, and the movie that has grown out of them, have without doubt proven enormously popular, which must somehow reflect the underlying anxieties of our society. A good question to ask, then, is what exactly the anxieties the trilogy reflects might be?

The story of the first book, which is the only one dealt with here, is essentially an updtaed version of the myth of Theseus.  The tale is set in some not far off post-American dystopia, called Panem, where the children of the twelve districts of which the state is composed are forced to kill one another for the entertainment of an aloof and decadent elite based in a city west of the Rockies known as the Capitol. This yearly event is called the Hunger Games. The event is part Olympics and part Oscars and is viewed universally throughout Panem either by desire or compulsion.  Only one of the children can ultimately come out of the games alive.

The first book is the story of  Katniss Evergreen, a sixteen year old girl from District 12, what is now West Virginia- a skilled hunter and survivalist.  She forms a partnership with a boy from the same district- Peeta Mellark. Together both of them are able to survive the Hunger Games on account of their skill and romance which stops the game when they both agree to commit suicide rather than kill one another.

Almost everything is fine in moderation, but clearly, the book reflects some of the anxieties surrounding our crossing a dangerous threshold with our, violence, gambling, sexuality, and celebrity/transparency obsessed culture. Suzanne Collins herself stated that the idea for the story originated with her watching “reality” television juxtaposed with footage from the Iraq War. She is trying to hold up a mirror to our own society. We shouldn’t like what we see.

There is nothing inherently wrong with sports, which represent one of the heights of drama and undoubtedly are among the forms of human excellence. There are ways, however, in which this passion for sports can go horribly wrong such as when fanatics from Penn State rioted over the firing of their idol Joe Paterno for doing nothing about the rape of at least one young boy by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. This was a more violent reaction than that to any political event, ever, at that school, and revealed a kind of morally blinding tribalism under seemingly innocuous slogans such as “We Are, Penn State”! -the battle cry of the university’s superb football team.

There are also ways in which, especially professional sports, clearly resemble the games at the Roman Coliseum, and the Hunger Games.  Kids from poor “districts”, many of them black, see a career as “gladiators” as one of the few valid paths out of a world of poverty. It is certainly the case that we are more humane than the Romans- we do not allow our gladiators to kill one another.  But make no mistake, the most violent of our sports can be crippling, and the types of sports that garner the attention of the masses are increasingly more violent

At least our society does not condone death as a form of entertainment.  Scratch that. Our society does not condone real death as a form of entertainment.  Fake murder, however, is one of the most thriving businesses in an otherwise stagnant economy.  The first person shooter game Call of Duty has 40 million players, more people than all of the people in Iraq, and had the biggest release of any video game in history with 400 million in revenue.  

In the Hunger Games gambling is the passion of the elites of the Capitol who place bets on who will ultimately win the games. In our society, gambling, given one excludes the stock market, is largely limited to the poor, another one of the few conceivable roads out of poverty.  In the United States the poor spend roughly 9% of their income on lottery tickets an insidious invisible tax on the most vulnerable in society.  Those in the middle class with more money to spend are more apt to waste their money in a modern day dystopia like Las Vegas or at one of the gambling islands states have thrown up to counter balance declining revenues from the rich and middle class alike.

The Hunger Games itself has nothing really to say on the issue of sex, it’s a children’s book after all, and its Romeo and Juliet romance is almost nostalgic.  Our own culture, however, is much, much different.  The porn site Xvideos has an incredible 4 billion viewers per month! If each of these viewers was a separate individual that would be more than the population of China and India combined, and more than half the population of planet earth, which given the 50/50 split between males and females, might, on second glance, make sense.  Can anyone even imagine the impact of a political site that had this many viewers?  In fact over 30% of internet traffic is related to pornography. If the internet does ever wake up and become conscious as some propose we may be faced with a globe sized middle-aged pornography obsessed superbrain.

The book shines a light most severely at our culture of celebrity. As others have pointed out, show like America Idol, are like an updated form of the cults of human sacrifice. We are obsessed with the rise, and much more so the fall, of the artificial demi-gods we have created- think the slow destruction of a person such as Lindsay Lohan who goes through the Christian cycle of fall and redemption.

While in the arena of the Hunger Games no privacy is possible, everything the characters do is observed and televised resulting in the need to fake emotions in order to obtain benefits from “sponsors” watching the games. The result is actual confusion regarding the most private of feelings and suspicion regarding the feelings of others as everything is put on display and is meant to serve a utilitarian social purpose. Does Katniss really have feelings for Peeta or are her actions merely for the benefit of the audience? What are Peeta’s true feelings for Katniss? One wonders what effects social media such as FaceBook are having on the internal emotional lives of their users as the social value of their own emotions and thoughts is subject to constant scrutiny and feedback. All of us have become celebrities in our own constructed dramas.

The people of the districts themselves were once constantly watched by the mocking-jay- a genetically engineered spying bird. This is certainly poetic, and has a deeper literary significance for Collins’ plot, but the sad reality is that all any dystopian government would need to do to obtain full-spectrum surveillance of its people would be to reestablish FaceBook and Google and demand full access to their records.

The Hunger Games, with its fast paced style, and the thrilling narrative of the struggle between Katniss and her allies and the brutal “Careerers” who have spent their childhoods training to kill at the games, indeed, reads like the one is watching a television show such as Survivor, where Collins got the inspiration for her novel.  We become caught up in the very type of spell Collins hopes to free us from. Whether or not that was intentional on Collins’ part I do not know, but one weakness, at least with the first book in the trilogy, is that I found myself no more armed against the society of spectacle than I was before I opened the book- perhaps even less so.   In that sense the first book fails to provide the sort of survivor’s and rebel’s guide to be hoped for.

One can wish the remaining works in the trilogy live up to the high standard set by the genius creators of dystopias past, and provide us with the tools to combat dystopias of the future, though undoubtedly; Collins has given us insight into the dystopian aspects of the present.