Whatever good you have heard about The Hunger Games, the reality is more spectacular. Not only is this the literary phenom of our time, but the movie that created near pandemonium for a week from its opening is a lasting contribution to art and to the understanding of our world. It’s more real than we know.
In the story, a totalitarian and centralized state — it seems to be some kind of unelected autocracy — keeps a tight grip on its colonies to prevent a repeat of the rebellion that occurred some 75 years ago. They do this through the forced imposition of material deprivation, by unrelenting propaganda about the evil of disobedience to the interests of the nation state and with “Hunger Games” as annual entertainment.
In this national drama and sport, and as a continuing penance for past sedition, the central state randomly selects two teens from each of the 12 districts and puts them into a fight-to-the-death match in the woods, one watched like a reality show by every resident. The districts are supposed to cheer for their representatives and hope that one of their selected teens will be the one person who prevails.
So amidst dazzling pageantry, media glitz and public hysteria, these 24 kids — who would otherwise be living normal lives — are sent to kill each other without mercy in a bloody zero-sum game. They are first transported to the opulent capitol city and wined, dined, and trained. Then the games begin.
At the very outset, many are killed on the spot in the struggle to grab weapons from a stockpile. From there, coalitions form among the groups, however temporary they may be. Everyone knows there can only be one winner in the end, but alliances — formed on the basis of class, race, personality, etc. — can provide a temporary level of protection.
Watching all this take place is harrowing to say the least, but the public in the movie does watch as a type of reality television. This is the ultimate dog-eat-dog setting, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” in the words of Thomas Hobbes. But it is also part of a game the kids are forced to play. This is not a state of nature. In real life, they wouldn’t have the need to kill or be killed. They wouldn’t see each other as enemies. They wouldn’t form into evolving factions for self-protection.
The games provide that key elements that every state, no matter how powerful or fearsome, absolutely must have: a means of distracting the public from the real enemy. Even this monstrous regime depends fundamentally on the compliance of the governed. No regime can put down a universal revolt. The plot twist in this story actually turns on a worry among the elites that the masses will not tolerate a scripted ending to the games this time.
So here we see the first element of political sophistication in this film. It taps into the observation first recorded by Etienne de La Boetie (1530-63) that all states, because they live parasitically off the population on an ongoing basis, depend on eliciting the compliance of the people in some degree; no state can survive a mass refusal to obey. This is why states must concoct public ideologies and various veneers to cover their rules (a point often raised by Hans-Hermann Hoppe in his work). “National traditions” such as the Hunger Games serve the purpose well.
The political sophistication of this film doesn’t stop there. The Hunger Games themselves serve as a microcosm of political elections in modern developed economies. Pressure groups and their representatives are thrown into a hazardous, vicious world in which coalitions form and reform. Survival is harrowing, and hate is unleashed as would never exist in normal life. Candidates fight to the death knowing that, in the end, there can only be one winner who will take home the prize.
Slight differences of opinion are insanely exaggerated to deepen the divide. Otherwise irrelevant opinions take on epic significance. Lies, smears, setups, intimidation, bribery, blackmail and graft are all part of a day’s work. All the while, the people watch and love the public spectacle, variously cheering and booing and rating the candidates and the groups they represent. Everyone seems oblivious as to the real purpose of the game.
And just as in The Hunger Games, democracy manufactures discord where none would exist in society. People don’t care if the person who sells them a cup of coffee in the morning is Mormon or Catholic, white or black, single or married, gay or straight, young or old, native or immigrant, drinker or teetotaler or anything else.
None of this matters in the course of life’s normal dealings with people. Through trade and cooperation, everyone helps everyone else achieve life aspirations. If someone different from you is your neighbor, you do your best to get along anyway. Whether at church, shopping, at the gym or health club, or just casually on the street, we work to find ways to be civil and cooperate.
But invite these same people into the political ring, and they become enemies. Why? Politics is not cooperative like the market; it is exploitative. The system is set up to threaten the identity and choices of others. Everyone must fight to survive and conquer. They must kill their opponents or be killed. So coalitions form, and constantly shifting alliances take shape. This is the world that the state — through its election machinery — throws us all into. It is our national sport. We cheer our guy and hope for the political death of the other guy.
The game makes people confused about the real enemy. The state is the institution that sets up and lives off these divisions. But people are distracted by the electoral and political mania. The blacks blame the whites, the men blame the women, the straights blame the gays, the poor blame the rich, and so on in an infinite number of possible ways.
The end result of this is destruction for us but continuing life for the Gamemakers.
And of course, in both elections and Hunger Games, there is a vast commercial side to the event: media figures, lobbyists, trainers, sign makers, convention-hall owners, hotels, food and drink businesses, and everyone and anyone who can make a buck from feeding the exploitation.
In all these ways, this dystopian plot line illuminates our world. I’m not suggesting that this is the basis of the appeal, though its uses as political allegory are real enough. More disturbing is the possibility that the story suggests to young people today the limits of the life opportunities for the generation now in its teen years. They have a darker worldview than any in the postwar period.
If The Hunger Games help this generation understand that the real problem is not their peers or parents or anyone other than the Gamemakers, maybe they, too, will plot a revolt. Democracy is, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe says, the god that failed. I’m told that we have to wait for the third film for that.