The audio for the Hunger Games panel I did in November is now available online. Thanks to Unity & Struggle and Insurgent Notes for hosting, my braniac fellow panelists for teaching me all kinds of things, and Mylo for hooking up the crisp recording! I hope these folks keep doing events like this. I'd love to come back ;)
I'm also pasting below the full text of my (nerd alert) prepared remarks for anyone interested. You can watch Aelita: Queen of Mars here, which I highly recommend.
Prepared Remarks for "The Hunger Games and Revolution"
The American revolutionary Ken Lawrence writes: “Because popular culture is a reflection of the status of the mass imagination – albeit shaped and distorted by the dominant ideas of the rulers of society – measurable changes in the cultural interests and activities of large numbers of ordinary people can provide an important index to the development of a world view which has not yet emerged as a mass consciousness.”
Before I discuss the importance of The Hunger Games to understanding the world view which has not yet emerged as a mass consciousness, I’d like to briefly mention another science fiction epic which took the box office by storm during uncertain political times.
In 1924 working class filmgoers in the newly formed Soviet Union flocked to Aelita Queen of Mars, one of cinema’s earliest science fiction classics. In Aelita a Russian scientist escapes the pressing problems of the workers’ revolution by imagining a visit to Mars, where he and his colleague find a class society ruled by an exploitative monarchy. The Soviet scientists immediately impress their revolutionary Bolshevik ideals on the Martian workers, and naturally this ignites a workers’ rebellion against the monarchy, and the formation of a Martian soviet. So far, a typical, albeit creative exercise in Soviet propaganda at a time when Soviet filmmakers Eisenstein and Dovzhenko were perfecting the art of political cinema.
But there’s a twist: once the worker’s movement gains momentum, Aelita, the Queen of Mars, claims to have broken from the monarchy and proclaims herself the leader of the workers’ rebellion. The workers are torn, and face a decisive political reckoning: strong leadership, versus the abolition of leadership itself. Ultimately they decide Aelita cannot be trusted, and along with the original struggle – against the ruling class – they must now wage a second struggle, within the revolution itself. They must bravely battle the forces within the revolution threatening to return society to conditions of exploitation, wage labor, hierarchy, and state power. Small wonder that this film was later banned by the Stalinists! Aelita Queen of Mars stands today as a grim monument to the true revolutionary sentiment which would take Josef Stalin over a decade to decisively defeat, using all manner of manipulation, deceit, and atrocity, toward the reestablishment of class society.
Ninety years later the revolutionary fervor which characterized the early twenties is supposedly long gone. Conventional wisdom says we have all accepted that there is no alternative to capitalism, and that communism – which supposedly happened in Russia, and continues to happen, miraculously, in the capitalist superpower of China – is a long discredited bit of dangerous romanticism. Now, I would be more inclined to believe that people have given up on revolution, if revolution wasn’t in the air everywhere I look! Whether in the streets of Ferguson Missouri, East New York just last night, or in the pages of a runaway young adult bestseller and box office buster with a strong female lead, a collective intuition of the necessity of revolution could scarcely be more present in the public imagination than it is today.
To be fair, some critics mockingly describe the commercial genre of “Hollywood Marxism” as follows: there exists some cartoonish class-based injustice, usually with innocent doe-eyed Disney damsels oppressed by evil monstrous overlords, and with ample product placement on both sides. Struggle is then made by one person, usually from the ruling class, usually white. After some predictable action sequences, our hero delivers and the wrongs of the world are righted once and for all. The audience goes home or the reader closes their book with their own longing for revolution satisfied for a while. And in an advanced capitalist society like ours, anti-capitalism itself might be the ultimate commodity! Many such critics lump The Hunger Games into this genre.
Now, if the series ended with Catching Fire – when Katniss, mostly acting as an individual, takes decisive action, destroys the game, and meets the revolution’s secret leaders who spirit her away to the bright future ahead – I would agree. This would put the series in a genre ranging from The Matrix to Ernest Goes to Camp. But what sets The Hunger Games apart is what made Soviet censors ban one of their countries greatest cinematic achievements: the struggle within the struggle. In Mockingjay Katniss wrestles with the role of mascot for a revolution not controlled by the people but managed from above by an expert class. She criticizes the cult of “revolutionary leadership” that we continue to see on America’s streets today. Katniss knows that an egalitarian society cannot be built using hierarchy, an honest society cannot be built using deceit, and that a revolution willing to sacrifice its very values in the name of victory will be defeated whether it wins or loses. In her dealings with President Coin and the revolutionary leadership of District 13, Katniss comes to recognize that the revolution itself must be the site of struggle, just as much as the society that produced it.
If we follow Ken Lawrence’s words, the success of this series is just the latest reminder that revolution is never far from the contemporary imagination, and that the struggles of the Arab Spring, Burkina Faso, Mexico, Hong Kong, and right here in the United States are only a taste of what’s to come. Further, Katniss’s experiences in The Mockingjay, tell us that not only do millions of people know deep down that revolution is the only way out of the present economic, political, and environmental crises, but also that the struggle will be waged not only against capitalism and the state, but against the elements within the revolution which will try to prevent it from going all the way: whether charismatic politicians, self-appointed social movement police, left-talking non-profit organizations, pro-capitalist trade unions, famous Occupiers, or historical re-enacting revolutionary parties.
In closing I’d invite you to imagine ninety years into the future, when people will marvel at The Hunger Games as we today marvel at Aelita Queen of Mars. Will they say, as we say of Aelita, that The Hunger Games stands as a tragic monument to a mass revolutionary sentiment which was defeated by counterrevolution shortly thereafter? Will the revolution of our lifetime be waged without compromise toward the end of capitalism and the state, the end of wage labor, the end of production for exchange, the abolition of all forms of hierarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and an immediate stop to all practices destroying our planet? And will we build in the place of today’s sick world a society based on production for need, radical equality, and the full development of human creative capacities in a harmonious balance with the planet and all of its sentient beings? Or will our struggle succumb, as in the Soviet Union, to the would-be Aelitas, waiting in the wings to seize power from us as soon as we assume it?