Political and economic elites may view themselves as fine humanitarians, but the Covid-19 crisis has shown that the ruling class will readily make their accommodations with violence and mass death – as long as it’s someone else doing the dying.
In the United States, President Donald Trump wants to suspend quarantines, despite the catastrophic health risks. Right-wing media claims that this is a pro working-class move, designed to get ordinary people back to work. But the cynical reality is that they want to restore profitability for corporations and the super-rich, no matter how high the body count. The message from the White House was that precarious workers and medically vulnerable people should be prepared to die to keep the stock market robust. This ghoulish logic was on display at the far-right protests against the lockdown, where Trump supporters came out to demand the right for others to die. Here in South Africa, the public health lockdown is being enforced with grotesque sadism, with the police and military evicting, terrorising and murdering impoverished people.
Radical thinkers have long noted the links between capitalism and the politics of killing. In the 19th century, Fredrich Engels used the powerful phrase “social murder” to describe how political elites coldly embrace policies that ensure “early and unnatural” deaths for the improvised and marginal. Contemporary critical theorist Achille Mbembe portrays modern forms of subjugation as “necropolitics”. From occupied Palestine to the refugee camps in the European Union, masses of people are subjected to political and economic governance that exposes them to a heightened risk of death. Necropolitics is the father to what Marxist writer China Miéville calls the “social sadism” of austerity and other neoliberal policies that cruelly target the most vulnerable in society.
As society continues to become more unequal and polarised, new forms of necropolitics will surely emerge. Sociologist Peter Frase has argued that capital’s push for greater automation is intended to reduce the rich’s dependence on the labour of others. Capitalism needs workers to keep its factories and shops going, but the ruling class dreams of a future where “the poor are merely a danger and an inconvenience. Policing and repressing them ultimately seem more trouble than can be justified. This is where the thrust toward the extermination of multitudes originates. Its ultimate endpoint is literally the extermination of the poor, so that the rabble can finally be brushed aside once and for all, leaving the rich to live in peace and quiet in their Elysium”.
Hungry for change
This grim depiction of capitalism’s future development is a recurring trope in science fiction dystopias. Dystopian stories, while set in nightmarish futures, function as allegories for the present by extrapolating social ills to their imaginative extremes. They serve as a barometer of our deepest fears of injustice, inequality and authoritarian misrule.
In the years following the financial crisis of the 2000s, there has been a proliferation of so-called young adult dystopias. These are novels and films aimed at youths, combining political commentary and apocalyptic dread with adolescent angst and love triangles. There is a palpable sense of both despair and rage in many of these stories, expressing the betrayed feelings of “resentment rising in a generation asked to accept that its quality of life will be worse than that of its parents”. Today’s youth are facing not only the pandemic and economic crisis, but the very real threat of ecological collapse within their lifetimes.
The commercial and critical high point of this genre is The Hunger Games series of films and novels. Originally published as a trilogy by Suzanne Collins between 2008 and 2010, they were subsequently turned into a blockbuster film franchise starring Jennifer Lawrence between 2012 and 2015. Revisiting the series in the midst of this health and economic crisis reveals seering commentary on the sadism and violent spectacle of our political system, and the insurgent impulses that may yet upend it.
The series is set in the future state of Panem, built from the ruins of North America after an apocalyptic event, which is strongly implied to be related to global warming. Panem is ruled by the wealthy and despotic Capitol, a luxurious city-state that has divided the remaining country into districts that are relentlessly exploited for resources and labour. After a failed revolt against the Capitol, the state organises an annual Hunger Games, a televised spectacle where youth from each district compete in deadly gladiatorial events until there is only one survivor. These titular games are intended to terrify the districts into submission, ensuring that labour and goods flow to the Capitol without resistance. But it also serves to win popular consent for the system by creating the illusion that ordinary people can win the game.
The series follows the teenage heroine Katniss Eberdeen, from the depressed coal-producing District 12, whose acts of defiance during one of the games sparks a wider rebellion against the Capitol and its tyrannical leader President Snow. Both the books and the films show the moral urgency of revolt, but also highlight the ethical grey areas and human cost of insurgency. Katniss is not a swashbuckling revolutionary, but a brave teenager with severe post-traumatic stress disorder from being forced to kill for the state and being thrust into a position of leadership against an absolutely merciless enemy.
As with the guerrilla war classic The Battle of Algiers, the series always remains sympathetic towards the insurgents, while also showing that despite their righteous cause, they are fallible humans who are capable of terrible cruelty and costly tactical mistakes. While the story ends with the overthrow of the Capitol and the dawning of a less authoritarian order, the new state faces the dangers of ambitious bureaucrats replicating the barbarism of the system they fought against.
The insurgent spirit
The society of The Hunger Games takes the media landscape of today, where reality shows commingle with televised footage of wars and starvation, to its murderous terminal point. The rulers of Panem model themselves on the Roman Empire, using gladiatorial combat to maintain social order. Even the title of the fictive nation is reference to the Latin phrase panem et circuses, bread and circuses.
But as with neoliberal austerity, the rulers of the Capitol are more concerned with the circus element than with providing bread. The state uses its masked “peacekeepers” to keep the districts in line, using both technology and bullets and whips. But it also weaponises its media apparatus to win consent. In various scenes, the peacekeepers massacre protesters and striking workers but manipulate footage to make it appear that the authorities are victims of plebeian aggression. This echoes how real-world states use the media to present atrocities and abuses as upholding “public order”.
Similarly, many of the privileged inhabitants of the Capitol are in ideological denial about the reality of life outside their gilded walls, seeing themselves as enlightened humanists rather than benefactors of a monstrous system. This illusion is sustained through the games event itself. The Capitol promises that the winners will enjoy a life of luxury and ease, if they only kill enough people. As with modern reality TV and social media-influencer culture, the rulers maintain that anyone can be a star. But, in practise, this spectacle works to keep the elites in power and the proletarians passive. However, it is the rejection of the spectacle that breeds revolutionary subjectivity. A phrase used throughout the series is “the odds are never in our favour”. It is the refusal of the myth of meritocracy, which inspires the rebels to fight for their own destinies.
As in the real world, Katniss Eberdeen and her cohorts are faced with a system that offers them nothing but grinding immiseration and meaningless death. The world of Panem is a vision of post-apocalyptic capitalism degenerating into a kind of garish neo-feudalism, which has abandoned even the pretence of democracy. This reversion to older forms of exploitation and hierarchy is latent in today’s capitalism. In the midst of the pandemic, The Financial Times published an editorial that brazenly announced, “The Black Death is often credited with transforming labour relations in Europe. Peasants, now scarce, could bargain for better terms and conditions; wages started to rise as feudal lords competed for workers. Thankfully, a much lower mortality rate means such a transformation is unlikely to follow coronavirus.”
Bourgeois ideologues expect us to embrace our new role as cyber serfs, but as The Hunger Games fictionally shows, revolt and resistance are always possible, no matter how dark the hour. The insurgent spirit of the series has even spilled out into the real world, with the quote “if we burn you, you burn with us”, appearing as graffiti during the Ferguson uprising in 2014. In the five years since the last Hunger Games film was released, the global economic system has continued its dystopian decline. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the series reminds us that elites rest atop thrones made of blood and bones – and they deserve to be toppled.