Now that the final movie in the series is out, we know that The Hunger Games is not just a pop movie series for young adults, a fantasy tale about about a young girl’s heroism. It is far more sophisticated than that: It is a political allegory, one of the best known of our time, about power and the complications of its displacement.
In this way, it covers the same intellectual terrain as Aristotle’s Politics, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and de Jouvenel’s On Power, but in a way that is more penetrating for readers and viewers, and particularly relevant for our times.
The final installment is a fitting and dramatic end to the tale. It deals with the greatest conflict in history, that between liberty and power. Those who have followed the story until the last movie might have supposed that the problem was rather stark. One man, President Snow, held all the power. He was a cruel man and he used every means to keep his power. He sat at the center of a capital city that pillaged the districts of resources and held power through fear.
If that is all there is to the problem, the solution would be clear: President Snow has to be killed. The source of the problem out of the way, all will be well.
The Plot Thickens
This was the thinking of heroine Katniss Everdeen for most of the series. And one can see why she would believe this. Snow was a ghastly figure, and he was personally responsible for vast cruelty and crimes. He deserved to be overthrown and for justice to prevail.
Plus, she supposed that everyone she knew shared her vision: a normal life without oppression, without violence, without pillaging, without rigid geographic and caste classifications, and without televised death matches orchestrated to instill fear in the population.
Previous installments had strong hints, however, that there was more going on beneath the surface. The capitol city Panem was an autocracy but also the center of a nation-state, which is to say that the bureaucracy, the administrative apparatus, a standing military, and its methods of rule could survive the death of the leader. This is the difference between a personal state and a nation state. The power apparatus of the nation state seeks immortality, a continuing life regardless who happens to head it.
The problem of creating a world without power, then, is more complicated than the overthrow of the existing autocrat. In every revolutionary situation, those who are most motivated to achieve the aim are those who seek to hold power themselves. So long as the machinery of legal violence exists, there will be those who seek to control it — and, as Hayek said, it is usually the worst who make it to the top. Therefore, it is not just those who rule but also those who seek to rule who constitute a threat to liberty. This is how the existence of powerful nation-states end up creating multiple layers of dangers.
Revolutionaries as Bad as the Regime?
Anyone who seeks to end oppression has to keep his or her eye out for those who would use the chaos and confusion of political upheavals to seize and exercise power in the future. This is what Katniss learns, as she gradually discovers that her one-time allies had become skilled in the conduct of war, appreciative of the status that comes with leadership, and lusty for exercising state power themselves.
She learned that great lesson of history: It is not just despots who need to be kept at bay but also those who most passionately seek to overthrow despots. In order to realize liberty, you need more than just loathing of those in charge; you need the ascendance of the love of true liberty itself.
Once Katniss catches on to what is happening around her, she has to make a decision. Does she comply with the dictate of the increasingly centralized revolutionary forces or take a different turn and go her own way? The urgency of this decision is what turns The Hunger Games from being a simple Manichean struggle between one good and one evil into a real-life version of a Massive Multiplayer Online game.
US Foreign Policy
Let us apply this principle.
In the 1980s, the US sought to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan by supporting Islamic fundamentalists, who were then called “freedom fighters,” and they were given weapons and massive logistical support. After the Soviets left, the rebellion gradually metastasized into the Taliban, who ruled with an iron hand, and were then overthrown after 9/11, leading to 15 years of US occupation, which has stirred resentment among the population.
This saga coincided with a similar situation in Iraq after 2003, following a decade of embargoes, intermittent bombing, and harsh sanctions. The overthrow of the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein brought to power not liberty-loving constitutionalists, but rather a Shiite majority that oppressed in turn on the Sunni minority that Hussein had represented.
The Sunni insurgency against the Iraqi state caused a bloody civil war in Iraq that eventually spilled over into the rebellion against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and mutated into the Islamic State. Over the course of 25 years, Iraq went from a defeated and relatively quiescent state to a seething hotbed of poverty, violence, and hatred.
Fast forward to the Libyan case where the overthrow of another evil dictator Muammar Gaddafi sparked a grim populist blowback. Combined with all the other interventions, and alongside a surreptitious attempt to boot the Syrian overlord, we’ve seen the spread of ISIS into a region-wide insurgency that truly intends to rule through bloodshed.
Such is politics. You think that getting the bad guy will end the problem. What this doesn’t consider is the possibly that something even worse is waiting in the wings. This is not a case for tolerating tyranny, but it is a case for a good dose of humility to go with revolutionary impulses.
The Problem of Democracy
And it’s not just about foreign regimes. A famous trait of democracy is that the urge to kick out one group of leaders is necessarily tied to bringing another group into power. The latter are often no better and sometimes worse than the former. This is one of the reasons for so much political nostalgia in US politics: a look back almost always provides a better picture than a look at the present.
I can’t count the number of times I heard people tell me how much they long for the good old days of Reagan or Clinton — people who loathed them at the time… until their replacements came along. Or think of the number of people who believed that getting rid of Bush and replacing him with Obama would lead to peace, prosperity, and understanding, only to find that the new regime continued the practices of the old. And heads up: it seems like this history is likely to repeat itself in the case of Obama.
The simple lesson of The Hunger Games is that powerful people can do terrible things. We must resist in order to stop them. The more complicated lesson is that powerful institutions themselves corrupt, and that there will always be those lacking in moral scruples who are willing to assume the mantle of power.
At the end of the movie, we see Katniss out of battle gear, sitting in the grass, at her home, being bathed by sunlight, tending to her own life, cultivating her own personal vision of freedom, out of the limelight. Ruling herself, not others. Perhaps that scene offers the best lesson of all.