Steve Sachs Duke


Sunday, July 18, 2004


Harry Potter and the Running Dogs of Capitalism: Rarely have I read something this dumb in a major U.S. publication. I assume the NYT printed it in large part for its humor value; but how did it ever get into Le Monde?

New York Times
July 18, 2004

Harry Potter, Market Wiz

The success of the Harry Potter series has provoked a lively discussion among French literary theorists about the novels' underlying message and the structure of Harry's school, Poudlard (Hogwarts). This article, which appeared last month in the French daily Le Monde, got particular attention, including an essay published in response arguing that Harry is an antiglobalist crusader.

Oh, well, ok. So long as he's an antiglobalist crusader, his pro-market leanings can be forgiven.

NICE, France -- With the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling has enchanted the world: the reader is drawn into a magical universe of flying cars, spells that make its victims spew slugs, trees that give blows, books that bite, elf servants, portraits that argue and dragons with pointed tails.

On the face of it, the world of Harry Potter has nothing in common with our own. Nothing at all, except one detail: like ours, the fantastic universe of Harry Potter is a capitalist universe.

Hmm. I'd thought that the universe of Harry Potter was our universe, just with the addition of a whole magical world alongside it (of which we Muggles are sadly unaware). Like ours, it contained bravery, racism, schoolyard rivalries, the grief of losing one's parents, and the vital importance of friendship. But I guess it's really all about capitalism.

Hogwarts is a private sorcery school, and its director constantly has to battle against the state as represented, essentially, by the inept minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge; the ridiculous bureaucrat Percy Weasley; and the odious inspector Dolores Umbridge.

Heavens! Private property and institutions in a fantasy novel? What is this, a children's version of Atlas Shrugged?

They'll be calling for the collectivization of the Shire next -- and we all know how that worked out.

True, there are moments when the fifth book (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) reads like a polemic against state control of the educational system. But Yocaris unfortunately ignores the heavily statist message of the Quidditch World Cup, whose teams are divided along national lines. Why should wizards and witches base their commitments on the shifting political constructs of the non-magical world? Why should nationalism sow seeds of discord among within this truly international and liberatory movement? (I've often wondered about the politics of the wizard world: did the German team split in two during the Cold War? Did the East Germans still cast testosterone spells on their women's teams? And the witches of Ulster, where do their loyalties lie?)

The apprentice sorcerers are also consumers who dream of acquiring all sorts of high-tech magical objects, like high performance wands or the latest brand-name flying brooms, manufactured by multinational corporations. Hogwarts, then, is not only a school, but also a market: subject to an incessant advertising onslaught, the students are never as happy as when they can spend their money in the boutiques near the school.

I didn't know the Firebolt was multinational -- and I thought wands were manufactured by a weird guy in a single shop in London. (But who sanded down the wood, and inserted the unicorn hairs and phoenix feathers? The workers, I tell you!)

There is all sorts of bartering between students, and the author heavily emphasizes the possibility of social success for young people who enrich themselves thanks to trade in magical products.

Two lessons here:
1) Allowing schoolkids to trade different flavors of candy (as in Bertie Botts' Every-Flavor Beans) is immoral and wrong; and
2) So is social mobility.

The tableau is completed by the ritual complaints about the rigidity and incompetence of bureaucrats. Their mediocrity is starkly contrasted with the inventiveness and audacity of some entrepreneurs, whom Ms. Rowling never ceases to praise. For example, Bill Weasley, who works for the goblin bank Gringotts, is presented as the opposite of his brother, Percy the bureaucrat. The first is young, dynamic and creative, and wears clothes that "would not have looked out of place at a rock concert"; the second is unintelligent, obtuse, limited and devoted to state regulation, his career's masterpiece being a report on the standards for the thicknesses of cauldrons.

We have, then, an invasion of neoliberal stereotypes in a fairy tale. The fictional universe of Harry Potter offers a caricature of the excesses of the Anglo-Saxon social model: under a veneer of regimentation and traditional rituals, Hogwarts is a pitiless jungle where competition, violence and the cult of winning run riot.

Indeed, Rowling's vision is relentlessly meritocratic: it champions those such as Hermione, who are able to achieve despite their low-caste Muggle origins. Yocaris, along with the Malfoys, would undoubtedly prefer a world where such wizards knew their place, and where the authority of the political classes went unquestioned. (The same goes for other creatures as well: "freeing" house-elves from servanthood only exposes them to wage slavery!)

The psychological conditioning of the apprentice sorcerers is clearly based on a culture of confrontation: competition among students to be prefect; competition among Hogwarts "houses" to win points; competition among sorcery schools to win the Goblet of Fire; and, ultimately, the bloody competition between the forces of Good and Evil.

If only one could just get along with the murderers of innocents, instead of always trying to compete with them. Wouldn't it be better if we just tried to meet their insane demands for absolute power halfway?

This permanent state of war ends up redefining the role of institutions: faced with ever-more violent conflicts, they are no longer able to protect individuals against the menaces that they face everywhere. The minister of magic fails pitifully in his combat against Evil, and the regulatory constraints of school life hinder Harry and his friends in defending themselves against the attacks and provocations that they constantly encounter.

Here we see the real problem with the fight against Voldemort; it ends up undermining institutions. (I almost wrote "international institutions" there -- I wonder why.) Indeed, most of Harry's battles are really pre-emptive strikes; before the fourth book, Voldemort hadn't even taken on physical form, much less done anything to attack him! (Other than kill his parents, and refuse to declare his basilisk stockpiles. But those don't represent a casus belli.)

The apprentice sorcerers are thus alone in their struggle to survive in a hostile milieu, and the weakest, like Harry's schoolmate Cedric Diggory, are inexorably eliminated.

Before we accuse Rowling of crude Social Darwinism, we might ask whether the "eliminat[ion]" of Cedric Diggory is presented as a good thing. ("[R]emember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort.") Into the dustbin of history, Cedric!

These circumstances influence the education given the young students of Hogwarts. The only disciplines that matter are those that can give students an immediately exploitable practical knowledge that can help them in their battle to survive.

That's not astonishing, considering how this prestigious school aims to form, above all, graduates who can compete in the job market and fight against Evil. Artistic subjects are thus absent from Hogwarts's curriculum, and the teaching of social sciences is considered of little value: the students have only some tedious courses of history. It's very revealing that Harry finds them "as boring as Percy's reports cauldron-bottom report." In other words, in the cultural universe of Harry Potter, social sciences are as useless and obsolete as state regulation.

Hogwarts' curriculum has long been a source of confusion. Does anyone take foreign languages at Hogwarts? Do they have professional-ethics classes on the use of memory charms? And wouldn't wizard economics be even more important when some have the power to create goods ex nihilo?

Let's face it: Hogwarts is a trade school. It exists, not to promote the higher things in life, but merely as a training grounds to help students not get killed by evil warlocks. How bourgeois! How Anglo-Saxon!

Harry Potter, probably unintentionally, thus appears as a summary of the social and educational aims of neoliberal capitalism.

Probably unintentionally. Let's not go out on a limb here.

Like Orwellian totalitarianism, this capitalism tries to fashion not only the real world, but also the imagination of consumer-citizens.

No, what's really Orwellian is the surveillance system adopted by the Ministry to catch unapproved magic use. Think about it -- they monitor Harry for extra-curricular magic use 24 hours a day. He can't even turn his aunt into a balloon without attracting the notice of the state! (And if any Muggles see it, the wizards erase their minds...)

Even more concerningly, this surveillance system seems completely unable to catch Voldemort or other bad actors when they employ unapproved magic of their own. So the Ministry focuses its vast intelligence apparatus, not on the real terrorists, but on the children. The children.

The underlying message to young fans is this: You can imagine as many fictional worlds, parallel universes or educational systems as you want, they will still all be regulated by the laws of the market. Given the success of the Harry Potter series, several generations of young people will be indelibly marked by this lesson.

Indeed, Yocaris has identified a disturbing trend in children's literature. Just think about it:

  • Narnia -- a crypto-Christian allegory, marketed to impressionable secular minds.

  • Ender's Game -- relentlessly individualistic and competitive.

  • Lord of the Rings -- status-obsessed, feudal, and bellicose; allows Farmer Maggot his "own" farm. (Those mushrooms were stolen from the people!)

  • The Berenstein Bears -- endorses bourgeois family structure, solidifies socially-constructed gender roles.

  • The Phantom Tollbooth -- the very notion of "tolls" implies the personal possession of currency.

Ilias Yocaris is a professor of literary theory and French literature at the University Institute of Teacher Training in Nice. This article was translated by The Times from the French.

'Nuff said.




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