We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same. ~ Carlos Castaneda
The entertainment headlines tell us that Hunger Games surpassed $300 million at the box office this weekend. At ten dollars per ticket, that is 30 million tickets. Subtract a couple million for people who have gone twice, and you have about 28 million people who have seen it. That is not nearly enough. All good men and women who want to come to the aid of their country should see this film.
Why would I say that? It’s just entertainment, right? So are books. I had a teacher in graduate school, John Nelson, who thought about politics in science fiction. Science fiction authors can write about political dystopias more readily than authors who write non-fiction. We are living in a dystopia now, but we don’t recognize it yet. Hunger Games is about a dystopia. If you want to see a general view of where we might be headed, see this film.
Plenty of people have warned us about what will happen if we don’t arrest our current political trajectory. Mid-twentieth century, Friederich Hayek started the discussion in The Road to Serfdom. Ron Paul has sounded the same warnings more recently. If we don’t listen to these warnings, we will see our current situation become worse. Hunger Games illustrates how much worse it can get.
Many people have read all three of Suzanne Collins’ books, and have seen the recently released film. Our family has discussed the books a great deal. The author’s vision of a Reaping, where outlying districts send tributes to the Capitol to be killed in gladiatorial games used as entertainment, shows how utterly subject the districts are to their masters. Images from the film show the heroine so hungry that she welcomes a rain soaked loaf of bread meant for pigs. Images from the districts and images from the Capitol could not be more different. No one suffers in the Capitol. Everyone suffers in the districts.
Hunger Games, then, makes you think about the general theme of equality, the hallmark of our democracy from the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address. The Occupy Movement highlights this theme in its rhetoric. Our sense of who we are as Americans turns on this idea.
If you want to see a dystopia where the one percent have nearly complete control of the other ninety-nine percent, consider the Capitol and the districts in Hunger Games. President Snow, along with the rest of the Capitol, likes to say, “May the odds be ever with you.” It’s an ironic falsehood, for sure. The odds are never with the districts, or with the tributes who come from the districts to fight to the death in the games. The odds only favor those who already have power.
Now I’m going to depart rather drastically from most of the Occupy Wall Street people. The standard remedy for inequality in our public policy has been to tax the wealthy in order to redistribute the money to the poor. We have seen the results of that policy over four score years now. The wealthy stay wealthy, the powerful stay powerful, and the poor stay poor. You cannot hand resources of that magnitude to government and hope that by some magic transformation we will have a greater degree of equality. The not so magic, predictable transformation at work is to make the government more powerful. That includes the power to keep the poor dependent, and to help the well connected stay privileged.
When we say we want equality, we make a big mistake if we focus on equality of economic outcomes. We say we want equal opportunity. Translate that into government policy and you find attention to equal outcomes again. How public policy promotes equal opportunity, no one really knows. We place our hopes in education, but honestly, how many people believe now that equal opportunity follows from more spending on public education? The record does not offer much hope there.
The path to equal opportunity lies through plain freedom. The immigrants who populated America took this lesson from their lives across the ocean: remove social distinctions, and let us do the rest. These social distinctions evolved so slowly, they amounted to a caste system. Here, you could be anyone you wanted to be. The only equality that mattered was equality of freedom, plain freedom to make something of yourself.
So what kind of equality do we need to prevent Collins’ demoralizing dystopia? Can we prevent the United States from devolving into numerous impoverished districts, subordinate to a decadent, obscenely powerful Capitol? If the answer is yes, who can accomplish such a thing? If we cannot prevent it, how long will it be before we recognize what has happened?
The key to the struggle here is not economic equality, but political equality. Far too much attention is paid to economic outcomes, and far too little to political outcomes. If we cared about political outcomes, we would lay plans to starve our Capitol of material resources. We would resist its efforts to regulate tiny details of our activities, right down to the structure of the passwords we use to log into our computer networks. We would recognize how it erodes and undercuts our liberties. We would look for ways to counteract its intrusive, nagging, freedom destroying behavior.
The effectiveness of these counteractions depends on three qualities. First, they must be non-violent. Second, they must be part of a plan, not a series of ad hoc and uncoordinated actions. Third, they must actually disrupt government’s ability to assert its authority. Governmental authorities are bound to regard actions of this type as illegal, and in fact actions of this type count as civil disobedience. Therefore resisters cannot become distracted by arguments about what is legal and what is not. The Occupy Movement, for instance, let local authorities set a course for their removal when they decided to argue the legality of their encampments before the authorities who wanted to remove them.
The point of the encampments to begin with was that they were not legal. That’s why protesters called it Occupy Wall Street rather than Set Up a Temporary Encampment on Wall Street. They meant to be provocative, and they were. They meant to be peaceful, and to the end they did not initiate the use of force. Only political sympathy and moral force would keep them in the park, however, not legal justification. Legal justification is what police would use to throw them out.
Now the encampments are gone. You don’t hear about the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement now we’re gripped by another meaningless election campaign. The Capitol has its rituals, policies, and procedures. We learned in the transition from Bush to Obama that the routines don’t change. We learned that great power begets power even greater.
Torture continues. Solitary confinement continues. Prison camps continue. Secrecy and corruption continue. Obscenely wasteful training conferences in Las Vegas continue, as do strip searches, cover-ups, ubiquitous surveillance, and fear of the next knock on the door. Propaganda, unsuccessful wars, gun running, handouts and bailouts, astonishing assertions of authority where no authority exists, all continue. No policy or practice is too dirty or unjustified, no effort to increase government’s power is too underhanded. No lie or other kind of dishonesty is too destructive, criminal, or blatant.
To prevent the coming dystopia, we have to recognize and accept the need for political action to prevent it. This action must reestablish political equality, essential for democracy. As Gene Sharp argues in his writing, establishment of political equality in these circumstances requires development of extra-legal political methods to counteract and resist government’s illegal assertion of authority. It requires a strategy to reestablish democratic institutions.
That brings us to Castaneda’s piece of wisdom: as citizens we will be miserable, or we will be strong. We are in for hard work either way. Oppression from the Capitol means hard, miserable work in the mines and in the mud, with no escape. Political freedom means accumulation of moral strength, which requires self-discipline, perseverance, courage, cooperation, and spiritual confidence. Moral strength to recover freedom and political equality requires hard work. Let’s begin.