July 18, 2004

Capitalist Discourse

You cannot escape it, even by slipping into Harry Potter's universe. At least, so says French literary theorist Ilias Yocaris:

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.
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. 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.

And this French Marxist objects:
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.

Finally, we see the true harm of all of this. In real life, as in the Matrix Reloaded, the myth, the prophesy, the fantasy, the escape only exists as an additional form of control.
Harry Potter, probably unintentionally, thus appears as a summary of the social and educational aims of neoliberal capitalism. Like Orwellian totalitarianism, this capitalism tries to fashion not only the real world, but also the imagination of consumer-citizens. 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.

No word yet on how Yocaris is able to break through the impenetrable shroud of capitalist consumerist-imaginings to pen such an insightful piece. The French, and their cultural quotas, are obviously the last bastion of hope in the resistance against the irresistible.

Dan Drezner has more.

Update: Steve Sachs takes the review apart.

Posted by richard at July 18, 2004 06:07 PM

Per Richard's invitation, I come to reconcile my compromised idea of Marxism to this morbidly political jackass who cannot enjoy the transport of fantasy without begrudging the moorings of reality that make the experience meaningful.

And I can't.

I find Marxism attractive to the extent that it recognizes values (justice, equality, charity) above and beyond economic progress, and recognizes them as per se values, and not simply collateral benefits to or catalytsts for the Drive for the Dollar. I dig Marxism if and when it recognizes human dignity over "rational action." And I like the romance of Revolution — the berets and fatigues, the idea of standing up for something other than gas prices and free digital downloads.

Marxism is offensive to me to the extent that it repudiates the individual and subordinates him to the needs of the Community. Because where does that leave Art? Capitalism's commodification of ideas and expression is obnoxious to values like Beauty and Genius, but the politicization of Art (even the kind that you can cross-promote with Taco Bell) is arguably just as objectionable. And that's what this Yocaris character is all about here.

So just as the experience of Harry Potter would be the worse off for product placements (if there were such a product as a Firebolt), a critique that faults the book for failing to describe a fantasy world free of capitalist influence is as, if not more, annoying.

This guy no doubt thinks he's bright, but the bottom line is he's no damn fun.

Posted by: Brad A. at July 27, 2004 05:51 PM