Remember who the enemy is

January 9, 2019 (1465 words) :: On Mark Fisher's 2013 blog post about The Hunger Games & why it's still relevant today.
Tags: mark-fisher, the-hunger-games, ideology, class-struggle, cultural-criticism

This post is day 9 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

If you’ve read the introductory post to this series, you know that I’m a big fan of k-punk, the posthumous anthology of Mark Fisher’s work that was published last November by Repeater Books. The book is chock-full of really amazing analysis and gorgeous prose, on a whole host of topics & cultural artefacts, but if you were to ask me what my favourite piece was, the answer is easy.

My absolute favourite piece in the book is the one about The Hunger Games, which was originally published as a k-punk blog post in 2013 and titled Remember Who The Enemy Is.

This post, incidentally, happened to be the one k-punk blog post that I had read before the book came out, on the blog itself. It was pure happenstance. I didn’t know about k-punk while it was still active, but sometime last year, I came across a memorial written by Jeremy Gilbert titled My Friend Mark (PDF). It’s a 30-page PDF, which I know sounds excruciatingly long, but it’s so beautiful that it’s worth reading anyway.

It was certainly worth reading for me. I read it at a time in my life when I was feeling particularly lost. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with my life, or what I was supposed to look forward to, and things were generally just kind of shitty. For whatever reason, reading Jeremy Gilbert’s tribute to Mark Fisher pulled me out of the listless fog in which I’d been immersed. It cleared things up just enough that I could remember why I should bother getting out of bed in the morning.

Veering away from that before it gets too melodramatic: at one point in Jeremy Gilbert’s piece, he mentions Bev Skeggs, who also happened to be my dissertation supervisor for my MSc, and who I didn’t realise had any connection to Mark. Out of curiosity, I Googled “bev skeggs mark fisher”, and one of the first results was a tweet Bev had posted several years ago linking to Mark’s blog post on the hunger games. So that’s how I found that post.

The best literary criticism opens your eyes just a little bit wider, making you see something you previously loved or even only mildly liked in a wholly new light. That’s how I felt when I read Mark’s 2013 blog post. I was never into The Hunger Games books when they first came out - I felt a little too old for them, at the time - and I watched the movies mostly out of curiosity, but didn’t really find them to be anything special. It was only after I read the blog post that I discovered a whole new reading of the films - an anti-capitalist reading, no less - which I can’t stop thinking about. I feel like I’m always talking about The Hunger Games, these days - in the context of tech workers being forced to work overtime, or in a review of Sorry to Bother You. It’s always on my mind, which is useful, because it’s always relevant.

Going back to literary criticism. Good literary criticism is not limited to explaining what a piece of literature or film or whatever is “about”, or what the author really “meant”. Instead, the most valuable literary criticism is the sort that looks outward, by not limting its conclusions to the self-contained world depicted on the page or the screen. The point is to illuminate what it says about our world. The fictional world into which you can escape for a few hours - no matter how fantastical - is never entirely fictional; it will always tell you something about the real world (that’s where it was initially conceived of, after all).

Mark Fisher describes The Hunger Games as a “counter-narrative to capitalist realism”, and one that captures the cruelties of the system while also offering a way out, in the form of Katniss’ character. The illegitimacy of the system is made obvious to viewers, and the only question is how the masses are going to overthrow the system that perpetuates their oppression:

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Hunger Games is the way it simply presupposes that revolution is necessary. The problems are logistical, not ethical, and the issue is simply how and when revolution can be made to happen, not if it should happen at all. Remember who the enemy is – a message, a hailing, an ethical demand that calls out through the screen to us …. that calls out to a collectivity that can only be built through class consciousness ….

In the world of The Hunger Games, there are two main classes. There is small number of ruling elite who enjoy lives of leisure and plenty, while the majority - clearly analogous to the working class - are forced to live small, mean, desperate lives at the behest of the former.

What’s innovative about The Hunger Games as a piece of literature is the unambiguously negative depiction of the ideological apparatuses needed to maintain that system. After all, any hierarchy needs a variety of superstructural forces in order to perpetuate itself, and in this case, we have a violent spectacle that pits members of the working class against each other, in a televised fight-to-the-death. Locate the anger of the masses at their unjust place in this unnatural system, but instead of letting that fester and subsequently bloom into full-blown revolution, capture it: funnel it towards ends that cannot harm the ruling class. Divide them into “districts” and help inculcate a sense of pride in their own district - one that gets them to align with their district (and the district’s avatars in the main competition) as opposed to the rest of their class.

There are so many ways in which this is a perfect metaphor for actually existing capitalism. The false hope of nationalism, for one: the way workers are divided by nationality and made to compete on that terrain, in order to distract them from seeing that “nation” as it is currently constructed favours only the ruling class. Workplaces with cutthroat cultures enforced by draconian guidelines around performance review season, incentivising employees to work just a little bit harder (and feel good about it, because it helps them rise up the ranks in the company!) so the company’s owners can extract more surplus value. The role of grading in the educational system. Some job interview processes (I’ve heard Waitrose uses a system that’s eerily close to The Hunger Games, though slightly less deadly.)

Competition is a great way to maintain the strength of any unjust system: get the people on the bottom to fight each other, instead of collectively turning their attention to the top. Get them to buy into the individual possibility of rising to the top (if they work hard enough) rather than questioning why they should have to do so at all, when the other class doesn’t.

In a way, this is the evolutionary apotheosis for any such system. To remain in power, it must develop an effective strategy for containing potential opposition, and brewing up a competition to ascend the ranks is just perfect. Get the discontents to tear at each other to compete for scraps. Once they’ve managed to affirm their own superiority by climbing over the corpses of their peers, they’ll buy into the system. (I wrote about this phenomenon in the context of Silicon Valley in a previous fragment.)

You need some sort of palliative, you see. If you don’t have some way of subduing those who are not benefiting from the system, they will overthrow it. Simple as that. This isn’t even a conspiracy theory - even the framers of the US constitution acknowledged this possibility (the “tyranny of the majority”.)

But the central premise of The Hunger Games is that no such palliative can last forever. Eventually, the unnatural system will fall. It might take an unwilling hero(ine), and a whole host of other factors, but it’s inevitable.

The combination of violence and spectacle needed to enforce the class system in The Hunger Games is pretty effective, but it’s not perfect. There are always cracks in the edifice. The ruling class needs the participation of the other class in the system - the class that produces all the resources needed for their rule. Realising that is key for the other class to reclaim agency, in order to eventually overthrow the system.

Seeing the system for what it is - that’s the first step. Understanding how the system works, and identifying the lines of forces that keep it running, is the key to overcoming it.

Remember who the enemy is. Don’t let them deceive you.

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