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Why the Hunger Games Is the Perfect Science Fiction for May Day

Military recruiters, student debt, cyclical poverty: seeing ourselves in the trilogy's dystopian future.

| Wed May 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The Labyrinths of Poverty

Which brings us to the hungriest in our 2012 real-life version of the Hunger Games: the poor. The wealthiest and most powerful nation the world has ever seen is full of hungry people. You know it, and you know why. In this vast, bountiful, food-producing, food-wasting nation, it's a crisis of distribution, also known as economic inequality, described at last with clarity and force by the Occupy movement.

One of the sad and moving spectacles of camps like Occupy Oakland last year was the way they became de facto soup kitchens as the homeless and hungry came out of the shadows for the chance at a decent meal. Some of the camps had really dedicated chefs who cooked superbly.  They also had rudimentary medical clinics where the poor received the healthcare they couldn't get anywhere else.

We are in a new era of desperation, when lots of people who were getting by these last several decades aren't anymore. There are no jobs, or the jobs available pay so abysmally that workers can barely survive on them.  

Of course, we do have one arena in which meals are guaranteed, and the population there keeps growing. Six million Americans live there, and it often does get gladiatorial inside. It's called prison, and we have the highest percentage of prisoners per population in the world, higher than in the USSR gulags under Stalin. Half of them are there for drug offenses, 80% of those for simple possession.

Which, as I'm sure you've noticed, hasn't stopped the flow of drugs meant to numb the pain we're so good at creating here.  We should create a measure for Gross National Suffering (GNS) before we even think about the Gross National Happiness they measure in Bhutan.

And once our prisoners get out, they're a stigmatized caste, uniquely ill-suited to survival in this economy—speaking of hunger, debt, poverty, being branded for life, and hopelessness. Like universities, prisons are profitable industries, though not for the human beings who are the raw material they process.  In this age, both systems seem increasingly like so many factories.

In the Shadow of 900 Tornados

But if you want to think about all the ways we're dooming the young, there's one that puts the others in the shade, a form of destruction that includes not just American youth, or human youth, but all species everywhere, from coral reefs to caribou. That's climate change, of course.

Our failure to do anything adequate about it has rocketed us into the science-fiction world Bill McKibben so eloquently warned us about in his 2010 book Eaarth. His argument is that we've so altered the planet we live on that we might as well have landed on a new one (with an extra 'a' in its name), more turbulent and far less hospitable than the beautiful Holocene one we trashed.

There were 160 tornados reported on March 2nd of this year. Remember that, in April of 2011, 900 tornadoes were ripping up interior United States, and this April was similarly volatile.  Remember the unprecedented wildfires, the catastrophic floods, the heat waves, the bizarrely hot North American January and other oddities? That's science fiction of the scariest sort, and we're in it. Or on it, on the crazy new planet we've made ourselves. Here in the USA sector of Eaarth in the year 2012, 15,000 high-temperature records were broken in March alone, and summer is yet to come. A town in north-central Texas hit 111 degrees—in April! What turbulent planet is this?

One grain of good news: a lot of us, even in this country, finally seem to be of aware of the strangeness of the planet we're now on. As the New York Times reported, a new survey 'shows that a large majority of Americans believe that this year's unusually warm winter, last year's blistering summer, and some other weather disasters were probably made worse by global warming. And by a 2-to-1 margin, the public says the weather has been getting worse, rather than better, in recent years.'

If you want to talk about hunger, talk about the unprecedented flooding that's turned Pakistan from one of the world's breadbaskets into a net food-importing nation, with dire consequences for the agricultural poor. Talk about China's many impending ecological disasters, its degraded soil, contaminated air and water, its many systems ready to collapse. There's more disruption of food production to come, a lot more, and lots more hunger, too.

Around this point in science fiction books and even history books, a revolution seems necessary. The good news I have for you this May Day is that it's underway.  

Revolution 2012

2011 was the year of strange weather, but it was also the year of global uprisings, and they're far from over. They erupted in Russia, Israel, Spain, Greece, Britain, much of the Arab-speaking world, parts of Africa, and Chile, among other spots in Latin America (some of which got their revolutions underway earlier in the millennium). Uprisings have blossomed even in what the rest of the hungry world sees as the elite Capitol, the United States, and much of the English-speaking world, from London to New Zealand.

Remember that revolution doesn't look much like revolution used to. That might be the most retrograde aspect of the very violent Hunger Games trilogy, the way in which the author's imagination travels along conventional or old-fashioned lines. There, violence is truly the arbitrator of power, along with cunning, whether in the ways the teenagers survive in the gladiatorial arena or the Capitol, or how both sides operate in conflicts between the Districts and the Capitol. In our own world, the state is very good at violence, whether in its wars overseas or in pepper-spraying and clubbing young demonstrators. You'll notice, however, that neither the Iraqis, nor the Afghanis, nor the Occupiers were subjugated by these means.  

Violence is not power, as Jonathan Schell makes strikingly clear in The Unconquerable World, it's what the state uses when we are not otherwise under control. In addition, when we speak of 'nonviolence' as an alternative to violence, we can't help but underestimate our own power.  That word, unfortunately, sounds like it's describing an absence, a polite refraining from action, when what's at stake—as demonstrators around the world proved last year—is a force to be reckoned with; so call it 'people power' instead.

When we come together as civil society to exercise this power, regimes tremble and history is made. Not instantly and not exactly according to plan, but who ever expected that?

Still, many regimes have been toppled by this power, and the capacity to do so is ours in the present.  As Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan point out in their recent Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, since 1900 people-power campaigns have been successful in achieving regime change more than twice as often as violent campaigns.

It's May Day, a worldwide General Strike has been called, and last week tiny Occupy Norman (Oklahoma) announced that it 'had won a major battle': their city is moving all its money out of Bank of America into a local bank. Last fall's Move Your Money campaign included city money from the outset and quiet victories like this could begin to reshape our economic landscape. Activism in the streets is so intimidating that next month's G8 Summit scheduled for Chicago will hole up at Camp David instead.

Meanwhile last week, both the Wells Fargo and General Electric shareholders' meetings were under siege from Occupy activists.  The Wells Fargo meeting and protests took place in San Francisco, and afterward an arrested friend of mine posted this on Facebook: 'I forgot to mention that Max gave me the Hunger Games salute in jail today. It was awesome.'

In this way do fiction and reality meld in misery and triumph as, this very day, janitors in California go out on strike, and even Golden Gate Bridge workers will be protesting. May Day actions are planned across the globe.

Still alive and kicking, Occupy is chipping away in a thousand places at the status quo. 350.org, the little organization that defeated the Keystone XL Pipeline (so far), is holding a global Climate Impacts Day on May 5th and plans to take on the petroleum industry in its next round of actions.

Of course, this is only a beginning, and the banking and oil companies, the 1%, and the prison and education rackets are more than capable of pushing back.  So we need one more tool in our arsenal, and that's a picture of what we want, of what a better world looks like. McKibben's Eaarth and Deep Economy offer such a picture, as does William Morris's News from Nowhere, even 120-odd years later, but we won't get that from The Hunger Games, which, for all its thrilling, subversive, and surly delights, is all dystopia all the way home. We may still get it, however, on our stranger-than-fiction planet.

May Day is a day of liberation—a day to be seized and celebrated, a day to remember who was shot down on it and who fought for it.  It's a day to join those who fought and fight for liberation, to imagine what its most delicious and profound possibilities might look like.

So skip work, flip a bird at the Capitol, commit your deepest love and solidarity to the young whose lives are being gambled away, feed the hungry, take a long look at how beautiful our planet still is, find your way into solidarity and people power, and dream big about other futures. Resistance is one of your obligations, but it's also a pleasure and a way of stealing back hope.

Rebecca Solnit grew up in California public libraries and is thrilled to be revisiting them all over the state as part of the Cal Humanities California Reads project, which is now featuring five books, including her A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Ursula K. LeGuin' Earthsea books remain her favorite young-adult fantasy series, even though she found The Hunger Games trilogy irresistible. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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