Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Political Economy in Harry Potter

(or, A Canadian Lefty Displays His Nerdliness More Than Usual)

As I have noted before on this site, I grew up reading a great deal of speculative fiction, though I do not read so much at the moment. Perhaps the fact that I am politically open to the idea that "another world is possible" may have something to do with the fact that I spent a great deal of time in my formative years contemplating the possibility of other worlds.

I was not, however, an early enthusiast for J.K. Rowling's massive blockbusting bestseller-type franchise involving youthful English wizards and witches in training. I think the fourth book was out before I had read any, and even then I was (perhaps a bit snobbishly, I'll admit) inclined to be skeptical of all of these johnny-come-latelies to the joys of fantastic literature. It was only with the massive fifth book in the series that I truly became hooked.

One fun part about reading things that deal with fantastic worlds is trying to decide whether or not these worlds, as described, are actually socially plausible -- would they, in fact, work as advertised? If you assume that all that is different from the "real world" is what the author explicitly tells you is different, does the world actually make sense? If not, why not? Where have assumptions been imported from "real life" that you really could afford to change? How do the cultural practices relate to the kinds of making and doing that we commonly ghettoize as "the economy"?

It is with that goal in mind that I have occasionally wondered how exactly the political economy of wizarding Britain in the Harry Potter books functions. I know...I'm a nerd.

The books make clear quite early on that the wizarding world is a society with class divisions. If you approach that with the standard, muddy North American understanding of what class actually means, you are unlikely to see anything interesting -- that is, if you understand "class" as being primarily a function of how much money you have or make. This is because you see people in the wizarding world with lots of money, like the Malfoys, and those with very little, like the Weasleys, and might not be inclined to probe further.

But the Malfoys are definitely not capitalists. In fact, they would likely hex you into the middle of next week at the mere suggestion. Rather, they are aristorcrats. It is unclear exactly what the social basis of the wealth of this class is or was in the wizarding world, given that it has no peasants or overtly feudal relations in evidence, but we are used to the idea of such things having faded away in the distant past even while the vestiges of the class continues on, and the markers by which the Malfoys are defined in the books are very much aristocratic rather than bourgeois. Jason Isaacs' portrayal of "Lucius Malfoy" in the movies is a positively delightful caricature of that class. There is, in fact, no evidence of any capitalist class whatsoever in books or movies. The closest that you can find are small business owners, most of whom seem to be skilled artisans who create the things that they are selling and have few if any employees.

On the other end of the spectrum you find the Weasleys. In a broad understanding of "working class", such as that employed in autonomist Marxism, the Weasley family certainly belongs there, as do many others in the books. But Arthur is, in fact, a low ranking civil servant when the series begins. Being employed by the federal civil service even in a fairly junior position does not tend to be that bad a situation, these days, so the emphasis on the Weasleys' poverty seems a bit incongruous, though with seven children one can certainly understand it. As well, in terms of the ways Arthur's employment is marked symbolically in terms of his class status, it feels more like he is a Dickensian clerk in the mould of Bob Cratchit than a modern civil servant. (Molly, of course, works at home, again in a position that autonomists and feminist Marxists would see as working class, but that other Marxists often have not). If you look a bit farther afield, the only other character that is obviously coded as working class is Mundgungus Fletcher, a petty crook who serves to represent the supposedly disreputable segment of the working class in the series. What you don't find is anyone who would qualify as bona fide industrial proletarians in a traditional, mainstream Marxist sense.

It makes sense that one can find neither capitalists nor narrowly defined proletarians, because there do not appear to be any capitalist enterprises at all in the wizarding world, and in fact no fully developed capitalist social relations. There is one bank, which appears to be a community enterprise of some kind controlled by the Goblins. (Given the history of European Christianity of a certain era designating such tasks to Jews, plus the physical representation of the Goblins in the movies and how one might relate that to certain facets of the horrible caricatures of Jews that were common at one time, I have wondered about whether some deeply ingrained cultural anti-semitism might have slipped through, but I have not heard anyone else raise that issue.) There are service organizations like St. Mungo's Hospital and Hogwarts itself. There is the state, commonly referred to as the Ministry of Magic. There are, as mentioned above, a fair number of small-scale businesses that seem mostly to involve the owner working in the shop, and often creating the merchandise. In other words, the economy of the wizarding world does involve a market, but it is at best a pre-capitalist market, and may in fact be something else entirely.

One interesting and potentially disturbing aspect of the wizarding world's economy is that it does involve slavery. Of creatures known as "house elves", to be precise. This slavery does not seem to serve the economic function of the theft of labour and life in large-scale plantation economies like in the southern U.S. and the Caribbean historically, but seems mostly to involve the performance of domestic functions for aristocratic families (as well as at Hogwarts). In that sense, it actually kind of resembles how the slavery of African and indigenous people in Canada functioned historically. In progressive commentaries on the Harry Potter books I have heard this inclusion of widely tolerated even if not widely practiced slavery raised as a big political mark against the series, and rightly so. One of the main characters does speak out and act (in wholly ineffective ways) against this slavery in a couple of the books, but is mostly portrayed as peculiar (if good-hearted) for her efforts. However, just based on how Rowling has built up the issue and then in the most recent book let it fade somewhat, I would wager that she is setting it up for the release of the house elves to be an element in the final book of the series.

It really starts to get interesting once you probe beyond the question of who people are and where they work and think about the overall ways in which production in the wizarding world is organized. It is actually quite a different environment than the one twenty-first century Europeans and North Americans are used to, in that instead of market relations pervading absolutely everything, they are actually quite limited in scope and everybody in the wizarding world exists to a certain extent outside of them. In the "real world" when this has been true it has usually been because people have been heavily invested in subsistence agriculture, hunting and gathering, or perhaps feudal social relations, but none of this is true in the wizarding world. Instead, the distinguishing feature of production in the wizarding world is that the means by which it happens is highly individualized, requiring no significant infrastructure of either a social or physical nature -- in other words, people can do lots and lots of stuff on their own by magic, as channeled through their wand (an accessory that everyone over the age of eleven has).

I think some of the implications of this underlying feature of the wizarding world are explored but others are left rather unclear. For one thing, it still makes sense that there be some specialization of activity resulting in the need for some market relations. Though everyone has access to the means of production, access to raw materials and to the skill to turn them into useful products can vary significantly. That is why Olivander makes wands, for example, and the Weasley twins open their joke shop. In a reflection of "real world" liberal dreams of actual meritocracy, some degree of status in the wizarding world that is not merely symbolic but also material seems to be awarded by skill or power, though it is not necessarily easy to find examples for this beyond Dumbledore, given that most of the characters we know are still at school. But this underlying means of production does not explain the Malfoys' inherited aristocratic status or their wealth. Nor does it explain the material markers of poverty displayed by the Weasleys. After all, if magic is as able to do things as it seems to be, why should there be any material markers of poverty as all? Why can't you just conjure new dress robes, for examlpe, rather than wearing some that have been in your family for decades?

Another interesting aspect of the wizarding political economy is the nature of the wizarding state. Though the relations of production are not capitalist, the associated state much resembles the sort of conglomeration of administrative and regulatory functions that one would tend to associate with highly industrialized political economies. I find this to be plausible, though, because some social borrowing from the non-magical world is believable, and the overwhelming need for secrecy from non-magical people would make the formation of such a state likely even though in other respects members of the wizarding world could probably function quite happily in semi-autonomous communities governed by traditional practices. And I suppose the semi-regular appearance of evil wizards bent on domination and destruction would be an impetus towards an organized state as well. What is not clear is how the Minister for Magic is actually chosen. It does not appear to be in elections, but there is plenty of evidence through the series that the selection of Minister and choices about Ministry policy are responsive to popular pressure in some way.

Though this organization is plausible, it is still disappointing. Such a radically decentralized means of production as this society exhibits could be the basis for depicting/exploring a much more innovative form of social organization. Perhaps book seven will end with some sort of radical social transformation? No, you're right...probably not.

A final topic that I want to include in here is that of kinship structures. As far as we are shown, the tendencies of the well-to-do "pure blood" families for inbreeding nothwithstanding, the family functions in the wizarding world much as it does in twenty-first century Europe and North America, or at least we do not learn much that would make wizarding kinship structures unfamiliar to us. This is also politically disappointing and not entirely plausible. After all, the wizarding community is small and is not governed by the economic and political forces which have pushed the nuclear family to the centre of social organization in the inudstrialized states of the "real world." It would make sense for some sort of elaborate extended family system, whether like those exhibited by many non-European cultures or something else entirely, to exist. That this does not exist might be explained by the regular, steady influx of people whose culture of origin is the non-magical world. Perhaps they imported their family forms. But given the emphasis placed on the complete unfamiliarity with non-magical society displayed by most people born into the spaces carved out and desginated "wizarding", this doesn't feel quite right either. (I would also love for Rowling to explore how queer practices and identities might have formed differently in the wizarding world than in the non-magical society, but obviously "real world" homophobia and capitalist social relations still severely constrain such themes.)

And a final regret is that this book does not deal at all with the history of English colonialism and imperialism, beyond the inclusion of a few minor characters who would trace their ancestry to former colonies. Admittedly, the Harry Potter world is probably not the best place to do this. But the device of the secret and learned English organization or subculture with some sort of relationship to the supernatural existing alongside the "real world" as we know it is very common -- the wizarding world in this series, the Watcher's Council in the Buffy universe, the Talamasca in Anne Rice's books, and lots of others. I'd like to see just one such world deal with the legacy of how well-to-do supernaturally inclined Englishmen might have participated in (or not) the process of English global conquest and how that might play out today.


radio free school said...

Oops. My comment on this harry potter post went to the spike lee post, my mistake, Scott, could you correct it please. (and the typo - i meant torture makes "it" not "in"

Scott said...

[Here is the original comment from radio free school, that ended up on the wrong post by accident:]

Pope Benedict XVI's chief exorcist, Rev. Gabriele Amorth, has called fictional wizard-in-training Harry Potter the "king of darkness, the devil."

Found that on the CBC news web site after reading your blog.

Hey, what about Azkaban prison. I don't think you mentioned that aspect of the political economy. It doesn't seem to figure as large an enterprise as the prison system in north america, but the use of torture makes it, um, and interesting place.

Scott said...

Hey Randy...thanks for the comments. That's crazy about Rev. Amorth's comments...I had thought I read somewhere ages ago that the Catholic church had taken a position that Harry Potter was fine and was leaving it to the fundamentalist Protestants to get all worked up about it. I have this theory that what the fundamentalist Protestants and the charismatic Catholics object to with the series is not really the portrayal of magic, whatever they might say, but the relationship shown between Harry and the Dursleys. He's stuck in this family of origin that wants nothing to do with things that are different or exciting or fun or imaginative, something that I'd imagine at least some children in very strict religious households could identify with, and particularly if they feel that they are "different" in some way analagous to Harry and maybe feel inclined to explore possibilities around identifying as queer in some way, for example. The whole series is based on the idea that it is just fine to ditch your (abusive) family of origin and form new family-type networks with other youth and adults who share your values and practices, something that I think is great but that I'd imagine many authoritarian (and homophobic) Christian parents do not want within a hundred miles of their children.

Yeah, you're right...I forgot completely about Azkaban. As far as I can tell, it is purely a part of the state and not engulfed in social relations organized around profit making in the same way that North American and particularly U.S. prisons are. The completely normalized inclusion of torture is disturbing for sure. But I do like the way that Rowling has shown the arbitrary detention of Stan Shuntpike, in a not-too-subtle comment on the practices of Western states as part of the so-called War on Terror.

brownfemipower said...

what a great analysis scott!! i spend most of my time obsessing over harry potter from a feminist/post colonialist stand point, so i have nuanced readings of the portrayal of the patil sisters and cho chang for instance, but nothing at all about the economy!!! :-)

but I think you point out very well how the malfoy's are aristocracy as opposed to capitalists--and i think it would be very interesting to find out how each wizarding family made their money (because all of the old families seemed to have had it at some time) and how certian families lost that money--especially, as harry pointed out with merope, wizards can survive without the money--they can use their wands to get food and clothing and the such. so what is the need for an economic system to begin with? is it like capitalists--that we can grow our own corn, but we'd really rather not, so we pay others to do it for us? i don't get it. how hard is it to do a spell? haha i'm sounding like the teen agers on mugglenet...
anyway, very interesting and sophisticated reading!

Scott said...

Hi BFP...glad you like the post! I would be there reading avidly if you were ever to post some of your analysis about Cho and the Patils...I found that stuff especially obvious in the fourth movie, with things like the white female characters (esp. Hermione and Fleur) shown as weaker than in the books but still as complete human beings, but the young women of colour as present in the story for the sole purpose of being objects of white male desire. But I have a less well-developed sense of how that plays out in the books, beyond the obvious point of racialized characters being automatically consigned to the secondary tier of characters.

In terms of the question of whether any kind of market would be necessary at all, I'm not sure what I think. I mean, presumably the basis for that is that different people have different levels of different kinds of skills, so that, say, if you want magical objects that cause michief then it makes sense for most people to go to the Weasley twins rather than try to create it themselves. Not that exchange of that sort absolutely requires a cash economy, especially in as small a community as wizarding Britain seems to be. But where it makes less sense that there would be a market is with more mundane items like clothes and food...and maybe you're right, maybe it is matter of preferring not to and paying others to do it. But there seems to be more to it than that, too, going back to the issue of the actual material impacts of poverty experienced by the Weasleys despite the fact that they can do magic.

Anyway, it's fun to speculate about. Thanks for reading!

brownfemipower said...

But there seems to be more to it than that, too, going back to the issue of the actual material impacts of poverty experienced by the Weasleys despite the fact that they can do magic.

great point! I have a feeling that jk rowling is not much of a math wizard, so their poverty is probably more of a story telling device than anything (if you follow or even her site, she often gets caught in number conflicts where it just wouldn't be possible for certian people to be certian ages or for certian events to have happened in certian years)--but at the same time, with something a hugely important as an economy, i would hope that she actually sat down and thought some of this through. there most definitly *are* impovershed wizards--merope and her family are prime examples--as the story line goes, they spent down their money in drinking and irresponsibility. but where did all the money come from to begin with? was the wizarding community that small that a huge loot was passed out to all of the "starter" wizards? i read in one of those books that jkr did for charity that at one point wizards and muggles mixed together--until the witch hunts began, at which point they went undercover with their is their economy just a split off from a british type aristocratic economy (in which case, the elves were probably the "surf")--i'm thinking that is probably the most logical conclusion--

(oh, and in regards to the post colonial perspective, i mostly look at jkr's use of the forbidden forest and the giants--there is a spooky way that it is always ok to corral a group of beings into a small space when you're doing it for their own protection, you know? and strangly, you see that imagery--the enclosing of beings for their own good in a lot of children's fantasy literature--look at the oompa loompas in willy wonka or the munchkins in the wizard of oz, you know? as long as the loss of freedom is connected to benevolent protection, things are ok and indeed heroic...

Scott said...

Yeah, that makes sense...that the Malfoy-like families used to participate in feudal relations, and when the two worlds "separated" they took their accumulated wealth with them. And I think you're probably right about the Weasley's poverty being more of a storytelling device than anything else.

Frankly, I'm not sure that putting together an economy that appears plausible would feel as "hugely important" to JKR as it might to you or me...I don't know much about her work processes, but from things I've read about fiction writing in general and from my own attempts at it (including fantasy/sci fi/horror) I think the ultimate test for any given element is how your average reader in your target audience would react. I think the fact that she has included things like Merope's family, the Weasleys, and the Malfoys as she has might indicate some things about how most of us are taught to think about the economy...most of what we get told about the economy shows wealth inequality as natural, inevitable, and static, rather than something that is socially produced, that does not have to exist if social relations are different, and that is dynamic. Given that most people, I suspect, just assume the former, it's not a problem for a writer to create a world in which significant wealth inequalities exist without even hinting at social mechanisms by which it came to be.

I'd never really thought about that post-colonial aspect...the restriction of freedom "for their own good," I mean. I guess the "real world" analogies from the Harry Potter universe are particularly striking, because it is being implemented in a very modern-seeming way, with a bureaucratic state dominated by a privileged group enacting all of these restrictions on other groups who seem to be largely excluded from access to power within the state apparatus (and who, as we know from the snippets we hear about History of Magic classes, have histories of uprisings and rebellions of various sorts).

It makes me think of another thing that has occurred to me repeatedly over the years and that I have meant to write about but have not gotten around to yet: the ways in which fantasy literature has an inherently troubling pattern for how it portrays the Other. The Other -- Goblins or elves or centaurs or talking otters or whatever -- is shown as being completely non-human, so it is entirely reasonable for the rules of the universe as created by the author to show them as being a certain way because "that's just how they are." Who are we to argue with someone else's universe? Yet human readers in the "real world" will, consciously or unconsciously, map in some way these differences onto differences among sentient beings that they are familiar with in their real lives, i.e. other (or Other) people. So there is this whole genre -- one that has been quite important to me -- which reinforces in its readers ideas of difference, often including position on opposite sides of violent conflict, being innate and unchanging and essential, and manages to completely avoid (often) issues of difference and conflict being socially some small way, it reinforces the idea that "solutions" to difference like having the state ensure physical segregation, or employing massive violence as a response to conflict, are normal and reasonable.