Out of Panem

The Hunger Games is shaping up to be the start of a successful movie franchise based on Suzanne Collins’ dystopian young-adult trilogy. I am surprised that I would write about it as the much-postponed grand relaunch of my long-dormant blog – I rarely read fiction or see movies, after all. Plus this is so…trendy.

However, I see some interesting resonance with the capstone paper I just completed for the Master of Management – Co-operatives and Credit Unions. In that research I explored a challenge facing cooperative attempts at complementary currencies.

For those not yet hip to the Hunger Games, here’s the story:

Several generations after a cataclysm, famine and uprising, North America has been reduced to a remnant state called Panem. This consists of a wealthy Capitol and 13 impoverished and enslaved colonies, each of which are forced annually to provide a pair of teenaged “tributes” for a sadistic and humiliating televised fight to the death.

The heroine Katniss volunteers to compete in the annual event after her younger sister is selected, and she is swept into a tale of teenage angst over balancing her true feelings against cultural expectations. She also faces a fight to the death with her more socially acceptable romantic option and 22 other teenagers. It’s pretty weird stuff.

Not surprisingly some writers are finding Deeper Meaning in this story. There’s the obvious critique of reality TV (which has so far stuck to emotional brutality with only sporadic or cartoonish physical harm – but give it time!) There’s also a bit of analysis around dependency theory, observing the fairly clear colonial structure between the Capitol and its captive districts as well as the significant differences among the districts in how they experience their captivity. I even found one piece describing the story as a Christ metaphor – admittedly there is heavy, bready symbolism around Peeta.

I now add myself to the crowd of analysts.

As I mentioned, The Hunger Games is part of a trilogy, in which Katniss later leads an uprising against the Capitol. According to Collins’ story, there are only a few small clusters of civilization left in North America. People live inside tightly controlled districts surrounded by electric fences, and there is only minimal travel (by rail) from one district to another.

Setting aside the fact that Collins can create whatever world she likes, I don’t buy it: There’s simply no way that the entire continent could be reduced to the state she describes. More likely this is just the official propaganda taken as fact by everyone in the story. I suspect that this world would also include people entirely outside the system – utopian anarchist colonies, roving bandits, religious communes and warlords. I am also skeptical that any state could hold together with such long and exposed supply lines.

So if I’m so smart and there are bandits out there, why wouldn’t they be picking away at the rail lines, blowing up bridges and whatnot? In particular, wouldn’t my hypothetical outsiders be well aware of the potential ransom bounty or propaganda jackpot if they managed to capture/liberate a pair of tributes? Maybe. However, given that Panem is able to deploy fearsome hovercrafts and other fantastic technology, it is plausible that the state could maintain an area of scorched earth along its supply lines. It’s fiction, after all.

On the other hand, Collins’ story does hint at something outside the fences, when Katniss and Gale (her less socially acceptable romantic interest) encounter an escapee just outside of District 12. This suggests that something is going on out there; otherwise how would a young woman make it alone across the wasteland from the Rockies to Appalachia? Somebody was helping her. And after her capture she reappears as an “avox” – tongue cut out to keep her from sharing whatever she saw out there. Her secrets must be really juicy. And it later turns out that a new rebellion comes from outside the fences of Panem.

So what does all this mean for us?

We’re clearly a long way from Collins’ dreary picture at least in the literal sense. But Panem provides a useful symbolic tale of how we might rise up and confront an economic system that is leading us all to our doom, perhaps in ways that literally resemble the story. It is not hard to imagine the natural evolution from the American gated community to District 12. Survivor differs from the Hunger Games only in degree.

If left to its own devices, the current system will keep building fences and creating spectacles. It is based on unsustainable resource depletion and increasing control, and it must be stopped. However, there are other ways to stop it beside direct confrontation. Indeed, escape seems a much better prospect than fundamental change to a system that is beyond repair.

A historical model may be found in the Basque country, home to a people who maintained their independence for longer than any other tribal group in Europe. During the 20th Century, the Basques took two major approaches to fighting their Spanish masters: On the one hand, the guerillas of ETA waged decades of insurgency. On the other hand, less-militant Basques were inspired by Catholic Social Thought and quietly built a system of cooperatives called Mondragon, which is now one of Spain’s largest and most successful enterprises, and is avoiding layoffs as the national unemployment rate approaches 25%. As the insurgency seems to have finally ended, the Basques face unemployment rate of only 11%, partly credited to Mondragon and the regional economic strength it helped build.

In my addendum to The Hunger Games, Panem is merely the largest and strongest force, but not the only social option. It occupies a connected web that sits squarely in the middle of the territory, preventing any alternatives from effectively connecting to each other or accessing the most valuable pockets of what scarce resources remain. This is not unlike the dollar-based monetary system, which is presently stitching together global hegemony, strengthening its lines of connection and simultaneously building up barriers to anything outside of itself.

And here’s where my research comes in:

I have long believed in cooperatives’ ability to provide positive alternatives in the face of oppression, as seen in the Basque Country. But I’m no longer sure if they are enough to really address our economic troubles. After all, Mondragon still pays its bills in Euros, and it is deeply dependent on the health of the Spanish, European and global economies. It might survive their collapse, but I doubt it would look the same.

Perhaps co-ops are still inside the fences of Panem, serving as pressure valves that prevent us from building the head of steam needed for real social transformation. I just don’t know anymore. However, it can’t hurt for us also to be developing other models that don’t rely on the structures of the dominant system.

My paper looks at complementary currencies like those that helped people survive the collapse of the dollar during the Great Depression, and those that are helping rebuild community today through online time banks. These online exchanges are rebuilding reciprocal economies that serve as an alternative to the anonymity of spending national currencies like the dollar. I’m coming across some really interesting material, which calls into question the economy we all take for granted at a much deeper level than I had anticipated.

I’ll be posting more from that in the near future, as I think it’s very important food for thought. Stay tuned…

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