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The Hunger Games and Political Control

By Taylor Marvin

I’ve been working my way through Abigail Nussbaum’s excellent reviews, and particularly enjoyed her reading of The Hunger Games (she has no love for Battlestar Galactica, but that’s another story).

The Hunger Games trilogy isn’t a particularly good narrative, and Suzanne Collins’ disregard for believable world building is particularly frustrating — Panem just doesn’t feel like a functioning state, and the lives of its people outside District 12 are at best one dimensional. However, one aspect of Panem society that does exist as part of a believable state structure is the concept of the tessera, which allows poor teenagers in the labor camp-like districts to earn food allotments for their families at the cost of an increased chance of random selection to fight in the gladiatorial Hunger Games, which are organized by the despotic Capitol.

Authoritarian regimes often align themselves with the interests of the middle class — the Assad regime in Syria is a good contemporary example of this phenomenon. Assuming that individuals’ political power is roughly aligned with their income, it’s often more secure in the long-term for despots to protect the economic interests of a pampered, and politically adept, middle class at the expense of a much larger poor population than to make populist appeals to the very poor.

In The Hunger Games, the tessera functions as a mechanism for aligning the district middle class interests’ in the districts with those of the regime in the capital. While impoverished districts like District 12 lack a true middle class, more secure district families aren’t forced to take out tesseras and have a lower chance of having their children selected for the Hunger Games. These families enjoy the benefits of the Games — presumably, greater social stability if we accept the regime’s rhetoric that the Hunger Games are a substitute for more severe forms of collective punishment — while avoiding their costs. The fact that upper-class children are occasionally randomly chosen to fight makes the system more acceptable for everyone in the districts by maintaining the illusion of impartiality.

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