July 22, 2004

Harry Potter: Antiglobalist Crusader?

Recently, Ed posted a few times about the politics of Harry Potter and the debates in Le Monde on the subject. As he pointed out, Ilias Yocaris's article, which claims that Harry Potter is little more than a bunch of neoliberal stereotypes, has since been translated. However, I couldn't find any translations of -the response of philosophy professor Isabelle Smadja (author of Harry Potter and the Forces of Evil, a book about Harry's struggle against the forces of neo-Nazism), who seems to see Harry Potter as the first literary hero of the antiglobalization movement (house-elves figure heavily in this reading), so I translated it (warning: not very well) myself.

Who is Harry Potter, Really?

June 30, 2004

Can one find in the commercially successful Harry Potter series all of the ideas and ingredients necessary to create such a marketing phenomenon? And is the hype which follows the debut of each new volume or derived product consistent with the content of the books, which glorify capitalism and the unrestrained search for profit?

According to Ilias Yocaris (Le Monde, 4 June), the response is : yes, absolutely. Harry Potter is nothing less than a “summary of the educational and social goals of neoliberal capitalism”, where the young students of the “private school” of Hogwarts are “subjected to an incessant barrage of media hype”, and where the “rigidity and incompetence of civil servants” is contrasted with the creativity and audacity of entrepreneurs.

However, the adventures of Harry Potter begin with fierce criticism of the consumer society and the world of free enterprise. Vernon Dursley, owner of a drill factory, is a caricature of an obtuse businessman: servile, ready to make any concession to a future customer, he shows no pity to the weak, to whom he dedicates all the contempt that his money permits.

Dudley, his son, capricious and spoiled, is so little satisfied with the materialist world in which he lives that he becomes violent and snivels when he receives 36 gifts instead of 37. Has J. K. become so ensnared by the capitalist model which she aimed to denounce that she has become its apostle? It is quite unclear.
However, the contrast between civil servants, inept and rigid, and members of liberal professions, audacious and charming, doesn’t hold up under analysis: Like Cornelius Fudge, Albus Dumbledore pursued a career in public service; he was head of a justice tribunal, in which position he maintained close contact with many members of the ministry, and also with the numerous “Aurors”, military recruits of the state who distinguished themselves in battle against Voldemort. Likewise, the distinction between public and private is rather fuzzy; one can neither decide whether Hogwarts is a private school nor whether the ministry can intervene in the nomination of professors.

As undesirable as it is to read the novel as an allegory of the Second World War, this reading allows some distinctions to be made: the wizarding world is divided into resistants and collaborators. The character of Cornelius Fudge may be read as a broad interpretation of Petain, while the Order of the Phoenix, an illegal association founded to combat the “dictator” (Voldemort), refers quite explicitly to the Resistance during the Occupation and recruits its members both from the civil service and from the actors of public enterprise.

But Rowling, who has worked for Amnesty International, takes care to update this model by integrating into her books a novel element, one more characteristic of the worries of an antiglobalist conscience than a neoliberal one. Consequently, the moral preoccupations of her work focus not only on the battle against “the forces of evil”, but (increasingly throughout the series) maintain a concern for the “rejects of the magical world, humble and oppressed”, who are the “house-elves”. Since the day that she discovered these poor creatures, clad in rags, hard at work in the kitchen and the household without rest or pay, Hermione (who, according to Rowling, is a semi-autobiographical character) has not ceased to criticize the wizarding world’s indifference regarding the exploitation of these beings: she fights nearly obsessively for their liberation, running up against the general indifference of wizards, as well as the refusal of the house-elves themselves, who are proud of their enslavement.

The attitude of the house-elves, incomprehensible and unrealistic if they are viewed as colonial-style slaves, becomes more understandable if one were to place it in the context of the contemporary world economy: J. K. Rowling would then be making a personal, though quite relevant, commentary on globalization, where poor countries are so attracted to the system which exploits them that they cannot conceive of revolution.

However, the house-elves, the oppressed victims of capitalist society, take on a central role: in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dobby, the elf who is humiliated and exploited by the aristocratic Malfoys, is able to ruin the plans of his master, Lucius Malfoy, an ally of the conquered dictator Voldemort ; and, in the most recent book of the series, Kreacher, the elf of the Black family, scorned by his master Sirius Black, plays a key role in the trickery which brings about the death of Sirius, whom he hated. When Harry expresses indignation at Kreattur’s happiness at Sirius’s death, Dumbledore responds, “Indifference and negligence may do more harm than open hostility. We wizards have for too long mistreated those who are close to us, and now we are reaping what we have sown.”

Far from glorifying neoliberalism, the Harry Potter series may be read as a warning to prevent the danger we face because of our indifference in the face of the tragic living conditions of the poor of our planet.

So, is Harry Potter the manual for the perfect capitalist? That remains to be proven.
par Isabelle Smadja

Posted by Susan at July 22, 2004 03:00 PM

I've never really known what to make of these articles: to what extent do their authors intend that we take them seriously? Do the original French articles have a serious or a light-hearted tone? I find the articles amusing to read, but it pains me that someone might take them seriously. (As a grown-up Harry Potter fan, I don't want people to think that I consider these articles profound musings on politics!)

If anyone was really inspired by Smadja's article, here's a translation of a longer Potter-related piece she wrote for Le Monde Diplomatique:


Given its subtitle, I assume that this article is a shorter version of Smadja's book, which Susan mentioned above. Somehow I don't plan to read Smadja's book (in the unlikely event that someone translates it, that is); the analysis here isn't exactly the sharpest.

Posted by: Ed at July 22, 2004 05:16 PM

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