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JK Rowling and the Libertarian Sub-Text

Thanks to a recent Instapundit link, I found my way to an essay by Benjamin H. Barton, entitled Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy, which deserves to be linked to for its title alone. It is about the decidedly libertarian and not very sub anti-government-bureaucracy sub-text that Barton finds in the Harry Potter books generally, and in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in particular.

The truly surprising aspect of The Half-Blood Prince is how effortlessly Rowling covers the questions of the nature, role and legitimacy of government in what is ostensibly a work of children’s literature. I must admit that when I sat down to reread the Harry Potter books in light of The Half-Blood Prince I did not expect to find the overwhelming skepticism of government that seeps through Rowling’s work.

Barton’s argument is that Rowling presents the Ministry of Magic as a classic Public Choice Theory bureaucracy, staffed by selfish power-seekers rather than by selfless servants of the public good. Barton further suggests that Rowling’s own experiences as a welfare-recipient might have radically lowered her opinion of state welfare as an actual purveyor of welfare.

I read the first Harry Potter book a long time ago but have read none of the subsequent Potter books, so I have no independent opinion about how right or wrong Barton is about these books, and in particular about The Half-Blood Prince, which I have in particular not read. Comments from libertarians who have read all the Harry Potter books would be especially welcome.

One of the big reasons why I have not read more than one of the Harry Potter books, aside from the fact of me now being a childless old man, is that there are so many other books that I want to read. However, I have long suspected that JK Rowling, while not exactly an overt libertarian, might well be some kind of quasi-libertarian useful not-idiot, so to speak. One of the many items on my current to-read list is Rowling’s own (non-children’s) novel, entitled The Casual Vacancy, which I already possess and which I did make a start on earlier this year, before other reading intervened. This seems to be a story about the interaction of politics with the welfare system, about the people who do the politics and who have the welfare done to them and about how these two groups interact.

If I had to guess, I’d guess that Rowling is one of those people whose understanding of state socialism is that it tends not to supply “socialism” of the sort she would like, rather than as any kind of root-and-branch opponent of state socialism as such. Which is a good start. Socialism is, among other things, a huge and hugely false promise. Realising that it comprehensively fails to achieve even its own declared objectives – never mind any other worthwhile objectives – is a huge step in the right direction.

But that is an ignorant guess, and I now definitely intend to finish reading The Casual Vacancy, and then maybe also Rowling’s new detective novel. She wrote this detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under an assumed name, but was then outed, surprise surprise. The name that Rowling the detective novelist has assumed is: “Robert Galbraith”. This name was, as I have just learned by following the above link, “partly inspired” by the name of Robert F. Kennedy. This would suggest to me – summarising ruthlessly, as befits my ignorance of the matter – a lady who mostly wants government to do better rather than one who mostly wants government to do less.

97 comments to JK Rowling and the Libertarian Sub-Text

  • Mr Ed

    The author of that series is a well-known Labour donor.

    Where is the libertarian sub-text of giving £1,000,000 to the Labour Party?

  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was nominated for the Prometheus Award for best libertarian science fiction/fantasy novel of the year, which got me to read it, and then the rest of the series. I decided not to vote for it, though, when the conclusion was not the abolition of the Ministry of Magic, or the drastic reform of the magical legal system to provide things like due process, but simply the replacement of the Minister of Magic. What matters if you want actual change is not to change the personnel but to change the institutional structure; “everything will be all right if the right man is in charge” is at best a delusion and often an outright denial of libertarian concerns. Tolkien’s line about casting Sauron down and putting no one in his place is a lot closer to the libertarian spirit.

    There are some subtexts in OOTP and the other later books that libertarians will find sympathetic, such as the Hogwarts kids secretly meeting to train in battle magic, or Harry’s abuse at the hands of a Ministry of Magic bureaucrat. But I don’t think Rowling’s prescription is as good as her diagnosis.

  • I have to concur with William H. Stoddard here. Still, the diagnosis, as it were, is hugely satisfying for someone who distrusts and outright dislikes authority. Love the series.

  • …and Brian, I think that your guess is a good one.

  • Richard

    I’d love to believe that JKR is a Libertarian. Harry is oppressed on all sides including an oppressive aggressive manipulated Ministry of Magic. Absent any personal knowledge of JKR, I take the position that this is a plot line technique. The greater the oppression and opponent, the greater the victory. The Ministry of Magic is bumbling, awkward and manipulated. (Aren’t they all.) In the end the Minister realizes that he has been duped. At this point the Ministry of Magic is a story line non-entity. The battle is won by Harry, his classmates, teachers and friends. The Ministry is not present in the final battle. If we take the position that JKR was Libertarian with an anti-government viewpoint, we might have expected that the Ministry to be restructured and re-purposed as one of the story line footnotes. That didn’t happen. The Ministry may well be modeled after government bureaucracy’s but that is as far as I go.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Maybe I’m being unfair, but I always viewed Rowling as yet another middle class child of privilege who views herself as a hero of the socialist class war. I read one article where she seemed to think her time as a single mum sipping coffee in some of Edinburgh’s swankier coffee bars while writing her first novel somehow qualifies her to comment on the empowerment of women and poverty.

  • Andrew Pearson

    It’s worth observing that changing the Minister for Magic does not greatly improve things. The replacement of Minister Fudge with Minister Scrimgeour represents a move from “Deny that there is a mass-murdering terrorist about and brand any opponent of this view a lunatic,” to “Accept there is a mass-murdering terrorist about; warn people, and then spend all of your time investigating bequests and recruiting celebrities for publicity.” When the Ministry is taken over, it does far more to serve Voldemort than it ever did against him. Suggesting that Rowling diagnoses a problem of “bad government” and then suggests it can be improved by putting in new governors is rather unfair.

    PS Wasn’t her psuedonym for The Cuckoo’s Calling Robert Galbraith, rather than Robert F Cumming?

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Andrew Pearson

    Thanks for the comment, and thanks in particular for pointing out that “Robert F Cumming” blunder, now corrected. Total brain breakdown. Don’t know where that came from. I cannot now work out what the hell I was thinking. Advancing years and all that. Thank goodness for sympathetic commenters, and for the fact that Samizdata is retro-editable rather than a printed organ.

    But “Galbraith” only makes me think all the more than this is no regular libertarian we are talking about.

  • Mr Ed

    Douglas Adams (RIP) HItchhiker’s Guide series is truly libertarian, the whole absurdity of the President of the Universe, the Man in the Shed making government decisions and the pointlessly aggressive Krikkit Wars (a dig at British Imperialism?), activist Galactic Judges confiscating lives before going off to play Ultragolf, Prak, the man who told the truth after being forcibly injected in Court with a truth drug, but he got an overdose and had to be shut away from all comers for ever for fear of the truth being known, (i.e. a libertarian).

    I’d even imagine that one commentator here on Samizdata bears a striking resemblance to Marvin, no names, no pack drill.

    To even mention the Labour donor and Tolkien in the same post is literary blasphemy (which is fine, but really).

  • Steve D

    I read about halfway through the first Harry Potter book, put it down and never picked it up again. There was nothing original about it; just the same old fantasy/sci fi themes that I had read many times in my youth, recycled anew for the twenty first century.

  • TomJ

    The other point the final book makes is if you give a Ministry sweeping powers even for the noblest of reasons, it becomes a target for takeover by those of ill-will who covet said powers.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    HG’s Marvin is, of course, Eeyore.

    Another libertarian-ish take on government is that of Ankh-Morpork, which is very close to Heinlein’s ‘constitutional tyranny’. Pratchett being a very British writer, the constitution is unwritten but very much there.

  • Stuck-Record

    Rowling is a true blood socialist.

    But, it is obvious from the scenarios in her books that she is capable of the usual doublethink of the affluent modern left. She’s capable of raging against the ineptitude and institutional corruption of standing bureaucracy whilst at the same time giving huge amounts of money to ensure that it survives. The assumption is that because her (and her kind’s) intentions are noble, the results will be.

    Rather like my leftist friend who recently took a break from his usual Facebook rants about how the evil Tories are privatising the NHS, to relate the appalling treatment a beloved relative of his had received in a NHS hospital. “Why,” he asked, “couldn’t the hospital in question be run more like a business? Her treatment would never have happened to a customer”. And then, a few days later, went back to railing against privatisation.

    Interestingly, the Harry Potter books are crystal clear about the failures of institutions and bureaucracies to deal with problems. It’s always individuals acting either selflessly or in their own interests who get things done.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I thought Krikkit was a dig at the Japanese.

  • Mr Ed

    Patrick, it certainly could have been, the approach was certainly similar, but there was a significant interval (building time?) between the Meiji Restoration and the Imperial insanity, unlike in Krikkit, and it was the cloudy sky of Krikkit that made me think it was a reference to the UK.

    SR, I suspect that the double-think is rationalised by socialists thinking ‘If I was in charge, it would all be better’ or that they would only need to appoint the ‘right’ people, rather than the reactionaries/saboteurs/lackeys in place, for milk and honey to flow etc.

  • GoneWithTheWind

    But it IS so easy. Government CAN do better by doing less. Imagine how good life would be if we cut government in half tomorrow.

  • Mary Contrary

    @Mr Ed, @Stuck Record, in particular. I can’t help thinking of the perennial argument about whether a book (or any work of art) should be understood in its own right, in the appreciation of the audience, or whether it needs to be understood in the context of the author. My view on this is that the author’s viewpoint is interesting if the work is ambiguous (mainly because you can’t be sure that your own reading is the same reading other readers are having), or if you read one book by the author and are wondering whether to read more, but that fundamentally, a book carries the message it carries, even if that is surprising, or even (on the part of the author) an out-and-out mistake.

    I rather like Brian’s take on JKR as a “useful not-idiot”. Clearly, JKR can’t actually be a conscious, avowed, self-defining libertarian and be donating big bucks to the Labour Party. But on the other hand, how many people who imbibed the Ministry of Magic with their mother’s milk would grow up thinking donating big bucks to the Labour Party was a smart thing to do?

    I’m with Brian on this: HP is a huge step in the right direction. We can work on the rest.

    Mary.

    P.S. Following the same Instanpundit link, see commentary on The Hunger Games. Unlike HP, Hunger Games is a direct rage against The System, much more so than Harry Potter. When it culminates in what is supposed to be fundamental change, but actually looks uncomfortably close to merely changing the personnel at the top, the resulting denoument is uncomfortable.

    I wonder how popular The Hunger Games is in Egypt right now…

  • Gene

    To play Devil’s Advocate, might I suggest that JKR’s Labor Party donations might also be understood as “protection money”?

  • Mr Ed

    Gene, your client needs a new attorney. Pure conviction.

  • Antoine Clarke

    The money given to the Labour Party?
    Easy to explain. The Tory Party was stupid, incompetent, corrupt, and to someone like JK Rowling’s eyes, full of smug gits who think they’re better than the rest of us.

    At the time, the Labour Party’s credentials to be as bad or worse, were not clearly established.

    In fact I recall the Tories opposing the cut of income tax to 10%, opposing the independence of the Bank of England and trying to stop the lowering of the age of consent for homosexuals from 21 years (ironic given a number of Tories who would no longer be breaking the law).

  • Mr Ed

    Antoine

    full of smug gits who think they’re better than the rest of us.

    Ought that not to be the epitaph of the Labour Party?

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Back in November 2001, I saw enough of a libertarian subtext in Harry Potter to write a piece called Harry Potter and the Libertarian Subtext. It’s also interesting to scroll up and down my blog for that month and find, among other relevant comment, John Weidner’s reply:

    On the downside, Harry Potter is suffused (probably quite unconsciously) with the disastrous British idea that the very best students should expect to slide into a career in government, while only goof-offs like the Weasley twins will become inventors and entrepreneurs.

    In response to that, I said, and still say:

    A just point, but in response I observe that the Ministry of Magic does not get that good a press in the later books. And the entrepreneurial Weasley twins are portrayed as much more cool than big brother Percy the wannabe civil servant. OK, OK, so I don’t really know anything about Ms Rowling’s political beliefs. But a rather interesting and subtle point that occurs to me is that even non-libertarians see a unregulated world as much more natural than a regulated one. Perhaps this is merely a reflection that for most of our history we were far less coddled.

    JK Rowling is more libertarian than she knows, like a lot of people.

    Her plots delight, her characters live, but her world is made of cardboard; pieces of cardboard from all sorts of previous owners. Sometimes it can even be a strength that she is not much cop at original world building. It means some elements of her world come straight from her subconscious, or from observation of what we are pleased to call the real world, unfiltered by her official political beliefs.

  • Stuck-Record

    Mary Contrary

    Couldn’t agree more about The Hunger Games.

    When the standard trope to ‘educate’ the young is: “What do want? More Govt interference. When do we want it? Now!”, it’s a pleasure to see THGs denunciation of the ‘rebel’ leadership, and the unflattering portrayal of their communistic ideology.

    Check out the Philip Reeve ‘Mortal Engines’ series for it’s pretty even-handed portrayals of predatory capitalism and environmental terrorists (‘The Green Storm’).

  • Laird

    Along with Alisa, I concur with William H. Stoddard’s views. (And I loved the series, too. Read them all.)

  • Snorri Godhi

    Let’s leave aside JKR’s politics (although i note that it looks insane to me) and discuss the Harry Potter canon on its intrinsic merit.

    The most important book in the HP canon, in my arrogant opinion, is not The Half-Blood Prince but The Order of the Phoenix. In fact, i submit that it’s the most important pro-liberty novel ever written, jointly with Animal Farm. The rationale is that they are the only novels that i know of, which give a realistic story about the rise of tyranny.

    In fact, The Order of the Phoenix is more important than Animal Farm, for us living in relatively free societies, because in Animal Farm the new tyranny replaces an old tyranny: in Order of the Phoenix, the new tyranny replaces an undemocratic, but relatively free system.
    When i saw the movie, i could not help feeling uncomfortable at the similarities with modern western societies (especially JKR’s native Britain), and that is why i started reading the books.
    I was amazed to find out on wikipedia that JKR is a Labour supporter: if she had supported either the UKIP or the BNP, i would have been much less surprised.

  • Lee Moore

    Is this any more complicated than the effect of perspective ? The normal political position of any human being is to be in favour of the maximum amount of liberty, when considering oneself and perhaps ones friends, but to be in favour of the government clamping down on other people’s excesses. Consequently when considered in relation to “ME”, the government is a horrible bullying disaster constantly interfering where it shouldn’t, and messing things up. Considered in relation to “OTHER PEOPLE”, the government is not doing nearly enough to control their horrible behaviour and to make then act in a manner that benefits the community.

    Flipping between these perspectives is very easy, for a normal person. It’s only lonely old sad-socks tapping away on obsessive websites that spend hours and hours each day worrying about things like consistency. Though JK may have spent many hours tapping away at her computer, she is nevertheless revealed as utterly normal.

  • JKR’s problem is clearly with individuals, not institutions. No one appears to object to the Ministry of Magic per se, despite it being powerful, authoritarian, and unaccountable. Hermione even has an ambition to become an Auror, a member of the Ministries secret police.

  • Mr Ed

    Cats, that is the old socialist delusion, the-self-as-divine, able to plan when others cannot, or approve of the anointed one so doing, ‘If I were in charge, then…’. To realise that they cannot plan is to deflate the ego, remove a source of righteousness and resentment, to drain dreams of dictating, no wonder they hate us when they hear what we say.

    It seems to me that almost all people are impervious to reason, and simply reject matters that contradict their own prejudices, often shutting away the truth and resenting it and the messenger too.

    I’ve not read any of these books, I heard Mr Marks lament the writing, the author told the reader that so-and-so, an old relative of the central character, was boring, but ought to have shown that in writing, rather than simply saying it.

    Mind you, I heard one writer on BBC Radio 4 who grappled for the first time with the Hobbit (unsuccessfully), say “He had a pretty limited vocabulary, our friend Tolkien“. A more fatuous assertion I cannot recall.

  • Mr Ed:

    I’m reminded of the observation I saw lately that Communist Party members who were sent to the GULAG in the 1930s often said that if only Comrade Stalin knew what things were like in the GULAG changes would be made.

  • GC

    Libertarian subtext my backside.

    http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/morleyd/entry/jk_rowling_the/

    “I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

    Child poverty remains a shameful problem in this country, but it will never be solved by throwing millions of pounds of tax breaks at couples who have no children at all.”

    Yep, keeping your own money is greedy. Living off other people’s money is okay.

    JK Rowling: Socialist to the core.

  • GC:

    Now I think that’s an improper conclusion. The opinions of the author do not necessarily represent the theme or thesis of their work. An author may make a libertarian point—or a Christian one, or a socialist one, or a Buddhist one—without realizing that they are doing so. Judging a work by the author’s statements outside their work is a kind of aesthetic ad hominem. In the long run, the work’s substance matters more than the author’s opinions.

    On the other hand, the substance of the Harry Potter books does not appear to me to be all that libertarian.

  • Paul Marks

    Well there is more evidence in the work for pro liberty ideas than there is in the “Hunger Games” (which pro liberty people have grabbed at – when it is, in fact, just standard Hollywood “down with the rich” stuff).

    However, it should be remembered that the creator of “Harry Potter” is a major Labour Party donor. And Antoine’s attack on the Conservatives is not a justification for giving money to the Labour party.

    AKR gave money to the Labour party because the lady supported the policy of more money for government education and childcare.

    People who understood the Labour party never had any illusions what Mr Blair and Mr Brown would bring.

    It is much the same in Germany now – the new SPD government (the SPD lost the election by a landslide – but dominates policy now) will mean higher government spending and more regulations (minimum wage law and so on).

    Higher unemployment and economic decline will be the result – regardless of any magic spells (credit expansion).

    Perhaps that is the point of Harry Potter – one can have more lending than real savings……..

    As long as one believes in magic.

  • Watchman

    I think the subtext may be wrong here – as with many Middle-class people, Ms Rowling considers herself a socialist and therefore tribally supports the socialist party. Her literature allows her to explore various themes, which include the corruption of power (and the inadequacy of public services – note that there seems to be no magical social security or health service, beyond a hospital whose relationship with the Ministry seems to be similiar to that of Hogwarts – not directly controlled). In the literature the problems are identified and a resolution of types made (although we do not know who the new Minister is…).

    In some ways this is very similiar to another favourite writer of those opposed to state control, George Orwell, a man who managed to see the evils of communism without seeing that his beloved socialism did the same thing in a less agressive way. I suggest the problem here is that we assume that a writer has full control of their story and uses it to reflect their views, when in fact a story (and how it is read – the writer does not, contrary to lots of socialists who will tell you you have read it wrong) is something different from the writers’ own beliefs. To produce a good book you have to do something other than just state your views – anyone who has tried to read the rather poor prose of Ayn Rand will tell you that… And a good story will develop – I doubt JK Rowling started out with the aim of making the Ministry a source of evil (I do not really see it as such until the third book – when they are locking up a man fixed-up by a bad guy, and it turns out their guards are potentially evil themselves – none of which need be in the original vision). So whether the libetarian views of the later books are simply a narrative turn forced by the development of the plot (or even just a result of teenage rebellion – the characters and the books do grow up together) or not, we cannot assume any obvious connection with the writer.

    I am assuming there is no subtext in this post here of wanting a figure Liberatarianism can refer to – as opposed to left-wing views, Libertarians seem to normally manage to avoid investing value in a figure head, which at least avoids the sort of logical knots a lot of people got themselves in defending Roman Polanski or Julian Assange. I am not even sure we need ‘libetarian’ literature – just the ability for people to read literature according to their own interpretations without having approved understandings forced on them…

  • Alsadius

    A few notes:
    1) One of the main heroes is a combination school administrator and parliamentary speaker, and most of the kids wind up in government jobs after the end of the series. Just because the bad guys take over the bureaucracy doesn’t mean it’s all bad in her fiction.
    2) That said, she doesn’t exactly have a lively confidence in the bureaucracy. Even before the bad guys take over, there’s still plenty of stupidity and malice to go around.
    3) Only really the first 2 novels can really be called “children’s”, it ramps up the adultiness pretty fast.
    4) JKR is still a socialist of one sort or another, but hopefully her works inspire others not to be.

  • Jake Haye

    Could it be that the anti-authority theme of the novels is nothing more than a cynical (and successful) attempt to snag lucrative Hollywood film deals?

    AFAIK leftists/socialists (ludicrously) see themselves as anti-authority and anti-hierarchy and see ‘the right’ as in favour of those things, being the evil Nazis that they are etc. They inhabit a mental universe in which everything bad is the willful creation of evil people, including the law of supply & demand.

  • GC

    “To produce a good book you have to do something other than just state your views – anyone who has tried to read the rather poor prose of Ayn Rand will tell you that…”

    Sorry, your tastes are the polar opposite of mine. The last three Potter books are like bad D+D novelisations.

  • Mr Ed

    I tried to read some Rand, but gave up when I read a gratuitous rant about clocks on buildings being altruistic and therefore wrong. An utterly totalitarian mindset, the mirror of what she fled, but too deep in the well to see the light shining back at her was from the pool of blood the Bolsheviks spilt at the bottom of the well, not the sky above.

  • Mr Ed:

    I can’t imagine where you can have seen that; I’m sure it wasn’t in any of the novels. There is a bit about clocks on public towers in Atlas Shrugged, but Rand makes no suggestion that there is anything wrong with them; rather, she shows a calendar on top of a public tower, reading off the date as clocks read off the time. There is a single line about the Mayor having wanted citizens to be able to look up and know the date, which sort of suggests that Rand is treating the tower as an example of a boondoggle, but there are no speeches about it, and certainly no mention of altruism. The clock makes Eddie Willers think of the phrase “Your days are numbered,” and in the rest of the novel the tower is used to remind the reader of the progress of time, and then there is the big payoff when instead of the date, it displays a message from Francisco d’Anconia—but that’s no longer than a tweet. Certainly there are long speeches in the novel(s), but not there or about that.

  • Paul, have you read any of the HP books or watched any of the HG movies?

    As the thread progresses, I find the comments increasingly interesting, and for now Watchman’s is my favorite. I would add to his comment the possibility that writers are human and can and do change – for better or worse. This may well have happened to JKR as her stories may have literally taken her to places she had not expected. Or I may be too optimistic. Regardless, the series is one of the most anti-statist pieces of literature I’ve read, when taken on their own – and that is how art and literature should be taken, IMO.

    I am not even sure we need ‘libertarian’ literature – just the ability for people to read literature according to their own interpretations without having approved understandings forced on them…

    I am sure we don’t.

  • Mr Ed

    William, it must have been in AS, I shall endeavour to find it, but I can’t promise to hurry. I find most literature tedious, I prefer to read encyclopaedias etc. and I like reality.

    For all the searching for a libertarian canon of literature, the State grows ever larger towards doom. There is no Prester John beyond the Seas waiting for the call or chance to help the civilised people, just us, and those with the decency to listen, understand and care.

  • But some of us do enjoy literature, and some of us enjoy it even more when it is not leftist tripe.

  • TheRoyalFamily

    I don’t think it’s anything libertarian, intentional or not. Rowling is a True Believer socialist; however, unlike many of those, she actually had to deal with some of the realities that come from that belief, when she was on the dole and had to deal with the bureaucracy. She still holds her beliefs, it seems, but is rather cynical about it. Looks to me like that cynicism is what comes through in the HP books; that’s not libertarianism, but it’s a start, I suppose.

  • Laird

    Paul, have you actually read the Hunger Games series? (Not merely relied on the movies?) I can’t believe so, for if you had you would know that they are distinctly anti-authoritarian and not at all “standard down with the rich stuff”. Of course, they are not really libertarian either, but they are certainly freedom-oriented.

    Mr. Ed, I agree with WHS that there is nothing remotely like what you describe about a clock tower in Atlas Shrugged. It’s possible that there was something along those lines in The Fountainhead; it’s been much longer since I read that book and so my memory is a little hazy. But I have no recollection of it there, either. I would have suggested that it might have been in one of her nonfiction works on philosophy but I doubt that you have read any of those. I think you’re simply misremembering, or projecting your biases. And as to your comment that Rand displays an “utterly totalitarian mindset”, that’s simply bizarre. She is the polar opposite of totalitarian. How you can think that, or for that matter think that your comment has any merit whatsoever when you admittedly have read almost none of her writings, utterly mystifies me.

  • Mr Ed

    Laird you do not understand the word ‘totalitarian’. As in ‘being obsessed with the totality of life’ just as in the democratic UK, the government promotes ‘5-a-day’ consumption of fruit and veg, and seeks to intrude in virtually all aspects of life, and promotes its ‘Public Sector Equality Duty’ and strives to meet ‘Carbon targets’ etc. Rand was similarly obsessive, as her various absurd spats showed.

  • GC

    “An utterly totalitarian mindset, the mirror of what she fled, but too deep in the well to see the light shining back at her was from the pool of blood the Bolsheviks spilt at the bottom of the well, not the sky above.”

    ^”Totalitarian” here is being used in the conventional, political sense (which is invariably bad).

    “Laird you do not understand the word ‘totalitarian’. As in ‘being obsessed with the totality of life’”

    ^Here, it’s being used in an entirely unconventional sense as a synonym for “obsessive” (which is only bad in certain contexts).

    Dishonesty and equivocation for the win.

  • Mr Ed

    GC Zzzzzzz an obsessive is someone concerned personally with a matter, e.g. an obsessive who took an all-consuming interest in the First World War, or beetles.

    A totalitarian is one who regards it as vital that others share their obsessions, i.e. a politicised view of life and seeks to push that on others that view on others. the vital (literally) difference with Rand was that her response to those who rejected her views was scorn, not violence.

  • Paul Marks

    Alisa.

    I watched quite a bit of a Harry Potter film only last night (I have never seen a Harry Potter film all through from start to finish).

    I do not see anything political in the works. This is high praise – as normally films (and so on) are leftist propaganda.

    I know of no point in the work where “the rich are to blame” or “the government must do something” is the theme.

    So good – as far as it goes.

    The opening of the first Harry Potter book put me off.

    Perhaps I should try reading a latter book in the series – not the first book.

  • Paul Marks

    Laird – the political opinions of the writer of the Hunger Games books are hardly a secret (it is easy to find them out).

    And the “down with the rich” theme is obvious – even down to the absurd wigs (a not-so-subtle dig at pre Revolutionary France). However, if there is part of the story where it is said “if only large scale private farming and big corporations owning transport and distribution were allowed, things would be better” then I will stand corrected.

    As for “freedom” – socialists always say they believe in freedom, they use such concepts endlessly. The only time that leftists played this down was during the “Mass Hero” period in socialist art – where it was thought an individual hero (such as the young lady in the Hunger Games) was an anti socialist concept. Even Joe Stalin (a realist at times) thought the concept of the “mass hero” was silly – and his faithful servants in Hollywood (who took their line from a certain husband and wife team – the husband a detective story novelist, the wife a movie person) soon dropped it.

    So YES – an individual hero, fighting for freedom. As long as freedom means ………

    Although, yes, it is often not as obvious as the last Matt Damon film (off into space – to loot the evil rich) – that film was so clearly evil that I actually welcomed it. I welcomed it because I did not have to argue with people about it – it might as well have had the “hero” chanting “Hail Satan” at the start and end of the film.

    I am reminded of the a certain libertarian who told me that Tom Hanks (in reality a Red – who funds Al Franken and so on) was a libertarian – on the basis of certain films.

    The films had no libertarian message in them – but the person speaking to me so desperately wanted to see one, that he imposed one on the screen (at least in his own eyes).

    The golden rule is as follows.

    Does the film (or novel or…..) defend “the rich” against the demands of “the poor”.

    No?

    Well drop the idea that the film (or novel or….)is going to be of any political use.

    “But when one considers the Corporate Welfare and special privilege angle….”

    Oh fiddlesticks – people hate the rich because they are rich (the rest is just an excuse). John Adams noted this – i.e. even if there were no special policies favouring certain people at all, the demands for “distribution” would be just as hard.

    But just because a work of art is of no political use does NOT mean it is without artistic merit.

    Political use and artistic merit are NOT the same thing.

    For example, vast numbers of children find the Harry Potter books entertaining – they can not all be wrong.

    But that does not mean (and does not need to mean) that they will grow up any less likely to vote for the forces of forced “compassion”.

    “But we can explain that our policies are really for the benefit of the poor so……..”

    I am poor – and even I regard that as a pathetic dodge. Might as well “share out” everything now (if the pass is going to sold so blatantly – on the level of principle).

    Once an argument is based on consequences “let us tolerate the rich – because to do so is if for the benefit of the poor” then the argument is LOST (because “the benefit of the poor” has been assumed to trump everything else).

    Either someone has a right to their stuff or they do not.

    If it is “as long as it benefits other people….” – then we are in vomit-fest land.

    Let some art be apolitical – not everything has to have a political message (good or bad), just let it alone.

  • Paul Marks

    Short version.

    When someone tells me that a work of art (a novel, a film – whatever) has a useful political message, I have one question.

    “Does it defend the rich (owners of large scale property in the means of production or distribution) against demands made in the name of the poor?” Forget words like “freedom” (everyone uses words like that) I want to hear words such as “property” (and large scale property – anyone can do the “family farm” tap dance, I would like to see a film that defended the big rancher against the “homesteaders” who turn cattle country into a desert and then demand even more government subsidies).

    If the answer is “no” – then it is not of political use (at least not of good political use) in the present situation (which is dominated by endless attacks on “the rich”, and “the corporations”).

    Although it may still have great artistic merits.

    Art and politics being different things.

  • Paul, the discussion is about the HP books, not films (the latter are mere fluff for the fans of the book or just for fans of the fantasy film genre). You should read the entire series to understand the evolution through which the characters and the fictional world they occupy (and possibly the author herself) are going.

    On HG, I have not read the books and thought that the comments here were made about the films. Unlike you with HP though, I have watched both HG films, and the impression I got so far is very similar to the one Laird got from the books – namely, that the HG series is even more anti-statist than the HP series.

  • Paul Marks

    The clockface may be what Ed means Laird.

    Ed misses the point that the clock face being cracked, not that everyone could see it, was what Rand was pointing to.

    Indeed most people clearly could not “see” the clockface – not really.

    I know the feeling – everything is falling apart (quite publically) and most people do not “see” it – they just continue to max out on their credit cards (on “toys” as Mark Steyn put it) expecting everyone the state to pay for all the basics of life.

    It is not just a metaphor.

    The Wicksteed Charitable Trust altruistically provides an physical clock tower.

    The three faces of the clock do not tell the time – they have been stuck for years.

    But so what? The altruism trumps the fact that the time is wrong.

    The face of the clock is cracked – the decay is obvious, to those prepared to see it……..

    To those for whom objective reality actually matters.

    Such people tend to be hated.

    For example Rand Paul pointed out that, under the budget deal, government spending would be higher next year than if Congress had done nothing – and had just let the sequester (with its tiny cuts) continue to run.

    Even the Wall Street Journal “free market” people did not like Rand Paul for pointing this out.

    On the contrary – on the “Journal Editorial Report” (which I watched) the disdain for Rand Paul (on this matter) was obvious.

    One must not point out that the face of the clock tower is cracked.

    At least not if it is a “bipartisan” clock town – organised for the public good of “getting a deal”.

  • Paul Marks

    Well Alisa – the Hobbit films are different from the book (they have plot holes that the book does not have – which surprised me as I thought the advantage of making a film of something was that one could remove plot holes – not add new ones). Still some of the changes are for the better – the female character is interesting. Tolkien admitted that he often “underwrote” female characters – and in The Hobbit (book) there are none at all (which even as a young boy struck me as a bit odd).

    Good films (if overdone – Mr Peter Jackson seems to have never heard that “less is more”), but not the same The Hobbit.. Perhaps the Harry Potter books are better than the films.

    But I have tried to read the first Harry Potter book.

  • Paul, you may recall about a year ago or so me having an argument with others here (including Laird in particular) about the merits or lack thereof of Ayn Rand as a philosopher and as a fiction writer. I then made the point that, although I have great respect for Rand’s opinions, I have some serious reservations as well. That, having not read her books, but rather having read no small amount of analysis for and against. Later on in that discussion Laird had me agree to read a few pages of AS, just to see if I may like it purely on its literary merits. Sadly, I was forced to put the thing away after just a couple of pages, as I found her prose simply awful. My opinions on her ideas and worldview have not changed though, and I find Mr. Ed’s comments echoing them in no small measure.

    I guess all I’m trying to say here, is that we should at least try and refrain from expressing opinions on things we have not read or seen for ourselves:-P

    On HP, the first two books are really silly but fun children’s fare. You do need to get through them though (or at least through some sort of decent plot summary) in order to understand the goings-on in the following books – which do get vastly better.

  • On HG, again: do yourself a favor and see the first two films. They are very, very good. I imagine that the books are even better though, and intend to read them some time in the future.

  • Laird

    Paul, a lot of words there, but they’re not sufficient to obscure the fact that you haven’t read the HG books. I would encourage you to observe the First Rule of Holes: when you’re in one, stop digging. Your criticisms are unfounded. Bluster is no substitute for knowledge.

  • GC

    “A totalitarian is one who regards it as vital that others share their obsessions,”

    Said no dictionary. Ever.

    Pro Tip: When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

  • Cats, I struggle to resist the urge to keep flogging the very dead horse:-)

  • Mr Ed

    GC, so what? What kind of derangement causes you to drone on like that attempting to pick holes in definitions, a dictionary is, by its very nature, a past record and is never complete.

  • Watchman

    Since totalitarians do not tolerate dissent, then their obsessions are clearly vital to them (see the current environmentalists for a prime case), so as a definition that does nicely.

  • Samizdata editors are god, and god has its own dictionary – QED.

  • Harry Potter, the character, is actually quite coherent and I know quite a lot of libertarian leaning former Tories who are eerily like him (sans the magic, though as a couple of said chums do some mean C++, so sometimes even with the magic).

    Which makes me suspect that JKR, who from her various utterances is a conventional tea-and-crumpets-leftie who may or may not be capable of seeing the contradictions and ironies of her world views, might not actually realise that her Harry would probably see the world very differently to her politically.

    I have been known to write a bit and sometimes characters take on characteristics that were not in the initial outline, almost as if the logic of the story has a mind of its own and take the characters places almost against your will as a writer. So not not assume just because Harry Potter is a rather plausible libertarian, that JKR is anything of the sort.

  • chris strange

    JK Rowling certainly isn’t a Libertarian, but her Harry Potter series do hit most of the Libertarian points. It isn’t just the fact that the state starts off as incompetent and ends up as flat out evil. It also manages to have two of the heros as entrepreneurs. It even manages to hit such things as using gold as money, the dangers of inflation, and everybody being armed.

  • GC

    “GC, so what? What kind of derangement causes you to drone on like that attempting to pick holes in definitions”

    Ed, Ed, Ed…

    You posted a silly, ill thought-out statement (which, incidentally, belongs right up there with “Ayn Rand worshipped a serial killer”) that you couldn’t back up except by trying to twist the definitions of your poor-chosen words far beyond their original meaning. You’re using “totalitarian” as a cuss-word, not as a description.

    It’s funny watching you continue to dig your own grave.

    But I’ll confess: I’m obsessed with the government spying on me, taking away my liberty and urinating over my rights. I’m obsessed about it with the same level of intensity as the “5-a-day” brigade is of making me eat “5-a-day”. If that makes me a totalitarian in your eyes (or anyone else’s for that matter), then so be it. It’s a badge I’ll wear with pride.

    Perry:

    The link I posted was most revealing. She’s a socialist alright, but she seems more of a statist of convenience than a card-carrying Labourite. I suspect she supported Labour because she imagined that their brand of statism was simply more convenient for her. What about everyone else? Screw ‘em. JKR doesn’t mind the presence of economic parasites in society because she went from being one herself to being in a position where their presence barely scratched her colossal bank account. I suspect that like most of her ilk, her range of empathy is extremely shallow and narrowly focused so she probably can’t understand why anyone would not want to give away their money unconditionally to the feckless, except out of “nastiness”. I suspect narcissism might come into play at some point, but I’m not a psychologist, so I’ll leave it there.

  • Julie near Chicago

    For the record, I loved The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and We the Living. I’ve read and re-read the first two, and still dip into them from time to time; but the earliest of the three, We the Living, I read only once–it was depressing, because it was so good at portraying the agonizing effects of the Bolshevik regime on the Russian people, and especially on those who were young and should have been full of hope.

    Of the three, I’ve always thought The Fountainhead was the best novel, judged strictly as fiction–in terms of depth of characterization and so forth. And that book is the novel I’d advise people to read first.

    There is an intensity and a sense of passion about Miss Rand’s fiction that I find gripping. And best of all, the books are story. For me they’re absolutely page-turners.

    (Anthem didn’t take me that way, but neither did what I consider its cousin in a way: Orwell’s Animal Farm.)

    If people follow Cats’ link above, they’ll see that I left a comment back in August in which I mention that somebody has observed that Atlas Shrugged is a distinctly Russian novel, not an American novel at all, and some American readers may be put off by that.

    In any case, for my money it’s wonderful in its imagery and its ability to engage the emotions of the reader. To quote from a review by critic Isabel Paterson, as nearly as I can recall: “[Ayn Rand] writes brilliantly, beautifully, bitterly.”

  • Julie:

    somebody has observed that Atlas Shrugged is a distinctly Russian novel

    That’s a very interesting point, since when I did try to read AS as I mentioned above, what struck me about the style was the sense that Rand was translating from Russian (I mean in her mind, unless it is known that she actually wrote it in Russian and then translated it into English – which I have never seen said anywhere). I have read many Russian novels, but none in English translation. I have seen some excerpts, though – from Dostoyevsky, most recently, and I was not happy with what I was reading. Maybe that was what put me off the book, then.

  • Watchman

    Just another thought – you can think you are writing about ‘freedom’ as defined by your own personal philosophy, and you can structure your writing around this, but without the ability to think through the filter of that philosophy that ‘freedom’ may be defined by others as their own ‘freedom’. So the struggles Ms Rowling chose to write about may mean something different to her than to us (and to each of us from the others if we drilled down).

    From my perspective this multiplicity of interpretations is one of the great things about any form of Art. Once released it cannot be owned (so allowing me to irritate many self-rightous idiots by enjoying and interpreting music from avowedly political bands with different views from mine…).

  • Julie: I’m glad to see someone else here who appreciates Ayn Rand’s fiction! Now I have to say if I were reduced to taking one novel with me, it would be The Lord of the Rings rather than any of Rand’s; but I find Rand’s writing worthwhile on several different levels.

    I’m surprised at the idea of Atlas Shrugged as a Russian novel, though. Of course, this is partly because I find it hard to get through Russian novels, which is not the case with Rand’s writing! I see Atlas Shrugged as an example of a very American literary form: The greatest pulp novel ever written. Think about it—it has the larger than life heroes, the dramatic plot focused on a mystery, the need for individual action in a world where the authorities cannot be trusted, the marvelous inventions, the secretive world-transforming plot that has to be uncovered. It even has the long speech by the master villain explaining and justifying his master plan—though Rand has done the plot twist where the heroes end up seriously having to decide whether they ought to side with the villain after all, decades before Alan Moore used it in Watchmen (another story that uses pulp conventions, though mediated through comics). Of course there are other aspects to Atlas Shrugged, including a rather sophisticated understanding of rent-seeking and other ideas of public choice theory.

    I take The Fountainhead to be in part a dramatization of Rand’s internal debate over loyalty to the ideas of Aristotle or of Nietzsche, as represented respectively by Howard Roark and Gail Wynand. Roark in particular is practically line for line Aristotle’s “great-souled man” in the Nicomachean Ethics; give it a look and see if the similarity doesn’t strike you. The last time I reread it I was also struck by the scene where Roark asks Wynand to step aside so Roark isn’t in his shade—it looked suspiciously like a classic anecdote about Diogenes and Alexander, and I wondered if Rand was making a little joke.

    In short, there’s a lot of substance in Rand, not always obvious. She was one of the great vulgarisateuses, putting serious philosophical matters into common language. See for example Francisco d’Anconia’s summarizing his old teacher’s ideas as “he taught that everything is something,” which is exactly Aristotle’s hylomorphism (the unity of matter and form).

  • In short, there’s a lot of substance in Rand, not always obvious.

    Just for the record, I was not talking about substance, but only form – as one is bound when discussing art, including literature. I have no doubt that Rand’s writing is rich in substance, and I very much regret that the form gets in the way, at least for me.

  • Alissa: Of course there’s really no arguing matters of personal taste. I personally enjoy Rand’s writing, and seemingly you don’t, and no argument would be likely to change either of those facts.

    I’m curious, though, about what I think is a distinct question. For me, at least, “Is this good” and “Is this to my personal taste” are independent questions. For example, I don’t think Eric Flint’s 1632/Ring of Fire series is well written, but I read each new volume with enjoyment as I encounter it; conversely, I respect Gene Wolfe as an intelligent man and an excellent writer, but I cannot take pleasure in any of his fiction. So do you find Rand a bad writer, as well as being not to your taste? or a good one who’s not to your taste? have you been unable to form an opinion because you can’t get through her writing? or do you think the distinction is invalid?

    I don’t want to start a debate on this, either, but I’m curious.

  • William, when it comes to matters of taste, including art, even when I say ‘this is bad’, I’m just being sloppy, and what I really mean is ‘this is not to my taste’.

    Rand’s case is a bit more complicated for me. As I said here earlier, we had a longish debate about this here a while ago. What I said then and what remains true is the following: over the years I came to understand Rand’s ideas without reading her books. I like them for the most part, although I do find some serious flaws in them as well. Also, having seen some taped interviews, I found that I didn’t really like Rand as a person all that much (again, not a bad person by any means, just not someone whom I found likable or interesting, someone with whom I would like to have a coffee or something). As the debate went on, others had me convinced to try and read AS. I thought that it was fair enough for me at least give it a go. I did, and could barely get through a couple of pages. Obviously, this says nothing objective (!) about Rand herself, or her philosophy or her merits as a fiction writer. All it says is only what I said here – all highly subjective, as it were:-)

  • Oh, and I forgot to put a finer point where it was due:

    “Is this good” and “Is this to my personal taste” are independent questions

    I could not disagree more:-)

  • Alissa: So there’s nothing of which you’d say, “I know it’s trash, but I like it”? I can think of all sorts of things that fall into that category for me, from the early Legion of Super-Heroes (I have the bound volumes DC comics issued a number of years back) to Abba’s “Fernando.” Or, for that matter, rolled tacos from my neighborhood fast-food taco shop. . . .

  • It would depend on how epistemologically precise I want or need to be. If I do want to be so precise, I’d say something like ‘I know most people think of it as trash, but I enjoy it’. Or I may say ‘It is trash in this or that regard, but I still enjoy this or that aspect of it’. If not, then I’d just say ‘it’s trash and I like it – got a problem with that?':-)

  • A good example would be that same HP series, about which I’d say something like ‘I know that the HP books are not the highest point of literary achievement, but they still have a gripping story, believable characters, lively language, and a spirit of defiance of authority that permeates the entire series – whether the author intended it to be so or not. Love it:-)’

  • Laird

    Alisa, I think William is correct: objective quality and personal taste are independent questions. For example, Joyce’s Ulysses is widely considered a literary classic, but I find it indecipherable gibberish and have never been able to get past the first page. So apparently it is considered “good” in some objective sense (which I lack) but it’s clearly not to my personal taste. Conversely, I love the schlocky grade-B science fiction movies of the 1950’s (“The Giant Claw“, anyone?) but by no stretch of the imagination could any of them be considered “good”. And as you know I like Rand’s writing, although most critics consider it prolix and tendentious. De gustibus non est disputandum.

  • Okay, well, just as there are books that are not the high point of literary achievement, but that I still enjoy (not that that really includes the Harry Potter series for me), there are books that I consider to attain high literary achievement, but don’t take any pleasure in and don’t want to read, or read again. There are authors whose past writing has impressed me that way so strongly that I am unlikely to read anything else by them: Gene Wolfe is in that domain for me, and Jack Vance is very close to it. Or, in music, most of Rush and all of Led Zeppelin.

  • Of course, it does go both ways. LZ rocks though:-P

  • Oh, and BTW: happy belated:-)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, Laird, all I can say is, Joyce’s Ulysses is a perfectly fine piece of literature to have on hand when you’re so potched you can barely focus, but need something to, ahem, read that makes you look intelleckshual. :>)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alissa, and everybody — have you seen this video of Ayn Rand being interviewed by Tom Snyder? From sometime during the Carter administration. It’s by far my favorite of the interviews I’ve seen, because she’s not on the defensive, and she radiates happiness once she settles in. I don’t agree with everything she says (of course! being me), but it’s such a pleasure to see someone, and especially Miss R., so openly and honestly in love with life. Go to the U-Tube place,

    .com/watch?v=cAFKnfN4bfk

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa, apologies. I do know how to spell your name! :( ;)

  • No problem, Julie, and thanks for the link – I’ll check it out:-)

  • Laird

    Julie, that really is a good interview. I hadn’t heard it before. Thanks for the link.

  • Watched some of it, and still found here terribly off-putting – sorry:-(

  • Richard Thomas

    “I find the Law of Fives to be more and more manifest the harder I look.”

  • Paul Marks

    Sorry to have been away from the thread for so long.

    Alisa reaction to Ayn Rand’s fiction writing sounds like mine towards the first couple of pages of Harry Potter. My own view of Rand’s writing is similar to that of Williams (and the interpretation also).

    Although even as a child I hated books that had children as the main characters (even in films watching Harry Potter square off in battle against a mature wizard simply seems silly and false to me), but I will give things another go (if I can get my reading mojo back – I seem to read bits of books now, rather than cover-to-cover as I used to).

    At the risk of harsh punishment……..

    You do know that your own voice sounds similar to the voice of Ayn Rand are you not?

    At least to an English ear it does. Still the trace of a Russian sound?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa, props* for giving it one more try! :)

    *I haven’t found anyone who can tell me how “props” appeared as slang for “kudos” or “a pat on the back” or “strokes.”

    Laird, glad you enjoyed it. ;)

    Paul, I have developed the same problem with reading “straight through,” and as you mentioned elsewhere, with concentration. So, “Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger!”

    . . .

    I enjoyed the HP movies, especially the first one and The Order of the Phoenix (I think it was). But I haven’t been able to read the books either. In a few weeks I hope to have another go at the first one.

    I did think Hermione was stellar in #1, and I was seriously considering marrying Weasley up through #6 or so; I thought their “romance” and eventual marriage completely unbelievable, because I sensed no “chemistry” between them whatsoever; I’ve always thought highly of Maggie Smith’s acting (WHY does she have to be another lefty–she always seems so sensible and down-to-earth!); but the lady who plays Dolores Umbrage (I think of her as Posey Pinks) gets the Gold Crown in my book for the best acting in the entire series. She was just plain naked evil in a way that the Malfoys and Valdemort himself couldn’t begin to approach.

    She was evil with a human face.

  • Never heard ‘props’ used in this way, Julie – live and learn:-)

    Yes, Paul, I’m aware of that – and you just had to rub it in, didn’t you. Oh well. we shall meet again…

  • Julie: I don’t believe the pairing of Ron and Hermione, either, but I’m even more bothered by Harry and Ginny, who seems to me to have no personality at all. On the other hand I’m not a fan of Harry and Hermione, who seem to be a lot of people’s One True Pairing. If I were going to match Harry up with anyone it would be Luna; their first meeting, where they have in common that both of them have had someone die, strikes me as a more convincing emotional bond. (Besides, Luna needs to marry someone who will give her a last name that doesn’t make her sound like an X-rated film star!) Harry and Hermione and Ron work for me, so far as they do, as an expression of friendship based on common purpose; making any two of them a romantic couple is lessening that.

    Though I did like the scene in one of the two final films where Harry and Hermione, camping out in the forest in winter, dance with each other, precisely because it wasn’t shown as an expression of sexual love.

  • Alisa,

    I must admit that I have been misspelling your given name because I looked at it and my brain substituted Ayn Rand’s birth name, “Alissa.” Are you perhaps of similar ancestry?

  • Yes, I am, William – only early on I began spelling my name with only one ‘s’, as a simple transliteration of its Russian spelling.

    friendship based on common purpose

    If only more people understood that to be the optimal basis for a stable and productive relationship. Even that JKR got right, either consciously or not.

  • Paul Marks

    Many thanks Julie.

    Alisa – you will have your revenge.

    Using my huge belly to take cover behind when the Islamists open fire……

    You may have the “ghost of Rand” in your voice – but you do not have the square jaw!

    I am told ladies do not like those.

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