The Hunger Games and the Deadly “Tribute” of Europe’s jobless youth.

Don’t you just hate it when a story you’ve being trying to tell – so misguidedly – from some erudite viewpoint, gets nailed a thousand times better by Hollywood’s populist blockbuster dream machine?

I got all riled up about explaining the real-time evils now being visited Europe’s current unlucky generation of jobless, debt-laden young people – and then along comes The Hunger Games. In just 90 minutes, the film version of the novel by US author Suzanne Collins (she co-wrote the script too) nailed the story absolutely. 1,000 times better than I did. And it had mythological story monsters, too.

Forget the youth demos by Spain’s Indignados, the anger at the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests, the battle of the “Haves and Have-nots” in the streets of Paris. The debt-saddled university students of Europe. The Hunger Games had it all. In spades.

Last month I was struggling to write about what’s known as “intergenerational equity” – the monumental scam whereby today’s largely unemployed, disempowered youth will be forced to pay their taxes to benefit the leisure plans, the elective plastic surgery and the globe-trotting retirement plans of the Baby Boomer generation.

The worthy-but-dull article I wrote was for a worthy-but-dull quarterly magazine on foreign affairs read by diplomats and patrician opinion-formers. I was trying to explain how, across Europe and beyond, today’s 24-year olds were being betrayed by a senior generation of Harley-Davidson driving, hip-replacement addicted elders and betters now sailing (aboard their Swan luxury yachts) into a glittering retirement that no one can expect to replicate for the next 100 years.

The Hunger Games articulates this inter-generation conflict not as some dull battle of pension funds or social “replacement theory” whereby trust and financial equity between old and young is eroded, but as a gladiatorial battle to the death. Young people are out there dying messily to provide prime time entertainment for the old!

The dystopian future presented in the movie shows how, when unemployment, rebellion and social strife have (in some unexplained offscreen past) exploded into civil war, somebody has to pay to restore stability. The principle of military service for the young is taken to its extreme as a “tribute” whereby the poor must atone for past treasons (presumably inflicted by their olders). The young and poor must pay with their own lives to sustain the lifestyles and moral dominance of the rich and old.

I just saw The Hunger Games and was blown away by the way that Appalachian, hardscrabble coalminer lifestyle in District 12 was contrasted with the glamorous life of the urban metropolis, where every bit-part actor wears outrageous quantities of hi-viz make-up, and it’s clear that all of “los beautiful” are old and rich. And all those dying are aged 12-18, poor and oppressed.

Once again (and recently I wrote about how The Artist had captured some kind of zeitgeist), hats off to those Hollywood producers (not the tired old ancients who do James Bond remakes, but who have their ears to the ground and capture something new). The Hunger Games articulated something that’s in the air after seven years of global economic crisis.

It seems new, but actually it’s not. At first I thought it was some conceptual blend of “X Factor meets William Golding’s Lord of the Flies,” or “America’s Got Talent meets Lost” or even “ ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ meets The Truman Show.”

But it wasn’t. Suzanne Collins is a much smarter cookie than that. Her father was a US army officer and she spent her teens revisiting battle sites around the world.  And while getting her postgrad degree in screenwriting she clearly read a lot of Greek classical mythology.  She knows all about story archetypes. So once again, I drag out the classical Storytelling motif.

When Aegeus, the King of Athens left home, he told his wife Aethra that he should send their young son Theseus to Athens when he became strong enough. Theseus – after many struggles – turned up in Athens just when the city is in mourning. It was time for the envoys from Crete to return with an annual tribute of seven youths and seven maidens to be fed to the monstrous Minotaur, as agreed when King Minos came to take vengeance for the death of his son whom the bull had killed at Marathon.  Theseus stows away aboard the “tribute ship” as a member of the team of sacrificial youths, and takes part in the elaborate games organised by Minos before the killing is scheduled to begin.

Theseus – who goes on to successfully destroy the Minotaur and then escapes by entering the Labyrinth armed with a spindle of thread given him by princess Ariadne – has been transmuted from boy to girl in The Hunger Games. But the story – feminist twist aside – is the exactly same.  (Theseus is effectively a volunteer for Crete, just as The Hunger Games heroine volunteers to replace her kid sister.) The Minotaur may have been transformed into three cyber-enhanced giant bulldogs that pursue the cinematic heroine, but otherwise the story and its “tests” are largely unchanged.

In fact, you have to wonder  why — in the context of a youth-on-youth conflict drama which is all about the state demanding “atonement” for past evils — these  monsters make a sudden and  (in plot terms) rather clunky physical entrance so late on in The Hunger Games. What on earth are three cyber-enhanced giant bulldogs doing in the final scene? There’s no way of escaping the fact that a good plot resolution needs a dead monster. If you don’t have a monster, then just put one in. Or three.

My point here is that the expectation is such that if this archetypal story is to “come out right”  and so provide deep satisfaction to audiences of all ages, then a monster has to die. It’s too abstract to say that the victorious couple win a  symbolic victory over the power of the state. And our sympathy with the heroine depends on that fact that she only shoots in self-defence. So she can’t kill all the baddies. They need to be eaten by monsters and only then, can the she-Theseus finally slay the monster.

What’s clear from the classical mythology version is that young people were regularly sacrificed to the hoary “monster” of Age – in this case the Minotaur. Much as the maiden to be sacrificed to the Dragon before she is rescued by St George, it seems there was a cult of handing over youth – long before Europe’s financial crisis presented this reality in much more humdrum fashion. What is it that makes us sacrifice the ambitions of youth to the needs of age?

I don’t know. But I postulate that it’s happening all over again in modern Europe. Well, that’s what my article said (though when I filed it I hadn’t yet met Katniss Everdeen).

What I wrote was: “This new flashpoint is the spectre of youth unemployment, which has the destabilizing potential to set Europe’s young against its old, or today’s “haves” against the tomorrow’s “have-nots.”

“Across Europe, there is an inescapable feeling that the demographic laws are shifting brutally against the young. When it comes to higher education, more face a grim choice between deep debt or entering the job market without a university degree. In terms of accumulating pension funds or building capital to buy real estate, the world is now harsher than it was for their parents. And in terms of access to stable jobs with full social benefits, many of today’s young face a bleak future as freelance service providers on short-term contracts with little stability.

“At the same time, Europe’s baby-boomer generation is nearing “you’ve never had it so good” retirement, reinforced by the expectation of literally decades of leisure and highest quality healthcare.”

Then I went on: “Europe’s young are suffering an epidemic of joblessness. Fully 51.4% of young Spanish people aged 16-24 were unemployed at end-2011. The rate was 45.1% in Greece, 31% in Ireland and 28% in Portugal. Even in prosperous Germany and stable Holland, the youth unemployment rates were 8.5% and 8.2% respectively. Britain, which has chosen to go its own way outside the austerity pact agreed by 26 EU nations, has 22% youth unemployment.

“These EU figures take no account of the ranks of university students soon to emerge into the job market. Furthermore, the 26 “Inner Club” of signatory EU nations has agreed a fiscal austerity compact to impose much greater control on public spending, which in coming years will further depress economic activity even further.”

Yep. Sounds worthy but dull, I know. The plotline lacked the shiny weapons, tearful deaths in the forest, sultry maidens, chaste kisses and testosterone-heavy training sessions of The Hunger Games, but anyway you catch my drift.

Here in the UK, we don’t have cannons banging off to denote another “fallen Tribute” every reel or so. But we do have a sacrificial process of culling the financial expectations of today’s youth which means that within just seven years, the cost of university education has risen almost tenfold for young people. University academic fees rose from just UK£1,000 in 2005 to UK£3,000 a year in 2010 to UK£9,000 in 2012. Future cohorts of students can expect to leave clasping their degree certificate – and up to EUR 40,000 of debts. This is Europe’s costliest market for a university degree.

OK, that’s not quite as sexy as cutting down a nest full of genetically-engineered killer wasps to blitz the baddies at the bottom of the tree – but the effect on your bank account  is pretty much the same if you’re innocently heading off to study at a British university.

My point is this. Just as The Hunger Games portrayed a dystopian future where youth was sacrificed to sustain the lifestyle of old age, so Europe is moving into the same paradigm. Which means that – if we believe in the heroic age of Storytelling, old or new – we await the arrival of a Theseus, a Katniss Everdeen: somebody who will bring hope and change. Is there anyone out there?

The sacrifice of youth is not new. From the “200” at the pass of Thermopylae to poets in the trenches of World War One, and even to the drug-addled pages of Michael Herr’s Dispatches (which dealt with the rock’n roll victims of the Vietnam War), our willingness to kill young people forms a core element in mythology. Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix — all of these are “Tributes” too. Something in our storytelling known as “cultural memory” requires this. The Hunger Games bears this out for a new generation.

So: Next time I try writing an article about retirement funds or inter-generational equity, I promise I’ll sneak in some swords, javelins, and even personnel mines. And maybe a sultry lass whose bow-and-arrow has a deadly effect on squirrels.

© Richard House

A Very Post-modern Story of Suicide

The public suicide of Dimitris Christoulas, the Greek pensioner who shot himself in Athens’ Syntagma Square on Ash Wednesday of the very same week when believers commemorate the passion of Christ, should jolt us into much deeper awareness about the Post-modern state of Europe.

Not the rights and wrongs of the single currency, but the rights and wrongs of a world-view we have created. The story is gathering weight like a runaway snowball.

In addition to the riots that rocked his native Athens, the reverberations caused by his death prompted somber reflection around the world. Christoulas takes his place in a long line of “martyrs to Post-modernity.”

Jan Palach was a Czech student who burned himself to death in January 1969 as a protest against the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring. Palach’s death contributed to the later Velvet Revolution and a return to democratic values in the Czech Republic.

Mohamed Bouazizi was a Tunisian street vendor who burned himself in December 2010 as a protest against government harassment. His death in early 2011 set in train the Tunisian Revolution and the whole Arab Spring movement.

During 2011 at least eleven Tibetan monks and nuns set fire to themselves in protest against the occupation of the their homeland by Chinese authorities. Many more are believed to have been rounded up to prevent mass suicide by this means. Tibetan monks won’t stop China’s final suppression of local culture – but they are certainly delaying it.

Just why are people prepared to sacrifice their lives – and what does the need to make such an extreme gesture say about the societies in which we live and the way in which our consciousness is evolving?

Reports said that in a handwritten note found near the scene of his death April 5th, Christoulas, a divorced and retired pharmacist aged 77, said he could not face the prospect “of scavenging through garbage bins for food and becoming a burden to my child,” blaming the Greek government’s austerity policies for his decision.

Yet the blame lies deeper – and much closer to ourselves. Just as Palach, Bouazizi and the Tibetans all died to protest against occupying forces that had taken control of their state, so we should hold ourselves accountable for what is happening in modern Greece.

For Greece too is a country under occupation, just as surely as it was 200 years ago when the English poet Lord Byron travelled there to champion its emergence as a modern state. Eventually, Byron’s support for the Greek cause would bring about his own death. Not, like Christoulas with a pistol, but though infection.

Then, Greece was a part of the Ottoman empire and prospects for its liberation from Turkish control inspired Romantics across Europe. Byron, a charismatic, womanising yet tortured rockstar-poet who was the Bob Geldorf of his day, achieved lasting fame by swimming the Hellespont in May 1810 in what might be called the first “celebrity swimathon” to raise public awareness  for the plight of Greece.

It was on Easter Monday, April 1824 that Byron died in Missolongi at the age of 37. As a symbolic (though not particularly effective) figurehead and hero of the Greek War of Liberation, he had in part financed the nascent Greek navy, and then tried to bring some political unity to warring factions during a lull in the war with the Turks.

What inspired Byron – and what has inspired countless Romantics – is the recognition that ancient Greece is the bedrock of our civilization and that we should honour it as the fountainhead and provider of our most fundamental values.  Philosophy, poetry, democracy, moral philosophy, logic, aesthetics, rhetoric, mathematics, ethics. If it has an “ism” on the end, it was invented by the Greeks.

So why does the country keep on getting itself invaded, and who’s doing it now? Who, in short, was Christoulas really protesting against?

The occupying Turks, of course, are long gone, and even their descendants were relocated to the mainland of Asia Minor after World War I as a precursor of a UN style refugee exchange programme. There may still be remote places in Greece where bad old memories of the German occupation during World War II still linger. But mostly, and thankfully, the tourist euro and the summer time invasion of vacationers has wiped away such bitter recollections.

So who, then, is occupying modern Greece? We all are. The new invading army is our money, our economic policies, our economic imperialism. With our connivance and in our names, the European Commission and its allies at the IMF and the European Central Bank are doing something monumentally wrong. No wonder, then, that anti-EU English-language media is (perhaps a tad triumphantly) charging European bureaucrats with having “blood on their hands” with the Greek pensioner’s death.  Unless, trumpets Britain’s Daily Mail “the EU’s cowardly leaders abandon their attempts to save face by keeping their wretched currency in being, his will not be the only blood on their hands.”

Headlines in the more nationalistic German newspapers reflect more of this ugly reality, highlighting the righteous indignation of those paying for the Greek bailout. As Bild newspaper said: ‘We are once again the schmucks of Europe!’ The idea that good, hard-working western Europeans are giving handouts to bail out a band of shiftless, lazy Greek cheats has become a public caricature. Greeks may not be very productive, but those that still hold down jobs actually work some of the longest hours in Europe.

We need to look more closely at what is happening here – not just at the moral bankruptcy of the European Commission and the European Central Bank’s behavior, but at our own need to scapegoat Greece. And we need to wake up. Greece is part of the Balkans.

And the Balkans are the tinder-box where wars have been sparked over the last century. Not just the horrors of the Bosnian war that began 20 years ago as a consequence of the unwinding of Yugoslavia (which in turn was an indirect  consequence of Britain’s wartime funding for the then-partisan chief, Tito, who later emerged as the unifying strongman). But events that began in Sarajevo in June 1914 when Gavrilo Princip  assassinated  the Austrian Archduke and so set in train World War One.

Neither the Balkans, nor Greece, are places to play around with extremist politics, and especially not with public suicides. As the crow flies, Chechnya and its suicide bombers are closer to Athens, than Athens is to London.

So why do I call these suicides ‘Post-modern,’ and why should these be part of such a dangerous trend? The prevailing sociological wisdom behind Post-modernity, as defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard, is that the “grand narrative” of historical determinism has evaporated and been replaced by a multiplicity of claims to knowledge.

Cacophony has replaced harmony. The decline of certainties in industrial society (as instanced by the Greek collapse) has encouraged a process of  individualization whereby people are compelled to  reinvent themselves as individuals (perhaps even gaining Andy Warhol’s famous 5 minutes of fame  through a fiery act of self-extinction). Postmodernists talk about a lot about deconstruction of paradigms, meaning and significance – but not so much about reconstruction.

In other words, if retired Greek pharmacists choose to start riots by blowing their brains out in public, the action has little aggregate meaning. But this is all based upon the first reaction to conceptual frameworks for sociology built almost a century ago. Now comes the second reaction – not just to sociological concepts, but to Post-modernism too.

It’s called the theory of Reflexive Modernization (or sometimes late modernity) and it has something to say – perhaps – about the way we’ve built a world where protesters need to dowse themselves in gasoline or blow their brains out in order to resolve the contradictions of made-up economic system that has to reconcile the needs of auto workers in Dusseldorf, Shanghai or Detroit, with those of tourists seeking a cheap colourful vacation in the Aegean, Bali or Lhasa.

Reflexive Modernization is an alternative to the (Post-modernist) theories of disorganised capitalism, in which we are supposed to celebrate such contradictions. Traditionally, Modernity was studied by looking at a big overriding trend and its contradictions. For Marx is was capitalism. For Durkheim, the impact of industrialization. For Weber, the growth of organised bureaucracy. All these three — bureaucracy, capitalism and industrialisation, have played a part in the Greek economic drama.

Reflexive Modernization – in my limited understanding of the work of Anthony Giddens (The Consequences of Modernity, 1991) – has a lot to say about the way we take in knowledge and study awareness (epistemology). It looks at the whole mystery of Modernization itself (which explains the Reflexive tag). Giddens believes that modern social institutions are unique and quite different from anything that has gone before. So this discontinuity means we can’t understand what’s coming on the basis of past structures.

But that doesn’t mean events are meaningless. The deaths of Lord Byron, Palach, Bouazizi, the Tibetans, Dimitris Christoulas and even Jesus too, if you like, do have meaning as part of a wider narrative of protest, of mobilization — of the taking ultimate sanction against meaninglessness.

I’m not a sociologist, and I’m not sure I believe that either Post-modernism, or Reflexive Modernization, can explain what happens when single catalytic events acquire so much meaning that they trigger wholesale change. I’m a believer in narrative, in the power of compelling story. As you’ll know if you have read any of these columns, the structure of stories, their deep influence upon us, their origins in myth and the cognitive pathways they travel along in our shared cultural memories, are what I believe drives human events.

And so I don’t think the fundamental need for a clear narrative has evaporated. In fact, what’s happening in Athens shows the unfolding of what the Greeks do best and which is the exact opposite of Modernism. It’s called Classic Drama. And in terms of the Greek tragedy, the narrative is just starting to fit into place.

© Richard House