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The Hunger Games and a dystopian Eurozone economy

The following is an extract from ‘Europe’s Hunger Games: Income Distribution, Cost Competitiveness and Crisis‘, published in the Cambridge Journal of Economics. In this section, Servaas Storm and C.W.M. Naastepad are comparing The Hunger Games to Eurozone economies:

Dystopias are trending in contemporary popular culture. Novels and movies abound that deal with fictional societies within which humans, individually and collectively, have to cope with repressive, technologically powerful states that do not usually care for the well-being or safety of their citizens, but instead focus on their control and extortion. The latest resounding dystopian success is The Hunger Games—a box-office hit located in a nation known as Panem, which consists of 12 poor districts, starved for resources, under the absolute control of a wealthy centre called the Capitol. In the story, competitive struggle is carried to its brutal extreme, as poor young adults in a reality TV show must fight to death in an outdoor arena controlled by an authoritarian Gamemaker, until only one individual remains. The poverty and starvation, combined with terror, create an atmosphere of fear and helplessness that pre-empts any resistance based on hope for a better world.

We fear that part of the popularity of this science fiction action-drama, in Europe at least, lies in the fact that it has a real-life analogue: the Spectacle—in Debord’s (1967) meaning of the term—of the current ‘competitiveness game’ in which the Eurozone economies are fighting for their survival. Its Gamemaker is the European Central Bank (ECB), which—completely stuck to Berlin’s hard line that fiscal profligacy in combination with rigid, over-regulated labour markets has created a deep crisis of labour cost competitiveness—has been keeping the pressure on Eurozone countries so as to let them pay for their alleged fiscal sins. The ECB insists that there will be ‘no gain without pain’ and that the more one is prepared to suffer, the more one is expected to prosper later on.

The contestants in the game are the Eurozone members—each one trying to bootstrap its economy out of the throes of the most severe crisis in living memory. The audience judging each country’s performance is not made up of reality TV watchers but of financial (bond) markets and credit rating agencies, whose supposedly rational views can make or break any economy. The name of the game is boosting cost-competitiveness and exports—and its rules are carved into stone in March 2011 in a Euro Plus ‘Competitiveness Pact’ (Gros, 2011).

The Hunger Games, by Kendra Miller. CC-BY-2.0 via flickr.
The Hunger Games, by Kendra Miller. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Raising competitiveness here means reducing costs, and more specifically cutting labour costs, which means lowering the wage share by means of reducing employment protection, lowering minimum wages, raising retirement ages, lowering pensions and, last but not least, cutting real wages. Economic inequality, poverty and social exclusion will all initially increase, but don’t worry: structural reforms hurt in the beginning, but their negative effects will be offset over time by changes in ‘confidence,’ boosting spending and exports. But it will not work, and the damage done by austerity and structural reforms is enormous; sadly, most of it was and is avoidable. The wrong policies follow from ‘design faults’ built into the Euro project right from the start—the creation of an ‘independent’ European Central Bank being the biggest ‘fault’, as it precluded the necessary co-ordination of fiscal and monetary policy and disabled the central banking system from providing support to national governments (Arestis and Sawyer, 2011). But as Palma (2009) reminds us, it is wrong to think about these ‘faults’ as being caused by perpetual incompetence—the monetarist Euro project should instead be read as a purposeful ‘technology of power’ to transform capitalism into a rentiers’ paradise. This way, one can understand why policy makers persist in abandoning the unemployed.

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