Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Power, Corruption, and Success

Great myths are always about us, and about somewhere else.

The tales of Harry Potter offer us universal morals about power, corruption and success. They offer them through the lens of a young boy with British sensibilities, coming of age in the modern United Kingdom. He is also a wizard, locked in a life-or-death battle with relentless evil.

Some French intellectuals deconstructed the texts of the Harry Potter phenomenon in search of grander – or more menacing – conclusions. No surprise, they found them. Equally no surprise, they don’t agree.

Perhaps their high-brow criticism has something to do with J. K. Rowling's less-than-flattering portrayal of the French wizard school, Beauxbatons, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Or, perhaps they cannot admit that it might be a harmless thing that something as quintessentially British as Harry Potter is so popular all over the world, even in France. Or maybe it has been so long since some French intellectuals actually witnessed a market economy satisfying human needs that they have a hard time believing in one, even in a work of fantasy. Regardless of their motives, they have concluded that Harry Potter represents everything from a ruthless capitalist to a crusading antiglobalist.

The truth is, the world of Harry Potter is first and foremost British. His school, its students, their social priorities, their names, and even their slang make the world of Harry Potter irresistibly British.

Britain provides the place, the launching point of the mythic enterprise, the sense of somewhere else. But the morals of the story are universal. Lord Acton famously observed, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the just released movie based on the earlier book, corrupt power is immediately on display. In almost the first scene, two dark creatures under the control of a government agency, the Ministry of Magic, attack and nearly kill Harry and his cousin, Dudley.

In order to save their lives, Harry performs a difficult magic spell. He is successful, but instead of being praised as a hero, he is stunned to learn that he might lose his wand and be kicked out of school for breaking wizarding laws.

The Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, is corrupt, power-hungry, self-righteous and paranoid. He wants to get Harry out of the way as quickly as possible. Fudge plants a spy in Harry’s school, Dolores Umbridge. She is sadistic and inflexible. She imposes rule after rule to suppress non-conformists, until she assumes complete control of the school. She is willing to use torture to get what she wants.

Fudge and Umbridge illustrate just how power corrupts. But there is a far more sinister kind of power in the story. It is the essence of evil, an evil beyond redemption, and an evil without remorse. It is the evil of Lord Voldemort.

Some critics have concluded that Voldemort represents the logical end of a market economy, where success is measured solely by personal gain. This line of thinking has gone so far as to turn Volemort’s name into “Waldemart,” a combination of Wal-Mart and Voldemort. If Voldemort is a capitalist icon, then Harry Potter must be an anticapitalist hero. This would conveniently explain why Harry’s sensibilities are entirely different from the clean car and kitchen-scrubbing values of his middle-class aunt and uncle.

But this is an incorrect conclusion. Harry's distaste for the middle-class reveals more about British cultural ambivalence than mythic moral values. Remember that the world of Harry Potter is unfailingly British, and modern British culture has decidedly mixed feelings about middle-class business success. On one hand, British citizens enjoy the productivity and personal freedom of the market-based government reforms brought about by Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative successor from 1975 to 1997. On the other hand, they have grown used to the anti-business rhetoric and social welfare system of various Labour governments over the past sixty years. J. K. Rowling simply conveys the background noise of ambivalence about markets from the real world to the fictional world of Harry Potter.

There is no antiglobalist economic moral in Harry’s epic battle with Voldemort, any more than there is an economic moral in his regular arguments with his aunt and uncle. There is, however, an unresolved class conflict within the cultural context of the story, but it comes from the British lens Rowling uses to draw us into her myth, not the myth itself. It is a mistake to draw antiglobalist economic morals from a story that deals with economics only tangentially.

Indeed, although it doesn’t figure prominently in the story, economics doesn’t come off too badly in the Harry Potter tales. In fact, it comes off better than the aristocracy or bureaucracy, both of which are frequently in league with Voldemort. Harry’s fellow students demonstrate a familiar set of youthful wants and wishes, the kind that are often criticized as being shallow, but the kind often satisfied by exchanges in a competitive market economy. They want to date, they buy lots of candy and butter beer, they want to be good at sports, they want to do well in school, they buy books and magazines, they want to own the best wands, brooms and robes, they enjoy receiving gifts, and they want a job when they graduate. While some of these may be shallow interests compared with lofty morals, they cannot be honestly called precursors of evil. They are normal human desires, best satisfied by peaceful, voluntary behavior. Markets do that. It’s almost magic.

In the final analysis, Harry Potter is neither a ruthless capitalist nor an antiglobalist crusader. He does not seek success as measured by the market. He does not seek success as measured by social status. Rather, Harry Potter seeks success as measured by universal morals of power, corruption, and success. With him, we learn first that power is dangerous and must be used responsibly if it is to be used at all. Second, we learn that we must resist corruption, but never mistake blind obedience to a set of rules for virtue. Finally, we learn to measure the success of our lives by love and friendship more than anything else.

Those are values every muggle in the world can appreciate. Even French ones.


EMR said...

What's more, Fred and George Weasley provide an excellent entrepreneurial model. They recognize a huge level of market demand for their products and capitalize upon it; Rowling explains that "Fred and George were undoubtedly going to be the wealthiest of them all." The Weasley twins identify their passion (causing trouble) and successfully expand it into a functioning business venture--if children (or adults) are to pick up any economic lesson from Harry Potter, let it be from the Weasleys.

Ben Rast said...

I agree!

Economic innovation is always the act of a rebel, a troublemaker who upsets the status quo and seeks new norms of success. Fred and George are great examples.

However, there is a whiff of British disdain for business in Mrs. Weasley's opinion that running a retail shop is not a respectable occupation.