I teach a basic version of world-systems theory in a 100-level anthropology class. I go through the three labor sectors, extraction vs. heavy industry vs. financial services, colonialism and capital investment in infrastructure, travel control and citizenship, core-periphery relations, etc. Some students struggle to keep up. Some eyes glaze over.
Later in the semester I’m talking about Africa. I remind them of the integrated world system. Then I mention Catching Fire, which opened Thanksgiving Weekend and promptly broke box-office records. How about Nigeria or Mozambique for District 11? Morocco or South Africa could be District 2. Would that make Western Europe and the US the Capitol? There are fast connections between the core and each peripheral community, but District 11 folks are ignorant about District 12 and rarely travel there… Their eyes open wide, they sit up straighter, lights go on.
The value in my course comes from how it can relate broadly applicable information about our world. I have found that one of the most useful ways to help Americans understand better how they fit in with the rest of the world—historically, culturally, economically—is through world-systems theory. I have found that the Hunger Games contains the most relevant contemporary example of how the world looks to those who live outside its affluent parts.
The young-adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins consists of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. The first two were adapted in 2012 and 2013 into Hollywood blockbusters starring Jennifer Lawrence. The basic dystopian premise is that the United States has devolved into Panem, a brutal empire of twelve subject districts ruled via advanced technology from a capital in the Rockies.
Long ago, the twelve districts rebelled against the Capitol District. After the rebellion was put down, for their punishment the districts held an annual lottery to select two children from each district to compete in a fight to the death. The Hunger Games celebrate the current unjust peace and persuade the districts never to rebel again. In the build-up to the games, the children become instant celebrities. During the game, hidden cameras follow the children’s attempts to stay alive and to kill the others: “The Real World” meets “The Most Dangerous Game.” Twenty-three children die, but the single winner receives fame and fortune for life.
Readers and viewers have seized upon themes of apocalyptic dystopia, ancient Rome’s “bread and circuses,” feminism and girl power, the critique of progress, surveillance and biopolitics, and a level of reality-TV media saturation right out of MTV and/or Baudrillard.
It is also about resistance and revolution. On the blog k-punk, the philosopher Mark Fisher draws attention to how well Collins comprehends attitudes of youth toward the current economic crisis: “The rosy promises of neoliberalism are gone, but capitalist realism continues: there’s no alternative, sorry. We had it but you can’t, and that’s just how things are, OK? The primary audience for Collins’ novels was teenage and female, and instead of feeding them more boarding school Fantasy or Vampiary romance, Collins has been—quietly but in plain sight—training them to be revolutionaries.”
The series has been most useful for me, however, for its stark illustration of world-systems theory. World-systems analysis as developed by Immanuel Wallerstein and others since the 1970s views world history for the past 500 years as a complex system with political, economic, and social elements, including an international division of labor.
There are three basic kinds of jobs: extraction, manufacturing, and services. The first, extraction, involves taking natural resources out of the ground. Agriculture, mining, forestry, fishing, and the like predominate in “periphery” countries like Vietnam and Bolivia. The second, manufacturing, involves transforming those raw materials into finished products. Countries of the “semi-periphery” like Brazil and China have large heavy industry sectors. Finally, the third, services, is the largest sector in all “core” countries. The label “service industry” conceals as much as it reveals—stock analysts and fast food cashiers both provide a service—but the trend is toward more highly specialized labor: office jobs, training and certification, soft skills, etc.
These job sectors are distributed unevenly around the world. There are many more stock analysts and bond traders in England than in Congo. The system was set up when Europe controlled 85 percent of the planet, and it demands greater investment in the core. Core infrastructures—highways, airports, hospitals, universities—are built to meet the needs of the population, while periphery infrastructures are built to aid in the extraction of resources. Overall, the game is fixed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. And it applies to the United States as well—wealthier parts of the country have better infrastructures and more investment capital, while poorer parts (like the South and Appalachia) have infrastructures designed to support the extraction of resources (i.e., more teaching universities and fewer research ones).
My primary goal is intercultural understanding. I teach the history of the world to help my students to better understand why non-Western people might treat them in ways that they don’t feel are warranted. The system’s unjust cruelties have been naturalized, especially but not exclusively for those living in the core, and so it can sometimes be difficult to look through the eyes of someone on the other side. In future classes, I hope there will be some clips to illustrate my points. I tend to favor film clips and music videos over strictly text, voice, or music, since AV is something undergraduates find very easy to respond to.
This is why the Hunger Games is so valuable! The story is told from the periphery, from what we recognize as Appalachia, the family origin of many of my students. The hero is a victim of the Capitol, raised in a small coal mining town. Her father dead in a mining accident, her mother recovering from emotional collapse, Katniss keeps her mom and her little sister alive through her willpower and prowess at poaching game from the surrounding hills. When her sister is chosen for the games, Katniss volunteers to replace her, resolving to give her life for her sister. Instead, once she gets on TV, Katniss woos the elites of the Capitol. They love her.
The elites are repugnant and hideously gaudy, with high-tech body modifications and extravagant consumer habits. With very few exceptions, they are portrayed as self-absorbed to oblivion, throwing away luxury foods and playing pointless games despite the malnutrition, violence, and desperation that prevail in the poorest of the 12 districts. The elites ignore the tremendous resentment building up in those districts in response to visions of Capitol luxury beamed in daily via television.
This situation demonstrates in a concrete way what many anthropology teachers in the United States try to relate to their students: “If ‘they’ did in fact hate ‘us,’ they would hate us because we don’t know why they should hate us.”
The world of the Hunger Games is our own world. The core Capitol District rules the 12 districts through information, finance, and military force. The semi-peripheral Districts 1 through 8 produce luxury items, weapons, electronics, electricity, transportation, and textiles. Finally, in the periphery, Districts 9 and 10 produce grain and livestock. District 11, the agricultural South, is poor and black. In poor and white Appalachian District 12, where Katniss comes from, farthest from the Capitol, avoiding starvation is the primary goal of the population. In fact, the twelve districts nearly perfectly map onto the three categories of core, semi-periphery, and periphery. We have met the Capitol, and they are us.