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 Harry Potter and CapitalismWritten: 2 JUN 2001
 
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Harry Potter and CapitalismHarry Potter and Capitalism I feel some hesitation about writing this at all, since in doing so I'm making myself part of the Potter machine. There's a difference between writing about Harry here and writing The Care of Magical Creatures for WHSmith - but both I and 'Newt Scamander' are capitalizing on the Potter brand for our particular profit. And it is a brand: the 2001 calendar has captions like THE SORTING HAT™: SLYTHERIN™ OR GRYFFINDOR™? The trademarks mark the property of Warner Bros, not of JK Rowling; but a distinction between the profit-making, merchandise-driven corporation and Rowling as a freely expressive artist will not hold up. From the very beginning, Harry and Hogwarts are deeply implicated in a capitalist organization of the world.

It's right there in the title of the first book: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. 'The Philosopher's Stone': a substance with the power of turning base metals into gold. Like the commodity form analysed in the first chapter of Capital, it makes all metals equivalent to each other, and expresses that equivalence in gold.

One of the things that reveals Harry Potter as pure escapist fantasy, rather than - as with the best (children's or not) fantasy - an attempt to imagine a different organization of the world and our relationship to it, is the use of magical artefacts purely as commodities. The wizard world is our world, but with better stuff. The sweets are better. Football is better, because it's on broomsticks. The postal service is better, because there are cute owls who don't go on strike. This is not creating an alternative way of looking at the world; it's inventing gimmicks. Just as some apparently anti-capitalist actions fall back into a capitalist model through a reliance on "ethical shopping", Harry Potter is "magical shopping".

Less striking but more dangerous is the obfuscatingly bland 'and' in every title. It tells us nothing about the relationship between Potter and the world; only that, in every book, the 'X of Y' in the title is important only insofar as it is related to Harry Potter. It represents a naturalization of the workings of authority and oppression through a focus on individuals, which is one of the most dangerous things about the Potter books. Here the obvious example is Dumbledore, the perfect headmaster: wise yet fair; powerful, yet always available (to Harry); willing to help Harry break the law (Sirius Black's escape in Prisoner) in the service of justice.

Justice is always a negotiation between a general law and a particular case. In Derrida's formulation, a decision cannot be just if it is taken arbitrarily with no reference to any system of rules. Neither can it be just if it is merely the mechanical application of a system of rules with no reference to the circumstances of an actual case. Rowling resolves this fundamental ethical-political negotiation between impossibles - by demonstrating that a decision must be just if it is taken by Dumbledore. The politics of the wizard world, both within Hogwarts and outside (the Ministry of Magic), turn into questions of individual 'goodness' through Dumbledore's benevolent dictatorship. (Just thank God Snape didn't get the job. He doesn't like Harry - and he's evil.)

The way in which authority operates in the Potter books frightens me. It's part of their escapism: escapist in a way which naturalizes authority and makes it invisible, partly through the figure of the benevolent dictator, partly through the non-realist representation of Harry's Muggle life. At Hogwarts, almost pornographic attention is given to minor changes in Harry's mood. In Goblet we get pages on his nervousness about asking Cho Chang out; in Prisoner, pages about the horror he feels over the Dementors. When he's living with the Dursleys, the boy spends years living in a cupboard under the stairs, and not only does he have no apparent emotional reaction, but where the hell are Social Services?

There are no sources of authority in the Muggle world other than the irrational, malevolent Dursleys. There are complex political systems of authority in the wizarding world - but all defer to the flawless ethical judgement of Dumbledore. The processes of negotiation with authority which both children and adults have to go through, often in violent or change-producing ways, are missing from the Potter books.

Another massive effacement of violence in the operation of authority: the Sorting Hat. Like Dumbledore, the Sorting Hat is figured as magically all-knowing in order to hide the violence it perpetrates, on two levels. Firstly, the idea that it can see into the child's mind and assign him or her, benevolently, to the most appropriate environment. The idea that a child's character is indelibly formed at the age of 11 is appalling. Coupled with the fact that children of the same family, across the generations, are assigned to the same house, it becomes genetic determinism. Coupled with the fact that one of the houses, Slytherin, is coded as "evil", it becomes something close to fascism. The classification has nothing to do with 'race', but it's almost more pernicious for that.

Secondly, the idea that the houses have a particular character. Whilst houses at schools do take on a character, this doesn't happen without a certain violence. A house's self-perception as sporty, scholarly (brave, evil...) exerts terrific pressure on its members to fit in, and violence of various sorts on those who do not. As with so much else in Harry Potter, the institution of the Sorting Hat translates a very problematic form of repressive-productive (producing house members to fit a certain type) authority out of its real-world manifestations into a naturalized form: being suited perfectly to one's given social niche (given by Dumbledore or the Sorting Hat or genetics, who Know What's Best). And that is very dangerous indeed. More clearly, the same thing happens with the happy race of house-elf slaves in Goblet: they love being slaves and those who are freed (against their will) turn to drink and self-destruction. It's a paradigm familiar from Gone with the Wind: conveniently for the oppressors, the oppressed love and willingly choose their status.

The house-elf sub-plot is driven by Hermione, and highlights a final problem with the Potter books. In contrast to most of the characters, Hermione is intellectually and politically sharp and committed. However, as seen particularly clearly in Goblet, this is presented as slightly misguided and/or neurotic. Her attempt to free the house-elves is experienced by Ron and Harry as a time-wasting distraction from the real business of the day: the plot is never even resolved, since the liberation of a race from slavery is less important than Harry's little fling with Voldemort.

Don't look forward to an instalment called Harry Potter and the Critique of Postcolonial Reason any time soon.

Deva

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