"It is easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favor."
- Tyrion Lannister

"Lannister. Baratheon. Stark. Tyrell. They're all just spokes on a wheel. This one's on top, then that's ones on top and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. I'm not going to stop the wheel. I'm going to break the wheel."

- Daenerys Targaryen

"The Lord of Light wants his enemies burned. The Drowned God wants them drowned. Why are all the gods such vicious cunts? Where's the God of Tits and Wine?"

- Tyrion Lannister

"The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are."

- Jorah Mormont

"These bad people are what I'm good at. Out talking them. Out thinking them."

- Tyrion Lannister

"What happened? I think fundamentals were trumped by mechanics and, to a lesser extent, by demographics."

- Michael Barone

"If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to."
- Dorothy Parker

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fantasy, Modernism, and Capitalism

Tyrion: If I told you to murder, say, an infant girl still at her mother's breast. Would you do it, without question?
Bronn: Without question? No. I'd ask how much.

One of the things that first made the fantasy genre popular was that it became a new way for literature to battle back against modernism. It was a genre filled with good guys and bad guys, with the kinds of larger-than-life stories that were once the provenance of mythology and national epics. Game Of Thrones works best when it suggests the good guys aren’t all that good and the bad guys aren’t all that bad, then asks just what all of them are going to do about the truly awful elements in their midst, like the White Walkers, or King Joffrey, or the torture of smallfolk.

The second quote is from Todd VanDerWerff's Onion recap (for experts) of season 2/episode 4 "Garden of Bones."

What's attractive about the fantasy genre for me is that modernism entails capitalism and the cash nexus. The cash nexus dissolves bonds of social solidarity and value until you are left with nothing but price and cost. After the Cold War, welfare capitalism has given way to "greed is good" capitalism.  There is no (or not much) honor, chivalry, loyalty, integrity, or virtue which were once the the redeeming aspects of capitalism's predecessor Feudalism. (Although obviously not everyone was honorable back especially given material circumstances.) Also late capitalism entails consumerism, and wall-to-wall advertising (flashing billboards, telemarketers calling during dinner, spam and pop-up ads), environmental disaster, urban blight, and an economy dominated by the financial sector and speculation/gambling. The Fantasy genre is a respite from all of that. Perhaps it's escapist to harken back to a lost age, but the fantasy genre does hold up the good virtues even if like in Game of Thrones, it's a brutal time of war.

Capitalism is undeniably a giant progress in a number of areas. Feminism and notions of human rights arrived in late-capitalism and welfare capitalism had less of a stratified, class structure. One of the undeniable reactionary aspects of Feudalism is its authoritarian appeal to a rigid social structure where everyone knows their place. Also obviously capitalism has less starvation during winter. Westeros is chock full of prostitution and the suffering small people. Esteros is full of slaves and brutality. What is compelling about Game of Thrones is that it explores the dark side of Feudalism in a realistic manner and doesn't romanticize it.

But some of the admirable Feudal values have been lost to an extent. There is just the cash nexus. And it seems to be corrupting the political/public sphere in a corrosive feedback loop. Witness the housing bubble and economic crises and the Republican Party being taken over by frauds and fanatics. Free-market welfare capitalism has morphed into rent-seeking crony capitalism and socialism for the rich where slow growth, low inflation and high unemployment is a regressive tax on wages. Inequality increases as past progress is lost.

Ned Stark exemplified the redeeming values of Feudalism for me and hence the attraction of fantasy fiction.* For one even though he was the ruler in the north and a noble he was accountable to his  people. He performed his own executions and did his own dirty work so that power wouldn't corrupt him. (Or maybe it was more of a symbol of accountable rulership.) And Maester Luwin told Bran that a good lord needs to listen to his subjects. Ned Stark also expressed some sympathy for the low born butcher's boy to Varys last season, after Varys mentioned the unpleasantness on the Kingsroad. And he was against assassinating Daenyres Targaryen.

Ned Stark also had honor and integrity, which meant telling the truth. If he hadn't, Stannis and Renly wouldn't be challenging King Joffrey's claim to the throne. And the North wouldn't have rebelled. If he wasn't loyal to his friend he would have remained in the North and no doubt the Lannisters would have taken over.

As Robb tells Talisa, if there had not been a war, the realm would be subject to Joffrey's cruel and capricious rule. Maybe that would be better war. But the reign of Joffrey Baratheon could be a disaster also. He probably would have sparked a rebellion sooner or later just as the King Aerys did as he descended into madness.

And in the background you have the Red Comet, the return of magic, The Others, The Lord of Light, and Daenerys's dragons.

* Was humanity hard-wired with morales and social solidarity? In Feudalism you had chivalry, loyalty and codes of honor. In welfare capitalism you had progress on a number of fronts of well being.

What I like about Game of Thrones is that there is a wide spectrum and variety of evil. Tywin Lannister may be bad, but he's more reasonable than his mad dog, the Mountain That Rides and The Tickler and Polliver. Tyrion is good but maneuvers within the system in the belly of the beast. On the good side I'd list the Nightswatch, Davos Seaworth, Brienne, Daenyres, Robb, Jorah Mormont, Brienne, Maester Luwin. Arya, and even Sansa saved Ser Dantos. Varys, Stannis and Renly are little complicated. Same with the Tyrells.

On the bad side, Arya's hit list (Joffrey, Cersei, Ilyn Payne, the Hound, Polliver, the Mountain) and Littlefinger, Pycelle, Craster, Walder Frey, Balon Greyjoy, Theon, Roose Bolton, the Tickler, Jaime, Ser Meryn Trant). Although I kind of like the Hound - "I ain't no ser" just as Brienne says "I'm no Lady" but he serves the wrong crowd.

Again I am taken back to the exchange between Roose Bolton and Rob Stark. When Robb objects to Roose employing torture, he replies that "the high road is pretty, but you can't march your army down it" and Robb replies that he doesn't want to give the Lannisters an excuse to hurt his sisters. Maybe that reasoning is partly why morality and codes of honor were developed in human societies.

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