Society, Morality and Harry Potter #1

Posted on April 3, 2011 by

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#1 The wizarding world as a pre-capitalist society

The success of Harry Potter is often attributed to its verisimilitude, to its creation of a moving, working model of a wizarding world parallel to our own. This could not be further from the truth. I’ll discuss more convincing reasons for Harry Potter’s success in a future post, but if you want a demonstration of how quickly the wizarding world breaks down under scrutiny, look at the economics of the wizarding world. They’re a mess.

The biggest problem for wizards is obtaining commodities; wizards appear to be very good at processing and enchanting the materials they possess, but strangely unconcerned with actually procuring raw materials. Potion ingredients and other magical commodities seem to come from various sources (usually, when mentioned, from individual wizards acting opportunistically, as when Slughorn procures Acromantula venom from Aragog’s corpse in order to sell it for a high price). But the non-magical commodities that wizards use are even more strangely unaccounted for. How do wizards obtain their food? There doesn’t seem to be agriculture at all in the wizarding world. Some small horticulture in gardens and some small specialty farms for magical plants and animals exist, but no account of where wizards get their food from (and we know it’s not by conjuring, as food cannot be created magically. It might, however, be duplicated from a small sample, DH 292-293). There are no wizard farmers. Perhaps they buy food from Muggle farmers? Who knows.

It’s important to put this into perspective – the lack of an agricultural market in the wizarding world is completely unimportant to the integrity of the novels. I’m just pointing out that Rowling has large gaps in her model of how wizards work. And that’s fine – it would be really, really boring to have Percy Weasley launch into an account of falling grain prices – especially because, presumably, these mechanisms would function the same way for wizards as they do for us Muggles. Also, these are books for children. But perhaps Percy Weasley would be unable to talk too much about grain prices at all – most of the industries that are detailed in Harry Potter are shown to be pre-capitalist in nature, and only the industries that Rowling herself would have been most attune to while writing – publishing – exhibit the level of late capitalism sophistication that we see in the corresponding Muggle world of the 1990s.

The majority of wizarding industry consists of the artisanal production of high-quality objects. The best example of these is the wand market, which is dominated by a few highly specialized artisans who supply wands for entire nations and become a source of national pride. Businesses tend to be small and family-owned and operated. The Ollivander family has been, according to a sign above their door, “Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.” (SS 82), improbably passed down through the family for over 2300 years. In a future post, I’ll talk about the Weasley twins’ business practices, which combine shrewd marketing and superior products to completely overtake the previous market leader, Zonkos, in a matter of three years.

Brooms are notably made by several competing makers with brand names and can be ordered by mail-order catalog. The development of the broom, detailed in the companion book “Quidditch Through the Ages,” describes the first mass-produced brooms having a history somewhat paralleling those of the automobile and the airplane, beginning in the early 20th century and first becoming mass produced in the mid-1920s (QttA 47-51). Brooms, while mass produced, are a market dominated by the performance needs of the Quidditch industry, and it seems that much of the moving and shaking in the broom industry is related to making relatively small numbers of high performance brooms to professional teams. The non-competition broom market seems highly undeveloped, with witches and wizards generally being happy with any old broom they happen to have at hand. At best, the broom industry seems to mimic the early industrial industries like automobiles and airplanes before World War Two, and without even the assembly-line methods that made those industries so innovative. Each broom is still made by hand with high-quality natural materials.

Interestingly, we get a glance at international trade (or the lack thereof, protectionism), in Goblet of Fire when Barty Crouch complains to Arthur Weasley that Ali Bashir, presumably a representative of an Arab wizard community, is “on the war path” attempting to have a British ban of flying carpets lifted (GF 91). While Arthur Weasley explains that flying carpets are banned because they are “muggle artifacts” that cannot lawfully be enchanted, it seems highly likely that the actual reason behind the ban is to protect the broom manufacturers, who all seem to be British, from foreign competition. In a future post, I’ll speak more about the peculiarities of international relations in Harry Potter.

The most telling pre-capitalist institution in Harry Potter, however, is Gringotts bank. In the wizarding world the purpose of banking is to ensure security of possessions and not to enable investment – this was how banks operated in pre-capitalist societies. Customers at Gringotts literally keep their own currency and valuables in private vaults. Gringotts does not appear to invest its customers’ money, and loans are never mentioned. Other than standard banking fees, Gringotts seems to make money by employing various treasure hunters such as Bill Weasley. And the fact that Goblins, an other race with poor relations with humans, dominate banking puts Gringotts in strong contrast with actual banking industries in England and America, which are filled with aggressively ambitious, high-status social climbers and elites. Again, this mimics banking in pre- and early capitalist societies, when Christian prohibitions against usury limited banking professions to minorities such as Jews, who were then hated even more for engaging in banking.

One notable exception to the pre-capitalist state of wizarding market is the vibrant and highly developed publishing industry. This is, perhaps, to be expected, because this would be the industry with which Rowling herself would have been most familiar, and she would have been perhaps more aware with the problems of a late capitalist (but pre-internet) book market than with any of the other industries she describes. Accordingly, the publishing and bookselling industries in Harry Potter are advanced, but are not portrayed particularly favorably. Books seem to be written on an enormous number of topics in proportion to the size of the wizarding population, and are marketed aggressively. Magazines exist for nearly every pastime, and are also very competitive, and though there is no discussion of who publishes the books and magazines in Harry Potter, they appear to be companies and not individuals. Xenophilius Lovegood’s self-published newspaper The Quibbler seems to be an anomaly, a small niche (or even vanity) publication that is not taken seriously by the community at large.

The world of publishing also has the marketing and publicity potential to create celebrities, who are generally depicted as unsavory characters. Of note are Rita Skeeter and Gilderoy Lockhart. Lockhart’s bizarre quest for and achievement of fame makes him a comical character, but his particular brand of authorial dishonesty calls to mind James Frey (The guy who wrote “A Million Little Pieces”) and the culture of mostly-manufactured reality TV that permeates our publishing and entertainment culture in a late-capitalist society. It’s a jab at dishonest writers – and the publishers, marketers, and consumers who enable them – that is certainly intentional on Rowling’s part, but would seem silly and out-of-place if it were made for another wizarding industry.

Why is all of this important? It’s a good background for examining ethical issues in Harry Potter in general because it shows Harry Potter’s utopic side. The Wizard economy is largely pre-capitalist, and tends to show the good aspects of this simpler past. When capitalist forces enter Harry Potter, they usually do so as bringers of change and progress, driven by entrepreneurs rather than by corporate interests. And when the negative effects of capitalism rear their ugly heads, they do so as specific, pointed examples as things gone wrong, as is the case with Rita Skeeter. Voldemort is, if anything, an anti-capitalist force, who would concentrate power, wealth and industry in the hands of his supporter, not in the sense that they control all resources in the market, but in a purely military sense. He is the villain of 1984 and not the villain of Brave New World.

In short, Harry Potter presents a naïve capitalist viewpoint: it remembers fondly pre-capitalist simplicity while celebrating entrepreneurial innovation and denouncing the marketed artificiality of late capitalism. True, this makes Harry Potter a woefully incomplete and perhaps dangerously misleading picture of how capitalism works. But, while I will discuss the shortcomings of this portrayal, I want to stress that the idealistic representations of markets in Harry Potter are actually pretty good ones. Rowling places value the specific things – quality, innovation, competitive markets, and entrepreneurial spirit – that make an economy healthy, dynamic, and less corrupt. She also denounces those things – sensationalism, heavy marketing, a cult of celebrity, protectionism, anti-competitiveness – that make a market oligopolistic and inflationary. These are good choices, particularly when Harry Potter is not in any way, as I hope this blog entry has demonstrated, about economics. In a book where none of the dangers faced by the characters are the dangers of corporate capitalism, Rowling does much to discourage corporatism anyhow.

In my next entry in Society, Morality and Harry Potter, I’ll continue examining Rowling’s naïve representation of capitalism by examining Fred and George Weasley, the spirits of entrepreneurship in the Harry Potter novels.

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Posted in: Literature