The Relevance of Harry Potter
How do historians understand how people lived or, or more importantly what they thought, in the past? For most of human history the vast majority of ordinary people, as opposed to members of the ruling class, did not know how to read or write, so they did not leave us any written record of their lives or thoughts. One useful way in which historians understand the ideas of those times is to look at their version of “pop culture”: i.e. folk-tales, songs or stories. Even the most pedantic ivy-tower academic will agree that if a particular narrative (story, song, ballad) was popular during a time then the sentiments embodied in that narrative resonated deeply with the people of that time.
So what can we say about the people of our times when we look at the unquestionable planetary popularity of Harry Potter?
The Bad Guys
Harry Potter fights against a powerful evil wizard who wants all wizards to be pureblood, that is, not have children with people who were not wizards. According to this evil wizard Voldemort and his organization, the Death Eaters, all important jobs, social opportunities and institutional backing should be reserved for purebloods and non-purebloods get to live if they agree to serve the “superior race”. Sound familiar?
The Fight Back
If the bad guys are superbly organized, then so are the good guys. Indeed significant parts of the books are dedicated to collective strategizing by the characters as to how to be effective fighters against the highly organized and incredibly well funded Death Eaters.
Compared to the Death Eaters who have the backing of rich lords such as the Malfoys, and Ministry apparatchiks such as Dolores Umbridge, the good guys are a remarkably unimpressive lot. Hapless men and women (Mr. and Mrs. Weasely), decidedly uncool boys (Ron Weasely, Neville Longbottom), nerdy, weird and overanxious girls (Luna, Hermione) and more or less ordinary Harry himself form the vanguard of this motley crew. But this is the team that defeats the well-oiled, well-funded machinery that is the Death Eaters. And the reason is simple and oft mentioned: the collective solidarity that the good guys share.
The books state again and again that Voldemort’s greatest weakness was that he was a loner and Harry’s greatest strength was that he always chose to fight and strategize shoulder to shoulder with his friends and comrades. Yes, magic, luck, chance, privilege of birth all played their role in determining Harry’s victory, but ultimately it was a collective battle, the contribution from others, the sacrifice of many (as opposed to the machismo of some) that won the day. Sometimes when the majority was demoralized by the rising tide of racism, the “leaders” had to patiently explain the continuing importance of a fightback. Other times, when some people, including Harry, wanted to commit acts of random individual bravery, other people argued for the importance and superiority of collective fighting and strategizing. Sometimes the sound arguments won, sometimes the masses were swayed by propaganda from the wizard press, but always, always, we are given a glimpse of the intense battle of and over ideas.
It is now a well-documented fact that despite the chart-shattering popularity of Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling has been repeatedly vilified by the right wing. When Time Magazine in 2005 called Hogwarts “secular and sexual and multicultural and multiracial” every fundamentalist and conservative from the Christian Right to the John Birch society came out to roundly condemn the series. David Baggett, who teaches at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University's School of Religion, even took the trouble of writing a book to denounce such ungodliness. More disturbingly, recent White Pride websites such as Stormfront proudly proclaim “Why Harry Potter is poison for white kids: it's multiracial, left wing propaganda”.
While there are several defenders of Potter in print from academics, liberal Christians, popular centre-left French papers (Liberation) to Progressive Jews (Jewesses with Attitude), my purpose here is to point towards the supporters of the values embodied in Potter who do not necessarily publish their views. As of 2011, 450 million copies of the books have been sold worldwide. They have been translated in 67 languages and the Potter films have been dubbed as the “highest grossing film series of all time”, beating the James Bond and Star Wars series. People like Potter. Young people, in particular, love Potter. What is this if not a ringing endorsement of the ideas and values that the series so openly broadcasts?
But let us remember our non-friend the pedantic academic whom we referenced at the start of this piece. S/he will have to grudgingly acknowledge that the groundbreaking popularity of the series probably means that most people who like Potter support the ideas espoused in the series. But, s/he will then claim triumphantly that this means nothing in terms of social change, for don’t those very people who like the series also subscribe to the most degenerate reality television shows and watch Fox news?
Let us grant that this is indeed so.
Let us also remember that ideas that benefit capitalism and divide the working class are relentlessly promoted by the institutions of capitalism. Schools tell young children about individual freedom but not so much about equality or social justice. Toy stores sell “princess” products for girls and armed soldiers for boys. Adverts on television tell you that if you buy brand x you will be as thin as Kate Moss or as rich as Oprah. And after using product x if you still have your old terrible job and credit card bills, then it must be your fault. In other words, all these anti-collective, oppressive ideas are deliberately and consciously brought to us every day, in various forms, by the most influential institutions and people in our society. We, as individuals, are often powerless against this barrage of ideological onslaught. We start to believe that their ideas, ideas that benefit them, are also our ideas.
The Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci formulated the very useful concept of “contradictory consciousness”. He wrote:
The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.
Gramsci is thus alerting us to the fact that under capitalism, because it is such an unnatural system, we always carry a contradictory consciousness. A set of ideas that are essentially false that capitalism feeds us, and a set of real ideas that on a practical level show us that our fellow workers are people just like us and uniting with them in struggle brings benefit to all. Often, Gramsci pointed out, the “superficial” or mainstream ideas, those that are actively promoted, are the ideas that win out. They feed into the sphere of activity with disastrous results, for they tell us that, our fellow immigrant worker is here to take our job, that the world cannot be changed. But not always.
The tremendous success of Potter thus shows two things: one, that despite the active promotion of procapitalist values by the rich and the powerful, people—vast numbers of them—can think against the stream. Secondly, that Harry Potter arrived and grew up in a world that was already beginning to recoil against the neoliberal consensus forged in the 1980s.
Harry Potter was first published in the UK in 1997 and in the US in 1998. This was only 2-3 years before the massive rash of anti-globalization protests beginning in Seattle against the IMF. 1998 was the year of the fantastic UPS strike in the US when the American public backed the Teamsters union against the bosses of UPS on a 2 to 1 margin. These new moves towards exploding the status quo saw a new and very young generation of activists calling themselves “anti-capitalist” who had grown up with no memory of the defeats of the 80s. This was the generation who fought the police in Seattle, Prague and Genoa and who debated international solidarity in world social forums in Mumbai and Brazil.
This was the generation who grew up on Harry Potter.
No, this was the generation that Potter had to be relevant to, if he wanted to hold onto his cult status.
Magic in the Air?
My favorite character in the Harry Potter series is Neville Longbottom. He is a pureblood, but is awkward, hapless and absolutely useless at most tasks. Neville bumbles and mumbles through the first few books but consistently ends up, sometimes not so consciously, by Harry’s side when things get tough. But this is the boy that learns to lead the resistance movement at Hogwarts when Harry drops out of school in the last book. This is same boy that is tortured repeatedly by the racists but refuses to pick on non-pureblood schoolmates. This is also the boy who is ridiculed by Voldemort himself for his un-herolike appearance and manner. But it is Neville Longbottom who wields the fabled sword of Gryffindor and deals Voldemort a fatal blow. Voldemort is shocked beyond belief that a boy so commonplace, so ordinary could have the confidence to raise his hand against him.
And it is several such Neville Longbottoms, ordinary and commonplace--learning strategies from their sisters and brothers in Cairo, debating the best way forward with their friends and comrades in Wisconsin--that will perhaps lead the next battle of Hogwarts. When the Voldemorts least expect it.