On J.K. Rowling’s Monster Within and the Moral of the Harry Potter Story

Just before the UK’s infamous EU referendum, J.K. Rowling wrote an essay entitled ‘On Monsters, Villains and the EU Referendum‘. In it she rightly condemns nationalism as a force for social regression and nationalists for their divisive rhetoric.

“…Every nationalist will tell you that their nationalism is different, a natural, benign response to their country’s own particular needs and challenges, nothing to do with that nationalism of yore that ended up killing people, yet every academic study of nationalism has revealed the same key features. Your country is the greatest in the world, the nationalist cries, and anyone who isn’t chanting that is a traitor! Drape yourself in the flag: doesn’t that make you feel bigger and more powerful? Finding the present scary? We’ve got a golden past to sell you, a mythical age that will dawn again once we’ve got rid of the Mexicans/left the EU/annexed Ukraine! Now place your trust in our simplistic slogans and enjoy your rage aginst [sic] the Other!”

After the shock referendum result, like a number of celebrities, she took to social media to express her dismay and outrage at the result. In one tweet she declared, “I’ll use my influence whatever way I want. This country needs to be freed of fascists on both right and left.”

And like others, Rowling seemed to suddenly abandon her belief in the virtue of majority rule and democratic government amidst the post-Brexit panic. But how elitists demanded the voice of the people be ignored for the people’s own good is another matter. The point I want to make about Rowling is as follows.

Last week, I caught a bit of a TV show called ‘The 50 Greatest Harry Potter Moments’ and heard Rowling say that she insisted on the Harry Potter movies being filmed in Britain and having an all-British cast. My mind rushed out of its TV-induced stupor and kicked back into thinking mode as I processed her words. That sounds suspiciously nationalistic for someone who has been so outspoken against such nonsense, I thought to myself.

The question was: why did she insist on this? I searched the web for an answer. I found plenty of mention of this stipulation of hers, but no where could I find why she had “made loud noises” about wanting the films to be filmed in Britain and to have an all-British cast.

If she did this because she believed it would produce the best quality Harry Potter movies or else for reasons of personal convenience, then her choice was rational. But, and here’s the thing, if she did so because she desired to ‘boost’ the British film industry and give work to British actors, then she is herself guilty of indulging in nationalism. To a rather embarrassing degree, it must be said.

Let’s give Rowling the benefit of the doubt and assume she doesn’t realise this, but there is no rational economic argument for choosing means of production simply because they are within imaginary lines (i.e. national borders) or for choosing people because of the labels (i.e. nationality) governments impose on them.

As economist Donald J. Boudreaux writes, there is “No such thing as international economics”. In Rowling’s case this means there is no such thing as the ‘British film industry’ when it comes to economics. There are just people and firms involved in film making who are based within the same geographic area which she happens to occupy.

Furthermore, there’s no such people as ‘British actors’. There are just actors who occupy the same space on Earth as Rowling, who have similar accents and who share the same culture. There may be plenty of rational reasons for an author or a film studio to favour these firms and people as means to ends, but it’s irrational to favour them because of imaginary political concepts like nations and nationality.

That’s the very behaviour Rowling condemns in others and which she attributes the EU referendum result to. Her irrational urge to protect or boost the British film industry and British acting jobs was no less irrational than whatever nationalistic urges were felt by those who voted for the UK to leave the EU.

At the start of her essay, Rowling explained what she believes are the common features of the most compelling fictional bad guys.

All enduring fictional bad guys encapsulate primal terrors and share certain traits. Invincible to the point of immortality, they commit atrocities without conscience and cannot be defeated by the ordinary man or by conventional means. Hannibal Lecter, Big Brother, and Lord Voldemort: all are simultaneously inhuman and superhuman and that is what frightens us most.

Unsurprisingly, Rowling demonstrates a deep understanding of what makes an enduring villain. Indeed, her own creation is one of the greats of modern fiction. But as I read this it struck me that Rowling could also be describing the State or nation-state, which is the greatest villain or evil in the story of humanity.

The state is a concept, but the evil done in its name by men is very real. The State, which is to say every human being who acts in the name of the state, commits atrocities without conscience. This is because the state, as exclusive law-maker and law-enforcer, is necessarily above the law and thus seemingly beyond moral judgement. The state-ruled society model can’t work any other way. Rather like the God-ruled universe model.

The State too cannot be defeated by the ordinary man. It has all the guns and an army. Nor can it be defeated by conventional means. It cannot be defeated by law because the state is the law. In the spirit of Harry Potter, we might say that the State can only be defeated by the ‘magic’ of ideas because, essentially, that’s all it is – an idea. But ideas are incredibly powerful. They can make or break civilisations and can live forever. Thus the State is, like Rowling says of bad guys, invincible to the point of immortality.

Lord Voldemort is, of course, the bad guy in the Harry Potter stories. I see him as a political metaphor for either a tyrant or the tyranny of majority rule. He desperately wants to acquire the Elder wand, which itself symbolises State power. The Elder wand gives the possessor the power to control everyone else, in the same way that laws enforced by the state do.

It enables the possessor to bend everyone else to his will, just like State power. Voldemort wants to do precisely this. “Join us or die,” is the ultimatum he issues to the entire population of Hogwarts in the final film. In other words, do as I say or else, which is the very essence of statism. He wants to become The State, the single force that controls everyone and everything in society.

Harry, having just witnessed how close his world came to destruction under tyranny, recognises the infinite danger of this absolute power and destroys the wand, which is the greatest tool of evil in their world. But, for a moment, even he is seduced by the thought of keeping it and using it himself. He wonders whether the power isn’t the problem, but merely the person possessing it. In the hands of Voldemort it would have produced hell on Earth, but what if Harry possessed it? Would it produce heaven on Earth if three brave and virtuous people possessed it? No, this is the mirage and siren call of power.

Possessing such power, Harry, Ron and Hermione would eventually feel morally obliged to intervene into everyone’s lived with the aim of improving things a little. At first it would be seemingly minor tweaks, such as new ‘sensible’ laws or lower prices for this or that or a more ‘fair’ distribution of some resources.

But these uses of power would have unforeseen consequences, which all government action aimed at increasing prosperity or solving social problems does, and would create new problems. Which people would demand further applications of power for, which in turn would have further unforeseen consequences and so on.

Eventually and inevitably, the world ruled over by Harry, Ron and Hermione would enter the death spiral of intervention. Individual liberty would be eroded to the point where there was no longer sufficient freedom or incentive for the creative use of human energy. Which is the freedom that creates all prosperity and fosters social harmony.

Without ever intending to, eventually they would be controlling every aspect of society and everyone’s lives. Almost everyone would be dependent upon them. As society further deteriorated and peace and prosperity crumbled, people would be demanding and begging for more drastic uses of their power.

If they kept the Elder wand, Harry, Ron and Hermione would inadvertently create their own version of hell on Earth. Their attempts to use their absolute and centralised power to make the world a better place would only make the world a worse place; it would only make them tyrants, albeit unwitting ones. And evil would win. Harry did the right thing by destroying the Elder wand. But, then, deep down we all knew that.

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