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  • Published in Analysis
game of thrones

Scene from Game of Thrones. Picture: Flickr/horslips5

The wildly popular series has attracted a number of interesting attempts to analyse what it tells us about the contemporary state of capitalist culture

On Sunday, millions of fans around the world will sit down to watch the eagerly anticipated seventh series of HBO’s television fantasy series, Game of Thrones. Based on a sequence of novels by the American author, George RR Martin, the show has turned into one of the most popular television shows of all time since its debut in 2011. With an innovative mix of medieval-style power plays and other-worldly elements such as dragons and zombies, Game of Thrones has somehow tapped into an early 21st century zeitgeist of a world falling apart on the eve of a massive, if uncertain, transformation. The characters and situations featured in the series have intruded into popular consciousness at an increasing rate as its audience has grown.

In 2012, the producers mischievously displayed a replica of George Bush’s head skewered on the end of a pike! When Jeremy Corbyn spectacularly won the Labour leadership in 2015, one of the most popular memes that circulated likened his triumph to that of one of the show’s central characters. Channel 4’s best known anchorman recently played on the catchphrase associated with the same character and his namesake to highlight the failure of the commentariat to comprehend the new political tumult of the post-election period: You know nothing, Jon Snow. Less amusingly, Michael Gove appeared in a cringe-inducing video last year, claiming to be inspired by another character during his botched bid to be Tory leader. Unfortunately for Gove, many interpreted his assessment of Tyrion Lannister as an unwitting self-criticism: “You see this misshapen dwarf, reviled throughout his life, thought in the eyes of some to be a toxicfigure.”(This comparison is also grossly unfair to Tyrion, who has proved to be a far more enlightened politician than Gove ever could be)

Power mad maniacs

Aside from these incursions into mainstream debate, GOT has attracted a number of interesting attempts by writers on the left to analyse the nature of the show’s appeal and what it tells us about the contemporary state of capitalist culture. An alternative option, of course, would be to dismiss the series as nothing more than a re-heated version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with added soft porn and graphic violence to pull in an adult audience. One of the best Marxist deconstructions of the series comes from Tony McKenna who eloquently explains why such a peremptory verdict is misplaced:

“For though Game of Thrones is ostensibly about a fantasy feudal realm governed by ancient blood lineages and autocratic decadence, the sense of foreboding – the awareness that a tangible and stable reality is ever more in danger of melting away – is something that a viewership living in the shadow of a vast global-economic crisis can increasingly identify with.”

Likewise, Laurie Penny of the New Statesman detects a resonance in the series with our crisis-wracked world that partly explains its impact:

“What sets it apart is not the monsters, the nudity or the festering gallons of gratuitous gore, but the overwhelming sense that the plot got run off the rails three books ago and is being steered towards a terrible precipice by a bunch of bickering, power-mad maniacs. This, coincidentally, happens to be the plot of the entire 21st century so far.”

Thinning

Paul Mason,Guardiancolumnist and champion of Corbynism is probably the best known figure to have tried his hand at a leftist critique of the series. Mason perceives GOT to be dramatising a version of the transition from feudalism to capitalism that unfolded in Europe from the early medieval period. Mason argues the Lannister family represent a parasitical feudal elite that has tenuously clung onto state power in the fragmented realm of Westeros thanks to their monopoly of the gold supply from their redoubt at Casterly Rock. Unfortunately for them, it is now apparent that supply is practically exhausted and, consequently, they are in debt to the unsentimental and coldly-calculating financiers of Braavos. Mason detects a parallel not just between this scenario and an epochal transformation in the past, but also with one of the crucial political battlegrounds of our time:

“If this sounds a lot like Greece and the European Central Bank, that’s only because their current standoff replicates the essential power shift that happened towards the end of feudalism: debts accumulated under a corrupt patronage system, whose sources of wealth dried up, destroyed the system in the end.”

Mason integrates the concept of thinninginto his analysis of the series. This is a common theme in modern fantasy literature that concerns gradual disenchantment and the decline of supernatural influence in a particular alternative universe. Mason claims the growing influence of the bankers of Braavos at the expense of the royal family points to an imminent bourgeois revolution in the Seven Kingdoms that will inaugurate a new era of capitalist development.

Topsy turvy nightmare

In contrast, Marxist critic Sam Kriss has countered that Mason misunderstands both the nature of the transition from one mode of production to the other, and the shifting balance of power in the series. In his article Game of Thrones and the End of Marxist Theory, Kriss argues the decisive factor in Europe’s medieval transition to early capitalism was not a build-up of debt by monarchies but the recurrent outbreaks of class struggle in the form of agrarian uprising, such as England’s Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. He argues the Brotherhood Without Banners that has featured in the series represent a version of this oppositional force within Westeros that is preparing to sweep away all the ruling dynasties in the name of revolution from below. On the theme of thinning, Kriss points out that Mason could not be more wrong; the reality of the show’s narrative arc is that, in fact, magic and other-worldly powers are being re-energised in its alternative universe in the form of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons and the White Walkers from beyond the Wall in the North. He also notes that Marx himself utilised quasi-magical language to explain the grip that capitalism has on our lives:

“Capitalism is a monster more uncontrollablethan any mere dragon, and a succession of bourgeois economists have tried and failed to rein it in. In Capital, Marx spends some time discussing the properly supernatural elements of the capitalist system: the bodiless phantasm that is exchange value, the topsy-turvy nightmare of the autonomous commodity.”

Kriss believes that, in some form, the three forces of the Brothers, Walkers and dragons will collide at the climax of the series in a rupture of the status quo that promises to be far more transformational than simply a bourgeois revolution.

No happy ending

The most coherent and persuasive analysis of GOT from a Marxist perspective comes from Tony McKenna. He shares some of the views outlined by Paul Mason but expresses them with a more informed grasp of historical materialism and more insight into the probable story arc that George Martin is working with. McKenna cautions that those viewers, such as Sam Kriss, who are hoping for an emancipatory and upbeat conclusion that sees white hats installed in power and black hats dispatched into oblivion are likely to be disappointed. Last year Martin warned fans: “Winter is the time when things die, and cold and ice and darkness fill the world, so this is notgoing to be the happy feel-good that people may be hoping for.” McKennapersuasively argues that such a sobering conclusion might not be what most viewers are hoping for, but would be consistent with both the internal logic of the series and the historical era he believes it parallels. McKenna shares Mason’s view that the transition from feudalism to capitalism is essentially the backdrop to the unfolding drama. He observes how the two characters who most viewers probably identify with, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, display characteristics of the feudal order that was ultimately supplanted by the emerging ethos of capitalism.

The former is the adopted son of Ned Stark and has been raised in a family that is admirable but historically obsolete:

“The Starks….represent a morebenevolent vision of an earlier medievalism in which more parochial forms of kingship operated largely unmolested by the external stresses of an encroaching market economy and a centralized absolutism.”

The grisly fate of Jon’s adopted parents and brother in previous episodes might indicate that McKenna is right to be fearful of what lies in store for the current King in the North. Likewise, he argues readers and viewers who assume Daenerys Targaryen is destined to ascend to the Iron Throne are failing to note her record of securing political power is ambivalent at best. The Mother of Dragons has succeeded in overthrowing tyrannical slave-owning states in Essos but in many cases the erstwhile elites have re-asserted their influence and undermined her authority. McKenna perceptively argues this is consistent with a Marxist understanding of how change has occurred in pre-capitalist societies:

"When slave rebellions did takeplace in the Ancient world, they were sometimes capable of inflicting great defeats on the old order, as was the case with Spartacus, but they were incapable of replacing it with a fundamentally new model of social organization."

Queen Sansa?

McKenna concurs with Mason that the narrative logic of the series is heading towards the installation of a bourgeois -style regime that will suppress forever the influence of supernatural forces of either the fiery or wintry variety. His choice of which character will end up on top of the pile at the end of next year’s eighth and final series will surprise -and probably disappoint-many but there is a compelling logic behind his theory that Sansa Stark will accede to the Iron Throne at the expense of Daenarys Targaryren, Jon Snow or any other rival claimant. The eldest daughter of the Stark dynasty personifies the diminution of enchantment and its eclipse by a steely ruthlessness that characterised the rise to power of the embryonic capitalist class in the womb of the feudal order. In series one, Sansa was naively besotted by a royal prince who turned out to be a psychopath; at the end of the last series she was feeding an equally deranged despot to his own rabid dogs. She has now acquired the cold-eyed and unsentimental resolve of a Cromwell or Robespierre determined to dispatch the ancien regime to the dustbin of history

Break the wheel

Such a conclusion might fit an orthodox Marxist historical schema but would it fit the defining political quality of this second decade of the 21stcentury? That is to say, the stunning volatility and unpredictability of events. The post-2008 crash world has seen a sequence of shocks and surprises few would have predicted: the rise of Corbyn to the Labour leadership and to the brink of Number Ten; Britain voting to jump off the EU juggernaut; Bernie Sanders only being denied the Democrat nomination thanks to Clintonite skulduggery; and the still barely believable elevation to the Presidency of Donald Trump. George Martin's narrative trajectory is gloriously impossible to predict but if the show is to continue to tune into the turbulence of our time, something equally jaw-dropping surely has to be on the cards. Some of its most memorable moments have involved characters and armies coming together to create improbable new alliances, such as Jon Snow's merging of the Night's Watch and the Wildlings, or Daenerys Targaryen linking up with Tyrion,outcast scion of the hated Lannisters who massacred her family.

As the seventh season looms, most are expecting the spectral White Walkers to represent the darkest threat to civilisation in Westeros. However, as these icy warriors were recently revealed to have been originally men who were turned into a super-weapon that went wrong, perhaps some means of returning them to their original state to assist in the liberation of the Seven Kingdoms will be discovered. The last season saw Bran Stark acquire time-travelling capability so perhaps he will prevent the rise of the Walkers in the first place. Even if Dany is denied her apparent destiny, it is to be hoped her clarion cry for revolution is fulfilled in some form-in her world and ours:

Lannister, Baratheon,Stark, Tyrell, they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top and that one’s 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

Tagged under: Marxism Class Culture
Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch chair. He is a member of Counterfire and York People's Assembly. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Reviews in History.

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