Nicholas Taylor-Collins in front of a bookshelf

Nicholas Taylor-Collins

Literary researcher | Creative reader

Suzanne Collins’s ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’: Hobbes for the twenty-first century

Suzanne Collins’s latest addition to the Panem world of the Hunger Games, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Scholastic, 2020), is a prequel taking place decades before the original trilogy. It follows school-leaver Coriolanus who joins the first cohort of Hunger Games mentors during the annual bloodletting’s tenth edition. As an informed reader will know—or, indeed, watcher of the films—Snow must end the book well. After all, by the time the hero of the original trilogy, Katniss Everdeen, turns up, Snow is president of Panem.

Collins plays on her reader’s knowledge by putting Snow’s life in jeopardy. But she also tantalises the more erudite side of her reader’s appetite by exploring how the Hunger Games became the notable entertainment phenomenon under Snow’s presidency. The Ballad‘s Hunger Games is more of a sandbox than a polished performance, but revolutionary events come thick and fast: gambling on the winner; food parcels for the tributes; pre-Games television interviews. Snow’s Hunger Games is in the making.

The book also touches on political theory, including the idea of the social contract:

Coriolanus knew what happened without control. He’d seen it recently […]. ‘Chaos happens. What else is there to say?’

‘Oh, a good deal, I think. Start with that. Chaos. No control, no law, no government at all. Like being in the arena. Where do we go from there? What sort of agreement is necessary if we’re to live in peace? What sort of social contract is required for survival?’

Suzanne Collins’s The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Scholastic, 2020), p. 244.

And later:

Yes, the lack of law, that was at the heart of it. So people needed to agree on laws to follow. Was that what Dr Gaul had meant by ‘social contract‘? The agreement not to rob, abuse, or kill one another? It had to be. And the law required enforcement, and that was where control came in. Without the control to enforce the contract, chaos reigned. The power that controlled needed to be greater than the people—otherwise, they would challenge it.

Collins, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, pp. 291–2

Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) sketched a modern political theory of the social contract during the English Civil War. On the basis that man’s natural state (always men, never women) of interaction was to be chaotically at war, Hobbes theorised that society needed a neutral and communal arbiter of individual needs. The net result was a sovereign state that could supplant the Divine Right of Kings, and create a polity that took account of everyone’s interests, while only taking away a few of the rights of the individual.

The natural chaos Hobbes envisioned is the chaos Coriolanus experiences in Panem. And, when Coriolanus concludes the second of those passages quoted above with the assertion that ‘The only entity capable of [controlling the power] was the Capitol’ (p. 292)—the same Capitol who hosted the hunger Games in which twenty-three young citizens of Panem died annually—it is clear that Coriolanus is set to follow Hobbes’s ideas.

More recently sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) has adjusted social contract theory to take account of the changing nature of society. For Durkheim the social contract is a codified set of rules based on society’s morals. The contract, like other legal contracts, evidences socio-moral behaviour. Durkheim’s society, unlike Hobbes’s distrustful version, is interindividual and becomes an organic solidarity: lots of individual moving parts come together to make an operative whole.

If Coriolanus were to peer a little more closely at the inner workings of Panem, he would spy a potential Durkheimian solidarity throughout the society. However, its organicity—its plastic interindividuality—has been corrupted by the central power at the Capitol. The distrust that emanates from that centre forgoes the benefits of an organic solidarity, in which Panem’s twelve districts with their economic specialism—2’s munitions, 12’s coal mining, etc.—could contribute to greater wealth and wellbeing throughout the country, without conceding any liberty or claim to that global wealth.

It is easy for someone of Coriolanus’s disposition and relative privilege in society to confuse cause with effect. He feels pain, and sees its cause in the animality of the districts and their murderous tributes; he witnesses rebellion in the districts and sees its cause in their citizens’ baseness; he witnesses an enforced solidarity founder, and sees the answer in a Hobbesian response to nature’s chaos. However, a more sympathetic Durkheimian reading of Panem’s problems would relocate the country’s problems to the centre and the Capitol’s failure to see their own citizens’ base animality as the cause of the rebellious effects in the districts.

Far from the bloodletting in the Hunger Games establishing a social contract where chaos otherwise would reign, Collins’s latest novel helps us to see more concretely that the Games affirms the betrayal of the social contract. In a twenty-first century world in which peaceful protests have been deemed ‘terroristic’, and the militarised force used to quell them considered ‘civil’, the lesson from The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes might well be timely.





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