Watching the new Fantastic Beasts series, set in the Harry Potter world but outside of Hogwarts school, has made me aware of the horrible inequalities and vicious politics of the Harry Potter world. I have reported on how the first movie very starkly illustrated the lack of interest wizards have in the welfare of muggles, and the extreme inequality between wizard and muggle world that wizards actively work to maintain. In the second movie their disregard for the muggles bleeds into full exterminationism, and the central plot of the movie is revealed to be the battle between an evil guy who wants to exterminate all muggles and a plucky wizard who wants to preserve the status quo (although perhaps his main motivation is getting laid). In the second movie we also see how the politics of the wizard world is close to fascist, and definitely dystopian, and the wizards are subjected to a strict system of control and enforcement that seems to be largely built around ensuring they don’t reveal themselves to or do anything to help muggles.

In comments to the post in which I discuss this dystopian wizard world I attempted to discuss which kind of political dystopia the wizard world is, and after rejecting fascism and communism I settled on a colonialist model for the world. In this post I want to explain in detail how the politics of the Harry Potter world is explicitly colonialist, discuss the world’s repeated turns to exterminationism in light of this politics, and ask a few questions about how it is that a book in which we cheer for a bunch of colonialist bell-ends became an international sensation.

This post is going to be long, and will be structured something like this:

  • An introduction to colonial practice: Exploitative versus acquisitive colonialism
  • The proto-fascist structure of colonial states
  • The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion
  • Why muggles are treated the same way as indigenous people in the Harry Potter world
  • The inevitability of extermination and the threat of muggle technology
  • Cheering on racists: How did we come to this?

In constructing this argument I will draw on background material from the Harry Potter books, some supporting material which I think JK Rowling published, and the events of the two Fantastic Beasts movies. I’m not a Harry Potter expert, so there may be mistakes. Anyway, here goes…

Two kinds of colonialism

When people think of colonialism they often think of the conquest and exploitation of India, which is seen as the canonical model of how a rich European state takes over and exploits a thriving non-European community. However, this is only one of two types of colonialism. For simplicity in this post I will define these two kinds as exploitative colonialism and acquisitive colonialism. In exploitative colonialism an aggressive and expansionist state invades and subjugates a weaker but technologically advanced state, destroys or co-opts its existing political structures, and runs its economy to its own exploitative benefit. Typically the state that the colonialist power invades is established, strong, with its own heirarchies, a thriving market, international trade and its own technological developments and progress. The model of such a state is India, but any of the South East Asian nations and also much of North Africa qualifies for this situation. In exploitative colonialism the cost of exterminating the locals, and the huge benefits of exploiting their existing markets and social structures, mean that exploitation is the best or possibly the only way for the colonial power to extract benefit from a people it considers its inferior. In contrast, acquisitive colonialism seeks no benefit from the people it overruns. In acquisitive colonialism the expansionist state finds a people who are technologically far inferior to itself, have a very small and dispersed population, limited or no international trade, and few markets it can intrude into. The only thing they have that is of value to the expansionist state is land and the resources locked in and under that land. Often their political systems are so alien to the conquering state that it cannot conceive of how to exploit them, and in any case the local economy is so small in comparison to the colonial state’s that there is no point in wasting energy trying to extract anything from them. Often these highly isolated societies are also vulnerable to diseases that the colonist brings, so exploitation will be highly destructive in any case. In acquisitive colonialism the costs of extermination are so low, and the benefits of exploitation so minimal, that the best outcome is to destroy the local community, drive it off of all profitable or beneficial lands, isolate it from the invaders and exclude it from all contact with or benefit from the invading society. This form of colonialism was practised in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. The final goal of this form of colonialism may not have been the complete destruction of an entire race and culture, but it was most certainly the complete expulsion of these people from all profitable lands and their exclusion – generally on racist and eugenicist grounds – from all political and cultural interaction with the colonial state. This final stage is characterized in the USA by the reservation system, and in Australia by the mission system and the child abduction program. These acquisitive colonial states reached their nadir in the mid- to late 19th century and early 20th century, when they mixed their colonial ideology with scientific racism, but had a tail that trailed into the late 20th century, with the end of the explicitly exterminationist strategies probably marked by Wounded Knee in the USA and the end of the child abduction program in Australia in the early 1970s.

Of course neither of these kinds of colonialism perfectly enacted the goals they set out for themselves, partly due to conflicting political visions, partly due to changing circumstances, and partly because the goals cannot be pursued to their pure conclusion through the flawed and human agents of colonial repression. But that they did not, for example, completely exterminate the native American peoples should not be taken as a sign that American colonialism was not explicitly acquisitive and exterminationist.

The proto-fascist structure of colonial states

Colonialism extracts a heavy toll from its subject peoples, but it does not do so without also implementing an architecture of oppression and authoritarianism at home. Colonialist states explicitly structure their world view around heirarchies of human worth, defined in terms of race, class and gender, and the state and its supporters construct a network of social, political, economic and cultural forces to support and maintain these heirarchies. Within the home country of the colonialist state there is usually an extensive apparatus to control the poor, with institutions such as the workhouse and the prison, poor laws, debtor’s prison, and press gangs. Much of the British state’s early actions against sex workers were based on fear of the weakening influence of sexually transmitted infections on the colonial project, and the mistreatment of poor women and their children – including deceptively stealing their children and shipping them to the colonies to be used as cheap labour in the mission system and the homes of wealthy colonial families – is well documented, finally.

In the acquired colonial territories the state enacts vicious repression on its own lower classes, in the form of anti-union violence and the employment of terror organizations such as the Pinkertons to enforce its will. Where extractive industries in the acquired territories come into conflict with colonial labourers or encounter activism to preserve the environment or other public goods they react violently and with government support. Movement of non-indigenous people into indigenous areas is heavily restricted, and organizations that might represent the interests of indigenous people are suppressed. In the USA there was lynching of free Mexican workers throughout the south west, and in Australia in the 1960s the Freedom Riders were met with violence in their journey around Australia publicizing Aboriginal disadvantage. In the UK it was not uncommon to see “No dogs and Irishmen” signs on public accommodations, and at times in history it was not acceptable for white and indigenous people to marry or live together. In later years through programs like Cointelpro and the undercover police operations of the UK the state’s secret police worked assiduously against not only indigenous rights but also environmental and labour activism, animal rights progress, and any form of restrictions of the rights of the colonial state to extract full value from its stolen lands. In the USA this led to state and extra-judicial violence against indigenous people protecting their water rights, open suppression of land rights activism, and the use of prison and state power to restrict services to reservations to force acquiescence from indigenous activists and their non-indigenous supporters. The British state introduced transportation in the 19th century, dumping petty criminals and labour organizers from the UK into the badlands of its colonial properties and then pitting them against the indigenous residents, and punishing those who spoke out against these practices.

It is not possible to exterminate whole peoples, push them off their hereditary lands, and steal their resources without maintaining a violent state that represses all attempts at clemency or understanding. You cannot keep humans out of your polity without forcefully policing the boundaries of your polity, and requiring that your citizens stay strictly within it. Colonialist states are repressive, and build up structures of political and state control intended to ensure that their heirarchical and violent systems are maintained. There is a wide literature on the damaging political consequences of the exercise of state power in support of colonialism: George Orwell writes eloquently about its damaging effects in Burmese Days, and Katharine Susannah Pritchard describes the oppressive atmosphere of the frontier very well in Brumby Innes and Coonardoo. Henry Reynolds describes the violence of the frontier in The Forgotten War, and of course the Bringing them Home report details the racist underpinnings of the political order supporting colonialism in Australia. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds in New Zealand offer an unrelenting description of the colonial project in New Zealand, against an incredibly beautiful and peaceful backdrop. There is no reason for anyone in colonial societies not to know these things, but many of us do not.

Having established these outlines of what colonialist policy is and how colonial states enforce it on both their colonized victims and their citizens, let us move to the world of Harry Potter, and examine how the wizard world treats muggles.

The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion

The Muggle Protection Act is a law passed in 1992 to protect muggles from magical accidents. It was part of a broader body of legislative and scholarly work on maintaining the veil of secrecy between the muggle and wizard worlds. It may be just a coincidence, but most colonial states have a law akin to this. For example in 1869 the Aboriginal Protection Act was passed in Victoria, which amongst other things restricted “where people could live and work, what they could do and who they could meet or marry”. Similar restrictions and guidelines were published in the wizarding world, for example the three volume Laws of Conduct When Dealing with Muggles, or the cultural (but not legal) stigma attached to marrying muggles. It appears, from Queenie’s behaviour in The Crimes of Grindelwald, that it is not possible for her to marry Jacob Kowalski or even to have a relationship with him, which is why she has abducted him and charmed him to come with her to France. That suggests that in 1920s America at least there was some kind of restriction on muggle-wizard relationships, or at least they were only considered acceptable in extreme circumstances. It is also apparently the case that the ministry of magic attempted to remove certain books from school libraries if they depicted relationships with muggles or were overly sensitive in their reporting on muggles.

The politics of muggle exclusion becomes much clearer when we investigate Dumbledore’s history of activism on this subject. In a letter to Grindelwald on the topic, this scion of liberal wizard politics writes

Your point about Wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLE’S OWN GOOD — this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be the basis of all our counterarguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must use only the force that is necessary and no more.

This is a classic model of white man’s burden. Consider, for example, this minute from the colonial secretary of New South Wales to the Legislative Assembly, 1883:

HAVING carefully read the two reports by the Protector, the various letters and articles which have appeared in the newspapers on the La Perouse blacks, and the report of Messrs. King and Fosbery on the Warangesda and Maloga Mission Stations, the opinion which I formerly held is confirmed, viz., that much more must be done than has yet been done for the Aborigines before there can be any national feeling of satisfaction that the Colony has done its duty by the remnant of the aboriginal race.

Later in this note (which can be found as a reference here), we can find in the report of the NSW Aborigines Protection Association the following charming indication of how many people in 1881 felt about Aboriginal people:

As usual in inaugurating an effort of this nature, the Association had some obstacles to surmount through misrepresentation and apathy. It was said that any attempt to better the condition of the blacks was labour in vain; that they were such irreclaimable savages, and so devoid of ordinary human sympathies that no hold could be got over them ; and that they were dying out so fast that no good end could be served by trying to civilize and educate them.

This is very close to the way Grindelwald or Voldemort think about Muggles; indeed, without having access to it, one could assume that Dumbledore’s reply to Grindelwald is a reply to a sentiment such as this. Certainly there is a movement in the wizard world – epitomized by Grindelwald and Voldemort, but also expressed through pure-blood fascists like Malfoy – that the wizards have the right to rule over muggles, that no consideration should be given at all to muggles and that purity of blood is essential. Indeed, the entire language of blood status in the wizard world exactly mirrors the language of racial heirarchies in colonial societies, and policies championed by pure-blood fascists are very similar to those proposed by people like A.O. Neville in early 20th century Australia. The similarity of language and intent is striking. Effectively what we see here is one side of an ongoing debate between wizards about whether to completely ignore or even exterminate muggles, or to keep them excluded from wizard society but act where possible for the good of the muggles when doing so. In the Harry Potter books we see this debate manifest as a violent conflict between Voldemort on one side, and Dumbledore and the children on the other, in which we side with Dumbledore and his white man’s burden, rather than the exterminationist Voldemort.

The Muggle-Indigenous parallel

Of course, one might argue that this colonial vision cannot be shared between wizards and European colonialists, because wizards are not stealing anyone’s lands. They don’t need to interact with muggles at all and they’re simply maintaining a peaceful distance. But this is not the case at all. Muggles are a constant burden to wizards; muggles are in the way. Whenever wizards show themselves around muggles – whenever they attempt to be on muggle land or in muggle spaces as wizards – they risk violence, and the entire architecture of wizard secrecy was developed in 1683 in response to violent encounters between muggles and wizards. In the colonial project Indigenous people are also in the way, because they occupy land that the colonialists want, and attempts to use that land incur Indigenous anger and violence, so the simple solution is to push them off. Perhaps they could have come to some arrangement to share the land, but why would they bother with people so far beneath them? And why negotiate when essentially you do not believe that Indigenous people are using the land at all? This logic of terra nullius makes it an injustice to the colonialists to have to negotiate with their inferiors for access to land they don’t believe the indigenous people are using or need. A very similar situation applies to the wizard world: wizards cannot openly use muggle land or public space without incurring violence, and so the muggles to them are just a nuisance. They have nothing to gain from interacting with muggles, and consider themselves so far above muggles that negotiating with them is a waste of time, and so they try to separate their societies. To this end they establish a complex system of laws that they enforce with extreme violence (towards wizards who violate them) and obliteration (of memories) for muggles who stumble across their existence. It is also clear from the books that even liberal wizards don’t think twice about interfering in the wellbeing and livelihoods of muggles if the muggles’ presence causes them even a moment’s inconvenience. Consider this story from Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince[1]:

There was no doubt that Mrs Cole was an inconveniently sharp woman. Apparently Dumbledore thought so too, for Harry now saw him slip his wand out of the pocket of his velvet suit, at the same time picking up a piece of perfectly blank paper from Mrs Cole’s desktop.

‘Here,’ said Dumbledore, waving his wand once as he passed her the piece of paper, ‘I think this will make everything clear.’

Mrs Cole’s eyes slid out of focus and back again as she gazed intently at the blank paper for a moment.

‘That seems perfectly in order,’ she said placidly, handing it back.

Here Dumbledore, ostensibly a champion of muggle rights, simply screws with a woman’s mind and creates a future disciplinary issue for her, just because she is “inconveniently sharp.” Her situation or needs are of no importance to her at all – he simply dismisses her intentions and free will, and tricks her into not doing her job, with all the consequences that entails.

It is inevitable that at some point in this history an impatient or particularly arrogant wizard is going to advocate for the next step from this inconvenient co-existence: exterminate them and take their land. This is what Grindelwald wants to do, keeping alive perhaps a small number for some as-yet-unclear purpose. It is also part of Voldemort’s goal, although he also appears to want to reshape wizard society as well. Perhaps he realized that rebellion against the system of muggle protection boards and secrecy statutes was not enough, and to properly settle “the muggle question” one needs to also change wizard society so it is less squeamish about what needs to be done. This would make him no different to the people arguing against the Aborigines Protection Association in Australia in 1881.

The parallels are obvious: an inferior race interferes in the goals of wizards by being in their way on land they could be using for their own benefit. So the debate becomes: do we tolerate them and do our best to rule with good intentions, avoiding harming them as much as possible; or do we exterminate them for our own convenience? All of the Harry Potter plot – and especially the plot of the new Fantastic Beasts series – concerns the resolution of this debate. It’s the classic debate of the colonial era, with magic.

Extermination and the threat of muggle technology

The slide towards extermination is inevitable, and the imperative to do so becomes obvious in The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we begin to realize that there are too many muggles, wizards can’t control them forever, and because they haven’t already completely destroyed their society, the muggles are developing their own technology. Grindelwald shows a vision of the future in which muggles have nuclear weapons and it becomes painfully apparent to the gathered wizards that the game is up: if the muggles get that technology, they are the equals of wizards. That one vision by itself is enough to convince at least half of the wizards to switch sides. Queenie switches sides, with the promise of no moral constraints on how she will be able to deal with muggles. The implication for Queenie is that she can have Jacob – but what does that mean for the other wizards in the room? Murder? Slavery? It’s not clear but the implication is not good. The moral implication of this in the context of this colonialist model of wizard-muggle interactions is obvious: because they didn’t exterminate them and disrupt their culture sooner, the wizards have allowed the muggles to flourish and become independent, and now they are a threat. The wizards should have learnt from the human playbook, and done the job properly from the start. Grindelwald – and, perhaps, later Voldemort – will do the job properly!

The moral implications

What should we as readers take away from this collection of stories? I tried googling to find out what others have written about this topic, and although I found some interesting questions and debates on colonialism in the stories, I could not find anyone tackling the obvious racism of the wizard/muggle divide and the horrifying language of colonial racial hierarchies in Rowling’s lexicon of blood purity. I found an article from an academic, Magical Creatures and How to Exploit them, about the colonial politics of wizard’s attitudes towards non-human magical beings. I found a question on Metafilter (wtf!) about whether the wizards bothered to stop colonialism when muggles did it to each other, with the obvious implication (since it happened) that wizards from all the countries on earth sat back quietly while muggles of one country enslaved and exterminated muggles of other countries. This is an interesting question that makes the central interventionist debate in Black Panther look kind of pissy, but it doesn’t address the issue of how wizards view and treat muggles. The entire issue seems to have just slid under everyone’s notice.

I think this is a strong indictment of how western societies view our colonial past, and also a really depressing example of how much indigenous peoples’ voices and cultural history have been excluded from western culture. We didn’t even notice as a series of books in an obviously, openly racist and colonialist setting swept the world by storm. A huge amount of ink has been spilled on her description of native American wizards, but nothing has been said about the colonized nature of muggle life, and the fascist society that rules over them and is planning to exterminate them.

There is nowhere in the original series of novels or in the movies where the author makes a judgment on this, or leads us to believe that she even sees this issue (indeed, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them it is unclear whether we’re even meant to think the summary execution of Tina is bad). It is possible to make stories of this kind with a little more moral nuance than we see in Harry Potter. For example, in his Culture series, Iain M. Banks makes it very clear that there is something slightly wrong about the Culture, and especially about the behavior of the Contact section. In Consider Phlebas we are obviously meant to sympathize with the Culture’s enemies as they race to find the Mind, and in The Player of Games the planet that Gurgeh intervenes in is set up as almost comically evil with the specific intent of posing a moral question about interference. The decisions that the main characters make leave them scarred and cynical, and sometimes set them against their own society. In the movie Avatar the colonial conflict has a clear moral framework and we end up switching sides midway through. There is no point in any of the multitude of books, movies and associated stuff where any wizard character of any kind rebels in any meaningful way against the colonial system, or even questions it. The obvious implication of this is that we’re complicit with it, as readers – we are asked to go along with it, and we do!

This leads me to ask a few questions about the series, its conception and its reception, which I have not been able to answer:

  • Did J.K. Rowling intend this series to be a discourse on colonialism, or did she invent this entire apparatus out of whole cloth?
  • Has anyone noticed the racism of wizard society and its colonialist parallels, and has Rowling responded to that?
  • Is there any young adult literature where the good guys are embedded in and supporting a society as openly fascist as the one that Rowling writes about?

It is disturbing to me that this series is about a group of children defending an overtly authoritarian society from a fascist takeover, in which two separate storylines describe bad guys intending to exterminate most of the human race on racial grounds, and we are supposed to cheer on the “good” colonialists who are protecting a “good” society which controls the minds, bodies and souls of 6 billion people because of their infinite inferiority, and maintains a deeply violent and illiberal social order in order to protect that colonialist project. I cannot remember any book I have ever read in my entire life (except perhaps Starship Troopers, but for obvious reasons my memory of that is dim) in which the society the good guys come from is so deeply evil, and yet we are so blithely expected to cheer along the main characters as they defend and support that society. Looking back on it now, I feel as if I have been indoctrinated into a vicious and disturbed cultural order, raised in it just like the children in the books, and only when I was presented with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them did I finally realize that the society I had been cheering for needs to be torn down root and branch.


The society of the Harry Potter world is best modeled as a colonialist society in which an elite of extremely powerful people lord segregate themselves from a mass of muggles who they exclude from the riches and benefits of their own society, on explicitly racist grounds. This society has developed an intensely authoritarian and illiberal system of government to control the wizards and ensure that the colonial order is reproduced, and is happy to use violence and imprisonment in a soul-destroying prison to maintain that order. Exterminationist ideology bubbles up repeatedly in this world because it is inevitable that a society which views 6 billion people as worthless interferences in its daily activities will eventually decide that the convenient thing to do is murder all of them, and the need to do so becomes pressing when people realize these supposedly useless muggles will get nukes. We the readers are supposed to cheer on the agents of this authoritarian society as they defend it against a fascist, exterminationist incursion, without ever questioning the underlying principles of this social order, the author never shows any sign that she intends for us to question the moral framework of her series, and no character ever seems to question the fundamental evil of it all.

Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the series, and it’s certainly an interesting political project. But it says a lot about the state of our society that this became popular and that the political underpinnings of the work have never been questioned, or indeed that the explicitly racist framework of the stories has not been repeatedly attacked. Obviously it’s good that millions of children enjoyed a hugely popular book that is enjoyable to read and introduced a whole new generation to the joys of reading and the creative brilliance of literature, but I really hope that in future we as a society can do better than this.

fn1: Itself a deeply disturbing name, when you think about the history of phrases like “Half-blood” when applied to indigenous peoples.

Art note: This is a ledger drawing, art drawn on a school exercise book or some other workaday paper, which is a part of the historical record left behind by indigenous Americans after the end of their independent communities. This one is a drawing by an unknown Kiowa artist, which I took from the Wikipedia entry on ledger art.

Aggressiveness: 10. Ferocity: 10.

Aggressiveness: 10. Ferocity: 10. Come visit his country …

As some of my readers know, I have been having fun conquering the world as Japan in Hearts of Iron 2, and that I’m reporting it all cynically in the tone of a Japanese leader forced to war to defend Asia against colonialism. Before I played Japan I had a go as Germany and didn’t do very well – the Soviets declared war on me in 1942 (I can’t think why!) and I got wiped out because my army was busy trying to secure oil in Africa.

Something noticeable about Hearts of Iron (HOI) and its successors is that there is no genocide option, even though some people believe the Holocaust was crucial to German war aims and so should probably be in the game. I understand that there is some debate about whether the Holocaust was a net benefit for the Nazi war machine, but some historians argue that the Holocaust policy developed slowly, piece-by-piece, in response to changing economic and industrial demands, and was actually primarily driven by the need to secure economic resources, especially food. Taking this as the basis for the Holocaust, it’s easy to imagine that a mechanism to represent it could be included in the game, to make it easier for certain countries to develop rapidly in the run-up to total war, or to respond to war needs.

The easiest way would be to incorporate a slider, that runs from 0 to 100 representing just how horrific your intended genocide is. Maybe 5 just means marriage and employment restrictions, while 100 is the fully mechanized destruction of entire races. The process is abstracted, and essentially represents a transformation of money, manpower and transport capacity into a reduction of supply needs and an increase in industrial capacity (or even an increase in supplies). This is pretty much what the historians I linked above argue: that the Holocaust was designed the way it was in the steps it was because it was aimed initially at seizing the economic assets of European Jews, to make production more efficient, and then at restricting their food consumption in order to ensure that other Germans didn’t starve. This is also what Stalin was doing with his “dekulakization” in the 1930s – forcing small, unproductive landholders off of their smallholdings into large collective farms, and because these farms were intended to feed many more people than those who worked in them, the excess population of smallholders would have been an economic deadweight – hence they were sent to the camps to die. Plus of course, when Germany invaded Eastern Europe they expropriated huge amounts of food and money, and essentially instituted a policy of starvation to ensure that no untermenschen used food that could have been feeding Germans. Under this analysis of the Holocaust, it was beneficial for the German war effort. If so, it should be modeled in the game in the interests of historical plausibility[1]. Wouldn’t it be great if when you were starting to lose you could slide your slider up to 100 so that you weren’t vulnerable to blockades? The computer could even use the demographic composition of your empire to give you options about which race to exterminate. We’re all about historical plausibility, right?

Suggesting such a process sounds kind of sick, doesn’t it? Which is why Paradox Interactive made a specific, explicit decision not to model this in the game. I remember somewhere a statement from Paradox about this, but I can’t find it any more – maybe it was in the Hearts of Iron manual that I no longer have. Anyway, we can find this on their forum rules for HOI3:

NOTE: There will not be any gulags or deathcamps (including POW camps) to build in Hearts of Iron3, nor will there be the ability to simulate the Holocaust or systematic purges, so I ask you not to discuss these topics as they are not related to this game. Thank You. Threads bringing up will be closed without discussion.

NOTE: Strategic bombing in HoI3 will be abstracted and not allow you to terror bomb civilians specifically. Chemical weapons will also not be included in the game. Any threads that complain about this issue will be closed without discussion.

Not only did they decide not to model these things, but they make very clear that they aren’t going to talk about their decision. We all know why: games that model the holocaust are beyond poor taste, and any gaming company that included such a mechanic in their wargame would be toast pretty fast.

It is, however, okay to model genocide in Europa Universalis 3. Yesterday commenter Paul pointed me to this post in which someone trying the game for the first time talks about how uneasy the colonization process makes her feel. I agree with a lot of this writer’s criticisms of the way the Native Americans are portrayed in the game, and I would like to add two.

  1. Terra nullius: by making colonizable land grey and devoid of units or cultural structures of any type, the game essentially buys in to the legal fiction of terra nullius – that no one owned the land or had a use for it before white people came. This legal fiction was overturned in Australia in 1994, and where not openly declared the general principle often underlay the willingness of white invaders to breach treaty agreements (as they did again and again, for example, when dealing with native Americans). In the game, although the natives are known to be there (you get a count in the colony window), they are not represented as unit types and structures the way Europeans are – the land is not owned in the sense that European land is owned, it just has some people on it. Terra nullius is a pernicious and evil concept that does not reflect the actual state of indigenous life, only the racist perceptions of the colonizers, and it’s sad to see it being reflected so clearly in this game
  2. Elision of native struggle: A common phenomenon in western popular and academic depiction of colonization is the minimization or dismissal of indigenous struggle. This is very common in Australia, and until the publication of Blood on the Wattle, popular understanding of Aboriginal history was that they didn’t really fight back, a belief that derives from early 20th century racial ideas of Aborigines as “weak.” Obviously in the US this is not so readily done, but for example the Sand Creek Massacre used to be referred to as the “Battle of Sand Creek,” though there were very few Indian soldiers involved, and popular lore about Custer’s Last Stand doesn’t usually include awareness that he was attacking a civilian camp at dawn when he was beaten. In the game, native struggle is implied in the aggressiveness and ferocity statistics for each province, and the effect they have on colony growth, but it is not actually visible or witnessed through the need to coordinate military actions against active opponents as happens in any European conflict between even the most irrelevant powers – it is a low background noise to your successful colonization, mostly

I think these two points show that the designers of Europa Universalis haven’t just implemented a game with a colonization strategy; they have implemented a game with a colonization strategy that implicitly reinforces common modern misconceptions about how colonization worked that tend to underplay its genocidal and military aspects (see also the way natives are absorbed into your population once it becomes an official province – this takes about 20 years and is in no way reflective of how colonization absorbed real native populations – such absorption took more than 100 years in Australia, for example, and only occurred at all through massive force and state coercion). I don’t really think this is a moral decision, but I also don’t think it’s defensible. There are lots of other ways that the game could have been designed, from making America the same as Asia to having a single Native American “state” and a different conquering mechanism – or, as April Daniels suggests, just a better and richer experience playing the Natives. There is DLC for this, but that’s not a defense, and neither are the butthurt bleatings of the gamers in the comments. It’s also noteworthy that the people attacking Daniels in comments of that blog are tending to subscribe to the same misconceptions that are buried in the game itself – there wasn’t much war, might makes right, smallpox did it not us!, natives really did get merged into the colonial population without a fight! This kind of response just shows that the west hasn’t come to terms with its colonial past yet.

So here’s what happened: Paradox spent years developing a game set in Europe in which they explicitly avoided modeling a genocide that occurred in Europe and that was crucial to the historical plausibility of the game; they also spent years developing a game set in Europe in which they explicitly developed a model for genocide that occurred outside Europe and that is crucial to the historical plausibility of the game. The former decision was probably (to the best of my recollection) made for moral and political reasons; defenders of the latter decision want me to believe it was for game mechanical reasons, even though the model they developed happens to reproduce some common misconceptions about how the native American genocide unfolded. I’m unconvinced. I think the designers didn’t consider one genocide to have the same weight as the other. Which isn’t to say that they consciously made that decision, but neither did all the cowboy movie directors in the 1980s who made multiple movies that included the Sand Creek Massacre, but didn’t ever get around to depicting Babi Yar from the Nazi perspective. Our culture makes some stories acceptable even though they are steeped in evil, and some stories unacceptable. Many people reproduce those stories without thinking, and that is what the designers did. (It’s also worth noting that Paradox is a Swedish company, and Sweden was not a colonial country in recent time; maybe for them the horrors of world war 2 are much closer than the horrors of genocidal America, and everything that happened in that period in those far-flung places is just a story).

I think there are some big questions buried in EU3, which we also need to ask when we play GTA or watch some nasty slasher pic, and April Daniels asked some of those questions in her blog post. Those questions are also relevant to the genocide issue in EU3 but they’re bigger than that. Why do we make games about war and killing at all? Why do we think it’s okay to drive around LA killing cops but we universally object to rape stories? Why are we so complacent about the destruction of whole cultures in Australia and America, but so touchy about mass murder in Europe? And why do some fanboys get so stupidly butthurt when people who enjoy the game (or the movie) analyze it a little more critically than wow!wow!wow!? My Ottoman Empire has begun its colonial project, in Cameroon and Cayenne and St Helena, and I’m playing that part of the project with the same sarcastic amusement with which I describe the Empire’s “reclamation” of knowledge in Northern Italy; I will probably kill a lot of natives if I have to, and convert the rest[3]. I’m not particularly fussed about this. But I’m also aware that this game is racist on many levels, and it includes genocide as a central mechanic. Some people may not be comfortable doing that, and they may want to write about it. I think it’s possible to simultaneously enjoy the game and accept these things, but I also think the game could have done better on this issue. If I’m going to kill natives and steal their land, why should it be different to the way I kill Germans and take their land – is there something the designers want to say here? There is a long, long way to go before people in the west can accept and understand the genocide that made America and Australia possible, and the deep wounds colonialism left on Africa. Until we do, I guess we can expect that games like EU3 will fall short of genuinely trying to describe the histories and cultures of the people who were exterminated.

fn1: though actually a very interesting experiment would occur if paradox were to include the Holocaust as a single historical decision that was actually bad for the German war effort, and secretly spied on players[2] to find out how many clicked “Yes, do it!” even though the decision is negative.

fn2: or used NSA data

fn3: actually since I westernized[4] I’m so far on the “open-minded” slider that I can’t actually generate missionaries, so I can’t convert anyone. I’ve conquered so much of Europe that my culture is more christian than Muslim. What to do…?

fn4: racist much?

Two previous owners, barely used…

When I lived in London I visited the Crown Jewels, and was struck by how perfectly they encapsulated Britain’s morbid fascination with its past riches. Stored in a secure room in the Tower of London[1], these goodies are an enormously tasteless display of confiscated bling, their centrepiece the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was captured during Britain’s colonial era in Afghanistan. They’re clearly impressive, in a completely gaudy and tasteless way, and the general idea I think is that you’re impressed by how completely awesome Britain was during the empire. They are also clearly worth huge amounts – just the gold on the sceptres and other bits and bobs must be worth a near fortune, but the diamonds are something else again. The koh-i-noor is a 106 carat diamond, and is just one part of Queen Elizabeth’s crown. The whole lot must be worth a small fortune. So it’s amusing when one reaches the end of the Crown Jewels exhibition and encounters, right by the exit, a donation box with a little sign saying “please give generously to help maintain this exhibition.”

Here’s an idea. Why don’t you sell off a bit of the bling, and use it to maintain the rest? There’s a depression on, you know. I wonder how many Indian or Pakistani tourists have got to the end of that exhibition and coughed up a pound? How many have wanted to spit into the box?

This shabby juxtaposition was brought to my attention again this week, not by the diamond jubilee itself, but by the behavior of a company that had been contracted to provide crowd security at the event. This company had been contracted to provide marshalls for the London Bridge area during the flotilla, and as part of its contingent of marshalls it bussed in 80 unemployed people and apprentices to work unpaid for the two days. These people were then required to sleep under London Bridge, and had no access to toilets for the duration. Women had to change in the street. Apparently they were completing the final requirements for accreditation to work at the olympic site, so they worked for nothing. They also weren’t offered accommodation until after the event, when after a 12 hour shift in the teeming rain they were bussed to a swampy campsite. The company’s response to these accusations is not to deny them, but to blame someone else:

The London Bridge incident should never have happened but was to some extent outside our control, the coach drivers insisted on leaving. For this we sincerely apologise, on investigation this morning the majority of the team were happy, fed and looked after as best possible under the circumstances.

Brilliant. Their original plan was to have their unpaid, voluntary staff sleep in buses after an 8 hour bus trip. This company are being paid by the government to provide marshalling services at the most important political event in Britain for a generation, they’ll happily accept free labour, but they can’t be bothered even securing a dormitory for the night. Anyway, it was all the bus driver’s fault.

So, British society can afford a jubilee covering four days and including a rock concert featuring world famous names, a flotilla of a thousand boats, and a series of public holidays that is expected to dent the economy’s growth, but they can’t afford to pay for a dormitory for 80 unemployed people and apprentices who worked for free in the rain to stop the crowds from getting out of hand. I guess there’s a depression on, so we have to forgo some luxuries. Also, could you put a pound in this collection box to help maintain this exhibition of bling? It would be slightly cheaper if we returned this diamond to India, but we have a colonial heritage to respect, so we need your money…

The reality, of course, is that Britain has slid down the wealth rankings over the period of the Queen’s “reign” and no longer has any chance of returning to those prior glories. This article in the Guardian describes the way in which Britain’s economy has declined during the Queen’s reign, from third in the world to 8th. And what countries overtook her in the past 60 years? India, China, Japan, Germany and Brazil. The article describes the fascinating series of policy approaches successive British governments have taken to overcome Britain’s decline, encompassing industrial policy and finance policy to austerity. None of them have worked, and I think this is because of what the article (of course) fails to mention: the collapse of Britain’s colonies. By 1953 (when Elizabeth took the throne) Britain had lost most of her major colonies and was investing increasing amounts of money and effort in retaining the remainder. The loss of those colonies meant that British manufacturing was suddenly forced to compete on world markets where previously it had a captive market place, and at the same time Britain lost access to cheap resources. Is it any wonder that the countries that have overtaken Britain in the succeeding 60 years are countries with no colonies? Britain has wasted, in turn, her industrial base and her resources (coal and North sea oil), and finally turned to gambling as a last desperate attempt to recoup some money in the last 10 years. The result – tragically, for those 80 people sleeping under London Bridge in the rain – was the recent economic collapse.

My theory is that Britain – or more specifically, the British ruling class that fields politicians to rule the country – has a huge blind spot when it comes to understanding colonialism and inequality[2]. Unable to comprehend the true economic and social forces acting on British society, its politicians desperately struggled to find industrial, social, or economic policies that would keep Britain afloat. But there was no solution to Britain’s problems: Britain was wealthy through robbery, and when the larceny stopped they weren’t going to be able to maintain their lifestyle. George Monbiot describes how Britain bought off its working classes with the profits of colonial enterprise while other nations fought against revolution and strife, and the economic miracle Britain was able to work on the back of cheap colonial labour. But with the collapse of the colonies, this welfarist approach to social pacification was going to have to change – to a real economy capable of trading against Germany and Japan. The only solution to buying off your workers is reducing inequality. Did the ruling classes of Britain, unable to accept that in the 1950s,  choose instead to embark on a path of culturally and economically unsustainable welfarism?

This question of what happened to Britain over the last 60 years is fascinating. What do Germany and Japan have that Britain doesn’t? Japan has no resources to speak of, but twice the population – is that all? Is it Japan’s industrial policies (of picking winners, and complex – largely corrupt – relationships between companies, banks and government)? Its relative lack of inequality, which enables it to mobilize its whole society for economic gains, rather than just the top 20%? Is it something cultural? What about Germany, also relatively lacking in resources but similar to Japan in its social welfare and industrial systems? It can’t be ordo-liberalism that is the answer though, because India, China and Brazil don’t have anything like that. And the eight countries immediately below Britain couldn’t be more diverse in population size and economic systems … so what is it that got Japan, China, Brazil, India and Germany above Britain over the past 60 years, when Britain had such an excellent starting position? Even if we discount China and India on purely population grounds (they had to catch up eventually!) then immediately below Britain are France and Italy, both former colonialists as well. What did they do differently as their colonies fell apart, to maintain their positions relative to Britain? Is Britain a model of how to mismanage a decolonization era?

And what can Britain do from now? I get the impression austerity isn’t going to work (not that it will matter – whether it works or not will be a moot point once Cameron is voted out), and the finance/home construction nexus isn’t going to work – in fact the whole idea of supporting domestic demand through housing bubbles is not going to get back off the ground. With North sea oil gone and the manufacturing base hollowed out, what is Britain going to do? The only answer I can think of is to privatize its crown jewels, and start paying the bottom 20% a living wage. After that … where to for Britain?

fn1: which is itself so tacky that visitors to London sometimes mistake it for a fake tower. Once a friend came to meet me at Blackfriars and, lost in the rain, called me to get help. I asked her where she was and she replied, “I’m standing on a hillside, looking down at this awesomely tacky castle that has to be a rip-off of something famous.”

fn2: Incidentally, I don’t believe the linked article’s statistics about inequality. This is because the article focuses on the distribution of income only, which is irrelevant. The important issues in assessing inequality are its functional effects – in health, education and life satisfaction – and I find it really hard to believe that inequality in these aspects is greater now than 60 years ago.

I once ran a campaign in the Fourth Age of Middle Earth, shortly after the war of the ring during the period when it could be reasonably imagined that elves were still present in Middle Earth, and the kingdom of Gondor was still recovering from the war. I imagined that this would be a fairly free and lawless time, when political powers would be jockeying for position in the new order, Orcs and Goblins would be in flight and causing trouble, and enterprising adventurers could make their fortune. But the main reason I chose the Fourth Age was simple: its politics and culture are not set in stone in the canon of Middle Earth, and so it is a more flexible setting for the types of campaign I like to run. My preferred campaigns involve a lot of base politics and the exercise of temporal power, as well as many of the banal consequences of the evil that ordinary men do. For some reason, setting a campaign in any of the prior ages of Middle Earth – the ones that had been written about extensively by a better world builder than me – felt like it would be blasphemous unless I a) stuck to the setting faithfully and b) made it somehow directly connected to the canonical events and movements of those stories. This kind of campaign could also be fun, but it’s not the kind of campaign I’m best at.

Though not at all an exercise in post-colonialism, what I was engaged in was of a similar flavour to the post-colonial project in literature: adding political and temporal context to a work from the canon that is already, essentially, set in stone. In my case the campaign rapidly evolved into a story involving a small group of elven fascists attempting to recreate the ancient elven kingdom of Lindon, at the expense of the Dunlendings with whom the people of Beleriand had made an uneasy truce. I also slowly reconceived the Dunlendings as simply politically “evil,” that is they had served Saruman only for the purpose of regaining ancestral land as a crude political calculation, and had no native sympathy for his evil visions (though they were far from a nice people in my retelling). So it did have elements of a classic post-colonial rewriting: giving a bad side to the “good” people, or re-examining their inherent goodness through a political and temporal lens; and giving a political or cultural explanation for the behavior of the evil savage, or attempting to explain the savages actions as if their story were of equal validity to that of the heroes in the original text.

Good examples of this type of post-colonial reworking of the canon are Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, which attempts to give context to the “mad wife” of Jane Eyre; and the frontier stories of Katherine Susannah Prichard, such as Brumby Innes and Coonardoo, which attempt to tell the stories of the Australian outback with a sensitive eye to how they affected women and Aborigines, and without the usual rose-tinted glasses that were applied to the conquest of the Australian frontier in her time.

One common argument mounted against my claim that Tolkien’s work includes a strong racial essentialist element is that in fact none of the “evil” of the Easterlings and Southrons is inherited or racially inherent, and their alliance with Sauron is a purely cultural and political decision, perhaps driven by cold calculations about the value of the alliance and what they can gain, or driven by particular cultural features that make these peoples more likely to be sympathetic to Sauron’s claims to their loyalty than those of the people of the West. Good examples of such possible arguments might include, for example, tension over land rights in the areas east of Mirkwood, or Sauron claiming to restore old empires in Harad. I recall Tolkien himself implying (or stating) in The Two Towers that part of the reason the Dunlendings sided with Saruman was anger about being driven out of their land by the Rohirrim, so the precedent is there. Unfortunately, Tolkien wrote nothing at all about the events in Harad or the East during the Second and Third Ages, and the Easterlings and Southrons only feature in the Lord of the Rings when they rise against the people of the West – this is exactly the kind of role allotted to savages in colonial literature, as essentially culture-less lumpen opponents, with no story or voice of their own. Since we don’t know anything about the stories of these peoples, it’s impossible to prove or disprove the claim that their alliance with Sauron was simply a calculated political move rather than an innate property of their race.

But, the absence of a story for these peoples qualifies their regions of Middle Earth for the same treatment as I gave the fourth age: they’re a blank slate, there for their story to be explored by enterprising GMs or writers. I think their story would be an interesting one. How did Sauron corrupt them, and what political and cultural battles were being fought within the Empires of the South to decide who to follow and what to do? Did colonialism by the Numenoreans turn the Men of Darkness against the West? Was it something to do with their failure to receive the same birthright as the Men of the West. If the shadow of Morgoth is real, could the Men of Darkness fight against it and if so how did this manifest in their society? Were most Southrons inherently corrupted, but small kingdoms held out against them? Were their political currents opposed to working with Sauron? Did he present himself as an anti-colonialist, in a similar way to the Japanese in World War 2?

I think the general view amongst Tolkien’s fanboys is that his canon cannot be touched and reinterpretation is impossible, but role-playing doesn’t allow this view 100%: those who play in Middle Earth will always change it in some way. But the peoples of the South and East only enter the canon as two-dimensional faceless enemies, and so reinterpretation of their story need not affect the core of the work at all. I think a post-colonial rewriting of their story – to give the context and background for their alliance with Sauron – would be an interesting and entertaining phenomenon, whether done as a role-playing campaign or in fiction. I don’t know if it has been tried, and I guess many would disapprove, but it could also lead to a very interesting and rich gaming or reading experience.

The Guardian has a very cute article about reading Lord of the Rings in Lagos, at age 13, by Claire Armistead. Trapped for 6 months in the sweltering Nigerian capital, her mother set her the book to read to keep her out of trouble, and she has since always associated Tolkien’s world with the mangrove swamps and rivers of Africa. She describes imagining Ents as Baobab trees and Nazgul as vultures, and sees spies of Sauron in the crabs in the mangrove swamps. It’s a testimony to the power of personal experience to shape the way we imagine someone else’s worlds, and also shows how important context (cultural and physical!) is to interpreting any text.

And, of course, it’s a strong testament to the power of Tolkien’s world-building, that it holds its magic even in the minds of children reading it in a completely different place and time.