In his 1989 essay ‘The End of History?’ Francis Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War represented the ‘total exhaustion of viable systemic alternatives to Western liberalism’. Although popularly derided as a neo-conservative example of counting your chickens before they’ve hatched, a closer reading of the essay reveals that Fukuyama is not really arguing that Western liberalism is the teleological endpoint of humanity – to be at the end of history merely means that, from the perspective of the present, there are no real ideological competitors within our horizon of knowledge. Fukuyama even expresses ambivalence for what he identifies as the current post-historical era:
The end of history will be a sad time… The worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care of the museum of human history.
‘The End of History?’ ends on a paradoxical note: Fukuyama suggests that history can ‘start again’ though this will require fundamental contradictions in modern liberalism to make themselves evident. He even ironically suggests that the ‘very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history’ is sufficient to serve this purpose.
Looking at our popular culture, it does seem as if we are living at the end of history. Take, for example, a television show as brilliant as the HBO crime drama The Wire. After five seasons in which several parties try to solve the conflict of America’s ‘War on Drugs’, what we ultimately learn is that change, though desirable, is impossible to achieve.
If this moment in late capitalism seems natural and inevitable, it therefore makes sense that how we perceive ourselves, as reflected in our contemporary popular culture, should be defined by a certain stagnation. As the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson put it, ‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.’
If the imagination of a society is to be measured by its ability to think a way out of the status quo, what are we to make of the universe of a sword-and-sorcery epic such as Lord of the Rings? Despite its moral about the corrupting nature of power, there are some features of the novel to be wary of. The first is its conservative anti-technology theme, particularly evident toward the end of Return of the King, when the hobbits return to their pastoral home only to find it transformed into an industrial wasteland by the evil wizard Saruman. (Saruman and his army of orcs are commonly understood as intending to evoke and criticise Britain’s industrial revolution. One can only imagine how Tolkien would have responded to the opening ceremony of last year’s Olympics, which used almost identical imagery to Tolkien, right down to the forging of the rings, to romanticise that same moment in history!)
This distrust in technological progress is accompanied by a rigid faith in the efficiency of monarchy as a form of government: Tolkien makes a big deal of the fact that Aragorn, as the rightful heir to the throne, is fated to become the King of Middle-earth. And it seems that the people of Middle-earth are so lacking in imagination that they have waited centuries for their rightful king to return from the wilderness. Apparently it never occurred to them that simply changing their system of government might be a wiser option. Doesn’t this belief in the benevolent ruler contradict the novel’s central thesis about power? If a ring corrupts, so does a crown.
This lack of imagination is not just an arbitrary choice; it is completely ideological. It is useful here to remember Marx’s ‘materialist conception of history’: the idea that history is driven by inherent contradictions in society between the oppressors and the oppressed. Imagination appears as the expression of such contradictions: we find a situation to be intolerable and by necessity imagine a way out. By eradicating any notion of the people of Middle-earth as capable of imagination, Tolkien indulges in a particularly pernicious fantasy: that contradictions within a feudal society don’t exist. If Middle-earth is happy to wait centuries for a king, this can only be due to the unlikely idea that the slaves, plebeians, serfs and journeymen of this fictional world somehow enjoy being oppressed.
Enter Game of Thrones, the HBO television series adapted from the Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin, whose third season is airing this month. Sharing with Tolkien’s novel a medieval setting and fantasy elements, it dramatises the political intrigues of a kingdom in which several parties vie to take the Iron Throne and reign over the imaginary continent of Westeros.
Game of Thrones is, in some ways, the anti-Lord of the Rings: the traditional ‘hero’s journey’ is abandoned in favour of a ‘network narrative’ involving several characters with distinct story trajectories that occasionally intersect with each other. Instead of Tolkien’s idealised women, we are given a whole range of complex female characters with carnal desires, political ambitions and sentimental attachments. Most importantly, the moral clarity of Tolkien’s universe is foregone in favour of a cynical, realist view of political machinations. Completely absent is the idea of a man with a righteous claim to the throne. If we can discern a thesis at this stage in the television series, it’s that the ‘game of thrones’ is nothing more than a cynical game of self-interest: ideals do not count for much at all.
Because Game of Thrones is not structured as a hero’s journey – there isn’t a single character who could be described as the exceptional hero who deserves to be King – there is a terrific element of contingency to the television series. It doesn’t feel like there could be a ‘logical conclusion’ to the narrative because there are several contenders for the throne that we sympathise or identify with; no matter who eventually reigns supreme, the ending won’t feel ‘right’. In short, everything is up in the air. For a serial narrative, this element of contingency is vital to sustaining story momentum. Fate is boring; it can kill a series. Think of how the Matrix films deteriorated once the first film concluded by establishing that its protagonist Neo is indeed ‘the One’. Once fate is evoked, the audience quickly becomes less invested since all the action on-screen becomes a matter of simply going through the motions, putting off the inevitable end.
This is the key distinction to be made between the original Star Wars trilogy and the subsequent trilogy of prequels. In the original trilogy, everything is exciting because everything feels contingent. The future is not inevitable; it has to be fought for. Although its story comes straight from the Joseph Campbell playbook (intellectually we know that Luke Skywalker will overcome and that the Rebel Alliance will defeat the Galactic Empire), when watching the original trilogy it still feels moment-to-moment, like the characters are inventing the future on the spot through the moral choices they make: ‘Always in motion is the future,’ Yoda tells Luke in The Empire Strikes Back and we really do believe him.
This was the challenge for George Lucas when making the Star Wars prequels: how to retain the sense of contingency in the new trilogy when the future had already been written in the original trilogy? In this regard, the prequels are a complete failure. It’s not only that the theme of predestination is introduced – Anakin is now the result of an immaculate conception and the Jedi now tell a prophecy about a Chosen One who will bring balance to the Force – but also the fact that every element of the film neatly prefigures events in the original story. C-3PO and R2D2 are no longer robots out of hundreds that happened to be at the right place at the right time at the start of Episode IV, but central characters from the very beginning of the whole saga. The bounty hunter Boba Fett is no longer just a cool supporting character but a central part of the mythic tale.
One of the key tasks of the Left is to invest history with its full sense of contingency. Left-wing critics must always remind us that nothing about the political situation we find ourselves in today has happened naturally. Our economic instability, our relatively progressive social values, our miserable wars, our heroic revolutions are all the result of specific moments of struggle between opposing forces. Misery, oppression, alienation: these should not be accepted as inevitable but resisted, because if history teaches us anything, it is that resistance matters. Imagination matters.
As much as I enjoy Game of Thrones, at some level I intuit a limitation to its function as a ‘progressive’ fantasy series: the characters, in spite of their diversity of moral character, all seem to work from the same premise – that the only outcome of history is one in which someone sits on the Iron Throne; in Lord of the Rings there is no conceivable future of no throne. If Game of Thrones does in fact conclude with a particular character assuming the Iron Throne, the series will constitute nothing more than a false event. Or as the singer-songwriter Ben Lee put it, ‘A lot goes on, but nothings happens’: wars will be waged, people will die, dragons will burn things, but the people will end up with the same miserable monarchy that they started with.
There are, however, certain elements of the series that undermine this general ideological assumption, hinting at real social contradictions within Westeros. The first contradiction is between the noble families and the rising bourgeois class, encapsulated by the two characters Petyr Baelish and Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Both harbour grand ambitions for ruling Westeros despite not being among the high-born. Instead, they wield power through other means, either through the accumulation of capital or knowledge.
The second contradiction is between the upper class and the proletariat, which comes to a head in one extraordinary scene in the episode ‘The Old Gods and the New’ where the hungry masses of the capital city angrily riot against King Joffrey and his guards. It is the threat to the social order posed by these contradictions that would constitute a real event rather than just petty competition between noble families. My own leftist fantasy is that Game of Thrones ends with the working masses self-organising to overthrow the King and install a democratic government for the people. Hey, it’s happened before in history, why not in a fictional fantasy-adventure narrative?
But, for the most part, Game of Thrones remains a story of noble families competing for the crown without any foreseeable alternative form of government. Of course, there are five more books in the series waiting to be adapted, two of which haven’t even been written yet, so anything could happen. Let’s hope that George R.R. Martin chooses to endow the working classes of Westeros with the imagination we know humanity to be capable of. Game of Thrones may be an excellent example of world creation, but in order to be truly convincing that world cannot remain static and unchanging. To borrow the motto of the World Social Forum, ‘Another world is possible’, in Westeros as in real life.