Hunger Games: Civil Wars, Victory, and Repression

The movie version of the book The Hunger Games (Paperback, Kindle) is being released this week; the movie is expected to draw a large crowd and is already drawing superb ratings from critics. As such, given that there are both political and economic themes that run in the book that are ripe for political scientists and economists, I figured I would touch upon at least one of those interesting threads related to the study of international relations.

Now, what I am drawing upon is purely from the first chapter of the book and can be easily gleaned from the trailer of the film.  As such, this discussion should not be spoiling anything.  However, if you are attempting to see this movie without any background whatsoever, consider this your spoiler warning for the post.

The book takes place in a future dystopian world set in North America. During this time period, political organization is non-democratic and highly centralized.  North America is divded into 13 districts excluding the Capitol.  As Katniss, the protagonist (the novel is told through first person narration), explains in the first chapter (p. 18):

The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens. Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to guarantee peace and, as our yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games.

The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.

In the above account, the districts mobilized to overthrow the central government (perhaps as revolutionaries or as separatists, it is not clear in thie passage) and the Capitol is able to persevere over all 13 districts.  1 district is obliterated and the 12 remaining districts are put in a worse position than they were prior to the conflict as the Capitol ramps up the repression of the districts by extracting tribute in the form of humans (the Capitol is quite repressive in other economic and political venues as well). Two children from each district are randomly selected to fight in the Hunger Games each year. The above passage is leading up to the point where we find out which children serve as tribute for the 74th annual Hunger Games.

Since the government of the Capitol gets to play the obvious villain in this post-civil war story, we should be interested in the likelihood of some situation akin to this happening in reality.  That is, after a failed civil war attempt, are there times when the government uses its new position to further repress instead of adopting some form of accommodation to stave off a future rebellion.  While we are unlikely to see the specific scenario of the Hunger Games played out, increasing repression after a civil war is something that seems feasible.  We can think of civil war as a bargaining failure between two actors (rebels and the government) and, once a victor has been determined through the random number generator that is war, we are left with one party to reap the spoils.  It would make since that the a newly consolidated government would ramp up its extraction of resources beyond what it could achieve pre-war.

To understand increased repression after a conflict, I employed the Cingranelli-Richards data set (CIRI) and used their Physical Integrity Rights Index (henceforth refered to as either PI Rights or PIR) to look at their 9-point index as a proxy for government repression.  The index is composed of four 0-2 indicators of government respect or use of torture, disappearances, extra-judicial killing, and political imprisonment.  A score of 0 would be interpreted as little to no respect for physical integrity rights while a score of 8 is high respect for those rights.  The index runs from 1981-2010, so that helped to establish the sample of possible civil wars I could look at.  For civil wars, I used the Correlates of War intra-state war data (v 4.1) and employed the 19 conflicts that had system members as governments, started in 1982 or later, had ended by 2007 (a COW limitation), had over 1,000 battle deaths combined from each side, and the government had won the conflict (thus, excluding compromises, stalemates, and rebel victory).

To get a feel of the data and government use of repression, the first item I looked at was the PIR value one year before the conflict started and one year after the conflict had ended.  This produces the following scatter plot:

The line represents no change in the level of respect for PIRs while points below the line represent a decline and points above the line represent improvement.  So, in this instance, we have some cases in which the government represses more after a civil war.  Since there are only 13 dots for 19 cases, there must be some overlap.  As such, we can examine this as a change histogram as well:

The slim majority of cases are worse off with a few very large decreases in PIR values.  There are several states that show improvements as well.  However, a one year change may not be enough time for the government to adopt a new strategy for winning a civil war and the PIR value may be a hold-over from conducting the fighting in the civil wars.  Looking at 5 years ahead, the 18 cases (losing one observation due to temporal limitations) produces the following distribution:

Five years after the conclusion of the civil war looks generally better for those societies.  There still remains 28% of the sample that have a worse off situation, but 50% show an improvement.  Naturally, this is a small sample of intra-state wars and the possibility of a Panem type situation is certainly possible.  The 3 cases that show a change below -1 are Myanmar in 1982, Indonesia in 1992, and Ethiopia in 2000.  The Panem situation, if I understand the story correctly, has been ongoing for 74 years by the time of the first novel, no such analogue is available in the data given the limitations of the CIRI dataset.  Also, the amount of state capacity demonstrated by the Capitol in enforcing laws seems far superior to any of the examples above.  The strength of the state in the book is something that should decrease the probability of conflict by rational revolutionaries.

As an aside, one of the other side tidbits I have noticed is that all the characters that are in the Capitol have Roman names such as Cinna, Octvia, Caesar, and Plutarch (among others).  I am not sure if this has relevance beyond harkening to a city-dominated empire, is veiled allusion to the idea that the United states is becoming a new Rome, or some other significance I am not familiar with yet.  I do not know the full story of the Hunger Games, but I will likely be catching the first movie this weekend.

Michael A. Allen

About Michael A. Allen

Michael is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Boise State University with a focus in International Relations, Comparative Politics, and Methodology (quantitative and formal). His work includes issues related to military basing abroad, asymmetric relations, cooperation, and conflict. He received his Ph.D from Binghamton University in 2011.

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