There will likely never be another book-related phenomenon that reaches the intensity and popularity of the Harry Potter series. Yet what does a series of books that netted J.K. Rowling over a billion dollars suggest about the world in which they were written?
Although each book deserves a thorough analysis, I will focus on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because it represents a time of serious political turmoil and transition—Lord Voldemort’s return, and the Ministry of Magic’s subsequent denial of the impending crisis. I do not want to be too hasty in suggesting that plot developments in the book correspond exactly to historical events, e.g. suggesting Harry explicitly represents a Christ figure. Instead, I think what is brilliant about the book is its fungibility; because the rules of the magical world are slightly (and in many ways significantly) different, our understanding must necessarily be allegorical and abstract, and therefore more honest to reality.
For those needing a quick reminder of the events leading up to Order of the Phoenix (and I do not suggest watching the films, those dastardly cheap cultural artifacts are a part of capital’s recuperation of Harry Potter), a few notes should suffice: at the end of the Triwizard Tournament, Hogwarts champions Harry and Cedric Diggory simultaneously clasp the tournament cup, which then transports them to a graveyard where Voldemort (in his weakened state) and his obsequious servant Wormtail are waiting. Cedric is killed almost instantly, while Harry is held hostage and forced to play a role in the creation of Voldemort’s new body (his blood is used). Once Voldemort summons his Death Eaters, he begins to duel Harry in the hopes of finally killing him, but due to a unique magical effect linked to both their wands, Harry is able to escape the graveyard by grabbing the Triwizard Cup and returning to Hogwarts, immediately notifying Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Crucially, only Harry and the Death Eaters are those who witness Voldemort’s return.
Thus, turning to Order of the Phoenix, one of the first things emphasized in the story is the misinformation campaign being waged by The Daily Prophet against Dumbledore and Harry, denying the return of Voldemort. Dumbledore is identified and marked out as too old and is stripped of all of his awards and titles, and Harry is described as delusional. And the Prophet is not simply a tabloid publication—it is the magical world’s newspaper of record, a role played by The New York Times in the United States and The Times in the United Kingdom. And the Prophet’s slander is not incidental; Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge (the magical equivalent of the Prime Minister) is, according to Hermione Granger, the driving force behind the ideological crusade.
What needs to be drawn out of this arrangement is that both the Prophet and Fudge have a mutually beneficial interest to deny (or if they were willing to acknowledge it, understate) the return of Voldemort. By staying consistent with Fudge’s ideological aims, the Prophet will continue to get inside information from “anonymous Ministry officials,” who undoubtedly only provide them with quotes that support the Ministry’s power structure. And, the idea of the return of Voldemort threatens this power structure.
Returning to Fudge’s machinations, arguably more significant than the Prophet’s propaganda is the intrusion of the Ministry into Hogwarts with Professor Umbridge. Now, we must note that Hogwarts is not some paradise of magical education prior to the fifth book. Students are constantly endangered, often needlessly, but even more importantly, the school appears to do very little in the way of teaching critical thinking to the young witches and wizards. One of the major magical employers for Hogwarts graduates is the Ministry for Magic; in this sense, Hogwarts already functions as a part of the ideological apparatus that entrenches Ministry power, instead of proposing alternative ways that magical societies could organize themselves. For instance, does there necessarily have to be a Ministry for Magic (surely we could imagine an anarchic magical world), and why is this question not constantly being interrogated? When Professor Dolores Umbridge arrives on the scene, we see a paradigm shift from liberal “free-thinking” magical studies, which essentially excludes any genuinely subversive notions about how to run the magical world, toward Professor Umbridge’s more authoritarian style, prescribing a specific notion of thought and forbidding any deviations from it.
The discussion of praxis at this point in Order of the Phoenix is perhaps one of the book’s most illuminating aspects. To clarify what I mean, I am using the term praxis in a Marxian sense. One of Marx’s biggest criticisms of German idealist philosophers was that they failed to understand their own role in the historical process. Thus Marx says in “Theses on Feuerbach,” “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.” The point is that those who only understand the world in a theoretical sense fail to see how the world is constantly changing, and how they have a role in that process of change. So, when Professor Umbridge “teaches” Defense against the Dark Arts from only a theoretical perspective, it is encouraging that Hermione, Harry, and Ron’s response is to begin Dumbledore’s Army (the DA), where aspiring enemies of Voldemort actually get to practice defensive spells, defying Professor Umbridge’s prohibitions. Through the DA, the primary importance, that is to say inherent necessity, of praxis becomes evident; without praxis, Professor Umbridge’s theory is absolutely useless. But Professor Umbridge, despite being quite an upsetting person, is less the problem itself and more a symptom of the overall pedagogical nightmare. Without praxis, theory finds itself rising into the clouds, a delectation on which we can feast our eyes, yet which is fundamentally disconnected from reality. Nevertheless, we should note that other classes at Hogwarts, including Potions, Transfiguration, and Charms, all place a large emphasis on the practical aspects of the discipline.
Before we can end this short inquisition, we must turn to the question of Voldemort—to what extent is the Ministry responsible for Voldemort? I am less interested in the small technical details that explain Voldemort’s murderous tendencies (e.g. he is the heir of Salazar Slytherin, he was born out of a relationship lacking true love, etc.) than in the general schema that allows a Voldemort-like character to appear and thrive. Of course, with the Death Eaters’ pure-blood and Muggle-killing rhetoric, Rowling is practically begging readers to associate the Dark Lord with the Führer, Adolf Hitler. Yet in reviewing the historical record, we come to some startling conclusions. As Michael Parenti explains in “Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism,” fascism in Europe was heavily funded and encouraged by wealthy capitalists in order to combat the rising power of trade unions and communist parties and declining profit margins. No doubt, fascism was quite effective, and left-wing organizations were decimated by Hitler’s regime in Germany and Benito Mussolini’s fascist state in Italy. Crucially, even if fascist government leaders displaced “liberal” leaders, the ultimate capitalist power structure remained the same.
Although a more in-depth analysis is warranted, a cursory examination should be sufficient to draw out the same implications in the wizarding world. First, as demonstrated by the Weasley and Malfoy families, extreme wealth inequality is endemic to their contradictory economic system. The exact mechanism of this inequality is not clear, but we do know that wizards have historically participated in a process of expropriation that Marx describes as being “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.” Gold and other important treasures are taken from goblins, despite the fact that goblins understand ownership differently, and the giants are massacred and forced into hiding, where they eke out a pitiful and dangerous existence in the mountains. Likewise, it is no accident that Arthur Weasley, who works for the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office, makes almost no money—does this not represent, at the very least, a latent disdain for Muggles that Voldemort brings into full consciousness? The state, in the form of the Ministry for Magic, has a tremendous amount of power, at least until it is threatened and then ultimately infiltrated by Death Eaters and their ideology. In Lucius Malfoy, do we not see a great example of a former member of the Nazi Party (Death Eaters) who continues to have a significant influence in so-called “liberal democracy,” protecting class interests (both those of wealth and of blood) and ultimately returning to his fascist ways upon the return of Voldemort? What I’m trying to get at is that the rise of Voldemort, on both occasions, is not incidental. The very systemic logic of the wizarding world prior to Voldemort is what also creates Voldemort.
Yet, the real world does not have Harry Potter who can resolve the contradictions of which Voldemort is emblematic. Indeed, it is these very contradictions which foster the desire for a messiah figure who will save all those who deserve saving. In this way, the Harry Potter series is both an allegory, a way of making strange the problems we encounter in our present world, and also a false solution, a pseudo-utopian text that is a reproduction and a reflection of contradictions that it claims to eliminate. I wouldn’t mind a world with Harry Potter, but I would much prefer one that resolves its problems through class consciousness, organization, and strong collective action.
Cormac Chester is a member of the Class of 2020 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.