There is no getting around middle-class liberals’ love of Harry Potter as political theory. It is equal parts embarrassing and depressing to see grown adults filter their experience of our moment of tumult, with its attendant dangers and possibilities, into the question of whether someone called “Dumbledore” might approve. But this peculiar affection for Harry Potter is deeper than a mere fandom, because Harry Potter — with the concept of magic and the Wizarding World as its starting point — provides the blueprint for the ultimate liberal ontology of politics.
“What does magic mean in the context of these shared worlds?” Laurie Penny asks in a 2016 Baffler article investigating liberals’ infatuation with Harry Potter. “Magic means power, and it means privilege,” Penny writes, and she positions Harry Potter as fulfilling an anti-authoritarian fantasy for young adults disillusioned with reaction.
In one sense she is right, but there is also a particularly neoliberal authoritarian fantasy to Potterworld. “Magic,” as it is discussed in the Harry Potter universe, is a force that allows its wielder to have a profound and measurable impact without organizing, sacrificing, or indeed doing much of anything. JK Rowling presents her reader a fantasy world in which “being really good at homework” makes you a literal superhero.
Contrast this with Victorian England’s gothic fascination with blood magic, sacrifice, and the alienation of the soul for mortal power. Rowling’s neoliberal magic world is not a dark and dangerous place, but a comfortable retreat, where long-held myths — meritocracy, the assured benefits of elite education, the decisive power of facts and rightness — are not myths at all, but the very organizing forces of reality itself. In the world of Harry Potter, there is a linear relationship between how much of a nerd you are and how much real, worldly power you have.
For a generation that was promised the world in exchange for a high GPA, this is indeed a tasty bit of lotus. But what does some people’s fascination with these otherworldly powers mean for our planet?
Marx is full of magic — look no further than commodity fetishism. We see a table as having some intrinsic value related to its table-ness, and that intrinsic value sets the baseline conditions for production (how much the workers are paid, for example). But what intrinsic value does a table have as a tradable commodity? When we take away the labor that has gone into making the table, what remains is a block of wood … so where’s the value beyond the labor? Fetishism — magical thinking — squares the circle, making us believe the intrinsic exchange value of the table itself, rather than social domination, is the basis of the relationship between the table-maker and the capitalist.
Wherever you find magic in actually-existing society, you don’t have to look much further to find obfuscation, denial, and exploitation. After all, what is the signing of an employment contract but a ritual that lets us imagine the employer-employee relationship as one of free and equal exchange that results in some “thing” called “the labor market?” Relationships of dominance are obscured by the fetish of the contract into relationships of exchange. We all know the laborer and the capitalist have unequal power, so why bother with a nonsense ritual contract? Contra Laurie Penny, magic doesn’t just mean power — magic obscures existing power.
So, what is being obfuscated by the devotion to Potterland? Its fans are not necessarily stupid (they have high GPAs!), and presumably they do not believe that somewhere in the world a functioning wand exists. But Harry Potter presents these readers with the world as they want it, with the right and proper hierarchies back in place. It is the ultimate “Revenge of the Nerds,” where the liberal priesthood of experts, technocrats, and wonks — who have found themselves hated and resented by the democratic elements of their societies — can retreat into a twee cosseted fantasy world. It is a place where their Harvard and Oxbridge pedigrees provide the foundations of the very laws of physics.
The Harry Potter universe is one in which the entire world is reducible to a set of problems just waiting to be solved. Hunger is only an issue until a sufficiently studious person figures out how to create food out of thin air. Homelessness is a social ill only until the remedy is found, following reasoned discussion and deep thinking, sitting somewhere “out there.” In the Harry Potter world of technocracy, a sufficiently engaged electorate moderated by experts can work out the exact benefit taper to deliver a lower benefits bill while ensuring no one goes without food, or replace surgeries with a clever health care app without worsening health outcomes, or subsidize Elon Musk’s terrible cars to solve global warming without attacking Shell.
The obvious truth, however, is that our societies face problems that will require the most powerful to make sacrifices that they will not easily be talked into. Liberal technocrats propose civil discourse as a kind of fetish or magic spell, obscuring power as consensus.
Magical thinking is not limited to a reverence for technocracy. What is “triggering the libs,” for example, but an attempt by a powerless, alienated reactionary to have a real effect on the world? When Paul Joseph Watson and his followers dip sushi in milk or lie down in a dumpster, they are presumably doing so imagining that it will cause liberals with rarefied taste in food or concerns about the environment to be sent into conniptions of fury. What is this, other than a modern-day curse practiced by extremely online wannabe warlocks?
Every grandfather with a brain like melted raclette who takes a golf club to a coffee maker is trying to translate white hot fury into something measurable and material. Without a means to do so in a meaningful way, he turns to a ritual. The turn to representation is the core of fetishism: the substitution of a symbol of a thing, for the real thing. Eating a bull’s heart to gain its strength is just the archaic version of burning an effigy of Kathy Griffin because she was mean about the president. Magical thinking obscures and channels the need for atavism into something representational, harmless, and in our modern case, frankly, quite amusing.
Ultimately, the offer of magic — and it was as true of Marx’s time as ours — is a trade-off. Your complicated problems are made uncomplicated, and all it costs is your ability to have any material impact on them. You lose, but at least you get a good story.
The threats liberal democracies face from the forces of reaction are complex, self-inflicted, and difficult to cure. They will not go away with a witty protest sign, a charismatic politician, or a magic spell. It is simple to imagine Donald Trump and his voters as a collective social Voldemort, an immanent evil that can be defeated only if the right hero steps in. On the flip side, it is easy to imagine that your house was repossessed because the Democratic Party and George Soros made a deal with Satan, and they must be combated with a return to American volk power. Both are simple stories, conjured up to avoid both dealing with the complex mess of reality, and in no small part, blaming the elite liberal technocrats who abracadabrad us into this mess.
How do you accept that everything you thought you knew about the housing market was a lie and that now you live in a car? How do you respond to permanent crisis that leaves more and more people behind, when permanent crisis is baked into our economy? The fantasy stories we tell ourselves are seductively simple, and the more time we spend grasping for fake power, the safer the powerful are.
So, why cling to the symbols of Harry Potter in particular? JK Rowling has crafted a fantasy world that takes a liberal harmonious fantasy we find so comforting and extends it into a world where rarefied elite talk is a law of nature.