Subversive Markets as Weapons: from The Hunger Games to Food Sovereignty (1/6)

Carol Choi, FLF Student

This entry is the first of a series of articles reflecting on the political role of food in the book series Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. The discussion is an idea of Dr Jose Luis Vivero Pol.

One of the major currents running through The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the notion of food as the basis of society.  It shapes the way we organize society.  And it gives power to those who control its trade.  Using The Hunger Games to reflect on the relationship of trade, power and community, I will discuss its ties to corporations’ attempt to maintain power by controlling trade, and ultimately the power of people that can break that hold.


The Capitol holds power over Panem as the trade broker of food and goods.  Each district in Panem is identified by a single industry for which they are known.  District 12 supplies coal, “district 11, agriculture, district 4, fishing” (Collins, 66) and so on.  All these industries are necessary for not only the Capitol, but also for each other.  Yet unable to interact, and therefore unable to trade with the other districts, they’re forced to rely on the Capitol for rations.  In return for food, they allow the Capitol to set rules—even ones that force them to hand over two children a year to be killed in the Hunger Games.  Powerless in trade, the people unwillingly risk their chances of being picked to die in return for tesserae (Collins, 13).

While the Capitol holds power by controlling trade and access, we see moments where this power is actually just a shabby construct.  The most visual and symbolic is the fence enclosing District 12.  “It’s supposed to be electrified twenty-four hours a day…but…we’re lucky to get two or three hours of electricity” (Collins, 5).  In addition, “there are several other weak spots in the fence,” (Collins, 6) which Katniss and Gale regularly use to pass through.  The images of a permeable border represent the holes, or the weak spots in the Capitol’s governance.  The inability to provide what it should, loosens the grip of a government.

The idea of permeable rules are best represented by the Peacekeepers.  Blatantly illegal acts are allowed to take place by the law enforcement themselves.  Katniss and Gale regularly go hunting for game, fish and berries in order to provide their community with food their government will not provide.  “The Peacekeepers turn a blind eye to the few…who hunt because they’re as hungry for fresh meat as anybody.  In fact, they’re among our best customers” (Collins, 6).  These same government officials also shop in the Hob, the illegal black market of District 12.  If people are willing to bend the rules in order to meet their needs, the rules of a government don’t hold power to the needs of a people.  Setting up their own black market is a declaration of reliance on local community, as opposed to the government, to satisfy the needs of the people.  It is perhaps the strongest form of rebellion, rejecting the role of the government as distributer and trade broker.  Without that, the government doesn’t really hold power.

Corporations, like the Capitol, also seek to control trade as a way to gain power.  Through lobbying over governments like that of the United States, the European Union, and Japan, they infiltrate global trade policies by affecting the terms of trade agreements.  One example is the

enactment of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).  Through TRIPS,  they’ve managed to increase the adoption of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), which “was designed by and for European commercial breeding interests, which continue to be intimately involved today” (Dutfield, 3).  By forcing countries to adopt UPOV’s terms of intellectual property protection of plants, corporations strip away the freedom of farmers and can control the type of food that’s grown and traded.  In the same way that the Capitol determines who eats what, corporations seek to do the same.

The danger of UPOV is that the terms provided “may be out of step with societal concerns about long-term food security, protection of biological diversity, and farmers’ rights” (Dutfield, 3).  As the Capitol did not provide enough for the outer districts, with many kept hungry and cold, the trade terms dictated by corporations do not quite promise to meet the needs of many countries.

The awareness of a broken system, or the cracks, are perhaps best exposed by the concept of food sovereignty.  It’s a concept that places “people…at the centre of food…policies” (Nyéleni) as opposed to markets and profit.  It encourages local development and ownership of food systems, rejecting the concept of the Capitol, with power to determine policies and rules.  It takes away the reliance of the people on so-called corporate experts, and as DeSchutter also promotes in his blog post, “Food Democracy South and North,” a more democratic idea of bottom-up governance.  The community takes the forefront in this concept.

In The Hunger Games one could ask why the food supplying districts don’t simply withhold the food they’re growing if they’re going so hungry, and take the matter of meeting their own needs into their own hands.  In District 11, anyone caught eating crops are publicly whipped.  Their “mayor is very strict” (Collins, 201).  Though the Capitol has the upper hand with strong military presence and strict laws, self-sufficiency in the form of self-isolation is also not a concept supported in the book.  While Gale dreams of running away and “liv[ing] in the woods” (Collins, 10) with Katniss, it’s not a situation that interests her.  Non-participation in society is not an option for her.

Themes of interdependency run throughout the book.  In the Games, Rue as Katniss’s ally shares vital information such as edible foods previously unfamiliar to Katniss, or how to remove tracker jacker venom as a few of the examples.  It’s through their collaboration that Katniss can move forward in the Games.  Then there is Prim, who with no ability to hunt but with a need to eat could seem useless.  However, at one point, Katniss recognizes her own inabilities of healing and how “ironically, at this point in the Games, [Prim] would be of far more use” (Collins, 252).  These relationships reveal how society is structured to include everyone.

In the same vein, as De Schutter acknowledges in his article, The Specter of Productivism, trade is necessary and isolationism not quite possible.  In times of famine or in the occurrence of natural disasters, trade and neighboring relationships will be lifelines.  As Katniss and black markets have opened up room for interaction beyond the dominant system, more ideas, more knowledge also need to be spread beyond our corporate controlled food system.  The Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) is one that champions an inclusive platform of multi-stakeholders, and can be considered our version of a black market where much needed, relevant and accessible ideas can be traded.

Katniss later (**spoiler alert**) empowers a revolution by exposing the ways in which the Capitol can’t control her.  By empowering people to take ownership of their food systems is to expose those same cracks in the corporations’ power.  As CSM and the food sovereignty movement champion, recognize and embrace community and diversity to create “black market” space, hope for a food revolution spreads.



CFS at the Crossroads, 7 Years after the Reform, CSM Draft Reflection Paper on the State of Healthy of the CFS in 2016.  (link checked 18 March, 2017)

Collins, Suzanne.  The Hunger Games.  (link checked 18 March, 2017).

De Schutter, Olivier. (2015). “Food democracy South and North: from food sovereignty to transition initiatives,” Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 17 March.  (Link checked 18 March, 2017).

De Schutter, Olivier.  “The Specter of Productivism and Food Democracy,” in Wisconsin Law Review.  Vol. 2014, no. 2.  Madison:  University of Wisconsin, 2014.  pp. 199-233.

Dutfield, Graham. “The Role of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV),” Intellectual Property Issue Paper No. 9.  Quaker United Nations Office, February 2011.

Nyéléni 2007.  Forum for Food Sovereignity.  Sélingué, 2007.  (link checked 18 March, 2017).


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