We’re becoming like the little people in Middle Earth

Summary:  Lord of the Rings teaches us about the new America now emerging. It is a stratified society, with great people ruling small people. Tolkien, ever the realist, shows how the small people can prosper in the 21st century – as America comes to resemble Middle Earth. It is not a pretty picture.

A small man visits the homes of the 1%.

Rivendell in

Always on the top of my reading list is the London Review of Books. Each issue explains much about our past, present, and future. Here is an excerpt from Jenny Turner’s brilliant essay “Reasons for Liking Tolkien” in the 15 November 2001 issue.

“Depressed people report feelings of powerlessness to be an index of their condition; and just look at how power is distributed on Middle Earth. Aragorn has it, Gandalf has it, Galadriel has it, because of what they are (a king, a wizard, an elf-queen) rather than what they do. To hold power is to be good-looking: ‘great and beautiful’ (Galadriel), ‘in the flower of manhood’ (Aragorn).

“There isn’t a lot of magic on Middle Earth: rabbits don’t come out of hats, no one gets turned into a stone or a poodle. Its place is taken by something more plausible-seeming and refined. Political power (being a king, a wizard, a queen) is elided with willpower, an ability to make things happen. Powerful people run faster and have stronger characters (which, as we know, is why they cannot bear the Ring). They have and make use of televisual devices (the palantírs of Orthanc and Gondor, the mirror of Galadriel), bending them to their bidding. They build sanctuaries – Rivendell, Lórien – in which they can protect the beautiful and the good. ‘An essential power of Faerië is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of “fantasy”,’ as Tolkien says in ‘On Fairy-Stories’.

“In a politics like this, hobbits are in a subordinate position, always slightly left out.

They don’t have any special powers or dispensations, unless they can cadge some from the big guys: hospitality and amulets and potions from Elrond, Galadriel, Treebeard.

  • They offer themselves as pageboys, they hitch a ride on Gandalf’s horse.
  • They bow deep to Théoden, Denethor, Faramir, Aragorn.
  • They are ‘flotsam and jetsam’, ‘small ragtag’.
  • Once or twice, they even get mistaken for orcs.

“In the movie trailer Cate Blanchett murmurs some placatory nonsense about how even the smallest person can change the world, but that is the same tokenism that allows a hobbit to stab at an evil ankle. Gandalf says at one point that the Shire has a sort of magic, but it is just small-town volkischness, sentimental and slightly sinister. This is especially evident when they arm themselves with hammers and axes in ‘The Scouring of the Shire’. In the end, hobbits are small and weak and furry-footed, and Tolkien has given tallness and strength and glinting grey eyes far too much weight in his world for this not to count.

“The politics of The Lord of the Rings, in short, comprises a familiar mixture of infatuation with power with an awareness of one’s own helplessness beside it. One’s best hope, really, is to suck up to the big people, in the hope they will see you all right. It’s the perennial fantasy of the “powerless.”

We too live in Middle Earth, a nation with great and powerful wizards who can accomplish deeds beyond the imagination of lesser folks. There are celebrities who live out their hedonistic fantasies, unrestrained by our laws and moral codes. There are politicians to whom we give our hearts – such as Obama and Trump. There are wealthy businessmen who rape our economy, operating above our laws.

These people own our government. Charities are determined by their priorities.  Their hired hands write our laws, pass judgement in our courts. Their police suppress protests.  The great Wall Street banks are engines shaping society to their design. The news media tell their narrative explaining events (as in this op-ed by suck-up expert David Brooks). The major think-tanks create stories justifying their plans for America.

American politics is little but factional conflicts among the rich, in which we get to choose sides. Success comes to those who most skillfully pander to their pretenses and most successfully advance their interests.

Also see Liz Bennett couldn’t marry Darcy. Nor can your daughter.

Compare America to our peers. It’s not a pretty picture.

See this from the OECD’s latest report about social mobility, comparing it among nations. The US has some of the lowest social mobility among our peers. Oddly, few Americans know this – any most pride themselves on America’s high social mobility. Click to enlarge.

OECD: Income mobility across generations

See a prince’s home

Bill Gates is a modern American prince. Here we see his version of Rivendell, built on a hillside overlooking Lake Washington in Medina, Washington: 66,000 square feet on 5.15 acres. Assessed value $200 million.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about increasing income inequality and falling social mobility, about corporate profitsabout unions, especially these…

  1. See America’s income inequality grow during 1979-2011, a driver of Campaign 2016.
  2. More proof of rising inequality, perhaps our greatest threat.
  3. An anthropologist looks at America’s growing proletariat.
  4. The Fed sounds a red alarm about rising inequality.
  5. Review of Robert Reich’s great Inequality For All.
  6. America is well-run. Not by us. Not for us.

Books about the death of unions: one factor boosting inequality

Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism edited by Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson.

What Unions No Longer Do by Jake Rosenfeld.

Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism
Available at Amazon.
What Unions No Longer Do
Available at Amazon.

 

22 thoughts on “We’re becoming like the little people in Middle Earth

  1. Great observation Larry.

    You could also see the movie “Bright” with Will Smith. . The elves were the ruling class, humans in the middle and orcs at the bottom.

  2. You really didn’t understand those books at all, did you? By criticizing a literary classic like the Lord of the Rings as a way to make a point in your own petty conflict, it’s clear that you missed the cautionary tale of Denethor and Boromir as much as you missed the point of the Hobbits.

    1. Cody,

      “criticizing a literary classic like the Lord of the Rings as a way to make a point in your own petty conflict”

      First, calling “inequality” a “petty conflict” is daft. It is a large threat to the social cohesion that has been America’s greatest strength.

      Second, you are quite wrong. Tolkien’s writings – and his fellow Inkings at Oxford, strongly believed that much of the value of Western myths – and fantasies built upon them – were from the inspiration and guidance they gave us. They could help us cope with the challenges of our time, in the real world.

      The stories of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis are clearly written as guidance for us, applying to fundamental challenges of society. Blindness to this misses much of the power of their stories. They are not comic books.

  3. Your comparison is very interesting. It does seem to reflect the stratification that is portrayed in Tolkien’s books

    ”Here we see his version of Rivendell, built on a hillside overlooking Lake Washington in Medina, Washington: 66,000 square feet on 5.15 acres.”

    Compared to the movie depiction. Looks pretty lackluster though. Disappointing.

    1. For all his money, Gayes had to hire Americans – not elves – as architects. Of course it is disappointing compared to Rivendell.

    2. ”For all his money, Gayes had to hire Americans – not elves – as architects. Of course it is disappointing compared to Rivendell.”

      True. Money cannot buy that which doesn’t exist.

      It may be a coincidence but a society that is more traditional in values and religion as well as society arrangement seem to be able to build more closer to the Rivendell example than now.

      The Catherine Palace for example is one of the heights reached when Eastern Orthodoxy is also at its height in Russia.

      I suspect that impoverishment is more than simply having insufficient money. But that what’s available as the fruits of labor is inferior in quality.

      https://www.sandinmysuitcase.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Great-Hall-at-Catherine-Palace.jpg

      Catherine Palace

    3. info,

      Wow. That’s a powerful point. A long-time criticism of America is that we have no depths to our souls. As Allan Boom wrote in Closing of the American Mind:

      “Culture is what makes possible, on a high level, the rich social life that constitutes a people, their customs, styles, tastes, festivals, rituals, gods — all that binds individuals into a group with roots, a community in which they think and will generally, with the people a moral unity, and the individual united within himself. A culture is a work of art, of which the fine arts are the sublime expression. From this point of view, liberal democracies look like disorderly markets to which individuals bring their produce in the morning and from which they return in the evening to enjoy privately what they have purchased with the proceeds of their sales. In culture, on the other hand, the individuals are formed by the collectivity as are the members of the chorus of a Greek drama.

      “A Charles de Gaulle or, for that matter, an Alexander Solzhenitsyn sees the United States as a mere aggregate of individuals, a dumping ground for the refuse from other places, devoted to consuming; in short, no culture.”

    4. I see even fictional examples like Rivendell as a record to be surpassed. A height of excellence yet to be exceeded. We have a lot of room to improve.

    5. info,

      Tolkien and C. S. Lewis would, I believe, agree with out. The purpose of myths is to inspire us. Both wrote explicitly with this in mind.

  4. I may be the wrongestest judge of all of this — I don’t like the Tolkien’s fantasies and comics are just biological opposites of mine. And, on top of it all, I do like Star Trek TNG far better then the original (take away a few very late episodes) — anyway, what I wanted to state — here is this: We are not the liddle people, we never were and (I hope) we never will be — we were made to feel like we are these insignificant midgets; and you know why? Because the P2B are afraid of us and one day we’ll prove that their fear was warranted! The only thingy hanging over it all is this: will this show-down include synthesis of very expensive Helium in our troposphere?
    I don’t get too easily discouraged by belittling — as in “the world is more complex than that” — the thermonuclear exchange is the ONLY THING we should be afraid of; because when it comes to that — there are no other outcomes but a complete and ever lasting defeat and damnation on top of that.

    1. Jako,

      “We are not the liddle people”

      Facts are facts. Denial of them is fun chatter on social media, but our rulers don’t care.

      “we never were”

      Yes, but we can’t take credit for the accomplishments of our ancestors.

      “we were made to feel like we are these insignificant midgets”

      Are your feelings hurt? Our rulers cry.

      “P2B are afraid of us”

      Yes, rulers always worry about the peasants rising up. But they seldom do.

      “one day we’ll prove that their fear was warranted!”

      All peasants mutter about The Great Day When We Rise Up And Smite Our Oppressors! Of course, they don’t. That’s what makes them peasants.

  5. The great empires of past were all too sure of themselves — the peasants of Romanov’s one were the most desperate and look — Soviet Union (for whatever evil that represented) proved that the peasants could have their way — in an afterthought, their way represented the “dead end progress,” bud didn’t they shake the world?

    Let me restate my rant with the following:

    New poem by Gary Lindorff: Choose your metaphor

    I spilled the beans and now I have egg on my shirt.
    My beard is unintentional.
    I’m long in the tooth
    So nobody cares if my eye twitches
    Or if I clear my throat a lot
    But have nothing to say,
    Or if I scratch my scalp
    And dandruff falls on my black shirt.
    I smile more for no reason,
    I frown more for good reason.
    I don’t drop as much stuff
    Because I don’t like picking it up.
    I’m careful not to break stuff
    For a similar reason.
    I like most animals more than people.
    I don’t want to know what people say about me
    Because I can’t change,
    And if they say something nice about me
    It probably isn’t true anyway.
    My mother braided the rug in front of me.
    Somewhere in the coils is an old shirt my father wore.
    This is not a metaphor.
    The edge is worn in front of my chair
    Where I place my feet.
    This is a metaphor.
    I don’t always answer the phone.
    I like yogurt, but not all yogurt.
    I like Seven Stars and Butterworks.
    I wish I could be 40 again
    But, with that,
    I wish the world could also be
    25 years younger. (JaKo: original was 26, but I couldn’t help to correct for my own predicament)
    I would have done much more
    To prevent what has happened to our world.
    For one thing, if I could do it over,
    I wouldn’t be so self-centered.

    And now, tell me please, where would you had wanted to start again from, if you had the chance to do it all over again? — I’d chose the very last verse — as Robin Williams would say: “That’s a good one”…
    And please, keep in mind, I’m beyond of putting others anywhere.

    1. Jako,

      So, what are those populist revolutions from the late 1930s?

      I said there were no peasants’ revolutions. There have been revolutions by highly mobilized populations, politically aware and active. Not by people too lazy to vote, sitting on their butts whining, dreaming of a glorious future.

    2. You want an example of a successful revolution of (mostly) peasants — here it is:

      Year-0 a religious reformer was lured to a court, tried, convicted as heretic and burned at the stake.

      Y-1-4 a spontaneous revolt against the dominant and formation of their own church.

      Y-5 The first military expedition launched against them was defeated.

      Y-19 After they crushed a whole of five military expeditions, spread the “teachings” (mostly terror though) throughout the continent, the various factions fought it out amongst themselves and the “populist” part of the revolution lost; however, the reforms and freedoms were preserved more or less until a dark day of November Y-205, which precipitated the escalation of a War which left eight million dead!

      The only clue I give you: military expedition = crusade… BTW, the crusades were not futile, they had exactly the opposite effect — they united the revolutionary factions!

    3. Jako,

      I think you are conflating peasants rebellions – led by peasants – with those led by elites in which the peasants do the fighting. You are describing the Hussite Wars (aka Bohemian Wars) 1419 – 1434 – see Wikipedia.

      It was ignited by Jan Hus – BA and MA from the U Prague (1396), when most people were illiterate. He was the University’s rector in 1402–03 – a senior leadership position.

      The rebellion’s top leader and general was Jan Žižka (1360 – 1424). Born an aristocrat, he was attached to the royal court as a young man, and advanced to become Chamberlain to Queen Sofia of Bavaria – a very senior officer. One of the great military leaders in western history, the rebellion would have been quickly exterminated without his leadership.

      The Hussite Rebellion was a broad social movement, part of the fracturing of late medieval political and social order. It was led by local elites. Struturally it had little in common with peasants rebellions, such as the Great Rising in England (1831). Its leaders were Wat Tyler (a roofer) and John Ball – a local priest so minor that nothing is known of his background (we have decent records from that era about the middle and upper classes – births, higher education, high offices, etc).

  6. Great observation with Tolkien, only point I would add is when the peasants get too little of the pie and it is combined with sever recession, they do rise up posts 1930’s and I fear we are close to it now. Look at the Popularism and nationalism on the rise.

    Ray Dalio sees us as in the late 1930’s and I fear if we don’t see some rise in wages at the bottom, there are a lot more that will shift to the extremes of the right and left of politics.

    1. Just a guy,

      What examples are there of the peasants successfully rising up against their rulers? Such as a successful populist revolt? There were none in the late 1930s, at least in the major nations.

      Nationalism is a way of channeling popular unrest into channels that are safe for their rulers.

    2. I think as a society we are way too obsessed with the 1930s and 1940s. Yes, World War II was pretty big for us, but there was, in fact, several centuries of ‘modern’ or at least semi-modern history before then, and there have been people after. It isn’t all a succession of Hitlers and Stalins sneaking up behind us.

      Isaac Asimov addressed this when he was asked to review “1984,” which he had not read until he was given a copy in 1984. http://www.newworker.org/ncptrory/1984.htm

      “The world may go communist, if not by 1984, then by some not very much later date; or it may see civilisation destroyed. If this happens, however, it will happen in a fashion quite different from that depicted in 1984 and if we try to prevent either eventuality by imagining that 1984 is accurate, then we will be defending ourselves against assaults from the wrong direction and we will lose.”

      We could say the same for people constantly watching for (an exact replica of) Hitler.

  7. Larry.

    There have been a number of revolts of the “Little People” throughout History. Most of them were of course unsuccessful. In the Ancient World the Spartacus Revolution comes to mind, in more recent times the “Bauernaufstände” (peasant revolts) of 1524-25 in Germany. Then there is of course the French Revolution, and as an example of the few successful ones may I mention the Greek (national) Revolution of 1821?

    In my opinion Tolkien depicts in his Middle Earth an idealised medieval society where the Lords Are Kind And Just And Everyone Knows His Place. Tolkien of course was no fool and knew very well that the actual Medieval Society was nothing like it, he was taking his cue from the literature of the time, not the historical reality. It is a highly disconcerting fact that our society is becoming a medieval feudal one, and all the progress achieved since the Renaissance is being gradually erased.

    1. Taraxippos,

      “There have been a number of revolts of the “Little People” throughout History. Most of them were of course unsuccessful.”

      Yes, that’s the relevant point. But we can be more specific. Revolts of apolitical people – peasants – almost always fail. Successful revolutions are preceded by increases in political awareness, growth of political organizations – all what’s called “mobilization.”

      America today is more like the former than the latter.

  8. I’m late to this one on account of Thanksgiving, but at the risk of being too late, I’ll put in my two cents.

    Inequality is pretty much the default human condition, whether we’re talking about equality of gifts and abilities or equality of result. There’s always the rulers and the ruled. But in Middle Earth the Great People and the Little People at least had a common interest in fending off the Dark Lord. There were members of the ruling class in Middle Earth who were rotten as individuals (Denethor, Saruman), but the ruling class wasn’t rotten as a whole. When they needed some Little People to take a long walk into Mordor, they could count on some volunteers. The Hobbits trusted that Gandalf, Elrond, and the rest of that bunch more or less knew what they were doing. Theoden and the Rohirrim would at least show up when you really needed them. Gandalf at least kind of seemed to like Hobbits, and never called then deplorables.The Hobbits might have been Little People, but at least until Saruman showed up after he got chucked out of Isengard, the Great People mostly left them alone. No one was out to impose tranny bathrooms on The Shire.

    As for peasant revolts, its never different this time until it is. The Revolution may be tomorrow, or next week, or on the 12th of Never at a quarter past Forever (Points if you know the reference). I have no idea. Someone once said that a revolution is the kicking in of a rotten door. The door that our ruling class locks themselves behind is solid enough for now, although it might be showing a few termite tracks here and there. But honestly, these people have been wrong enough times overseas about how much actual hard coercive power they can bring to bear that if you told me they’ll eventually be wrong about it here I wouldn’t call you delusional. But if I were a betting man, I’d say that the American Empire ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

    .

    1. The Man,

      “Inequality is pretty much the default human condition, whether we’re talking about equality of gifts and abilities or equality of result”

      As I have said a thousand times before, social traits are not binary. It’s not inequality or equality. History is about changes in mixtures and magnitudes. Today US inequality is at or near peak levels in our history.

      As for the rest, you are imo grossly missing the point. History is largely the story of people passively putting up with much worse than current conditions. US and Britain are rare examples of peoples willing to pay the high price for self-government. Payable repeatedly. The question concerns our willingness to pay again. The grim reality is that we’re slipping from citizens to peasants.

      Dreaming of The Great Day When We Arise and Smite Our Oppressors is peasant thinking. Call me when we start doing anything.

      The weak response to my 120+ posts about Ways to Reform America: steps to new politics suggests that day lies in the future. Commenters overwhelming vote for “peasants”, explaining why It’s Not Our Fault, Defeat is Certain, and only a Winged Jesus From The Sky can save us.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.