Harry Potter: the Triumph of Bourgeois Suburban Morality

Harry Potter: the Triumph of Bourgeois Suburban Morality January 14, 2022

I used to be obsessed with Harry Potter…not unlike most other nerdy white kids growing up in suburbia. Harry Potter sparked my interest in taking up folk witchcraft, as family members before me have practiced. After a religious conversion, I condemned the series for covertly promoting occult practices. Some have called me out for this, claiming that it celebrates moral virtues that are in accord with most monotheistic religions. But after watching the 20th anniversary special and rewatching the series, I discovered that Harry Potter is neither implicitly satanic nor Christian. Rather, it’s an unapologetic ode to the triumph of secular neoliberalism.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, building on the sociological writings of Max Weber, distinguishes between the metaphysical sensibilities of premodern and modern societies: the former is enchanted–recognizing that the material world is “charged” with objective spiritual forces, either sacred or demonic, while the latter doesn’t formally acknowledge any objective spiritual entities at work in the material world.

Accordingly, an enchanted universe spawns “porous selves” who are subject to being impacted by these external forces, while the disenchanted one spawns “buffered selves” who are immune to any external forces, and rather impose meaning onto reality through their own subjective use of reason. The forces of a neoliberal consumerist establishment thrives off of buffered selves who think they are attaining liberation by accumulating goods and experiences that satisfy their temporal desires for pleasure.

This helped me understand why Harry Potter is so alluring for suburban, bourgeois teens: it offers the illusion of enchantment on the surface while being profoundly disenchanted at its core. The characters’ use of magic doesn’t tap into any eternal forces or entities that transcend them–whether benevolent or malevolent. It is ontologically flat. It recognizes no deities whatsoever. If anything, the spells they cast are purely for pragmatic purposes…getting some kind of job done faster–kind of like technology does, rather than being a means to draw closer to an external entity or ideal like God, gods, or demons.

If anything, the gods that Rowling’s characters worship are the two gods that all of us living in neoliberal societies worship, namely being morally “pure” (being a “good, tolerant person”) and amusement–forms of entertainment that distract us from the ontological emptiness of the metanarrative we ascribe to.

This is profoundly different from the stories of Tolkien and Lewis, who, according to Rowling herself, created a “new mythology,” which “I would never claim to have done.” The mythologies of Tolkien and Lewis have an ontological depth with immense implications about the ultimate truth of existence. Harry Potter, on the other hand, is neoliberalism with magic sprinkled on top.

The main takeaway is not a provocation to think about human nature and the deeper truths of our existence. It doesn’t “call us out of ourselves” or convert us. Instead, it tells us that we all ought to muster up the strength to be good, courageous people, who are nice, tolerant, and loving, and loyal to our friends. Make the right choices, and have fun along the way. Damn Slytherin House, with their bigotry, intolerance, and delusions of tribal purity…the cardinal sins of a globalist neoliberal paradigm.

David Yates played this up through his incessant use of kitschy moralistic clichés in his direction of the last four films (ie. “we have something that Voldemort doesn’t have…we have each other,” “I feel bad for you [Voldemort], because you’ll never know love or friendship,” “you’ve got to just believe in yourselves!” “Harry is still alive…here, in our hearts.”).

“I wasn’t trying to do what C. S. Lewis did. It is perfectly possible to live a very moral life without a belief in God, and I think it’s perfectly possible to live a life peppered with ill-doing and believe in God,” says Rowling…spoken like a true Anglican. If anything, she’s guilty of promoting heresy, not diabolism. Her simplistic narrative of good vs. evil and having to choose the “right side” through our own autonomous effort falls into the Manichean and Pelagian heresies of the early Church.

“It’s as simple as that,” says Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) in an aside. “It’s a story of good vs. evil. And the good must prevail.” Of course…could we expect less from a product being marketed to sheltered and privileged teens who are taught to naively trust in the benevolence of the universe, and are blinded to the realities of original sin and the chaos of the natural world? “We all have a little evil in us, we just have to choose to follow the good in us.” As long as we try to be good, do what’s right, and be ourselves, all will be right with the world. Screw all those bad people who choose to be on the wrong side…we will never end up like them.

The moralistic posturing is interspersed with side romances and relationship dramas…which also lack depth and any real ontological implications. Human relationships are mere diversion, entertainment and distraction from the flatness of our age, and ultimately, a form of consumption…a means to gratify ourselves, not unlike our age’s narcissistic obsession with moralism and convincing ourselves we are good, accepting people.  It reveals that moralism under neoliberalism is really not morality. It’s lack of ontological undergirding renders it a form of mere sentimentalism…which goes to remind us that everything, even morality, must be marketed as something that gratifies our whims.

The neoliberal “mythology” of Harry Potter is purely masturbatory. It’s a means for suburban kids whose protective environment shields them from reckoning with the darkness of suffering, the complexity of free will, and the unpredictability of existence, to distract themselves from the illusory nature of their upbringing and continue gratifying themselves. No need to search for some ontological meaning, to implore a force beyond yourself to come to your aid, when you have all the comforts you can wish for. The magic of believing in yourself is a mask for the vapidness of your existence and your unwillingness to face it for what it is.

The anniversary special itself was a masterpiece of neoliberal artifice and pretension. It reminds us that Harry Potter is a triumph of the commodification of film and art while passing itself off as grandiose and profound. The special presented clips of the actors “happening upon” each other in parts of the filming set, where they proceeded to reminisce about the old days and how important the films were to them and to the fans. They laughed, got deep, and cried on cue…as if they were programmed. Tears rolled when discussing actors who died. Their faces turned grave, when talking about how much the films meant to their adoring fans, as the screen turned to images of suburban white girls sobbing behind guardrails as the actors walked by on a red carpet.

For a moment, Emma Watson broke her character to bring up the time after the fourth film that she considered leaving the Potter franchise for good. “It hit me that…if I keep going, my life will be marked by this forever…” she trailed off…giving the sense that she still wonders why she sold her life away and if it was all really worth it–only for Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe to swoop in and remind her that of course it was all worth it.

She shook off her existential dread, and continued to discuss how amazing her co-actors were for taking up diverse forms of activism.

Watson is the archetypal liberal feminist herself, following the script written for women’s liberation, calling out JK Rowling for her TERF-remarks…not unlike Hermione herself: the liberated, career-minded woman who allows her less profitable innate feminine sensibilities to whither so that she can climb her way through the matrix of neoliberal power.

Hermione never fails to scold Ron for being lazy, boorish, and underachieving, thus emasculating him and establishing her dominance over him. Ron is the archetypal bourgeois “dumb” male, divested of the opportunity to put his natural masculine sensibilities to use…which ultimately serve no purpose under the technocratic regime of neoliberalism. There is nothing sexy about Hermione. And the things that would be sexy about Ron are condemned.

Hermione’s character panders to bored, entitled, suburban girls…exactly the type to go off to college and spout out lines from the libfem script (not unlike Watson herself)…and who will blame bogeymen like the patriarchy for their existential dread rather than their permissive and indulgent parents.

The rest of the cast is chock full of plenty of other stereotypical bourgeois teen scripts for viewers to “identify with” (read, regurgitate), from nerdy Neville and Luna, to Draco the bully and class clowns Fred and George.

The anniversary, of course, had to include a bit of tokenism. Alfred Enoch, who played one of the only black students at Hogwarts with an actual name, got to reminisce about all the good times acting in the films along with the more prominent co-stars, despite having on screen only a handful of times throughout all eight films.

The Harry Potter series, according to Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix), “makes you feel less alone in the world…” as all art under consumer capitalism should. It aims to console, not to unsettle or challenge one’s complacency. Feed the consumer what they want, and make them keep coming back for ore.

The Gothic halls of Hogwarts are a hollowed temple, not to any deity, but to the gods of neoliberalism. Every part of the Potter experience is built around gratifying the fans, that is, the consumers. Every part of the franchise, to the official merch, to taking a photo at Kings Cross of you pretending to run into platform 9 ¾, to the Harry Potter Universe theme parks that feature animatronic thestrals and nonalcoholic butterbeer, must be marketable. It makes its money off of convincing consumers that they are not as fucked by the disenchantments of neoliberalism than they actually are.

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