Dept. of What If

Workers of Middle-earth, unite!

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By Michael D.C. Drout
Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wearers of elf ears and hobbit feet could only drown their sorrows with pipe-weed and beer when a union dispute this month threatened to derail filming of "The Hobbit," a prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," in New Zealand. A local actors union sought bargaining rights on the production, and director Peter Jackson did not want to grant them. After the Kiwi government offered $15 million in tax rebates to the filmmakers and agreed to shoulder $10 million for publicity, the two-part epic was saved.

In the course of the battle, protesters seeking to keep the movie in their country took to the streets, carrying banners proclaiming "New Zealand is Middle-earth" and "We love hobbits." But what if Middle-earth had labor disputes? Would hobbits organize for higher wages? Could collective bargaining help elvish smiths get better working conditions in their ring-forges? And would dwarf builders have a union scale for cavern-delving?

A few economics lessons from the workers of Middle-earth:

Hobbits, reluctant organizers

Even in the Shire, the hobbits' idyllic homeland, economic inequality exists. While idle landlord Bilbo Baggins pays for his lavish birthday parties with dragon gold, lesser hobbits grow his food and repair his hobbit hole. Only when the evil wizard Saruman enslaves the Shire-folk do hobbits engage in collective action, fighting thieving thugs called "sharers" (perhaps Tolkien's swipe at Britain's post-WWII Labor government, in which unions had great power). Not unlike the rural peasants Karl Marx deemed unready for revolution, the workers of the Shire unite when faced with devastation, but not before.

Elves, immortal but not upwardly mobile

In Lothlorien, the magical elvish tree-city, someone has to prune the bushes, collect the garbage and mass-produce the arrows favored by elvish archers. Galadriel, the immortal elf queen, has a good gig, but for lesser elves there's no such thing as onward and upward - no one gets promoted out of the dead-end job he's had for the past 1,000 years. But, perhaps because they will never die, elves are patient and have little interest in developing class consciousness.

Money-grubbing dwarves

Greedy dwarves, who explore the depths of Middle-earth in search of gold and mithril, insist on fair pay for dangerous work, but their avarice and willingness to renegotiate contracts at the edge of a battle-axe don't make them reliable union members. Despite the lack of wildcat strikes in the Mines of Moria, dwarves are notorious individualist squabblers who chafe at a collectivist, guildlike economy and believe in the gold standard even more firmly than Ron Paul supporters.

Humans, stuck in the middle

The economic lives of Middle-earth's humans vary. In pastoral Rohan, small farmers own their land, though it's tough to imagine these peasants bargaining with King Theoden to retain more of their profits. But in Gondor, a complex feudal hierarchy could breed discontent, and a general strike over improved working conditions doesn't seem out of the question. The kings of both lands certainly never want for wealth - that is, surplus value extracted from the labor of commoners.

Orcs ISO union rep

In the cursed land of Mordor, the dark lord Sauron exploits the orcs who work his vast plantations and a smithy inside a volcano - an OSHA nightmare where safety standards are nonexistent, with not even a handrail over the lava. Meanwhile, in treeless Isengard, the evil wizard Saruman uses his own orcs to generate the wealth he uses to support his pipe-weed habit. If anyone in Middle-earth is in need of the individual freedoms that collective bargaining can foster, it's these poor, starving slaves who, without a minimum wage, health insurance or 401(k)s, sometimes resort to cannibalism. They'd be better off merging with the Teamsters.

Michael D.C. Drout is a professor at Wheaton College, Mass., and the editor of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Beowulf and the Critics."


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