The Last Jedi and a hard-to-die fallacy
By Alberto Mingardi
I can’t wait for Ilya Somin’s comments on Star Wars: the Last Jedi. Among his many virtues, Somin is a true scholar of Star Wars’ politics (listen to him here). As we wait for his in-depth analysis, I’d like also to share a few thoughts. As a fan, I was impressed and walked out of the movie theatre as happy as I could be. True, some questions are left unanswered (without spoiling too much, I still can’t understand how the rise of the First Order was possible after the end of the Empire, and where does Snoke come from?). But all in all the movie is energetic, full of fun, and beautifully done. The character of Luke is developed in an unexpected and yet sensible direction. If I have one criticism, it is the last scene, which looks too much like a commercial (indeed, it involves toys).*
I was unhappy only in one respect: politics, indeed. True, the movie is more complex, on that front, than all the others were. It seems to me that director Rian Johnson took seriously a point Cass Sunstein beautifully makes in The World According to Star Wars: the George Lucas saga is all about freedom of choosing between good and evil. More than his predecessors, Johnson seems to (a) take seriously the idea that evil may exist, and it is not only about the Light being temporarily off; and (b) that choices do not come only in black and white, but in all nuances of grey. Johnson added gravitas, on that front.
What am I complaining about, then? Well, the movie gets in a certain sense political only in one subplot, which takes place on Canto Bight, a casino planet. The message there is, in part, environmentalist (against cruelty toward animals) and, in part, political. I am trying to avoid spoilers, but indeed the scene has to do with gun merchants [traffickers? per renderlo un po’ più sinistro], and one of the characters pretty much says that you can’t get this rich if you don’t do something terrible. Now, that is in part set in a wider perspective when DJ, the character played by Benicio Del Toro, shows Finn that actually those very merchants are also selling to the Resistance. But this is a rare time in Star Wars when they talk about the production of anything, and the production in question is lethal technologies. Also, indeed DJ is a “man on the market”, pretty much as Han Solo originally was: a cynic who doesn’t care to “join” and wants to “live free” by having contractual relationships with those interested in paying him. And yet he comes up in quite a different light than good ol’ Han.
Getting rich by stealing, or by inheritance from older stealing, is “the old fashioned way” to get rich, as Deirdre McCloskey puts it in her Bourgeois Equality. Novelists, poets, and intellectuals, she argues, rather naturally thought that was to be the way the new riches were also generated after the “Great Enrichment”. Not quite, McCloskey argues. In a society based upon an extensive division of labour “every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant”; consensual relationships grow and coercive ones tend to diminish, people tend to get richer by giving other people stuff they care about. This is a continuum, and we haven’t yet seen societies that do away with coercion, or where rascals never get rich (though in some times and places it is comparatively harder for rascals to get rich).
In a universe where people can travel beyond light speed, one would suppose innovation to play quite a role – though economically speaking Star Wars has always been peculiar. For example, one assumes that the point of having power is not just about having big guns, but also has something to with having the power to tax people, so that you can have money to buy even bigger guns (not exactly a scientific definition of politics, but you get my point). Well, in The Force Awakens the First Order destroys without a blink a whole solar system, where the capital of the old Republic (and the Empire) is located, which appears to be very prosperous and thus an excellent candidate for exploitation. Well, I suppose the galaxy is plentiful.
This is to say that we, or I for one, shouldn’t be surprised by this sort of a naive, black and white, good and evil look at things in Star Wars. This is part of the reason why it is so refreshing, including for fans who, like me, are really no longer teenagers but still grew up with this story. Still, I have a sense that this last movie goes a bit beyond that, and takes the “old fashioned way” of getting rich as an assumption.
Is any of this at all interesting? Isn’t Star Wars a movie just to have fun with? Certainly. I enjoyed Rian Johnson’s movie enormously, and I think most fans will (some will be disappointed because it is not conceived to reassure and cuddle the fandom like the previous one was). I think however it is interesting that this sort of message ought to be there, particularly now that Disney took the franchise up.
Please don’t get me wrong. These productions are not essays, they are not meant to convey a message, nor to persuade people to embrace a particular set of ideas. Rian Johnson is not Ken Loach. I would presume that movies like this are more interesting as signalling devices of what “society” thinks – of what appears to be typically understood as commonsensical and plain. I do not think that Disney has obviously any interest in producing movies that misrepresent the free market. Yet they have a major interest in making movies that have an impact, create a following, sell puppets, and are liked by people: there are solid self-interested reasons for pop culture productions to follow the winds of widespread prejudices.
Quite a few nasty fellows get ludicrously rich by doing terrible things: this is, I am afraid, a fact. Implicitly presenting this way of getting rich as the only possible one presumes that there is no other (what about making great movies that millions of people love?). Such a view may inform more “commonsensical” opinions than we may be thinking about. It is a background thought that may come to the surface on other occasions: when people have to form a view on whatever policy matter, when they talk with their friends, when they vote. If it gets in a movie like Star Wars, it may well be that it simply seems too clear and so true.
* For a different view, see this piece by Aaron Ross Powell.While I think he’s over-critical, he has a point in saying that the movie hurts fans, as it implicitly claims that the first (the true?) trilogy was a failure.