Forward, to the Past! 2 – Episode 2: First Order of Business
Even as it complicates the Star Wars universe in some ways, the sequel trilogy clings close to the old liberalism vs. fascism dichotomy that dominated the politics of the original trilogy and prequel trilogy, and which dominates fantasy narratives generally. (See this by Phil, for instance.) The First Order’s politics is essentially contentless. They hate the Republic because reasons. They wear black and grey uniforms, and have red and black banners, and rallies, and they’re therefore fascists, and the fascists hate liberal democracy because they just do. This dichotomy, which is pervasive throughout stories of this kind (look at Harry Potter for instance) tells us something about the permissible horizons of ideology in the capitalist mass culture industries. It is this which gives rise to the syndrome I talked about in my villains essay, in which I point out (amongst other things) that villains are usually the only people in stories like this who are trying to fundamentally change the world.
Actually, the original trilogy scores slightly better on this than many other such narratives. It is set in a period when the fascists have already won, and the people trying to change the world are the good guys. While it set the fascism/liberalism dichotomy template for a generation of fantasy narratives, Star Wars actually had a marginally better version to offer. The odd thing is that, while consciously more ‘right on’ (or does one day ‘woke’ these days?) in many ways, the sequel trilogy is actually retrograde in this respect, because – at least in Force Awakens – the First Order is more like a challenger to the reign of the New Republic, a splinter group, a secessionist movement.
I noted in this essay how much the First Order looks like the Confederacy. This is the spin that Force Awakens put on the old dichotomy, and it’s valuable – except that it once again positions the bad guys as the only people trying to change things, the only people challenging liberal democracy. And that’s a shame because liberal democracy needs challenging. It’s better than fascism, but that’s a low bar. The Union was better than the Confederacy, and the Civil War was worth fighting (to push for the freedom of the slaves, etc) but it’s also true that the Union was capitalist and imperialist, and that imperialism was built into its actual motives for fighting the Civil War. The Union went on to build its further expansion on imperialism, invasion, slaughter, warmongering, oppression, genocide, etc.
In the fascism/liberalism dichotomy, the baddies are almost always the only people challenging such systems. They often get to point out the hypocrisy of liberal democracy, before being proved wrong and crushed. The ideological utility of such moves doesn’t take much parsing. You eternally consign challenges to the status quo to the category of villainy and fanaticism, and to doom.
There is something to be said for storytelling – in the late teens of the twenty-first century – that is open and unambiguous about fascism being a bad thing that needs to be stopped. It’s sad that we still need to say this, but apparently we do. And for my money Rogue One manages to be smart and inspirational on this issue. Even so, there are big problems with how fascism is conceptualised in Star Wars, as there almost everywhere it is represented or talked about. I realise I may be criticising the texts for failing on an aesthetic level they weren’t actually shooting for, but hey – doing so could be interesting.
Fascism is seen as extrinsic, alien, aberrant to liberal democracy. Actually it tends to emerge from liberal democracy, and the ideology of fascism is actually related to the ideology of classical liberalism. Moreover, fascism is a form of counter-revolution against the working class. Working class challenges to bourgeois power do not exist in Star Wars, except as individual actions (not yet anyway… Last Jedi leaves intriguing possibilities open). Fascism is also a political form of capitalism. It is the political form capitalism favours when liberal democracy (or whatever) seems too dangerous, too vulnerable to challenges from below. And fascism is also a variant on the kind of rule that Western liberal democracies imposed on their colonial subjects, relocated to the Western world in times of crisis. The colonial subjects of many a European country were intrigued to hear the citizens of those countries complaining about the evils of a political form not unlike that which those same European countries had imposed on their colonial possessions. Indeed, there is little to distinguish – in terms of intent and savagery – the Belgian colonial rule in Congo, or the French rule in Algeria, or the British rule in many places, from the German rule in the slabs of Europe they conquered in the mid 20th century. So, clearly, in terms of real world politics, the fascism/democracy dichotomy (or empire/republic) is untenable. It never has been tenable. The Americans revolted against the British empire to create their own republic, yet that republic was founded and expanded on the basis of imperialism. The Roman republic fell to the imperial system, yet it had conquered and enslaved people since before Julius Caesar was born. The Star Wars prequels relate just this classical ‘fall’ to the politics of the Bush years but, while those years were beyond doubt unusually authoritarian and rapacious in many ways, they were an extention of normal American capitalist imperialism. The republican or democratic freedom that is supposedly lost when the empire (or fascism) arises is the domestic freedom of the peoples of states that were themselves imperial.
I always like to remember what Aimé Césaire – and also Fanon – said about fascism: that it is the imperialist principle relocated to Europe and inflicted on white people. And for similar reasons. Modern imperialism is ultimately about capital accumulation, about acquiring resources and helots for capitalist states. Fascism too is about ensuring the hegemony of the capitalist system, about suppressing workers’ struggles and unions, etc… and its no accident that almost all fascisms have been expansionist by nature. ‘Lebensraum’ wasn’t just a crazy notion Hitler dreamed up. It was rooted in 19th century German nationalist ideology, and ultimately came from the need for German capitalism to build itself by acquiring resources, and markets into which it could expand. It needed to do this to catch up with the other big European capitalist-imperialist powers. Germany had unified late and had never really had a bourgeois revolution which decisively broke the back of feudalism. But the reason it needed to catch up was because the other big capitalist countries – Britain and France – had already carved the world up between them… which they did because they had to, because capitalism generates empire through its needs.
By contrast, the fascism of the Empire/First Order seems almost entirely based on a kind of loathing for the Republic, and for its values. It is a cultural backlash. This makes it feel fairly relevant to our current situation, but only because too many people wrongly conceptualise our current situation as being about a clash of cultural values, with the ‘progressive’ values of liberal (capitalist) society under attack. What we get, then, in Star Wars now, is a mirror of this – an account of the values and virtues of liberal democracy, showing us those values and virtues reflected in the Empire’s glass darkly, which allows liberal democracy to boast its own case for itself, to trumpet its own propaganda. It’s essentially a reiteration of Hillary Clinton posing as a democracy-loving feminist and denouncing the deplorables. The liberal democracy of the Republic is good because of all the freedom. We know this because the enemies of freedom go around muttering darkly about decadence from under their cowls, or General Hux screams hate at his massed ranks of fascists. But whose freedom?
The prequels actually come closer than any other part of the series to complicating all this. There are slaves on Tattooine, and the Jedi do nothing about it. But this is really never picked up on. By the time of the last film, the evil of those who wish to destroy the Republic has been allowed to throw any possible criticisms of the Republic into the silent background. The only way we can insist upon the complication is by an act of will, by deciding to concentrate upon muffled elements of connected texts that the one we’re watching has consciously chosen to discard. And that’s fine, we can do that… but we need to admit that’s what we’re doing.
Too often we interpret texts as if the mere presence of something in them – even if it is objectively there – can be taken as meaningfully negating other, more dominant parts of the text. But texts do not give every one of their elements equal weight. And, while reading a text creatively is a good thing, it can lead to problems if you don’t signal that this is what you’re doing. Just the other day, I read someone defending the prequels because they problematise the Jedi… which is true, to an extent. But they then went on to give the Jedi council’s attempted arrest and execution of Palpatine as evidence of religious bigotry on their part. Now, that’s a perfectly fine way to read the text, but it actively reads the text against its grain. This isn’t a problem except that, if it isn’t acknowledged, it can lead to misrepresentation of both text and reader. The text, as it actually exists and presents itself – and here we need to take in everything from the nuances of performance to lighting to music, etc – does not endorse this reading. Indeed, if we’re honest, it forecloses on it. Palpatine is textually guilty of crimes (by the standards of the society of which he is a part) and the Jedi (by what we see of that society) have a clear responsibility and mandate to act on this fact. Moreover, the scene is embedded in a wider story, and that story in a wider society with its own web of dominant assumptions, that influences how it is going to be read by most people. That isn’t to say that putting this scene forward as evidence of the Jedi’s ambiguity is ‘wrong’ exactly, but imputing value to the text because of a strategy it doesn’t actually have is misleading… not only because it misrepresents the text itself, but also because it relies too much on an model of texts based on intentionality, on – in whatever mediated a way – on the author, or the author function.
The telltale sign that the muted criticisms of the Republic (i.e. liberal democracy) in the prequels are to be forgotten is that they are not only dwarfed by the far worse and more urgent crimes of the Empire. (And yes, on the one hand fascism is worse than liberal democracy… but that depends on your position. Churchill – the great champion of liberal democracy – fought fascism in Europe. He also helped engineer a genocidal famine in Bengal, helped topple democracy in Iran, played a major role in the attack on Bolshevik Russia, etc etc etc.) But more than this. The crimes of the Republic are actually tacitly absorbed by the Empire. The Empire is made to take the blame for all of them. In much the same way that Churchill’s crimes are perpetually forgotten in Britain – as in the multiplying hagiographgic sentimental movies about him, and Doctor Who‘s own contribution to this trend – and we only ever hear about imperialist atrocity via the Third Reich. That is the iteration of imperial horror we are allowed to know about and think about, because it is the one that British capitalist culture has effectively ideologically managed, meaning it is always presented as stemming from ideology, fanaticism, fundamentally un-British values that the British fought and destroyed, etc. Again, the real nature of fascism is eternally effaced.
The Last Jedi actually gives us a very good example of a version of this very phenomenon at work. There is the trip made by Rose and Finn to the evil casino planet, full of evil rich people. The scene has garnered a lot of hostility from sectors of the audience. It’s another of those supposed objective mistakes that is actually an instance of the film making a statement. It is being called a pointless diversion that slows down the action and leads nowhere, etc. The people who whinge about it being SJW propaganda are being more honest. But that’s not what I want to get at here. (I should stress that, on the whole, I liked it – it is a vital part of Finn’s development and Rose is great, etc.)
Suffice to say: as a critique of capitalism it’s pretty weaksauce. It’s basically a swipe at conspicuous consumption, at the luxury lifestyles of the one per cent. And it’s moralistic. The rich are bad because they dress up and drink and have fun? No, that’s not really getting at the nub of the issue, for me. There’s a long tradition of this kind of thing. Moralistic critiques that attack human proclivities, or weakness and foibles – and because it’s the foibles of rich people being attacked, the story can kid itself its being radical or satirical. For instance, the attacks on plastic surgery to be found in, say Brazil and RTD’s ‘The End of the World’. Both are gendered too. But people like that aren’t horrible because they use their money to have too much plastic surgery, they’re horrible because they have that kind of money in the first place… and, more broadly, because they’re the products of a horrible world in which that kind of inequality can exist. But then swiping at inequality isn’t particularly cutting either. Capitalism can level wealth out a bit. It has done so in the past. It may do again (if pressed). Again, while inequality is a crying evil, the problem isn’t inequality per se (either as a moral issue or an economic one, once you get into the nitty gritty of it). The problem is far deeper than that. Inequality is a by product – and an addressable one, in principle – of the innate structural problems with capitalism: its exploitativeness, its drive to oppression and war, the structural tendency towards the concentration of capital, etc. None of that is to be seen, not even in vague outline.
At most, the casino sequence is an indictment of the bad taste of the wealthy. I know, it’s trying to use the aesthetics of opulence to generate disgust at their callousness, complacence, etc. It’s being tactically vague in an attempt to let its implied valence be as wide as possible… trouble is, it then ruins this by getting specific. And the specifics narrow the critique back down into milquetoast nullity. The moralistic critique is suddenly expanded to tell us about how those people – all of them? – got rich from the arms trade. So only ‘bad’ industries make the rich reprehensible? And an industry is only bad if it is directly involved in weaponry?
But, as Finn is informed, it’s more complicated than that. They sell weapons to both sides. But… so what? What are we meant to conclude from this? That arms dealers are unscupulous? Not news. That the Resistance is somehow morally implicated in the evil casino-attendance of rich people? Does that undermine their moral case? If so, the rest of the film gives precious little indication that the Resistance rests on a less than firm moral foundation (again, not all elements of a text have equal weight). Or are we supposed to conclude that the rich arms dealers aren’t that bad? Surely not. Again, the film gives no indication of this. This little moment just sits there doing nothing, saying nothing, having no implications either moral or political. It just seems to be there to look profound and challenging and complex without actually being any of those things. It is, at best, an indication of a structural problem with galactic society, but even that is undermined.
The real problem here is that the rich people in the casino are said to be creatures of the First Order’s regime. This isn’t quite said explicitly, but it nearly is. But both sides had weapons in Force Awakens, before the First Order took over the galaxy. Presumably they both had weapons before the war began. So the arms dealers were already there and doing a roaring trade before the Republic fell (again), or even before it began to. It’d be tempting to say that this is a wrinkle in the otherwise perfect depiction of the Republic… except that it is clearly glossed over. It’s not meant to be something we think about. As with thinking about the long-enslaved helots of Tattooine when pampered princess Padme says “so this is how freedom dies”, or the Jedi’s supposed intolerance, it’s something we can choose to do, but in doing so we are deliberately reading the text against its own grain.
But even more fundamentally… Rose gets her lines about the depradations underlying the casino being First Order crimes. The capture and mistreatment of the racing animals, the child slaves in the stables… these are things done by the First Order, as were the crimes committed against Rose’s people. All the unpleasant things about real republics, about liberal democracy, are being acknowledged only so that they can then be displaced onto the empire, the fascists, etc.
The truth is that, in modernity, the horror and the progress always go hand in hand.
But, in fairness, there is actually a weird way that Star Wars knows this….
To Be Continued…
January 19, 2018 @ 3:45 pm
Oh, bravo. A fantastic piece, and I can’t wait for the next part!
January 22, 2018 @ 10:52 am
“its implied valence”
Given that I don’t think you’re talking about atoms or briefcases what does ‘valance’ mean in this context?
January 22, 2018 @ 11:27 am
Firstly, I didn’t use the word “valance”, I used the word “valence”. Pretty obviously, I’m using it in the linguistic sense – admittedly loosely, but there are many precedents for this way of using it.
January 23, 2018 @ 9:36 am
I should probably work on my spelling, valence is how the chemistry word is spelt too.
So on looking it up, basically the opposite of ambivalence, is that right?
Genuine question, I’m not a literary type.
January 23, 2018 @ 11:51 am
I don’t think the Canto Bight scenes are implying that the rich are bad because they dress nicely and drink at the casino. The rich are bad because they gained their wealth through exploitation. Rose openly invites us to look at the tortured animals and oppressed stable boys (and girls) that form the underbelly of this casino paradise world. Sure, that’s not really a scathing critique of capitalism per se but it’s still way more than SW gave us before in that regard.
What’s more, the rich are bad because they got rich selling weapons. An easy target for sure but it directly connects the accumulation of wealth with warmongering. The First Order is able to rise in part because the rich wanted to get richer. Even the DJ scene later on which seemingly undercuts the message by saying that the Rebellion buys weapons too is ultimately subverted when DJ turns out to be a traitor.
All of that is, as you said, reading against the grain of the text (and therefore of little impact), but I just wanted to point out that it’s there.