Alberto Mingardi  

The Last Jedi and a hard-to-die fallacy

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Last Jedi.jpg 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' piĆ¹ 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.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Thomas Sewell writes:

The movie had a few good points, but I was very disappointed by how much it's been turned even farther into irrelevant to the Star Wars Universe message fiction. I think that's what Powell was picking up on in his review. They threw out the Star Wars timeline in order to shove in a plot and characters trying to reference contemporary events so they could send a lame message of resistance about it.

It would have been nice to be able to go watch a new Star Wars movie without it being turned into the live action equivalent of Fern Gully. That (among a few other things, like yet again reprising scenes from earlier movies like Hoth and the asteroid chase, but not as well done) left me saddened at the missed possibilities.

It was almost a good movie.

Gwen T writes:

Whether or not you can get rich doing terrible things should be influenced by supply and demand, right?

Suppose that the only way to get a seal fur is from the unethical practice of seal clubbing. There are other furs that can be obtained ethically, but they're not as soft.

The more unethical consumers are, the greater demand for seal furs. The more unethical producers are, the greater the supply of seal furs. In order to make excess returns in seal clubbing, we would need to see a lot of unethical consumers, with a dearth of unethical producers. What sort of world would that look like? Maybe a universe where people hate to "get their hands dirty", but don't mind cruelty that happens behind the scenes?

Some Dude writes:

*Mild Spoilers*

This seems like a shallow reading. The characters on Canto Blight became rich because they are patrons of corrupt governments. This is the inevitable result of government interaction with otherwise free markets: corruption, stratification of wealth, and cruelty that is ignored by the same governments that claim to be fighting for those victims. It's true that the patrons in Canto Blight are amoral, but it's callous government interference in society that allows that amorality to fester.

Dave Smith writes:

Mild Spoilers***

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The movie was terrible. Not because Fan Boy theories did not pan out, but because it seemed like all the other movies did not exist.

The movie was bad for me for two reasons. For the first time ever I walked out of a star wars movie not caring what happens next. And this movie did not make any of the other movies better. (Empire made Star Wars better, for example.)

And it even failed as a non-star wars movie. Too many of the characters were pointless. Why was Fin in the movie, for example?

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey writes:

Carissimo,

I've not seen it, but I know a sharp political insight when I see it. All the Star Wars movies, and much of space fiction, glorifies empires and hierarchy (even the late lamented Princess). Spontaneous order gets short Shrift. Where are the space movies celebrating commercially tested betterment, such as, recently, "Joy" and "The Founder."

Con affetto,

Deirdre

Joshua writes:

It gets a tiny bit preachy, and some of the characters are underutilized (indicating too many characters), but these are both forgivable given the rest of the movie.

Change the names, change the universe, and it suddenly becomes a movie I really like. As is, it just doesn't fit with what came before. It doesn't even try. It's like it doesn't even care. Which is fine if you just want to make movies. I don't think it's a good move for the maximizing the value of the Star Wars brand.

Jon Murphy writes:

Alberto, sir-

Your point is well-taken. However, I wonder how much of the "the rich get rich by doing terrible things" isn't a commentary on the political climate of the Star Wars Universe and not necessarily meant for ours?

If we want to go back to the Battle of Naboo (Episode I), then the Galaxy has been in a state of nearly constant war for the better part of 60 years (approximately 15 years pass between Episode I and Episode III, 20 years between III and IV, 4 years between IV and VI, and another 20 years between VI and VII-VIII). During that time, you have the Clone Wars, which devastated the Galactic Economy through high taxation, raids and destruction of trade routes, and rampant cronyism (see the Clone Wars TV show for various episodes dealing with exactly this), a massive build-up of the Republic/Empire's military capabilities (see Episode II, Episode III, Clone Wars TV show, Star Wars Rebels TV show, and Rogue One). The original Death Star alone cost an innumerable amount of money and resources. We also see the wealth of average citizens routinely confiscated by the Empire for one reason or another (see Star Wars: Rebels TV show).

I think the fact we don't see any technological advancement within the Star Wars Universe outside of military technology over these 60 years suggests that most resources were being poured into the Republic/Empire war machine.* Assuming my hypothesis to be true, it doesn't surprise me that the wealthy of the Star Wars Universe are the arms dealers.

*This problem may run deeper, however. The technology shown in Knights of the Old Republic, which takes place approximately 4,000 years before the Prequels, is very similar to "present day" Star Wars.

Weir writes:

It's a big universe. Big enough for the hereditary aristocracy of the prequels and the populism of this latest film.

Canto Bight is like the Capitol in The Hunger Games, and my first impression of Laura Dern's character was that she's dressed and styled like Elizabeth Banks in those films. She looks like she should be in the casino beside Justin Theroux.

And note the relish with which she sizes up Oscar Isaac as impulsive and dangerous. The pathologies of the underclass are both attractive and deplorable. Big universe, like I said.

The "rebel scum" in the cinema aren't about to convert to veganism like Chewbacca, and old books have never been very important to them. But what do rich kids take away from this? Do they see their nannies in the nuns on the Irish island? The maids who clean up after them?

John Boyega's like Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan or Harry Styles in Dunkirk. Mark Hamill's like a drone pilot. Lupita Nyong'o is busy with a "union dispute" and it's possibly the weirdest bit of political stuff in the film. There's epic politics and mythic politics, like with Snoke's exploitation of his underlings, but then there's the opposite, this phrase "union dispute" popping up out of nowhere.

Fazal Majid writes:

A small nit to pick: the system destroyed in The Force Awakens is Hosnian Prime, not Coruscant. The New Republic had a policy of rotating its capital world.

The real question is why the Star Wars universe has not transitioned to a post-scarcity economy given they have sentient robot technology. The droid factories of Geonosis show it's certainly not from an inability to mass-produce droids.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey: "All the Star Wars movies, and much of space fiction, glorifies empires and hierarchy (even the late lamented Princess). Spontaneous order gets short Shrift."

I suppose that adventure fiction, in general, glorifies, or empires, or rebellion against empires (from big galactic empires to local "empires" of powerful ranchers trying to steal the land of small farmers) - consensual transactions don't make good movies.

Max writes:

The most interesting plotline was the Rey kylo Luke one. But even there space Twitter and the sad snoke none story stopped the movie. The whole chase the rebellion is useless and the Finn story with Canto should have been cut. Artificially lengthening movies does not make them better. Also the marvel humor was too much imo. However I liked the force ghost story line.

TB writes:

I still don't understand why the good guys don't kill the bad guys when they have the chance. How stupid and how un-caring. You beat the bad guy in a fight to your death if you lose, then you walk away and permit the bad guy to survive to kill hundreds / thousands before he is finally beaten. WHY ? That is not noble nor honorable...it is rather elitist and arrogant. Your peers' lives are worth more than others' lives....pretty shallow. Does Hollywood really miss the middle ages and they think they would all be nobles? . . . . . . looking at media/hollywood sexual/power conduct ... maybe so?

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