As behemoths of profiteering excess and corporate art go, nothing can match the consumerist orgy of the Star Wars saga. An epic experiment in mass merchandizing since its inception, the series and its associated brand has spent the past four decades gorging capital through sequels, prequels, spinoffs, pieces of plastic, and a surprisingly decent Rick Rubin album. The scale of the commodity is surreal: in 2012, Disney bought Star Wars (and the rest of Lucasfilm) for $4.5 billion, enough to buy both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns twice. As the original film celebrates its fortieth anniversary, production is underway on the franchise’s ninth and tenth full length installments, recycling plotlines and tropes to squeeze cash from their dedicated fanbase so transparently it seems satirical. Star Wars is almost single-handedly responsible for the age of the blockbuster, where financiers can create cultural phenomena simply by pouring money into a few guaranteed hits; the implications are dark as they pertain to film as a subversive and nuanced art form, not to mention propaganda and ideological control. And yet I love Star Wars, and I will love it long after George Lucas and the Walt Disney Company have been stripped of their billions by the righteous power of the Revolution.
Before Ronald Reagan tried to use the movies to gain popular support for space missiles, before a $4,700 Lego Millennium Falcon, before Jar Jar Binks and Hayden Christensen, Star Wars was a story about a Rebellion and an Empire. Indulging ourselves long enough to examine this galaxy far, far away illustrates critical truths about resistance, truths particularly relevant in the Age of Trump.
It’s A Trap
The Galactic Empire, with its Riefenstahl-style rallies and Vader via Wagner mysticism, is a quintessentially fascist state. Emperor Palpatine rules with an iron fist, his will executed by seemingly endless legions of brainwashed stormtroopers. His regime conceals the sycophancy of industrialists and aristocrats (shown in fleeting shots of Return of the Jedi) with constant public displays of military force and a racist doctrine of human supremacy. The singular economic engine of his state seems to be an enormous military industrial complex, endlessly seeking expansion by developing increasingly powerful weapons and testing them on dissenting populations. On screen, we watch the Death Star, a moon-sized battle station, destroy the peaceful planet Alderaan and however many billions of lives it held. Space fascists with the power to destroy entire worlds stretch the conceptual limits of unchecked authoritarianism’s terror.
The original trilogy depicts the Galactic Civil War, in which the Imperial Goliath is toppled, against all odds, by the Rebel Alliance. At first glance, the Rebels seem valiant defenders of freedom and justice, fighting and dying for an egalitarian future. Unlike the Empire, the Alliance embraces the assets non-human species have to offer their movement (the Mon Calamari Starfleet, the Bothan spy network), even celebrating the incoherently growling Chewbacca as a war hero. And the Rebellion strives to encompass those most devastated by Imperial tyranny, best demonstrated by the practically Maoist guerilla cooperation with the indigenous Ewoks of Endor. Who can doubt the sincerity of a movement, after all, when its political leaders openly risk their lives in combat alongside regular soldiers?
Fascists losing is always a cause for celebration, and fortunately, fascism is a fundamentally unstable mode of governance that almost always loses. Palpatine is incinerated in the fission reactor core of his doomed battle station, Hitler’s body was burned in a ditch after he shot himself, communists hanged Mussolini in a gas station, Stalin writhed on his office floor soaked in urine for hours before his guards found him. The laws of the political universe are clear: the more concentrated destructive power becomes, the more likely its humiliating demise.
So why then, when The Force Awakens shows us the galaxy 30 years after the fall of the Empire, has so little changed? Episodes nine and ten will doubtless shed some light on the interim, but we know enough. The Alliance created a New Republic, former Imperial leaders created the First Order, and the two sides make war for territorial control (for devotees to fictional accuracy, the war is actually between the First Order and Leia Organa’s private army, the Resistance, protecting the New Republic from public reaction to overt conflict). The massive violence is endless, with the First Order annihilating the New Republic’s densely populated capital planet, and the Resistance’s retaliatory destruction of the planet holding the responsible superweapon. Clearly the Rebel Alliance’s popular mandate wasn’t strong enough to extinguish the forces of fascism, even given decades to assert a viable alternative to the day to day brutality of Imperial life.
There have always been clues that the Alliance was an imperfect solution to fascism. A New Hope takes place 19 years after Palpatine declared himself Emperor with complete executive control. For those two decades, the Rebellion’s political leaders, members of the symbolic Imperial Senate, are content to restrain their resistance to legally sanctioned dissent in a defunct legislative body. Even when her ship is intercepted by Darth Vader carrying the stolen plans of the Death Star, Princess Leia appeals to diplomacy, telling him ludicrously “The Imperial Senate will not sit for this.” It is only after the Emperor dissolves the already redundant political body that the Rebels take militant action against their government, already too late to save Alderaan from global genocide.
Leia Organa learned too late that Imperial Senators will never prevent atrocities.
Rogue One (easily the best Star Wars movie since 1980) paints an even less flattering portrait of the Rebellion, revealing how they abandoned and even condemned anti-Imperial militants prior to the Battle of Yavin. We watch former Rebel Saw Gerrera, disillusioned with his Alliance’s inaction, lead an underground band of Partisans in a guerrilla movement to sabotage the construction of the Death Star. We hear the leader of the Alliance, longtime Imperial Senator Mon Mothma, dismiss Gerrera as an “extremist.” Most tellingly, we learn that the elite Rebel leadership voted against taking military action even after they had seen the superweapon’s destructive power. The entire Galactic Civil War was sparked by one soldier, Jyn Erso, directly defying orders and sacrificing her life to reveal a hidden weakness in the battle station. If the Rebel bureaucracy had their way, the Death Star would never have been destroyed, and countless worlds could share Alderaan’s fate.
How can the Rebel Alliance be so hesitant to combat the forces of unquestionable evil? And how, after 34 years of war, can they fail to eliminate the forces of reactionary fascism in the galaxy?
The courageous cadre at the center of the movies reveal a fundamental abscess in the movement to overthrow the Empire: an ideological abscess. Though they have all the charm of the young July 26ers, they lack any semblance of consensus on even the definition of a revolution. Our heroes represent a disparate patchwork of monarchism, fundamentalism, anarcho-capitalism, and actual slavery. Princess Leia Organa is the adopted daughter of a Galactic Senator and the Queen of Alderaan, raised to rule one of the wealthiest planets in the galaxy. Luke Skywalker grew up on a farm harvesting moisture, and followed teenage boredom into the archaic, determinist religion of a monastic knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Han Solo is a pirate and a smuggler for galactic gangsters. C-3PO and R2-D2 are sentient robots, incapable of anything but a life of servitude. Add in Lando Calrissian, the playboy owner of a mining colony, and it becomes blatantly obvious that the Rebellion has no leftist aspirations.
The Rebel Alliance is not unique or even atypical among anti-fascist movements. As with Stalin’s begrudging alliance Churchill or the tenuous Schumer-Sanders coalition in the US Senate, the existential threat of marauding megalomaniacs forces strange bedfellows. But as goals for the future contradict one another within these unions, the prevailing forces will always be those whose ideologies have the least internal consistency, the least power of vision. For this reason, the Rebellion, like the anti-fascist Alliance of World War II, succumbed to the archaic tradition of state liberalism.
Liberalism is a flexible societal force, eager to encompass even the most oppressive strains of conservatism. Ideological disparities do not contradict liberalism, rather they are central to it. It is an axiomatically anti-materialist framework of thought, in which any concrete answers to questions of why and what for are rejected so quickly such questions quickly dissipate. By focusing on experienced liberty without promoting any specific end or acknowledging structural reality, liberal thought amounts to little more than a distraction, providing cover for entirely counter-revolutionary forces. This has been true on Earth since Aristotle rebuked the revolutionary Atomists, we can only imagine how many millennia it has shaped civilization in a galaxy far, far away.
Is it any wonder that a movement led by sitting Senators impeded Saw Gerrera’s Partisans, or that Imperial fascism survived their insurrection? Were the Greek communists who fought beside American troops to repel Mussolini shocked when the CIA installed former Nazis to exterminate them? Did Bernie Sanders fail to predict the Democratic Party’s widespread sabotage that likely kept him from the presidential nomination?
Of course not.
It isn’t realistic to expect absolute unity from a revolutionary or anti-fascist movement. Defeating structures of oppression will always require and thrive from a broad base of belief and experience. But to create any semblance of progress, there must at least be a consensus in egalitarian vision. Embracing an ideology that recognizes neither the present nor the future ultimately benefits only those who held power in the past.
A More Wretched Hive Of Scum And Villainy
At the end of Return of the Jedi, we watch the galaxy rejoice to learn that Palpatine’s reign of terror has ended. But if we were given a window into the next morning, we would see that the joy of freedom is short lived. As the film’s title implies, the Rebel Alliance has no intention of asserting a new and just galactic civilization. They seek to restore the Republic that had ruled the galaxy for a thousand years before the Empire’s brutal ascension. This type of nostalgia should be familiar in a nation where young people are already buying their Michelle 2020 buttons, where liberal pundits like Bill Maher are rebranding George W. Bush as an “honorable man.” It is critical to understand the deep dangers of such nostalgia. Looking to the past may reinstate former overlords, but it by definition undermines progress. Nostalgia is a particularly dangerous tool for anti-fascists.
To fight fascists, the opposition to Trump must recognize what the Rebel Alliance could not: fascism is a unique phenomenon, defined by its fusion of the reactionary and the revolutionary. At its core, fascism is the logical if absurd conclusion of a repressive society’s ideology, and as such it draws on the reactionary traditions of liberalism and conservatism. But the totalitarian societal shift demanded by fascism is also revisionist, and while it typically benefits at least factions of the former ruling class, this transformation signifies a spectacular collapse of previous power structures. Thus, fascism can only rise out of the failure of a state or civilization. While Rebel Alliances can overthrow specific fascists, the ideological power of their regimes can only be defeated (and in the future, prevented) by identifying and resolving those failures.
In the Star Wars prequels, we watch the arc of ambition and terror that carries Palpatine from Senator to Chancellor to Emperor. With Machiavellian dexterity, the democratically elected old man rules the Republic while covertly leading corporate leaders in their Separatist insurgency, sparking the Clone Wars. Ultimately, he is able to use wartime fears to declare himself Emperor, massacre the warrior-monk Jedi Knights who are sworn to defend the Republic, and create a galactic police state. This immeasurable destruction for personal gain is of course the definition of pure evil.
But how much blame can Palpatine take for the fall of the Old Republic? A critical examination of the Phantom Menace, chronologically the first film of the saga, reveals that galactic civilization was terminally ill long before the wealthy Senator took the Chancellor’s throne. In the first moments of the film, we see that the privately-owned Trade Federation has enough power to build an immense robot army and invade an entire planet over a tax dispute. In the Galactic Senate, we see that the Federation actually has its own legislative representatives, and when the Senate refuses to take action against the company’s invasion of Naboo, there are only two possible explanations. Either the Republic has allowed such extensive deregulation that they are materially powerless to fend off a corporate attack, or the governing body is so corrupt there is no political will to oppose such an assault. Ultimately, though the attack is repelled, it is through mass and inter-species resistance on Naboo with no support from the Republic beyond a single Jedi Knight and his squire.
The Jedi themselves are hardly the benevolent army evoked by the Rebel leaders to motivate their troops. The prequels reveal that the reverant pantheism of Obi-Wan Kenobi is only a cover for a dogma of genetic superiority, in which aptitude for a galactic police force is measured by the presence of “midi-chlorians” in a Jedi’s cells. At every turn, the Jedi Order proves itself a force for theocratic authoritarianism, indoctrinating infants or using lethal force against criminal suspects. But this conservatism is its own undoing, when strict enforcement of ancient laws regarding sexual chastity push young Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi with a pregnant lover, to fall into Palpatine’s grasp and become the mass-murdering Sith Lord Darth Vader.
Meanwhile, life under the Republic seems precarious at best and brutish at worst. On the wealthy capital planet Coruscant, while elites bask in grotesque opulence, the poor scrounge through scrap metal under skyscrapers so tall they spend their entire lives not seeing daylight. Farther from the hub of political activity, slavery and murder run rampant, and people have more faith in crime lords like Jabba the Hutt than in the interplanetary state. While technology enables hyperspace travel and automated liberation from labor, most galactic citizens we see toil under bleak conditions on their home planets. The Old Republic follows the pattern of liberal capitalist countries on Earth: as the government surrenders its democratic power through privatization, inequality surges, and quality of life plummets for all but a tiny elite.
The Clone Wars might be a power-grabbing sham with a grotesque price tag in human life, but it is no wonder the conflict gained Palpatine the popular support needed to seize absolute control. By waging war on the Separatist Confederacy of the Trade Federation, Techno Union, and InterGalactic Banking Clan, he appeared to the public to be attacking the corporate establishment they had long since identified as the source of their disenfranchisement. And the resentment of daily violence under a failed state (the slow violence of poverty and its accompanying elimination of choice) demands some violent catharsis, offered by Palpatine and Vader’s purge of the Jedi. In this way, Palpatine, like all other demagogues, is an accident of history. He follows a formula we see unfolding without fail in our own galaxy. Every dying state welcomes violent exploitation. If the scheming Sith Lord hadn’t contorted his way to the top, it was just a matter of time before someone else did. And once a New Republic has been cast in the same mold, The Force Awakens shows us fascism’s inevitable return.
What Rebellions Are Built On
Predictably in a saga called Star Wars, the universe of the series has an axiomatic similarity with the United States: the perpetual cycle of war. For the storyteller, since the days of Homer, war is epic, simultaneously grandiose and poetic, overflowing with heroes and glory. Lucas clearly does not skimp on spectacle, or on obnoxious white men to celebrate, but the films offer something unique in the world of the chauvinist blockbuster they helped create. Viewed as a unit, the series offers a sober portrayal of the social and political fetishization of mass conflict.
Emperor Palpatine understands that fetishization as well as George W. Bush or Donald Trump. Every clash in the prequels, the Trade Federation’s blockade of Naboo, the catastrophic Clone Wars, and the Jedi Purge, are revealed to be sadistic machinations in his political gambit. He generates the threat of terror and insurgency time and time again, and each time proclaims himself (with increasingly militarist zeal) the only solution. Like any successful fascist, he knows that his only responsibility is to purge the “other.” It should not escape us that his cackling declaration of a new Empire in Revenge of the Sith was written as American bombs hailed down on the long-starving people of Iraq and their non-existent weapons of mass destruction. There is no surprise in opposition Senator Padmé Amidala’s voice as she notes, “So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.”
But Palpatine isn’t the only one playing both sides. Who provides the Rebel Alliance with X-Wing Starfighters almost identical to the ARC-170 fighters used by the Old Republic in the Clone Wars? Could they possibly come from the same shipyards as the Imperial Star Destroyers, clearly modernized versions of the Old Republic’s battleships? Of course they are, if Earth’s history can prove a model. Adolph Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt both met regularly with Henry Ford (who the Nazi leader lovingly called “my inspiration”). Al Qaida fighters in Syria use billions of dollars worth of American weapons, smuggled through the proxy state Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, wars of every sort perform the same function. They sell weapons.
There are no star wars in Star Wars, at least not in the sense of actual conflicts. There are only violent exertions of force within a single vector of power. In a civilization on the verge of crisis, these shocks to the system cure all ills. As the corruption of late capitalism collapses the Old Republic, a fascist coup maintains the status quo. As the totalitarian Empire breeds dissent, fear of a globe-smashing battle station prevents revolution. And when a New Republic reinstitutes a failed liberalism, the threat of neofascists distracts the people from their failures. The United States, the teetering empire whose stormtroopers currently occupy 150 of this world’s countries, is no different. Rulers, fascist and liberal, stay alive through destruction. Regardless of who is chosen to kill or die, the class that maintains control is the same.
What would a real Star War, a true galactic revolution, actually look like? If freed from the constant distractions of state ideology, the underclass from Coruscant to the Jundland Wastes would have time to examine and rewrite their relationship with the state.
Their revolution would reject the colonialist divisions between human and Wookiee, the nativist bias against the sentient and long-suffering droids. It would demand collectivization and worker ownership of the gas mines in Cloud City and the factories on Geonosis. It would offer safe shelter to orphans like Han Solo, free flight school to ambitious farmboys like Luke Skywalker, universal health care to mothers like Padmé Amidala. It would end poverty by redistributing the wealth of monarchs like Princess Leia, corporations like the Trade Federation, religious bodies like the Jedi Order. And it would preserve the undisturbed life thriving on the forest moon of Endor, or the ice world of Hoth.
And it is in that mold or no mold that we will defeat the disquieting junta of the Trump administration here on Earth. In the desert of the real, there is too much at stake to throw ourselves into the corporatist arms of liberalism and conservatism to escape fascism. We, like all revolutionaries, must reject institutions of control or accept elimination.
When the brave Partisan Jyn Erso stood before the establishment leaders of the Rebel Alliance who, having seen its destructive power, still refused to take action against the Death Star, the conservative generals asked “What chance do we have?”
She responded, “The question is, what choice?”