Jedi Econ, Sith History

While drinking the other night, a few friends and I argued the merits of economic history.  Star Wars entered the picture.  It was super effective.  You have been warned.  Read further at your own risk.

On the one hand, economics is a great lens through which to view history.  If we define our metrics properly we can trace the rise and fall of nations, peering at patterns behind and beneath the “Great Men”—plagues and surplusses and farming innovations become as significant as which Caesar won what battle.  And if we’re careful, we can use economics as a foundation for discussions about how human life and society have changed (or stayed the same) down millennia.

Thing is, as Mal Reynolds might say if he was my thesis advisor, there’s an awful lot of ‘if’ coming off that plan.

(Now I’m envisioning a Firefly version of the Academic Coach Taylor tumblr.  Someone go make that, please?  Anyway.)

It seems to me (and I am neither a professional economist nor an academic historian here, so take this whole column with the world’s biggest grain of salt) that this approach has a pretty big potential pitfall.  Our choice of metrics is shaped by our historical and cultural position, which other ages and places by definition didn’t share.  Imagine you’re playing checkers in one room, and your friends are playing chess in another.  During a lull in your checkers game (maybe your opponent takes a long time to move), you get up and ask your chess-playing friends how their game’s going.  Assume for a second that you know so little about chess that you can’t even hum the chorus of “One Night in Bangkok.” How-does-little-horsey-move territory, here.  You’d probably ask questions based on your own experience of checkers, which seems similar on the surface; How many pieces have they taken?  Has anyone promoted a piece yet?  What’s the greatest number of pieces they’ve taken in one move?  Some of these questions will be answerable; some won’t; many will have answers that don’t correlate to ‘success’ in the game in the way you’ll assume if you only know the rules of checkers.  And, critically: you’ll never ask a question about check, or mate.  You’ll not see forks, or board influence; you’ll be utterly confused the first time someone castles.

The modern metropolitan depends on her salary.  So we might be tempted, when comparing her position in society to her forbears of a century prior, to compare salaries or bank balances.  But salary-dependence is a more or less modern phenomenon—up through the late 19th century, the US was primarily rural, like everywhere else, and wage income wasn’t as vital a yardstick of economic security.  In fact, the relative ease of homesteading and farming functioned as a kind of national basic income or unemployment insurance: employers had to compete for labor with the everpresent risk their employees might decide, “screw this job, I’ll go farm instead.”  (See Economix for more on this theme.)

Or, consider Star Wars.  Let’s assume the movies are a historical narrative.  It’s pretty clear that we’re seeing Jedi Holocron history, since the most important bit of data about Galactic politics at any given time is “what are the Force users up to?”  From the perspective of the Jedi Holocron, the Empire’s moment-by-moment policies don’t matter.  What matters is that Palpatine and Vader are in charge, and they use the Dark Side of the Force—that Vader betrayed and murdered Anakin Skywalker, that the Emperor hunted the Jedi to extinction.  Non-Jedi related issues are mentioned as an afterthought.  We hear the Imperial Senate was dissolved, but never learn what that means exactly; we know nothing about the galactic economy save that smuggling’s a thing people do, and people care about spice.  But we do know exactly what’s up with the Force users.

Which is the reason the audience feels such whiplash when The Phantom Menace’s opening crawl features a dispute over “the taxation of trade routes.”  All of a sudden we’ve been dropped into an entirely different historiography, using different metrics: a money-and-trade story, rather than a Jedi story.

That whiplash is the problem, not the subject matter.  There’s a commonplace among critics of The Phantom Menace that taxation of trade routes is inherently boring, which is just wrong—Dune is a gripping space opera that turns on equally abstruse points of politics, economics, and ecology, while huge chunks of Dorothy Dunnett’s plots turn on issues as apparently dry.  (Both the first two Niccolo books can be read as slow-burn setups for elegant economic assassinations.)  Hell, the West Wing’s best moments are about precisely this sort of economic and bureaucratic issue.  But the Holocron telling the story seems neither to understand nor to care about the taxation issues in question, or  the Trade Federation’s goals, save to the extent they’re playing catspaw for the Sith.

I’ll go a step further: the Trade Federation’s antics are no more comprehensible to the Holocron than the Jedi’s actions would be to a non-Jedi economic or military historian.  We see occasional glimpses of this disconnect when ordinary citizens offer their perspective on the Jedi, the Sith, and their place in Galactic history: Han Solo’s evocation of “hokey religions and ancient weapons,” Admiral Motti’s “You don’t frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader,” or even Tarkin’s “You, my friend, are all that’s left of their religion.”  For most folks, the Jedi are weird, unknowable, and not the point of the story—we the viewers just assume they are, because we happen to be watching a tale told from their perspective, focusing on issues they think are important.

So, imagine the narrative an economic historian of 200 ABY would compose about the fall of the Old Republic and the rise of the Empire: a tale of peripheral revolt from a crumbling metropole, rapacious provincial governorship, and eventual rebellion leading to a military coup, which was defeated in turn by an alliance of conservative Senators with peripheral military strongholds—a story in which the Jedi figure as prominently as the soothsayer who warns Caesar to beware the Ides of March, and in which the Sith are as relevant as the Thule Society (that is to say, a creepy footnote, but a footnote nonetheless).  Such a historian might well regard as frippery any claim that the Rebellion was “about” Jedi or Sith.  Obviously the contrast between droid and clone means of production and force projection was the far greater issue at the time—not to mention vital and hotly contested questions of provincial taxation and trade.

Which is not to say the non-Force historian is wrong!  Just that, if he spins his theories in front of a Sith Lord, he runs the risk of getting force-choked.  And may that be a lesson to us all as we cast our gaze on history: be careful about our angles of analysis, lest the past strangle us, or shoot us full of Dark Side lightning.


10 Responses to “Jedi Econ, Sith History”

  1. Paul Weimer

    I get it!
    The average fighter pilot in the rebellion doesn’t know Jedi from Judas. He’s concerned with political and economic oppression, or maybe the Empire killed his brother, or something. The fact that Vader is a Sith and General Skywalker is a Jedi means little to him. It’s a *different frame*.

    • max

      Exactly! You’ve hit on the meat of the post here—the issue of framing is deeper and broader than the surface question of economic analysis.

  2. Anise Strong

    Putting on my academic historian floppy hat for a second here – while you’re right that wages and salaries are not a dominant way of measuring wealth or income until relatively modern periods, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist or are irrelevant. For instance, I was reminded today that the average female urban worker in England in the 15th century made 71% of what the average male urban worker doing the same job at the same time did. This suggests all sorts of intriguing and upsetting things about the idea that we can quickly wave a wand and solve gender pay inequities in 2014 America.

    With regard to SW, one of the things that complicates our perspective is that the Jedi Holocron claims to be transcending class – or rather, to be giving us the perspective of both the lowest echelons of society (Wookiee ex-slaves, Tattooine subsistence farmers) and the highest (Princesses and elected(!) Queens). We see extensive evidence of class prejudice (scruffy nerf-herder!) among the elites but little indication of widespread class unrest among non-elites, perhaps because of the widespread opportunities for meritocratic advancement either through the military, the governmental bureaucracy, or organized crime.

    Yet given that Jedi talent is apparently genetic, if non-species-based it seems implausible that there wouldn’t be whole Jedi aristocracies on each planet. The argument against this is of course that the Jedi are strongly encouraged not to have kids, which really seems fundamentally self-defeating as a recruitment strategy.

    • max

      Good points, Anise. Careful comparative analysis along economic lines is possible, and valuable, of course. I guess what I’m trying to say is that explanations of past events from the modern world-system can go astray, or ignore the ways those events were interpreted in contemporary context.

      I think you’re right about opportunities for advancement reducing class foment in the GFFA. Also, ordinary class pressures may be mollified by the fact that the GFFA is big—lots of opportunities for striking out on your own and building businesses, colonies, etc.—and has technology so far advanced that class oppression is less onerous as a rule. (Consider the entirely automated factories in AotC, and the relatively cheap cost of capital goods—”10,000 credits? We could almost buy our own ship for that!”) Not sure I buy that second explanation of mine, though. Re: Jedi aristocracy, I have two thoughts:

      1. Maybe the Force is not class-neutral. Light Side philosophy seems to encourage abandoning will-to-power, or problematizing the very concept of power (‘If you strike me down…’). Even if the Jedi do have children, they may bring these children up to value learning, civil society, and guardianship more than civil office. By contrast, the Dark Side societies we see, admittedly in the EU for the most part, tend to be (a) Force-based aristocracies, and (b) long dead.

      2. Maybe, in the long run, Force-based aristocracies are unstable. Force-sensitive monarchs may be seduced by unreliable visions of the future (like Palpatine’s) or by mysticisms unrelated to government (like Prospero). Lack of possibility for advancement, coupled with a popular impression that Force-sensitive nobles are actually of a different species than the common folk, might also lead to violent revolution.

      Option (2) raises the possibility that the Light Side / Dark Side divide is political rather than ontological—Dark Siders want political power, Light Siders don’t. Not sure I want to go there, though.

      • Adam Strong-Morse

        Note that the oppressed laboring class in the Star Wars series are the droids–literally treated as slaves. I continue to think that there’s a reading of some of Obi Wan’s lines that suggest that he’s aware of this and rejects the notion that enslaving droids is okay (“I don’t seem to remember ever owning a droid”, “Hello there, my little friend.”) But I think that the existence of the enslaved droid class helps prevent unrest among the lower echelons of biological society–cf. the “nobility of all white people” thread of white supremacist thought in the American South, both pre- and post- Civil War.

        • max

          I love that observation about Obi-Wan, Adam! And, yes—the droids serve a double function, as slave labor and as a placeholder for biologicals’ contempt. (“We don’t serve their kind in here!”)

  3. Anna

    This entire discussion makes me think of the Eddie Izzard joke about the Death Star Canteen:

    The Star Wars universe kind of lacks those middling, run-of-the-mill, non-superhero characters who indicate that there is some sort of “common man” in this universe whose life will be improved by the sacrifice of our heroes.

    Firefly is SUPER clear on this point – there are people on the Rim who are doing really really poorly as a direct result of Alliance policy. So the Alliance isn’t just supernaturally evil with all its testing on talented young dancing hotties, it’s also regular evil with its allowing people to starve and suffer without medical supplies.

    The Empire, however, seems to be mostly super-evil. It bothers me that a lot of X-Wing fighters blow up without us learning anything about why they signed up in the first place. Were they from Alderaan originally, and finally got pissed at the Empire? Regular working stiffs don’t generally sign up for revolutions unless they have skin in the game. (See: American Revolution) Is the Empire taxing them a crazy amount? Are they preventing them from being shopkeepers and droid traders and going to the pod races? Otherwise, seems to me that the storm troopers could roust out all the Tusken Raiders and be seen as heroes to the folks on Tatooine. Seems like Palpatine just doesn’t know how to run an empire. . . Shady business.

  4. History, Economics and Fiction | As a Matter of Fancy

    […] Gladstone‘s recent blog article, Jedi Econ, Sith History, makes that point in a thought-provoking […]

  5. G

    As an eminent historian once said, “Treating the Rebellion as a privileged mode of dissent in an era when many other systems and social classes were in other ways ‘slipping through the fingers’ of the Coruscant metropole is itself granting too much credit to a ragtag band of avidly self-promoting malcontents.”

    As interesting as the histoire événementielle of the Great Galactic War might be, either from the Jedi perspective or the General and Moff perspective, one defense of a more economic history approach could be that it can take a much longer view. A prosopographical network of systems, species, and even jedi might serve us better than the movies since they are basically a biography of Anakin Skywalker.


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