STAR WARS & NEOLIBERALISM: LUCASFILM’S CRITIQUE OF FREE MARKET CAPITALISM
The short article below was originally published in The American Papers Vol. 30 2012 edition, an academic journal in American Studies at California State University of Fullerton. I wrote it and presented it as a conference paper and Keith Kottenbach served as editor.
The free market and deregulation of public services has proliferated nearly every aspect of American consciousness since the early 1980s. Within American pop culture, we have seen attempts and garner consent for neoliberal policies through television shows like Family Ties where the main character, Alex P. Keaton champions free market ideology and manages to make neoliberalism attractively disarming, generating consent for neoliberal ideology via pop culture. After over thirty years of neoliberal policies, the pendulum is now swinging back the other way and challenging free market ideology. George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise, an extremely prominent piece of American popular culture, is directly critiquing free market ideology and showing the consequences of allowing neoliberal policies to guide American democracy. This paper will examine the Star Wars saga as it has played out in the 1990s onward as one of the major anti-neoliberal television and film series. The works of David Harvey on imperialism and neoliberalism will be used to examine the Star Wars saga within this context as Harvey has written the most concise history of neoliberalism and its devastating affects upon representative democracy in the era of globalization.
Neoliberalism has little to do with modern political ideas of right and left. Neoliberalism hopes to free the market from state control and intervention so the market is financially liberated, so that regulations are eliminated and capital is free to move as the market dictates free of all obstructions. True financial liberalism requires the privatization of all state-run utilities and services. Conceptually, neoliberal theory believes that the bureaucratic state is not equipped to move fast enough to predict market changes and therefore hinders capital accumulation. By removing the state’s hands from the market, accumulation of wealth should, in their opinion, move swifter and with greater efficiency leading to larger economic rewards for all. Harvey calls this “accumulation through dispossession” as things that once belonged to the people are now corporately or privately owned.1 For example, healthy drinking water has become less and less likely to come from a home tap and many city run universities used to be largely free of charge. Those whom can afford such luxuries, pay for bottled water, which is filtered and bottled by privately held companies and the idea of free schooling is long gone as neoliberalism strives to make markets where there previously were none. Due to neoliberalism, public resources like water and education have become privatized. Public utilities and services which one belonged to the people are given away to private industry at the public’s expense.
Keynesian economic theory, the antithesis of neoliberalism, stressed the importance of state stimulation to build a strong consumer base, which in turn promised full time employment as a strategy to never return to the hardships of the Great Depression. Keynesianism set the stage for Fordism to prosper, this is the idea that laborers are guaranteed a living wage with enough income to purchase the products they themselves produced. If Fordism temporarily failed, social services and state programs enacted through the New Deal ensured Americans adequate resources by offering an economic safety net. This post-Depression era was characterized by the implementation of Keynesian economic policies by the state, which allowed Americans to trust that even in the worst crises, the state would offer citizens a safety net via social services and the promise of full time employment on the horizon. Geographer and critic of neoliberalism David Harvey argues that embedded liberalism, a regulated form of economic liberalism, was a construction of “the right blend of state, market, and democratic institutions to guarantee peace, inclusion, well-being, and stability.”2 Under this system, free trade was essential, but mandated regulation and state intervention in the marketplace. In the post-war years, embedded liberalism and Keynesian economic theory led to prosperity for the growing middle class.
The recessions of the 1970s ended this era of economic prosperity and new policies were needed. When interest rates in general were high and low profits were the norm, the upper class were threatened with economic extinction. According to Harvey, before World War II the wealthiest 1% had a capital accumulation rate of 16% and after the war it dropped to 8% due to Keynesian polices and the growing middle class.3 In an effort to restore theirclass power, neoliberalism was implemented as the solution to their declining wealth, insuring the country and indeed the world, paid monetary tribute to the capitalist class through austerity measures.
David Harvey writes:
Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that propose that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.4
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981, Reagan and Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, adopted monetarism and neoliberalism as the solution to guide the United States out of the economic crises of the 1970s. As Harvey recognizes, it took Reagan “less than six months in 1983 to reverse nearly 40 percent of the decisions made during the 1970s that had been, in the view of business, too favorable to labor.”5 Soon many corporations evaded all taxes through “depreciation of assets” codes, limiting government tax intake for state provided services. With this change, public assets were passed over to private parties free of charge. All of this occurred just as Return of the Jedi, George Lucas’s final installment in his first Star Wars trilogy, finished its first theatrical run and neoliberalism’s imperialist practices ramped up in the United States and around the world.
The first trilogy, episodes four through six, which were in production from 1975-1983, primarily dealt with imperialism and how a small band of people could rebel against a dominant establishment and destroy it. Lucas in his second trilogy of Star Wars films, which were in production from 1994-2005, was written in an era where the dramatic turns towards neoliberalism could be critiqued and morally examined. This second trilogy, episodes one through three, sets the stage for the rise of strong corporations and the turn towards imperialism and unregulated business that corrupts the values of democracy. Lucas, obviously having more to say about the effects of the free market on our democracy used his 2008 television series The Clone Wars to delve into more issues the film series’ story would not allow him to touch upon. This television series is set in the middle of the second trilogy’s story.
First, it is important to point out that there’s a lot in a name, especially in Star Wars. Han Solo is the “solo” loner, an allusion to the American cowboy—an individualist (whom later overcomes his individualism). Darth Vader evokes an invader, something to inspire revulsion. Greedo is greedy. Sleezebagano tries to get Obi-Wan to smoke and is therefore a sleazebag. Darth Tyranus is a tyrannical separatist. These names are given in ways that fit the archetypical charactersthey portray. That said, the principal villain of Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) is the greedy Viceroy of the Trade Federation. George Lucas rightfully named him Nute Gunray. When one dissects the name, it becomes clear that his name is the mixture of two American politicians, Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan. Flip the “gun” and “ray” of Gunray and it becomes “Ray-Gun,” which is eerily similar to the president that ushered in strong free market capitalism and the death of Keynesian policies. Indeed, Ronald Reagan is responsible for the principled neoliberalization of the United States and here Star Wars depicts him as a key component, in name, to the most dastardly villain in the universe. The connection between George Lucas naming the bad guy “Gunray,” a switched around version of “Reagan” and having this character as the President of the Trade Federation is far from coincidental.
With neoliberalization comes the privatization of public resources, or at least that is the goal of free market ideology. At a more basic level, Americans have seen the controversy between Dick Cheney and Halliburton in which an American politician had uncomfortably close ties with a corporate entity that saw record breaking profits from a war his administration waged. By definition, Cheney and Halliburton are war profiteers6. Perhaps more obvious than the “Gunray – Reagan” connection, is the introduction of “Halle Burtoni,” a war profiteering alien in charge of manufacturing “Clone Troopers” for the Republic. She has a seat on the Galactic Senate which governs the Star Wars galaxy’s thousands of planets, creatures, and people. Halle Burtoni directly profits from the implantation and continuation of the war. This name, unlike Gunray, does not attempt to conceal the hidden meaning behind the name.
In the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television episodes “Heroes on Both Sides” and “The Pursuit of Peace,” Halle Burtoni wants the Republic to manufacture five million additional clone troopers to continue fighting the war between the Republic and the Separatist, an act her corporation will directly benefit from. Senator Bail Organa, one of the few incorruptible senators left in the senate states that the Republic is already operating in “deep debt” and this will be the “destruction of the Republic” and for which it stands, if the bill should pass.7 Halle Burtoni arranges for a clone loan to be paid for by the “Banking Clan,” who are secretly in league with the Separatists, benefiting from both sides of the war. The hero of the episode, Padme Amidala and Bail Organa review the Banking Clan’s loan and realize that at 25% interest the Republic will become bankrupt if they vote to accept the terms. Padme comments that “social services have suffered…, education, infrastructure, health care,” are vanishing.8 One cannot help but think of David Harvey in A Brief History of Neoliberalism when he explains:
As the state withdraws from welfare provision and diminishes its role in arenas such as health care, public education, and social services, which were once so fundamental to embedded liberalism, it leaves larger and larger segments of the population exposed to impoverishment.9
In The Clone Wars episode “The Pursuit of Peace,” Padme addresses the Senate and pleads with the Senators not to divert money from the provision of basic services for the people. She implores that “the Republic has always provided these basic services, but now there are those who would divert the money to the war, with no thought for what the people need to survive.”10 In the end, the bill passes because the influence of corporations and an unregulated free market which controls the way the senate votes. The people are set to suffer and Halle Burtoni becomes richer. The banks are deregulated to allow for the loan. Deregulation of all markets and potential industries is a primary goal of neoliberalism. The people of the galaxy are deprived of democracy and in the greater Star Wars story; Imperialism wins out for a very long time. The Star Wars saga is overtly attempting to teach children and fans what happens in a privatized state and who benefits from privatization and whom does not. With so many subtle allusions to real world politics, it is fair to accept this position as Lucasfilm’s critique on the realities of neoliberalism. Lucasfilm is illustrating the ways free market ideology is poisonous to representative democracy.
Neoliberal ideals are militant about the deregulation of all markets and only a few weeks after the airing of “Heroes on Both Sides” and “The Pursuit of Peace,” a third episode titled “Corruption” continued the critique of free market thinking and deregulation. “Corruption” featured children that were poisoned when the superintendent of the school system purchased a beverage from outside parties at a low cost for high profit, circumventing the state’s costly prices, to buy from the free market. Because it comes from an unregulated market, the drink proves fatal and the children are poisoned and many die. As Satine, the leader of the planet uncovers the deal; she angrily declares that this should never have happened because the state provides care and provisions for their children in the school system. This story focused on why regulation can be a life or death matter. The heroine Satine and the Jedi declared such cost cutting attempts a form of “corruption.”11 The takeaway message is that one should not privatize everything, especially the things needed for sustenance.
In the follow up episode airing the next week, titled The Academy, Anakin’s student Ahsoka Tano, instructs a class of teenagers about ethics and corruption and economics. She says “Corruption is what happens when someone in power puts their own personal gain before the interests of the people they represent… a leader sacrifices moral integrity for the sake of money.”12 This episode continues the mantra against privatization for thegrowing of capital at the public’s expense. The moral logic of Star Wars would find David Harvey’s “accumulation by dispossession”13 in which what once belonged to the public is made private and for profit to be a corrupt practice, and therefore neoliberalization by Star Wars’ sense of morality is corrupt. Neoliberal policies by their very nature put a good business climate before the people, albeit with a promise of betterment it cannot sustain. As the episode concludes, the villain states that the profits from the deal are being used to purchase humanitarian supplies, pointing out how his liberal economic ideals are supposed to benefit his society. He says to think of it as a new tax in the interest of “national security.” In this instance, the free market and national security are placed together to justify actions which are beneficial to business, which was a common occurrence in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center.
The Clone Wars as a meta story ended with the final and most recent Star Wars film, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). During the first act of the film, there is a heroic space battle, in which Anakin boards a large vessel, murders the villain, and saves the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic. Deciding to murder the villain instead of arresting him is one of the last choices Anakin will make that leads to him switching from hero to villain, in effect becoming Darth Vader. After the slaying of the villain, the spaceship that they are aboard begins to crash due to the damage it suffered from the space battle and the Chancellor and Anakin are forced to crash land the giant space ship on the surface of the planet below. All in all, this does not seem to have to do anything with neoliberalism except the ship Anakin crashes was christened the Invisible Hand by George Lucas and all novels, comics, toys, and online database information refer to it as such.14 Anakin physically crashes the Invisible Hand into the planet’s surface where the galaxy’s government convenes, metaphorically bringing the free market to the Republic. Within 15 minutes of this occurrence, the democratic republic is reorganized into the first intergalactic empire.
Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand is often used to refer to the self-regulating nature of the market place which implies that regulation is needless. The market is said to regulate itself and neoliberal theorist have adopted this idea as a truth, whereas the implementation of such ideas has shown otherwise. It is very poignant that Anakin Skywalker crashes the Invisible Hand at the foot of the galaxy’s government and within a day it is dissolved of its democracy, becoming an “Evil Empire” (as Reagan famously stated in the 1980s), and Skywalker effectively loses his humanity becoming “more machine than man, twisted and evil.”15 Milton Friedman, Reagan’s economic advisor, called the concept of the Invisible Hand “cooperation without coercion.”16 It is ironic because Friedman is the economist that brought neoliberal reform to the United States using coercion throughout the world. He was also the educator of the “Chicago Boys”17 whom brought neoliberal reform to Chile, devastating the nation and resulting in Pinochet’s coup against a democratically elected ruler.
Still, Friedman isn’t wrong about coercion, as neoliberalism, under the guise of the Invisible Hand, has succeeded in convincing citizens into willingly giving up what was collectively theirs. When the Invisible Hand is brought to the galaxy’s government, the galaxy willingly hands their democracy over to those that control capital accumulation. Although in the case of neoliberalism, it seems more sleight of hand is involved than invisible ones.
Americans fight back against neoliberals and their class warfare every time they stand up for the environment, fight for better wages, or the ability to unionize. Lucasfilm is acknowledging that the free market infringes upon representative democracy. Lucasfilm’s Star Wars is being used to parable real world infractions of the markets upon people. The issues brought up in the Star Wars Saga represent the ways the problems of neoliberalism are worked out through our imaginations. We think in free market terms because it is now ingrained deeply in our culture’s ideology and has become an engineered “common sense.” Star Wars after 1983 represents a challenge to those ideas. Lucasfilm and the tales they weave see inequality as immoral. Neoliberalism generates inequality and is therefore in opposition to the very fabric of the stories which Lucasfilm passes on to millions of Americans each year. In this way, via the imagination, Lucasfilm is confronting the fallacies of neoliberal theory and ideology.
1. Harvey, David. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 176.
2. Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 10.
3. Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 15.
4. Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 2.
5. Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 52.
6. Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. 1st ed. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007, 13.
7. Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Episode no. 54, first broadcast 3 December 2010 by Cartoon Network. Directed by Duwayne Dunham and written by Daniel Arkin.
8. Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Episode no. 55, first broadcast 3 December 2010 by Cartoon Network. Directed by Duwayne Dunham and written by Daniel Arkin.
9. Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 76.
10. Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Episode no. 55, first broadcast 3 December 2010 by Cartoon Network. Directed by Duwayne Dunham and written by Daniel Arkin.A Cartography of Culture 116
11. Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Episode no. 49, first broadcast 8 October 2010 by Cartoon Network. Directed by Cameron Litvack and written by Giancarlo Volpe.
12. Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Episode no. 50, first broadcast 15 October 2010 by Cartoon Network. Directed by Cameron Litvack and written by Giancarlo Volpe.
13. Harvey, David. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 178.
14. Saxton, Curtis, Hans Jenssen, and Richard Chasemore.Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith : Incredible Cross-Sections. New York: DK, 2005.
15. Kahn, James, George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, Joe Johnston, and NiloJamero. Return of the Jedi. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983.
16. Friedman, Milton. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
17. Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. 1st ed. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007, 62.