Apr 4 2014 9:15am

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.


This article originally appeared April 2, 2014 on Max Gladstone’s blog.

Max Gladstone writes books about the cutthroat world of international necromancy: wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders’ committees. You can follow him on Twitter.

Star Wars on ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. OgreMkV
So what you're saying is that it all depends on a certain point of view?
Dave Danevich
2. ddanevich
@OgreMkV I see what you did there ;)

To me, the point is that events that we consider "boring" like potato famine, dumping tea into the Atlantic, unfair wages for farmers, are actually events that shaped our country as greatly as the civil & revolutionary wars did. If farmers didn't get such a raw deal there wouldn't have been this mad rush to urbanize and go work in a building. If we weren't so pissed about taxes we wouldn't have rebelled against the British. Also, the civil war started as an economic problem, not a slavery problem.
3. Tumas
Speaking of economics, at least we also got to see banking in The Clone Wars's final 'season'. The episodes may not have been so well-received, but for it was quite interesting to see the banks having already been centralised into the hands of the Chancellor of the Republic, thus easing the transition to his role in the Empire.
4. Adam Strong-Morse
@ddanevich, the idea that the Civil War was fought over any issue but slavery is a canard perpetuated by racist historians. An examination of any of the documents of the day, recording what the leaders of the Confederacy said, makes that obvious. Consider, e.g., CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens's speech in March 1861 ("Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.") (note that this speech was given after the votes of secession but the better part of a month before the attack on Ft. Sumter that started the actual Civil War); or consider the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union ("... On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States. The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy. Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief. We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved..."); or Georgia's, which begins "The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery." I'm not cherry-picking--look at the other Declarations of Secession if you want more evidence. The CSA seceded, and the CSA fought the Civil War, entirely for the purpose of maintaining the existence of slavery and perpetuating a white supremacist legal and political structure. Yes, they talked about States' Rights. Yes, they talked about the importance of nullification and of Constitutional guarantees. But the States' Rights they were talking about, and the Constitutional guarantees they cared about, were the right to impose slavery, the Fugitive Slave clauses, and the principles of Dred Scott v. Sandford.

Yes, the South didn't like certain tariffs and the CSA Constitution prohibited certain general spending on internal improvements. But those issues were either ancillary issues that reflected the slavery issue, or relatively minor differences. And of course, some people didn't care about preserving slavery as an institution as much as they cared about preserving their family's material wealth, in the form of enslaved people. Nonetheless, it is clear beyond any doubt that, but for the desire to maintain and expand the institution of slavery, the CSA would have never seceded, and the Civil War would never have been fought. The leaders of the CSA were not shy about saying that that was their purpose, and we should take them at their word.

There's a lot of misinformation, misunderstanding, and outright lies about this issue, partly because of regional pride, partly because of honest error, and partly because of the continuing influence of racism in American society. But the facts are clear: the first and last issue that caused the American Civil War, the only reason that people cared about enough to enter into a bloody and destructive war to preserve their viewpoint, was slavery.
5. olethros
In all fairness, slavery was a pretty big economic issue in the South. It was the primary driver of their entire economy. In a way, with the prevalence of right to work laws in that region, it still is.
6. Ryamano
I agree with #5 olethros. Slavery is an economic issue, besides being moral. In slave-holding societies, where farmers with vast tracts of land owned lots of slaves to work there, this is a VERY economic issue. What the politicians of the slave-holding states were fearing was not only the disappearance of their way of making money (buy land, buy slave, buy supplies, plant cotton, sell cotton at a profit besides paying for loan, land, supply and slave) but also the complete loss of all capital invested in the slaves they owned. All the times abolition was talked about in any slave-holding society in the 19th century, compensation was talked about (except in Haiti). Compensation and a transition period did happen in the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean. But also tots of times there was discussion of no compensation to be given. And this also made the slave-owners very afraid. Afraid enough to start a war to maintain their rights, their property and the status quo.

On another note, I loved the interpretation that the movies we see in Star Wars are a Jedi-centric history, that another historian would see things differently in that world.
7. Athreeren
I think the argument works better with A Song of Ice and Fire. We don't know how the story will end, and the end will completely change its purpose; depending on the book you are reading/season you are watching, you have a different perspective on the story and on the history of Westeros. Is it about the civil war? About the welfare of the people of Westeros when Winter is coming and nobody has been preparing for it? About the return of the Targaryens and the dragons? About the return of magic and the power that mystical organizations will gain from it? Is all of this irrelevant because the white walkers will kill everyone?

Or is it about the birth of the white walker civilization, leaving only Tyrion to come to the realization: «I am legend »?
TW Grace
8. TWGrace
Ive said for years that the story makes much more sense if you approach it from the perspective that Lucas is the Leni Reifenstahl of the Star Wars universe.
John Massey
9. subwoofer
All great stories begin with "while I was drinking the other night".

Jedi is a religion. Religion and politics don't really mix well and are hot button topics if you ever want to start an argument. Religion and economics tend to spiral downwards as well. And it is fairly natural that religious folks are somewhat removed from the whole "the world's economy just went up in smoke" or " we just set off a trade war over here" or "well that is going to start a real war" type situations. Probably why those things are afterthoughts to Jedi.

Just sayin'.

10. NormanM
As a professional economist who has taught economic history before, I agree that the metric is important. Douglass North helped shape the discipline into something that takes these issues seriously by focusing a lot on the institutions in place at the time. In other words, we learn the rules and common strategies of chess before trying to evaluate a specific board position.

And @5, I highly recommend Gavin Wright's Slavery and American Economic Development. It provides a clear story (complete with both history and metrics) of the legal and economic differences between the slave- and free-states. There were moral arguments too, and there were certainly moral issues at stake, but as is often the case, the moral arguments were carefully constructed to support specific economic interests.
11. Jason Wills-Starin
On Tatooine in Episode IV, Luke sells his speeder for a less than he hoped for amount. Ben tells him it will be enough. Luke even explains it would have been better if a newer model hadn't come out on his resale value.

In the prequels we see strong military spending and a rapid change in military hardware. We see 6 wing attack fighters, that may be either the descendants or precursors to the X-Wing and Y-Wings that the Republic uses. We also see Jedi technology that seems to show a change to stealthy, solar or light absorbant technologies for travel, the ancestors of the tie fighters, and the evolution from Viceroy to Super Star Destroyer and Death Star.

We also see a storied evolution of droids. From the first combat droids who commically lose the battle of Naboo because of a centralized command and control node, and a Mazer Rackham in the form of a young Darth Vader, who knows that their gate is down, to the Droideka and general grievous, there is an evolution in droids that's marked and interesting. Had the R5D4, a later model than R2-D2 not had a bad motivator, R2 would have languished with the Jawas before being picked up by the Storm Trooper raid. Wedge Antilles mentions that Luke should get a better astromech, and Luke laughs him off and says this one is special.

These are just some of the hints we get at an economy rapidly and suddenly changed by the economics of warfare. The Republic's economic story could be told by R2-D2, and the small, barely seen black astromechs that poke out from the bottom of the Tie Fighters in Episdoe IV. There's a wealth of information we can expound upon.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment