Star Wars, Capitalism and “Benign Dictatorship”

In what seems to be becoming an annual tradition, neoconservative grey eminence Bill Kristol tweeted in December 18, “When I first saw Star Wars in 1977, I was inclined to root for the empire. 25 years later, @JVLast proved me right.” Kristol authored a similar series of tweets in October of last year, and praised the same 2002 article by Jonathan Last. “Needless to say, I was rooting for the Empire from the first minute. It was a benevolent liberal empire, after all.” “No evidence Empire was ‘evil.’ A liberal regime w meritocracy, upward mobility.”

In the referenced Weekly Standard article (“The Case for the Empire,” May 15, 2002), Last argues that the old Galactic Republic was a “failed state” that was too big too be governable, and (in Amidala’s words) “no longer function[ed].” As an example of its ineffectiveness, Last mentions its inability to stop wars between its member states. Palpatine, meanwhile, is admittedly a dictator — “but a relatively benign one, like Pinochet.” And the Empire effectively polices the former territories of the Republic, suppresses organized crime and smuggling, and makes the galaxy safe for peaceful trade again. The central value of the Empire, in Darth Vader’s words, is “to bring order to the galaxy.”

Last attempts to defend the Empire’s brutality as justifiable. Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen were executed without due process, but “they were traitors.” And much like neoconservative apologists for Truman’s atomic bombing decision, Last goes out of his way to manufacture a plausible case for believing that Alderaan, despite Leia’s assurances to the contrary, was a center of rebel activity. So Grand Moff Truman — er, Tarkin — destroyed Alderaan because, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was a “legitimate military target.”

Meanwhile, at the Washington Post (“The destruction of Alderaan was completely justified,” Oct. 29, 2015), Sonny Bunch developed the parallel to Hiroshima apologetics by arguing that the attack on Alderaan was a proportional use of force. He echoes, perhaps unconsciously, the specious argument that the only alternative to Truman’s atomic bombing would have been a costly amphibious invasion of the Home Islands: “putting boots on the ground” on Alderaan would have led to high Imperial casualties. And, drawing on the Iraq precedent, he argues that an invasion would have led to regional destabilization and perhaps a Jedi-led equivalent of ISIS operating out of Alderaan.

Let’s start with the last first. To his credit Bunch, unlike a lot of neocons, at least implicitly admits that the invasion and destabilization of Iraq led directly to Al Qaeda Iraq and ISIS. But I doubt he considers just leaving Iraq alone a legitimate option, and he certainly doesn’t leave that possibility open for Alderaan. After all Alderaan has its “center of rebel activity,” just like Saddam had his ties to Bin Laden and his weapons of mass destruction. And any neoconservatism is basically the ideology of people who read Thucydides so they can, um, pleasure themselves over the destruction of Melos.

Last’s admiration for the Empire’s “meritocracy” is also typical neocon Hamiltonian nonsense. To such managerialists, any system of stratification is justified so long as it’s possible for the most cunning and driven to claw their way up through it. It doesn’t matter whether the structure of power is objectively necessary to meet human needs, or the snapshot of power and wealth distribution at any given time is just or rational — just so long as there is “social mobility.”

Of course the opposite is true. What matters is whether the wealth and power of those at the top at any given time is legitimate and obtained by just means, not whether there’s some turnover of elites in the process of time.

But most importantly, what neocons mean by “benign” or “liberal” imperialism becomes crystal clear in light of Kristol’s apology for Lucas’s Empire, and his explicit comparison of it to Pinochet’s Chile.

Pinochet, remember, is commonly praised on the “free market” right as a “benign dictator” on the grounds that, while he might have been a “political authoritarian,” he was an “economic liberal.” Think about what this framing means. Pinochet cracked down, violently and brutally, on the owners of an entire factor of production — human labor power. He literally sent soldiers into the factories and had the bosses point out labor activists, who were subsequently tortured, murdered and disappeared. But for his neocon fans, this comes down entirely on the side of Pinochet’s political authoritarianism, and leaves his economic liberalism completely untarnished. Now, imagine a regime subjecting the owners of a different factor of production — say, capital or land — to exactly the same kind of brutality for bargaining to maximize the returns on it. Do you suppose the neoconservatives would take a similarly “benign” view of it?

Never mind Pinochet. When Kristol writes of “benign” or “liberal” Empire, we know what it’s really a stand-in for. He’s really defending, under the guise of movie criticism, the “benign” Empire that forcibly integrated Iraq into neoliberal global capitalism on the Empire’s terms. Lincoln, the nineteenth century heir to Hamiltonian mercantilism, launched his Whig political career by describing his platform as short and sweet: protective tariffs, internal improvements and a national bank. For Paul Bremer, the Empire’s benign puppet dictator in prostrate postwar Iraq, the checklist for “liberal capitalism” was similarly short and sweet: “strong intellectual property rights,” selling off the economy to global finance capital, and forcible suppression of the labor federation.

In other words, the Empire — whether in Lucas’s fictionalized version or the equally ugly real-world version, both of which the neocons venerate — uses what Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism” to forcibly impose the rule of global capital whenever they find a country that’s momentarily at its mercy. Whether it’s Pinochet installed with the help of the CIA, Bremer installed with US armored divisions, or Yeltsin’s kleptocratic regime installed by his own action of encircling the Duma with tanks and starving it out, it’s all the same. Brutal, naked power. It’s not liberal, and it’s not benign.

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