When Clones Attack!

It is with some trepidation that I write about the politics of Star Wars.

My previous LewRockwell.com column on Japanese animation elicited an e-mail telling me, in effect, to get a life.

Oh, well. Too late for that.

Libertarian writer Todd Seavey sees anti-capitalism at the heart Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones. He notes that the titular villains of Attack of the Clones are the Trade Federation, the Banking Guild and other groups associated with commerce. And he writes that their leader, Nute Gunray, is "an arch-capitalist, tax-protesting, trade-loving, quasi-Japanese villain."

Even Nute Gunray’s name seems to be an anti-capitalist pun, recalling the names of Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan.

Of course, libertarians know that neither Gingrich nor Reagan was much of a capitalist. Both increased the size and scope of government, despite popular perceptions otherwise. However, their mastery of free-market rhetoric made them obvious targets for those who want to attack capitalism and limited government.

But is Nute Gunray, whatever the origin of his name, a capitalist?

Economist Mark Thornton writes that Gunray and the Trade Federation are really mercantilists, and the evidence in both Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace seems overwhelming. Names like "Trade Federation" and "Banking Guild" recall the days of government-granted monopolies (have they ever really left us?).

And if Seavey is right that Gunray is "quasi-Japanese," for the past decade Japan has been a textbook case of mercantilism in decline.

But there is also some evidence that Star Wars creator George Lucas may have intended the Trade Federation to represent "evil" big businesses that don’t pay their "fair share" of taxes.

In his novelization of The Phantom Menace, Terry Brooks writes that the Trade Federation’s blockade of the planet Naboo is in response to the Republic’s taxation of Federation-controlled trade routes.

But Brooks’ version of events doesn’t make sense. If the Trade Federation is protesting taxation, it gains nothing by initiating a blockade around a small planet on the outskirts of the Republic.

A blockade only makes sense if the Federation is the group doing the taxing.

In Episode I, representatives of the Republic threaten to revoke the Federation’s trade franchise. The franchise could be simply a license to conduct business, in keeping with the Brooks/Seavey explanation. But it might also give the Federation the authority to place excise fees on all trade conducted within its jurisdiction.

If Naboo objected to these fees, that would be provocation for the Federation to blockade the planet, forcing the Naboo to submit to taxation rather than have no trade at all.

But for all the illogic of Brooks’ explanation, it could be the one Lucas intended. Illogic, after all, has never deterred anti-capitalists before, and plot holes are common in modern cinema.

Of course, it could as easily be that Brooks’ explanation isn’t the same as Lucas’.

Lucas has always said that the various Star Wars books, including the movie novelizations, aren’t necessarily canon, and he has contradicted them on numerous occasions.

In the movies, Lucas leaves the exact nature of the tax dispute unclear. So, maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt and go with the explanation that makes sense, rather than the one Brooks offers.

In an interview with Time magazine, Lucas says, "All democracies turn into dictatorships — but not by coup. The people give their democracy to the dictator, whether it’s Julius Caesar or Napoleon or Adolph Hitler."

That is a damning charge, and one with which libertarians can sympathize. Most libertarians agree with H.L. Mencken’s remark that "democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

But Attack of the Clones raises questions about how radical Lucas’ critique of democracy is. The political dialogue in the movie has more in common with a John McCain speech than with Lucas’ absolutist statement to Time.

Early in Episode II, Lucas gives Obi-Wan Kenobi a line about how senators are more interested in rewarding those who "fund their campaigns" than in promoting the common good.

That makes it sound as if all the Republic needed to do to avoid becoming the Empire was enact a few more campaign-finance laws.

But is Obi-Wan acting as Lucas’ mouthpiece, or is he being naïve?

There is evidence for the latter. After all, in Episode I and Episode II, it is a running theme that the Jedi are unaware of the real threat they face.

It isn’t that the special interests of the Star Wars universe are corrupting the politicians, but that a politician, Chancellor Palpatine, is manipulating groups like the Trade Federation for his own gain. He tricks them into starting wars so that he can consolidate his power.

So, is Lucas being inconsistent, or is he being clever? Is he just a John McCain-style neoliberal, or is he something else?

Maybe after Episode III the evidence will be conclusive.

Or maybe I should stop worrying about all this and go watch Yoda and Count Dooku’s lightsaber duel again.