The follow notes were presented after Black Crow Collective’s screening of The Empire Strikes Back, and were used to prompt a discussion on the implications of the film for contemporary radical politics.
Today, we are stuck. Stuck stuck stuck. But our sticky situation does not come from an adherence to old models, but rather, today, we find ourselves stuck in the funk of modern life without a nose good enough to sniff our way out.
Consider the popularity of a new materialism that promises to re-enchant modern life by putting the spirit back in objects we otherwise take for granted. A dead rat and plastic bottle cap do not often capture our attention because our minds are trained on things like our job, a passing thought, or a creative project. Yet one academic wants us to break those habits and stop to investigate the “thing-power” of each cap, or imagine that a demon still animates dead rats.
But this crude materialism, typified by this attempt to imbue the world with new value, is not new. In fact, commodity fetishism is the perspective par excellence of global capitalism. And it is the weapon of choice against our political rebellion, as demands for “complexity” freeze us in our tracks, interrupting and deferring action until we get to the bottom of a nearly infinite amount of “differences.” This is not to say that difference is bad, in fact, it is wonderful. But when do we stop looking and start acting?
One possible answer comes from an unlikely place: Star Wars. The characters of Star Wars inhabits the same swirling cosmos of the new that we find ourselves in, sharing the same nearly infinite difference, yet they somehow maintain the clarity and certainty of good and evil, right and wrong. So in our postmodern era, with its dizzying menu of choice, maybe Star Wars is what we need to return some decisiveness to our political lives.
To make this argument, I will first describe the conservative side of Star Wars: it’s nostalgic timelessness. I will then set the stage for the current moment by describing the molecular revolution of the twentieth century, and the subsequent counter-revolution wages by Empire. To finish, I will describe contemporary attempts to short-circuit political change and the possible antidotes offered by Star Wars.
Despite being an underdog story of the oppressed and marginalized triumphing over the authoritarian powers of evil, Star Wars is politically ambivalent. From its trademark opening words, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Star Wars establishes itself as an story set that repeats through history time and time again. But we must ask: does the same story recur eternally, always with the equally identical outcome, or, as it repeats over and again, does it repeat with a difference?
To begin – if it repeats the same, it causes some startling problems. The first problem would be the naturalization of a strange zoology. These zoologies, common to both mythic fantasy and science fantasy, freeze evolution in its path. In its most literal form, it would speak to a “triumph of man” that either celebrates or despises human dominion over nature without offering a path through. And in a stronger metaphorical form, it sells a cultural racism akin to the hypodescenion arguments of eugenicists.
The second problem of a stupid cyclical time is its assumption that some transhistorical holds the key to the basics of human experience – some eternal battle between good and bad, light and dark. Yet to simply apply the rules of the Star War universe to the time it was made would be idiotic; it’s not an allegory for the Cold War, and the mystics who use the force are neither the Vietnamese nor denizens of OPEC nations.
Therefore, we should not suppose that it eternally repeats the same, but rather we take Star Wars at its word – that this history repeats – but that it repeats with a difference. And if that difference with a repetition is true, then Star Wars is really a movie responding to the Global Cultural Revolution of the 60s.
A Molecular Revolution
The cultural revolution of the 1960s marks the triumph of fragmentation. It was a grand refusal of the social contract offered by the nation state, and it asserted itself on the molecular scale.
You are already familiar with the molecular scale, but maybe not by name. The molecular scale, which is the generalization of the notion of molecular biology, surveys interactions the create and destroy a complex whole. For biologists, they look at various RNA and DNA processes. And for us, we look at the unique individuals that make or break a group, a class, an Empire, or a Rebel Alliance.
The molecular revolution of the 60s was a rejection of the gifts of the “great war.” World War 2 produced suburbanization and a white middle class. With the GI Bill, universities transformed from small social clubs to training programs and pumped out an educated management class. Od wartime factories were converted and the consumer society was born: beautiful kitchen, family car, and 2.4 kids all around. But instead of thanking their parents for this life, the first children of mass consumerism rebelled.
Dissatisfaction sewed dissension in the ranks. The burgeoning Civil Rights movements, an explosion of cultural tastes, and an intergenerational divide led to everything we remember about the 60s. Sexual liberation. Lifestyle experimentation. A break from the Old Left of labor, and the creation of a New Left that emphasized personal development and social freedoms.
Yet the counter-culture would not remain revolutionary for long. A class revolt by the moneyed and powerful soon led to a new liberalism, this time led by conservatives.
Neoliberalism: The Empire Strikes Back
Financial neo-liberalism as we know it started with the New York City debt crisis of 1975. This is when the capital class broke its side of the earlier “productivist bargain” whereby labor agreed to increase productivity in return for a bigger piece of the pie. When crisis struck, the neoliberal response was born: instead of of a social safety net, services were cut, instead of retirement guarantees, pensions were defunded, and instead of punishing investors, tax breaks were given to the wealthy. Later, with the 1979/1980 election of Thatcher and Reagan, these neoliberal measures became the new national way of things.
Yet the familiar wage-relationship story of neoliberalism occludes a wider one: it was an introduction of the molecular on the side of power. For, if the revolution was molecular, so was the counter-revolution. A closer look at neoliberalism shows that it includes three parts: 1) a revolution of capital, 2) a political-economic framework for governance, and 3) a process for the colonization of spheres of life.
But most importantly for us, neoliberalism begin collapsing the distinctions between mass society, subculture, and the elite. If we look closely at The Empire Strikes Back, released in the watershed year of 1980, we can see this very move in action: first, the scoundrel and the princess suddenly cross class lines; next, trust evaporates as Lando Calrissian betrays Solo in Cloud City; and in the stunning finale, we find out that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. If this disorienting turn of events did not upset the moral certainty of audience at the time, nothing would.
So, if we are mired in molecular muck started by the cultural revolutions of the 60s that was subsequently turned against us by neoliberalism, what does Star Wars have to offer?
There is an odd coincidence between Star Wars and recent political inventions coming out of Europe. In particular, the writings of Tiqqun point to a way through our uncertain times that don’t betray difference or complexity.
In particular, they offer us formulations for three notions central to Star Wars: Empire, Civil War, and the Rebel Fraction.
Rather than unpack them, let me simply present them so we can bring them back up in our discussion period.
“Empire does not confront us like a subject, facing us, but like an environment that is hostile to us.” –Introduction to Civil War §66
“Empire perceives civil war neither as an affront to its majesty nor as a challenge to its omnipotence. It sees it only as a risk. This explains the pre-emptive counter-revolution Empire has not failed to wage against anyone who might have punctured holes in the biopolitical continuum. Unlike the modern State, Empire does not deny the existence of civil war—instead, it manages it. If it denied it, it would have to do without certain means it needs to steer, or contain, this same civil war.” –Introduction to Civil War §58
The Rebel Fraction:
“The only way to reduce the sphere of hostility is by spreading the ethico-political domain of friendship and enmity. This is why Empire has never been able to reduce this sphere of hostility, despite its clamoring in the name of peace. The becoming-real of the Imaginary Party is simply the formation – the contagious formation—of a plane of consistency where friendships and enmities can freely deploy themselves and make themselves legible to each other.” –Introduction to Civil War §72
And finally, to bookend this talk, let me say: despite the availability of a million tiny actions i can take without the knowledge than any single one would be decisive, I find comfort in this image, which comes to us by way of Greece [the picture at the top of the post].