The Star Wars franchise’s latest evil government, the First Order, seems carefully crafted to send a shiver down contemporary spines. Based on an alpine-looking ice planet, run by crisp functionaries in sharply tailored uniforms and armed with world-destroying weaponry, the First Order harks back to fascist regimes of the 20th century. But the most frightening thing about the First Order, as far as real-world audiences ought to be concerned, is the radical inequality festering in the society it aims to rule.
In the world depicted in “The Last Jedi,” the relationship between mass politics and the First Order is never made entirely clear; the regime seems to have manifested out of some dark energy conjured by its diabolical alien leader, and, this being a mass-market sci-fi flick, we can’t fault it too much for that. (After the heat “Attack of the Clones” took for wasting time on mind-numbing political tick-tock, it’s easy to understand why the writers behind “The Last Jedi” didn’t want to make the same mistake.)
But the film does linger on the shape of its characters’ economy: upside-down, one gathers. Wealthy arms dealers and other rich characters decked in haute couture throw money down and drinks back in glittering casinos while dirty-faced children muck out stalls for alien beasts roughly akin to terrestrial racehorses. This inequality is adduced as a source of strength for the Resistance. At the film’s conclusion, a child laborer is seen using the Force to summon a broom for his chores, glancing at a Resistance emblem and gazing up hopefully toward the stars. Things simply can’t go on this way, we’re meant to conclude; the oppression of the many by the few will eventually be righted via popular uprising. Resistance, to borrow a trope from another star-franchise, is not futile.
If only it were that easy: the bad guys openly callous and hostile to peace and prosperity, the good guys obviously and genuinely humane, and the citizenry alert and attuned to the difference. In reality, the economic conditions sketched in “The Last Jedi” are perfectly primed to give rise to the very sort of fascist regimes the film seems to think they’re naturally antithetical to.
Filmic fascism may arise from the shadowy machinations of evil mystics, but in life, fascists neither arrive on the political scene ex nihilo nor present themselves as straightforwardly evil. On the contrary, fascists frequently lean into concerns about class struggles, rhetorically throwing in their lot with the downtrodden. Germany’s Nazi Party was putatively socialist, though its commitment to addressing the interests of workers was never much more than empty verbiage. Hitler found the word “socialism” both useful and troublesome: It allowed him to tap into the frustration of dispossessed workers, but also obligated him and his party to pursue solutions they didn’t actually favor and had no real intention of accomplishing. As scholar Tom Childers wrote for The Post, “Hitler understood that there are times when desperate, angry people want two and two to be five, and he swore that the Nazis would make it so,” largely by making contradictory pledges to different groups of hurting people: “higher sale prices for farmers and lower food prices for workers in the cities,” for example.
In their hands, fascists claim, capitalism can be tamed and the pain of workers reduced, thereby preserving the hierarchy of society by not allowing the divisions sown by mass inequality to collapse the entire system. German and Italian fascists offered up such promises, as did Latin American variants on the same theme.
The fascists of the First Order don’t seem as politically adept as their real-world predecessors. In his speech on the eve of the destruction of the free New Republic, the First Order’s General Hux referred to the Republic’s alleged disorder and lawlessness, both common enough fascist complaints, but didn’t spare a moment to meditate on the vast socioeconomic divisions causing desperation and discord in nearby provinces he ostensibly means to annex.
There are worse things for a movie to miss. But it’s worth keeping in mind that inequality is no guarantee that a popular politics of democratic resistance will thrive. If history is instructive, in fact, inequality, social unrest and instability provide fertile ground for the rise of fascism. If today’s resistance-minded folk are interested in preventing the rise of a less imaginary First Order, eliminating inequality — not just reconceptualizing it as an engine of popular opposition — should be a top priority.
Bruenig is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post.