Monday, 1 February 2016

Star Wars as Counterfactual History

Now that the fever around Star Wars: The Force Awakens has abated, I thought it might be fun to look at the series through the prism of counterfactual history. The first thing to note is that George Lucas's creation is set in the past - "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" - so it is a suitable subject for a historian. It is also entirely fictional, a characteristic it shares with the counterfactual. The over-arching Star Wars story has the framework of a classical political history, notably the transition from republic to empire (and back again), while the historical parallels with the American Revolution and the Vietnam War (and even the post-9/11 era in Episode VII) are clear. It also has strong mythic elements, employing a narrative arc built on Greek and Roman tales and archetypal, if somewhat two-dimensional, characters (Lucas's Freudian obsessions are now giving way to more Jungian tropes under the Disney influence).

With its antique social forms (from taverns to princesses), and daft technology (from light-sabres to death-stars), Star Wars is unimaginative and implausible as Sci-Fi, but this simply highlights that it owes more to counterfactual history than speculative fiction. If The Lord of the Rings is a reactionary fantasy, and Star Trek is a thought-experiment about the liberating potential of technology, Star Wars occupies a parallel universe of the historically familiar in which social development (as opposed to chronology) appears to have stopped. This is why the messed-up production history (the 22 years between the shooting of episodes IV and I) does not really matter. It's not like fashions alter: everyone still dresses as if they had just wandered in from a WW2 film or a Western. Despite its pretensions to rationalism, this is a universe in which change is the product of personal ambition, economics has barely advanced beyond mercantilism, and the galaxy is under the sway of secret societies and the soupy metaphysics of the Force. If I had to put a date on its intellectual vintage, I'd say around 1770.

Counterfactuals are categorically different to speculative fiction. While a counterfactual may be employed in the creation myth of a utopia or a dystopia - the South wins the American Civil War, the Axis Powers win World War Two - the purpose of speculative fiction is to construct a social or political model in which particular relations can be tested under changing conditions: could chattel slavery survive in an industrial society, would a totalitarian regime implode under the impact of modern technologies? Speculative fiction tends towards the dialectic: contending forces, constant stress, disruptions in the social fabric. The subject is change. In contrast, the subject of a counterfactual is likely to be persistence. When change does feature, it usually takes the form of new technologies seamlessly integrated into a traditional setting (those daft light-sabres again), which is an ideological plea for the independence of social relations from the material base: we can acquire high-tech and maintain an aristocratic hierarchy.

Because they are conservative, counterfactuals are paradoxically often optimistic. They seek to wish away actual changes (no fall of Constantinople, no Bolshevik Revolution), but in so doing they annihilate history and imagine an eternal present in which social relations are unchanging. Even those counterfactuals that imagine pessimistic scenarios tend to do so in order to highlight current virtues or make satirical contrasts with the present day. For example, most fictionalised alternate histories in which the Nazis successfully invaded Britain (or the USSR invaded the USA) feature a heroic resistance and complicit state apparatchiks. Just as British pre-1914 "invasion literature" reflected anxiety over empire and the social question, so a Nazi Great Britain was an extreme example of the imaginative response to the welfare state, while the WW3 strand in American culture (e.g. Red Dawn) was more about resisting gun control and Washington than a genuine expectation of a Russian revanche in Alaska. In a similar vein, Star Wars is not just about the eventual triumph of good over evil, but about resilience: the Jedi order cannot be destroyed.

Counterfactuals that extrapolate developments - i.e. "if X didn't happen" - usually reflect the belief that social continuity is to be preferred, even when they allow for technological change. Tory historians who wonder what would have happened if the UK hadn't been involved in the two world wars are usually mourning the loss of empire. Their defence of this approach invariably privileges the opinions of contemporary elites. As Niall Ferguson says, "Virtual history -- and this is a very, very important point, which isn't understood by many people who dabble in 'what if' questions -- is only legitimate if one can show that the alternative that you're discussing, the 'what if' scenario you're discussing, was one that contemporaries seriously contemplated". This distinction is nonsense. The plausibility of an option to a political elite is irrelevant. The UK declaring neutrality in 1914 is no more "realistic" than the Battle of the Somme being stopped by the intervention of Martians. Neither happened: a miss is as good as a mile.

Rightwing alternate histories tend to emphasise the pivotal role of individuals, which is both a reflection of their non-materialist ideology and their emotional origin in the realms of fantasy fiction. This can be inadvertently entertaining. Consider this from the economist Bryan Caplan: "Suppose Karl Marx had never been born.  How would the modern world be different? ...Without Marx, there would have been no prominent intellectual promoter of violent revolution for socialist dictatorship. There would still have been a big socialist movement, including many socialists dreaming of bloodbaths and tyranny. But the movement as a whole would have rapidly evolved into something like social democracy. Third World dictators would still have killed in the name of socialism. But there would have been no Soviet Union without Marx. And without the Soviet Union, there would be no fascist Italy and no Nazi Germany" (the Fascist party was founded in 1915, two years before the Bolsheviks seized power). Killing Luke Skywalker at birth might well have preserved the Galactic Empire, but that's because it's a fictional construct.

Counterfactual history is the louche cousin of comparative history, whose methodology it freely borrows to lend itself some credibility. The latter seeks to contrast developments between different groups or territories, usually in the same historical period. This is a perfectly respectable undertaking that can provide valuable insights, but it requires caution. It tends towards the study of nation states, as units of measure that are more easily compared, and the treatment of economic development as the product of competitive advantage rather than internal social relations, which has an obvious ideological purpose. Its methods are also easily twisted to support non-contemporary and often absurd equivalences, for example Niall Ferguson's recent claim that Muslim immigration to Europe parallels the fall of the Roman Empire. This goes beyond the idea that history repeats itself (or rhymes) to an older, reactionary idea of recurrence as the working of fate. This is a key feature in Star Wars, particularly evident in The Force Awakens.

Conservatives who defend alternate history as a method of enquiry tend to be selective in their interpretations not only of what is plausible but of what is likely. For example, Ferguson believes that had the UK remained neutral in 1914, Germany would have won a short war whose consequence would have been a more liberal German state and lasting peace in Europe (and incidentally an EU that the UK never joined). However, this requires the denial not only of actual history, but of any alternative outside the preferred one: "there's simply no way to imagine a Nazi regime emerging, or, indeed a Weimar Republic emerging, if the Kaiser Reich, the Imperial Reich, is victorious in the war that it begins in 1914". For this to be true, we must accept that Weimar and the Nazis had no causes outside of Germany's defeat, which is dangerously close to the Nazi's own interpretation.

If Star Wars has the form of a counterfactual history, what is the factual history to which it runs counter? One theory is that Lucas's films (including the Indiana Jones series, which he wrote for Steven Spielberg to direct) are an attempt to imagine an alternative American cinema in which the studio system of the 40s and 50s survived the impact of television unscathed. Instead of the "golden age" of the 70s auteurs that the upended industry produced, distinguished by films as diverse as The Godfather, The Exorcist and Taxi Driver, we would have had Star Wars episodes I to III, in strict chronological order and hard on the heels of American Graffiti (which influenced the iconic TV series, Happy Days). What this suggests is that Lucas's films remain stuck in the 1970s. Though he is no longer the driving creative force, it is hard to see the Star Wars series escaping that decade any time soon.


  1. Excellent. Worth reading for the Caplan quote alone.

  2. Herbie Causes Extinction3 February 2016 at 18:26

    "would a totalitarian regime implode under the impact of modern technologies?"

    Given recent developments I think modern technologies make totalitarian regimes more of a possibility.

    I read a book some years ago, I can't remember which. The book made the point that so called totalitarian regimes had very little control over the the areas under its jurisdiction.

    I think modern technology solves that problem.

    So I see a definite move to totalitarianism. This is why all those dystopian sc-fi's make more sense to me than the more Utopian ones.

    1. I think one problem is that 'totalitarianism' was largely an ideological creation which was designed to smear communism by associating it with Nazi Germany. I agree that the 'control' so-called totalitarian regimes exercised was limited, but the common factor between Hitler and Stalin was that they entirely abandoned the rule of law, making decisions over life and death seeming on a whim, and therefore making their authority absolute through terror. Fortunately, in the medium term, the chaos, destruction and uncertainty brought about by such methods is counter-productive.

      You may well have a point when you say that 'totalitarianism' can be made more likely by technology. Forget sci-fi speculations like 1984 though, 'totalitarianism' is probably going to come from the a mixture of the creation of auto-suggestion through ever-present advertising, sponsorship, and the inability to escape from the influence on culture, the 'end of history' thesis which asserts that political change is in effect impossible, and the utter atomisation and alienation of people who are encouraged constantly to see their interests as opposed to others, and denied the chance to spontaneously assert comradeship.

    2. Herbie Causes Extinction4 February 2016 at 17:03

      I tend to be even more pessimistic than you Igor. I think most people will embrace the totalitarianism because it stops terrorists and if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. I think technological advancement makes totalitarianism absolutely inevitable, whether it be socialist version or a capitalist one. I guess at least the socialist one won't be about controlling those you are exploiting etc etc etc.

      I would strongly disagree that Stalinist Russia was some sort of wild-west where the rule of law didn't exist. In fact I would go further, the rule of law is the fundamental basis of totalitarianism!

      If we look historically at those societies where the rule of law doesn't actually exists in any form we would recognise, communal villages, tribes, nomads etc, the concept of totalitarianism doesn't even seem appropriate. which opens up too many other questions in my mind!

      And anyway, no revolution would ever respect the rule of law!

    3. Herbie Causes Extinction4 February 2016 at 17:08

      I would also point out that the final solution was carried out only after a thorough debate within the Nazi establishment about the Nuremberg laws. The Nazi officials were obsessed about preceding from those laws.

    4. Come on, so the Moscow Show Trials and the rest of the Yezhovschina took place under the 'rule of law'??!!!!! And Hitler didn't exactly have to follow legal process before The Night of the Long Knives.

      I think you're confusing authoritarianism and tyranny.

  3. Herbie Causes Extinction7 February 2016 at 12:16

    "And Hitler didn't exactly have to follow legal process before The Night of the Long Knives."

    You assume here that the 'lawful nations' do not commit acts of murder. You confuse the rule of law with the ten commandments.

    Authoritarianism and tyranny are related to totalitarianism but I am talking specifically about totalitarianism.