In Star Wars: The Last Jedi – solid movie by the way – Hope is the central motivation of the Resistance. It is the thing that sent Rey to find Luke so the latter could bring Hope to the beleaguered Resistance fighters, it’s the thing that Poe eventually evolved to value most in calling on Finn to retreat and follow the salt dogs to safety, the thing Leia emphasized beyond all else – consistent with bad-CGI-Leia’s last word in Rogue One – and the sole thing, it seems, the Resistance was fighting for in all the battles and frantic scurrying around. Disembodied Hope, unattached to anything, hope in…what? Who knows? Just Hope. It’s the perfect feel-good concept to serve as the central motivating agent in a Disney movie because it is universally palatable and bland. It’s easy to sell to a lot of people without risk of stirring up controversy that could hurt sales, or stirring up voters who could threaten Disney’s growing market consolidation. But Hope is not a value. It is meaningless unless attached to some outcome. There’s nothing inherently positive about hope unless it’s hope in a positive vision.
Star Wars, though beautiful, has always been pretty morally and politically simplistic. Evil vs. Good, Dark vs. Light, Empire vs. Rebels. The prequels are an exception. The prequels had a value: the benefit of a democratic, representative government. The prequels vilified consolidated power, whether unaccountable power in the Trade Federation, in the rise of Palpatine and the Sith, or even in the Jedi Council. In the prequels, the vital, foundational conflict is the fall of a democratic government. It’s telling that they were the pet project of Lucas and not a major multinational’s management team. The Rebel Alliance in the original trilogy, and the Resistance in the new one, is fighting to defeat the Empire ostensibly to restore democracy to the galaxy. But the further we get from Lucas’s autonomy and Ewan McGregor proclaiming in his beautiful Shakespearean lilt the value of allegiance to democracy, the further the films stray from a meaningful point, the further the protagonists drift from fighting for an actual value.
Perhaps this mirrors, and in small ways helps perpetuate, the fragmented state of current organized resistance against subjugation. Activist organizations, grassroots groups, the real world’s Rebel Alliance and Resistance fighters, all those battling for a better life and country, seem unmoored from a strong, cohering principle.
The adhesive of a revolution should not be Hope, cannot be Hope. Not only is Hope meaningless if unattached to a value, it can be placating. Candidate Obama’s central message was Hope and Change. Again, Hope unattached to a real politics, to any concrete goal or principle. Change in…nothing in particular. When he was elected, the hopeful sat back and left politics to politicians. And because so many disengaged, pacified by flaccid promises of Hope and Change, we now have Trump, bastard son of complacence and anger. Two different protagonists in Rogue One declared that rebellions are built on hope. Nah. They’re built on a clear, powerful, shared value. (And also selfless determination, a sense of duty, tactical organizing, social cohesion, money, and a lot of other things to discuss another day.)
What should that mooring, cohering value be in today’s resistance against the Empire of consolidated capital and unrepresentative government?
It should be liberty.
But not the vacuous, orgasmic “Freedom!” bellowed by a recently disemboweled, imminently beheaded Mel Gibson. Not the base freedom gained from immediate bondage by a Gladiator. Not the “free peoples of middle-earth,” who seem always subject to either a noble or evil king. Nor the twisted, mangled, equally fanciful version of Freedom and Liberty that Republicans, libertarians, neoliberal Democrats, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Mont Pelerin Society, and all the other unified oligarchs display vainglorious on their websites and bloviate on in Congress.
The freedom they fight for is a commoditized freedom, a liberty that can only be enjoyed when bought and only at a great price by those few who’ve stolen and hoarded the national wealth. Libertarians do not deserve their name when the liberty for which they advocate stretches so thinly to only a few super wealthy individuals. For those of us who care about true and broad liberty, our task is to reclaim freedom from those who have stolen it, rhetorically and physically. Just because some cynical oligarchs perverted the word does not mean we should abdicate use of this potent rallying cry, unless we wish to hand them that victory. In fact, they stole it because they know how potent it is in the hands of those who wish to distribute it broadly.
Liberty, agency, self-determination should be the cohering principle, and the freedom we must fight for is the freedom to choose and own one’s labor and the value it creates, the freedom to control means of economic production. We should seek the liberty to pursue happiness beyond the demands of the market, which have really become the demands of a small, unaccountable committee of private executives and their employees in the public sector. The freedom we must fight for is the freedom of a black man to walk down the street without being shot or arrested for the most minor offense, or for none at all; the freedom of a young person to start a family or own space just out of college or high school without the burden of debt peonage and precarious, dignity-destroying toil; the freedom of a woman to walk down the street without feeling threatened, or the freedom to enter science or journalism or any other field without the lash of misogyny and cage of unequal pay; the freedom to live healthfully in a world of rich biodiversity, clean air, food, and water, and a stable climate; the freedom to live where one wishes rather than where Amazon’s logistics chief or a tech startup’s trust-funded founder decides to cram people for $5 a square foot; the freedom to participate in our government and know that our government is working on behalf of most of us instead of a few of us.
Liberty, reclaimed in word and deed, should be our war cry. It is a call that has freed millions from the bondage of monarchies, robber barons, dictators, lords, and now must free us from the despotism of billionaires, chief executives, and their servants in government. Broad liberty served as foundational rhetoric of Thomas Paine, buoyed patriots of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, broad liberty compelled the activists who founded the Progressive Era and ushered in the New Deal era, rested at the core of FDR’s political communication, and motivated countless revolutionaries in battles long forgotten. Agricultural modes of production spanning most of civilization’s ten-thousand year history is characterized by its total dependence on forced labor, on narrow freedom wielded by a few autocrats. Hundreds of generations have lived and died in chains. The greatest invention of the past three hundred years is the primacy of individual liberty and the grasping struggle toward its ideal form. That expansive definition of liberty broke the bondage of those millennia of agrarian servitude and can break the bonds of the postindustrial subjugation oppressing workers today, freeing slaves then and freeing factory and service workers now. It’s that freedom from oligarchy that should animate our myths and should motivate our social movements today.
From the rallying principle of liberty for all flows a logical set of policies that would support and expand fair elections; employee and cooperative ownership of enterprises; venture-creation and a small business-dominated market; racial and gender equality and broad civil rights; antitrust and monopoly deconsolidation; progressive taxation; public funding for essential institutions like education; distributed energy infrastructure; and a deep dismantling of financial capital’s stranglehold on the economy.
This freedom is unencumbered by dense ideologies and leaden connotations. It is not weighed down by the corpulent names of old, dead theorists. It is flexible and speaks to the beliefs and experiences of countless people from countless backgrounds. Perhaps Disney’s Star Wars can only muster the meager courage sufficient to hint at a Resistance whose goal is a people’s movement for liberty and democracy. They have hundreds of millions of dollars in sales to lose tempting controversy with courage. And the handful of recipients of those hundreds of millions of dollars have a placid, subjugated population to lose. What do we have to lose?