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Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Jedi Resonates with the Lessons of Lord Acton

Power corrupts, regardless of whether you're Jedi or Sith.

[The following article contains a few elements of the plot of The Last Jedi, which some may consider spoilers.]

Putting aside the creative and entertaining value of the new Star Wars movie, one major element remains strong with the saga: its warnings about the dangers of power. They actually go even further than they did in the previous installments.

The title itself may be mind-boggling to some of the fans, much as the line we heard in the trailer from the Jedi hero, Luke Skywalker, who wants the “Jedi to end.” Some were wondering what big secret may be hidden in those words, but not the people who paid attention to the messages already present in the previous episodes, especially the prequel trilogy (however imperfect it was). The main protagonist and idealist wants the Jedi to end because the school has become a legacy of failure, hypocrisy, and hubris.

The Role of the Jedi

The downplaying of political economy is what eventually killed the Jedi and destroyed the Republic. They were a part of the Old Republic system and served as a special service having superior privileges granted by the government. Besides the legal commands, they had their own education system which raised new generations of followers. Eventually, they failed miserably in training the pupils. One of them even became the leading man responsible for building terror in the evil Empire. Careful observation would lead the viewer to such conclusions – now the main hero states so openly and with merits (it is also a good artistic tool for the character on screen to repeat fans’ views as it happens in the movie).

What Luke offers in his reinterpretation of events (as compared to his personal predecessors) is the more thoughtful understanding of the way world functions. He notices that knowledge and the workings of everything in the universe (the “force”) are not things that belong to one group of people called the Jedi. To argue so is vanity as those things cannot, and should not, be monopolized by one agency — perhaps a reflection that previous Jedi teachers did not see in full picture.

Moreover, that has led to arrogance and blindness to the obvious dangers of political systems, of which they were part. We got to see them training many of the younglings, but mostly in a physical and spiritual way. Nobody was teaching them about social sciences, human relations, and how politics functions — at least nowhere we could see. The downplaying of political economy is what eventually killed them and destroyed the Republic, finally to be substituted by the evil Hobbesian rule of the Emperor.

The Lesson of Lord Acton

We should distrust any rules giving too much power to any person or group of people. Luke learned the hard way what Lord Acton taught us: power is corruptive. Control over other people can easily make one focused only on a particular goal at the expense of the free will of others. Part of the reflection made by Luke can be inferred by historically studying what happened to the Jedi in the past episodes. Luke further learns this in his personal experience: how even a mature teacher can be easily tempted to make wrong and authoritarian judgments about people, leading them to disastrous consequences.

No human agency or real person should have the ultimate power over everyone else’s fate. Such themes were always the main messages of the Star Wars movies that started right at the beginning in 1977. The newest movie makes a shining and almost Tolkienian conclusion reached by simply following the logical inferences. The rule of power applies not only to the people we consider “bad,” “evil,” or “corrupted” because not a single human being is either forever lost or always free from misplaced temptations or free from being prone to failure. Both redemption and temptation are not far away from anybody. Anyone can make a mistake. We should distrust any rules giving too much power to any person or group of people, not just the ones recognized as the “bad guys.”

The original trilogy showed that bad people are also human beings who still can be converted from bad to good. The prequel trilogy showed that good people can do bad things, too, willingly or not. As we further learn from The Last Jedi, corruptive potency hidden in the meanders of power is actually nothing personal.

That is why solutions for efficiently curtailing expansionary power have to be universal and impersonal.

  • Mateusz Machaj is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Wroclaw (Poland). He is the author of Money, Interest, and the Structure of Production. Resolving Some Puzzles in the Theory of Capital.