I’m here to talk about The Last Jedi. Again. Like twelve months after everyone else stopped. Why? Because of this podcast from the Financial Times’ Alphachat series (which I totally recommend by the way). In Andrea Nagle draws an insight which hadn’t occurred to me: that conservatism in the States is under attack but not from the left. It is under attack from the Alt-Right.
She outlines how the Alt-Right’s (we can call them neofascists if you like) mantra has developed over the last decade and how one of its defining features is a break from traditional conservatism. This break occurs because a new generation of right leaning people look at conservatism and see it capitulating each and every time it’s been challenged over the last thirty years. They see the only way to shore up and overturn the losses is to discard that form of conservatism and create something new.
Not only that, but this becomes a call to ideological radicalism rather than an incremental movement towards old ideas. No longer hold to compromise positions but simply develop new principles (communicated as old principles because the strength of the MYTHs of conservatism remain as seductive as ever). These principles become hills to die on and, if the chance occurs, to skewer others on as well. Gone are fiscal probity – in comes racism, anti-immigration. Discussions about PURITY (and for that see Mary Douglas’s excellent Purity and Danger for a clear explanation of why this is such a powerful myth).
A great place for these kinds of myths to reform and take new shape is among populations that have created ideas about being under siege. In technical terms they’ve become sectarian. Evangelical Christianity is a superb example of this in the US (and increasingly in the UK). See this superb long piece on the relationship between the two in the US. I don’t agree with it all, but the central insight that Evangelicals have entirely lost touch with the core tenets of Jesus and swapped them out for a fin de siecle long defeat narrative is spot on.
The above is all quite academic. I want to tie this into a central theme – why we shouldn’t laugh at Kylo Ren. Nor should we dismiss him. And by that I mean we shouldn’t laugh at Brexiters, nor Trumpists, nor dismiss them.
The second point should be obvious by now. Kylo Ren runs the First Order. Trump is President, Brexiters are possibly going to get the very worst of their wet dreams come true. Dismissing them is like dismissing the massive great hole in the side of the Titanic. SO for the rest of this, read Trump or Alt-Right, or Fascist or even Boris Johnson into every mention of Kylo Ren.
Kylo Ren is a terrifying opponent because he was born to power. He was given every chance to have empathy for others, to do good in the world. At each step he’s mixed with those who HAVE done good in the world yet somehow has decided the world works differently to every model he’s been shown.
As well as having had every privilege, he’s also very wealthy. He’s had mentoring along the lines of conservatism. Snoke, Hux and others have helped him see a coherent view of the world in opposition to those who he never clicked with. His own internal struggles somehow make more sense to him when he sees it from Snoke’s point of view. Yet they still lose Starkiller base. They still can’t defeat the common people and their republic – even after totally dismantling all the protections, systems and ways of expressing themselves. The eradication of the new republic still doesn’t let them win!
So he thinks and realises the old ways, the conservatives, can never win. They need to go. When Kylo Ren says ‘destroy the past’ he doesn’t mean destroy the republic, although he certainly thinks they need to go. He’s actually talking about the First Order. Not only does he kill Snoke but when Hux disagrees with him (quite sensibly), he publicly assaults and humiliates him.
Kylo Ren is not a child throwing temper tantrum. He is not ineffectual or mad or stupid. He is only absurd because he’s destroying conventions we’ve accepted as right and normal. It is surreal but it’s not stupid.
Those around Kylo Ren don’t last long. But Ren doesn’t need them to. He’s building something new and part of the vision of that is chaotic and constructive destruction. He’s bought into the idea of blood shed makes everyone stronger and if it’s those around him in service of his vision that’s probably about as strong a message as he can send – we are ALL to be sacrificed to build a new world.
Further still – he knows he’s the only one to really understand what’s he’s trying to do, so he must endure, he must be in control lest the less pure, the less insightful water down his vision. When Trump Christians say they prefer Trump to Pence (an Arch- evangelical) they back it up with ‘because Pence is too nice to do what needs to be done’.
After a while his people are suspicious over everyone but him.
His failures don’t matter except to his enemies. His successes matter to everyone.
Kylo Ren is a perfect embodiment of the enemies liberal and social democracies face right now. He is an uncaring populist, a demagogue and a man with a vision most of us can’t begin to comprehend because of the horror true implementation implies.
The Last Jedi also contains some strong arguments for how to defeat people like this both in popular opinion but also practically.
Lesson 1 – Luke’s fight with Ren. Luke doesn’t fight Ren. He simply distracts him while everyone else organises. He stands up to Ren but does not engage him on his own terms. He let Ren wash himself out while his own people look on in horror at his foolishness.
Lesson 2 – the survival of the rebels creates a MYTH of overcoming an enemy who wants to destroy the world the rest of us have built.
Lesson 3 – sacrifice – Admiral Holdo’s sacrifice to stop the enemy fleet is something NONE of Ren’s team would ever consider doing. They would sacrifice others for themselves and their ends but never themselves for others. If we want the world we have now to continue and to improve Holdo is a massive lesson for us about how we build it.
Lesson 4 – The detour to Canto. It’s absolutely vital to the story because it shows how others prosper on our suffering. It shows life under fascism it shows that the rich don’t care if you suffer and they SHOULD NOT be idolised. Celebrities are an opiate we should put in a bin and burn far from home.
Lesson 5 – Mavericks get you killed. Don’t rely on those who think they know best when they have no plan or that plan relies on defying everything we’ve learned. Everything Poe Dameron does gets people killed. Everything he does fails and from it he takes that he’s succeeded. Until he learns he HAS to work with others everything he touches turns to shit. It’s vital we learn this lesson because we, as a culture, have swallowed the idea of ‘big men’ being the arbiters of history and being our heroes who make everything right again. It’s the biggest piece of bullshit going and if we fall for it, like Poe, we’re really just weakened shadows of Kylo Ren.
I maintain The Last Jedi remains the best Star Wars film. If only because it’s got everything in it I want about the politics of now and is, ultimately, a message of hope about how nobodies like Finn, Rose and Rey can make a difference.