The economics of slavery and other problems in the Star Wars universe

With a week to go before the release of The Last Jedi, the Internet is awash in conjecture, much of it couched in an argot that only a truly wonkish Star Wars fan could even begin to follow.

Consider this bit, from the venerable New York Times: "It has been speculated that a former Sith Lord caused the virgin birth of Anakin Skywalker by manipulating midichlorians." Or this, from a Reddit devoted to guessing what comes next: "Kylo's scar is being used to confuse the timeline."

There's the above-the-surface anticipation, of course, as experts debate the likely box office numbers.  (Will the film's receipts eclipse those of 2015's The Force Awakens? Most people seem to think not.) And of course the political arguments fly fast and furious - even if the answers are not always predictable. (For instance: Luke Skywalker's family would have supported United States President Donald Trump.)

Some wonder whether there might not be cosmic significance in the fact that earlier this year, Mr Trump stepped into the main cabin of Air Force One to chat with reporters who were watching Rogue One - and at that very instant, Darth Vader appeared on the screen. This nonstop chatter is the very definition of buzz.

People can't help speculating.  What began as a fairly straightforward Campbellian myth has become an industry. Well, all of that can be fun. What I still wonder, even after eight films and counting, is what makes the whole thing go. No, no, not the franchise:  the Star Wars universe.

This isn't like Star Trek, which has so proudly dispensed with money. There's currency in Star Wars, and some people have a lot of it. So how does the economy work?

To begin with, the economy of the Star Wars universe seems to rest on relatively free intergalactic trade, although the would-be gains are reduced, due to the significant power of guilds and monopolies.

Despite the ubiquity of technology, it's evident that many people and some entire planets are poor. No wonder, with the rebellion somehow never running short of fighters or transports and the Empire using every spare penny to pay for its technological terror.

The Death Star and its successors are delightfully, improbably expensive. At current rates of production, it would require over 800,000 years to produce enough steel to build the Death Star, at a cost of US$852 quadrillion. Still, in a galaxy of over 3 million inhabited systems, one imagines that the Empire could find enough resources.

But the films present us with a larger problem. According to this paper, that was all the rage two years ago, the destruction of the first Death Star likely meant the evaporation of 15 per cent to 20 per cent of Gross Galactic Product, meaning that unless the Rebel Alliance had massive bailout funds ready, the Empire (or the newly restored Republic) was headed for a deep depression.

Now the rebels have destroyed two Death Stars and the even bigger Starkiller Base. How will the galactic economy survive? Then there's the problem nobody in the films talks about: the existence of slave labour in the galaxy.

Anakin Skywalker, before growing up to become Darth Vader, was born a slave on Tatooine. As many commentators have pointed out, when the Jedi arrived on the planet, they made no effort to free the slaves. Neither did anyone else.

The Star Wars films have never had a Spartacus. Moreover, there is little on the big screen to suggest that we, the audience, are meant to be outraged by the fairly common ownership of human beings.

As the theatre arts professor Kevin Wetmore has pointed out, the only "horror of slavery in the series is that Leia, Anakin, and Shmi are subjected to slavery". What is bad about slavery is not the existence of the institution but the fact that the heroes and their families must suffer through it.

Yet the existence of slavery in the Star Wars universe is itself something of a mystery.

Yes, economic historians have come around to the view that Southern slavery in the US very likely was profitable, whether or not it was sustainable. But in a technologically advanced galaxy, exactly why human slave labour should be more profitable than droid labour is not entirely clear.

One would think that robot miners, for instance, would work more efficiently than humans, and with considerably less attrition. But in the Star Wars universe, mining is done by human slaves.

Perhaps the problem is that the droids are lousy technology. They tend to be built for narrow purposes (protocol droids, battle droids, and so forth) and seem not terribly bright. (Amazon's Alexa seems smarter.) The Star Wars galaxy has not quite suffered a Butlerian Jihad, the event in the Dune universe that forbade the construction of artificially intelligent computers.

But something is holding things back. The droids seem sentient. Nevertheless, they are still owned by humans and required to obey their owners' commands. So it may make sense, as others have suggested, to think of the droids not as machines but as slaves.

Now, let's see. What do we have so far? Under the Republic and the Empire alike, a pretense of free trade corrupted by extensive guilds and monopolies; an Empire that spends enormous sums on military technology; a Rebel Alliance that has no evident plan for making up the enormous economic losses when the technology is destroyed; and an ubiquitous slavery that nobody in the galaxy seems interested in doing anything about.

So as we await The Last Jedi, let the speculation continue. (Will Rey fall to the Dark Side? Will Rey not fall to the Dark Side? Has Rey already fallen to the Dark Side?)

I have no doubt that the movie will be enormous fun. But when I'm sitting there with my popcorn on opening day, the scholarly part of me will also be trying to figure out how the galaxy manages to pay for it all.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2017, with the headline 'The economics of slavery and other problems in the Star Wars universe'. Print Edition | Subscribe