Is Star Wars: Rogue One a Leftist Film or a Libertarian One?

The latest Star Wars film, Rogue One, isn’t “political” according to Disney, the studio that produced the film. But according to Kate Aronoff of Jacobin, it is if we want to be. Aronoff argues that Rogue One is “politically substantive” from a leftist perspective, and a celebration of “rebellion from below.” Other outlets of cultural criticism, such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, have published similar analyses of the film, ones that posit that Rogue One is anti-fascist, a much-needed boon to progressive discourse at the dawn of the age of Trump.

Aronoff is right to point out that the meaning made from the film will ultimately come from its viewers, and that the potential gains that may come out of making leftist meaning from the film, by coopting its narratives and signifiers, are such that we should not dismiss Rogue One and other pop culture blockbusters like it lightly. I want to argue, not contrary to this, but from a different perspective: that which sees Rogue One as a symptom of and contribution to what Nicole Aschoff calls the “meta-stories” of our neoliberal age. Rogue One may hold out interpretive promise, but it stands from the start as an expression of libertarian myths and symbols.

Rogue One offers a post-racial critique of imperious government without any attention to materiality, and that, in short, is the consensus politics of our culture today. In the most broad strokes, the film is a science fiction story about a small group of rebels that band together to combat a galactic Empire, a highly regimented state that has taken over the galaxy and dissolved the Old Republic, which used to govern the star systems of this universe. Although its not expressed in the film, we can assume that the inhabitants of each of its planets wishes to be out from the governmental control of the galactic Empire. More explicitly, we can see in this and other Star Wars films that the Empire is highly militaristic and bent on developing super-weapons that will frighten anyone that might think to resist its control. But Rogue One takes place in a range of locales, from a highly urbanized “trading outpost” that has been dug into an asteroid, to a spiritual desert city, all of which don’t appear to be effectively governed by the Empire, for good or ill, in any meaningful way. They are diversely populated, to be sure. But the movie defies any attempt to interpret what life is actually like under the Empire. All we know is that it opposes local freedom.

Anti-imperialist cinema is laudable and exciting, but anti-imperialism is not necessarily or exclusively leftist. In the real world, empires generally exist to transfer capital from the colony to the metropole. But in the Star Wars universe, the Empire is born out of a sinister, dark, evil religion. Palpatine, the emperor, craves “unlimited power” in its most raw and abstract form, and while there are certainly power-mad leaders like Vladimir Putin in the world today, the mystical, abstract, and cartoonishly evil quality of the Empire’s motives makes Rogue One and the other Star Wars films primed for simple, libertarian interpretations. When a hegemon is depicted apart from any socio-historical context, it’s perhaps inevitable that the dynamic of freedom vs. coercion itself is that which becomes the dominant discourse in such a narrative. This universalization of the concept of freedom, its unmooring from any socio-historical context so that it chiefly resides in the realm of the metaphysical, is a libertarian project, not a leftist one.

Aronoff points out that Rogue One’s heroes have no explicit agenda other than to fight off the malevolent Empire, although she notes that in the broader of the Star Wars universe the Empire has supplanted a democratic republic. Yet—setting aside the question of whether the Old Republic was as hamstrung and subject to capital as our own American republic currently appears to be—democratic governance doesn’t get a great treatment in Rogue One. While at the Rebel base on Yavin 4, the democratic process results in a sea of representatives of the galactic republican government in exile choosing not to launch a spy mission, a decision that we as filmgoers already know—this film being a prequel—is objectively the wrong one. Democracy fails the film’s strong leader.

Jyn Erso, the film’s rugged, roguish heroine, decides to defy the council’s decision. She assembles a ragtag band of misfits and steals a star shuttle from the rebel base so that the mission can proceed. Her move is straight out of the Hollywood playbook for counter-cultural right-wing heroes. The trope of the warrior who defies his orders, or steps of bounds from his superiors, manifests in such pop culture figures of Dirty Harry, Rambo, and more recently the “American sniper” Chris Kyle. Just last summer in Captain America: Civil War, the eponymous superhero pulled the same move, going rogue, when the United Nations decided that his “private” vigilante superhero organization, the Avengers, should be placed under public democratic oversight. In these examples, the individual protagonist is counterposed against the technocrat or institutional figurehead as he bucks the system and triumphs because of his strong individual will and leadership characteristics.

In fact, we never really see Jyn Erso when she is not fighting authority in some manner. Her roguish tendencies even have her fighting the very rebel soldiers that free her at the start of the film. Contrast this with Rey, the main character of 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, who is depicted in that film as living in what could only be described as a post-Fordist economy; Rey scavenges the landscape for scrap, remnants of a mass industrial age, in order to sell it in hopes that she can afford enough to eat. It is clear to the audience that what we might call Rey’s self-sufficiency or “independence” is not by choice. It’s a product of her social context. Rey is not a rogue, she’s a member of the precariat, and she delights at Han Solo’s offer of gainful employment.

The problem with allegory such as that in Rogue One is that it can stand in for nearly anything. Aronoff suggests that we can map the Spanish Civil War onto Rogue One in order to read the film as anti-fascist, but we could do the same with the American War for Independence, in which case our heroes become settler colonists, invested in land speculation and Enlightenment conceptions of the individual self, and opposed to taxation by big government. Or worse, the rebels of Rogue One might be akin to the Texas militia members who in 2015 were convinced that Obama’s federal government was out to take their guns away. The anti-fascism of the 1930s and 1940s was certainly opposed to imperialism. But it also included a forward looking vision for the democratic state.

I do not mean to levy a critique of Rogue One per se. I am not arguing that the film should have had embedded in it a critique of private concentrated capital for it to be a good movie. (As a lapsed Star Wars nerd it might be my favorite installment in the series, to be honest.) Rather, I want us to scrutinize the discourses that often pass for progressive politics in a range of popular cultural forms because doing so will be a means to analyze and deconstruct the power of libertarian myths and symbols. Rogue One is “political” in the sense that all media and rhetoric is, but it’s important to see how it’s not “political” in a conscious manner; instead it is political because it draws on the hegemonic cultural “common sense” that presents anti-authoritarianism, anti-statism, and roguishness as surefire means to craft a modern mythic piece of crowd-pleasing mass entertainment.

Filmmakers don’t need to think twice or be politically aware before employing the language of liberty; it’s in the air. The broad language of libertarianism is so ubiquitous in popular culture that it is at times hard to notice. It appears in a range of films from independent arthouse critical darlings like Beasts of the Southern Wild, a particularly specious post-racial paean to anarchic libertarian individualism, to blockbusters like Captain America and Jason Bourne. And freedom fighters aren’t exclusively the domain of the left. They can be found in films such as Red Dawn and 300. Indeed, all of the aforementioned films celebrate abstract or libertarian notions of freedom as that which must be protected from a foreign state or an imperious domestic state organization.

As thinkers such as Clifford Geertz and Antonio Gramsci have noted, “common sense” is historically and culturally specific. Or as expressed by Nicole Aschoff in The New Prophets of Capital, “existing beliefs and norms are not primordial or fixed,” but rather the product of “big, all-encompassing stories.” The dominant meta-stories of the last half-century, Aschoff argues, have formed a “counterrevolution…to delegitimize the state” in general, and in particular, the state’s role in providing a “social safety net” and “regulating corporations.” Rogue One is not by itself anti-welfare or pro-private capital, but it does fit into the meta-stories of libertarianism. Much more so, I contend, than that of leftism.

If that is the case, the left might look to the literary critic Kenneth Burke, who described precisely what Aronoff calls for as the “stealing back and forth of symbols.” In the context of a discussion about usable symbols, Rogue One doesn’t have to be exclusively or intentionally leftist. But the successful appropriation of meta-stories and the symbols within a film like Rogue One requires understanding the ways that such films already exist intertextually in a powerful, well established, and nearly ubiquitous web of libertarian meaning.