The Working Class Awakens: ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ and the Birth of the Multitude

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi may be the first Star Wars movie with a clear class consciousness. For the first time, the storied film franchise moves beyond the noble Skywalker family to focus on a ragtag collective of “nobodies”. The Last Jedi moves, in other words, from a family saga to a class saga. Moreover, as the story exemplifies, class is more intersectional than intersectionality itself; the working-class majority, as The Last Jedi represents, encompasses all genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, and even all species.

While the explicit focus on class consciousness may be new to the Star Wars franchise, since the onset, Star Wars has always been political. In George Lucas’s original 1977 script, the opening crawl reads: “It is a period of civil wars in the galaxy. A brave alliance of underground freedom fighters has challenged the tyranny and oppression of the awesome GALACTIC EMPIRE”. From the onset, we are thrust into a period of political crisis in which “civil wars” threaten the legitimacy and survivability of the reigning government, the Galactic Empire. The political conflict is between a tyrannical Empire and a loose, interplanetary collective of “underground freedom fighters”. From the perspective of the Empire, the freedom fighters are terrorists. But from the perspective of the repressed and oppressed, they’re beacons of hope, risking their lives for a new political order.

The original Star Wars is rooted in a western, revolutionary, ’60s-era sensibility that was deeply informed by, and highly critical of, the Vietnam War. Although Lucas never participated in combat—he was rejected from the draft because he is diabetic—the Vietnam War played a seminal role in shaping his political and aesthetic development. Before Star Wars, Lucas was writing and planning an anti-Vietnam War movie that would be filmed in a documentary style using 16mm cameras, an aesthetics inspired, in part, by Gillo Pontecorvo‘s 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers. Lucas even had a name for the project: Apocalypse Now. Eventually, Lucas passed the project to his close friend, Francis Ford Coppola. (As an homage to Lucas’s involvement, the name of Harrison Ford’s character in Coppola 1979 film Apocalypse Now is Colonel G. Lucas.)

Star Wars became Lucas’s critique of America’s war in Southeast Asia. Chris Taylor documents in his essential study, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise (Basic Books 2015), Lucas viewed Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, and his earlier film American Graffiti (1973), as a thematically-linked trilogy about the Vietnam War.


Film Strip by joseph_alban(Pixabay License / Pixabay)

According to Harvard University law professor Cass Sunstein, even the much-maligned prequel trilogy is politically astute. In his study The World According to Star Wars (HarperCollins 2016), Sunstein argues that The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005) “predicted our current political era” in which a growing, vocal constituency desire a strong, authoritarian leader who will prioritize order and security above all other social values in order to fight ostensible “terrorist threats”.

While Star Wars has always been a political franchise, in The Last Jedi, politics becomes class politics. More explicitly, The Last Jedi is about working-class resistance.

Of course, class relations are present throughout the franchise; there are no cultural texts produced in a capitalist age that are not informed by class relations. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), the first installment of the sequel trilogy after George Lucas sold LucasFilm to the Walt Disney Company for a whopping $4 billion, class consciousness appears in a nascent form. (The contradictions of capitalism are everywhere and inescapable.) In fact, the movie opens with a critique of market relations.

The Force Awakens introduces us to a clearly-marked, new hero, Rey (Daisy Ridley), a self-sufficient scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku. Like our introduction to Luke in A New Hope, Rey appears far removed from the central stages of politics. The desert planet of Jakku appears analogous to the desert planet of Tatooine, Luke’s home. Unlike other protagonists in the Star Wars universe though, Rey seems to be a loner, divorced from all community and connections. When we first meet her, she is without any family or friends.

Her everyday life reveals the brutal conditions of survival in a system defined by market relations. Rey’s routine, out of necessity, consists of foraging through the ruins of war—large, fallen space ships and weapons litter the desert landscape, traces of a large battle between the Galactic Empire and the New Republic— in search for parts that can be exchanged for food portions. This desert planet is determined by raw, naked market relations, where the economic elite, such as the proprietors of Niima Outpost where Rey exchanges industrial and technological scraps for food, own the necessities for survival.

On this brutal planet where scavenging is necessary for the majority of subjects to stay alive, Rey serendipitously encounters BB-8, a droid with a domed head (similar to R2-D2) that sits atop the droid’s balled body. In a world reduced to a giant marketplace, BB-8 becomes a commodity, “equivalent” to an exorbitant amount of food. When we first see Rey exchanging scraps for food, the proprietor deems that the scraps are not even “worth” a single portion. However, when Rey returns to the same outpost with BB-8 by her side, the proprietor says that he’s willing to offer Rey 60 portions of food in exchange for the droid. This offer causes gasps of surprise from the surrounding creatures, who appear to be in a similar economic situation as Rey. Yet Rey refuses this market exchange. Looking down at the droid, Rey sees a sentient, living being that cannot be reduced to a commodity. She sees and feels beyond market relations.

But in the end, The Force Awakens still seems to remain within the mythic template that the franchise established with the original trilogy. Rey appears destined to be a galactic, mythical hero the way her personal hero Luke Skywalker was a generation before. Rey, like Luke, appears destined to be a Jedi who will restore “balance to the Force” and hence, harmony to the galaxy. But in The Last Jedi, the second installment of the sequel trilogy, is replete with surprises. There are many unexpected twists and turns throughout writer and director Rian Johnson‘s entry in the series, but perhaps the most surprising—and welcoming—is how he dispenses with expected master narratives and ahistorical myths. As Carl Silvio and Tony M. Vinci write in their introduction to Culture, Identities and Technology in the Star Wars Films: Essays on the Two Trilogies (McFarland 2007), “Since 1977, the majority of Star Wars criticism has focused on the films’ use of mythic archetypes and trans-cultural, pan-human themes.”

Most prominently, critics have fixated on the influence of Joseph Campbell’s theory of “universal mythic patterns” upon Lucas. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New World Library [1949] 2008), Campbell argues that all narratives can be reduced to the archetype of the “Hero’s Journey”. Lucas has acknowledged the tremendous influence of Campbell on the Star Wars movies, sharing that he has read The Hero with a Thousand Faces multiple times, first during college and later, studying it while drafting the original trilogy. Lucas has even called Campbell “My Yoda”. For all the expansiveness of the Star Wars universe, the original trilogy is centered on the hero archetype that closely resembles Campbell’s “monomyth”. The Last Jedi, though, thwarts such mythic paradigms and interpretations.

The emerging class consciousness of The Force Awakens is fully realized and articulated in The Last Jedi. This is achieved, in part, by Johnson rejecting the mythic, ideological template of destined heroes. In the Force Awakens, Rey explains to BB-8 that she stays on the desert planet because she knows that one day her parents, from whom she was mysteriously separated with when she was young, will return. In the two-year hiatus between the release of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, one of the central questions engaging fans was: Who are Rey’s parents? Fans speculated widely about Rey’s lineage. Many theorized that Rey was a secret Skywalker or perhaps Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter.

Up to this point, the series narratively prepared us to believe that Rey is not a nobody scavenger, but rather, a somebody with a heroic past who will become a Great Person in the Star Wars universe. The series trained us to believe that this was a family saga in which individuals are destined to become great because of their bloodline. The Phantom Menace, for example, introduces the “science” of midi-cholorian, a chemical compound within every living cell that determines the connective strength between a living being and the Force. When Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) tests the midi-chlorian count of a young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd)—long before he would become Darth Vader—his count is the highest in any life form ever detected and hence becomes “evidence” that Anakin is the “Chosen One” who will bring balance to the Force.

In this conservative logic, Great People are biologically destined. The agency of Great People, flush with extraordinary blood, is whether they will choose to become heroes or villains. Anakin was never just a slave on the desert planet on Tatooine. Rather, he was destined to become a great Jedi Knight who would later switch sides to become a great Sith Lord. Similarly, Luke was never just a moisture farmer on a desert planet at the margins of the galaxy. Rather, he was destined to become a hero and lead the Rebel Alliance to destroy the Galactic Empire. Following this template, Rey’s fate is not to be an anonymous nobody on a different desert planet. Rather, she too will become a heroic somebody who will transcend her initial class position as an impoverished junkyard scavenger.

However, The Last Jedi challenges audience’ expectations and refigures this anticipated, mythic script. One of the movie’s big twists is when Rey learns that her parents are not Great Individuals, but rather, “nobodies”. She learns this from Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the fascist leader of the First Order who seeks to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Darth Vader. He tells Rey that her parents were junk-trading, impoverished “nobodies” who sold her for money and who are now dead in an unmarked, unvisited grave. In contrast to Luke, who learned in the second installment of the original trilogy that Darth Vader is his father, in this second installment of the sequel trilogy, Rey learns that there is no secret birthright and no grand history.

Kylo Ren seeks to devastate Rey with this knowledge. But the strength of The Last Jedi is that to be a nobody is not a mark of shame, but rather, a mark of pride. To be a nobody is a precondition for developing class consciousness, feeling solidarity, and establishing a collective of the exploited and suffering, which in the sequel trilogy, is called—echoing working-class movements—the Resistance.

img-18710John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)Photo by David James – © Copyright: 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™, All Rights Reserved. (IMDB)

The Resistance is composed of a multitude of nobodies, including all genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, and species. One of the most significant new characters who exemplifies this logic is Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). What’s remarkable about Rose is not just her gender or her ethnicity. Rather, it’s her job as a maintenance worker. She’s a regular, working-class subject who knows she’s not, nor destined to be, a hero. Rose joins the Resistance because the movement is heroic, and her reasons for committing are rooted in personal experience. In one of the movie’s key world-building scenes, Rose tells Finn (John Boyega), a former Stormtrooper who has joined the Resistance, that she was born into a world order of hyper exploitation and social death. Rose was born on a mining colony to parents who were enslaved miners for the First Order. The First Order eventually stripped the colony of its resources and then destroyed the planet in order to test their weapons . Rose’s parents, like Rey’s, were exploitable and disposable “nobodies” in the political universe created and perpetuated by the First Order.

Rose shares her personal history with Finn while they overlook Canto Bight, a luxury city of tremendous wealth renowned for its extravagant casinos, racetracks, and conspicuous consumption. This city—the Monte Carlo of the galaxy—may look spectacular from a distance, but as Rose informs Finn, the wealth and limitless leisure options of this casino city are made possible because of horrific labor exploitation. The city is made possible, Rose explains, by war profiteers, slave labor, and market relations more generally. In the middle of the movie, the narrative pauses to explain how class is a structure of relations built on the economic elite exploiting the masses for their labor and resources. Moreover, for the first time in the series, we learn why someone wishes to defeat the imperial empire. It’s not because the First Order is abstractly evil, nor because their its rulers are pathologically rotten. Rather, it’s because the First Order’s ideology and worldview are pernicious. Their Its rule and order enable exploitative market relations to flourish, including the most egregious forms of commodification: slavery.

Soon after Rose shares her personal history of hyper exploitation and social death under rule of the First Order, the camera shows children slaves who labor to maintain and perpetuate the casino city’s spectacular, orderly appearance. Slaves toil in order to aestheticize the city and make it appear as a fantasy of hedonism for the economic elite. Slavery is not new to the Star Wars franchise, but in previous movies, slavery was the exception, not the rule. In the prequel trilogy, Anakin and his mother Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) are slaves on Tatooine. When Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), a queen of the pastoral planet Naboo and later a senator of the Republic, discovers that slavery is practiced on the planet, she is shocked: “I can’t believe there’s still slavery in the galaxy. The Republic’s anti-slavery laws—.” Shmi interrupts Padmé: “The Republic doesn’t exist out here.” Tatooine is the exception, a planet physically and ideologically beyond the Republic’s rule. But Canto Bight is within the First Order’s political order and nobody is shocked about the system and practice of slavery and gross inequality. In the First Order, the “raw, untamed power” of the market rules.

In previous iterations of Star Wars, the battle between good and evil often seemed metaphysical and mythical. But in Canto Bight, a city of conspicuous consumption and gross inequality, the battle between the First Order and the Resistance becomes legible as class warfare and the hope for the next movies is the hope for a working-class revolution.

There’ is a wonderful narrative logic to Rose telling her story to Finn; Finn was also a slave under the First Order. As we learn in The Force Awakens, Finn was kidnapped as a child and forced to become a Stormtrooper, an enslaved military subject. In fact, The Force Awakens begins with Finn absconding from the First Order and learning to reclaim his humanity.

Near the end of The Last Jedi, Rose tells Finn that they are “not fighting out of hate”, but rather, out of “love”. Put differently, the Resistance is not founded in simply being anti the First Order. Instead, they are fighting out of “love” for the oppressed and expressed and for their “love” of a new world order that will abolish the worst excesses of market relations. Throughout The Force Awakens, Finn runs away from conflict. But in The Last Jedi, especially after meeting and learning Rose’s story, he stops running and commits to and is willing to die for the Resistance. After experiencing Canto Bight, Finn understands that defeating the First Order is inextricable from destroying a political system founded on widespread slavery, colonial extraction, and fascist terror.

Although the word “hope” repeats throughout The Last Jedi as a leitmotif, in narrative terms, hope for the Resistance may seem futile. After all, at the movie’s end, the entire known Resistance is contained in the Millennium Falcon. In the closing act, when the Resistance issues a distress call throughout the galaxy, no one responds. But in a way, millions respond. Although no one on-screen arrives to help, nearly everyone in theaters aesthetically identifies with the Resistance. As long as a system based on suppressing the working-class majority is in place, hope will always be alive, and as the movie’s working-class logic makes explicit, we join the Resistance not by wanting to become Leia, Luke, Rey, Finn, or Poe. But rather, by being ourselves. What matters is that we identify with the movement, not with any particular individual.

In the movie’s coda, a slave boy looks up to the sky and pretends his broom—a symbol of his oppression—is a lightsaber, signifying the imaginative, utopian capacities of the working class. This young boy is developing class consciousness, born out of struggle, and he is already part of the Resistance. The Resistance is an emergent multitude, and one of the defining features of the multitude is that such an expansive, nebulous, ever-growing formation defies repressive regimes of order and containment.

As The Last Jedi suggests, the Resistance itself is the Force. The Resistance is the Force of solidarity and a loving pledge to work every day for a more socially just world not built on exploitation and enslavement.