States Are Like the Millennium Falcon

Last week, artist John Powers wrote a wonderful blog post on how the original Star Wars movie pioneered American cinematic representations of a “used future”—that is, “a future with a past.”

The visual program of Star Wars is unique because it was chronologically stratified. Lucas borrowed from real machine age periods to give his cinematic future an immediately recognizable depth of time. We [are] meant to see that the oldest elements of the film, like Obi Wan Kenobi with his Samurai robes, and Darth Vader…were hold-overs from an older order…Luke’s Landspeeder and C3PO stood in for what was clearly an entire machine age…Luke and his rebel cohorts were flying into battle in the Star Wars equivalent of an old WWII surplus.

I’m a fan of Star Wars—well, of the first two and a half movies, anyway—but I’m also a political scientist, and John’s post got me thinking again about how political scientists think about states.

In American political science, the conventional (Modernist) view of states and their origins are embodied in Lucas’ Death Star. Hierarchically organized communities draw up and execute elaborate plans for a system that performs a clear set of functions. Everything in the whole serves a unique purpose, and each component was presumably built just for that purpose. The engineered system is complicated, but it is not complex. The whole is the sum of its modular parts.  Like Le Corbusier’s radiant city as described by James Scott, the ideal Modernist state is “a lyrical marriage between Cartesian pure forms and the implacable requirements of the machine.”

death star power trench plans

In fact, states are more the Millennium Falcon. States are not built de novo to fill political vacuums. Instead, like the hot rods Lucas celebrates in American Graffiti, states are motley assemblages of formal and informal institutions cobbled together on the go. Many of those parts were designed at some time for some purpose, but not necessarily the one for which they’re actually being used. Change often occurs at the margins in response to specific problems that are solved imperfectly. Instead of a spacecraft carefully designed to execute of series of specific tasks, we get a mostly functional “hunk of junk.”

Millennium Falcon

The builders of these assemblages are more craftsmen than engineers. They don’t have the luxury of time, the know-how, or the resources to build a new ship from the ground up, so they tinker at the margins as they go and hope the whole thing doesn’t disintegrate out from under them. Not trivially, they also have some attachment to the idiosyncrasies and imperfections of the system they’ve cobbled together. Even if they could scrap it for a newer and cleaner model, they probably wouldn’t want to. The Millennium Falcon may be a hunk of junk, but to its pilot, it’s “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.”

The aesthetic of a “used future” George Lucas pioneered for American moviegoers in Star Wars is echoed in Paul Pierson’s call for social scientists to situate politics in time:

Contemporary social scientists typically take a snapshot view of political life, but there is often a strong case to be made for shifting from snapshots to moving pictures. This means systematically situating particular moments (including the present) in a temporal sequence of events and processes stretching over extended periods.

Moving pictures of the Hollywood kind often help us see the world differently. Lucas’ vision of a “used future” reminds us that the present is really an accretion of many pasts, and we shouldn’t ignore those origins in our theories of political development.

Leave a comment


  1. mg

     /  December 2, 2012

    As usual, quite thought-provoking comments. Of course the theory that can describe the “accretion” of these “idiosyncrasies” is evolution. Not only is the state a product of an evolved past, but the institutions that make it up, the people that make up the institutions, the buildings they work in, the laws they operate within; these are all also evolved parts of the same much larger system. But “purpose” has to be part of this story, since these people, institutions, and states seem to be actors that make decisions. How do we reconcile this invisible hand of evolution with functionalism that must exist on some level?

    • I think theories of complex adaptive systems offer the best chance for that reconciliation. They acknowledge local agency without presuming global design, and they encourage us to think about path dependency and the multiplicity of possible futures.

  2. Marc Levy

     /  December 2, 2012

    Interesting, but you make one uncharacteristic error. The Stars Wars story is set in the distant past, not the future (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

    That wrinkle raises a number of interesting puzzles never addressed in the movies. During the time of the stories there were many competing species with advanced cognitive capacities, including homo sapiens, and they could travel at near-light speed. Clearly we are the descendants of the homo sapiens populating the star wars stories (or less probably we share common progenitors). Why does our world not have any of those other species running about? Why did we have to start over from scratch — reinventing all the elements of civilization that they had before they arrived here?

    If the sequels go on long enough and get worse enough, we eventually learn the answer.

    • I think Powers (and Lucas) meant “future” not in the literal sense, but in the figurative sense generic to science fiction. And, in a way, the “long time ago” schtick could be read as a prosaic nod to this whole “used future” thing.

      As for that thread linking Lucas’ imagined past to our present, maybe it runs through Prometheus? Heck, maybe Lucasfilm and the guys who made Prometheus can get together and make an even bigger mess of the whole thing. Maybe those jars in the cave in Prometheus were full of midichlorians…

      • Gyre

         /  December 3, 2012

        I’ve always wondered if the line ‘A long time ago’ was just an effort to twist the idea of being set in humanity’s future by stating it was set in the past.

      • starwarsmodern

         /  December 3, 2012

        Lucas “Long Time Ago..” was a canny device. One of his stated desires with Star Wars was to reproduce his own experience of seeing Kurusawa’s Hidden Fortress for the first time; to throw audience into a wholely unfamiliar setting and allow them the intellectual pleasure of getting their bearings and navigating a detailed and convincing territory, but an intentionally confusing. I suppose part of the problem with scifi is we imagine we know where the past (our present). Lucas’ opening crawl forced audiences to acknowledge that they didn’t, to adopt the perspective of “beginners mind.” To bring this back to Jay’s text, I suppose there is a similar problem for political science: the assumption that we know where we are, that the past is one thing. .

  3. Gyre

     /  December 3, 2012

    It seems obvious that the past is a large part of the state’s present. Would the American military have so much more power in foreign policy if it hadn’t been for the attractiveness of using military force to solve issues during the Cold War?

    • It does seem obvious, and yet theories of the causes and effects of political institutions often sound as if the cumulative effects of history are fully accounted for in present conditions. So, for example, how a particular electoral system got built, and the social ground it was built on, are ignored; all that matters are the rules.

  4. On G+, Powers commented on the post with this great quote from Dave Hickey: “Even my first glimmers of higher theory arose out of [car] culture: rhetoric of image and icon, the dynamics of embodied desire, the algorithms of style change, the ideological force of disposable income…. for a fresh idea of democracy, a new canon of beauty, and a redeemed ideology of motion. We also understood we were dissenting when we customized them and hopped them up—demonstrating against the standards of the republic and advocating our own vision of power and loveliness.” Air Guitar; 61.

  5. amy freedman

     /  December 3, 2012

    To go in a different direction for a moment: This post makes me think of Paul Romer’s city from scratch in Honduras. Romer seemed to believe that he could create a city without the messiness of politics and realities which often stymie the best economic development plans. I heard Romer give a talk (about 15 + years ago) where he essentially said that politics was bedtime reading, that is the politics was easy, and that it was the economics side of things that mattered and if you could get the economics “right” then everything else would fall into place. Time, place, space, and politics all do matter, and can’t be dismissed so easily.

    • Yes, fantastic example. I seem to recall a recent newspaper piece about this project where Romer admitted that the politics had ended up being more important and more difficult than he’d realized. Vested interests got hold of the plan and tore it apart, not by resisting it so much as by trying to redirect it to their own benefit.

  6. amy freedman

     /  December 3, 2012

    Yeah, when I read that NYT piece this fall, and saw that Romer was no longer with the project I couldn’t help feel a pang of vindication! Thanks for piece! There was a long New Yorker article from a few years ago when Obama was developing and debating health care reforms, that essentially made the same argument you’re making, that countries with universal health care (and whole governments) often saw their systems develop piecemeal and in response to specific problems. Countries like France and the UK didn’t create their systems fully from scratch, but added on and tinkered with systems already in place, this is very much in keeping with with the Star Wars piece.

  7. Great post Chimp,

    I’ve been reading a lot of this kind of thought-provoking commentary in the last few months (fantastic examples include: Owen Barder at CDEV and Duncan Green at Oxfam), but what I’m yet to see is anyone actually doing any modelling in this area. Have you seen any actual published (or publish-able) work taking a systems/complexity approach to development?

    (p.s. hope the HTML I’ve put into this comment works!)

  8. 19andnerdy

     /  December 9, 2012

    Reblogged this on 19andnerdy.

  9. You might be interested in the book Kluge: the Haphazard Evolution of the HumanMind. It treats the evolution of the brain as a piecemeal accretion similar to the Miillenium Falcon, giving other examples and explaining the process in a cogent and theoretically satisfying way. Check it out!

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