The World According to Star Wars. Cass R. Sunstein. New York, NY: Dey Street Books, 2016.
A long time from now, at a point far, far into the future, historians will look back at the current decade and might determine that rebellion—be it in Cairo’s streets or demonstrated by Russia’s renewed challenges to an order represented by NATO—characterized the period. The first half of the 2010s opened with the Arab Spring, intensified with China’s rankling at Western rules, escalated with the ascent of the Islamic State, and witnessed the people of the United Kingdom vote to exit the European Union. Whether one designates the players in this drama as either the Light or Dark side depends perhaps on where one stands, but regardless of where the line is drawn, it is safe to say that existing orders of all kinds and at all levels are being challenged.
Enter Cass R. Sunstein’s timely analysis of rebels and rebellions in his new book, The World According to Star Wars, to help make sense of today’s insurgent movements and rebellions against the status quo. In its entirety, the book covers a wide-range of topics, but its “episode” on rebellions is of special interest to those concerned with governance and global security. But first, zooming out for the sake of context, The World According to Star Wars could be read as a commentary on human culture and the power of artistic links that join all people. Star Wars is one of those connectors.
As Sunstein postulates, even if Star Wars objectively is not-so-great as a film series, its enduring themes found in thousands of years of narratives tap into something universal that manages to overcome any creative or other shortcomings. “There’s a deep human desire for common knowledge and common experiences,” he writes. And the hero’s journey is one nearly everyone can relate to. His book also explores human behavior, covering how people succeed, decision-making (freedom to choose, he highlights, is a key Star Wars value), and father-son dynamics. At a high-level, it might be said that Sunstein wrote a book about relationships—how each generation creates ways to connect to the next, how children redeem their parents, and how law develops over time. The focus here, however, is Episode VII.
On “Episode VII: Rebels: Why Empires Fall, Why Resistance Fighters (and Terrorists) Rise”
Paralyzed Law-Making Bodies
Sunstein begins the episode by identifying political messages in the Star Wars series, noting its skepticism of centralized authority and its concentration on the point at which democracies turn on themselves, shifting toward authoritarian regimes. Without directly stating that a dictatorship is on the horizon, Sunstein refers to the U.S. political system. As he reminds his readers, it was the “ceaseless, pointless squabbling of legislative representatives in the Republic” that enabled Emperor Palpatine’s rise to power in the first place. This section of the episode is frightening, and eerily parallels the direction in which Congress could deteriorate. Political stalemate and dissatisfaction, then, serve as the backdrop of rebellion and revolution, be it “good” or “bad” upheaval.
Political paralysis might be the formative context for rebellion, but an enduring rebel movement requires many individual actors. After setting the stage by explaining away what could lead to frustration and disenchantment, Sunstein describes the different types of rebels that exist, noting two general kinds of rebels and, then, categories of societal willingness to rebel. First, there are rebels-by-nature and conservative rebels. The former are ready to overthrow the existing regime based on moral conviction. Members of the latter group have a preference for maintaining society’s Burkean “connective tissue.” For them, society would not be best served by starting from ground-zero (it’s probably impossible or too difficult, if not undesirable), but by beginning a new chapter consistent with age-old societal values. As Sunstein makes clear, the conservative rebels “look backward for inspiration.”
Then there is the rebellion-threshold taxonomy, organized as follows:
- Princess Leias (ready to burn the house down no matter what),
- Luke Skywalkers (certainly unhappy with the status quo but unwilling to light a match until they reach a certain level of anger; triggering events are key here, as they compel the Lukes of the world to action),
- Han Solos (dislike the status quo, and sympathize with the rebels, but likely only willing to act if there is a financial incentive),
- Naboo (apathetic and will turn to whomever is winning during a critical juncture in the movement), and
- Sith (support the existing order no matter what).
So, when might rebellion occur? Based on Sunstein’s analysis, it appears political stalemate combined with a society’s particular rebellion-threshold are key to determining whether dissenters will turn to violence and other modes of public resistance.
Can We Predict the Next Successful Rebellion or Challenge to Existing Order?
Sunstein suggests this is hard to do. During the height of the revolution in Libya, for instance, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi’s son, boldly declared, “We will win.” He asserted in an interview that the opposition was made up of terrorists, and that thousands of Libyans had volunteered to fight them. He incorrectly stated the rebels were a tiny minority and, otherwise, “[Libyans] are so united, we are so strong.” He was wrong. Not only did the Gaddafi regime fail to crush the rebels, but he also miscalculated the regime’s ability to defeat the opposition and how many members of the population were willing to work on the regime’s behalf to fight the rebels. Perhaps it was political theater, but he might have believed it as well. If he was sincere, how did he fail to measure the scope of regime opposition and its consequences?
Rulers often fail to predict rebellions because they are unaware of a significant portion of the population's discontent. This happens, Sunstein suggests, for several reasons: First, “human beings tend to believe what they want to believe, and not to believe what they don’t want to believe.” Second, because rulers often hear misleading “happy talk” from their deputies. And third, because of the general unpredictability of how social dynamics interact to encourage human action.
Whether a rebellion will be successful, and perhaps shift towards revolution, depends on two points: fanaticism and shared knowledge (vertical and horizontal). Horizontal knowledge is information shared among potential rebels. Vertical knowledge refers to the information the regime has on its subjects.
According to Sunstein, individuals drift toward extremism because of information exchange and social influences. With respect to information, he notes the “information pool” within any group “with some initial disposition in one direction” will be biased in favor of that perspective. The second point is more interesting. Sunstein argues that “most people care about what others think of them, and once they hear what others believe, they have a tendency to shift their positions accordingly.” Once someone enters a space where her own position is in the minority, the idea goes, she will adjust her view at least somewhat in order not to seem immoral or dumb. This is intensified by the fact that “[m]any people, much of the time, lack full confidence in their views.” Therefore, they share “a moderate version of what they are inclined to think.” But once their view finds support, the person becomes “more confident and thus less moderate.” In either case, group dynamics can push people toward a more extreme position.
Even if the existing order maintains a military advantage, this is insufficient to secure victory. As Sunstein highlights, General Cassio Tagge said the Rebel Alliance’s “perverse, reactionary fanaticism” was their most dangerous weapon. Success, one might infer, also takes a dogged commitment to an idea, not just better weapons. It’s a lot like grit in that victory does not always belong to those with the best resources and skills, but those uncompromisingly committed to a particular end.
Horizontal knowledge is critical for insurgents because, without it, it is nearly impossible to organize and strategize in the most powerful way—as a group. Of course, some always will be ready to rebel regardless of others’ beliefs, but many will need to know there is a critical mass of like-minded people before they risk their lives for a cause. The success of the initial phases of an insurgency, then, turns on whether members of the population know the truth. As Sunstein suggests, “If people falsify their preferences and beliefs, rebellions will be difficult or perhaps impossible to predict” because people will have no idea “what their fellow citizens believe.” Once those who reject the status quo (the Leias) speak out, however, the more cautious (the Lukes) might think a rebellion is a good idea and jump on board. And “[o]nce the number of rebels increases, participation can become far more energizing; it can seem like the best club in the history of the world.” At that point, rebellion could turn to revolution.
If the first half of the decade is an indicator, resistance could become a more widespread occurrence. Sunstein’s framework for thinking about rebellion is informative, helping us make sense of the current historical moment and to framing preparation for future challenges.
Consider Russia. It is renewing its challenge to NATO, one of the most basic institutional underpinnings of regional and global security (and arguably the current global hierarchy) of the last six decades. Russia has threatened military action should Sweden or Finland choose to seek membership in NATO, captured an Estonian intelligence official who might have been within Estonian territory, and deployed a series of anti-access/area-denial capabilities near the Baltic States that restrict the ability of potential adversaries to operate militarily in the region. In short, it is rejecting and challenging norms NATO seeks to promote and defend. One might conclude Russia is acting as a global rebel. Can Russia prevail? It depends. For Russia’s part, success is contingent upon its ability to develop a coherent strategy of its own and to exploit the inefficiencies built into the NATO decision-making system. It could be that between (albeit legitimate) bickering about funding, signs that the European project is in disarray, and a U.S. distracted by a 15-year conflict in Afghanistan and a growing commitment in Iraq and Syria, a cohesive and effective policy response to Russian aggression either will come too late or not at all. Again, political paralysis, even of this kind, is a prime political backdrop for rebellion.
Additionally, should Russia want to act more aggressively and seek to make fundamental, more revolutionary change, Russia cannot go at it alone, which means it must work to convince other actors—such as China, which in this context falls somewhere along the rebel spectrum between Han Solo and Naboo—to support its mission. Horizontal knowledge is key here. It could be that Russia knows many state actors unhappy with the order NATO supports, and it might be able to convince others to join its team if it can present it as an achievable and financially sound objective. Could the West head this off? It depends. The West would have to develop a clear response and understand the extent of Russia’s (and other states’) commitment to disrupting the NATO security order. Doing so requires solving knowledge gaps where they exist, which can be remedied with traditional diplomatic and intelligence tools, assuming strong diplomatic contacts and accurate collection methods at least.
There are ambitions and frustrations fueling intense resistance in a variety of spaces. If there is one lesson to be learned from Sunstein’s episode on rebellion, it is that societies (especially leaders) must listen closely to those who express dissatisfaction with the nature and methods of governance and politics. They should listen not simply out of a commitment to open-mindedness but also to foster stability. It might be the truth about a matter isn’t found in the middle of opposing views (looking back—despite claims to the contrary—segregationists turned out just to be racist), but, if governments don’t at least have an accurate assessment of what people believe or want, and then demonstrate that all legitimate points are at least being heard, regimes (benign or evil) can and will unravel in surprising and devastating ways.
If there is one lesson to be learned...it is that societies (especially leaders) must listen closely to those who express dissatisfaction with the nature and methods of governance and politics.
Overall, Sunstein considers a variety of topics that sometimes relate to one another and sometimes do not. It feels like he had fun writing it—dashing from one of his favorite topics (behavioral science) to another (constitutional law), and weaving in applications to one of his favorite film series along the way. Sunstein suggests the book is for all kinds of people (from those who adore Star Wars to those who know little to nothing about it), and that is true to some extent, but The World According to Star Wars might be best for social science nerds, as there are a variety of analytic approaches from the field used in the book. The book is a fun read, but you should anticipate jumping around from topic-to-topic, and leaving with questions. I do not think that is a mistake either. The World According to Star Wars is best interpreted as a written, purposefully unfinished conversation between friends. You can almost envision Sunstein talking all this out with you, asking you questions and wondering alongside. He certainly provides guidance, but he doesn’t answer all the questions for you, other than providing a definitive ranking of the films.
Header Image: First Order Stormtroopers, Star Wars: Episode VII (Star Wars Wiki)
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