The passions of our staff here at Concerning History extend to the history of worlds beyond this one. A particular preoccupation of Bryan and Francis is the galaxy of George Lucas’s Star Wars. As with any creation originating in this world, however, Star Wars can both be influenced by our own history and compared to it. This is the first installment in a new series exploring how the past both informs this pop culture phenomenon and illuminates some of its oversights.
In the last few years, multinational corporations have come under increasing scrutiny by the public and governments for the amount of power—power without proportional accountability to the public—that they wield. Now, sometimes criticism of corporate power is used as a convenient cover for certain factions to air their grievances (factual or otherwise) against an easy target. However, the reality of corporations having what seems to be unlimited power is not new to Modernity and has its precedents and reflections in global history and pop culture.
One of the most notorious corporations in world history was the British East India Company (EIC). While other joint-stock companies like the Dutch East India Company certainly make the list of exploitative institutions, this corporation exists in a different category. The British EIC is so manifestly different as a corporation because it literally governed India and operated as a corporate-state for nearly 150 years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (as well as engaging in all of the various activities of both a business and a state: negotiating business deals, making treaties, collecting taxes, declaring and prosecuting war, and establishing laws and regulations).
Too often, the history of this institution and its leaders is simply glossed over in public tellings of its era or reduced to vilification rather than a full exploration of the company’s practices, purpose, impact, and legacy. Recently, though, this trend has shifted, with coverage being expanded to fuller and more nuanced analysis. Such revisitations have especially become more common in the press (historians have been doing them dutifully for a long time) since Citizens United v. FEC (2010) protected corporations’ ability to donate nearly unrestricted amounts of money to political candidates.
The Star Wars Universe, a near ubiquitous cultural phenomenon (and also a corporate intellectual property), uses its storytelling to uniquely warn about just how dangerous an unfettered corporation can be. Now, media critics and Star Wars fans alike know the problems of the prequel trilogy, especially Episode I (see Jar Jar Binks). Nevertheless, the entire plot of the Clone Wars in Star Wars is a powerful warning about the ways in which corporate greed can implode a society. In The Phantom Menace, the corporate conglomerate Trade Federation uses its EIC-esque droid army to blockade a planet within the Republic to force a change in trade route taxation. Essentially, this would be equivalent to a fleet of Amazon drones holding a state hostage in retaliation for a higher sales tax on internet commerce. That sentence should scare you because it does not seem too far-fetched. What makes The Phantom Menace so profound, however, is that the Trade Federation also has its own representation within the Republic Senate since it controls planets. That is essentially comparable to a company such as Walmart, Disney, or Amazon having representation in state governments because of their controlling interest in the state’s public or private land. This is why when Queen Amidala addresses the Senate in Episode I the Trade Federation can prevent an investigation into their war crimes: they not only have a private army to tyrannize the Republic but also the political capital to forestall action against them.
In fact, the actions of the Trade Federation are a direct corollary to those of the EIC in the 1770s. Thanks to rampant corruption within the company, its monopoly on trade in the Indian Ocean, and its partnership with the British government to colonize India, the EIC became an insolvent entity very close to sinking the already indebted British government further into a financial quagmire. Rather than letting the company fail for its mismanagement, Parliament bailed out the company and gave it a state-sponsored monopoly on the sale of tea in British domains, taxing that tea and controlling its price to try to save the company’s finances. American colonists soundly rejected this law, the Tea Act of 1773, as another example of Parliament overstepping the colonists’ right to self-government and an unfair attack on other tea sellers in the Thirteen Colonies. Consequently, the unregulated and unmitigated power of the EIC indirectly catalyzed the American Revolution; it was that Tea Act which inspired the Boston Tea Party, the event which served as a major turning point in the relations between Britain, the Crown, and His Majesty’s subjects in the American colonies.
The warnings against corporate power go further in Star Wars, too. Remember, the Confederacy of Independent Systems (CIS) that launched the Clone Wars against the Republic were led by different corporate entities (the Trade Federation, the Commerce Guild, the IG Banking Clan, the Techno Union, etc.). These intergalactic businesses all wanted a new government with less regulation, fewer taxes, and freedom to monopolize their markets. The Republic was corrupt in their eyes because they couldn’t go as far as they wanted. On Earth, we may not have a Sith Lord manipulating corporations into war, statism, or monopolization behind the scenes, but do we need it if the history of unfettered corporations tells its own nauseating tale? Think on that the next time the opening crawl scans past your eyes—it may just emphasize for you that our favorite galaxy far, far away is a lot closer than we realize.