What Droids Teach Us About Politics

Luke and R2

Here’s a question that I think is key to understanding Star Wars: Why does C-3PO get dismantled and reassembled on two separate and unrelated occasions? In The Empire Strikes Back, he stumbles upon Vader and Boba Fett’s plot to sabotage Han and Leia at Cloud City. Stormtroopers blast him and send him down to be junked and repurposed. In Attack of the Clones, he gets caught on the assembly line in a battle droid factory, where his head is attached to a battle droid body and his body attached to a battle droid head. He is both apologetic and horrified when he finds himself shooting Jedi with the other battle droids, but he also finds himself involuntarily growling, “Die, Jedi scum!”

C-3PO is the most anxious character in all six films by far, and in these scenes he lives one of his biggest nightmares (he literally claims to have been dreaming in the latter scene): being taken apart and not put back together again the right way. C-3PO has consistent, completely essentialized, conception of himself. He desires to be wholly himself in body and mind, consistent on the inside and whole on the outside, just like the liberal humanist concept of what it means to be a real person.

In this way, 3PO is something of a droid-double of Anakin, who happens to be 3PO’s maker. In the same scene in Attack of the Clones Anakin’s right arm gets caught in the assembly line, foreshadowing the threat to Anakin’s own internal and external consistency, losing a hand in to Count Dooku then pretty much his whole body to Obi-Wan. Like 3PO, these body parts are replaced with foreign machine parts, and, like 3PO, he growls venomous invective and attacks Jedi. He loses his inner humanity by turning to the Dark Side and his outer humanity by becoming mostly machine.  

The fact that the film elicits so much relief when these characters are made internally and externally consistent falls right in line with the universal humanist Star Wars dogma, which suggest that there’s a natural freedom in internal consistency; by living according to a devotion to your true self, you are living according to nature. But there’s something of a contradiction here. If, for Anakin, becoming less human means becoming more droid, then why are there at least two droids jaunting around like fully developed human beings?

The answer is a political one. Star Wars only lets us understand humanity by its contrast with the totalitarian empire. You are either a fully consistent and naturally free human who resists being controlled by the empire, or you are an inhuman and unnatural machine, and the emperor manipulates you by bringing out your worst emotions. This opposition between human and droid, freedom and control, natural and unnatural is not just universal humanism; it’s liberal humanism, and Lucas’s concept of freedom comes directly from the twentieth-century liberal obsession with totalitarianism.

Totalitarianism means nothing to liberals if it doesn’t signify the complete and total mechanization of society all the way down to the individual citizen. In totalitarianism “people are treated as raw material to be transformed into a New Men.” (Zizek, Totalitarianism, 139) The liberal-democratic state stays in its lane, facilitating freedom by keeping its nose out of markets, media, and the home. By contrast, the totalitarian state manipulates the political, economic, domestic, and even psychological spheres of society, asserting control over every aspect of life, rendering people robotic slaves to the state. 

It’s only within this opposition between liberalism and totalitarianism that Star Wars allows viewers to understand the human. And even though apparently only Siths think in absolutes, it’s the Jedi and Republic apologists, indeed the film itself, that cast their enemies as inhuman. You can’t be pro-centralized imperial control without being not just inhuman, but fully unintelligible to the good guys. In other words, you can’t understand the human unless you have your politics straight.

Anakin gets this Thanksgiving table treatment, not just from those closest to him, but from the film itself. When he tells Obi-Wan that his politics have changed, Obi-Wan says, “Well, then you really are lost!” The film itself condemns bad politics when it implies that the logical next step of turning one’s back on the Republic is to perform inhuman acts on Jedi kids. But it takes more than the murder of women and children for Padmè to give up Anakin. When Padmè says, “I don’t know you anymore,” it’s not the killing Jedi kids that make him unintelligible as a human being, it’s his revelation that he’s been involved in totalitarian politics. 

It’s the old ghostly Obi-Wan who shows the liberal pessimism about totalitarianism. When old Obi-Wan tells Luke that Darth Vader is “more machine now than human,” he’s not only expressing a lack of faith in his human redemption, he’s expressing the idea that there’s no turning back from totalitarian manipulation. He believes that the totalitarianism of the empire has infiltrated Darth Vader to the core, just as liberalism believes that totalitarianism exerts an irredeemable psychological control over its citizens. You can’t be a totalitarian human being. If you’re totalitarian, you might as well be a mechanical, servile droid. 


However, if we can wrestle ourselves out from the peremptory dichotomy of liberal vs. totalitarian, we can get a glimpse of the post-human, or a conception of the human that doesn’t have to be so haunted by the threat of mechanization.

These glimpses are brief, and even though they do offer a suggestion of a way beyond the dualism, the film closes off those paths immediately. But it’s the fact that they are closed off that suggests we should look to them for a way out.

For example, Anakin is willing to buck the Jedi order and go with his feelings against the politically calculating Jedi. But when Anakin rightly criticizes the Jedi Order’s hypocrisy and their willingness to break with the rule of law, and their own close minded dualism, the movie turns him into an evil Sith instead of reasoning dissenter.

Similarly, Luke bucks the instructions that Obi-Wan and Yoda give him to kill Darth Vader and is able to bring out the good in Vader. But instead of opening up an opportunity to reveal the limits of Jedi humanism, Luke just reaffirms that everybody can change, or rather, anybody can convert to liberal humanism.

By offering us Vader’s death, the film also closes off the path to an alternative. By killing Darth Vader after his redemption, the series robs us of the potential for a post-Vader Anakin, a figure who has seen the benefits and flaws of both the Republic and the Empire and who could have proved a visionary figure instead of the guy who just throws the emperor over a balcony. Anakin’s experience with becoming-droid might have opened up opportunities to think outside of the lame duality that the film espouses. But there’s not room in the film for a half-man, half-machine hero because it would render the liberalism it champions meaningless.  

These limitations don’t just go for the bad guys. I am arguing that the liberal humanism that programs the film limits the heroes too. All of their ideals fall under the liberal humanist rubric. From Padmè and Leia’s single-minded republicanism, the Jedi light dark binary, and the implicit free-market agitation of the smugglers, none of the heroes express what it means to be human; they only express what it means to be liberal and what it means to be not-droid.

C-3PO Battle Droid

However, the film makes room for not one but two fully humanized droids in the film, and these droids’ very droid-ness allows them an emancipation that the human characters are denied. 

First of all, R2-D2 and C3PO for all practical purposes are indistinguishable from the human characters. R2-D2 displays the same level of heroism as Leia, Han, Chewy, and Luke. Like 3PO, we would be feel as if R2 had lost his humanity if he were reprogrammed out of his very individualistic personality. C-3PO’s own human anxiety is meant to reflect the emotional tension that the human audience is supposed to be experiencing as well as the desire for internal and external consistency mentioned at the outset. And it bears mentioning that he is the first to utter the expression: “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Of course, you wouldn’t know this by the way they’re treated at bars. Any time a bartender refuses to serve their kind, it seems like the segue into a punchline. The droid discrimination no doubt has to do with the fact that even lowly bartenders hold an anxious anti-droid humanism, fully aware that acknowledging the humanity of a droid by serving them would threaten their own sense of humanity. But there can be no joke because their is no offense. The droids always comply, never asserting a desire for that inclusive liberal humanism. Their desires do not fall along the liberal/totalitarian framework that characters like Anakin, Luke, and Tatooinian bartenders do.

Though both droids exhibit an affectionate loyalty to their rebel companions, they are not bound by any codes of loyalty. Neither droid is considered a traitor or ever held accountable even though both find themselves on the other side of the fight in multiple situations. Neither do the droids accuse anyone of enslaving them since they have no strict Enlightenment codes of slavery and liberation. These droids occupy a place of identity that falls outside of the strict liberal/totalitarian political loyalties and categorization.

Most importantly, neither R2 or 3PO have to fear becoming droid. They already are droid, and yet not infiltrated to the core of their selves by some hypnotic totalitarian control.

This is not to say that we should emulate droids. But it is to say that we should always be on the lookout for characters whose eccentricities offer us a way out of our confined political categories. We should look to the disruptive or the contradictory figures who give us a different position from which to perceive the political environment, especially in the U.S. where a two party system disciplines Democratic and Republican voters, making every election cycle a re-cycle of the exact same categorizations of political good and evil.

We should avoid a politics that draws such clear and exclusive lines. It’s the same as the logic of the heroic-adventure genre that venerates a character whose every action fulfills the qualities of a type and who exhibits no contradiction. These heroes are more droid than droids. They only act according to their programming and we should avoid them. They are the anti-gun liberal droid; the anti-tax conservative droid; the Tea Party-bashing progressive droid, and the anti-union, working-class Republican droid. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

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