Star Wars and Bangladesh

Published in the Daily Star (18 Mar 2008)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
Thus begins Star Wars, one of the highest grossing movie series in history that also provide powerful insights into political economy, insights that have tremendous relevance to our own time in a country very, very close to our hearts. “No” to a bureaucratic state or any council with extraordinary powers, “yes” to a decentralised democratic republic — that’s what we learn from Star Wars, and they apply very much to today’s Bangladesh.

Before proceeding, let’s remind ourselves about the series.

In the Galactic Republic where the series is set, the Jedi held supervisory powers over the affairs of the state. They were well-versed in the use of the Force, which they applied for only benevolent purposes. Sith could also use the Force, but they did so for diabolical ends.

In the beginning of the series, politicians were beholden to sectoral and vested interests, and it was the bureaucrats who really governed. The elected politicians’ selfish and self-serving actions led to political crises and civil war which concluded with a Chancellor — who was also a Sith lord — ending the Republic and establishing the Empire.

The Empire promised order and stability, but it denied liberty. Societies that trade off liberty for stability soon realise they have neither, and so it was with the Galaxy. Soon a resistance developed, and to quell this resistance the Empire built the Death Star — a weapon so powerful it could destroy an entire planet. But the Rebel Alliance succeeded in defeating the Emperor by the end of the series.

So, what are the lessons for today’s Bangladesh?

Let us begin with the Jedi Council, the guardians of peace. Politicians are susceptible to corruption and vested interest, and we need them to be guided by wise elders, like the Jedi Council. Do we need a similar council in the post-Emergency Bangladesh?

Let’s think about the Jedi Council for a moment. The Jedi exercised extraordinary powers, operating outside the executive, legislative and the judiciary arms of the state — they were a state within the state, they were a law unto themselves. They were an exclusivist organisation with strictly restricted entry. They were openly contemptuous of the elected politicians. They claimed to live by their code, but there were no external checks and balances. Considering how easily the evil Sith lord manipulated key Jedis, their code was not much of a substitute for institutional accountability.

Suppose we set up a similar council composed of people belonging to an organisation with rigorously restricted entry, an organisation that faces no effective checks, and whose members are openly contemptuous of the elected politicians — who is to say that this council will not meet the same fate as the Jedi Council?

The Jedi Council could not prevent the end of the Republic. But was the Republic worth saving to begin with?

Well, the sheer size of a massive state that the Galactic Republic brought about its own downfall. The lesson here is that the larger the state, relatively larger the bureaucracy. A large bureaucracy is bad news for representative government. We hear about corrupt politicians all the time, and we know that corruption thrives in bureaucratic maze. If we are serious about curbing corruption, we need to look beyond arresting politicians and trim the bureaucratic fat, tear up the red tape and increase transparency in decision-making.

Moreover, the Jedi, or the Sith, for all their power to see the future, could not prevent their demise. The lesson here is that no government planning agency is likely to be able to plan efficiently for the future — central planning just does not work. And if it is tried, even with the best of intentions, it begins a road that ends in serfdom. In Bangladesh, we need to be wary of people who claim that they have the secret to a golden future.

The Empire was of course not the solution. If the Empire had been indeed popular and in a world where people only cared about the inter-galactic commuting services running on time, the Emperor and his minions would not have needed the Death Star to terrify the Galaxy. And similarly in today’s Bangladesh, we need to be wary of the rule by decree, for this will inevitably draw resistance in the campuses or factories or fertiliser distribution centres.

If neither the Republic nor the Empire, then what?

The Galaxy’s best hope appeared to be in free systems uncontrolled by the extraordinary powers of the Jedi or the Sith, under government of the people, by the people for the people. And that appears to be the case for Bangladesh too.

Say “no” to the Jedi Council or a bureaucratic state, and “yes” to decentralised and democratic politics.

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