Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Black Panther: The Socio-Economics of Wakanda

Black Panther has been a comforting success for everyone. It’s intelligent and crowd-pleasing, and white people liked it, and it had a positive message. If real world history is any guide to anything, it will be followed in short order by a brash white hateful movie which disrespects women and thinks it’s the best thing that ever happened to cinema, but given that this is Hollywood, we won’t even notice a return to the usual services and the orange and blue colour scheme.

But I come not to praise the movie, which is - fine, I guess, by Marvel standards - but to unpick the inexplicable mess which is the Wakandan economy, and the weird way in which it continues the Marvel movie policy that it’s best just to leave the running of the world to an out of touch elite and accept that collateral damage to everyone else is for the best really. I do this on tiptoe, of course, since everyone is delighted with the positive picture of Africa Wakanda gives, and there was lots of input from African voices. Which I am not. But still.

First up, there’s Wakanda’s system of governance, which is hereditary monarchy, tempered by occasional breaches in the succession by way of trial by combat. So, ya got five tribes that don’t have all that much in common culturally, and they’re governed by one tribe. And any time the hereditary ruler of that tribe shows signs of not being able to kill his own weight in rivals, he can be replaced by anyone willing to chance a fight to the death. That seems like a custom which over a few hundred years would lead to whatever the fancy word is for government by homicidal maniacs. Because the great thing about homicidal maniacs is that they’re not very thoughtful people, but they are quite good at homicide. Which thoughtful people generally prefer to avoid. And Wakanda’s had a long time for the system to show its flaws, which makes it all the more surprising that their current batch of rulers seem to be auditioning to succeed late period Morgan Freeman rather than early period Morgan Freeman.

And you could choke that down, if the system of governance had a king whose role was largely ceremonial, with the real work being done by smart compromisers. Not so much, it turns out. The king has a ruling council of elders and that’s about it. Thing is, there’s a reason why you don’t see that system much in the modern world. It doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work well enough to avoid being beaten down by messy and complicated things like democracy. 

But, but, but, but, you squeak. Wakanda has unlimited reserves of vibranium. With such bounteous plenty, everyone is happy and governance is simple. People, unfortunately, are even simpler. Look at the world around you, which is filled with plenty my parents couldn’t have even imagined. Is it evenly distributed? Is it even vaguely likely to be evenly distributed in a country governed by the guy who’s able to punch his rivals to death? Exactly. 

And from this we move to vibranium, which is rare, yet plentiful, and can do anything. By mechanisms which are impossible to explain to an audience. It’s simultaneously a source of energy and an impervious metal and somehow a healing force. At one point a character dismisses a question about magic by saying “It’s technology”. It’s not. If you tear up the laws of thermodynamics, it’s magic. Magic would honestly make more sense. 

Wakanda uses the power of vibranium to cut itself off completely from the world and live in a paradisical alternate Africa full of skyscrapers and - wait. Are those mud huts around the city? With people happily pounding cassava into paste? Why would anyone do that in a technocratic wonder state? Are they part of the cover story, just working a rotation to help out with the illusion that Wakanda’s just another third world country full of poverty? Nope, the movie seems to make you want to think they’re having fun and that living in mud huts at subsistence level is a lifestyle choice. 

Oh yes, now the bit which even the movie tries to grapple with. Wakanda has to hide from the world because otherwise the world would come and stomp it to take its technology. So despite having the kind of tech and power which could change Africa, and probably the world, they hide. In the movie, this is presented as a moral conflict. In the real world, it would be an actual war. There are only two ways to have that kind of power. Either you have enough of it to hold the world at bay when it finds out about you, or you don’t. Because the world will come and find you. And if you don’t have enough for everyone, you don’t have enough to stop the biggest bully on the block from taking as much as he wants. And you’d think a country with a system of rule by bullies could have figured that one out.

There’s also the problem of what that kind of technological change would do to a culture. Wakanda’s had the same stupid system of government and tribal division despite centuries of technological progress which far outstrips anything in the real world. Here in reality, we’re struggling to deal with the impact of smartphones on democracy, but Wakanda just keeps on trucking despite tech that makes smartphones seem quaint.

And there’s the economy. Which I cannot understand. Wakanda doesn’t trade with the world; this is part of their hiding policy. So how does the economy even work? Is the place entirely self sufficient? What do they eat? We don’t really see crop fields, but then again we barely see them eat. Maybe eating’s optional when you’re that advanced. It’s hard to know. But even if you buy into the notion that Wakanda is a fully working version of the island where everyone exists by taking in each other’s washing, there’s the question of where they get the money that they need for things like running espionage operations in the real world and buying whole apartment blocks and having a mission to the UN. Those things need dolla-dolla, so there has to be some trade.

And why does all of this matter anyhow? It’s just nonsense economics in a movie which is largely nonsense. It matters, at least to me, because of the way that people have seized on this movie as a powerful message about African aspiration. Look, there can be positive role models, there can be black superheroes. 

Yes, yes, there can. But only in a world where nothing else makes any sense. Black people can only succeed in a world of magical nonsense. And even then, they can only succeed by acting just like rich entitled white folks always have, by hoarding their goodies to themselves, fostering elitism, and then grudgingly doling out a small share of it to whatever cause suits their whims, entirely on their own terms and with no accountability to anyone else.

BELATED EDIT: There’s another side to this. The movie is amazingly quiet about the way in which whitey made the real world. By which I mean, made the world terrible for everyone but whitey. The only person who really gets a chance to make any points about that is Eric the Killmonger, who a) doesn’t have a market friendly name b) works for a white South African sociopath for no readily apparent reason and c) is the main antagonist, and thus wrong in the movie’s scheme of things. So add that to the list of magical nonsense necessary for black success; a world without imperialist colonisers.

Having said that, the villains are fun people who make a lot of sense. So clearly they have to die, and die they do.

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