The moral conundrum of Black Panther inverts the superhero trope of great power and its correlating responsibility. The latest Marvel movie finds the technologically advanced African country of Wakanda — located somewhere in Northeastern Africa, according to varying accounts in the comics over the years — practicing political isolationism.
How does an isolated, largely secret country, which doesn’t have an external trade policy, have such a robust economy? Manu Saadia, who in his words, thinks about “unevenly distributed futures” in science fiction, authored Trekonomics, a book about money in Star Trek. He says cultural traditions in Wakanda largely keep its economy humming along — and keep people from going crazy.
“The people of Wakanda do not seem to care about the accumulation of wealth the way we do,” Saadia tells Inverse. “They have marketplaces and food stalls and open-air restaurants, but no-one seems to exchange currency. It’s definitely a choice. You have to assume there’s no Wakandan currency and therefore no basic income. One of Wakanda’s main tribes is the traders and merchants. I suppose they are the ones running the shops and the big marketplaces in the city.”
Saadia is used to wading into murky sci-fi utopian waters. His research for Trekonomics leads him to believe Star Trek’s economy probably has a lot in common with Wakanda. In *Trekonomics, he writes, “Technology alone does not make the Federation what it is. Free and plentiful energy, pervasive automation, artificial intelligence and replicators certainly help…the benefits they accrue depend entirely on value systems and social organizations.”
This connection is apparent to Saadia with Black Panther. “There’s definitely an element of the Federation in Wakanda,” he says. “I came out of it thinking about Star Trek’s Prime Directive; the obligation not to interfere with other people so as not to contaminate their cultures.”
In Wakanda. T’Challa, Shuri, and Nakia all enjoy a socially enlightened utopia, which makes the attempt of Killmonger to usurp everything all the more shocking. But, if Wakanda is so peaceful and progressive, why do they have a king? Saadia thinks it’s in their ancient traditions that the Wakandians keep themselves from becoming too power hungry.
“They sit on the most valuable natural resource in the world, it gives them unlimited powers and infinite abundance,” Saadia says, referencing the fictional metal of Vibranium. “Under such conditions, where economics no longer matters, staying human and not going on a berserker colonizing spree is remarkable. It’s tradition that keeps them grounded and restrained. They cultivate their bodies and minds. They are artists and adventurers and shamans and civil servants. That is why they commit to ancient rituals, that is why they stay true to their roots.”
Saadia is quick to point out that the unity of Wakanda isn’t connected just to the power of the tech. The people themselves are resources, in which Saddia finds parallels not only with Star Trek, but the Ian M. Banks’s Culture novels, too. “Wakanda’s true resource is its scientifically-inclined yet incredibly traditional culture, which allowed it to grow hidden and unimpeded,” he says. “The brain is the ultimate resource. Had the Wakandans kept fighting amongst themselves, nothing would have come of the wealth of the soil.”
Saadia thinks that “most economic problems are resolved,” in Wakanda. Which leaves one last question. Who actually converts all the Vibranium into the amazing things we see in the movie? If no one seems to have a job, do they just dutifully make all the stuff we see in the marketplaces because of tradition? Saadia has a theory: “Who makes the stuff is harder to guess. But given their level of technological advancement, I would wager it’s robots. It has to be.”