A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… The opening line to every Star Wars film begins as a philosophical novel would: embarking on a voyage to an improbable land peopled with versions of ourselves.
While some still claim there is nothing political behind the Star Wars Trilogies, that assessment is far wide of the fictional world that George Lucas so carefully traced from our own.
The First Trilogy: A Galactic Cold War
In Star Wars, politics isn’t personal (unlike certain dubious claims) – the personal is inherently political. The universe in which the original trilogy is set is incredibly polarized – one camp crystallizes all that is good and the other axis is the embodiment of pure evil. Recreating this schism in science fiction is not a way for Lucas to create a propagandistic work to narrate the ideological triumph of the West over the Soviet bloc.
It is a way to submit a new ideal for the West. One that it has strayed from materially and, at times, ideologically. For this reason, Lucas occasionally attributes traits that are more characteristically Western to the Empire.
Economically speaking, the duel between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance is that between the corporation – backed by technology – and the artisan – the holder of a singular expertise. The Rebels are tinkerers, endlessly repairing damaged ships and building mainly from scrap. The Empire, on the other hand, has the power of heavily organized and divided labor on its side.
The distinction here is the classic dichotomy identified by Marx between the artisan who holds specialized knowledge on every step of the productive process and the Taylorist enterprise. The latter, running on thoroughly divided labor for productive efficiency, alienates workers who no longer hold the keys to production. Ultimately, it renders work a regressive experience contrary to the emancipatory function creative work can hold for mankind.
Star Wars upholds a pre-industrial relationship to work: far from the search for maximized efficiency and mass production, all of the Rebellion’s arsenal: weapons, droids, clothing, vessels and buildings, is constituted from unique models. By contrast, the Empire is endless repetition, standardization and waste: the epitomy of mass production. Some scenes are clearly evocative of this oppressive modernity and the luddite resistance that it causes in free subjects.
From a political standpoint, Star Wars jumbles standard associations: grass roots democracy is associated with traditional monarchic figures and brutal dictatorship is placed alongside modernity.
In Lucas’ political collage, a figure of traditional authority such as Princess Leia is a valid contributor to a participatory democracy such as the one embodied by the Rebels. The gravitas of her status in social interactions does not extend to political power – which is wielded on a communal basis. In the Empire’s technocratic enterprise, dictatorship is depicted as the natural pendant to modernity – each fulfilling the other’s aspiration towards total power and domination.
From a political standpoint, Star Wars appears, again, a caution against modernity’s unsettling impact and the power it releases on the social body. And Darth Vader stands – half-man half-machine – as a warning against it.
The polarity between the systems of Empire and Rebellion extend to the social realm. Star Wars depicts a world in conflict – the division in social models is epitomized in the structure of each side’s military forces.
The Empire, on the one hand, is a strongly hierarchical and technocratic structure. Orders work their way down the chain of command from individuals perceived as having higher expertise. In combat scenes, this translates in the blind obedience and complete lack of incentive of fighter spacecrafts and foot soldiers. It is ultimately reflected in the presence of a highly concentrated core of power which, if annihilated, renders the rest of their galactic armada useless.
Rebel forces can be described as disorganized. Individual fighters talk back and forth and a lot of decision making involves personal initiative. The obverse of this defect is the greater sense of duty and sacrifice that is concomitant with the relative freedom of rebel fighters. This lack of structure is also the rebel’s main asset and the guarantee of their survival beyond the loss of a central unit of command.
Rebel forces are very modern in that respect, and the recipe of their success mirrors that of the Napoleonic forces in their surge through highly centralized armies of Central Europe in the XIXth century. One aspect of modernity that is upheld in Lucas’ trilogies is the value of individualism in the face of dehumanizing structures.
The environment in which Star Wars is set is a sprawling galaxy of multiple solar systems each offering several inhabitable planets. Yet it is a powerful allegory of Earth and the geographical and cultural diversity of the galaxy mirrors that of our planet.
As such, the relation to land is an important component of Lucas’ philosophical voyage. The rootless galactic Empire rules with indiscriminate violence over all territories without belonging to any particular one of them. It’s true home – if there were any – is in space from which it projects to spread its universalist ideals evenly and unequivocally to all parts of the universe.
On the other hand, the Rebels each show attachment to and attributes of their planet of origin – be it Tatooine for Luke or Alderaan for Leia. These personal connections that they harbor towards their home planet fosters openness to local idiosyncrasies in these characters. Because they aren’t proponents of a blind universalism, they appear as better collaborators with the inhabitants of the remote corners of the galaxy which they visit.
For Lucas, lofty universalist ideals project mankind into space – where there is absence of life and culture – but don’t translate well to inhabited regions. The moral of the fable is that collaboration is a more powerful tool than dominion, and that cultural exchange is a more worthy goal than cultural assimilation.
The universe of Star Wars is animated by an omnipresent energy, the force, which guides the choices of characters and serves as a visual allegory for morality.
The Dark side of the force, represented by the Empire, is motivated by anger, fear and aggression. The moral universe in which they exist is that of “might is right.” The Light side of the force, which is embraced by the Jedi, is motivated by knowledge and approves of violence only in self-defense. The morality upheld by the Jedi is highly altruistic: in a form of social contract, the interests of the group are the first consideration in the actions of individuals.
The philosophical underpinning to Lucas’ work is that, for all the diversity in the galaxy to coexist, it is necessary to share a common, although minimalist, morality: “one group’s freedom ends where another group’s freedom begins.” Without this common base, everything else risks being lost.
Historical Change in Star Wars
Whereas the original trilogy gives very little information as to how the polarized universe of Star Wars came into being, the main interest of the second trilogy is to give these elements of context. In so doing, episodes I-III provide insights into Lucas’ conception of the springs that keep history in motion in this galaxy so close yet so far, far away.
The Materialist Temptation
Aside from the mention of the war being waged between the Empire and the Rebels being a civil war, it is easy to imagine that their encounter is brought mainly thanks to technological advances in space travel and that until that point both systems grew in complete autonomy from one another.
This explanation is a persuasive one since all elements of the models proposed on one side and on the other share no similarities. By this token, Empire and Rebels competing conceptions of society would have been the product of distinct modes of production each having developed over the course of several centuries.
The Idealist Reversal
Lucas turns the tables on this explanation by delivering his explanation of historical change in the prequel trilogy. A Sith plot seeking the reversal of the moral code guarded by the Jedi over the galaxy provokes the chaos which reigns over the universe in episodes IV-VI.
All realms of existence outlined above – economics, politics, society, colonialism – are hinged on morality. It is from this divergence that all other divergences result. It highlights both the fragility and the necessity of a common morality based on freedom. Without being upheld by all parties involved there can be no peace.
The fact that it is governed by the same people – namely Senator Palpatine – demonstrates further that the transition from peaceful Republic to Civil War is solely governed by ideas. A reading that confirms that the focus should be on the political ideas present in the work: they are simultaneously the world’s biggest threat and its only hope.