A Primer on the Politics of Star Wars

A long time ago in a state of exception far, far away…


Governor Tarkin enters with a sci-fi samurai at his heels. All the other leaders are debating the stability of their power. Is the new battle station enough? Is the Rebellion gaining support in the Senate? And then this happens:

The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.

ImperialsConferencing-ANHA major criticism of the prequels was that they were too political. Who cares about trade routes? Who wants to hear dialogue about the lethargy of the courts in a movie with magic powers and laser swords? But the original trilogy–no, the very first movie was very political, and, as we see in this scene, the politics can be surprisingly sophisticated.

The Galactic Empire, from the rise of Palpatine to this pivotal yet easily forgotten moment, illustrates the progression of tyranny and what it means to live in the state of exception.

Now, you might be wondering, what is this “state of exception” I’m talking about, and what could it possibly have to do with Star Wars? You may have heard of it before as a state of emergency (closely associated with emergency powers granted to the executive) or as a state of siege. This state is the restriction of constitutional rights and granting of extra-constitutional powers to a sovereign for the expressed purpose of promoting safety.


Pop culture sure does love a good state of exception

Palpatine’s plans for galactic domination revolve around creating a state of exception. He masterminds both sides of a war that lasts for years. Republic and Separatist citizens are immersed in an extended state of terror. The only way to ensure peace is to grant emergency powers for an indefinite period of time. This is the moment when the Galactic Republic enters the state of exception. The office of Chancellor is replaced by the rule of an Emperor.

At first, it seems wooden and hollow when Padme marks the moment as the death of democracy: “Is this how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.” But, this line has an important resonance with the beginning of a different empire.

In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx describes the rise of Louise Bonaparte (Napoleon III) and the creation of the Second French Empire. Bonaparte declares a state of siege of Paris, dissolves the National Assembly, and becomes the sole authority through a coup:

Thus the industrial bourgeoisie applauds with servile bravos the coup d’état of December 2, the annihilation of the parliament, the downfall of its own rule, the dictatorship of Bonaparte. The thunder of applause on November 25 had its answer in the thunder of the cannon on December 4…

Liberty dies with thunderous applause, whether it’s the Galactic Republic or the Second French Republic. Now, this is not to suggest that Star Wars is some Marxist allegory for class struggle in a galaxy far, far away, but we see how the state of exception is entered into not with fear, but celebration.

Once extra-constitutional powers are granted, Emperor Napoleon and Emperor Palpatine are then free to remove their political rivals. Not only are the legislative assemblies destroyed, but so is anyone who doesn’t fit into neat typologies of the new order. The theorist, Giorgio Agamben, explains this facet of the state of exception further:

we can define modern totalitarianism as the institution, by way of a state of exception, of a legal civil war that permits the elimination not only of political adversaries, but whole categories of the population that resist being integrated into the political system.

“Whole categories of the population” murdered. The Jedi Purge that resonates so horrifically with the Twentieth Century needs the state of exception to happen, and it reveals the hidden logic of empires: to have enemies. This is why Mary Ellen Pleasant in Free Enterprise says that colonial powers “depended on the need for enemies.” This is why Cavafy muses that barbarians are “a kind of solution.”

The state of exception owes its origin and continued existence to enemies and the fear of enemies. Star Systems are leaving the Republic. They are enemies. The Jedi have committed treachery. A Rebellion threatens the safety of loyal citizens. A senator has been caught aiding that Rebellion, so the senate is also the enemy and must be dissolved.

And after this long line of enemies, after decades of living in terror, we forget what it was like to be citizens of the Republic. We forget what peace actually felt like and think a stagnant state of exception must be it. This is where Benjamin tells us that “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we now live is not the exception but the rule.”


This has “state of exception” written all over it

What will the political state be like in the new movies? We know from Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, that the first chancellor of the New Republic still retained the emergency powers instituted by Palpatine, meaning that even our favorite Rebel Alliance participated in the state of exception, at least for a moment. Will the First Order follow the trends of “modern totalitarianism,” or will we see hints of the logic of empire, cohesion through identifying enemies, in the New Republic or the Resistance?

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