Star Wars as a Political Morality Play
by Elias Blum
Star Wars is the epic story of the everlasting struggle between two civilisational modes: ‘the republic’ against ‘the empire’.
The republic is presented to us quite clearly. It is a federation of planets, each of which sends representatives to the Galactic Senate, which is the legislative body of the republic. The executive is headed by a Chancellor, who appears to be elected by the Senate and removable by a vote of no-confidence, in a sort of parliamentary system. The internal government of each planet seems to have a wide degree of variation, but even those that are monarchies seem to be elective and constitutional in nature. There’s at least some concern for human rights, the maintenance of justice, and the public good – slavery, for example, is illegal across the republic’s dominions. We also know that there’s a class of warrior-priests, the Jedi, who have some special, quasi-institutional relationship to the republic, as its moral and military guardians.
And the Star Wars saga is the story of how this republic was brought down by political corruption, oligarchic imperialist wars, false flags ‘terrorist’ attacks, repressive ‘states of emergency’, faux-populism, a lack of civic virtue, and neglect for republican institutions. etc. The combination of these factors leads to a dictatorial military-backed coup in which the institutions of the republic are overthrown, giving a few unlimited access to power and riches, while disenfranchising and enslaving the many.
But the coup sparks a rebellion, which begins as a basically conservative and loyalist defence of the old republic and its values. To succeed, however, the republic has to broaden its appeal to include races and classes who have previously been excluded from power. There’s some hope in the midst of this heroic struggle for liberty: the ewoks beat the imperial storm troopers, and the sons of peasants become jedi knights.
Critics might say that the acting is wooden, the dialogue stinted, and the characterisation a bit one-dimensional. I agree. But that’s ok, because it’s not supposed to be realistic character drama. I think of it as a sort of political version of the passion play or nativity play. No one complains that the wise men are wooden, that ‘Lo! It is a star that shines in the east!’ is stinted dialogue, or that Herod is one dimensional – the point is to tell a story that has an important meaning.
And the meaning of Star Wars is that republican liberty is a precious and fragile thing, that it is easily destroyed by the ambition of oligarchs and military-industrial complexes, and that is worth fighting for. In the background are sub-plots about issues such as the use and abuse of religion, civil-military relations, and the danger of political spin. Also, it has spaceships, lightsabres and explosions, which is always a bonus.
If you haven’t already done so, I would encourage you to watch the Star Wars series (starting with episode I, not IV) through this political lens. You really will get a lot more out of it.