This is where the fun begins.
Politically, Star Wars is annoyingly vague. It vigorously avoids specifics in order to protect itself from critical commentary. Star Wars speaks with such sweeping statements so that the good and evil side really have no distinctive characteristics. Most of this is done in the sake of broad commercial appeal; everyone across the political spectrum can enjoy Star Wars because it is so easy to see your own ideals reflected. This universality of morality in Star Wars makes us see its events in strictly binary terms. It is a story of Good vs Evil. Just accept it. The Empire are the baddies, and the Rebels are the goodies. But what are the Rebels actually fighting for? What makes them worthwhile? The obvious answer, freedom, raises questions. Freedom from what exactly? Or is it freedom to do something? On the first count The Empire don’t really seem all bad, we don’t see them doing anything bad on a day-to-day level (I’ll admit, blowing up a planet is pretty bad). But in terms of actual governance? What kind of policies do they enact?
We see the Empire as nebulously fascist. Star Wars invites this basic comparison for simplicities’ sake: nobody likes a fascist. However we may rarely agree as to what precise fascist form the Empire takes. Is it, as Ronald Reagan saw it, an analogy for Soviet Russia? Is it an analogy for Hitler (the most recognisable bad guy in recent history)? Is it an analogy for technocratic mega-corporations that dominate the ‘free’ market? Fundamentally, it’s bad because we’re told it’s bad. But why?
Fascism is terrifying precisely because behind the power it seeks to establish lies emptiness, nothingness, a void. Power is worshipped for its own sake. The Empire’s Death Star is the ultimate embodiment of this worship of power. Supposedly, the Death Star is the pinnacle of the Empire’s power, a destructive, mechanical embodiment of its fascistic rule. In short, the Death Star is the Empire. Star Wars’ political minimalism works here: if the thing they build to represent themselves is a giant moon-sized weapon then must conclude that the Empire’s primary concern is ruling through force. Not through the Force, but quickly the distinction disintegrates.
Yet, what is located in this Death Star? All we see in the Death Star are cold, polished black steel corridors; gigantic abysses; interrogation rooms and holding cells; and a garbage chute. I contend that these locations are not incidental or random places visited by our heroes but rather that they are the very centre of the Empire. What lies at the heart of the Empire, of fascism itself, is garbage. Useless trash. Inside the sleek exterior is a vulgar core comprised of chewed up bone and sinew. Behind power, there lies nothing. In fact, the Empire has no centre at all. This is why the Empire is evil. It has no substance. Who are its citizens? We only really see the powerful ones (Admirals, Vader, and the Emperor). The only planets we see them controlling or attacking are remote and barely inhabited ones. The closest thing to a proper city, Bespin, is merely a mining colony. The Empire even wants a slice of that. A planet whose sole purpose to drain itself of its substance, leaving only the surface (of which there is none).
In discussion of power we must, of course, turn to the great French post-structuralist and wearer of black turtlenecks Michel Foucault. (Side note, a lot of this is from Sara Mills’ excellent introduction to Foucault. Take what I say with a pinch of salt, I’m not actually that knowledgeable on Foucault. I’m merely having a bit of fun). We usually conceptualise power as something which we ‘possess’, something that Kings/Queens/Leaders ‘have’. The powerless proletariat struggle so that they too can share in this power – after all, all they can lose is their chains. Power is a verb, in Foucault’s reckoning, not a noun. Power does something.
“Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organisation…individuals are the vehicles of power, nots its points of application’ (Power/Knowledge: 98). Individuals are thus the ‘place’ where power is enacted. Like any good Hegelian, Foucault read powers as a relation between things. “Power is a set of relations which are dispersed throughout society rather than being something that is located in institutions such as the government, the state and so on” (Mills). Power is performative and circulates through the social body (it is productive as opposed to repressive).
The Force is this imprecise relation between subjects. It flows through us, apparently, making us the sites of its action. Yoda tells us it is everywhere, even in a rock, but only the Jedi (and consequently the Sith) are the ones powerful enough to control it. It is up to the individual force users to control this power. The Force allows them to both literally and metaphorically ‘apply force’ to their aggressors. For Foucault, power is performative and to affirm one’s power (to both oneself and to one’s class) requires constant and elaborate performances. Yoda gladly provides us with this performance as he, a tiny green imp like creature, miraculously lifts Luke’s incapacitated X-Wing out of the wretched Dagobah swamp and onto the safety of the land.
Taking this view of the force sets an awful bourgeois precedent. Power is everywhere, as Foucault famously said, as is the Force. “[it’s in] a rock…that tree” Yoda tells us however the only beings known to be able to harness this power is Jedi themselves, only capable seemingly by winning some sort of genetic lottery – mostly, this seems hereditary. With the introduction of Midichlorians in The Phantom Menace, this is all but confirmed. Much like how power in the real world is consolidated through generations Jedi are granted special status in the galaxy simply because, by birth, they can supposedly do things that no one else can. This is to say nothing to indoctrination of childhood practiced by the Jedi in the prequel trilogy (something which, even in his old age, Obi-Wan cannot help do again to Luke). For all their faults the prequels representation of the Jedi as weird religious extremists with unchecked and undemocratic power is particularly effective – despite the fact we are supposed to root for these clearly evil monks.
“Where there is power there is resistance” Foucault tells us and built into the very mechanism of the force is its own downfall. We are continually told of how the force in ‘out of balance’ and that this is undeniably a Bad Thing. Yet isn’t the very goal of the Jedi to eradicate the Sith? The doctrine of the Jedi is to purge oneself of all emotion that could, in its extremity, lead to the dark side however it is this restriction that causes Anakin to fall: do not love, he is told, or else the dark side will take hold. For a while, Anakin’s love for Padame seems fine. The Jedi are only momentarily wrong. Perhaps the worst thing about the failed Jedi order in the prequels is that they were actually right.
As such, the rebellion resists the power of the Empire. The very existence of the Empire is actually dependent upon the Rebels they fight. They are mirror images of each other, both of them have incoherent goals and their first response is always violence. If the Empire is emblematic of fascism, then so is the Rebellion. Both struggling over power, seizing it for its own sake. It is a petty liberation of a galaxy that, to be honest, doesn’t seem in that much trouble. The force may be out of balance, but people barely believe in the force. As Han says, the force is “no match for a good blaster at your side”. At the end of Return of the Jedi we are invited to wonder, what happens now? The evil Empire is defeated, but what replaces it? The Rebels are unburdened by their lack of ideological motivation. It is feasible that the Rebellion will re-enact the Empire’s supposed tyranny: becoming the Empire in all but name. Equally, it is feasible that the Rebellion brings about peace; liberal socialism, perhaps communism, maybe even free market neoliberal capitalism.
The long awaited seventh instalment The Force Awakens gives us the inevitable answer. What changes when the Empire is defeated by the Rebellion? Nothing. The Empire is reborn as the First Order, and the Rebellion is similarly unnecessarily regenerated as the Resistance. Power lies in the struggle itself, and it limps on forever.