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Rebels Revisited: Empire of Ambition

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The theory behind any social Darwinist system is that not only do the fittest survive, but society is purportedly better off when competition encourages innovation and achievement. “Always Two There Are” demonstrates how rivalry and competition not only serve as the basis for advancement within the Inquisitorius, but as the fundamental organizing principle of the Galactic Empire. Already in this episode, the audience sees that this competition might sow the seeds for future conflict within the Imperial ranks: conflict that might not actually bring about the results that ambition demands.

In this episode, we learn that the Seventh Sister and the Fifth Brother are Inquisitors seeking the same quarry. They’re competing for the same prize in a few ways, as Dave Filoni explained in Rebels Recon: the Inquisitors are not only chasing after Ahsoka and her Jedi entourage but they’re also all competing for the now-vacant position of Grand Inquisitor. Pablo Hidalgo added another detail: even the very numbers in their names might signify some sort of status, or at least another basis of competition. Even without these behind-the-scenes details, we see that the Fifth Brother and Seventh Sister are surprised to see each other and that they’re refusing to share credit or information with each other. I don’t blame the Seventh Sister, as she’s much cooler than the Fifth Brother so far (SMG’s voice acting and the character animation and design knocked it out of the park — she’s described as a thinking man’s villain, and I’m looking forward to seeing what that entails) but she’s clearly willing to pretend she has knowledge that she doesn’t, just to make a play at withholding information from the Fifth Brother. That’s not very productive.

Similarly, Admiral Konstantine doesn’t seem too happy to be serving an Inquisitor and dismisses them as “mystics.” His discontent is partly due to the Fifth Brother’s summons in the last episode, which cost him his ability to ensure air superiority for Agent Kallus. ISB and the Imperial Navy aren’t the best of friends, but Kallus is at least a reliable, empirical asset and not an agent of a cosmic energy he can’t measure. Kallus himself is happy to play his cards close to the chest: he’s seen what the Force can do and he’s not going to discount the Inquisitors just yet, but he’s dealt with one before and if we know anything about Kallus, it’s that he’s a survivor. He’ll do his best to outlast these Inquisitors, whatever happens. And there’s the problem: if everyone’s looking out for number one, aren’t they working at cross purposes?

The idea behind encouraging competition and ambition is to create results. The Galactic Empire is a bit of a hyper meritocracy, and it’s hard not to see the Sith influence here. Legends lore has Banite Sith engaging in a perpetual struggle between master and apprentice, with the apprentice working to overcome the master until he or she becomes the Dark Lord. Sith philosophy in the canon universe seems to follow the same pattern, judging from Lords of the Sith, and it’s a pattern that’s reflected in the Empire too. But the problem is that all this competition and ambition creates a zero sum game: someone wins and someone loses. The Inquisitors — or the Navy admiral and the COMPNOR agent — have every incentive to underplay or deny success to their rivals. I don’t think this would go to outright sabotage, but fighting over credit and glory leaves opportunities for the rebels to escape the clutches of the Empire. Though this is the Empire Strikes Back season of the show, with the rebels on the run and under a constant disadvantage, I suspect that Imperial infighting will help them to survive and fight another day. It’s certainly a refreshing change of pace from the Rimward, Lothalian Imperial incompetence that characterized the first season. That worked given the setting, and I think the double-edged sword of competition works well here.

This isn’t something new, by the way. Competition is inherent in the Imperial system. We saw rivalries in the briefing chamber in A New Hope and we saw Piett opportunistically undermining Admiral Ozzel (who, to be fair, was incompetent) in earshot of Lord Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. The new canon books have continued in this vein, with competition among the Imperial court featuring prominently in A New Dawn, referenced somewhat in passing in the upcoming Twilight Company, and featured in the Royal Academy sequences of Lost Stars (it was common in the EU too, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion). We also see it in the Servants of the Empire books that parallel and intersect with the story of the TV show, and The Secret Academy was just the latest to show how seriously the Empire takes competition (p.s. I never miss a chance to plug this series — go read it, now!). The show itself laid groundwork for the savagery of this competition during “Breaking Ranks”, where we saw that the Lothal Academy encouraged an eat-or-be-eaten mentality in its trooper cadets. The sense we’re supposed to get is that the Empire rewards ferocity over camaraderie. This may promote success, but it also encourages breakdown — it’s little wonder that the Empire was quickly breaking apart in Aftermath and Lost Stars if the notion of teamwork is strictly against Imperial ideology.

The creative team behind Rebels and the Story Group have done a great job here, I think. The threats to the rebels are greater than ever this season. But these threats are blunted by the Empire’s own nature, which would cut its leg to spite its foot. The Empire is ostensibly about unity and uniformity: one authority, one voice, everyone working together: but it encourages division and dissension, even in its own ranks. The Empire enforces obedience, but it’s an insincere obedience that is ever-waiting for a chance to stab someone else in the back. This instability and disunity lays seeds for not only the rebel escapades this season, but it resonates with the post-Endor scenarios leading up to and beyond the still-mysterious Battle of Jakku. Lord Vader started the season off by making the rebels nearly extinct: but Vader is sui generis. He’s so capable that none dare compete with him (at least among this lot, compared with his struggles in the Marvel comic series) and he enforces obedience. Not even the so-called Grand Inquisitor could accomplish that, because this Empire of ambition is rather more chaotic than orderly. It’s an excellent way to characterize these new Inquisitors and the Empire as a whole, throughout its portrayals. Imperial selfishness stymies their chances and causes defeat, while the selflessness of the Ghost crew leads them to success.

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Sarah: Infighting and one-upsmanship has definitely been a hallmark of the Empire as we’ve seen it in the Star Wars universe, but something that I don’t think is touched on quite as much is the tension between the Force user leaders and the non-Force-sensitive military. The introduction of the Inquisitors in Rebels and the existence of the Emperor’s Hands in Legends points to a rudimentary caste system between a Force-using military elite and the “regular” military who (perhaps grudgingly) tacitly accepts that there is only so far they can rise before hitting a glass ceiling of sorts. No matter how high they rise, they are still ranked below the guys with lightsabers and subject to their whims.

This certainly isn’t a new concept in Star Wars lore (anyone who’s familiar with the Imperial Agent story in Star Wars: The Old Republic will recognize it) but it’s not generally been explored in movie-era material. In many ways I think this Force-based military caste system is a holdover from the Clone Wars; all the generals were Jedi, with clones not rising higher than commanding officer, even if the clone had more military experience than their Jedi commander (see: Ahsoka Tano). And we’re starting to see Kallus and the Imperial military chafing under the rule of the Fifth Brother; if the Seventh Sister ends up joining that would only exacerbate it, especially if the Kallus and Konstatine are caught in the middle of an Inquisitor power struggle.

As for what this could mean going forward….well if we’re looking long term, it could impact Luke’s ability to successfully rebuild the Jedi Order. For a generation that grew up under the Empire, where Force users occupied an elite status that seemed to give them free reign and were thus to be feared, it could be that many galactic citizens would look at a new Jedi Order as yet another elite group that gets to operate outside of normal rules just by virtue of being born with special powers. As far as they’re concerned, how is it any different than the elite caste of darksiders under the Empire? Combine this with the amount of propaganda they’ve surely been fed that demonized the old Jedi Order and you’ve got a recipe for a whole lot of anti-Jedi sentiment that could complicate things real fast.

10 thoughts to “Rebels Revisited: Empire of Ambition”

  1. heh — Sarah, you’ve hit upon why I am always so mad at SWTOR. I think that the Imperial Agent storyline would’ve been perfect for an OT-era Empire, and I resented the idea of them lifting the idea wholesale from that period. I loved the concept of the storyline, but was bitter SWTOR’s “Sith Empire” wasn’t the Empire that I knew and loved.

    Palpatine definitely had an ersatzstaat thing going on with the dark side theocracy forming basically a second, parallel chain of command alongside the secular Imperial government. You could almost speculate in Legends that he essentially wanted to transition the Empire from a secular government to one ruled by his cult. The notion of Imperial advisors as dark side cultists — see the EU’s Dark Empire Sourcebook or more recently Aftermath for this concept — paints a veeery interesting picture there.

    1. Ah you’re right, I totally forgot to mention the whole “Imperial advisors as dark side cultist” thing, damn.

      I see what you mean about the Agent story, but tbh I like that it takes place during the Sith Empire because it really highlights the whole Sith/secular caste divide since you’re constantly getting caught up in Sith powerplays and Dark Council rivalries and you basically get ****ed over no matter what you do. It would definitely work well in the OT-era empire, but I think I like (for storytelling purposes) being stuck between all these powerful Sith lords instead of dealing with ONE Sith (two if you count Vader) and his fawning advisors. But that’s just me. :p

      Regardless, the whole divide between Force sensitives and non-sensitives and how it sort of inherently creates an unequal society is super fascinating to me.

      1. Yeah I mean ultimately I’m hugely biased in this regard because I… well, because of my weird SW political loyalties I just absolutely have to side with the Republic in SWTOR. There isn’t even a question. That’s why I am just extra frustrated that there’s this “Sith Empire” out there aping some of the internal politics of the real Empire, because GAH I want to role play it and enjoy it but they’re the wrong side. I’m strident in my in-universe partisanship :p

        Still. I’ve heard nothing but praise for the Agent storyline and I enjoyed chapter 1, so I am just going to have to do it eventually. I feel a little better now that it’s not canon so I can just play through it and be like lah lah lah. And I definitely hear what you mean about all these Sith throwing their weight around feeling a lot more threatening than the much rarer (but scarier!) visit by Vader or the Emperor in the OT.

        However, I don’t think you’re giving the advisors much credit! I have the notion that they’re silken politeness and all that on the outside, but cruel and manipulative on the inside. Yupe Tashew certainly bears that out — that guy is an awful, awful man. Weak and fawning but give him even the tiniest bit of power over someone and wow he’s the worst.

        I’m actually fascinated by all the different cultures that make up the Imperial régime — the military, COMPNOR, the court, the dark siders. They each have their own ruling philosophy and they’re each at cross-purposes. It’s great stuff, and I enjoy that the books and show are bringing this back from Legends.

      2. Oh man, if you have the time to play through the rest of the Agent storyline, it’s pretty fantastic. I don’t want to say anything more because of spoilers, but I think you’ll definitely like chapter 2 at least.

        And true, I admittedly don’t have the best grasp on the characterization of the few Imperial advisors we’ve met. I really need to go back and reread Aftermath because I don’t think I absorbed much of the story and characters the first time around. Though I guess I also forgot about Sate Pestage (who I guess is Legends now) and he’s definitely a dangerous individual to go up against, though not necessarily a dark side cultist the way Tashu is.

        And I definitely agree; Imperial politics and all the powerplaying that’s involved is quite fun to examine and I’m glad they’re making an effort to bring that back from Legends. Everyone likes to talk about how the Empire is written as a faceless uniformed monolith (in comparison to the diversity of the Alliance) and that’s somewhat true to a certain extent, but there’s lots of internal divisions that make for some very interesting politics.

      3. Sate Pestage survived into canon — he’s a member of the Imperial Ruling Council, but he’s no longer grand vizier (that position is occupied by Mas Amedda). He’s also pretty definitively junior to Ars Dangor, which pleases me greatly since I always tended to side with Dangor over Pestage in their various post-Endor spats in Legends… but don’t get me started on the convoluted decline and fall of the Galactic Empire in the old EU, haha.

        I expect most people don’t pay too much attention to them, but I keep a sharp, sharp eye out whenever we see any. Imperial advisors are my spirit animal. And we’ve gotten like eight (Amedda, Dangor, Pestage, Greejatus, Verge, Vidian, Chalis, and Tashu) in the books so far, which fills me with ineffable joy because I never expected their prominence to survive into the new canon.

        I think the reason I enjoy them so much is that they’re, in theory, the true rulers of the Empire: the court nobility as it were. But nobody likes them, and the very militaristic and competitive nature of the Empire means they have no real power base other than the favor of the Emperor. It works well when they’re in power, they’re arrogant and treat everybody like peons, but after the Emperor’s gone? They have no power base. Their value is legitimacy — the advisors in the Ruling Council are the constitutional government (which is why I “side” with them, role-playing a loyalist basically) but legitimacy and legal niceties have no value in a might-makes-right government. The advisors are victims of their own awful culture.

        That’s the thing about the Empire. It set up a system that’s doomed to fail, that’s unsustainable. Compare it to the New Republic — or even to the teamwork of the Ghost crew here. The former as a system you abandon the second it doesn’t work out for you, while the latter is something you believe in.

  2. Historically, many empires have also employed divided structures of government as a tool of maintaining centralized control. Especially in empires that face little in the way of external threats, the biggest threat to the empire is usually someone within the empire’s own ranks. This is especially true in very large empires, where limitations of communications and logistics require delegation of significant authority to various lieutenants.

    Under those circumstances, the very purpose of divided authority can often be to produce less-than-optimal policy outcomes. Sure, it’s maybe not the best way to accomplish a notional “public good” of the empire, but then again imperial systems tend to define the “public good” as an extension of the “private good” of the central ruler. Preventing powerful lieutenants from being able to competently execute policy serves to protect the center from violent challenges by those very lieutenants. And in the event that a violent challenge occurs, a divided system will have natural antagonists who can be turned against the would-be usurper.

    As to whether divided rule can lead to sustainability: it varies by case, but there have been some notable successes. The Roman imperial system lasted in one form or another from 27BC to 476AD in the West, and in various forms all the way down to 1453AD in the East. The Ottomans ruled a vast empire on a divide-and-rule strategy from 1453 all the way to 1922. Many other very successful empires (Abbasid, Song, Mongol, Mughal, British, Russian) employed various versions of divide-and-rule. Based on these examples, if the Empire had a critical failing it was the Emperor’s failure to establish an effective succession mechanism at the center (another common failing of empires), rather than division among the various peripheral branches.

    1. I certainly agree that structural competition between various organizational or constituent elements of a hierarchical structure helps to redirect the energy of those elements towards maintaining status vis-a-vis each other as opposed to taking on the ruler (whether in terms of usurpation, separatism, etc).

      However, I think there’s a difference between redirecting competitive energies (or for that matter, providing incentives for a competitive elite to uphold a system) and what the Empire’s doing here: which is providing for competition so savage that it’s impossible to see authorities working together but for amobtion alone.

      You mentioned the Roman example — the Romans essentially co-opted the competitive instincts of ruling classes by giving them a piece of the pie. Local elites — whether tribal authorities or aristocratic families — were enrolled in the Curial class and essentially became the civic ruling class. The Romans provided a bypass valve for ambition essentially: it was ambition within the system of classical public service and it was ambition channeled for the public good (your success as a public servant was measured by your contribution to the common weal).

      So it’s interesting you mentioned the Roman system, as it’s actually the very model I was comparing the Galactic Empire to disfavorably. It’s far from the only one, but it’s the one I had in mind as I wrote this. To a certain extent other successful imperial systems employed a similar mechanism, though not to quite the same degree of success I think.

      I agree with you as far as succession goes, although I’ll make two observations: I. The lack of a succession mechanism blunts attempts against Palpatine by making him the indispensable man, for good or ill. II. There was notionally a succession mechanism in the Imperial a Ruling Coumcil — but the Imperial system was set up in such a way that the constituent parts of the Empire apparently didn’t care because everybody wanted their own piece of the political pie. This is the failure of the Empire of ambition.

      1. A bit of a digression, but I’m not sure that the Roman imperial system was so different from the Palpatine one. For the Roman system you cite the “official” structure of Roman rule, via the cursus honorum and similar systems going back to Republican times. As far as I can tell, this system worked pretty well under the Republic, but began to seriously break down by the second century AD. I’m not sure how accurate a model it is to describe the way in which politics worked under Augustus and his successors. I’d say that by the time of the principate the cursus honorem was more like the Imperial Senate, insofar as it was the window dressing that helped legitimate actual imperial practice.

        By the time of Sulla, political power in Rome was being exercised largely outside of the official political realm, initially via Sulla’s dictatorial powers and later by Triumvirates of leading men (Pompey, Crassus, Caesar; Lepidus, Antony, Caesar). These later republican political systems were built on the households and patronage networks of the leading men of Rome, and they ran roughshod over the “official” Republican rules of governance (i.e., holding Consulship multiple consecutive times), blending personal and public good together. Even after Caesar Augusts “restored” traditional Roman rule under the Principate, effective political control came to rest in the household of the princeps and through his own network of patronage, rather than through the official mechanisms of government. Crucially, the Roman military was re-structured as an extension of Augustus’s own personal patronage network; for example, the coins with which Roman soldiers were paid were minted in the name of Augustus, not in the name of SPQR.

        As I understand it, the system that I described of divide-and-rule to sustain the personal power of the imperial leader was the norm within the extra-legal framework employed by Augustus and his successors, even while the old cursus honorum continued to function. This was especially the case later in the empire, when the earlier tendencies of Roman armies to support the political ambitions of their direct commanding officers reasserted themselves. The sort of divide and rule practiced by later Roman emperors was much more antagonistic, and I think a better model for the sort of divisive policies you describe in the Galactic Empire.

        On the specific issue of succession, too, I’m now wondering whether the Empire’s problems might have been deeper than just the lack of a mechanism. After all, numerous historical empires have managed to survive even very violent succession disputes. Often, one contender emerges as a front-runner quickly, and after a few successful battles, the remainder of the empire pledges allegiance to the new emperor. Perhaps the inability of the Galactic Empire to find a successor figure is linked to the very over-fractiousness that you describe.

      2. I’m intimately familiar with the fall of the republic, but it’s not what I’m describing.

        I’m specifically describing the system of municipal government in the provinces that was established through the Principate and carried on into the middle Dominate until the increasing financial obligations made it ruinous. The curious thing about the emperors is that while the republican model was increasingly a sham in the capital (though I’ll note the persistency of the senatorial aristocracy in important proconsuls provinces well through the Trajanic period and basically up til Diocletian), the Romans basically instituted a republican model of government in all the great city-states of the Empire.

        Essentially, the ruling classes of these cities — and remember that the Roman Empire was essentially a federation of city-states with a tiny, tiny imperial bureaucracy mostly responsible for roads, posts, and armies. It was the antique city-state that was the economic, social, and cultural backbone of the Empire. These local elites formed the Curial class (or decuriones) — hereditary councillors who used their wealth for public ends on the traditional Roman republican model. When this model failed, which Diocletianic financial exactions (he made the curiales personally responsible for tax shortfalls, causing the elites to shirk their responsibilities and leave urban centers for their estates, hello feudalism!) and barbarian and/or Sassanid attacks caused the decline of monumental city centers for defensible citadels, the Empire’s days were numbered in its traditional form. But that’s a tangent to this tangent. Basically what I’m getting at is that the system of provincial government bound local elites together by common Greco-Roman high culture (paideia — elites from one end of the Empire to the other shared more in common with each other than their own people) and by interest (the Empire upheld social structures through its elite-oriented republican system) — and it was all upheld by the culture of the public good.

        I’ll also note it survived into late antiquity. Libanios, the great Antiochene orator and letter writer, was of the Curial class and a great defender of this system of government even as he deplored Latin letters. The Antiochene Ammianus — penultimate secular historian of the classical school — was drawn into the senatorial aristocracy and spent as much time talking about politics in Roma as he did battles and the intrigues of the House of Constantine. And speaking of Roma, membership in the Senate still had enormous social cachet and importance (senators were made viri clarissimi et inlustres even under the anti-Senate despot Diocletian, cementing their status as a class apart.). This was important because provincials had an entrée into the Senate in a way that no local elite could ever dream of entering the British court. The cursus honorum was still crucial in late antiquity — the Senate no longer ran the Empire, but nor was it subject to imperial prefects and vicars. Urbarica was subject to the urban prefect and the traditional magistracies were responsible for the city government and it was a task vastly larger than during the republic. We’re talking the greatest city in the world with massive public structures and services in need of management. And the old Roman families held a great deal of power and respect, they owned most of Italy outright and six families owned all the private land in Africa (the diocese). And I’ve just mostly talked about the Mediterranean elites, but the same applied to the Gallo-Roman elites (see Ausonius) etc.

        I wouldn’t buy into the myth that the Senatr was helpless and meaningless, either. They regularly propped up pretenders due to their enormous financial, political, and social clout. The great histories are written by the senatorial aristocracy, who had a political and polemic end: to decry their lack of power vis-a-vis traditional republican mores (this was a very conservative society) and to play up the powers of the emperors. I say this as somebody hugely sympathetic to the Senate over the emperors too (I once took issue with a scholar’s portrayal of Constantine as a reformer and the Senate as an institution falsely given high regard by the memory of history). But even when I’m sympathetic to a POV I’m mindful of how history is a narrative (and indeed, a literary genre in this point in time).

        This is a HUGE tangent but it hopefully explains where I’m coming from in terms of what the Empire could’ve learned from the Roman civic-oriented example. 🙂

      3. Fascinating!

        I still wonder how much of the municipal government really matters at the imperial level, and vice versa. After all, the tiny imperial bureaucracy still held tremendous fiscal and military power over the entirety of the empire, and as I understand it the breakdowns at the imperial level predated those of the municipal level (i.e., Diocletian’s reforms come on the heels of decades of violent civil war within the imperial superstructure). Furthermore, wouldn’t the same Senatorial historians who overstated the power of emperors have a similar incentive to overstate the potential effectiveness of their own backgrounds (especially if they emerged from the Curial class)?

        More to the point for the discussion of Star Wars: wouldn’t the municipal/Curial government be equivalent to planetary or systems-level political organizations in the empire? As far as I can tell, Admiral Konstantine, Agent Kalus, and the Inquisitors would all be members of the central imperial institution, not the local one (like the late Minister Tua). It certainly seems that the Galactic Empire lacks strong local institutions, but I’m not sure that that helps explain the infighting between members of the central imperial institution.

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