Our fandom is rarely without some kind of controversy. It’s been like this since the times of message board wars and it feels like social media has only exacerbated this tendency towards grabbing pitchforks and torches that we often show. Sometimes these controversies become full-blown online wars (just look “Reylo” up on Google), sometimes they just fizzle down after a couple of annoyed grunts, and sometimes they actually become polite discussions. A couple of weeks ago one of the latter happened when Florian from Jedi-Bibliothek revealed that then-upcoming book Leia: Princess of Alderaan (since then positively reviewed by Jay and Sarah in this website) had a very disconcerting scene: at one point, Leia happily speaks of an old Alderaanian proverb, strength through joy. For those not in the know, Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude) was the name of a Nazi leisure organization; our friends at Jedi-Bib, a German fan site, were understandably puzzled, so were I and many others, especially European fans (I wonder why!). The fan reactions were multiple if muted, from the fans that suspected that it was intended to be a sarcastic commentary on the reach of the Empire to the fans that thought that it was not that big of a deal because to American readers it was an obscure reference, to even a few that said “STJ was just a tour operator, not a big deal, get over it.” I personally thought that the obscurity of the reference was what made the reference complicated, as it meant that in practice it worked like a dog whistle. Anyway, the strife lasted just one day: author Claudia Gray was horrified when she found out about the phrase’s origins, explaining it was just a coincidence, and everyone seemed to accept it and move on (although word is still out on what’s going to happen with future reprints and especially with the upcoming German translation). It was obvious from the start that it was most likely just an unintended reference: if George Harrison can accidentally copy one full song, the chances that Claudia Gray had referenced Strength Through Joy without knowing of its very dark origins were not small.
Yet the reaction of some fans who were just unwilling to contemplate the possibility that a Star Wars book could somehow have an intentional Nazi reference—while understandable because the author is well-liked and the book is really good—highlighted the sometimes complicated relationship that fandom has with both the representation of fascism in the Star Wars saga and the influence that fascism itself has had on it. I’ve mentioned before that I personally find the commodification of Imperial chic to be slightly disturbing, but this time I’d like to dig a bit deeper and to talk about the very tortuous relationship that Star Wars has always had with the concept of fascism itself. Is Star Wars a fascist dream? Is Star Wars actually anti-fascist?
Let’s go back in time a few months. After the far-right’s attempt to boycott Rogue One, author Matt Miller wrote a piece for Esquire called Star Wars Is Not Anti-Trump, But It Is Anti-Fascism. It’s a point of view that initially we would be hard-pressed to disagree with: the Galactic Empire and its modern iteration, the First Order, appear clearly modeled after Nazi Germany and other totalitarian regimes of history. Yet Disney CEO Bob Iger responded to this (pretty much failed) boycott by insisting that Star Wars was “not a political film.”
Now let’s get back to social media. Recently, a meme started making the rounds on Twitter: “Star Wars is not escapism”. It’s a statement that goes straight against Iger’s insistence on Star Wars’ political virginity. But if Star Wars is not escapism, if it’s more than mere entertainment… then what is it? Is it a way of engaging politically? I think we all agree that it is not political engagement. Is it political indoctrination, then? Or is it a kind of political education, perhaps — although this kind of education is pretty much the same as the aforementioned indoctrination, with the only difference being that we agree with the points of view it espouses?
No matter the role that we think that Star Wars has in the way we interact with politics, it’s undeniable that Star Wars is politically important because of its massive cultural weight and the influence it has on what Habermas called the public sphere of the bourgeoisie, the virtual space where we all come together to talk about societal problems. It’s certainly immature—and dangerous—to see politics exclusively through the lens of Star Wars, but that doesn’t mean that Star Wars and politics exist in completely separate spheres. When we complain that Jar Jar Binks seems to recall awfully racist sidekicks of the past like Ebony White or Stepin Fetchit, or when we affirm that, no matter how loudly Lucasfilm insists that things have changed, the creators involved in the saga remain strikingly white and male, we do it for a strong reason: because it matters. Because these things will influence how many children will see the world and try to affect it once they become adults. Its importance compared to real political engagement is probably minimal, but it’s still there.
So, when I say that we should be open to acknowledging the strong influence that fascism has always had on the Star Wars saga, I say this because it’s something that really matters, even if, yes, at the end of the day Star Wars is mostly escapism. It still delivers a political message—no matter how much Bob Iger complains about it.
From Germany to Vietnam
From its very inception Star Wars has always been based on nostalgia. George Lucas was calling over to the serials and pulp films that he had loved as a kid and writing his own love letter to these. If we take a look at the original movie, the implied universe seems very clear-cut: we have a tyrannical Empire (so depersonalized and large that it doesn’t even warrant a proper name, as it literally is everything that exists) fighting a Rebel Alliance, a group of freedom fighters working to destroy this tyranny and reestablish democracy. We have an outlawed religion based on a Dao-like concept called “the Force”, again with clearly defined light and dark sides. Our hero, Luke, dresses in white, and the bad guy, Vader, dresses in black.
This portrayal can easily be seen as a simple fable of democracy versus tyranny with villains inspired by America’s favorite baddies at the time: the Nazis and the Soviets. And sure, Imperial officers dress like Nazis, and Imperial architecture seems to take a couple of pages from Soviet brutalism. Yet for all we hear that the movies were a response against the moral murkiness of the Vietnam era, a longing for a more simple time, it’s impossible to understand the political context of Star Wars without looking at the Vietnam War. The two forces in conflict, Alliance and Empire, are presented with the same language that American media used to portray the two sides of the Vietnam war: the perky freedom fighters of the South versus the tyrannical oppressive regime of the North. And indeed J.W. Rinzler, in his fantastic The Making of Star Wars, says that Star Wars was heavily affected by Lucas’s inability to shoot the anti-war epic Apocalypse Now. But of course Star Wars is not Apocalypse Now: despite our heroes fighting for the return of a federal Old Republic pretty much inspired by the United States—thus our heroes being coded as Americans—the use of cinematic motifs from World War II movies and America’s own Revolutionary War helps make the Vietnam analogy considerably more palatable. As writer Tom Engelhardt said, “Star Wars denied the enemy a role they had monopolized for a decade—that of brave rebel. It was the first cultural product to ask of recent history, “Hey! How come they got all the fun?” And to respond, “Let’s give them the burden of empire! Let’s […] be the plucky underdogs ourselves!”
But how does Star Wars really portray this transference of the “burden of empire”? Let’s look at A New Hope, the original Star Wars movie; at how it starts and how it ends.
It starts with a very Wagnerian fanfare and the now-familiar Star Wars logo, a logo that, according to designer Suzy Rice, was intended to look “very fascist”.
It ends with our heroes walking down a parade straight out of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, with our proverbial wild man Chewbacca of course not even receiving a medal.
We see fascist motifs, yes, but this time they are not applied exclusively to the Galactic Empire.
They are applied both to the heroes and to the identity of the saga itself.
The Ur-Fascist Alliance
I’ve cited Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism before, as its description of what exactly makes fascism proves useful and accurate time and time again, but let’s take a look this time at how the traits of ur-fascism can apply to the good guys. Can we see a cult of tradition? Undoubtedly so: the Rebellion is all about the good old times, when the Republic—a corrupt and unequal Republic—reigned over the galaxy, and they are so obsessed with a defunct cult known as “the Jedi” that they have even adopted one of their salutations as their war cry.
What about irrationalism, another trait that Umberto Eco finds in all fascist regimes? As sci-fi writer and noted anarchist Michael Moorcock said in his famous 1977 essay Starship Stormtroopers, the Force can be accessed only by eschewing a rational approach and trusting one’s instincts, so yes, completely. And related to this, do our heroes value action over reflection? Indeed they do: as wise master Yoda says, “do or do not, there is no try.” Is disagreement with the Rebellion seen as treason? Maybe not in the original movies, but the leaders of the Rebellion as portrayed in Rogue One are more than happy to get Galen Erso—a former ally—killed not for any crimes but for any future actions he might do. Is there a xenophobic core to the Alliance? While the Rebellion doesn’t seem as overtly racist as the Empire is (or was, or ought to be, but we’ve had that discussion before) much criticism has been levied at how homogeneously white and male the Rebellion is still portrayed.
We can continue down Eco’s list. Does the Rebellion derive its strength mostly from the middle classes? That’s harder to tell, as the saga doesn’t really show us how the galactic classes are related to each other, but at least we can see that the Rebellion is led by Imperial Senate members and monarchists, and they sure seem to see the lower classes of the galaxy—relegated to places like the Mos Eisley cantina or movements like Saw Gerrera’s populist revolution—with a certain degree of mistrust and disdain (that Mon Mothma side-eye!). Rejection of pacifism? Why, that’s the message of Rogue One: that war is inevitable. What about a cult of heroic narratives? Boy. Oh boy.
I could go on and on, but this should be enough to prove that we can seriously make an argument that the Rebellion, if not as clearly fascist as the Empire, could be seen as just another side of the same coin. Do I actually think that the Rebellion is fascist? No, I don’t: if anything, the Rebellion has never been described with enough detail to tell us what kind of political agenda motivates it beyond the restoration of the Republic (although author Chuck Wendig has described Mon Mothma as politically centrist and Saw Gerrera pretty much fits the radical leftist archetype), but this vagueness when it comes to defining Rebel politics, this political tabula rasa that the movies offer us, makes this point of view—that the Alliance is nothing but a crypto-fascist organization—a plausible one and thus seems to discredit any supposed anti-fascist message. If we give credence to this new point of view, even as a simple thought experiment, it would seem that there’s no way that Star Wars, so mired in fascist allegory, could be against fascism except as a matter of who gets to be in control: it’s telling the story of two different brands of authoritarianism, two highly hierarchical organizations duking it out for control of the galaxy—indeed, my friend and ETE collaborator Jay Shah relishes in telling anyone that will listen that the old RPG books gave Mon Mothma the very Maoist title of “Leader Mothma”.
And why not? After all, duality is a central part of the Star Wars myth. As Leia Organa said in the often-reviled novel Children of the Jedi, “the Force is not the only thing with a light and a dark side”. The Rebellion and the Empire, the Resistance and the First Order, could easily be considered two sides of the same coin. The heavily-armed and well-funded Rebellion, not a true state yet not just a guerrilla force; the state-sponsored Resistance, so uncomfortably similar to right-wing death squads like the Nicaraguan Contras. It works.
The fascist with a thousand faces
At this point it’s almost a trope to talk about how Star Wars was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Something that has also become a trope? To affirm that the Campbellian monomyth is pretty much an ur-fascist narrative template, a template that has been used by the ruling class through human history to extol the superiority of tyrants over the masses they lorded over. Leftist philosopher and political writer Sam Kriss, in his very thought-provoking essay Smash The Force, has straight up called the monomyth a distillation of the “syncretic cultural milkshake” that Eco notes as a prerrequisite for fascism (Kriss’ essay is, by the way, where I first learned of Campbell’s apparent racism and antisemitism.) Let’s not forget that acceptance of this monomyth is not universal, not even close, and that it’s been criticized by anthropologists, historians, and folklore experts for being Eurocentric, for promoting a messianic and authoritarian vision of what the best way to control a society is, and, well, for being just plain untrue.
Still, we can’t deny that the original trilogy willingly follows the Campbellian template, and that that’s how it ends up being the story of a young white man becoming a Nietzschean übermensch by claiming his—of course—inherited powers. This right to power is passed through blood — midi-chlorian rich blood, father to son. It’s a story that ends up being uncomfortably close to the Nazi heroic ideal: the original movie depicts, to quote Moorcock’s essay again, “quasi-children, fighting for a paternalistic authority, [who] win through in the end and stand bashfully before the princess while medals are placed around their necks.”
The prequel trilogy, which I have praised for its subtle anti-bellicism before, doesn’t fare much better if we look at its two sides through this new lens. The Clone Wars are a manufactured conflict that is fought exclusively for the interests of dark monastic cults and capitalist juggernauts. The common man doesn’t even need to fight in the Clone Wars because the elites, the Force-strong demigods that actually rule the galaxy, have created their own myrmidons of metal and cloned flesh. The galactic population is limited to feeling passivity and awe in a war reduced to mere spectacle — and of course to dying off-screen as collateral damage. War is presented as unequivocally wrong — yet the sides in conflict are even more corrupt and tyrannical than the ones seen in the original trilogy. The prequels drop all pretenses and should be praised for this sincerity: the Jedi Knights that Luke revered in the first trilogy are shown as politically powerful, unmistakeably aristocratic, completely unaccountable, and apparently more than willing to remove a democratically-elected leader from power over differences of faith (what are Jedi and Sith if not two different cults of one single religion?). Look at how casually the Jedi discuss the fate of the whole galaxy from high atop their tall spires! Look at how Darth Sidious and Darth Maul do exactly the same thing! The clones marching by the Jedi’s side wear the famous white of the future fascistic enforcer, perhaps because that’s what they always have been. And this portrayal is not accidental.
Iden Versio and homegrown fascism
But why would Star Wars focus that much on the multiple faces of fascism? Is Michael Moorcock right when he says that Star Wars unconsciously extends a dangerous fascist message? Is Matt Miller right when he says that anti-fascism is at the core of the saga? Or is everything just a terrible application of the Rule of Cool? Fascists wear the best uniforms, after all.
Fascism is deeply ingrained into Star Wars, yes, but in my opinion this ugly component is always portrayed as a negative, be it through the Empire’s brutality or through the Jedi’s aristocratic-by-way-of-eugenics cult. I still wouldn’t dare calling Star Wars an anti-fascist fable because its internal politics are too confusing, too meandering, but likewise it’s hard to see it as just a fascist power fantasy unless it’s through the most shallow of analysis. The only thing we can affirm is that fascism is a part of Star Wars: multiple parts of it, actually.
We could be arguing about this for years — some of us certainly have been. But perhaps we should try a different approach: instead of focusing on that nostalgia that I mentioned before, we could consider that when the original movie was released, despite its retro appeal, Lucas was talking to a very contemporary audience. Star Wars has become a cultural artifact through the years but, when we look at is as a contemporary work, one clear message we can easily extract from the surprisingly messy political composition of the saga is that fascism has always been closer than we think. Maybe for all our saying that Star Wars has very clear political content that’s a lesson we have never bothered to learn.
Stephen McVeigh says in his essay The Galactic Way of Warfare, published as part of Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise: Fans, Merchandise, & Critics, that “critics tend to opt for a simplistic view of conflict in the Star Wars universe” suggesting that “the Empire represents the communism of the Soviet Union or the Nazism of Hitler’s Germany” when “the dark truth of Lucas’s evil Empire is that it presents a version of America itself.”
That certainly is a possible way to look at it, and it’s one that I’ve been favoring. This perspective has never been as explicitly depicted as in the recent Inferno Squad — a video game tie-in novel, of all things. What Iden Versio and her cohorts do has little to do with the Nazis. This kind of clandestine operation, of black ops, that we instinctively recognize as morally repugnant when we see it on the page, could be taken straight from any season of the series 24. It’s a kind of patriotic fiction born out of post-9/11, post-Patriot Act America, where brave operatives lie, cheat and murder their way to defending the strong and lofty principles of freedom, justice, and the right to turn on our AC twelve months a year. It’s not a World War II tale. It’s not Vietnam. It’s now, it’s today, and it’s right here, and worst of all: it’s been right here for decades.
Never too late
I wasn’t kidding when I said that Star Wars and fascism have had a very complicated relationship. We know that it’s present, we recognize it when it appears as marching troops and steel-eyed officers, yet we often turn our heads the other way when we see the deeper roots it has on the saga via the Campbellian archetypes. We will probably never agree on what the political core of Star Wars is, nor on the way the merchandising juggernaut distorts and subverts it. But it’s undeniable that whatever that core might be, many of us have managed to extract a positive message from it. We’ve largely ignored this truth that Star Wars is telling us — that fascism has always been with us — but perhaps we still have time to act on it.
15 thoughts to “Burden of Empire: The Complex Relationship Between Star Wars and Fascism”
What a great essay! So many thoughts:
1) I think that the problem is even more complicated than you make it out here. You lean heavily on Eco’s “Ur-Fascism,” which, while interesting, in some ways misleading. As Eco notes, during the Second World War he was “reborn as a free Western man;” his entire account of fascism is an apologetic for Western Enlightenment thought, seeking to reserve the term “modern” for only those classical liberal principles, while excluding fascism as tradition-obsessed, and therefore “not modern.” (I use “classical liberal” to distinguish the broader Western civilization framework of liberalism from its conservative-versus-liberal usage in contemporary American politics). This framework establishes an easy ethical litmus test – modern good, not modern bad – which serves to separate the author and reader (good modern) from the subject (bad not-modern). However, fascist societies *were* modern, and not just superficially. Key fascist concepts like “nation” and “race” were only invented in the last several centuries (Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” remains the key theoretical text on this development). Modern fascist regimes seek to project these concepts back into history as though they always existed, but in fact the content of fascist “tradition” is in and of itself a modern construction. The best book to my knowledge on this subject is Mark Mazower’s “Dark Continent,” which makes a compelling case that fascism is an intrinsic part of Western modernity, and not an atavistic throwback. As Eco’s analysis suggests, fascists are not the only moderns who distort history by projecting their own parochial views backwards across the entire human past. Classical liberal moderns are happy to accept that fascism is an atavistic remnant of a distant nationalist, racist past, since this allows them to claim (as Eco does) the mantle of “good modern.” Unfortunately, classical liberals who adopt this framework actually end up adopting a good part of fascism’s own ideology – namely, that fascist “traditions” are long-standing historical artifacts, rather than modern constructions. Both liberalism and fascism are modern in their derivation, which makes separating them (both analytically and ethically) a far more fraught enterprise than Eco would maintain.
2) Following from that (overly-long) first point, one of the more interesting aspects of Star Wars is how it deals with the imagined past. What makes the debate about whether Star Wars is “fascist” or “antifascist” so difficult is that, in many ways, Star Wars is neither. Although we see very little of it, the politics of Star Wars as displayed in the movies (and, I would argue, in most of the non-movie material) are distinctly non-modern at a structural level. A key similarity of liberal and fascist modernity is their basic assumptions about the structure of the “world system” – namely, the very concept of “international politics.” Both liberals and fascists assume that the world system will be structured around a series of ethnically-homogeneous and legally-sovereign nation-states. At different times, liberals and fascists have advanced different visions for how these various state-nation-units should relate to each other, expressing a variety of viewpoints on issues like trade, immigration, and war. They have also disagreed over who is entitled to participate in the system as a fully-sovereign nation-state, as opposed to some form of imperial dependency. But a system of sovereign nation-states is generally assumed as the basis for interaction.
Star Wars does not have nation-states. This is not just a legal fact, but rather a deeper issue of political philosophy. The terms of conflict between the Old Republic and the Separatists, between the Empire and the Alliance, and between the First Order and the Resistance, all differ substantially from the modern international politics paradigm. Instead, Star Wars generally throws back to a more authentically pre-modern political paradigm, that of universal monarchy or sovereignty. This paradigm, embraced by numerous pre-modern empires around the world, claimed that the only proper organizing principle for all politics was a single hierarchy, a world government, often organized around a single person. In practice, these “world governments” lacked the military, economic, and technological capability to actually conquer the entire physical world, leading to the emergence of several large Eurasian empires. In theory at least, however, each of these empires claimed to be the *only* legitimate polity. Under this theory, the only legitimate conflict was over who would rule the unitary polity. Thus, the Empire and the Alliance, followed by the Republic and the First Order, are engaged in a contest not to establish one unitary nation-state community as predominant over other distinct communities, but rather over who should rule the universal sovereignty, the single community, and how that rule should be conducted. Once this basic difference is recognized, it becomes a lot harder to accurately map liberal-versus-fascist political debates onto the Star Wars spectrum. Is the Empire more nationalist or racist than the Rebellion? What do those concepts even mean in a political dispute without races or nations? Even the Separatists, who challenge the principle of universal sovereignty, do not do so on the basis of “national self-determination” or “authentic racial community” – rather, they seem to try to construct a parallel universal sovereignty that differs from the Republic in degrees rather than in an absolute sense (i.e., the Separatist Congress).
Understanding that fascism is a modern phenomenon is especially important in this regard, since, if we were to accept the claims of many classical liberal and fascist writers that fascism somehow authentically represents pre-modernity, we might be tempted to read fascism into Star Wars’ concepts of universal monarchy and non-liberal politics. Since fascism is a modern concept based on modern categories of difference (nation, race), it is historically inaccurate to associate it directly with pre-modern forms of politics, which, while not liberal, are also not fascist.
Of course, we can read whatever political subtext into whatever specific scene or statement we want – Star Wars is a fictional universe, and ultimately it is *our* critical engagement with the material that matters. On the specific question of “Is Star Wars as a whole definitively pro-fascist or anti-fascist,” I would have to maintain that it is neither. The politics portrayed in Star Wars are fundamentally pre-modern in concept (a legacy of Kurosawa and other influences), which have no “real” mapping onto modern political questions.
3) On the issue of violence in Star Wars – I know this has been debated ad nauseum in the comments section here, but I still maintain that Star Wars’ portrayal of violence does not support a fascistic narrative. Yes, many Rebel pilots die, but their deaths are generally portrayed as necessary (and tragic) sacrifices, rather than valorous life-defining conclusions. There may be some exceptions – Crynyd’s suicide attack on the Executor? – but in general I don’t think of Porkins’, Darklighter’s, or Dak’s deaths as being particularly “heroic,” except in the more tragic sense of a larger cause advanced. Similarly, while Luke’s narrative may trace his rise to blood-gifted power through violence, his most heroic moment occurs when he rejects further violence. And more than liberalism or fascism, I always saw the Prequels as reflecting a sort of “natural sovereignty” narrative, in which the entire order of the cosmos (i.e., the Balance of the Force) is thrown out of whack by the corrupt actions of those in power (both Senate and Jedi) – this in keeping with the idea that politics in Star Wars is really pre-modern in its conception (natural disaster accompanying political decay is a very common pre-modern trope). While that viewpoint does not necessarily condemn violence entirely, it is certainly a different viewpoint than fascism’s hero-violence. All in all, when it comes to conceptions of violence and heroism, I’d argue pretty strongly that Star Wars is not-fascistic.
4) One final thought – on the specific question of aesthetics raised by comparisons to fonts, cinematography, etc. This is an especially complicated topic, since much of what we associate with the “fascist aesthetic” was, in fact, an attempt by fascists to co-opt various earlier aesthetics as part of “their” race. Hence, Riefenstahl’s parade sequence, which would not look out of place in an ancient or Renaissance portrayal of a triumphing Roman conqueror. So, is this sequence Roman, Renaissance, or fascist? I have no idea, but the layers of previous attribution become very complicated, very quickly. If we maintain that this sort of aesthetic has a classical derivation, do we white-wash its contemporary fascist undertones? On the other hand, if we maintain that this sort of shot cannot be considered anything *but* fascist, do we legitimate fascists’ own view of history by allowing them to claim “authentic” ancient kinship from what is in fact a modern interpretive construction? As someone who likes much of the classical aesthetic, I lean towards the former, but the issue remains fraught.
Thanks once again for a great article!
Thank you for your very thoughtful comment! You’ve given me a lot to think about.
Yes, I lean a lot on Eco’s piece. Mea culpa. Originally it was going to be just a little section, but I found quite fascinating how well it could be applied to the Alliance and it took over a large chunk of the text. The main reason is, of course, that, as you say, it’s extremely easy to add any political subtext to the movies, as they–intentionally–lean heavily in archetypes and it’s almost impossible to accurately map real-life politics to it. Is Palpatine supposed to be Space Hitler? Yes,of course, but also Napoleon, and Nixon, and probably George W. Bush during the sequels, and very soon we’ll be getting narratives turning him into Trump, no matter how little sense it makes. Because he’s the bad guy in charge, as thinly described as possible so that we can project our own fears on him. And what about Saw Gerrera? Is he just an obvious Che Guevara expy? Or are we supposed to read him as Usama Bin Laden? Al-Baghdadi, perhaps? You can do all of these if you want to, and they will all work.
This vagueness makes hard for me to believe that Star Wars could seriously be considered to be “anti-fascist”, as it merely uses WW2 imagery to whitewash a very Vietnam War-era narrative. As you very smartly point out, the very peculiar “universal government” situation in the Star Wars world makes impossible to find solid analogues to real-life international politics subjects. But what can it teach us about domestic policy? Perhaps a little more, as the galaxy becomes a scenario where the internal strife in any given modern liberal democracy takes place. The story of Palpatine is not the story of WW2, but the story of his rise to power in Germany–we could even look at the “revenge of the Sith” as a stand-in for Germany’s repressed anger over WW1; we don’t get the European theater but we get a weird and not-very-accurate substitute via the machinations of Jedi and Sith.
I’m rambling here and your comment probably merits a considerably longer and more thoughtful answer. Sorry about that. I’ll probably be back later with more thoughts.
Thank you again for commenting! I will be mulling over the very good points you made!
To be clear, I think that Eco’s work is a very good starting place to talk about what fascism is and isn’t, and a really good frame for your piece – I just disagree with Eco on a lot of the specifics of what makes fascism fascism. Still very thought-provoking.
In addition to Hitler, or Napoleon, or Nixon, or Bush, or Trump, I’d add the Qin Emperor, or Augustus, or Abbas al-Saffah, or Tokugawa. Similarly, we could add Themistocles, the Trung Sisters, Robin Hood, or Hassan i-Sabbah to the list of comparisons to Saw Gerrera. The timeframe expands beyond the modern Euro-American period and into a much larger chunk of historical and even mythical experience. The bigger issue with Star Wars is that its politics is so timeless (generic?) that basically anyone can stand in for anything. Certain structural factors may bear similarities (the cunning and ruthless manipulator rises to the top; the scrappy underdog will win at all costs), but to map these onto specific political programs or causes is a product of the audience’s critical interaction with the work, not really an aspect inherent in the work itself.
In that sense, I agree with you that Star Wars isn’t an obviously anti-fascist piece. However, I would equally maintain that Star Wars isn’t an obviously fascist or pro-fascist piece.
Hmm, personally I’ve always found the Empire in the actual stories to have a more distinct flavour of British imperialism, more than Nazism/Fascism. It’s not only elements like the British accents, it’s that distinctly colonial sort of attitude and the enemy forces are basically large war ships populated by stiff-mannered officers. I also think it was Peter Cushing who thought the uniforms looked like an English chaffeur’s? (If we add in the prequel trilogy, I’ve also seen good arguments about the similarities between the East India Trading Company and the Trade Federation.)
One other thing I’ve noticed in some of the newer books is that they’re trying to add in elements of Soviet/Communist states – so sometimes you get an odd mixture of ‘bad capitalist money-grabbers’ and ‘inefficient Soviet leadership’ rolled into one.
For example, in John Jackson Miller’s ‘A New Dawn’, the Empire (in the role of the state) takes over privately-owned farms and forces people to relocate into urban areas where they pursue careers in heavy industry. At the same time, you have private ownership in the form of large conglomerates, snobbish noblemen with connections, and evil businessmen. The visual propaganda posters we’ve been seeing, too, sometimes rely both on elements from old Soviet posters and on WWI + WWII British recruitment posters.
But these are all nice simple elements of ‘badness’, so I definitely can see why they’re used as a quick, easy way to show civilian suffering in a space opera setting.
Anyway, there’s definitely a mish-mash here of various totalitarian systems, visually and thematically.
All of this I think ties in nicely to the fact that Star Wars is, after all, a product made in USA’s cultural circle. I think it was important for USA viewers to quite easily recognise that ‘these are the bad guys’. Or maybe it was just a natural-feeling thing to think of when you’re from the USA and need to imagine opponents for your freedom-fighting heroes.
So they applied a bunch of easy references to real world powers who were historically enemies of the USA and who are also popular opponents in action movies: Colonial-era England/UK, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia… Mixed it all up, added some scary lasers and space weapons, and there you had it – an enemy force fit for a space opera, that the public will instantly know what to expect of.
I think I’ll agree here — I think the bigger emotional tie (at least in the original films) would be a hearkening back to a simplified view of the American Revolution. You have the evil (British) Empire versus the farmhand and smugglers and independent types aided by the religiously pure Jedi who were hounded out of the Empire. Now, the styling of the Empire is definitely playing off of 20th Century fascist themes — but the Empire feels more like a Colonizing power — the main villain in ANH is actually “Governor Tarkin”. Add in that with the Senate being dissolved there is no real representation.
There’s so many good thoughts there, and I don’t have a whole lot to add but just wanted to say I’m grateful for a space to have these conversations. I especially like John’s conception of the Star Wars universe as a galactic monarchy; I think that clarifies a lot, and also raises additional questions I hadn’t though of before, such as: If there’s a galactic monarchy, is there some sort of “divine” right to rule guaranteed by the Force? And if there is, and the rulers do things to lose the Force’s “mandate of Heaven,” does the Force then act to replace the rulers? And then could we say that the First Order/Snoke is trying to reclaim this divine mandate by emphasizing ideological purity within their own movement? Etc., etc. It’ll be interesting to see!
Jar Jar Binks is not racist. That is just exaggerated and ridiculous prequel hater propaganda.
Also, Chewbacca did get a medal in both Canon and Legends, as confirmed by books and comics.
“Sometimes a Cigar is just a Cigar” – maybe Freud
While I do find this article interesting, I’m not sure it isn’t slightly misplaced in Star Wars. What I mean is this. While Star Wars will make allusions to politics, I don’t know whether or not the authors are trying to make overt political statements. It seems to me that they are simply using political elements in an impressionistic fashion (almost to set a mood) rather than a technical fashion to comment upon politics.
Consider: There is hard-science fiction, where much of the writing is meant to deal with hard science and theory and the like; Star Wars (at it’s root as a film) is not this. Hyperspace travel isn’t explained, nor are the physics of a lightsaber dealt with. The point of the story isn’t to explain how these items are possible; they are just assumed to be there. (Note: most things that address issues like these are added later)
Likewise, there are hard-political science fiction stories, where much thought goes into potential political development; I don’t think Star Wars is this either. The point isn’t meant to be an evaluation of a potential political system – rather the system is there to set the stage for the specific adventure.
So while the article is interesting, it sort of strikes me like analyzing Star Wars on its scientific merits. While you can critique the fact that you hear sounds in space in the dogfights in an utterly unscientific way, I don’t think Lucas’ goal was to present possible space dogfights in a scientific fashion. It may be an accurate critique, but but its not quite on point. Likewise, addressing the politics here almost seems to be slightly off skew – like lamenting that an impressionistic painting lacks photo-realistic elements, or that the still life of fruit isn’t very dynamic. It just doesn’t mesh.
Or maybe like this – it is a mythical take on political interaction, not a specific case study. It just seems as this is the wrong form of criticism — reading poetry as prose or something like that.
In general, I think discussions of fascism and fiction tend to be overwrought. That said, two counterpoints:
1) A work does not need to be overtly political in order for us to criticize its political leanings. Even works that are not about politics can have important things to say about the human condition, which may have political implications. For example, when stories consistently prioritize the need for super-powered heroes in order to save us from evil galaxy-spanning conspiracies, problems that cannot be solved through some sort of reasonable discussion but instead can only be resolved through unlimited willpower and violence, we might wonder whether there is something fascist about that work. This is a debate that has surrounded superhero fiction since the 1930s, and insofar as Star Wars is a superhero story, I think it makes sense to consider it in this regard.
2) Star Wars *is* a political story. This comes across most especially in the Prequels, where we see the decline and collapse of a democratic political order in the face of war and tyranny. But insofar as Star Wars is always about *war*, I would argue that it is always political, even if the nitty-gritty of the politics is not the focus. Theorists of war have consistently noted its political character – Clausewitz wrote that war derives its logic from politics. Insofar as this is true, I think it makes sense to at least consider what the content of that politics might entail.
This, 100%. Not only is authorial intent not required for a work to make a political statement, some statements are all the more powerful when made subconsciously. I don’t put quite as much weight on SW’s implicit statements as David does but they’re definitely there if you choose to see them. What they’re not, imo, is particularly consistent—so the ballgame is what you choose to take away.
I think the further we go into the Trump Era the more and more real it becomes. I don’t want to play story game as the Empire. I look at the upcoming release of “Star Wars Squadrons”, and I’m very put off by playing as the empire in a story context.
It’s strange, because it’s fun to be an imperial. The armor is cool, the costumes and ships are slick. When I play Battlefront 2 I delight in playing as an ISB agent. When I win a game, I feel just wrong though.
There was a ton of outrage when EA’s Battlefield V released a story mission where you play as a tiger tank crew, but playing as Iden Versio was a marketing point for Battlefront 2. Play as the Empire, crush the rebel scum! Then you can not feel bad about it when she defects and all is forgiven.
I don’t want to root for the fascists, and I don’t want to put myself in their headspace.
There was a time when it was all fun and games, but rooting for the empire now is a real political choice. Star Wars wants to characterize the empire as evil, but also make them fun an accessible so you buy their toys. I think that’s a dichotomy that’s become extremely difficult to maintain today.
As an Austrian reader, looking for articles about fascism and Revenge of the Sith, I am glad to have found your text and comments.
Because of this its obvious that I see the most parallels with Germany: it has knights, the church being important in state dealings, a federal state between imperialism and republicanism and of course the most important element the enabling act in episode two akin to the one from 1933. But I allways saw more similarities to the Spanish Civil War, in that sense I dont see why the Empire is by some seen as the Soviet Union and the Rebbillion being the US, its rather about the Spanish republicans VS the facsists sustaining and ultimately controlling the Spanish empire-embodying monarchy. Given that Spain ended its fascist chapter at the time of New Hope is maybe more insightful as any US-centric interpretations, especially since Lucas exhibits a pronounced international perspective, even if it is less about decolonization (of the 1970s) and imperialism.
This brings me to the core of my argument that I want to make: we should firstly identify what are the most important plot developments in the hexalogy and from there interprete the story (extra stories are to be neglected because they will allways throw in different angles, the galaxy is immense afterall 😉 ).
So what does Star Wars depict? It introduces medieval knights which are sent as negotiators in some sort of internal conflict of a federal republic; then they are pulled into fighting predominantly through an enabling act, … without this enabling act it would ba a story about the particular journey of knights in a medieval federal republic. This enabling act is the single most reason why Star Wars is called Star Wars. … continuing: then the enabling act is not taken back, exchanging one settled internal conflict with a new one. Thus the galactic state is still in a situation of civil unrest, that the state is now a federal imperial-monarchy is secondary. Also the dissolution of the senate and thus the federation in episode four is interesting but insignificant. At this point it is all about a civil unrest against the enabling act and the journey of knighthood still being intertwined with it, only promising power. Luke in that sense is most important only as an icon for the civil unrest, because other than being at the right time pressing a button to blow up an artificial planetoid and being one of the guys at the right place of the battlefield he didnt contribute much. The story is ending with the civil unrest literally in the background of the knight being seemingly resolved, and not about a knight saving the galaxy. The story of the knights is merely the vehicle to transport the story of a civil war (it allways resembled for me more Spartacus and significantly less US Civil War heroics).
So the question simplyfied is: are knights a fascist and violent paternalist vehicle? Yes and no: as crusaders yes they are violent and fascist icons, as monks at least not violent, but paternalistand maybe clerical-fascist.
But the characters which are depicted as the political ideal are Padme and Leia, so its more on the diplomatic monk side.
So the answer to the question if it is about fascism is clear because it is a about an enabling act taking over a republic and its opposition being subject to militarist suppression. As such it can be about imperialism, but being about a republican head of government seizing power through militarist populism is the way of fascism, from republicanism towards (fascist) imperialism.
Bottom line is: to say that it is a fable about certain historic cases or collective (US) experiences takes the material too much as a comment. But it is not a (anti-fascist) comment on fascism, it is rather a mixed story about fascism, its seizing of power and how conservative men (knights) are called upon (by the conflicting fascist) to use their force and stop the ideal diplomatic stance of the women depicted.
So Star Wars is highly paternalistic in the sense of chivalric masculinity, with a civil resistance war in the face of an enabling act for militarist populism (fascism).
Thus Star Wars wants to tell us about chivalric masculinity to be anti-fascist and stop being a fascist icon, which is a republican-conservative stance against fascism similar to the Sound of Music, typical for post World War 2 conservativism, and not an anti-fascist stance in the sense of left resistance fighters, but rather of liberal-right-anarchist republican resistance fighters in the spanish Civil War, fitting post-WW2 conservativism as well as dawning neo-liberalism and its right-anarchist self-image among the main audience.
I find this….somewhat simplistic and ironically reductionist.
1.) When you look at the Imperial leadership they’re uniformly portrayed as cruel and somewhat pathetic (Motti and the Imperial High Command are terrified of Vader when he force chokes Motti, Tarkin gets bluffed by a teenager and dies in denial of his own failure, Ozzel’s a pompous dimwit who singlehandedly saves the Rebels by arrogantly blundering into Hoth and giving them time to get a shield up….).
2.) The “midichlorians are the source of the force” never made sense when you actually think about it, so that genetic determinism is kinda nonsense.
3.) the implications for luke are more dirt poor farmer descended from a knight of humble origins (Anakin was implied to have come from Tatooine even BEFORE the prequels). Luke’s a lower class hero in every sense of the word. Even the monomyth isn’t necessarily fascistic either. Hell Luke saves the day by NOT blindly heeding his mentors (when one of the big factors of fascism is blind obedience to your authorities and suborning your will to the state.) Neitzche would VOMIT at Luke Skywalker.
4.) The citations of Umberto Eco also seem overly vague. The denunciation of pacifism…..I’m sorry there ARE times when you have to stand and fight. One can argue that the democrats were showing weakness by playing nice with the republicans despite their blatant attempts at treason. And given that truly awful governments have replaced good governments it’s naive to say that pining for the good days is always bad.
5.) saying the Jedi are no different than the Sith is kinda silly. The Sith engineered a deadly war to gain power. The Jedi for all their flaws TRIED to do the right thing and even their flawed nature is more them loosing their way.
The Sam Kriss essay was so utterly painful that I couldn’t read it. Campbell was a racist anti semite….but that doesn’t mean he’s completely devoid of value
I will make a simple point. How does a person, hero or not, redeem themselves? How do you ‘best be’? The saga IS mostly about personal redemption. In the SW saga, there is a lot of failure to redeem the society. In fact, all those who try and step up to leadership succumb either to corruption by power, or failure to succeed or even just failure to endure.
In fact the socieity is just a heavlly populated playground for this moral play. It is truely a flawed depiction, while also very compelling, so what?
But there were two broad cases for ultimate redemption, the first set of roles were those who are morally redeemed by sacraficing all personal gain to stop the exploitation of others, and those who’s only intent is to take care of others(the common folk), And those guys all die, now or later at end-of-life, hopefully to a better afterlife, which is suggested, but not depicted.
The second, typified by several heros, Yoda, Luke, Leia, ObiWan, and oddly, Attican, is to totally reject all material gain, go total Jedi, and assend directly into spirit. (Attican had a little help by fire, and for escaping mind-control and saving Luke) And this group can appear back to those are inline with the Light-Side of the Force, to talk at least.
But implied, they also add into the flow of the force.
So the saga suggests, that all material gain, especially all social and all political is transient gain at best. Even the institution of the Jedi Order was fleeting and no island of paradise. The ‘good’ societies? Ulltimately a tranient state.
While the moral and spiritual, is one safe final goal, while difficult, it can be reached, but at a cost. A cost in the moment of giving up material possesiveness, and as a finality, having served for the Force(or spirit). As for Attican, redeemed having been released from evil, and forgiven (brought to balance by The Force itself). Something like that.
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