Writing a revisionist interpretation of the political structure of the Galactic Empire in Star Wars, that rejects the official canon (as it developed across the many reimaginings of George Lucas), seems like one of the more self-indulgent things for me to do—but here we are.
Among the many reasons that purist fans of the original Trilogy resent the Prequels is that Lucas completely ignored the backstory elements that he established in the Trilogy. Somehow, a period known as the Clone Wars was transmogrified into one war, in which the defending side used clones. Obi-Wan, rather than “[taking] it upon myself to train [Anakin] as a Jedi,” is dragooned into the role by his teacher despite his reluctance. Despite Leia saying in Return of the Jedi that she remembered her mother, her mother dies shortly after the twins were born. Droids, rather than being a clear analogue to human slaves that are treated with offhanded contempt, are treated as full-fledged beings worthy of respect and even military decorations. Et cetera, ad infinitum.
Most critically, the Emperor is far too powerful at the end of Episode 3—presiding over an Empire rich in resources and military power. The picture appears much different in the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope. In fact, I will argue in this post that the Empire in ANH is in a desperate position: its resources overstretched, its political system weak and fragmented, gambling on a costly new superweapon because the more conventional alternatives might not be enough to save it. That the Empire survived the loss of the Death Star was an improbable event, as was the Emperor remaining at its head. In short, the Galactic Empire had many of the hallmarks of a failed state.
(Now, in the real world many of the points we will mention came from filmmaking constraints. When he made the Prequels, George Lucas had practically infinite funding, powerful special effects, an entourage of yes-men, and the creative flabbiness that comes from lacking critical feedback. But back when he made the first Star Wars, Lucas had limited funding, constrained special-effects that were nevertheless revolutionary for its time, no expectation of being able to make a second movie, and constantly shifting worldbuilding, as is evident from the significant changes between early drafts. There is nothing wrong with this, of course! But it’s easy to understand why, for example, the Empire had fewer capital ships in A New Hope compared to the Prequels. Regardless, we will be treating the revised fourth draft of A New Hope as canonical, and taking its depiction seriously, because I said so.)
A Diplomatic Mission to Alderaan
The movie begins with Imperial forces boarding a Rebel blockade runner, taking the ship, and interrogating the prisoners. Shortly before getting his neck snapped, Darth Vader’s unfortunate victim says, “This is a consular ship. We’re on a diplomatic mission.” Princess Leia likewise says that she is “on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan” (which Vader mocks as a “mercy mission”), and also says that “[o]nly [Vader] could be so bold” as to attack them. Apparently she is correct, as Vader’s subordinate says that “[h]olding her is dangerous,” and “could generate sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate.” And Vader himself feels the need to cover up what happened, instructing the commander to send a distress signal and then inform the Senate that there were no survivors. Finally, he comments that “[t]here will be no one to stop us this time,” implying that before now, he was operating under some sort of constraints.
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, one does not send a “diplomatic mission” to territory you control—only to foreign territory. So apparently Alderaan is not part of the Empire. Yet Princess Leia, whose (apparent) home planet is Alderaan and whose father is the king there, is an Imperial senator. What does this mean? The only reasonable way to reconcile this is to suggest that one need not be a full citizen of the Empire in order to serve in the Senate, and that Alderaan is somehow subordinate to the Empire while remaining nominally independent. Perhaps Alderaan is a vassal state or protectorate; that would explain why it has “no weapons.” And whatever tie it has to the Empire, it is a common enough arrangement with enough precedent behind it that notables from such planets are allowed to represent their planets in the Senate. (Contrast this to the British Parliament, which did not allow MPs from British colonies—and lost America as a result, to say nothing of its later colonies.)
(The more likely explanation, in meta-story terms, is George Lucas’s abysmal understanding of politics—displayed clearly in the incoherent justification in the Prequels for the Trade Federation’s war against Naboo, among other things. But I digress.)
So why would the Empire incorporate independent planets into its sphere of influence but allow them to remain partly independent? We will try to answer this question later.
Second, even though the script says explicitly that Vader is the “right hand of the Emperor,” he still acts cautiously around the Senate and recognizes the risks in attacking a senator. But apparently his freedom of action is growing over time; whatever constraints he once faced are rapidly diminishing. This likely reflects the rising power of the Emperor himself; we know in retrospect that the Emperor is about to dissolve the Senate altogether, as we discuss below. But before he did, the Emperor apparently had to take the Senate seriously as a potential source of opposition. The Senate, before its dissolution, was more than a mere rubber-stamp body of the type adored by modern dictators. We soon learn that it was a vestige of a previous regime, the Old Republic, and it must have retained much of its former power well into the Imperial era.
General Kenobi and the Clone Wars
When Luke Skywalker is rescued by Obi-Wan Kenobi and brought to his dwelling, they briefly discuss the Clone Wars. Luke’s father apparently fought in “the wars,” and did so because of his “ideals,” leaving Tatooine and “[getting] involved” in a “damned-fool idealistic crusade” rather than staying out of the fighting.
In her message Princess Leia states that “General Kenobi . . . served [her] father in the Clone Wars.” Not “served under” or “served with,” note—but “served.” Apparently, Kenobi was fighting for the King of Alderaan in particular, during at least some of the wars in question. (This is quite different from what is depicted in the Prequels, of which we will say no more.) Yet “[f]or over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic,” so we must try to reconcile this statement with Kenobi’s service to Alderaan in order to understand what was going on in the Clone Wars, and the role of the Jedi.
Fear Will Keep the Local Systems in Line
Perhaps the most informative scene in the movie is the Conference Room scene on the Death Star, in which we first meet Grand Moff Tarkin. The scene opens in the middle of a rancorous argument between Commander Tagge, representing the Imperial fleet, and Admiral Motti, who arrogantly champions the power of the Death Star. We should notice what the scene says about the relative power of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, the (former) role of the Imperial Senate and the power of the Emperor, and why Tagge and Motti might have been arguing in the first place.
Tagge states that “[u]ntil this battle station is fully operational, we are vulnerable. The Rebel Alliance is too well equipped.” To which Motti responds that the Rebels are “[d]angerous to your starfleet, Commander, not to this battle station.” Even though the Rebels seem to have few capital ships, and only two squadrons of fighters at their main base, that is enough to pose a serious threat to the Imperial fleet. There can be no mistake: the fleet is thinly stretched and low on capital ships.
Second, in the script, the attendees in the conference room are described as “senators and generals.” At least some of the people present were thus Imperial senators. To the modern viewer this would be strange, as is Tagge’s question “How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?” when they are told that the Emperor had dissolved the Senate. We moderns are used to a senate being a purely legislative body. So why would senators be present at a frontier military base, and what would the Senate have to do with bureaucracy?
Yet in early-modern European history, legislatures did have direct control over bureaucratic institutions, especially tax collection. Indeed, that is how legislatures first emerged and asserted power against their kings: they offered cooperation in collecting taxes from their members, in exchange for input into policy. (I discuss this in my handbook, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders.) We can imagine, then, that the Imperial Senate was something similar: a body of notables acting as intermediaries between their communities and the Emperor.
This is consistent with what Grand Moff Tarkin says next: “The regional governors now have direct control over their territories.” In other words, the Emperor has no bureaucracy ready to replace that of the Senate, and must still rely on intermediaries—the governors—instead of taking direct control himself. This is an empire-building strategy of indirect rule, typical of regimes where power projection is difficult and the ruling government has limited resources.
This all suggests that the Emperor is in a rather weak position. This impression is reinforced by the dynamic between Tarkin and Darth Vader, the “right hand of the Emperor.” While on the Death Star, Vader is in a notably subordinate position. Admiral Motti feels secure enough to insult Vader to his face, and when Vader chokes him in response the others view his action as shocking. Tarkin, annoyed, orders Vader to release Motti, and Vader obeys. In general, Vader seems outside of the chain of command, but defers to Tarkin.
We can infer that Vader is the Emperor’s hatchet man, sent to deal with trouble spots and assert the Emperor’s authority—but that authority is limited. Vader, and by extension the Emperor himself, must deal cautiously with the regional governors. The governors represent rivals to the Emperor’s authority, yet the Emperor chose to give them more power by dissolving the Senate and relying on them for control. This was evidently the best of a bad set of options at the time, as the Emperor was carefully solidifying his power.
Compare to the situation in The Empire Strikes Back. Now, Vader is in unquestioned command of the entire Imperial fleet. He kills officers at his whim, and no one dares gainsay him. He orders costly courses of action, like taking the fleet into a dangerous asteroid belt, and the fleet obeys to its great loss. Clearly, whatever institutional conflict the Emperor was dealing with in the first movie has been resolved decisively in his favor by the second.
But back to the Death Star. What exactly were Motti and Tagge arguing about? The answer is unclear. (In meta terms, this scene is an obvious “As You Know, Bob” expository lump meant to bring the audience up to speed. I suspect Lucas didn’t have a clear idea of what the argument was about, just that he wanted the Imperials to be arguing.) Still, we can tease out some clues. Tagge’s position is that the Rebels were dangerous and that the Imperials were vulnerable, until the Death Star was “fully operational.” Motti, on the other hand, dismisses the threat to the Starfleet and states that “[t]his station is now the ultimate power in the universe! I suggest we use it.” To resolve the bickering, Tarkin concludes that they will wait until the station is “fully operational,” by which point Vader will have extracted the location of the Rebel base. “We will then crush the Rebellion with one swift stroke.”
Motti, evidently, was advocating that the Death Star be used before it was fully operational, and even before they had a military target to use it on. He wanted to make an example of someone, quickly, and was willing to accept the potential blowback in the Senate that Tagge was concerned over. But why? Perhaps he was reacting to the weakness of the Imperial fleet, which was clearly unable to keep order. The Death Star would be used to cow potential troublemakers instead. But this is like using nuclear weapons to put down a local insurgency—an act of great desperation.
Ultimately Princess Leia resists the interrogation, and Tarkin is brought around to Motti’s way of thinking as a result. The Empire doesn’t have time to wait. It would rather sacrifice a valuable planet and its populace, in order to make its point. Matters must be at a delicate stage indeed.
I think there is enough internal evidence to make some conjectures about:
- the nature of the Clone Wars,
- the role of the Jedi, and
- the relative power of the Old Republic and the reasons for the Empire’s present weakness.
These will intertwine quite a bit, so we may be bouncing around as we go.
First, the Clone Wars. As the name suggests, these were a series of wars, and their motivating feature involved clones. (We do not call the 2022 Ukraine war “The Drone Wars,” for example, even though drones are prominently used.) At the same time, there was apparently an element of idealism involved for the “good guys” who chose to fight in it—and I say “chose” advisedly. Uncle Owen chose not to fight, and thought Luke’s father was wrong to do otherwise.
Meanwhile, there is no evidence for whether the Clone Wars directly contributed to the rise of the Empire. In theory, they could have ended well before the Emperor took power and Darth Vader helped him hunt down the Jedi. I think it safe to imagine that they played some role in the Emperor’s rise, however, given narrative efficiency. But what role?
We suggested above that Alderaan was at least partly independent of the Empire (and thus likely the Republic before it), and that its forces fought on their own behalf during the Clone Wars. (Indeed, that Alderaan had a military suggests that it was fully independent of the Republic at the time, and only became subservient to the Republic or Empire later—at which point it was demilitarized.) So who was Alderaan fighting? Why were there several wars, and why were they prominent enough that a young farmer on a backwater planet was captivated by them? How were clones a motivating factor? And how did the Jedi come into the picture? They were clearly an obstacle to the Emperor’s plans, but how?
At this point, we jump straight into the realm of wild speculation. I don’t suggest that what follows is the only way to imagine the backstory, or even the best way. I do think, however, that it is a plausible reconstruction.
Putting the Pieces Together
Imagine that the Old Republic is a great power, but not a galaxy-spanning empire. It lies at the center of many smaller political entities, either single planets or systems or else a few systems grouped together. The Republic thinks of its role as the benign galactic policeman, maintaining order among the independent powers. But the Republic is old now, over “a thousand generations” old, and is getting hidebound and indolent.
Increasingly, rather than taking direct military action itself in response to “minor” threats, the Republic relies more and more on volunteer action, especially by the Jedi, a class of skilled warrior monks that are nominally independent of the Republic’s politics, but hold to a code of behavior requiring them to uphold “peace and justice” as they understand it. Jedi are more like wandering ronin than soldiers in an army, free to wander the galaxy and act as they see fit; many of them operate in the Republic, righting wrongs and even punishing corrupt or lawless officials, but if trouble arises elsewhere in the galaxy Jedi might end up in the middle of it, if they want to be. Jedi can even serve in the militaries of independent polities such as Alderaan, perhaps as respected consultants or contractors akin to the generals- and admirals-for-hire that wandered across Europe (example).
And the Jedi are needed now. A new menace is casting its shadow across many of the independent governments: clones. Again and again, clones of political figures have emerged, claiming they are the true leaders of their worlds and that the existing leaders are themselves clones. They seem to have a shadowy backer and a coordinated strategy; at any rate, they quickly raise armies and plunge their worlds into civil wars. System after system is wracked with conflict—and the Republic, hobbled by factional disputes and lethargy, seems unwilling to do anything about it.
Into the breach stride the Jedi, among other volunteer soldiers from across the Republic. They offer their services to the embattled independent governments, with varying levels of success. Obi-Wan Kenobi, for one, is made a general by the King of Alderaan, and successfully defeats the enemy in that system and several surrounding ones.
But the overall trend is bleak. Not only are many independent governments losing, the violence is starting to spill over into the Republic itself. The growing disorder only highlights the incapability of the Republic Senate, and voices start to clamor for a strong wartime leader who will take the situation in hand.
And so the man who will become Emperor comes forward. What his role and his power base were in the Republic is uncertain, as is how he used the Dark Side of the Force to smooth his way; but to his followers, the future Emperor offers a beacon of safety and strength in these dark times. Most appealing of all is his promise to extend the protection (or “protection”) of the Republic to the independent governments who so desperately need it. And if the fools disagree, why then, they will be made to submit for the good of the galaxy.
Thus, step by step, the Republic becomes an Empire as it expands, and power is slowly centralized and militarized—especially when the Emperor reveals that the Jedi themselves are dangerous vigilantes and dissidents, who must be crushed for the sake of the new order. The rise of the Emperor thus coincides with (and was enabled by) a sudden expansion of its territory by conquest of the smaller polities around it, which would explain why it seems to encompass far more territory now than it can actually administer or police.
Perhaps this also explains why the Empire chose to build the Death Star in the first place, rather than building more capital ships. Conventional methods of power projection evidently were insufficient. It would take too many ships, across too many systems, for the Empire to secure all of its new territory. A superweapon, on the other hand, might deter conflict across the entire Empire, relatively cheaply. But it would also be a high-stakes gamble, concentrating a lot of resources at a single point. Losing the Death Star would be a critical blow to the Emperor—potentially enough to bring him down.
That would ultimately explain why after the battle, the Rebels act as though they have won for good: because they very likely had. (This makes sense, if Lucas didn’t know whether he’d have the chance to make sequels.) And only the shifting fortunes of war between New Hope and Empire, and the Emperor’s apparent success at consolidating his position and the Empire’s military power despite its terrible setback, prevented the Rebel Alliance from driving the stroke home.