Now that Disney is turning Star Wars into a Marvel-like cottage industry and Harrison Ford has broken a leg while playing an older Han Solo, the time is ripe for asking the real question about what happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away: Was the Galactic Empire such a bad thing after all? And what would Max Weber think about Jedis?
Consider the plot of the original Star Wars (1977) film, before it became Episode IV: A New Hope. Who are the good guys? A princess, a smuggler, an unpredictable beast, an old man professing an ancient religion, and his young apprentice. Who are the bad guys? The soldiers and ships of the Imperial Fleet, led by another man professing an ancient religion. The rebels are heroes, the Empire villains. Or so would George Lucas have you think.
From the perspective of Weberian theory, the Galactic Civil War is not a conflict between the Galactic Empire and the Alliance to Restore the Republic, but between patrimonialism and rational-legal bureaucracy.
Take the main characters among the so-called “good guys” of the Rebellion: a woman of noble birth, a smuggler belonging to the criminal underworld, and a man obsessed with age-old traditions – you couldn’t possibly find a better roster of patrimonial institutions. Princess Leia Organa commands others by virtue of birthright; although a member of the Imperial Senate, she makes everyone call her “princess”, and does wherever she wants despite the advice of those who surround her. Han Solo is a lawless smuggler belonging to the cartel run by Jabba the Hutt, a strongman (strongworm?) who manages his staff in a purely personalistic manner. (No wonder Han and Leia take a liking to each other: they are both the children of informal patrimonial systems separated only by a thin veneer of socially constructed respectability.) Finally, Obi-Wan Kenobi is the elderly representative of a tradition of Jedi mysticism which imbues specific individuals: the Force is not accessible to anyone, only to those in whom it is strong – as it turns out, it is a heavily patrimonial force.
Now consider the Empire: a monocratic bureaucracy if I ever saw one, with clear ranks, procedures, and separation between the office and the official. Their ships are easy to identify, their hierarchy is clear, their distribution of labor apparent in the uniforms of stormtroopers, technicians, scouts and officers. Plus they enforce the law of the Galactic Empire, a political organization – Episode III: Attach of the Sith (2005) tells us – established by law with the consent of the Galactic Senate. Therefore the Imperial Fleet is the military staff of the main political organization in the galaxy, which enjoys the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence in the systems under its control. And who thrives in the cracks of the Imperial bureaucracy but those who profit from informality – criminal cartels like the Hutts or the Black Sun – or highly traditionalist societies – Wookies, Ewoks, and the humans who designate Leia as their princess.
The one thing that makes the Empire into a dictatorial and predatory actor is not the bureaucracy itself, but the two Sith who lead it: Emperor Palpatine – a.k.a. Darth Sidius – and his apprentice Darth Vader. In other words: another two men obsessed with the traditions of an ancient religion. Were it not for these counter-Jedis, the Empire would not have become a warmongering and oppressive administration. Were it not for the strength of patrimonial tradition behind both Jedi and Sith, the Empire would have evolved into the effective monocratic bureaucracy that the corrupt and unstable Galactic Republic never had.
Everything makes sense when we look at Star Wars through a Weberian prism: the patrimonialism of Jedis proves the undoing of Republic and Empire alike (after the destruction of the second Death Star), hurling the galaxy into the chaos that is the Rebellion itself, clearly a badly managed affair that cannot hold on to a single base and sends its princess to dangerous assignments in the field only because she wants to; an informal organization that attracts criminals and smugglers like Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, individuals who thrive on the absence of rules and the elevation of personality over institutions (how else would they have become generals by the beginning of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)?).
Disney is now making the films that will show us what happened after the Alliance to Restore the Republic achieved its victory over the Empire. I think there are good analytical reasons to forecast what really happened: in its quest to avoid the iron cage of the Sith-led Empire, the opportunistic alliance of patrimonial species, smugglers and nobility throws the Galaxy into an unstable political settlement. Who will fight to restore legality and ensure the effective implementation of policy in that context? Perhaps now that it is rid of the patrimonial Sith, the Imperial Fleet can finally become the monocratic bureaucracy that it was always meant to be.